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The wine writer as rebel

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[I wrote this last Saturday at the Wine Writers Symposium. Some stuff had popped up, and I was thinking along these lines.]

Outcast. Outlaw. Non-conformist. Punk. Exile. That’s the wine writer. We don’t quite fit in, we [anachronism alert!] ink-stained wretches of the Fourth Estate.

We’ve always been the outsiders, the gadflies and goads who pin-prick the powerful and bring them down to earth, if necessary, with a healthy dose of truth. Next time you’re in a conclave of movers and shakers, with their Armani suits, shiny Tag Heuers and perfectly coiffed hair, look around. That slightly unkempt fellow lurking uneasily at the edge of the room, there physically but not quite included, in his worn old corduroy sports coat, shirt worn for the second day in a row, and in need of a shave, is probably a reporter.

We don’t play the game their way. We play it ours. Even as we break their rules, we ask them — politely, respectfully, and with as much good humor as we can muster — to abide by ours. We are rebels, but we are not rednecks.

The reporter always has had this role, which is why the powerful loathed them. “If one morning I walked on top of the water across the Potomac River,” complained Lyndon Johnson, “the headline that afternoon would read:  ‘President Can’t Swim.’” “Four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets,” Napoleon concluded. Left unchecked and unaccountable, the powerful will be corrupted, sometimes without even knowing it. Wittingly or unwittingly, they cut a corner here, overlook a detail there, allow things to slide. Winemakers and winery owners are the power elite in this industry, our Kings and Generals, god-like but not omniscient. They make mistakes, have blind spots, play games. They will tell us how great their wine is and dare you to contradict them, and if you are diffident, they will have got you. It is the role of the wine journalist to tap the errant winemaker’s shoulder and say, “Ahem, excuse me, I hate to tell you this, but…”.

Reminding a winemaker that he has produced something mediocre is a needed task, but never a pleasant one. Telling truth to power should be done with the utmost humility, as well as strength. There are constant temptations to be co-opted by the very system you are sworn to cover. Satan will take you to the mountaintop, show you the power and glory, and whisper, “It’s all yours, my child. Just give me your soul.”

Which the wine writer must never allow. He holds back when traveling in the inner sanctums of the industry. Keeps something in reserve, never allowing himself to become too assimilated. Yet he is only human, and craves companionship. Where does the wine writer fit in? In the fraternity of other wine writers, who alone can understand. We inhabit the writer’s Zeitgeist. With them our weltanschauung is cooperative. At the wine writers symposium, alone among ourselves, without the distracting presence of winemakers or P.R. agents, we were able to see the untruth of Thomas Jefferson’s dictum

Advertisements contain the only truths to be relied on in a newspaper

as we struggled intellectually and morally to figure out how to tell the truth through words in the fairest possible way. We may not have come up with the answer, but our very struggle testified to our sincerity.

I sometimes try, though, to see us through the eyes of winemakers and winery owners. They view us, I think, as exotic beasts. Deep down inside, they’re a little afraid of us. We can, after all, with a keyboard stroke help their bottom line, or hurt it. We wine writers keep winemakers on edge.

I quoted Napoleon above. Here is the rest of his quote: “A journalist is a grumbler, a censurer, a giver of advice, a regent of sovereigns, a tutor of nations.” He meant this as reproval. It was, in fact, praise.

  1. How ’bout “hubris” as a descriptor?

    Asked by a fellow journalist, of course, just to prove he isn’t one of them…

  2. There is a reason why wine writers should never be more than acquaintances of winery owners. It is because we can never, ever be afraid to make that tap on the shoulder and to deliver our news whether good, bad or indifferent.

    When I read stories of Robert Parker drinking all night with Kermit Lynch at the homes of Rhone producers, and the producers pulling out fifty year old bottles of Hermitage, it raises enormous questions about how the writer can then review the producers wines in the morning–with the labels showing and the producer standing there. Can the tap on the shoulder be earnest and honest?

    And we have read, thanks mostly to the blogosphere this year, of indiscretions of other writers who go on trips with importers who are described as their good friends and review wines while on those trips, writers who will put a producer on their TV show for a big fee even while reviewing their wines.

    Steve, you are so right. As a critic, you simply have to live outside the palace. We have to be able to write precisely what we find and the hell with the producer’s feelings or our own. There are several producers in this world, Cakebread, Radio-Coteau and Kistler, to name the ones who are most obvious in their refusal to deal with Connoisseurs’ Guide because they did not like the what was whispered in their ears.

    But, as I so gleefully tell them. You are free to deal with us or not. We will taste your wine one way or another. So what if you are not pee-oed at us and are going to cut us off at the knees? If we find your wines at retail, we will buy them and review them anyway.

    So, yes, we are outsiders. Heaven help us if the critics ever become insiders.

  3. Reporters are valuable and necessary no matter the field upon which they are writing.

    I would argue that ‘reporting’ and ‘reviewing’ are almost diametrically opposed activities and that opinion shouldn’t be confused with ‘truth.’

  4. Every time I’m tempted to soft-pedal something, I’m reminded of the scene in Almost Famous, where William Miller realizes he’s become friends with the band he’s covering and thus can’t cover them. He talks to Lester Bangs, who says, essentially: “They make you feel cool. And hey. I met you. You are not cool … My advice to you. I know you think those guys are your friends. You wanna be a true friend to them? Be honest, and unmerciful.”

  5. Derrick, never saw the flick but love the quote!

  6. Steven, you bring out a good point I overlooked in my post. Yes, “reviewing” is different in kind from “reporting.” And in the case of the former, what I said is even more timely. After all, people don’t get offended when their wineries are “reported on.” Problems arise when a critic reviews wines negatively. That’s when friendships are tested.

  7. Morton Leslie says:

    I remember years ago the Wine Spectator ran a big piece on how bad they thought Mirassou wines were. That was the total essense of the piece. I saw no redeeming value in it. I thought it was unjust, uncalled for, and some of the worst behavior I have experienced in the wine business. I feel the same today.

    If I sincerely hope to change someone’s behavior I do it privately. I don’t humiliate them in public.

  8. Morton, I felt exactly the same way when Laube “outed” Montelena and others about TCA. Never mind that he’d formerly given them (and Gallo of Sonoma and Beaulieu and Hanzell) high praise for their wines — it was the public humiliation that was so unfair. If he had concerns, he should have taken them aside privately and expressed them, not busted them in the most public way.

  9. Wine writers as reporters? That’s a good one.

  10. Would it surprise you and Morton to know that I think you are full of salt?

    The job of the critic is describe and evaluate. Critics are not consultants, and they damn well better not be friends or confidants to the wineries and the wines they are evaluationg. If Jim Laube finds TCA in wines he is reviewing, then it is his SACRED RESPONSIBILITY to report those findings, not to push them under the rug and not let them see the light of day.

    How can any critic do his or her job if that job is defined as cheerleading? We are not cheerleaders. We are honest brokers, and we need to make our comments as close to the facts as we see them. Sure, we should take care to be right. We should taste second bottles. We should be sure the wines were not too hot, too cold, too beset by any and all kinds of issues.

    But, in the final analysis, if we do not write about what we find, we do not deserve to be in business.

    And, for the record, I disagreed with many of Jim Laube’s findings and said so publicly. But, that does not change the fact, the absolute fact in my view, that he had to call those wines exactly and precisely the way he found them.

  11. “I would argue that ‘reporting’ and ‘reviewing’ are almost diametrically opposed activities and that opinion shouldn’t be confused with ‘truth.’”

    To Steven Mirassou,

    Your statement is accurate: opinions should not be confused with truth, although these days the line is decidedly blurred.

    Still, reporting should not be equated with truth. Reporting should be equated with facts, and facts don’t necessarily lead you to truth.

  12. Steve, have you seen Alfonso Cevola’s soulful piece at http://acevola.blogspot.com/2010/02/remedial-expat.html? It’s proof that wine writers are also poets.

  13. You’d hope that people in a position of power (especially if there is no real way for the injured party to answer the charges) behave in a responsible way. Obviously, doesn’t happen all the time.

    Re TCA. If the writer privately expresses concerns, and verifies that there is really a problem and the winery does nothing to fix it, then they are fair game. This is something objective, at least.

    If a writer bashes a winery because he doesn’t like the wines or prefers a different style (much as Laube did to Mondavi shortly before the sale), give the wines a score and leave it at that. The reviewer should never forget that there is no truth in opinion, only opinion in opinion.

  14. Charlie, in my reporting about Gallo of Sonoma I interviewed MWs and other critics — including some you know well — who had praised GOS’s wines during the suspect period, and not a single one of them ever detected TCA. That led to certain questions about hypersensitivity. If one person in a million is supposedly able to detect a flaw, then does that person bust the winery in public all over the pages of a major magazine? Or does that person take the owner aside and say, “I know that nobody else is detecting TCA but I am, so let’s decide where to go from here.”

  15. …and the wine critic replied to the wine maker
    “Don’t worry about it, 85 points is considered very good on our ratings scale”

  16. Thomas:

    I was being overly dramatic. Trying to make a point about the difference between opiniion and fact.

  17. Charlie:

    Re pervasive TCA problem…if the critic is wrong, how does he unwind the damage caused to the brand?

  18. Are we making too much out of the difficulty of walking the line between critic and friend?

    Here’s a recent example: Last week, I was able to (confidently) tell a winemaker that her wine was corked – and her winery had footed the bill for me to be at the Wine Writers Symposium. Also told them that at a later tasting that I loved their Merlot and thought their Napa Cab was unbalanced. And I didn’t hesitate to give this person a hug later.

    Maybe I just don’t feel the same pressure? Maybe I should?

  19. Dude, oh I hug winemakers all the time. Even kiss them on the cheek (well, the ladies…). I laugh with them and joke with them and try to have as good a time as possible. So I’m not saying critics have to act like morticians around winemakers. It’s more subtle than that…something you feel, rather than can spell out. Where the line is, is for each to draw on his own.

  20. Steven: That’s a great question and one every critic should agonize over.

  21. Steven–

    I am going to answer your question in two ways.

    –A critic has to call them as he or she finds them. Full stop. It is not the job of the critic to be an advisor to the winery. Our Connoisseurs’ Guide panel is also quite sensitive to TCA, to VA, to brett, to high SO/2 and to all kinds of other things. We are, as we keep reminding ourselves, “too hip for the room” in the sense that we detect things today that the average collector would not detect. So, we craft the way we say things. That system of referring to “bits” of this and “nuances” of that when we find slight anomalies and to use words like sharpness, edginess, horsiness rather than VA or brett does not change the fact but does try to put the description in terms that folks can recognize when they taste the wine. AND, we routinely taste a second bottle of every wine that has detectable issues or even suspected issues.

    –If a critic is wrong, then the winery has several avenues available to it, including those which Beaulieu took when Laube went after it. In the first place, Beaulieu took the opinions of other critics and played them loudly for all to hear. In the second place, it looked at itself under the microscope and found that TCA was present in the winery and present in its wines albeit at levels that only Laube and a couple of other folks could detect. And that is the funny part. Laube was not wrong about Beaulieu; he was just very sensitive.

    Bottom line for me remains the same. It is not my job to sit on my hands, and it is not the wineries’ jobs to feed me, coddle me, make me feel good. We exist at arms’ length to each other.

  22. OK, now to the question of getting along with wineries and winemakers.

    I listed above several wineries that will not talk to me because I have not liked their wines according to the way they have expected me to like their wines. That is their business. They can talk to me or not, but I will be damned if I am going to pull my punches so wineries will talk to me. I work for my subscribers, not the wineries, and it makes not damn difference to me professionally whether Steve Mirassou the Elder or Steven Mirassou the New Broom like my publication or like me personally. And while I mention them both because I think we consider each other to be professional friends, and thus they make fine examples of how we should get along. I respect the Mirassous for their integrity, for their love of wine, for their efforts. I presume they respect me for the integrity of CGCW and its methodology, for its accuracy and its fairness. Lord knows that we have not always been kind to the wines eminating either from the Mirassou winery (when it was still in the family) not to the wines coming out of the new family gig in Livermore.

    And Steve H, I have no problem hugging Steve or Steven Mirassou when I see them. They are good people. I like them for that. But, we are not family friends, and they know and I know that Connoisseurs’ Guide will and must describe their wines as accurately as we can according to our tasting acumen.

    If we are wrong, or they think we are wrong, they will ignore me just as Cakebread, Kistler, Radio-Coteau and others choose to ignore Connoisseurs’ Guide.

  23. Oh well, Charlie, Kistler ignores me too, as does Helen T. Well, like I always said, live by the Parker, die by the Parker.

  24. Finally, to my newest family member, 1WineDude.

    Joe, there is a quantum difference between telling a winemaker that a wine is corked or anything else that you told Janet Myers at dinner at the WWS or elsewhere and describing in print a wine with flaws. And in my experience, there is a big difference between the reactions of winemakers to less than positive criticism and the reactions of marketing teams and winery owners.

    One example from the WWS final dinner. I walked over to a winemakers whose wines had been praised as highly in Connoisseurs’ Guide as any in the last ten years. We had a nice chat, and then I asked when the new vintage of her wine was coming out and she said that she was having a hard time selling it and it would not be until the summer when the next wine is released. I expressed surprise and she reminded me ( I have forgotten) that CGCW had scored the wine at 87 points and remarked that it was not up to the winery’s usual standards. Her comment about that: “You did not understand the style”.

    Well, maybe. But here is the point. When we scored her wines in the mid-90s, we understood the style. When we did not score one wine that way, we did not understand the style. She and I are professional friends. We are even a wee bit of personal friends in the sense that her husband in an artist and I like his work and have been to his place to look at it. But, the gulf, the necessary gulf, the arms’ length relationship stays in place.

    So, my son, hug a winemaker. Tell him or her that a particular bottle is corked. But, if you are going to be a critic, you have no choice but to tell the truth as you see it for every wine you taste and to taste every wine in a manner and with a methodology that allows you to be comfortable that you have been both fair to the wine and fair to your readers.

  25. Back in June of ’09, Steve accepted an invite to visit our vineyard with me. It was in Paso Robles where Steve had come to do an Herculean task of blind tasting 125 of Paso’s red wines. He visited a day after the blind tasting. My wife and I had put on a nice spread of cheeses, meats, nuts, olive spreads, breads, and fancy crackers. Also I had decanted our Cerro Prieto Merlot and our signature wine, Cerro Prieto Paso Bordo. When Steve arrived, we took a 6 X6 tour of our straight up straight down vineyard, and discussed “going towards green”, highlights and the rare problems with our vineyard, etc.

    Steve asked some questions, made some observations, and then we returned to our home overlooking the vineyard. When offered the table fare, and tastes of our wine , he politely deferred. His comment was “I’ve already tasted your wine. In fact of the 125 wines I tasted, there were two that stood out…Justin’s Cab, and YOUR blend (85% Cab/15% Syrah). ”
    Initially, i thot he was kidding, but in fact that is exactly what had happened. We were stunned…make that pleasantly surprised, but I was struck about Steve’s propriety in refusing not only a taste of our wine, but also any of our hors d’ ouveres.

    I mention that as a teeny tiny example of the antithesis of Parker and his acceptance of goodies as noted above. Quite frankly I was dumbstruck that Steve declined any eats at all, not to mention the wine. Later, and after reading of freebies for critics noted above(plus many others), I realized Steve was in that rare group of scribes who wasn’t about to be lumped into the group of critics who “will review your wine for food or beverage”. It is a little thing, yes, but at the time, and much later I fully understood the well founded criticism directed at others who tour Bordeaux, the Rhone, or wherever, on someone else’s nickel.

    Whereas I am not a wine scribe, I do blog about our vineyard and wines (www.cerroprietovineyard.com), but I never am in a position that most of the critics writing on this blog are in: to wit, accepting wine and food to write a complimentary review.
    It is refreshing and frankly good for reader’s of Steve’s column to know that “this is a guy who can’t be influenced by something other than the taste of a wine”. Not until that moment we sat down at the kitchen table to discuss wines, vineyards, etc, did I realize exactly why I enjoy Steve’s writings and essays. He speaks from the heart and with formidable experience. He is not tainted by acceptance of anything that could influence his opinion other than what he tasted in the glass. He is also a stickler for adhering to his modus operandi. I still think it wouldn’t have hurt if he had had at least one almond…

    It is one of the many reasons I have read his columns and blogs for the last 3 yrs… and will continue to do so. They are informative, they are interesting, and …they are truthful. This is a tiny thing in the totality of the universe. But it also is something Steve’s readers didn’t know. Steve puts the “I” in the word “integrity”, and he also gives “wine critics” a good name. As a physician and member of the wine/vineyard community, I am aware of many shortcomings in both disciplines. Agree with him or not, Steve is one of those folks that I admire for what he writes, and whether he is right or wrong, when you read it, you know it is the unvarnished truth of what he feels. Those folks are rare, and I admire him for it.

  26. I will say that Charlie is spot-on when he says that, when a critic praises a wine, we “understand” the style, but when we pan it, we don’t. I get that all the time. The critic just has to roll with the punches. Having said that, the critic also should always remain open to learning and expanding his mind. I have been trying very hard over the last 2 years to “understand” Paso Robles red wines. Some winemakers down there have helped me in this effort. They have been, to some extent, successful.

  27. Kinda a cool blog from winemaker’s as we can look through the window and have some under the blanket info shed onto us.

    Having read for a while thoughts from Charlie, Steve, 1winedude and Tom, how do you guys get RP, JL and the other players to actually engage you guys on these blogs? Do they actually think they’re like, untouchable or are they so embarrassed by their official words that they can’t back them up in a free moving (on record) conversation?

  28. Randy, that is a great question. Here’s my take: RP, JL and a few others have nothing to gain and a lot to lose by engaging with us po’ folk. They do tend to think they’re untouchable. It’s sad, but true. I would welcome their participation on this blog, but I’m not holding my breath.

  29. really an insightful piece- thank you, but this section was too much to stomach:

    “They view us, I think, as exotic beasts. Deep down inside, they’re a little afraid of us. We can, after all, with a keyboard stroke help their bottom line, or hurt it. We wine writers keep winemakers on edge.”

    umm. exoctic beasts? did i miss the picture of you in a boa?! c’mon! it’s not YOU (plural or singular) who scare(s) us. it’ the people who read you who do, the ones who don’t realize your opinions are so 100% SUBJECTIVE; who don’t realize there’s a [put your favorite critic's name here]weltanshauung taking place; someone whose tongue and palate and experiences are their own, not the consumer’s; that they don’t understand when people like JL cuts down a wine with Bret that they [the consumer], as many others do, might actually enjoy a little barnyard in their glass; or when so many reviewers poo poo and lament how corked a wine is, and oh, aren’t corks the rats of the wine world, harboring such menacing ugliness that gets passed into the wine, instead of pointing out that “corking” may have nothing to do with corks, but with the paper products or wood products in the same environment as the wine, but oh, goodness me, toto, corks are bad, because so and so just lost their money on a corked wine, so we better not buy wine with a cork! THAT’S what we’re afraid of. it’s not what you write, it’s what you’re selling. which most people believe is a truth. scary, scary, scary.

    please see Almost Famous. fun movie and fantastic soundtrack.

  30. Stephanie, thanks for a passionate comment!

  31. Steve:

    Not accepting the “bad” reviews with the same grace and equanimity as one takes the “good” is just poor form.

    I try my best each day to add to my body of knowledge so I can be better at my work. Meaningful feedback from knowledgeable wine people such as yourself and Charlie Olken can help to provide me a context for my wines viz. the many thousands of CA wines that I don’t get a chance to try. And, though, I realize that the wine critic is not a consultant, I just wish that the tasting note medium was better suited to providing more ameliorative “meat”.

    Charlie, I, too, consider us professional friends. More importantly, though, is the feeling of respect I have for your and CGCW’s accomplishments.

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