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

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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. What do you call a blind tasting where a flight of wines have been poured for a group of tasters, but the sequence of wines left to right are different for each taster? This prevents the tasters from giving each other cues. It also eliminates, collectively, any bias that might occur when a given wine is tasted at the beginning or the end of the flight.

  2. –A blind mind tasting

  3. Tom
    If they replicated a wine or two in the same flight, NOW you’re talkin! It’s all BS, all the time. Wine’s a sensory- emotional experience just too complicated, thank GOD, for any real truth, like there is in science. Sure, I, and many others, can consistently assess the basic quality of a wine, in a general sense. Nonetheless, this blind tasting crap is all marketing. If you come out on top of the F’in French, HOLD THE PRESSES! If ya don’t, no press release. I would be bemused, I’m sure, by my scores and notes, if they gave me the same wine twice or thrice in one flight. That’s why it’s so interesting. It’s the dynamic winemaking matrix at work on the febrile human mind. If you are drinking La Tache, but don”t know it, you’re not getting the La Tache experience, and you are bound to underappreciate it. Wine experiences are hard to quantify,or predict, but what a Party! The Greeks had it right. It’s all about God, mystery, ego, and human weakness. Let’s drink some wine, eat some ‘shrooms, tear up a goat or two, and chase some nymphs around the hills late at night. Whatever wine we drink, we’ll think it is awesome. Oh, yeah!

  4. I must be pretty stupid, but what happens if a vintner sends wines to both Parker and Heimoff? Do they both rate them, or if both taste brand X, is it because one or the other went out and bought brand X to rate? Steve, do some vintners send their wines around to WE and WS or is that bad manners/ format/ stupidity? You asked how come you don’t taste Marcassins, but i am wondering isn’t it more likely one person cannot taste all wines, so different wineries send some wines to WS and others send to WE? Could you tell me what is etiquette re: vintners sending wine to a critic? I assumed if one sends you their wines, they aren’t going to go and send them to the competition… or are they? Thanks, and pardon my ignorance.

  5. Larry, I don’t know how vintners make these decisions. I suppose each has a different theory. Some people tell me they send me wines, but that they won’t send anything to Spectator. I’m sure it’s vice versa in other cases. I guess you just have to do what you think is best.

  6. What a nice idea to talk about this topic. In my experience wine producers have 3 main reasons for degustation:
    1. They want to sell (most)
    2. They want high score degustation notes and select and prepare the testers before they arrange a degustation. No surprises. (Exist more than I thought)
    3. They want feedback and develop. They want to discuss and close relationship with their customers. (I like them most)

  7. Benaccetto says:

    I think that one of the overlooked points here is that cult wines are often small producers and almost as often reasonably inconsistent. It may be true that there will occasionally be stinkers, but they are offset by the heights that are achieved when the wines truly hit. To gain consistency from year to year the big producers play it safe and make conservative wines to deliver what is expected. This works right into the hands of critics who need to have that same consistency in order to build THEIR following. People y
    that become attached to cult wines are willing to put up with a larger degree of inconsistency to experience the pinacles whereas most critics (and larger mainstream wineries) need a higher level of certainty.

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