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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. Steve

    You are a little hard on tasting room staff and the consumer, it sounds like you have a little disdain for both. I have to tell you as a producer it is a humbling experience to stand behind the bar across from the consumer and hear what they have to say about your product. From behind the bar you will see the whole gambit of people from Master Sommelier to Japanese tourist, and they all have an opinion. You can tell them whatever you want but if they don’t like the wine you’re out of luck.

    If the customers like you and the experience they are having they are a lot more likely to buy your product. One of the questions I frequently ask a customer is how did you hear about us, and the responses are all over the place: I read about you in the W.E. or the W.S. or I heard about you from a friend, or the one I am least proud of, I was driving down the freeway and saw your sign.

    The Tasting room is truly where the rubber meets the road, and it is your job to tell the story about your product and why it is different from everyone of the 200 other wineries in the area. If people walk out of your tasting room with out buying anything they are pretty much giving you the thumbs down or (the middle finger).

    I think your comment about you would not last 20 minutes behind the bar is a little heartless you can learn a lot by listening to the consumer. Oh yes, it dose torque me off when someone comes in and only want to taste the wines that you gave a score too. But that is life if you would like a shift behind the bar come on down. I think in a few hours you might have a whole new level of appreciation for the majority of these hard working people that serve the wine industry on the front lines.

  2. Steve! Chill a little. Give ‘em a break. IT is just part of the routine. If the winery were to insist that only a score counts, or to belittle the customer if they don’t know how Parker is, well, then you can jump down their throat. But chill, chill, a little. Ya gotta let consumers learn and decide for themselves what information is useful and what is not useful.

    Remember, there are lots of people in lots of tasting rooms all over the place and what they taste, we hope, is more important than who Crazy F. is.

  3. Don, I don’t think tasting room consumers are stupid. They’re capable of understanding that wine critics exist, and I don’t blame them for being interested in what wine critics have to say. I myself routinely depend on restaurant and movie critics to make decisions. However, I believe tasting room employees should not refer only to 1 or 2 critics. This just continues the dysfunctional hegemony the industry suffers from. Maybe they could make lists of the top 10-15 critics in the country and have handouts with their scores. I don’t know. What I do know is that the current system, as it’s practiced at too many wineries, is broken.

  4. Karl, please read my reply to Don’t comment. All I object to — and I have a perfectly consistent track record on this for many years — is the reliance on 2 critics or publications by so many wineries in California. It’s lazy and bad business practice.

  5. As a person who has purchased my share of Adam Lee’s wines, I receive his occasional emails about a wine that received a high rating. More often the tone of the email is to give his repeat customers a heads up so that they don’t miss out on a wine. I most cases I was probably already planning to purchase the wine but it might add a little urgency since Adam always is good with extensive notes including case production.

  6. Ron Saikowski says:

    Steve,
    You are so quick to pass judgment on an entire winery by what one tasting room employee said to you. I certainly hope you do not do your work this hapshod for Wine Enthuasist! From one wine writer to another, please mellow out. Your articles have a degrading tone with a common theme of pure meanness. Please act as a gentleman in your articles unless you wish to purposefully be known as a MEANIE! Sign me as Ron Saikowski Wine Columnist serving the greater Houston, Texas area.

  7. Crazy Flukenstein says:

    I literally laughed out loud while I was reading this article. It was hard not to picture Mr. Heinoff walking into Chateau Montelena fully expecting fireworks to go off, the red carpet to roll out along with the Barrets and the rest of the staff running out of the building cheering for his arrival at the Chateau! Oh how disappointed he must have been when he realized that he wasnt the guest of the year and even more so that no one even knew who he was. Booohoo. Poor little Stevey. Bitter much? Of course someone is going to drop the Parker score if they feel they can get away with it. What, are they gonna say “Steve Heinoff gave this wine a 97!”? Hell no. Do you know why? Because you are a nobody. I doubt that half of the staff at that winery (or any winery for that matter) even knows your name. I am surprised that the Domain Name Regristrar even let you have your own blog because this crap doesnt even deserve to be on the internet(and believe me, that is saying something)! What a joke this guy is.

  8. Erica Brown says:

    having worked both in the tasting room of yes, a ’90-pointer’ and a ‘top shop’ i can attest to the power of well, you know who and what. in the first case, the wines and the region were quite literally put on the map and in the second, they sold. now, the winery owner had us pour for our customers, describe but not proscribe and then let them decide. (for this born motormouth missionary what an education to observe what our patrons experienced vs. me lecturing. i learned a lot about mood, context, food pairing, tasting background and history.) meanwhile, in the shop we also did our darndest to find out what our customers themselves needed and wanted, pouring what we could when we could,…and invariably when we’d get slammed and those little shelf-talkers would fall onto other shelves i don’t have to tell you what wines sold despite our best efforts and often even when they were tasting the wines on their own palates!

    alas, that was then and this is now,…so here’s to esteemed writers like yourself and other independent spirits, enthusiasts, obsessives,… all who are ignoring the likes of monsier or madame crazy flukenstein & his/her ilk and are finding out for themselves. Hallelujah – Cheers!

  9. Dear Crazy, nice to hear from you! Do keep writing in from time to time.

  10. Steve, I suggest that you Re-Thread Your Head. Tasting rooms are where the General Public comes to be educated. I totally wish you were more on-board with what the noble folks who work in those places do. They are on the front lines and deserve more respect than you seem to be showing here.

  11. Patrick, what I wrote had nothing to do with the moral or professional character of tasting room people. It has to do with what they’re told to do by their employers. I have probably been to more tasting rooms than most people will ever visit their entire lives, and I’ve seen how the addiction to two periodicals in particular is harming the industry.

  12. Steve,

    A day late and a dollar short on commenting, and I will preface this with “I know what you’re saying about depending upon one critic…” However, as one of the small winemakers out there, I can tell you, sadly, that RP still counts – I had someone ask me in the tasting room “has Parker rated your wines?” and I hemmed and hawed and said “no… ohhh… no…” and my taster said “why not? I think he would like them.” This then led to a long discussion of “I submitted my wines, but… no score or tasting that I knew of…” I did add that WS had rated one of the wines a 90; another at 92; and WE (yes, that one of whom “SH” is such a great writer) gave me an 89 on one of the wines; and that illustrious periodical W&S gave me an 89 and a 90 on the wines… My taster responded with disdain and said “oh, RP is really the one who would give you higher scores… the others don’t matter…” Yes, he was one taster but I have to say that many, many, of the folks who come into the tasting room (at least when I am there) are knowledgeable about the various critics, publications, and wines…

    So, while, yes, I hear you, and, overall, I agree that a wine and/or winery should not depend upon one critic, one magazine, one blogger, RP remains a factor w/some high end wines and he can make or break a wine with one good/bad write up still – thus, I suppose, proving your point! But you know what I’m saying….

  13. Richard, 2 things. What will these pathetic RP crackheads do now that RP is no longer reviewing California? And two, after your taster’s second disdainful remark, I would have have escorted him/her to the door and told him to please leave if he had so little disrespect for your own views. I know these RP people; I have met them; they need serious interventions.

  14. Steve–

    Thanks for a little chuckle on yet another raw, gray day. I am sitting here pondering the question. Quite a little challenge you have posed for us.

    WHAT WILL THOSE RP CRACKHEADS DO NOW THAT RP IS NO LONGER REVIEWING CA WINE?

    And I think I know some of the answers. We might need help from a professional pollster to actually find out, but absent that, here are some of the possibilities–

    –Go into exile in South America
    –Start their own blogs
    –Purchase subscriptions to the Rush Limbaugh Review of Intoxicants
    –Become Steve Heimoff crackheads
    –Join 90-Point Addicts Anonymous

  15. A. More than 90% of folks who come through my tasting room know who RP is.

    B. Do you think that there is standardized training of TR staff regarding wine reviewers? Nope no way. Kudos for the staff member for going beyond their job for researching, citing, or memorizing a review.

    C. The TR staff mentioned was just trying to put his/her spin on the wine. I do not like to quote critics or cite scores but there are many tasters who want to hear what parker said or, what medals the wine has earned, ect.

    D. Would this even be a story if the TR staff would have said our cabernet just scored (blah blah) pts from Steve H. the best, smartest, most handsome, accomplished wine critic ever to roam this earth? I think so. Not trying to get all ad hominem against you but you have no LOGICAL point, you provide cannon fodder and banter. I know you are a better person/writer than to ave to appeal to peoples’ emotions rather than make an empirical argument.

    I do like your posts when they are empirical and not so opinionated. Who cares what person A or person B likes. Bottom line I tell every visitor is that there are only two wines to be concerned with, ones you like, and the rest.

  16. D.Mil, I do have a logical point and I’ve made it over and over. It’s simple. Wineries should not rely on one or two critics. Sadly, too many do, especially in Napa Valley.

  17. Steve, I agree with you, the wine should stand on it’s merit and the tasting room staff should be educated as to that merit. Ironic however that I am CONSTANTLY asked, albeit mostly from “trade” folks, but sometimes from more “savvy” wine consumers, for ratings in order to justify my wine. Personally I don’t feel like I should need WS/WE/WA/WC or other critics to justify my wine, but that is the world we live in. I wish consumers and trade people alike would trust their own opinion more when choosing the wines they buy, sell and drink.

  18. Steve,
    Like the premise of the article. Do readers often comment on non-existing commentary from the article? I did not get that you where impugning the tasting room person, just the sales pitch /technique. I have to agree with your assessment, all to often I hear the same rot on the same “XYZ” gave us a score of” “. The best is to allow the wine to speak, the folks to relax and help the guest understand the winery in a unique manner not according to some pop-in-jay’s opinion

  19. Wine Doc, sometimes people read things that aren’t there. Thanks for discerning that I don’t condemn tasting room personnel. They have a hard job and they do it the best they can.

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