Critics need to wield poison pens

23 February, 2007

The recent lawsuit brought by Belfast's Goodfellas restaurant against The Irish News' restaurant reviewer, Caroline Workman, reminded me of an old Noel Coward line. "I can take any amount of criticism," he said, "so long as it's unqualified praise."

If you missed the original story, Goodfellas franchisee Ciaran Convery took objection to Workman's criticism of his staff, the smoky atmosphere in his restaurant and the quality of his food and drink. She said that his chicken masala was "so sweet as to be inedible" and gave the place one star out of five.

For anyone who earns a living as a critic, whether of restaurants, plays, live music or wine, the jury's decision to award £25,000 in damages, and its conclusion that Workman's August 2000 piece was "defamatory, damaging and hurtful", is scary. I've written plenty of rude things about wines, wineries and winemakers in my time, some of which were undoubtedly hurtful to someone.

The ruling may yet be overturned on appeal, but the whole affair raises important questions about criticism and free speech. Some restaurant reviewers have made a name for themselves by being rude - think AA Gill or Michael Winner - but even they do their best to write honestly. I simply do not believe that anyone would set out to slag off a restaurant for the sake of it.

What qualifications does a restaurant critic need? He or she doesn't have to be a great cook - after all, I'm not a qualified winemaker - but should know a lot about food, restaurants and (almost as important) wine. After all, the bottle you choose to drink with your meal often costs as much or even more than the food. Not enough restaurant reviewers tick these boxes. There are exceptions (Terry Durack, Fay Maschler, Nick Lander and Matthew Fort spring to mind), but most are employed because they're amusing writers first, and informed critics second ... or even third.

What about wine writers? How competent are we? I would say this, but I think most wine hacks do a good job. Most of us attend lots of tastings, talk to winemakers, visit vineyards and try to write honest reviews of what we taste.

For me, that means criticising things that I don't like. I've always strongly disagreed with the wine writer who once informed me that "if I haven't got something positive to say, then I don't say anything". I'm not always right, but I am honest.

A significant part of my job is to highlight mediocre and over-priced wines and to criticise companies, regions or wineries that are doing a bad job. Otherwise, journalism is perilously close to public relations and self-censorship rules.

The problem for wine writers such as myself is that the number of publications that will publish informed criticism is dwindling by the year. Most editors just want something for the "casual supermarket shopper", as one of them put it recently.

In other words, we are expected to tell consumers which Australian Shiraz or Pinot Grigio to buy and shut up. Whatever Noel Coward and Ciaran Convery might think, positives have to be balanced by negatives sometimes. Otherwise, criticism is worthless.

Rioja council makes welcome move on white varieties

It's always good to see a traditional wine region moving with the times. That's why I applaud the recent decision by the Rioja Regulatory Council to approve a list of new grape varieties such as Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Verdejo for use in its frequently neutral whites. The decision hasn't been swift - milk floats move faster - but it will surely help Spain's best-known region to sell more vino blanco.

Some might accuse the council of caving in to international tastes, but I'd disagree. The new varieties are not allowed to exceed 50 per cent of the blend, which means that at least half of any white Rioja will still have to be produced from Viura, Malvasia and/or Garnacha Blanca. We won't be seeing another me too Chardonnay, or even a Sauvignon Blanc/Verdejo blend from Rioja, for which we can all be thankful.

The council has also authorised three new native white grapes - Maturana Blanca, Tempranillo Blanco and Turruntés - which may be used as stand alone varieties.

I'd like to have seen Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne added to the new list (all three of them having performed well in Remelluri's vineyards), but we can't expect too much too soon. As it is, I think the council has succeeded in its aim of "encouraging greater diversity in Rioja without destroying its unique heritage".

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