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Why do some of the cultiest of the cults never send me wine?


There are some very well-known California wines I’ve tasted very little of. Marcassin and Kistler are two that come to mind. People seem surprised that I don’t review these wines, which are seen by some to represent some sort of pinnacle for our state. A Pinot Noir winemaker I was talking to the other day seemed flabbergasted. He seemed to be saying, “How can you review Pinot Noir if you don’t regularly taste Marcassin and Kistler?”

Well, for starters, I can’t taste everything, can I? California has, what? Three or four thousand brands. (Not all are bricks-and-mortar. Some are “virtual” wineries.) Let’s say that each of these wineries produces three wines. That’s 9,000-12,000 individual wines every vintage. But that number undoubtedly is exceedingly low. I think the total number of wines produced every year must be at least 15,000, and even that may be conservative. But let’s say it’s 12,000. If I tasted them all, that would be (click on Calculator) 32.87 wines every day, 365 days a year. No vacations, no sick leave, no holidays off. Not even Wilfred Wong could taste that many wines! (I think…)

So, right off the bat, I can’t taste everything, by definition. Now, back to the Marcassins and Kistlers. (Let’s just call it the M&K phenomenon.) Here’s my question. If my job, as a writer/reviewer for Wine Enthusiast as well as a blogger and author, is to report and interpret the California wine scene to my readers, then what is the best way to do that, given the fact that I can’t taste everything? There are two ways of looking at it.

1. The M&K phenomenon represents the truth of California wine. Just as the Classified Growths of Bordeaux are more illustrative of Bordeaux than that region’s many bourgeois growths, so the M&Ks define California wine.

But here’s the other way of seeing it.

2. The M&Ks are tired, boring elitist wines, riding on their laurels, and dependent on the flattery of a handful of chosen sycophants to keep their reputations aloft.

Which is the truth?

I have my opinion, which I’ll get to in a minute. But first, let me answer the question I posed in the headline: “Why do some of the cultiest of the cults never send me wine?” Answer: Because they know I’m not going to routinely give their wines high scores. Indeed, they know that I might give a $15 wine a higher score than theirs.

If there’s one thing a cult winery can’t stand, it’s to have its legitimacy questioned. Oh, they can deal with an off-vintage here and there. But they need the worshipful kowtowing of the critical trade in order to keep their legend of invincibility intact. But the direction of my reviews, for years, has been heading away from a blind devotion to cult wines and a growing receptivity to newer producers, from newer regions. (Paso Robles comes foremost to mind.) On the occasions I’ve tasted Marcassin, I thought it was one of the worst Pinot Noirs I’ve ever encountered. So bad, that it made me wonder how anyone could like it. So bad, also, that I felt sorry for that handful of critics who somehow co-facilitated its rise, and now must stick to giving it high scores, lest they be accused of the sin of inconsistency. They have painted themselves into a corner from which they can’t escape without getting really messed up.

So, of the the two ways of reporting on the California wine scene I posed above, which is the way I see it? Here’s the choice again.

1. The M&K phenemonon represents the truth of California wine. Just as the Classified Growths of Bordeaux are more illustrative of Bordeaux than that region’s many bourgeois growths, so the M&Ks define California wine.

2. The M&Ks are tired, boring elitist wines, riding on their laurels, and dependent on the flattery of a handful of chosen sycophants to keep their reputations aloft.

I think you know my answer.

  1. Here’s another way to look at it:

    They don’t send the wine to you because they don’t have to. They will sell it anyway, due to the current supply & demand.

    You may be right that they fear an unfavorable comparison with much lower-priced wines, but surely supply & demand is also part of it.

  2. Dude, I wouldn’t automatically assume they’re “selling it anyway.” Not in this market. I hear stories… A lot of those guys are in serious trouble. The only thing keeping them going is that they have deep pockets. They believe they can afford to ride this thing out. Maybe they can. Maybe they can’t. I’ve been reached out to by people who never thought they would have to pander to the critics. Now they do.

  3. The list of people who will not send you wine is a lot longer than M & K. How about Littorai, Radio-Coteau, Solitude, Harlan, Screaming Eagle, Colgin, Abreu, Sine Qua Non, Mark Aubert, Amuse Bouche, Araujo, Bond …………… How long do we want this list to be?

    I am more in Joe Dude’s camp on this one. Folks send wine for two reasons. The first is that they think it is good for their business to do it, and the second is that they think it is good for their business. There is probably a third reason but I can’t think of it.

    If Bond sends wine to Parker or lets him taste it at the winery, which is more likely, then that is what they think is good for them. Sorry that you and I are not Parker or Shanken, but that’s life.

    I have more respect for folks like Solitude who say that they do not send wine to critics than for folks who pick and choose. But, hey, no one can get those wines except folks who camp out on their mailing lists.

    In bad times like this, the amount of wine that wineries send has always gone up. This is not a new phenomenon. What has surprised me is how bad some of the three-digit ($100 smackers and up) wines have been. But I have never seen the value of filling up my pages, or your pages, or anyone else’s pages with long lists of wines that no one can buy.

  4. Actually, Charlie, some of the wineries you list send me their wines. And I’ve been invited to many of the others to taste with the proprietor. For example, I go to Harlan every year, and in my most recent visit, I tasted the wines blind. In my own intellectual evolution, I’m trying to decide whether or not to continue these pilgrimages. As I’ve written elsewhere, there are good and bad reasons for tasting at the property. But it may be something I can no longer defend, in the name of fairness and transparency. I’m still thinking it over.

  5. Steve,

    How does one taste blind at Harlan? Back in the ’70s, I used to be invited to taste with Joe Heitz every January before the release of Martha’s Vineyard in February. He invited his shareholders plus the occasional writer to be part of the panel that ostensibly was helping him decide how good the new vintage was relative to its peers.

    Now, Martha’s, in its heyday was unmistakeable, even in blind tastings, and somehow magically it always finished first. This went on for three years, and in the fourth, I ranked it pretty low. I was never invited back.

    But that is not really the story. It is that one cannot, in my opinion, and probably in yours, really taste blind at the winery. And, Steve, I want to know which wineries are sending you wine but not me. Nah, just kidding. I cannot taste all the wine that I buy and that also comes in. I do not worry (much) who sends wine and who does not. I have too many blogs to read every day to do real work.

  6. They’ve got sycophants, they can do whatever they want to do as long as people keep drinking the Kool-Aid.

    It would be interesting to look at the wineries/winemakers with the most twitter followers and facebook fans/friends. I think these wineries/winemakers will emerge as tomorrow’s sycophant-getters after the economy heats up again in 6 months.

  7. Morton Leslie says:

    Sending samples costs time and money and it isn’t done just to keep critics employed. All wineries pick and chose who they send wine to depending on their past experience, their expectations, or their degree of desperation. With the advent of social networking the need to do this is decreasing. Whether or not social networks will independently determine what has a cult following is an open question.

    Regarding, “For example, I go to Harlan every year, and in my most recent visit, I tasted the wines blind.” Unfortunately, that’s the way most critics define blind tasting. I hate to spoil it, but when you are in Harlan’s cellar, you are likely tasting Harlan.

  8. Steve,
    Nice article and pretty cool exchange of thoughts, I’d say that no one and everyone is at fault. A cult winery with a tiny production has a right to be prudent to its own company about not sending wines out to deserving folks. Like you, Charlie, and I, we have great opportunity to taste many of these wines on very specific terms (e.g. visiting the property, etc.) I don’t have an issue with them on being guarded about their babieis. My only beef when one of Californa’s most famous cult wineries says that I can’t even visit them.
    Keep on writing, you know your good,

  9. You may be right about some of the culties hitting touch times, Steve. But not all of them are going to suffer right now. When I visited Opus One in October (not a cult wine, but a damn expensive one in my opinion), we discussed their situation with respect to the economic downturn. Their answer, more or less, was that they haven’t seen a dramatic softening in demand – they still can’t get Opus to everyone that wants it, and they make a hell of a lot more wine than the culties do.

    They might see prices decline, but the markup on wines from Harlan is what, 8-9 times what it costs to make and distribute the wine (and that’s assuming they have astronomical, Yquem-like production costs)? That’s got to leave them with a huge amount of breathing room.

  10. I’d agree most of these wineries have more to lose than to gain by putting their wines in the hands of those who aren’t lined up for allocations. I’d even bet some of these wineries don’t necessarily sell out via a mailing list, but use their lists to maintain their image of exclusivity. If they go “public,” though, there’s a great risk someone who is more interested in what’s in the bottle than the name on the bottle will ding their rep.

    Why sell two bottles for $75 each by retail when you can sell one for $150 to starry eyed groupies? At any rate, I’m a big believer in the Veblen good phenomena. Small supply, large demand relative to the quantity. It certainly doesn’t cost anywhere near $100 (I’d doubt $50, even) to make a single bottle of wine.

    At least the Bordeaux first-growths make at minimum several thousand cases of wine. And they have history on their side. The prices are equally mind-numbing, but at least there’s justification beyond a miniscule supply. The Cali cults are inside a bubble unto themselves.

  11. Dude, well, Opus and Harlan may be bullet-proof for reasons specific to each. But there are literally dozens of other super-ultra-expensive wines out there that aren’t. They have got to be hurting.

  12. Charlie, Morton, you’re both right. I should have said “single-blind.” Obviously, tasting at Harlan wasn’t double-blind.

  13. I want to clarify the difference between single- and double-blind tastings. In a single-blind tasting the person pouring the wines knows the producer and those tasting the wines don’t. In this sense, tasting Harlan wines at Harlan doesn’t even meet this criteria (unless you’re tasting other producers’ wines there – but even this is problematic). A double-blind tasting would require that the person pouring the wines (and tabulating the results) wouldn’t know the producer of the wines. The object in a double-blind tasting would be to prevent unconscious, subtle cues that the experimenter may be giving the experimental subjects (i.e. you the taster).

    To be even more scientific, you can’t taste wines “blind” at an event where you have received an invitation by the producer. This is because the experimental outcome (the numerical rating) may not necessarily be the result of the the variable you are intending to test (“wine quality”) however much you try to make it as such. It may rather be a reflection of many extraneous variables – the joy of being invited, the ambiance, the owner/winemaker standing in front of you, etc). Try tasting that same wine in your basement on a Tuesday morning and see if it rates as high.

    Would you be satisfied if the FDA ruled on the safety of a drug where it was tested under the manufacturer’s set of rules, in their laboratories, with their technicians?

  14. Scott Carpenter says:

    Re: Opus. Sorry, but Opus is not bullet proof. If it is, why do so many retailers around the country still have a surprising amount of the most recent Opus vintage on the shelf gathering dust? It just won’t fly at a buck-eighty, not in today’s economy. Historically, Opus is off the shelves by January 2. I have a list of the reporters we feature in our publication, and they’ll concur. These are solid retail stores that move top-end juice. The usual suspects aren’t depleting Opus. Many say they’ll buy about about a third as much next year. Bullet proof?

  15. Steve,

    Great blog. Too bad the sycophants are too busy watching Real Housewives of New Jersey to wake up and see the emperor is nekkid.

    OTOH, you forgot option 3 and that many cult wines tend to be either sweet, hot or both.

    From a small Central Coast winery that has no ambitions of cultiness, we have sold with and without reviews and can’t see the difference. So why bother? Plus, it goes against our mantra of “Trust Your Palate” to even submit them. Furthermore, why contribute to your overworked palate as it is? Speak fondly of me next time you don’t try our wine 😉

  16. Jason, this is why I’m reviewing my practice of formal tastings at the winery. I’ll keep readers posted on what I decide.

  17. Steve,

    In your book about the new classic winemakers, I noted an interesting trend. I appreciated the fact that you asked for their candid take on the trend of high brix, high extraction, and thus higher alcohol wines. It seemed that many winemakers replied with a kind of, “Yes, we do it, but it’s different for us because…” I didn’t find their responses to be disingenuous; I found them instructive as to the direction of the industry.

    Regarding this two wines, which I have never had, I assume they are the — how do I put this delicately? — more inelegant style of Pinot. But I have heard winemakers (in your book and elsewhere) argue that the warmer the climate gets, the more the profile changes for Pinot. Perhaps the terroir yields a more massive, darker Pinot. Do you buy that for even a moment?

    Cheers, and thanks for an honest take on these critical darlings.

  18. Evan, in Marcassin’s case I would call the pinots inelegant. As for warmer=more massive, that’s not strictly true. You can get a massive, dark Pinot Noir from a cool climate by letting the grapes hang until well into the Fall, so that the grapes get riper and riper. So that’s not a terroir function, it’s a winemaker decision.

  19. Why do the critics like to bash wines when they drink them and bash them harder when they can’t?

  20. Now, those are two funny questions.

    1. Why do critics like to bash wines when they drink them?

    I can’t think of a single reason, except maybe they bash the wines they don’t like. Lord knows they praise the wines they like. That’s where all those 90-point scores come from.

    2. Why bash them harder when they can’t?

    Now, that is a more difficult question to answer. I am still trying to get my head around how one bashes a wine one has not drunk? Perhaps you can explain the question.

  21. lodiwino says:

    Here’s a shocker – maybe they think your opinion doesn’t matter!?

  22. Just a quick word about “single-blind” and “double-blind.” Jason, several posts above, has explained a distinction between the two terms that captures their meaning when used in the context of the scientific method. But people almost always mean something rather different when using those terms to describe wine tastings. In wine, a single-blind tasting is meant to describe a tasting in which the taster is given some but not all information about the wine — place of origin or grape type, but not the name of the producers, for instance. As Parker wrote in his book on Bordeaux, “… in a single-blind tasting, the taster knows the wines are from Bordeaux, but does not know the identities of the chateaux or the vintages. In a double-blind tasting, the taster knows nothing other than that several wines from anywhere in the world, in any order, from any vintage, are about to be served.” Or as Mike Steinberger wrote in a slate column: “‘single-blind’ tastings: The tasters know a few details about the wines being poured—the region, or the vintage, or the grapes, or some combination thereof—but don’t know the names of the wines (in some instances, they are told the names in advance, but they have no idea which wine is which). In ‘double-blind’ tastings, the participants know nothing about the wines except what they see in the glass.”

  23. As far as I am concerned critics of any kind ( food, wine, art, ect..) are lucky to have jobs. To create is an art and to quantify the results good or bad is purely subjective. Most art critics don’t paint, most food critics don’t cook, and most wine writers don’t make wine. That being said most people in the US are afraid to like something that the mainstream does not like and so look to the wine press to reassure them that they are normal. If you truly like wine find a wine merchant that knows your palate, tell them what you want to spend and concentrate!

  24. OMG, lodiwino. You have got to be kidding!

  25. lodiwino says:

    Clearly, if they wanted you to rate their wines they would send them to you and you wouldn’t lament on not being on the ship to list. As stated above, to quantify art is subjective. Why do some artists only sell/show their paintings to a select few and not display in large galleries. They don’t need to nor do they want to…….most critics, not just in the wine world, tend to get caught up in their own hype – and your hype along with others create the mega price tags we see on wines that don’t warrant it….

    for example.

    Is a 96pt 2004 Screaming Eagle ($1895) better than a 96pt+ 2004 Lewelling Vineyards ($55) ???? Who’s the smarter consumer

  26. lodiwino: not lamenting, just observing. Anyhow, it’s easy to bash critics. Believe me, I know every criticism that can be leveled.

  27. Yes, Steve, you probably do, but I will bet you do not know why critics bash wines harder when they have not tasted them.

  28. Did you not read Steve’s column? I defer to his final sentance…

  29. Bruce, I think you can only take the wine and art analogy so far. If you want to buy a piece of art that looks like pretentious garbage, you will at least see what you’re getting before you buy it. With wine, you might want some reference point because you aren’t getting an opportunity to taste every wine that interest you before you purchase it. If I’m dropping $20 on something, I’d like to know that I’m not getting someone’s “concept art” that will make me wretch. I wouldn’t spend even $1 to get the vinous equivalent of Malevich’s Black Square. Too many people can’t make their own decisions, and critics don’t include sufficient error bars on their data. But a degree of criticism helps consumers.

  30. George Parkinson says:

    your bit reminded me of an experience I had many years ago.
    In 1986 I was lucky enough to pour wine for a Napa winery next to Justin Myers at the Napa Valley Unified School District Fund Raiser. I was a middle 20 something at the time doing some part-time tasting room work for a local winery and Mr. Myers, well, he was himself, loud, funny, engaging & in those days ever loved for his hard to find and expensive, (for the time), Silver Oak Cabernet. I had a blast, learned a lot that night and never forgot his lecture about your question; as a writer approached him that evening with the same concern.(and boy did she get a blue faced tongue lashing). In his mind, he felt that there was no reason to supply anyone FREE wine to garner a subjective review for his wine when the tasting room filled daily with fans of the brand and the man and were willing to pay the price for not only tasting the wine, (they were the first to charge $5 for wine tasting in Napa), but glad to get the 2 bottle limit per customer he put in place. He had issues with the scoring media and felt they were a greedy group that knew nothing of the hard work and cost that went into building a brand and a vineyard. Today may be a different scene. There were not as many California Wineries then as now and Cult wines that lived by sheer reputation then, might need a good review or two for helpful recognition. Still, there is something to be said about the subjective nature of wine and the view of the cash strapped small producer that would rather sample a restaurant or fine wine shop in the anticipation of immediate sales, rather than to a cog in the wheel of marketing, advertising and public relations that may not garner any new advocates to the cult coffers. As a wine lover, and small business person, I really can’t blame anyone that will not send out free goods to reviewers when they can sell the wine. And even in this economy, they will sell the wine.

  31. Steve et al-
    Don’t look now, but this is a pretty small circle jerk you guys got going on. I was in a real funky night club outside Curico Chile last week-not exactly a booming metropolis -and there were at least three hundred folks raising LOUD south american hell and having a good time. They live in the land of unlimited decent cheap wine. Montes Alpha is for export,tourists, and rich people. None of them gave a flying —- about Marcassin. Piscola was the beverage of choice. That’s Pisco + Coke. Repeat as needed. If Marvin Shanken and Bob Parker walked up to the door they’d have to pay their 2,000 pesos like everybody else, and wait at the bar behind the hot little local semi-pros. I gotta tell ya, I had more fun than I’ve had at all the many wine tastings I’ve ever been to rolled into one. Nice pissy article Steve. I like it when you are bitchy. I am too. The wine biz is total BS. At least wine writers don’t pretend their piss is worth $400/litre. Except maybe those NYC and WSJ ones. The English scribes get a free pass. Tradition, eh? Plus, some of them can actually write. I know you can’t put this up, and I really don’t want you to. Just between friends. I know you drink beer when nobody’s looking. When I write, you know two things. 1) Your blog was provoking, interesting, or annoying. 2) I’ve had a couple too many. I’m writing less frequently. Good for me. Mark

  32. Steve
    Here’s a novel idea: consider buying a bottle of the wines (Kistler, Marcassin). I wonder? Do you think they’d taste differently if you had to shell out the $100?

  33. Hey, TJ. Interesting spin on your idea that critics bash wines when they can’t taste them, and stating that this is supported by Steve’s final sentence. Steve’s point in the post is that many cult wineries don’t send him their wines for review. Clearly, Steve stated that he has tasted (and disliked) Marcassin on several occasions; it’s likely that he has also tasted Kistler, as well as most of the others listed by Charlie Olken. I think he has a fair basis for “bashing” these wines.

  34. Error Bars, Interesting. What if reviews had to have statistical R-square values on them much like research. To know that an 89 point wine had a R-Square that gave them +or- of 2 and a 96 had a +or- of 5 because the former was tasted double blind and the latter was tasted “single-blind” at the winery.
    This at least gets to the heart of the matter of the artificial certainty of the numbers used to review wines. While i understand that this will be probably more confusing for the consumer, let alone the nightmare of defining a system to determine these values, (or handicaps for wine writers that prefer red wine that are tasting whites) it would be of use for those that get it. Additionally, it seems that the onus would be on the writer and/or the magazine to lend another level of legitimacy to their reviews, making it a joy to them much like the researcher who wants their work to be taken seriously.
    This seems that it would be an easier task for a magazine that may have multiple reviewers with widely varying opinions of a wine. what happens in this situation when there is disagreement, does it get an averaged score, are the highs and lows sorted out, or discussed to a consensus like so many wine competitions.
    But then again I struggle with the whole concept of reification. To narrow something so complex down to a one dimensional number, even though i must do so on a regular basis. So i concede that we will all have to be slightly uncomfortable with numbers, as one should always be, so keep that flavor wheel and thesaurus handy.

  35. Mark–

    Just looked at your web site. Seems like you have joined the circle jerk. Napa Valley Bordeaux blend from the “justifiably famous Oakville appellation” indeed.

    People who live in stone houses obviously drink fancy wine from fancy appellations.

    Love your label. Hope you had fun in Chile. Tough life, huh?


  36. maybe, ’cause you ain’t all that

  37. JD: Actually I don’t bash Kistler. Just Marcassin : >

  38. Steve,
    Why don’t you just go out to your local wine shop, buy these wines, and then review them?

  39. Jason, cuz (a) I don’t make as much money as you think and (b) I have my hands filled with wines to taste that producers send me. And I’d rather review wines whose creators want me to review them, than wines whose creators don’t. Maybe that’s just me…

  40. Regardless of anything else, these wines rarely show up at retail, and only when someone on a mailing list trades them in to a wine shop who then marks them up ridiculously. I long ago decided that I was not gong to pay through the nose for Turleys and Marcassins and Kistlers, let alone Screaming Eagle.

    Too bad because some of those wines would be a pleasure to taste. Some would not, but that is the joy of blind tasting. Sometimes you say, “Wow” when you open the wrapper and find a $32 bottle of Cabernet that kicks the slats out of the competition, and sometimes you say “Oops” when a $200 bottle turns out to be thin and acidy.

  41. lodiwino says:


    Is a 96pt 2004 Screaming Eagle ($1895) better than a 96pt+ 2004 Lewelling Vineyards ($55) ???? Who’s the smarter consumer

  42. Charlie-
    Ouch. But, I sell it for $20/bottle, not $200, like the neighbors do. I cant print “Wine = Grapes + Yeast + Bullshit” on the labels. I would if I could. The TTB don’t like it. Love you all but I gotta go calculate my de-alc now.

  43. Steve – I’d guess at 25,000 domestically produced brands per year, so that takes you to nearly 50 wines per day, day in and day out…

  44. lodiwino, I can’t answer that.

  45. I think its a valid topic. Some cults are just not worth the money while others are so foul its a joy to watch people swoon over them.

    Recently I had 06 Screaming Eagle. Its a really nice wine, (for 50 bucks or so) but at least its good. The wine itself has no business being cult-status, the value is in the package. Why take the chance on a critic who may just score the wine as it deserves. (most people will never open the bottle anyway)

    06 Kongsgaard Chardonnay (cult-ish) was so foul I could not drink it. Parker gives it a 91 and says is has brawny marmalade and notions of oak with damp earth. I say its a nasty mix of lemon flavored whiskey and stinky cheese. It really makes me question what a critic like Parker was thinking.

  46. Cellar Rat says:


    Where exactly are you getting 06 Screaming Eagle for $50 a bottle, PLEASE SHARE!

  47. Just to back up what Steve has said twice above – there are TON of cultish producers hurting right now. No one is immune to the economic downturn. The only way to ride this out (as someone else pointed out above) is to have deeep pocekts, a money tree or incredible patience.

    How about this for a list of deals in the marketplace acutally happening:

    · Mondavi RSV Cab ad pricing $49.99. top 12 last year Spectator. $120 regular price

    · Cakebread no more OP Mix requirements

    · Phelps 3 on 10

    · Name your price on anything more then 10 – more than one elite brand I know of is currently doing this.

    · Caymus Special Select – 1 on 5

    · Talbot Sleepy Hollow Chard – $15 per btl wholesale

  48. Bill, what does “3 on 10” and “1 on 5” mean? Is that like wholesaler talk? And what’s “OP Mix requirements”?

  49. Steve,
    Bill will tell us what he means, but if I understand the implications, it means that I can get 1 extra bottle of Caymus Spec Sel if I buy four at the regular price. Oops, still can’t afford it. Might as well be Le Pin.

  50. Charlie: Oh! I knew it meant something in distributor-speak.

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