Had it with Heimoff

I really don’t care much for the opinions of most wine critics. They are often too wrapped up in themselves. They fail to understand that wine reviewing is not about them. Or, they come up with absurd ideas like eliminating descriptors from reviews. Sort of “feeling the wine, rather than understanding it” – which is fine if you are not a person whose job it is to professionally evaluate, judge and recommend wines.

Perhaps this is why more than one winemaker has told me that there is nothing that a wine critic can contribute to their understanding of a wine. Which is a sad commentary, since an external evaluator should be able to feedback to a producer on the quality of their product…

So, in this aspect, when critics prattle on about what is and is not possible in wine assessment (without truly understanding wine or human sensory physiology) they are just chasing their own tails. When they regurgitate whatever superficial, simplified nonsense they received from the wineries, they are mouthpieces. Lapdogs.

This canine theme, above, is not coincidental.

Steve Heimoff wrote a blog piece today that tried to use one of those cutesy literary devices to link his observations of his new dog to his philosophy of wine reviewing.

I was appalled at the banality of it all. But I was more disgusted with his attempt to rationalize his poor evaluation methodology with the idea that that he is just too busy and has insufficient time to really give the wines he reviews a thorough evaluation.

In a past conversation, Heimoff has told me that he lines up a row of wines in the morning and tastes from one pour from each bottle. I don’t recall if he said he lingers on a wine that “speaks to him” (whatever that means) as he said in today’s post. He does not decant. He puts the corks back in the bottles and then saves what he liked the most for his dinner.

I’m not suggesting he abuses his position to get free wine, although there have been reviewers exposed for more scandalous practices. I’m saying he’s not even trying to do his job right.

I called Heimoff out on some of the things he said (which, I believe, a professional critic should never say – let alone think). Steve Heimoff deleted my comments (which challenged and criticized him) from his blog today. It’s not the first time he has done something like that.

I had a feeling he may do that, so I saved them. Here they are:

4 Responses to “What a little dog is teaching me about tasting wine”

SUAMW says:

September 8, 2011 at 6:25 am

My job as a wine critic is to taste through a bunch of wines and give my immediate impressions.” – no, your job is to EVALUATE the wine and assess it and then make a thoughtful insightful recommendation for the consumer who will pay for the stuff (which you didn’t have to do).

we don’t have the time to spend a vast amount of time with a wine.” – why? are you on call for neurosurgery? trauma? do you have diaper duty every day? is wine reviewing a part time gig for you? Do you get paid more to write than to assess wines? This is your job. Take it seriously. If you are proud of your position, carry out your tasks seriously with the understanding that your product (review) carries real (tiny and large) repercussions for people.

SUAMW says:

September 8, 2011 at 6:26 am

oh, and keep your dog off my lawn!

SUAMW says:

September 8, 2011 at 6:47 am

In medicine, we say: “If you don’t know what you’re looking for, you’ll never find it”. In real, professional sensory assessment of a product the things to look for are determined by the product at hand, not by the evaluator’s preferences.

By your own admission on this very blog you said that you personally accurately identify aromas and varieties about 50% of the time.
Is that not an argument for reevaluating how you assess wines – including what you look for, how long you do it, etc

I say, take a cue from your dog: he’s not “deciding if he likes a spot” he’s sorting through all the different aromas and making sense of them, getting to know the dogs that have passed by the spot.

My pet peeve with Heimoff (and many critics, for that matter) has not been his pretentiousness, nor his hypocrisy or his intolerance of being challenged, but the fact that the guy cannot discern basic varieties ( I saw him confuse a viognier for a chardonnay at the first wine bloggers’ conference) – while others can – and then takes this personal experience and extrapolates it to all of wine assessment, asserting that varietal, regional, or vintage characteristics cannot be discerned (presumably by anyone), but then, a few months later, says they can. It’s not that he does not try to put a wine through its paces. It’s not that he says asinine things in his reviews (like saying “this wine shows the vintage’s heat” about a cool-climate Pinot Gris from a cool and wet year…but made by a winemaker with a tendency for riper, hotter wines).

He’s phoning it in, giving the definitive part of his job a half-assed effort and then shrugging it off with lame excuses. He’s effectively justifying his inability or unwillingness to develop his sensory skills for consumers benefit – with “Oh, I’d really like to but I’m just so busy”.

As to the apparent limitations of his sensory skills: If he has a 50% success rate of identifying varietal aromas (he stated it either in a post about the first wine bloggers conference or in comments to a post on his log or 1WineDude.com around that time when Joe Roberts had posted this), he needs to train himself better. If this proves unsuccessful, then he needs to get out of the wine reviewing/rating business because he does not have the fundamental skill set necessary for the job.



Father, husband, physician, amateur guitarist, wine lover, wine writer, wine grower and wine maker trying to do it all within eye shot of downtown Los Angeles. http://www.shutupandmakewine.com http://twitter.com/Dr_Arthur_P
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20 Responses to Had it with Heimoff

  1. Joe Roberts says:

    Hey – I do agree with a lot of the general points you’re making about wine criticism and its pitfalls (this is coming from someone who tries to both educate people to trust their own preferences and develop them, *and* also critiques wines with a lot of caveats about the process itself).

    But I think you might be a bit too hard on Steve here. Deleting comments is not like him and I would suspect a technical glitch before I would suspect Steve removing comments. Blind tasting is tricky business and to ID wines blind with any real success you need to study and woodshed IDing wines blind, which one could argue isn’t all that useful a skill for helping out consumers.

    I could not agree more with this statement: “when critics prattle on about what is and is not possible in wine assessment (without understanding wine or human sensory physiology) they are just chasing their own tails” – for my money, I most admire (and try to emulate) the folks who admit their own fallibility and the *at least* partially subjective nature of critiquing anything.


  2. I believe it was Michael Broadbent, although I have also seen the quote attributed to Harry Waugh:

    When asked when was the last time he mistook a Burgundy for a Bordeaux, he responded, “At lunch today”.

    If one takes a Viognier and gets it ripe, then bathes it in oak, it can be very much like some Central Coast Chardonnays with their bent to tropical fruits. In fact, there are makers in Condrieu who barrel ferment Viognier in new oak and are intentionally looking for a more complex character. If one gets some white Burgs ripe to the point that they become fruity like CA wines can do, they and the barrel-fermented Vios begin to resemble each other.

    I do agree with you that well-made wines often do scream of vintage, varietal and place, but they need not to be good wines. Even John Bone’ of the SF Chron wants RRV Pinot to be made in blends thus losing any choice of terroir expression, and he sees no contradiction in that stance with his professed love of terroir.

    The point, my dear Arthur, is that things are not always black and white, yes or no, 0 or 1. Wine is not digital. It is complex, and while it is a critic’s responsibility to understand complexity, it is also a truism that complexity does not always lead to simple answers.

    Finally, while I think that Heimoff actually sells himself short in his comments, I do like the fact that he understates rather than overstates what a critic can or cannot do. Anyone who does not approach this whole subject of wine evaluation with a little humility is bound to look like a fool far too often. See my blog entry about Decanter and Chardonnay for evidence.

    • SUAMW says:

      I believe the (oft abused) Waugh quote was said to illustrate his wit more than the futility of sensory evaluation.
      These were Sonoma wines. And the difference was not that subtle.
      Wine is complex, that does not mean its essence is unknowable. To say so, is intellectual laziness.

  3. SUAMW says:

    If I say he has deleted posts in the past, it is only my word.
    The comments stood approved for about an hour before they disappeared.
    That said, the WP stats for this blog show a view of this blog from a URL that looks like an admin/dashboard link.

  4. Dude. Relax a little Arthur. It’s wine kid, not brain surgery. Why get yourself all tizzied? We don’t all speak the same wine language and that is as it should be. I’d sooner read about Steve’s dog than read about soil types and ph levels and that doesn’t mean I know less about wine or don’t “get it” just means I don’t get off on the same things you, and others like you, do. Sheesh.

  5. Tish says:

    I think the ranting here is in sync with today’s wine scene. The real Conversation is happening online, not in print, and SUAMW’s calling out Steve Heimoff is what it is: a well-reasoned if perhaps over-aggressive response to America’s Crankiest Blogger.

    Steve has developed a large online following (bigger, I dare say, than his following in print) by blogging almost daily on topics that are often touchstones for controversy. That’s his deal, and when he comes out with a canine angle, it should be no shock when someone barks back. By challenging Steve’s general approach to wine reviewing by zeroing in on the dog post, Arthur is serving the role of gadfly. That’s part of the modern world. I am sorry to hear that Steve chose to delete SUAMW’s comments; had he not done so, this post may never have been necessary.

    For what it’s worth, I stopped reading Steve regularly after he did a post expressing amazement at the (relatively) he [“high” – edit] level of knowledge exhibited by a salesperson in a wine store. That simply confirmed for me that he is out of touch with the real world of wine. Yes, I do still occasionally check his blog out still, when I hear he is covering a topic that interests me, but I find most often that, he is mainly spouting blend of humility and hubris, with a tone that swings from wistful to outraged in a way that makes me wonder how much of his writing is simply mood-driven.

  6. Come on now, Arthur, Tish did not put you to sleep. You might have found his comments self-serving or overly aggressive, but Tish is not boring.

    • SUAMW says:

      …that was my impression of the sound a fly (perhaps, even a gadfly) makes…

    • Tish says:

      I’ll accept the aggressive comment, Charlie, and appreciate the “not boring” nod; but “self-serving”? I consider donning a Super-Blogger cape and then deleting valid if negative comments to be self-serving.

      • Tish, We are all somewhat self-serving in this medium. We promote our own points of view and we promote ourselves. We go out of our ways to brand things positively or negatively when the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.

        It never bugs me, despite how much I might disagree with you on some ideas, like ratings for example, that you are a strong advocate for your positions. There is a self-serving part of that, and I both get it and practice it. It is what advocates do.

        • Tish says:

          Charlie, I agree with your assessment. Sometimes pushing a bit further/harder seems necessary to gain some traction on a more moderate point. I am reminded of a college professor, who calimed to have had firsthand knowledge that Sigmund Freud never intended to have so much of his work be based on his theory of sexuality, but that he pushed further in that direction so that the idea of sexuality would become part of the mainstream dicussion. As a result, his ide, ego and superego became part of the canon, while he never got around to fully developing theories on Work and the human psyche.

  7. jeff morgan says:

    Wow….you all really get nasty w/each other! I must admit I’d never heard of SUAMW til just now when my sister (who lives on Mt Washington too) sent me a link to all this. Would love to come see those young vines, SUAMW, and taste your wine the next time I’m in the hood (which is somewhat regularly when I visit my sis….and peddle my own wines.) Meanwhile, all of you (in this thread) are invited to come up and see us (and taste our wines) in Napa Valley when you’re in the neighborhood. Best wishes……..Jeff Morgan, Covenant Wines

  8. SUAMW says:

    Thanks for commenting, Jeff.
    Maybe we’ll walk my vineyard sometime when you are in the area. Just bring boots with good tread.

    I enjoyed expanding my understanding of kosher wine on your web site.

  9. For the record: I did not delete your comments. Also for the record: if there’s an anti-Heimoff post anywhere in the Universe, good old tish will find and exploit it, since he tends to spend his time Googling me. SUAMW, lighten up and enjoy a nice glass of cool climate Viognier or Chardonnay!

    • SUAMW says:

      Put your cursor over the times of the comments I published, your browser will show they go to URLs on your site. This shows that the comments were accepted by your CMS and then were deleted.
      It is not the first time you have deleted comments unfavorable to you – and I am not talking about Tish, either.

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