Are winemakers cynical?
Alder Yarrow set off a s**t-storm last week with his post at Vinography that asked the question, Are “cynical” winemakers deliberately making “bad enough [wine] that they wouldn’t want to drink it themselves”? What led Alder to wonder this was a conversation he had with an unnamed friend, who told him that “many winemakers in Napa are making wine that they know is bad, just because they think it is what the public wants.” Alder, being a good-natured, trusting soul, could scarcely believe this could be the case.
Well, could it?
Without giving a lie detector test to every working winemaker in California, we can’t know what goes on inside their minds. But maybe I can shed a little light on the topic.
I first realized that winemakers don’t always make the kinds of wines they personally like years ago, when a Central Coast vintner told me how he had studied the scores and texts of Wine Spectator Pinot Noir reviews in order to produce one he was reasonably sure would be rated at least 90 points (90 being the threshold below which wines die a slow death). I remember him telling me that it wasn’t his style — not the kind of Pinot he would produce if he could do whatever he wanted. But he couldn’t do whatever he wanted, because the marketplace was out there, and to succeed he needed a 90-point Pinot Noir (which, by the way, he got).
So was the winemaker being cynical? My dictionary defines cynical as “believing that people are motivated in all their actions by selfishness…”. Well, now we have to define “selfish.” “too much concerned with one’s own welfare or interests and having little or no concern for others.”
If being “selfish” shows a lack of concern for others, then it can’t really be selfish to make a wine you believe others will like, can it? If that were the case, then being “selfless” would be to make a wine you like. Which makes no sense at all.
Look, we’re all concerned with our own welfare (unless you’re Mother Theresa, and look at the Dark Nights of the Soul she experienced trying to resolve this contradiction between self and non-self).
There’s a body of philosophical thought stressing that self-interest is actually in the common good. This was popularly expressed in the 1987 Oliver Stone movie, Wall Street, where Michael Douglas’s character, Gordon Gekko, tells his company’s shareholders:
The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed — for lack of a better word — is good.
Greed is right.
Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit.
Greed, in all of its forms — greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge — has marked the upward surge of mankind.
Was the Central Coast winemaker being greedy? I don’t think so. Nobody in his right mind would make a wine he clearly suspected the public would dislike. We thus have to assume that every winemaker is “greedy” in the sense he hopes his product will reward him and keep him in business.
Yes, I know many winemakers who so lust for a Parker 90-plus that they hire consultants like David Abreu and Michel Rolland in order to achieve that Parkerized style. Is that cynical, selfish and greedy? Again, I don’t think so. I know a ton of winemakers, both self-employed and working for others, who understand that their jobs depend on satisfying what the public wants. It’s an insult to them to suggest they’re being cynical, any more than you are for trying to comply with your company’s wishes.
Are there winemakers out there making wines so bad, they themselves wouldn’t drink them? I seriously doubt it. Sure, there are lots of dreadful, horrible wines; sometimes, when I’m tasting, I’m driven to distraction by how downright nasty some of the California plonk is. But are these wines made by cynical winemakers hoping to foist something over on the public, or just untalented winemakers who don’t know, or don’t want to know, they’re producing crap? I would suggest the latter, and that includes some truly expensive wines. Just because you’re charging 80 bucks for your bottle doesn’t mean you know squat.