No, Wine and Cocktails Are Not Absent From Restaurant Criticism

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
March 26 2014 12:00 PM

No, Wine and Cocktails Are Not Absent From Restaurant Criticism

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The New York Times restaurant critic (not pictured) does, in fact, devote a lot of space to wine.

Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Jordan Mackay has a question for the world: “Why Are Wine & Cocktails Absent from Restaurant Criticism?” The Punch writer and San Francisco magazine wine critic thinks that restaurant critics aren’t paying enough attention to the subject he cares most about, instead relegating mentions of wine and cocktails to sidebars and parentheticals. Mackay is miffed that, according to his estimate, “The average New York Times restaurant review rarely dedicates more than 20 words to beverages.”

L.V. Anderson L.V. Anderson

L.V. Anderson is a Slate assistant editor. She edits Slate's food and drink sections and writes Brow Beat's recipe column, You're Doing It Wrong. 

If that sounds like a hedged statement to you—“average” and “rarely” jostling each other for room in the same cramped sentence—you’re unlikely to be convinced by the rest of the essay. Mackay quotes a couple of New York Times sidebars but never convincingly establishes that restaurant critics are giving booze short shrift in their reviews. He concedes that beverages “can be evaluated swiftly and effectively without taking too much time away from the food” and laments that critics don’t even clear that low bar—but all the examples he cites of excessively dry restaurant reviews do evaluate beverages swiftly and effectively. 

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They do more than that, in fact. New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells—whom Mackay quotes but never names in his Punch essay—has incisively and amusingly dismantled Mackay’s argument on Twitter.

Indeed, in those reviews and others, Wells devotes many sentences to evaluating restaurants’ drink offerings. Here are the first two paragraphs of Wells’ review of Pearl & Ash last May:

First things first. Let’s drink some wine.
Going to Pearl & Ash without opening a bottle or two is like buying a chocolate bar and not unwrapping it. Since it opened in February, the restaurant has become the city’s most exciting place to drink wine. Some nights the dining room is so packed with grape chasers, it’s as if a Bat Signal in the shape of a corkscrew were shining over the Bowery. Michel Couvreux from Per Se and other sommeliers will be hunched on a backless bench, and Mike D will be weighing the merits of a Bordeaux that was fermented around the same time he was recording the first Beastie Boys album.

If that’s not putting drinks front and center, I don’t know what is.

The other examples Wells cites on Twitter are equally devastating to Mackay’s assertion that the Times neglects liquid refreshments in its restaurant reviews. Take this passage from Wells’ Sushi Dojo review:

And while I didn’t spot any sake bombs, plenty of people were getting bombed on sake. Ask the sommelier, Max Lidukhover, for a recommendation and he’ll give you two samples that would pass for full pours in other places, and if you’re not wild about either, he’s likely to uncork a third. Along the way he’ll teach you the basics.
“Ginjo sake is very harsh,” he’ll say. “I don’t recommend it unless you’re looking to get wasted.”

Educational and thorough, and 77 words long—nearly four times Mackay’s “average.”

Worst of all, as Wells points out, Mackay quotes rather selectively from the reviews he does cite in Punch. Mackay quotes an anemic “Drinks and Wine” sidebar from Wells’ review of Contra earlier this month but seems to have missed this much more thorough treatment of the topic in the text:

Linda Milagros Violago, who stocked the cellars at Mugaritz in Spain and Geranium in Denmark, has put together a list of bottles from the kind of small winemakers who think of themselves as farmers and avoid modern tricks. The results aren’t always what you’d predict; a French cider, she said, had a note of blue cheese, and it did. The list almost forces you to try something unfamiliar, which feels just right for this restaurant.

The sad thing is, Mackay makes some good points about the financial pressures that make beverage reviews difficult for some critics who write for smaller publications, as well as the fact that “[w]ine, spirits, beer, coffee and tea are still specialized fields—realms of extreme geekiness—that require a certain level of expertise.” With robust evidence, he could have supported those claims effectively and made an interesting argument. Instead, he opened with an easy-to-disprove attack on Wells, arguably the most visible restaurant critic in the country. And when you come at the king, you best not miss.

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