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The Oyster Ridge Lesson: don’t send wine too early

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It never fails to amaze me how winemakers routinely let others make the decision when to send tasting samples out — even when it’s against their better judgment. But the fact is, too many good red wines are released too soon.

Who better than the winemaker knows when a wine is showing well? Not the marketing people. Not the sales people. Not the P.R. people. And not some CFO whose realm is more in the world of numbers than the palate.

The problems with young wines are manifold. Not being a chemist I can’t explain them that way. But a wine that’s too young can be an unintegrated, rude little thing. (I love that word, “rude.” Another one is “impertinent.”) All its parts haven’t knit, so it can taste too oaky or too smoky, or too sweet in primary fruit, which gives it a jammy simplicity, or too acidic. It can even smell sulfury. Sweetness and structure, you might say, haven’t come together. The result can be most unpleasant.

Sometimes, a critic can fathom that a young wine that’s not showing well has a future. Certainly, if the wine has a history of ageability, that can point you in the right direction. But what if you’re tasting blind? Then all you know is that you’re tasting something that’s rude and unpleasant, and your review/score must reflect that disappointing reality.

I suppose a case can be made for a palate so exquisitely discriminating, so educated and refined, that it would never confuse a wine that was rude and unpleasant and not going anywhere, with one that was rude and unpleasant because it was immature. Perhaps such folks exist among the exalted ranks of M.W.s. But I doubt if anyone has a 100% perfect batting average at this. 

Several examples bring up these thoughts in my mind. One concerned a Williams Selyem Pinot Noir, submitted to Wine Enthusiast years ago in response to a tasting feature deadline. It did not do well in the blind tasting. Months later, when the results were known to all, the winemaker, Bob Cabral, confessed to me that he had not wanted to send the wine out at that time. He’d wanted to hold onto it for (as i recall) another 6 months, but had been overruled by his marketing people, who told him, “We must make the Enthusiast’s deadline if we are to appear in their Pinot Noir issue!” Well, the wine did appear, but with a middling score. “I learned something from that,” Bob told me. “From now on, I make the decisions about when wines go out!”

More recent is the case of the Ancient Peaks 2006 Oyster Ridge red wine, a Cabernet, Petite Sirah, Syrah and Zinfandel blend from Paso Robles. When the winery sent it to me, last January, I disliked it intensely. It was all sour acidity and sweet jammy fruit, and tasted unbalanced, and my score reflected that impression.

Fast forward to June of this year, when I went to Paso Robles for my 106-wine blind tasting. Among the wines in a paper bag was this very one. I gave it a high score, and was, of course, surprised and upset to find out, later on back home, that it was the same wine I’d despised six months previously.

I called the winery. They sent me two new bottles, which I tasted over the course of the next several days. I liked the wine better and better each time. I called the winemaker, Mike Sinor. Had he experienced bottle variation with this wine? No, he said; he’d heard of none from his accounts. It puzzled me. How could my January tasting have been so different from my June and July experiences?

Well, Mike said, after all, the wine had just been bottled in December — a month before it was sent to me. He hadn’t wanted to send it out at that time, but had been overruled, again by others whose motives were different from Mike’s.

Even for a dim bulb like me, I saw the light. In the bottle less than a month! Then undergoing a long, bumpy delivery by truck. I shared with Mike my philosophy: never let the business and finance people make these sending decisions. They should be made by the winemaker! Mike listened deeply, then said that I’d given him the “ammunition” — his word — to insist on making sending decisions himself.

So, memo to winemakers: Don’t let them tell you when to send wines to critics. If you think a few more months will improve the wine, insist on it. Consider it the Oyster Ridge Lesson: send no wine before its time.

 

orson_welles_-_wine2

* * *

Dept. of What were they thinking?

 

Alabama is among the leaders of all U.S. states in obesity.

It’s the 5th dumbest state.

Like other southern states, a huge percentage of Alabama’s adult population has less than 9 years of education.

Alabama ranks #4 among states for greatest percentage of its population living in poverty.

Alabama has one of the U.S.’s highest crime rates.

Last year, Republicans introduced legislation in the state Legislature to allow the teaching of creationism and intelligent design “as though they represent accepted scientific principles.” (The bill did not pass.)

Few American states have less to be proud of when it comes to, well, anything, but Alabama lawmakers now have earned extra bragging rights for stupidity. Last week,  the state’s Liquor Control Board banned the label on a bottle of Hahn’s Cycles Gladiator wine as being too racy.

cycles

She is a hot little strumpet, isn’t she?

* * *

My cousin, Loretta Weinberg, was just tapped by N.J. Gov. Corzine to run for Lieutenant-Governor in the next election. Way to go, Loretta! We’re proud of you!

loretta-weinberg-corzine

The Guv and the Cuz

  1. I never considered the strength of the marketing team to persuade the winemaker against their own expertise and understanding of the wine. I think you put it right in saying ‘ammunition’, these two tales give ammunition to winemakers to maintain the balance of power. It let’s them say to the marketing team that may be bullying them, although with the best intentions, this is not the right thing to do.

  2. At Merryvale the marketing and production teams taste as a team to determine when to release to press. It gets a little tricky when market conditions require you to release a wine to the public that the panel doesn’t think is quite ready for submission to press.

  3. Chris: Exactly what I’m talking about, rushing a wine out that’s not ready.

  4. Dylan and Steve, and Chris for that matter–

    I get wine, and I presume that most writers do, that is months or even over a year away from its release to the public. And, I am talking about wine from small wineries where the owner is making the decision like Testarossa, Terre Rouge and others.

    If I know the release date, I try to hold it back for tasting closer to the time people can buy it, but clearly there are wineries who feel it is in their own interests to get wine out early. Bill Easton at Terre Rouge said he does it because he gets requests all the time for his next release and rather than give his wine early to one reviewer and not others, he simply sends it out to his selection of reviewers. In his opinion, it is up to them when they review those wines. I get it, but it confuses the issue a bit when one pub goes into print with a review and my rag comes last. I take responsibility for that.

    But what I am pointing out is the that the system can work more than one way. Bob Cabral (Williams-Selyem) does, he says, send wine for review after it is released–sometimes after it is sold out.

    But here is one place we probably all agree. When a winery sends a wine out for review that is not ready for review, we all lose. The winery loses, the public loses because it does not get an accurate review and our publications thus lose (the least important part of that equation from my standpoint) because we are not publishing accurate reviews.

  5. Kelkeagy says:

    I think most wine PR professionals think a lot more strategically these days. For the most part we’ve learned that particular lesson (probably the hard way) years ago. It is never a good idea to send wine to make a deadline before the wine is ready to taste. Obviously, being included in the annual “fill-in-the-blank” issue has no value if your wine isn’t positively reviewed. If you are working together as a team (winemaking, marketing and public relations) you run less of a risk of having these issues.

  6. Never an easy decision. Go too early and you have the Oyster Ridge issue. Hold off submitting and do not have the benefit of what may(but not always) be a little positive good news that can be a nice talking point to help sales.

    I go through it each year and while I don’t submit anything without 6 months of bottle age at least, it is still hard because most of my wines (like many others) improve greatly with each month that passes. So no matter when I submit it, it always could have been better.

    Have to balance both needs. Submitting early is clearly a bad move and often results in poor scores. A great score doesn’t do any good to a winery that is out of business due to sluggish sales. Just like a great wine, it is all about balance.

  7. David Bantly says:

    Hi Steve:

    I am in that Sales and Marketing that you speak of and indeed, there is pressure to make the requested deadlines At our winery, we have been attempting to get better at sending out our wines when they taste their best and at the same time, integrate the journalistic deadlines. This isn’t easily done and often is a hit and miss process. Along with making sure the wine tastes at its best, we often consider that some of these writers have an apparent bias to like wine on the young side while others like them more integrated and older. We have to navigate shipping wine in the summer heat, seasonal issues (like getting a white wine written up in summer and not in January), timing the review to occur when we have wine available in channels (that is, that the former vintage is generally seen as sold through retail) and other considerations. It’s black and white dilemma that has a sometimes complex answer.

    All this, of course, in defense of my sales and marketing colleagues.
    David
    Dierberg / Star Lane Vineyards

  8. I think that sales and marketing people tend to care a lot about wine quality, perhaps even as much as the winemaker, but their relationship to the wine is not that simple. They have to balance the needs of the market, the logistics of getting press coverage according to some arbitrary schedule of what a magazine wants to feature in a given month, AND the readiness of the wine when deciding when to get it into the hands of critics. It’s not easy and some compromises are made. Winemakers can and should be uncompromising about the readiness of the wine, but that really is only one of many parts of the equation and that is why their advice is not fully heeded.

    But sending out a wine that’s been in bottle for a month is plain foolishness that has little to do with not heeding a winemaker’s advice. It flies in the face of all conventional wisdom and I’m truly amazed that it happens.

  9. William Bixby says:

    Sad to note that California is listed as being even dumber in 46th place as compared to Alabama’s 43rd place. Heck, even Alaska scored higher… I take it that not many Alabamans have ever been to Rome or seen anything remotely close to classic art. What a truly ignorant and scary country we live in.

  10. Weighing in on this one a little late. Here’s a bottom line. I NEVER send a bottle of wine to ANYONE in the press or otherwise without first getting approval from winemaking. Period. End of story.

  11. Bill, way to go!

  12. Lindsey Brown says:

    The article insinuates that only the winemaker cares about the wine. This is almost offensive and could not be furthur from the truth. Sending out to the media is one of the most difficult decisions to make. I dont believe that this is a conspirecy.

  13. Lindsey, I didn’t say it’s a conspiracy. Most winemakers wish they had more say in when bottles are sent out for review. It’s just that marketing people have a different job from winemakers. It’s a tension between getting it out early (to be able to make money) and holding onto it for a while (to let it get some maturity).

  14. Morton Leslie says:

    Let us know when your cuz takes office. I heard about this N.J. guy who’ll pay big bucks if he can get someone to “grease the wheels” on his real estate project. There might be something in it for you.

  15. Morton, I get one of those honking big Atlantic City casinos. By the way, let me know if you want to contribute to my cousin’s campaign.

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