Tim Atkin | Master of Wine

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2nd Feb 2016

Ageing wine critics

by Ron Washam

 

It’s a question from wine novices that comes up repeatedly. Just how do we know how long to age our wine critics? Furthermore, how can we tell which wine critics will age well, and which will fall apart? Are there any guidelines?

I believe there are, and the best way to understand them is to look at wine critics of various ages we have now for clues as to how wine critics age. However, there is no exact measure, and certainly no guarantee. Many promising wine critics will mysteriously become dull and lifeless with age, though, in most cases, they were duller than Spätburgunder to begin with, and you were simply fooled by their slick packaging. On the other hand, every so often you’ll revisit a wine critic you believed to be dead, but, instead, turns out to have quite a bit of life left. Think Robert Parker. Aging wine critics is always a gamble, and, frankly, not really worth it. They take up a lot of room in a cellar, and often become mouldy and smell bad. And, worse, they unfailingly decrease in value with age.

Even the most experienced wine lover is confused by a young, newly released wine critic. They’re difficult to assess. One of the qualities you have to learn to look for in a young wine critic is depth. You’ll find that most have the depth of a James Bond film — and not even the ones with Connery, but the ones with Brosnan. Young wine critics, like the Bond films, often suffer from Pierce’s disease.

A young James Laube, for example, wrote “California’s Great Cabernets,” a book published by “Wine Spectator Press” in 1989. You read that right — “Wine Spectator Press.” Why does that bring the Special Olympics of Publishing to mind? In “California’s Great Cabernets,” Laube, in his adolescence as a wine critic, took it upon himself to classify California Cabernet producers into Five Growths — think Bordeaux’s 1855 classification, or maybe poop chute polyps. The book is a study in hubris, as well as cheap paper.

An insightful wine lover would have been able to predict from that book alone that Laube would not age well. In order to age gracefully, a wine critic needs balance. A quick perusal of Laube’s First Growths, which included Opus One and Beringer Private Reserve, hardly rivals for Latour and Lafite, reveals a wine critic fundamentally unbalanced.

Here is the main hurdle for so many young wine critics that you may think will age well — most are completely unbalanced. For example, imagine believing you can earn a livable income writing about wine for online magazines! You’ve got to be unbalanced to believe that. Some would say that the job requires unbalanced individuals, and thus all wine critics are doomed to an early senescence. This is an easy position to defend. Have you met a lot of wine critics? It’s a conclusion that seems inescapable.

Of course, there are many factors to be considered in ageing wine critics, not the least of which is proper storage. You’ll want to keep them in a cool, dark place with decent humidity and a constant temperature. Say a jail cell in Ecuador. Without proper storage, a wine critic can dry out, develop an unpleasant crust, and now you’ve got another Clive Coates on your hands. Don’t blame the wine critic! Blame the environment where he was stored. Let’s be honest, if you’d spent your career around “Decanter,” you’d be old and lifeless, too!

Another issue to think about is what you expect from an older wine critic. People new to wine often believe that wine critics get better as they get older! I know, how nuts is that? Why would they get better with age? Sure, up to a certain point, they’re maturing, starting to round out, gain some depth and richness. But not long after that, they’ve plateaued, and are simply hanging on before their inevitable steep decline.

Sure, you can look at the brand and think, “Wow, I’ve got vintage Matt Kramer here,” but when you look closely, you’re in for a huge disappointment. That wine critic has just been around too long. It happens. And, sadly, it seems to be happening a lot more lately. Too many aging wine critics are long past their “Use By” dates. If they were chickens, we’d all have salmonella.

Many wine lovers come to the realization that they simply have far too many wine critics, and that therefore it’s hard to avoid so many of them going over the hill. This is symptomatic of the wine era we live in — wine critics are ridiculously cheap. And so we have too many. The problem is more and more are being produced. Many are cheap knockoffs produced in Asia.

Also, the internet is overflowing with wine critics, most for sale and many completely fake. Every winery knows that when you buy a wine critic today, you just don’t know what you’re getting. Not like the old days when a 96 point score meant something and was worth buying. Now when you buy a new wine critic, the chances that the wine critic will get better, reward your investment, are very slim. The vast majority of wine critics being produced today will be worthless in just a few years. I don’t think anyone who has had any exposure to them would argue with that.

So how do we know which wine critics will improve with age? It’s always something of a crap shoot. And perhaps personal taste. I, for one, don’t like flabby wine critics. Which pretty much rules out every single one of them. You might find that you like yours on the flabby side. That’s fine, and you are in luck! There’s no right or wrong. When it comes to a young wine critic, I find I like a little tartness. A little tart is my preferred young wine critic, but that’s just me. If you know any, drop me a line.

The truth is that ageing wine critics can be a huge mistake. They may be useful or entertaining as you collect them, but they’re just so damned hard to get rid of once they get older! No one wants them, they just keep piling up, like so many pitbulls in the animal shelter. And, despite my persistent lobbying, euthanasia, which works so well with pitbulls, hasn’t been legalized for ageing wine critics. Yet.

Ageing wine critics is not for the beginner. If you’re new to wine, it’s best to simply dismiss aging wine critics. You’ll only waste your money. But what are we to do with all the aging wine critics gathering dust all over the wine world? There’s only so much room in “World of Fine Wine.” And the vast majority of them have lost their value to collectors altogether. It’s a sad and sticky situation. We gaze upon them and remember their past glories, then wish we hadn’t kept them around for so long. But that’s all part of the game, that’s all part of the wine business. Live and learn. Then take them out and throw them in the dumpster.

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