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The most powerful critic in the world is Crazy Flukenstein

69 comments

When I was in Calistoga I stopped by Chateau Montelena’s tasting room. They didn’t know who I was. I overheard one of the servers behind the bar tell an elderly couple, “These wines got high scores from Robert Parker, Jr.”

One of these days I am going to hurl right on the tasting room floor! Message to the Barretts: With all due respect, get a clue. Want me to tell you why? Okay, here goes.

Some years ago a famous critic—not Parker—practically wiped you out by telling the world your winery was dirty with TCA. From my understanding, you had to spend millions of dollars to correct a problem that you, personally, didn’t even believe existed. But this critic had so much power that he had your huevos in his mano, so you squealed like a stuck cerdo, oink oink.

I’d have thought you learned your lesson about single-critic dependency, but apparently not. Live by the single critic, die by the single critic, is my warning. And tell me this: What are you going to do now that Parker has abandoned California and ceded it to Antonio Galloni? Is your tasting room staff going to tell customers, “These wines got high scores from Antonio Galloni”?

I mean, let’s get real. Ninety percent of your walk-ins have no idea who Robert Parker is. You could tell them “These wines got high scores from Crazy Flukenstein,” and they’d be impressed. It’s not the name that means anything to them, it’s the fact that your staff would take the time to mention a name that impresses. They figure, “If this tasting room expert says Crazy Flukenstein gave a high score to the wine, then it must be awfully good.” Nor is it likely that your customer would ever ask, “Who’s Crazy Flukenstein,” by the way, because that would make the customer look stupid; and the last thing a customer in a tasting room wants to come across as is stupid.

I’ll tell you something else. Dropping a Parker name (or anybody else’s, for that matter) in a tasting room is sheer laziness. In fact, it’s beyond laziness. It’s downright slothful. If you and your staff can’t come up with a more clever and rational way to sell wine, then you might as well turn off the lights and put up the “CLOSED” sign in the window.

If I worked in a tasting room (and thank God I don’t, because I’d last 20 minutes), here’s what I’d tell customers. “Hey, see this wine? It’s awesome. Trust me. Smell that—just like blackberries, ay? Swirl it around a little. Take a sip. You ever had anything like that in your life? Now, let me grab this bottle from under the counter and show you something really special.”

You see, Barrett family, it’s not about having to desperately resort to some tired old critic to give your wine patina. It’s about trusting that your wine’s quality speaks for itself. It’s about the tasting room staff establishing true rapport with the customer, not reaching to the bottom of the barrel to fish out the stalest trick in the book: a Parker recommendation.

I’ve been telling California vintners this truth for years. Hopefully, the younger ones get it. The Barretts and Chateau Montelena represent an old breed. Maybe it’s too late to teach those dogs new tricks. But I really, really hope the new generation of vintners understands that the days of relying on a Parker score are over, over, over! Especially now that Parker isn’t even doing California anymore. And you know what? I think the new generation does get it. I travel a lot; I meet a lot of people; I know how anxious they are to establish new lines of communication with newer voices to reach newer consumers, not just those snobs mesmerized by The Wine Advocate. They realize that putting all their eggs in one basket is dumb, and they’re not going to do it.

  1. We had been trying to keep quiet about the fact that Crazy Flukenstein had signed to write for The Sediment Blog. It was something of a coup to get such an influential critic writing for a blog which many have dismissed as lacking status, credibility or even knowledge. Now it seems that our generous signing-on fee has been wasted, and that his influence will be as naught.

    Guess we’ll just have to carry on as we were…

  2. Steve,

    A little harsh, don’t you think? A few questions:

    Did the customers buy the wine? That will be the ultimate decider, I would think, as to whether or not mentioning Parker’s name (in this case) was an effective sales tool.

    Did the customers mention Parker earlier in their tasting? If so, the tasting room staff should bring up Parker reviews. If the customers walked in with a copy of the Wine Enthusiast in hand, I’d suggest that our tasting room staff mention any wines that got a good review from you. IMO, that’s good sales technique, not bad.

    You keep mentioning the Barretts — even to the point of calling them old school. I understand that the Barretts own the winery and thus the buck stops with them (as it does will all us owners) — but calling them to task for something that a person in the tasting room says is a bit harsh, don’t you think? Do they personally hire everyone that works there?

    Finally, just from my own personal experience — but if we get a big review and rating from Parker, Spectator, Enthusiast, Connoisseurs Guide, etc. and send it out in an email, our sales are 3-5 times greater than if we simply send out an email saying how great the wine is.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  3. Adam, I’m just saying that the addition to RP in particular is ridiculous and has got to stop. Everybody knows it. I’m just the messenger.

  4. Steve,

    Isn’t it fun going incognito? While I laughed with your post and I will make my tasting room staff read it (I always tell them they have NO IDEA who is coming in through the door), I have to admit that Adam makes some good points. I can’t believe you have never tried to work a day in a tasting room. Please regard this as an open invitation to come work a day with us (barrel weekend is coming in March). If you really want to see the beauty and the beast (we) have created in action, you owe it to yourself. From the ‘name droppers’ and the ‘experts’ (that try to teach you the right way to cold-soak) all the way to the incredibly honest individuals who look through all the PR bullshit and just want to interact on a personal level and enjoy something that is delicious. You really gain a good perspective of what wine means to non-industry folk.

    Come on down, I’ll prepare a nametag that says “Crazy Fluekenstein” – Member Of the RP Brigade

  5. A server telling me the score of a wine is of less interest to me than the winemaker’s notes. That Laube, Parker, Flukenstein, or even Heimoff scored it high helps (a little), but I want as close to the same set of info that would be afforded a wine critic so that I may form my own opinion.

    At $50 on up per bottle, Not to mention the tasting fee, I want at least a couple of paragraphs from the source even if it’s on a card. Just because someone else likes it doesn’t mean I will, and there are plenty of wines that do score high that for whatever reason I won’t drink.

    To quote the esteemed Jules Winnfield; “Sewer rat may taste like pumpkin pie, but I’d never know cause I wouldn’t eat the MF’er”

  6. I’m getting a snicker thinking about all the sales reps that don’t bother to research or taste the wines they sell and lazily tell us buyers, “Parker gave this….” hate that shit. I would say that about 60% (if not a little more) of our customers don’t even know who Robert Parker or the Advocate is, far fewer than there were 10 years ago. Matter of fact the only time I even hear is name is from industry people and bloggers. Not sure what caused the increasing lack of interest in what was once the most influential voice in wine, you can say what you want about his palate, (oh and trust me, I have) but it has been pretty consistent….the problem might have started when people began saying things like, “If Parker gave it a 90 or below it tends to fit more into my style” people craving wines with a little more life and vibrancy and less gooey which is a style that seems to appeal to his palate and score 90 and above. Meh, what the hell do I know, I never gave a rat’s ass what he said in the first place. Our store has always bought wines based on balance and wines that our customers return for, never on score. Might have hurt us in the collector department but there is a world beyond cherry pickers and they have served us well. Maybe this era without Parker will help shine a little light on the retailers that know their customers palates and can lead people down the path of discovering the value in that. Well, a girl can dream right?

  7. Samantha, dream on girl!

  8. Oded, maybe I’ll do it. Bring along a bottle of valium and go over to the dark side.

  9. Oh, we have the valium… don’t worry

  10. lori narlock says:

    Several years ago, my husband went over to Santa Rosa to pick up a case of wine from Pax. The two previous years the winery had opened wine for him to taste and one year increased our purchase by several bottles after offering a sample of a rose. On my husband’s LAST visit, he went to pick up the case mentioned above and asked if he could try a sample. He was told by the wife or sister, of then-owner Pax, no samples were available because the wine had been “Parkerized.” And with that we never purchased another bottle. You are right. Relying on one critic is bad business.

    That said, wineries still are reliant on critics like you. You (critics) offer guidance to the novice and the veteran seeking an opinion about a certain wine. It’s a model that is deeply entrenched in our industry and I doubt it will fade soon. There may not always be individuals with the same influence as a Parker, but there will always be critics who are more influential than others.

  11. Christopher O'Gorman says:

    While there is indeed a new generation of wine consumer that relies on peer recommendations, scores (from anyone) still help sell wine. There is just no question about that.

    It’s always a tricky propostion as to when in your pitch you should mention an accolade, but I do agree that the story and brand messaging must come first and last in your communications.

  12. Hi Steve,
    The question I would pose is this: why are there wine critics who taste and publish wine reviews if people are not talking about what they (the critic) thinks? For the guest at the tasting room, the comment on Parker could easily have been, “I don’t generally agree with Mr. Parker’s palate,” which could drive the buyer away from a the wine.

    The tasting room staff is making conversation, simple as that. As a tasting room guest I would like to hear about the wines, and some anecdotal information like its review by you or Parker or whomever. It’s part of what make critical wine reviews interesting and relevant.

  13. I know Crazy Flukenstein. Crazy is a friend of mine. You, Sir, are no Crazy Flukenstein…Thank God.

  14. I will *SO* totally work the tasting room at Montelena if I get to wear the “Crazy Fluekenstein” name tag. Just sayin’.

  15. Steve,

    I moonlight in a well established wine retail store in Sonoma County. Most days of the week we offer tastings for our customers. We find that by offering tasting, teachable moments present themselves allowing us to establish a greater rapport with our clients. As with most sales jobs it requires more listening than talking in order to be most effective.

    Our store is stocked with many highly acclaimed Bob wines, but the Robert Parker name rarely comes up in the tasting arena. Conversely the on line side of the business is heavily dependant on the Oracle’s proclamations. Collectors, wine geeks, wine geek wannabees, and cherry pickers can get very excited about highly scored wines. Therefore our online solicitations are laced with quotes from noted wine authorities such as yourself and others. As our owner likes to say ” nobody cares what I think about wine.” Obviously a bit hyperbolic but he makes a good point. Sales trump lazy sales techniques.

    No we don’t put all our eggs in one basket, but those Parker eggs are still golden.

  16. I googled “Crazy Flukenstein” and his information appears to be private. Could you email me his contact information? I’d like to send some samples.

  17. I think that if your winery is making wines that are scored well by a critic you want to utilize that review in some way. I don’t feel like it should be something you need to throw out there every chance you get if your winery has the reputation Chateau Montelena has though.

    I’m sure the Barretts have enough confidence in their wine that they don’t believe it needs any positive reviews from critics to gain a following. But who can blame them for utilizing them? If they can add even a handful of consumers each year by mentioning RP then shouldn’t they?

  18. John, send me the wines and I’m ll make Mr. Flukenstein gets them.

  19. Not mentioning a high Parker Score is like passing your MW and not adding it to your name. Man, why go to all the trouble if you aren’t going to use it?

    Look, you hid the filter in a back room, broke out the overalls with the mud stains that you wore his last visit, brushed up on biodynamic jargon, put up a pen and had a few sheep delivered to the vineyard, and had that pile of manure dumped in the parking lot. You did all this just to impress the guy. Not only that, but you risked infecting your whole cellar by bring in that brett tainted high alcohol barrel of wine for him to taste, risking that he might ask to taste a different one (which he didn’t). So now you’ve gotten the high score, what are you supposed to do? It took you three days to get that damn smell out of the parking lot and the damn sheep broke dozens of drip lines.

  20. Terry, thank for weighing in. Like I said, Mr. Parker is given way too much weight by our local vintners. Their relationship reminds of of co-dependency in a marriage where one of the partners is alcoholic or drug dependent. Everybody complains about Parker’s dominance, then you visit the winery and see Parker scores in the tasting room, and hear tasting room staff saying “Parker.” It doesn’t compute. How many tasting staff, for example, cite Joe Roberts, who kindly wrote a comment into this post?

  21. Steve: Calm down, man, you sound like me writing to Dan Sogg (inside joke, sorry).

    Seriously, this was a tasting room staffer, not Jim Barrett.

    Adam Lee speaks for me. Not always, Adam, but here.

  22. Hi Blake, well, as an ex-Chron guy, you know that Bonne has the same fixation with Parker-Laube. It’s pitiful that a wine writer with any self respect would so often cite those 2 guys just to bolster his own cred.

  23. I don’t think Jon wants me speaking for him so I won’t, but I will say that writing about what Parker and Laube like can and often does mean something completely different than validation of one’s own recommendations. In those cases, you should be pleased to be excluded.

  24. Blake, but that’s not how Jon does it. His take seems to be, “Parker loved this wine and so do I!” as if to get some glitter twinkled off on him. I’ve brought this to Blake’s attention and also to Michael Bauer’s. Hopefully, it’s slackened off recently. I mean, in one of your serious articles on wine, would you ever refer to another critic’s score or review? I wouldn’t.

  25. Raley Roger says:

    My take on Bonne is this; he’s confident enough in his own palate to freely mention another critic’s tastes. The guy’s legit. When he talks about a wine that was also recommended by Parker, my take-away from that is that he’s simply adding another dimension of criticism to whatever wine he may be addressing at a given time. I don’t think it lessens his viewpoints at all. In point of fact, I think it makes him a stronger writer because he’s confident enough to reference his colleagues without being threatened by them.

  26. If you feel so strongly about this, Steve, stop using your 100 point system. You’re part of the problem. At the end of the day, older consumers seek out that crap. If it didn’t work, tasting rooms and retailers wouldn’t use it.

    I would like to add that it mainly works on Baby Boomers. Once you’re all gone, so goes the 100 point system.

  27. I know scores matter – I get it. But as a consumer – when the score is the first thing mentioned – I automatically tune out.

  28. Rich Tanguay says:

    Well done Steve! I loved every word…

  29. Crikeys! You sure caught the swooping-magpie flak on that one, pointing out the discomfort that may occur overhearing so many verbal blowjobs, Emperor’s New Clothes and sanctimonious vulgarities.
    What’s a mother to do?
    Now the wine sellers have a new case of shingles as the wine makers sleep well knowing that someday, maybe, this too shall pass.

  30. And you didn’t even mention all the Bottleshock paraphernalia hanging everywhere.

  31. That would be a turn-off to me; it’s your wine, you should know it better than Parker & be able to sell it on taste, not score, alone. Likewise I prefer retail stores where the associates know their products & can sell it without shelves littered with talkers that have critic’s reviews. That being said… if I happen to see a high score next to a wine from a critic whose palate I know matches mine will I get it? Of course. But that’s never my only deciding factor.

  32. morton
    thanks for sharing the recipe BTW i have available for lease: sheep, poo, barrel of funky ultra-small production not-quite-dry cab port, and one “unfilter”
    steve
    can’t we just leave a poor sick old man to die in peace? and chat. mont became a parody of itself years ago the two things go together washed up old wine writer, faded icon winery cashing in on glory days it’s so bad even the winiarskis got sick of it but- it’s what people come to napa to experience- like disneyland duh you think the taste of the wine really matters? this is show business dammit! somebody get parker’s body off the stage on with the show!

  33. Greg Kelley says:

    Steve, have to say that you sound jealous of Robert Parker. I agree with Adam Lee’s comments. Also, many people buying wine will think that the person selling them wine has a bias towards convincing you that they’re wine is good. That’s what they’re there for. Getting an independent thought on the wine is validation that what they’re telling you is true and is good. Multiple validations is better. Tasting it is best!

  34. Who’s funnier, Steve or Morton?

  35. Tell it like it is, Steve… loved every word!

  36. Stan Brody says:

    Interesting that you would rely on Osama bin Laube, the wine terrorist in attempting to make a pint… Osama claims to have the most sensitive schnoz in the industry… and chose to “out” not just Chateau Montelena, but also BV…. all for 1998…. seems that you are 13 years behind the curve… on TCA issues… Then this terrorist who somehow manages to tie in advertising dollar with his rag to ratings gave both wineries a 69 point rating for that vintage… Bo Barrett couldn’t create a 69 rated wine if he tried!!! FACT, ignored in your blog, is that whenever your have fermentation, and then aging in wood barrels, there will be TCA…. simply inescapable… all anyone can do is attempt to minimize its presence…

    Having bitched at you for this inept attempt at reporting… I have long believed that in providing the “expert’s” cases of free wine to “rate”, the industry has shot itself in the cash register…

    FYI… after the ’98 LaTour was outed, we bought 103 cases at $180 per case… never found 1 corked bottle!!! Still have several cases…. and still tasting nicely… The norm would have been 3-5%…. but based on Osama’s outing, one would have expected dozens….

  37. Steve,

    I recently purchased some highly touted Rhones from an online shop in CA, and sure enough they came with the requisite RP endorsement. And enough Brett to make sure I would never drink another Rhone that RP likes. His palate isn’t mine. Your point is well taken.

  38. when parker took the prophylactic off his tongue he realized he no longer liked california wines.

  39. Christophe Hedges says:

    Dear Mr. Wine Critic,

    The revolution of no scores is exactly what all this is. A discussion. The score revolution is a slow fire that receives it’s fuel from posts like this.

    Steve, your prediction for 2011 is wrong.

    Thank you for being a part of the Score Revolution.

    Regards,
    Generation Y

  40. “If it didn’t work, tasting rooms and retailers wouldn’t use it.”
    Not necessarily true. There are many other reasons why the trade uses critics scores, ranging from lack of imagination or alternative stories to time/training constraints to consistency (which is more likely to be remembered and repeated correctly: “it got a 92” or an elaborate story about family traditions or terroir or vinification). Probably the strongest reason is so many people in the trade saying you have to have high scores to sell. The only way to accurately measure a critic’s or score’s effect is in a test where all the other variables (wine, ambience, etc) are controlled and only the critics name or score is varied.

    “if we get a big review and rating from Parker, Spectator, Enthusiast, Connoisseurs Guide, etc. and send it out in an email, our sales are 3-5 times greater than if we simply send out an email saying how great the wine is.”
    But who’s on your mailing list? Maybe alot of them are the kind of people who follow critics, and found their way to your winery thanks to your high scores? Nothing wrong with that, but it wouldn’t be a representative sample of high end wine consumers.

  41. Christian, you quote Adam Lee of Siduri on the use of scores. It is likely, although admittedly a guess on my part, that the majority of people on his list and who come in contact with him know perfectly well what a wine score is. And it does not even matter much which critic they read regularly versus those they do not so long as the critic mentioned is one with a reputation that travels.

    All of this is a different analysis than whether scores are used because of lack of imagination or for any of a myriad of good and bad reasons. But, the use of a good score from a known critic must sell a lot of wine or the wineries would not care and the subscribers would melt away and get their wine recommendations from street corner touts and used car salesmen.

    Of course, I can see it now. A person goes into a tasting room and says to the pourer, “Who recommends this wine?”. The pourer answers, “i just bought a used Yugo down the street from Fly-By-Night Phil”, and he told me that he drinks nothing but our Pinot Noir and rates it at three new tires and an ah-ooh-gah horn.

  42. I think Aunt Linda from SNL should throw her hat into the wine reviewing ring…

  43. Charlie, I’d pay $100 bucks for a Yugo with an an-ooh-gah horn! Do you have one?

  44. Grapemaster: !!!!

  45. Stan Brody, I think Osama also busted Hanzell and Gallo of Sonoma for the same thing.

  46. Me jealous? Nah. Not a jealous bone in my body.

  47. It almost sounds like Steve is arguing against money in this post. Tilting at windmills. As someone who ISN’T on the front lines of actual commerce, it looks like you’re coming off as ivory tower here to the people who are.

    Scores sell wine. Maybe some people in the trade wish that weren’t true. There are reasons to wish that. But I’m not sure why those people don’t just accept that and go from there. All this angst over something the customers have told you they place value on. Sure, not all customers are like that of course and there are other ways to sell wine.

    I see a professor telling the call center rep how to talk to customers and the call center rep thinking: and when was the last time you sold something yourself? Ahem.

  48. Steve- in general I agree with your diatribe against selling only with reviews, but I think it is important to consider what the context might have been, which I can’t tell from your story. I’ve worked tasting rooms for several years (steve- it’s a great way to understand consumers, I encourage you to take up the offer to try it) and I found the most effective way to sell wine and give an enjoyable experience was to understand the customer’s motivations.

    By providing an effective context a good tasting room employee will be able to “speak the language” that the customer needs. For example, when someone came in asking for a “Burgundy”, rather than immediately pouring a Pinot Noir, I found it best to first ask whether they prefer California or French “Burgundies”. More often than not, the person was looking for an inexpensive red wine that was not too dry and had no tannin, so we would pour an equivalent and they were happy. Same with “Chablis”.

    But whether we like it or not, a reasonable number of folks walk into a tasting room and want to try and buy those wines that received a high score. If you properly identified them, you can sell wine all day by reciting scores. They will leave happy and proudly tell their friends how clever they were to obtain high-scoring bottles. Nothing wrong with that. Any customer that buys wine in a tasting room is a good customer no matter what the reason they purchased. Especially if their name is Crazy Flukenstein…

  49. Steve, love this conversation…your readers are wonderful writers.

    We all know there are lots of reasons people buy wine. Some need validation and the scores provide that. Some just treat the scores as another way to discover a good wine, out of the (hundreds of) thousands out there, especially if they are just reading about it rather than experiencing it. Would guess that most of the people on Adam’s list already know his wines and Parker rating may just say ‘this wine is going to get scarce now’ or ‘not only do you like it but now it will really impress your friends.’ Some will think of it as making the wine a better investment, although buying wine primarily as an investment has always struck me as really dumb (although I do have a friend whose parents put her through Stanford on their wine cellar.And I know people starting wine funds again….ouch!)

    But I would put money on more wine being sold in tasting rooms because of a relationship struck with an attentive staff person, Crazy Flukenstein but maybe not Aunt Linda, than all the scores together. And then you get home and wonder what you ever saw in it but it was a great experience…..

  50. I would buy wine from Aunt Linda!

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