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Trying to understand the cult proprietor’s point of view

44 comments

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.

  1. Steve,

    Good read. Have you ever asked a cult provider to join you for an evaluation on neutral turf?

  2. AJ61, good question. I’ve asked them to provide their wines to neutral tastings set up by (for example) regional winery associations. The answer is almost always “no.”

  3. They send it, you review it… and they do what with that info is the question, Anything?

  4. I’ve got a paper coming out this summer on cult wine.

    Here’s me at a conference in Burgundy talking about it…
    http://www.slideshare.net/dmhoro/horowitz-cult-wine
    http://www.viddler.com/explore/dmhoro/videos/42/

  5. If you can’t walk the walk then don’t talk the talk!

  6. Keith, if it’s a good review they use it in various ways to sell their wine.

  7. Thanks for sharing, Dr.Ho.ro. Interesting presentation.

  8. By sticking to your guns you are protecting your customers. It is the ethical thing to do, a standard you hold everyone to. There is a reason you are one of the only critics I give much thought to, because of posts like this. It is refreshing to see more than you may realise.

  9. This is why I listen to you and not Parker, although I must say that the position of the earth relative to the sun on the day you were born has no effect on your ability as a wine critic. As a side note, if I was offered the opportunity to taste the cults for free, i would do so and would report on the experience, I just would not score the wine

  10. Andy, that’s a good idea and I’m going to do just that, probably right here on my blog.

  11. Steve,

    I absolutely understand the position of “Cult” producers, and I do not think you or any other reviewer should be offended by their decision. Simply put, they do not sell a commodity wine, they sell a story, and the enjoyment of that story is only enhanced by a visit to their home, be it a barn or a chateau. They have everything to lose by submitting a wine for review. Just as is the case with religious cults, you have to start with a belief you are in the presence of something extraordinary and proceed to give others the look that says: “you poor unbeliever who can’t yet get it”. Neither you nor most of the people that participate in this blog are candidates to be good disciples…

  12. Raley Roger says:

    Do you honestly mean to tell me that there are truly “Cult” wines left in this economy? Come on, I can buy “Cult” wines now for a fraction of the cost. It’s the industry’s dirty little secret. Everything is for sale these days. They may still have allocations and mailing lists, but the most stellar producers are cutting deals on their wines on the wholesale market. It wont’ be long before consumers catch on……the days of Cult wines are over.

  13. Not trying to be thorn, but aren’t there some winemakers that you will sit with and taste through? Where does the decision come in to who goes blind and who gets to walk through their bottles with you? (Is it a blog vs W.E.?)

  14. John Sundheim says:

    Steve,
    Comments by Oded are germane, but for winemakers who might take umbrage at the “cult” designation, it is really just about creating their “baby.” It is not a marketing gimmick to take great care, expense, & pain to create a limited quantity wine, and then, just like nurturing a baby, maintain absolute quality control of all interaction with the fruit until the bottle “graduates” or is purchased.

  15. Trying to be a thorn, what good does it do your consumer readers to read a review and score of a wine they’ll never get to taste or buy compared to the good it does your status as a wine critic to receive samples of those trophy “cult” wines? For them to send you wines does you more good than it can possibly do for them.

    Raley, the days of cult wines are not over–you’re just not in the loop…

  16. Raley Roger says:

    If being in the loop means having to make sure I put an HMV behind my name, then I guess you’re right.

  17. Paul in Boca says:

    Steve,
    Are you an old Gemini or a new Gemini?

  18. ” 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.”

    This is the part that would bother me the most. Why would they even mention the free part. It reads as if “free” is more important than the quality of the wine.

    I expect the term Cult refers to a relatively small winery with a strong local following and somewhat smaller outlying area following.

    Cult from Culture. I take the term Cult wine as another buzzword, or rather in this situation buzz phase.

  19. I still remember the days of Robert Finigan: He bought wines at retail, anonymously, or sent people to do so. That stance has the most integrity. Why don’t you do that, Steve? It could cause you to miss some wines, but then you are already missing some under the present system.

  20. i agree with you almost completely… the one point you make that i have to disagree with is this sentence:

    “It is nearly impossible under any circumstances to evaluate a wine all by itself, no matter where you taste it.”

    for critical purposes that are to be published (which i’m guessing is what you mean) then i can see your point, and you did say nearly, but under any circumstances?

    i evaluate wines almost every night without another wine with which to compare, contrast or calibrate. does that mean that the context (the meal, and the knowledge of what i’m tasting) affects what i’m tasting… sure. does that mean that my evaluation is not valuable to myself and others, of course not. ultimately the wine brings pleasure or not, makes a good dinner companion or doesn’t, is interesting, provocative, lousy or what have you, and my “evaluation” is relevant. this is what wine drinking is.

    if you had a human dinner companion would you be afraid to think about the time you had with them, or tell someone about it afterward, thinking maybe it was skewed by your overall knowledge of that person?

    cheers,

    daniel

  21. “The days of cult wines are over”.

    False. 100 completely false.

    Thinning of the herd? Sure. But trust me, Scarecrow, Colgin, SE, Blankiet, Harlan? Not having any trouble selling their wine. Go try to join SE’s or Harlans list. Let me know how long it takes. I just got on Kosta Browne
    after a 3 year wait. Luxury brands aren’t going anywhere.

    And I completely agree with the Vintners logic. They extend you an invite to their vineyard to exoerience the culture of their wine. To really understand the whole story. The wine is an extension of their personalities, and their earth. This Steve is why collectors often write off bloggers. As someone who spends good money on boutique wine, its about more than the wine. Its about the experience of the wine. The earth, the families and the philosophy. I’ll give you 200 bucks for at wine I enjoy. Ill give you a thousand for wine I understand and relate to. I know these families and have walked through the vines. I get it.

    Until you get it, the whole story I mean, you’re just some guy in line at the bank.

  22. Patrick–
    Bob Finegan published scads of reviews he did at wineries. It was the same deal as Parker. He would go to wineries and review wines before release just as Parker does.

    He also bought wines, of course, because in Finegan’s day, the wineries were not sending samples, and there were only about 400 CA wineries total so one could buy them in the open market. That is no longer possible, and so even folks who still buy wine to review, of which I am one, now accept samples.

    Let’s go back a bit, however. The days when the rule was: if you take advertising, you do not review wine, and if you review wine, you do not take advertising are simply long gone.

    And so too will the newsletters be, excpet for those that make the transition to Internet only. Already Tanzer has done that, Berger has done that, Connoisseurs’ Guide is now over 50% online, the California Grapevine has a new Internet service.

    And what you see in the advertising-driven journals is a wholly different model. These guys, Enthusiast, Spectator, W & S, Quaterly Review do not even come close to cover their mailing costs let alone their production costs through their subscription rates. They don’t care because it is advertising that pays the bills. Most of those folks do have a pretty good firewall between advertising and editorial, but none of them buy wine as far as I can tell.

    The newsletters still buy wine, although samples now come hot and heavy and where once Connoisseurs’ Guide purchased every wine it reviewed, now even we purchase less than half of what we review. But, for me, purchasing wine assures that I get wines that some others do not get, and occasionally I can buy wines that the “taste it here” crowd refuse to send to anyone, including Steve.

    And to take that story one step further,I once called a winery whose wine I had purchased and wanted to retaste. The owner would not even sell me the wine. But he did offer to have me come to the winery. When I said that I don’t review wine that way, he replied, “Parker and Tanzer do. Why should you be any different?”

    I asked him if he thought that it was an appropriate thing to do, and he answered, “I get better scores that way”. End of conversation.

    The next time something like that happened, it was another bottle of purchased wine. The owner of the winery got wind of the fact that we were reviewing his wine and sent a fax instructing me to remove the wine from my publication. I was not “authorized” to review his wine.

    So, when Steve mentions that these things happen, I can second that notion because I have seen it first hand. And the only place I disagree with Steve is even going to these folks and reporting on the wines in his blog. Steve and I are in the honest review business. We taste blind in peer-to-peer tastings and we call them as we see them. Tasting open bottles at the winery and reporting on them in the blog, even without specific ratings is tantamount to reviewing the wines. Those reviews will carry his imprimateur, and will be used by the wineries in whatever way they see fit.

    As Steve says, the wine tastes better in the winery with the owner, the winemaker and the pet dog all their licking your hand.

  23. Daniel, my thoughts exactly. Most consumers enjoy a bottle of wine with dinner. The fallacy that an evaluation of that product head-to-head against peers in a completely different environment is somehow more valid and objective has always puzzled me. I’ve held that it really takes a few glasses (or better yet, bottles) before one can presume to know a wine. A challenging piece of music may seem a bit jarring at first listen, but with some familiarity the listener is prepared for the transitions and the passage is more rewarding. Whereas nursery rhymes are approachable and easily understood, they don’t make for a pleasant evening.

    Steve is a professional and can better understand a wine than a novice, and I respect his palate and professional reputation. But I wonder if tasting head-to-head, and “recalibrating the palate” doesn’t tend to result in an experience that is so far removed from that of the average wine drinker that the evaluation’s usefulness to the consumer isn’t compromised.

  24. Todd Hansen, you raise a profound question, one that has troubled me and many other people for a long time. I’m afraid there’s really no simple solution. In one sense, what I do is simply a job: I get paid to review wines, and in the system most of us writers work within, the accepted way to taste is in comparative blind flights. On the other hand, you make an obvious point: That is not how normal people drink wine. I’ve said before, and I’ll say again, that wine reviewing is like movie reviewing: film critics don’t watch movies like the rest of us do. They’re taking notes, thinking about cinematography and mentally comparing the actors’ work with their previous work, etc. That’s what film critics get paid to do. So I’m not troubled by the fact that I don’t taste wines the way normal people do. It’s just a fact of life, and not worth losing sleep over.

  25. I think it is worthwhile considering the meanings of double-blind. Double and single blind studies are conducted to remove the placebo effect and observer biases. In single blind studies, the observer does not know what they are getting. In a double blind study, the tester, as well, does not know what the observers are getting.

    So in a single blind tasting the taster gets unidentified samples. In a double blind tasting, the tester gets unidentified samples which they then present to the taster. The latter prevents any “leak” of information to the taster or structure of the testing that leads to bias. In the winery to taste double blind a third party prepares and blinds the samples to be tasted. The tester presents the blinded wines to the tasters. The tester will probably give instructions to the taster, but will have controlled info about the samples.

    You are using the term double blind in reference to the amount of information you know about the samples before you taste them. This could mean you do not know the varietal, the vintage, the region, the price range, cult status, or any other factor. Each piece of information you receive before a tasting brings a certain amount of bias to the results, no matter how hard you try not to be influenced. But to use the term double blind for not knowing a particular piece of information is misleading.

    While it is almost never done, information regarding the price of the wine, variety, and the region should not be known by the critic. The samples can be lumped together, so that “like” wines are tasted against “like” wines, but knowing for example that the line up is classified Bordeaux, or Napa Cabs, or Cult cabs brings a large degree of bias into a tasting and brings a critic’s judgments into question. If you can’t tell you are tasting Napa Cabs or classified Bordeaux or Sonoma Zin or Russian River Pinots just from the wine in the glass, this is an important aspect of the tasting that should be considered when analyzing the results…after the tasting. If you have to know that information, then it means you require hints…another word for bias… in order to taste successfully.

    The results of a double-blind (neither server nor taster knows) mixture of wines of a similar type and vintage, but of varying price points would be especially interesting and valuable to the wine consumer. Unfortunately, doing this would guarantee you would no longer get free samples of expensive wines because they would too often score poorly in relation to some reasonably price wines in the same tasting.

  26. Charlie. “I get better scores that way”. I can’t tell you how many proprietors have told me that. Re: mentioning these wines in my blog, I don’t score [as you noted]. I do it rarely. And I don’t worry about how or if the proprietor will use my remarks. Whenever I write, whether it’s for Wine Enthusiast, my blog or anywhere else, my job is simply to tell the truth as I see it, and offer opinions I think are worthwhile. If a proprietor wants to use my words afterward, that’s their right and none of my business.

  27. David, that’s why I went out of my way to say that I understand the attitude of these proprietors. Of course I do. I even stated that if I were one of them, I might take the same approach. So I’m not just trashing “the Vintners logic.” What I did was to issue a warning that there will be (in your words) a “thinning of the herd.” If I were a cult proprietor, I would be thinking many years down the road about how to preserve my brand, the way the First Growths have preserved themselves for centuries. Do you think Lafite would still be around if they depended exclusively on 2 or 3 people in the world to tout their wine? No.

  28. daniel, I’ll stand by my remark. My job as a wine reviewer is not to “enjoy” the wine over a good dinner with convivial companions. It is to compare and contrast wines, apples to apples. That implies comparative tasting. In fact, it mandates it. Your “job,” as a wine lover, is different from mine. It is to “evaluate” the wine you are drinking and loving and experience it in a whole other way from the way I do when I’m working. Of course, when I’m not working, I too am able to simply appreciate a wine for what it is, and not worry about scoring, describing it, etc. Thank goodness!

  29. Patrick, give me your American Express card number, and I’ll do exactly as you suggest.

  30. Paul in Boca, I didn’t know they had old and new Geminis. But I am, like all Geminis, slightly schizophrenic.

  31. Hi Hosemaster, when I was learning about wine I used to LOVE, and I really mean LOVE, reading Broadbent’s Great Vintage Wine Book. OMG, how much I learned from that — not the least of which was about writing an abbreviated wine review. I never, ever got close to 99.9% of the wines he wrote about, but I can’t tell you what a valuable lesson that was for me. I could list other books, too, that were instrumental in my enjoyment and education. So I don’t think it’s bad to write about wines most people will never get to taste. I assume most people’s brains work like mine (well, the non-neurotic part of their brains) and that they, too, enjoy reading about rare and expensive wines.

  32. Hardy, there are virtually no winemakers I sit with and formally review with anymore. I’m not going say never, because “never say never.” One thing I am thinking of doing with these producers who invite me to the property is to taste with them as they wish, then take the remainder of the bottle home with me and insert it into a blind tasting. I realize there are pros and cons to everything, but that seems pretty fair. Do you think?

  33. Raley, I don’t think things are as bleak as you do concerning some of these cult wines. The Asian market is stepping in where the American market has faltered (but there are still plenty of rich Americans). Just look at that price the Scarecrow sold for at Premier Napa Valley to the Japanese gentleman.

  34. Oded, of course your point is valid. Part of my continuing argument is that I WANT these proprietors to send me their wines, even if they don’t want to! Some of them may never do it. Some might. You can’t blame me for trying!

  35. OK folks, so now Scarecrow is the new Screagle. Celia makes awesome wine, but 2K a bottle?
    Get some of her Corra, while not cheap, is a great bottle from the same winemaker.

    With RP turning California over to Antonio Galloni and Scarecrow now the top “cult” wine,
    the old order changeth.

  36. Tone Kelly says:

    One wonders what will happen as Parker transits from reviewing California wines? I remember when Parker first reported on many of the Cali Cults and supplied phone numbers and Fax numbers (it was that long ago).
    IF (and this is a big if), the next reviewer doesn’t like some of the current Cali Cults – what will happen? Short term probably nothing. But long term a lot of the “Cultness” is driven by buzz – no buzz – no cult.

    Going down is slower than going up, but it does happen. A new winery comes along and elbows it’s way to the publicity feeding line with a hot score and a good story. The other cults haven’t changed, but if they are not generating their own buzz by high scores, they suffer from lack of voice in the market.

  37. It is just the same group of us talking to each other. Most of what we say has no impact on the 95% of wine drinkers who buy 95% of the millions of cases consumed. Think of that. Add up all the cults. You get, what, maybe 10,000 cases? The total of 1st growth Bordeaux comes to 100,000 cases, right? Let the cult growers or makers live in their water tight ego suitcases. Millions of cases is reality; 500 cases, even at $1K or more per bottle, is still a drop in da bucket.

  38. Steve- As long as you’d do the same thing for a “cult” (hate that term) as a larger producer (taste w/ them and bring the juice back to a blind line up) I think that is fair.

  39. Charlie, when I worked at Terlato, Spectator reviewed some wines we did not send in. I can only assume they purchased the wines. They and you seemed to be the only pubs that did this.

  40. Signore Washam…Kudos for not taking Raley Roger’s bait. That said, I cannot say for certain what “HMV” means in its entirety (the first two letters maybe…). Please end the suspense. Do tell. Hope this finds you doing well.

  41. Steve,

    As a small winery owner about to face the decision of submitting to critics, I was fascinated by this discussion.

    But, what about the second group you mentioned, the skeptical proprietor?
    You seem to discount the possibility that these “cult” wineries simply don’t trust critics to evaluate them fairly. You’ve often mentioned in the past the less than stellar objectivity of some of your peers. And while you are quite transparent in your own methodology (thank you), that doesn’t instantly translate to trust in a field where there are so many obvious biases.

    Since the small winery has a clear objective in mind, you can’t complain to much about their questions or reluctance. They simply want to see if your methodology is a.)objective and consistent and b.) has the possibility of producing a positive result for them. A guarantee isn’t expected, but there has to be the belief that if the wine is up to par, it will be rated so. If wine critic X goes to wineries for visits, why would a winery parcel a bottle to them? If wine critic Y, does blind tastings but never gives their region or style high scores, why should they submit? Their (our) marketing mission is to obtain a high score. The risk of being published with a low score may be too high to take, especially if the reviewer’s methods increase that risk. If you never get a wine from the skeptical winery that you mentioned, maybe a follow up call might help you clarify what part of your product they evaluated poorly.

    The comments section seems to condemn small proprietors for being afraid to submit their wines. Why shouldn’t they be? There is no one to blame for a poor wine in a small winery but oneself. If I get a poor score on a wine, I can’t fire myself. I’d have to face the idea that the last few years of hard work amounted to a poor wine. (Either that or be skeptical of the reviewer’s methods.) The small winemaker isn’t just submitting the wine for evaluation, they’re submitting their plan, their style, and their technique for evaluation. You might look at it as just a blind glass of wine you are evaluating, but they/we do not. It’s a review of our choices, all of them, and that makes the risk something to be quite cautious to put into trusted hands.

  42. Scott, everything you said is true and you said it more clearly than anyone. All it comes down to is that I want these proprietors to send me their wines, so I will use every rhetorical device I can to persuade them.

  43. Oded’s comment, “Simply put, they do not sell a commodity wine, they sell a story, and the enjoyment of that story is only enhanced by a visit to their home, be it a barn or a chateau.”

    The above is true without a doubt. However, I wish I had the writing talent to delve into the intricate, perhaps circular, relationship between the enjoyment of the producer-choreographed experience and the prior knowledge of the critic’s words…

    If 80% of taste is smell, I argue the other 20% is strongly influenced by aesthetics and expectation. And perhaps the same applies to the 80%–the nose going into the glass is more receptive, more likely to find pleasure if it is loaded with critic-enhanced expectation.

    I guess my question is whether there are any “cult-status” wines that were created solely by producer experience? Would Kosta Browne be the phenom it is without its recognition by RP? Perhaps Quintessa an example of solid success without ever receiving high marks from RP, but it’s not considered a “cult” wine, I suspect, at their volume. Just an old-fashioned successful business.

    I for one couldn’t WAIT for Steve’s opinion of my wine. Call me naive or a big risk-taker, but I’m not trying for “cult” status or the related pricing. I participate all the time in blind tastings with consumers who pull wines out of their cellars because I find it fun and fascinating. And I can’t afford to buy all my competitor’s wines and Grand Cru St. Emilion wines on my own. I am warned all the time by experienced marketers and producers not to do that because my wine might not show well, but I don’t care because I learn and I expand my “calibration” range on wines produced with similar intentions. But then I don’t manufacture mystique very well :)

  44. Emily,

    Parker has had nothing to do with the success of Kosta Browne – I think I have this right , his only notes on KB were in a Hedonist Gazette tasting conducted in 2007 sandwiched between Marcassin and SQN and he panned them. A quick glance at the KB site includes not one mention of a Parker score. I remember it clearly since it was a heavily debated topic back then in the wine community. Maybe you are confusing Robert Parker with Greg Walter? Greg was one of the first writers to talk about KB and started the ball rolling.

    Thanks!

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