Do winemakers pander to critics?
But overlooked was another remark made at that conference, by the editor of Decanter, Guy Woodward, to the effect that some winemakers make wines to suit the palates of certain critics. (I couldn’t find the exact quote, but the paraphrase is from an article on the conference published in last April’s Decanter.)
I wouldn’t think there’d be any debate about the truth of Mr. Woodward’s statement, but there was a flurry of incredulity that winemakers would even be conscious of critics. The article quoted one Spanish winemaker as saying, “I don’t even think it is possible to do this.”
Well, it is.
The first time I learned that winemakers craft wines to suit the palates of certain critics was years ago, when a California winemaker told me so. He wanted to make a Pinot Noir that would get at least 90 points from a certain well-known wine magazine (no, not the one I work at). So he studied every Pinot review that got 90 points, carefully analyzing the adjectives and the flavor descriptors, and Bingo! He eventually got his 90 point Pinot Noir (which he humorously admitted to me he didn’t much care for!)
Actually, that winemaker could have asked Enologix to do the analysis in a more scientific way. Enologix is a firm that describes itself as “the quality metric for the California wine industry.” Basically, you hire Enologix to tell you exactly what to do to get a high score on your wine. It’s paint-by-the-numbers winemaking (this is all from their website) to get “100-point scores.”
Now, lest you think I’m beating up on Enologix, or on the wineries that hire them, I swear I’m not. Heck, I’m sure I’ve given high scores to wines that were made using their “metric.” All I mean to say is that it’s obvious that winemakers aim to please certain critics.
Put yourself in the winemaker’s head. “Gee, I have to pay the bank. I have my mortgage, my kids’ college tuitions. Salaries, overhead, depreciation, rising fuel costs, new equipment and barrels. And we may have to replant that virused old section of the vineyard.” This is the hidden side of the “glamorous” wine industry. The winemaker can’t just make something he likes, he’s got to produce something that sells. And what better way to sell wine than to get a great score from a famous critic? (You think Spielberg wasn’t anxious about the reviews for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull?)
So, really, if some winemakers are pandering to certain critics, I can’t be too hard on them. It’s easy to throw brickbats from the outside. On the other hand (being a Gemini, I always see the other hand), the best winemakers strive to obey the dictates of what Richard Olney, in his little book Romanée-Conti, calls le génie du terroir: “whatever it is lying hidden there that makes a wine from a given climat different from its neighbors.”
It’s a tremendous balancing act, this need to respect both nature and the market, and I get impatient with purists who insist that any nod to the market is somehow disrespectful of terroir. In addition to le génie du terroir, le génie du marché is to have your wine respected among connoisseurs and bring a high price. (One of the best examples of accomplishing both is Harlan.) We need a new word, neither terroir nor market-driven, that describes the true genius of making it all work.