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An "Interview" with Roger Ebert on Wine Criticism

You probably don’t know that Roger Ebert had thoughts on wine criticism. It may have surprised Mr. Ebert too. He didn't address wine writing directly. [He was actually a recovering alcoholic, dry since 1979, and wrote well on that topic.] However, much of what he’s said and written about film criticism is directly transferrable to wine reviews.

ebert620MontyBrintonI first thought of Ebert in the context of wine criticism more than a year ago during the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers. There were lengthy discussions on the nature of wine notes and the style of wine reviews, a pitched battle about how to address readers. How much reader knowledge do you assume? Are 100-point scores, or any scores, too simplistic? Are they artificially precise? Do you describe a wine or tell a story, detail the flavors or recount the drinking experience? Do capsule reviews have value? I realized that Roger Ebert had dealt, very successfully, with essentially the same issues for years.

How cool, I thought, would it be to do an email interview with him about this? That never happened. But, through his writings and interviews, I’ve been able to assemble a virtual interview pairing questions I would have asked with things he’s said relative to film. That interview makes up the latter portion of this article.

Roger Ebert vs. Robert Parker, Film vs. Wine

Wine-centric people might say Roger Ebert was the Robert Parker of movie criticism. It’s really the other way around though. Ebert preceded Parker in criticism, in gaining a national audience and in finding a way to make his work accessible to a broad base of consumers.

Both men have been champions for certain producers and genres. Both eventually supplemented their print work with alternative media, Ebert with much a greater enthusiasm and following. Roger Ebert wrote more than 40 books, his articles were widely syndicated, his television show, Sneak Previews—the most popular “entertainment” show ever on PBS—eventually went network. He embraced blogging and collected more than 800,000 followers on Twitter.

Like Parker, Ebert created a controversial, and extremely popular, new rating system that massively disrupted his industry. Ebert primarily used a four-star rating system that included half-stars. (In essence, it was an eight-point system. Zero-star ratings were reserved for films that were “beneath contempt.” Four stars were awarded to “first-rate” films.) However, he later created the even more accessible thumbs up/down system, popularized by his television shows with Gene Siskel. Thumbs resonated with consumers but enraged many of Ebert's colleagues who saw it (and the TV show) as the ultimate dumbing-down of criticism. Ebert argued, among other things, that it made film criticism much more accessible and created more film enthusiasts who would go on to want more analysis.  [See Richard Corliss and Ebert debate this subject through published articles, collected in Ebert's book, Awake in the Dark.]

Ebert knew that the “right length” for a review depends on the medium, publisher, audience, topic and audience intent. He wrote reviews of various lengths: multi-page, column and “minute reviews.” Full-length reviews allowed him to cover worthy films and their related subjects in detail and with meaningful digression. Columns suited some publishers’ needs while still providing readers with useful context. Minute reviews covered the same films and more in four or five sentences, briefly addressing plot, cast and quality. Many films got coverage of each type.

Film criticism and wine criticism have many things in common. Both have transitioned from a predominating style that was long and writerly, appealing to a small, passionate audience, to a period dominated by experts writing brief, easily digestible reviews and then to today’s world of ratings without context, aggregated scores, one-line exhortations and the notion that anyone with five senses and access to the internet is a valid a critic. The film and wine industries have grown more savvy in their media relations. Newspapers and magazines are much less willing to pay for good content and, after a decade or so of vastly expanded coverage, are reducing it drastically or going out of business entirely. Critics in both fields like to write about other critics and the state of criticism.

One might think wine and film are very different to consumers. I’m not so sure. Both have casual consumers who just want a tasty beverage or diverting flick. Both have enthusiasts longing for something challenging, a memorable experience, a spark for conversation with friends. Either way, people want to know whether the product is two hours of pleasure or a waste of time and money. And the price of either a bottle of wine or a movie for four people can easily range from $3.50 to $80, not including popcorn.

A Virtual Interview with Roger Ebert on Wine Criticism

[Change the words “movie” and “film” to “wine” as appropriate. Footnotes indicate sources.]

Fred Swan: Do you feel badly when writing negative reviews about wine?

Roger Ebert: You have to realize you're not writing for the filmmakers, you're writing for the potential film audience. And I would much rather hurt somebody's feelings who made the picture than send somebody to see a movie and spend two hours of their life seeing a move that I don’t think is worth seeing1.” [However,] what you must do is take them [the movies] seriously, and consider them worthy of your attention. You cannot be a useful critic if you dismiss them or condescend to them... If you believe a movie is good or bad or wins its audiences dishonorably, that can be a splendid beginning for a review, but you must remember that the people making it and seeing it have given up part of their lives in the hope that it would be worth those months or hours.2

FS: How do you approach wines from a region, or intentionally made in a style, to which you’re not partial?

RE: “You must be open to artistry and craftsmanship even in a movie you disagree with... It is meaningless to prefer one genre over another. Yes, I “like” film noir more than Westerns, but that has nothing to do with any given noir or Western.2

FS: What are your thoughts on wine writing heavy in jargon?

RE: "If you cannot write about it so that anyone who buys the paper has a reasonable chance of understanding it, you don’t understand it yourself.2"

FS: There seems to be an endless supply of “best lists” for wine. You’ve written a lot of lists yourself. Are these lists fair to the wines, do they really mean anything?

RE: “I avoid “best” lists whenever possible, this is a duty I fulfill. Because ranking films is silly and pointless, but gathering a list of good ones is useful.2

FS: As a critic, you’re committed to your opinions. How do you react when you get the inevitable negative comments from people who hated a wine they bought on your recommendation?”

RE: “When people write me saying they hated a movie I recommended, I am not inclined to write back telling them why they’re wrong—because they’re not wrong. You can never be wrong about your own opinion.3

FS: Critics, some in particular, are sometimes criticized for the style of wines they seem to appreciate and for giving high scores to wines that many people feel are of an inappropriate style.

RE: “As a critic, I am at the service of my personal reaction. If I laughed, I have to say so. I can’t suppress that information and lecture the filmmakers on their taste.3

FS: The internet—with blogs, user reviewer sites, message boards, Twitter and Facebook—has led to a proliferation of “critics.” How can the average wine lover tell the difference between an authoritative critic and someone merely offering well-written opinion?

RE: “The genuine critic will write in such a way as to acknowledge that he had a subjective personal experience that he wants to share with you, and which reminded him of other films or other subjects. He will wear his knowledge lightly and never presume to speak for other than himself.3

FS: You’ve talked about reviews reflecting your personal experience. Many people think wine reviews should be objective.

RE: “I have no interest in being objective or in reflecting the public’s opinion... The only critics of any use or worth are those who express their own opinions, which the readers are then free to use or ignore.3

FS: There’s often a popular backlash against critics, a complaint that reviewers have rarified tastes and don’t give good scores to mass appeal products. And then there are the “studies” that show consumers often prefer inexpensive wines to high-priced bottles in blind tastings. Should critics make recommendations based on consumer preference?

RE: “Any person who believes a critic must reflect the views of the public has not thought much about the purpose of criticism.3

FS: But you made an obvious appeal to those consumers, creating a rating system which is a vast simplification and leads people to make yes/no decisions without context.

RE: “There is a gulf between people who go to the movies (the public) and people whose lives revolve around them (critics, movie buffs, academics, people in the business). For most people with seven bucks in their pocket and an evening free there is only one question... that is relevant: Will I have a good time?... Writing daily film criticism is a balancing act between the bottom line and the higher reaches.4

FS: What are your thoughts on the the multi-tier system of wine distribution and the degree to which it limits consumer access to a broad assortment of wine?

RE: “The most depressing statistic I know about patterns in American film exhibition [...is] that an average subtitled film will take 85 percent of its box office gross out of theaters in only eight American cities and will never play in most of the others4.

 

Sources: (Page numbers not available due to Kindle format. Some of the quote appear in more than one of his books.)

1 "Fresh Air" broadcast of an onstage interview with Terry Gross and Gene Siskel, 1996

2 Roger Ebert, Ebert's Bests (Chicago Shorts), The Ebert Publishing Company, 2012

3 Roger Ebert, Questions for The Movie Answer Man, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 1997

4 Roger Ebert, Awake in the Dark, The University of Chicago Press, 2006

 

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for breaking wine news, information on events and more. Become a fan and join the NorCal Wine community on Facebook. Also check out our comprehensive Northern California winery listings. They are very useful for planning a tasting trip or just getting in touch with a winery.

This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2013 NorCal Wine. Photo of Roger Ebert by Monty Brinton. All rights reserved.

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