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On producers who carp about my low scores, plus an observation about superrich people


It’s really annoying when I give a so-so score to a wine, and later on I hear howls of protest from the proprietor. “How could you?–” blah blah blah. Usually this is accompanied by a litany of high scores from other critics (take your pick; there’s enough of them out there), with the inference that I must be out of my mind, or at the very least hopelessly inadequate, not to recognize the greatness of the wine in question.

Okay, I just said it’s really annoying, but that’s just on one level. On another, it’s troubling. I tend to come down hard on myself with doubts and recriminations. Without going into the psychological wellsprings of that, what it means is that I’m susceptible to worry and anxiety when a proprietor points out that everyone from Jancis to Alder to R.P. loved the wine I didn’t. Part of me thinks, “Wow. Maybe the proprietor is right. Maybe I made a big mistake with that wine.”

That’s phase two. Phase three usually goes like this. “Okay, look. It’s over and done with. I can’t change what’s already done. All I can do is acknowledge the reality that so and so is really pissed off and move on.” But it’s hard to move on. One wants to be liked in this business…liked and respected. We all do. Nobody wants people to think he’s a jerk.

The funny thing is that when I give a high score, proprietors are beside themselves with joy. Nobody says, “Hey, you gave me a 94. Jancis and Parker said I’m only an 85. What the hell is wrong with you?” You wouldn’t believe the number of cards I get in the mail, thanking me for my “support” of the winery, for almost anything over 92. I appreciate the gesture, but it’s not “support.” I don’t support any wineries in California and I don’t not support them. I have a job to do, reviewing wines. It has nothing to do with support.

I suppose the real lesson of today’s post is to emphasize once again, as I have over and over, that wine reviewing is a fallible art. The critic is not a mass spectrometer. He is a human being, with all a human’s flaws and liabilities. Despite the insistence of some groups, such as MWs, that wine reviewing can be made mechanically consistent, the sad truth is that it cannot. This canard has been perpetuated by people whose economic self interest and egotistic self esteem are furthered by spreading the falsehood that wine reviewing is replicable under any and all circumstances. That is an absurdity.

What consumers should recognize is that a review is simply the impression that critic had of that particular bottle at that particular moment in time. At another time, with another bottle, the impression may be the same, and it may not. There are a variety of logical and irrefutable reasons for this, all having to do with variation of both reviewer and bottle. Therefore, I’m the first to say that too much is made of scores. Before you accuse me of rank hypocrisy, let me just reply that I make my living reviewing wines. I get paid for it. I hope people take my reviews seriously, based on a gentleman’s agreement that I’m being as honest and transparent as I can. But I also hope they realize the limitations of wine reviewing.

A personal take on rich people

I went yesterday to an event at Iron Horse Vineyards to benefit Earth Day, and kudos to Joy Sterling not only for her commitment, but for her ability to pull a big thing like this off with flawless professionalism. There were at least three very wealthy people there: Ted Turner, Gordon Getty and Jean-Charles Boisset. I was struck by the ways these individuals interacted with the crowd. Mr. Turner, who was guest of honor, was reserved and private. He gave an extraordinarily energetic, charming speech, but otherwise, preferred to remain on the sidelines with his companion, aloof and apart. Mr. Getty, who is getting on in age, doddered around, usually by himself. He seemed comfortable in his skin, just someone who’d been invited to an event in which he believed, and he didn’t feel the need to shine. M. Boisset, whom I confess I have a great deal of affection for, was his usual self, charming everyone in his path, laughing, getting people to relax, beguiling and dazzling. It made me think: just because you’re rich doesn’t mean you don’t have to figure out how to work a crowd. You’re still human. You feel. If you are a Getty, Turner or Boisset, you have to decipher how to perform in the public eye while still maintaining dignity and expressing your personal values and feeling good about yourself. All three of these gentlemen get my 100 point score for their solution to this existential challenge.

  1. Thanks for the brutally honest post, Steve. You make some great points and I’m sure that I’m not alone when I say that I appreciate the peek under the hood. Keep it honest and transparent and as the proprietors come and go, your readership will only grow. Cheers!

  2. Gotta admit, I cannot stand it when I talk to a producer and they mention a low score from whoever, but shrug it off, and then I see an ad somewhere in which the same producer is hailing the 95 or 96 their big-ass red got from whoever.

    I mean, I *understand* it, but I don’t *like* it, because to me it smacks of a double-standard. Otherwise, the subheading in the full-page ad should be “So-and-so critic finally GOT IT RIGHT and recognizes the AWESOMENESS of our Cab. BOW BEFORE IT, PLEBES!!!” 🙂

  3. Steve,

    Our second year of making wine, 1995, and we produced an Oregon Pinot Noir that wasn’t, in our opinion, up to the standards we wanted to achieve. So we put an Appellation listing on it and lowered the price by 50% compared to our single-vineyard offerings. That same year we made what we thought to be a magnificent single vineyard Hirsch Pinot Noir. — One publication rated the Hirsch 87 points and the Willamette Valley Pinot Noir 91 points. That was a great early lesson for us…..that sometimes you get better reviews that you think you deserve and sometimes you get worse reviews than you think you deserve. The hope is that it all evens out in the end, and that we should keep making wine that we believe in.

    Thanks for sharing the situation from the wine reviewers point of view!

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  4. Adam, I’m not surprised!

  5. If all the reviewers had the same pallet and scored all the wines in the same range then what is the point of a diverse pool of reviewers. The dream of consistent scores can be a double edge blade all well. If everyone can love you then everyone can slam you as well.

    I only wish the producers would step back and look at the data sometimes. It could really help them in winemaking and understanding the style and audience they are producing and marketing to. Score are not solely marketing tools for moving wine they are also feedback. It is very hard to judge your own product. Read the reviews compare the scores to what you know the preference of the reviewer is and you may learn a bit about your program. Although at the end of the day if you love making wine and your customers are buying it up to heck with it.

  6. Well said Phil.

  7. If I had a nickel for every note I get thanking me for “understanding” the style when a wine gets described positively in Connoisseurs’ Guide and a nickel for every note that says “obviously, you did not understand the style” when the wine gets a less than positive review, I would be retired and living in the south of France.

  8. David Vergari says:

    If you think it’s annoying being on the receiving end of owners’ carping, just imagine what the poor winemaker has to put up with from some of those idiots. Remember the adage in football, “three things can happen when you throw a pass and two of ’em are bad”? Same with wine reviews. High score: good. Low score: bad. High score means you have to replicate it all over again: bad.

  9. David Cole says:

    I find the whole review process interesting. I don’t submit wine for scores because as a small producer I fell it’s a double edge sword. Meaning it I do bad it hurts me. If I do good, it cost me $$ to promote it…:-) So I am trying to build me brand slowly with a following that I enjoy being around. Wine is social and all about the grapes, the glass and the friends. It’s not about scores, yet that is how so many want to sell it.

  10. Mr. David Cole,

    Correct me if I am wrong, but your winery would be James David Cellars? I visited your website after reading your comments, because I found your take refreshing, but then again…the write ups for your wines online read just like a high point review from a critic, do they not? All that is missing is a high 90’s number in front of the descriptions. Interesting. (see below).

    2005 James David Cellars Eagle Point Ranch Syrah
    2005 Eagle Point Ranch Mendocino Syrah- Deep dark purple in color. The nose is complex with spice and black fruit. A great mouth full of blackberries, mocha, caramel and a hint of oak. This wine is big and bold. This wine is FANTASTIC! Only 120 cases available.

  11. Roger Ivy says:

    As a long time Nat’l sales guy (35 years) and out on the street with the same wines, week in and week out with brand after brand. The one thing that is most apparent about all wines is that they rarely taste the same from day to day.. One day they are closed and “interesting”, 2 days later they are bursting with fruit, round and delicious. Anybody in the game for any length of time will tell you the same thing. I am long over the irrational anxiety issues of “living or dieing” by our wine scores. I finally realized that scoring a wine is a function of how the wine presents itself that day, the condition of the palate and time-in-place mindset of the taster. The time of year, the weather and a whole host of other variables., including, Who is this wine meant for? Top end, middle or low-end aging or current drinking? So being right on the money with the “intrinsic quality” of any wine can be an incredibly difficult task.Certainly experienced wine folk can approximate the quality of any given wine, but scoring to 1/100 is an somewhat absurd exercise, based on tasting something at a point in time. Looking back it is really sad that so many for so long have bought into this B.S.

  12. Steve, You’ve outdone yourself…AGAIN! I love your last paragraph in the review part and specifically the line: that particular bottle at that particular moment in time. This can be applied to all things where rejection is a possible outcome, including dating, submitting a book proposal (or entire ms), etc.

    Although, now I’m a little embarrased by the thank you notes I’ve written to writers, thanking them for their support. Yikes!

  13. Steve, thanks for the window into the mental life of a reviewer.\
    As a retailer whose business is built on honesty with my customers, I am sometimes stuck between presenting my own perspective and the ‘god-like’ pronouncements of the major wine press.
    A friend of mine – whose name is Robert – would make signage that read “Robert gives this 95 points!” Not exactly lying, but very very effective.

    Anyway, cheers.

  14. Tom Ferrell says:

    I don’t know, it seems to me it takes a lack of self respect or confidence to complain to someone who doesn’t happen to like your wine. Have they no pride?

    If you don’t sell your wine based on scores you won’t be hurt by a bad score. A good score with give you a nice, unexpected spurt from the score chasers, but the next week they will be gone. Your loyal customers will be there because of the relationships you nurtured.

    When the 2001 Paloma was selected by the Wine Spectator as the Wine of the Year, proprietors Jim and Barbara Richard recieved thousands of phone calls from new people wanting their wine. At one point they had a couple thousand score chasers on a waiting list, waiting to be put on the Paloma mailing list. Jim and Barbara decided just to continue to offer Paloma to their existing base of loyal customers. They didn’t even raise their prices. Today all those score chasers are gone, in pursuit of the latest hyped wine, but long time customers of Paloma are more loyal to the vineyard than ever before.

  15. Charlie, and I’d be living next door to you — in the bigger villa!

  16. Roger Ivy, without commenting on the “somewhat absurd” 100 point system (your words), I will repeat what I wrote: “a review is simply the impression that critic had of that particular bottle at that particular moment in time.” You are entirely right about the day to day variability of wines. It’s not enormous, but–within the context of a numerical scoring system–it can be up to 4-5 points, and on occasion higher. Hopefully, a trained critic will be within 3 points, but I wouldn’t bet the farm on it.

  17. Tom, that’s a great cautionary tale.

  18. You can’t judge a wine reviewer on a single rating and review. Over a period of time wine drinkers may, however, discover that a particular wine reviewer has tastes similiar to his or her own tastes. It doesn’t mean that you will agree 100% of the time, but it is a promising sign when a reviewer you respect rates a wine highly.

    It’s even mean fun to discover a great new wine on all your own.

  19. Greg Brumley says:

    If a professional critic of anything, has a great need to to be liked and allows subjects of his writing to cause him to doubt himself, he’s probably in for a rough ride.

    What if umpires cared whether pitchers liked their calls — or liked them? Apparently, bond raters and SEC regulators cared a little too much about whether the trade liked them! We know how that affected the customers who relied on them for professional evaluations.

    I should think a thin-skinned critic is a compromised critic.

    Bright post by David Cole….. What was MJ trying to say — that vintners shouldn’t promote their own wares?

  20. Greg, I disagree that “a thin-skinned critic is a compromised critic.” It’s possible to be fair and unbiased and still to be sensitive to your actions and the way they impact other people’s lives. Our image of “justice” is as a blindfolded goddess, but in reality judges are people who are (or should be) deeply humble and who are capable of questioning themselves.

  21. If you are a winemaker, winery owner, et al, and you are thin-skinned, then you should (a) not submit your wines for review and (b) not read wine reviews if you do. Wine writers are not cheerleaders.

    If you are a wine critic and you get upset when someone questions your review, you may also be in the wrong profession.

    But, I do understand where Steve is coming from. Those of us who taste blind and follow a rigorous tasting methodology have no axe to grind one way or another with any wine or any winery. So, it does get a little silly when wineries react to negative reviews as if they had been insulted personally–and while most wineries don’t do that, some do. Better, if you must write, to be polite.

    And, note to Lori Narlock. Don’t stop sending those nice notes. They are appreciated.

  22. I find it highly ironic to be discussing the merits of scoring wines on a blog authored by a scoring wine critic. Steve – I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your candor on wine ratings. It would be interesting to learn of Wine Enthusiast’s interest in putting this in print. As a wine professional, I admit to fantasizing about the demise of ratings altogether. Reviews would be fine, but ratings would go away. In my fantasy world, the result would be consumers would be forced to explore the world of wine to learn their own preferences. They would taste a lot more wines. Wine would become a talking point and they would come to realize that everyone’s preference may not be the same – and that’s ok.

    ML – I think wineries started writing their own wine reviews in the style of Mr. Cole years ago. You have about 15 seconds to say what the wine tastes like in writing – so it’s not surprising both critic and winery tasting notes look the same. Give the guy a break.

  23. I have been thinking about the MJ comments to David Cole and was going to respond this AM. Kathy has beaten me to the punch, but not fully covered the whole topic.

    The reason why David Cole’s description of wine sounds like a tasting note is because it is a tasting note. One cannot talk about an individual wine without writing a tasting note. Even the vaunted Gerald Asher writes tasting notes even as he tells us that he decries the tasting note. He cannot help himself. It is how wine commentary is done. The ratings that accompany tasting notes are NOT the note. Mr. Cole’s writing, whether one thinks of it as hyperbolic or brutally honest, needs no score or rating or symbolic notation because it is a single, standalone description offered for commercial purposes. He makes wine to sell. He must describe his wines to sell them. And he cannot, attach scores to them by himself. Not because they replace his words, but because it would seem even more self-serving than his tasting note.

    Steve Heimoff and the rest of us who describe thousands of wines for a living also write tasting notes. The symbolic notation we attach is nothing more or less than that. It is the words that count first and foremost, and those words are tasting notes.

    David Cole writes tasting notes. He can say it is not about the scores and he is right. It is about the words. That is the point that MJ has made so eloquently. It is about the words. If it were not, Steve and I would review five times more wine, put down a number and move on. The number would be the simplest shorthand for the judgment we are making, and it would not change that judgment, but it would drive us into a different profession because criticism would no longer be about the love of great wine but the love of great numbers.

    Kathy, your fantasies miss the point. The reason why Steve Heimoff, Charlie Olken, Jim Laube, Robert Parker, Steve Tanzer and all the rest of the critics write the words is because it is about the words. David Cole misses that point as well, but I suspect that he likes his own words a lot more than he would like Steve’s or mine.

    I encourage you and David and everyone else to criticize the hell out of the misuse of ratings, but do not mistake the trees for the forest. The ratings are just a few leaves. Words matter. Words make the difference. That is why David Cole uses them, why Kathy wants them. And words are what most critics supply and most consumers use to decide on the wines they are going to buy. They cannot buy by points alone because too many wines get positive reviews. Ultimately, unless we think that consumers are dummies, and I do not, consumers buy wines, not points. And wines are describhed by words for me, for Steve, for David Cole and most of the world.

  24. Steve, this post increases your credibility with me.

  25. Steve – I absolutely get where you are coming from. At some level every human craves acceptance and is hurt by negative criticism.

    But Phil? “It could really help them in winemaking and understanding the style and audience they are producing and marketing to. Score are not solely marketing tools for moving wine they are also feedback. It is very hard to judge your own product. Read the reviews compare the scores to what you know the preference of the reviewer is and you may learn a bit about your program.”

    Absolutely not.

    But then when you say: “…at the end of the day if you love making wine and your customers are buying it up to heck with it.”

    Absolutely. Enough said.

  26. Charlie – I think you missed my point. I said I want words, not numbers…..

  27. Heather L says:

    For me to follow a reviewer, I first must determine if their preferences align with mine. This goes for books, movies and wine. However, I expect reviewers to not have conflict of interests such as giving regional wine tours or offering wine tastings (of regions they review) for hire. I would even extend this to playing musical gigs at wineries. These interactions, subtly influence the relationship between reviewer and winery. If not directly to scores, then to availability to taste new releases or to receiving communication.

    Regarding “thank yous”, I have heard one of your colleagues tell a group of winery people in a seminar about how to work with the wine media, that he liked to get thank you notes for his under-compensated and under-appreciated role as a supporter of our wine region. Perhaps he delivered the wrong message.

  28. Heather, “wrong message” indeed! That person was waaaay off base.

  29. For this very story, the number monkey should look elsewhere for their golden ringer… Scores, like puffs or stars or medals, etc are so yester-year and certainly don’t really account for real taste. I read how all these fancy, self-important wine reviewers participate in private Estate events tasting “cult” wines that the mass will never get to taste(or hedonistic-ally desire to). It’s like a circle jerk of cult producers and their marketing henchmen. What a farce. You can keep your antiquated exclusive system. Wine is for all to enjoy not just the ueber rich.

    The younger clientel are rightfully suspicious of corporate-style formulated rating structures telling them what they should like and drink. Word of mouth through e-media coupled with seasonal visits to actual wine country (creating their own pallets)is the new score system. It’s DYI meets Wine Country.

  30. Randy, play nice or you’ll look like the circle jerk.

  31. Lovely post.

  32. Geez, Randy, I wonder if you understand that people have palates and not pallets and that most of the wine drinkers in this country cannot make a trip to some out of the way producer in the woods to learn how wine is supposed to taste.

    Way is certainly not for the uber (note that spelling as well) rich, and folks like Steve Heimoff and me and almost all the rest of the comprehensive reviewers spend far more time with inexpensive wines than we do with cult wines. But, Randy, those wines do exist. I don’t happen to review them, and if you noticed, Steve does not review them either. But this blog allows Steve to roam beyond his normal territory just as my blog does that for me as well.

    Jim Caudill was being very polite to you given–your tone, but be careful, my friend, polite conversation is a two-way street.

  33. Gregg Burke says:

    Thank you Randy. Frighteningly I feel much the same way, which means we both need to see a shrink.

    Steve I have to say, great post. “I suppose the real lesson of today’s post is to emphasize once again, as I have over and over, that wine reviewing is a fallible art.” This is wonderfully honest ans refreshing and I thank you for that.

  34. Jim, you must either rate wine or benefit from such silliness.

    Charlie, Ich spreche Deutsch und auf Deutsch nutz man die “e” for “b” en “uber” weil wir keine Umlaut in dieser Sprache haben. I suggest you learn a bit of German (ueber is German btw) before you pop the mouth open and talk about things you know nothing about, like the German language for example.

    The fact is Steve and Charlie and other scoring types have assisted through their dis-respect for vineyard flavors and utter lack of appreciation for the way wine used to be made makes for friendly two way convo’s a hard one. For Steve to self pontificate about a product that claims to respect while giving high marks to those who disrespect (cult wines anyone?) the grape in almost every aspect is a sham(e). Give me a break you guys… You only review and offer your OPINION on a product other work hard at growing and making. Who needs these types? Wineries: Cut their their marketing mics off and DO IT YOURSELF;)

  35. My dear Randy–

    When was the last time you actually read an issue of Wine Enthusiast or Connoisseurs’ Guide? You toss around insults like candy but have no idea what my standards or background or likes or dislikes are. You talk about wine as if there were only one way to make it–yours, and you completely disrespect hundreds of winemakers in your own neck of the woods who are making great wines that are different from yours. Furthermore, I cannot remember when the last time was that your wines were even reviewed by anybody in a blind tasting. And yes, Randy, I have read your website, which is more than you can say about what Steve or I write.

  36. Ich bein eine Berliner.

  37. psst, steve. ich BIN EIN Berliner (if you choose to go the jelly doughnut/JFK route…)

    but about your post –i have an idea, why not all critics take your lead and use your disclaimer

    “A review is simply the impression that critic had of that particular bottle at that particular moment in time. At another time, with another bottle, the impression may be the same, and it may not.”

    at the start of every wine review? that would go a long way in helping everyone (the people who gripe, the people who have an ueber dependence on wine scores, and those of us trying to make a living in this score-whor..i mean, score-driven world) realize the subjective nature of the review, and that scores are not set in stone.

    how refreshing!

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