Trying to understand the cult proprietor’s point of view
The following is an synopsis of two conversations I had recently. One was with a winemaker who allowed me to taste only if I visited the winery. The other was with a proprietor who interrogated me at length before deciding whether or not to send me his wine. (I don’t know if he’s decided yet.)
There are serious and complicated issues at play. The overriding factor is that proprietors and wine writers have conflicting interests. The interest of the proprietor is to obtain for his wine the best, most compelling publicity he can, in order to drive sales and justify prices. The interest of the wine writer–if he’s ethical–is to tell the truth about the wine, as best he can given his skills and experiences.
Most wineries in California send me their wines for review, which greatly simplifies my job. But more than that: by having large quantities of wine at home to choose from, I can set up blind tastings. I think most people would agree that a blind tasting is the fairest way to evaluate a wine. Not a double blind tasting: I want to know some context about what I’m tasting as, for instance, that the wines are all Cabernet Sauvignons from California. That’s an example of a single blind tasting.
Most proprietors comply with my request to send me wine. You’d have to ask them individually, of course, why that’s so. I think, if you did, most would say they understand that the wine critic is unable to visit every property in California. They’re eager to have their wines reviewed, even though they know there’s some risk involved, and so they’re happy, or at least willing, to send me their samples.
Then there are the proprietors of the kind mentioned in my opening paragraph. Invariably, they produce wines that are very expensive and eagerly sought by people who can afford them. Now, there are many proprietors in this category who send me their wines regularly: Shafer Vineyards, for example, or Williams Selyem. I’m grateful to them for doing so, and I like to think they send me their wines because they trust that I’ll review them responsibly. Because they know that their wines are very good, and they believe I have a pretty good palate, they figure it’s a safe bet I’ll give the wines high scores, which I usually do.
But we then come to the relatively small number of proprietors–maybe 50 in the entire state–who have decided never to send their wines to anyone. I’ve had this conversation with them many times. If I can paraphrase what they say, here’s their reasoning:
You can’t really even begin to understand our wine without visiting our property, seeing the vineyard, talking with the winemaker and perhaps even the vineyard manager, and hearing the philosophy behind what we do. It’s not fair to our wine, which we work so hard at, to stick it in a box, send it to you in Oakland, have you shove it in a paper bag, and then have a beauty contest you call a “formal tasting” in which you don’t even know what you’re drinking. We’re perfectly happy to host you here at the winery, but that’s the only way you’re ever going to get to taste our wine for free.
There’s a certain integrity to this line of reasoning. I do understand it. If I were a proprietor, I might argue along the same lines, especially if my wine were so in demand that there was a waiting list to get on the mailing list. I might think, Who the heck needs the critics? Besides, at the core of these coveted wines is mystique. If they are too accessible–if every Tom, Dick and Nancy can review them–they become common. Commonality is the enemy of high pricing.
However, as much as I can respect this reasoning, it has flaws. One is that, beyond all the talk about “understanding our vineyard, meeting with the winemaker,” etc., the reality is that a wine tasted on the premises, under those conditions of exclusivity, will almost always taste better than it will in a blind flight among its peers. It is nearly impossible under any circumstances to evaluate a wine all by itself, no matter where you taste it. You need other wines to compare it with, to “calibrate the palate,” a stuffy but accurate phrase. Any experienced taster knows that.
So do the proprietors. It’s the way they, themselves, taste, when they’re assembling the final blend: evaluating barrel samples instead of bottles of wine. But they also know that, once they have you on their turf, so to speak, they’ve got you. It gives them the edge they need to have that score creep up the few points it invariably will when tasted at the winery.
I said earlier that I recognize a certain integrity to the proprietors’ argument. I always try to see things from the other person’s point of view, and, maybe because I’m a Gemini, I usually can. I think that if someone is very proud of his or her artistic achievement, that person might want an admirer to experience it in a certain totality–not pass a swift judgment upon it. Having said that, I’ll stick to my guns and confess my belief that some of these proprietors are simply afraid to send their wines to critics in the normal way. They don’t want the public to see the little man behind the curtain who’s pretending to be the Wizard of Oz.
If there’s a lesson for the consumer in anything I’ve written, it’s this: when you see those massive scores from certain critics for certain famous wines, try to find out under what circumstances they were reviewed. If anybody ever wants to know how I reviewed any particular wine, feel free to ask. I don’t have any secrets.