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A hate letter from a winery owner over a review

99 comments

Hey, I’m used to getting some tough reaction from wineries over my scores, but really, this is the most violent blowback I ever got. I’m not going to identify the emailer, but you can determine for yourself if it’s psycho talk. Read it, then I’ll continue with my remarks.

A Small Man in Many Ways

S-tupid, small minded
T-atooed like a fool
E-vil
V-ile
E-rectile inversion, get the pump
H-omosapien, poor excuse for one
E-xtra insincere
I-gnoramous, immature
M-ean, will someday meet his maker like all the rest of us but how will he explain the…
O-ff putting, odorous, bullshit he feeds people, his malicious intent reeks
F-oul  and…
F-ake

The sender followed this up with a long email the next day. It was laced with obscenities and sexual innuendo. Here’s a taste: “FUCK YOU, YOU LITTLE PIECE OF SHIT.”

What happened was, I gave one of this winery’s wines a score they didn’t like (84). This evidently led to a situation with one of their distributors that was not in their favor. The writer also disliked the text part of my review. “The written portion of your reviews reveal your lack of tact, lack of poise and expose you as a bully,” she wrote.

I want to say something here about my written reviews. I taste a lot of wine that is mediocre and some that is outright bad. Long ago, I developed a philosophy I’ve hewed to for years. It goes something like this: If a wine is mediocre, give it the appropriate numerical rating, but write the review up in more positive terms, for the sake of compassion. There’s no sense kicking a man when he’s already down on the ground. There’s always a way to say something critical in a kind way, as opposed to being downright nasty.

Some other parts of the email:

Most of the wines submitted to you had received gold medals Do you expect me to be impressed that a wine got a gold medal someplace? Should that make me think twice about my impression of it?

[A friend] said:  Wow, what beef does he have with ___ Winery? I have no beef with any winery. Wine reviewing isn’t personal.

You’re one of those fame chasers, a popularity seeker Actually, it’s just the opposite. Ask around to find out how little I enjoy “fame.”

Your writing is mediocre at best. Now, that is below the belt! Give me credit at least for being a good writer, even if you don’t like what I say!

People are your ‘friends’ because they’re afraid of you I don’t know if she means my Facebook friends, or my actual friends. Anyway, if some people are afraid of me, there’s not a thing I can do about it. I tell them not to be. I hope no one is. I don’t know why they would be. I encourage people to call, email, whatever, and I tell them not to apologize for interrupting me, etc. When I’m on the road, I don’t throw any weight around. There’s no reason to be afraid of me. I try my best to let everyone know that I’m just this guy living in Oakland who’s paid to write about wine.

[You’re] just trying to get a free meal OMG! I hope all the winemakers and public relations people who know this isn’t true will write in! In the beginning, yes, I did accept every invitation to lunch or dinner. That was 20 years ago. The novelty wore off quickly. I go to about 10 lunches a year, max, and maybe half as many dinners. I do it for work, not because I want a free meal.

It’s funny how the writer uses the word “little” so much in both her emails. Yes, I’m short. So what? Do we have to resort to ad hominem attacks? She also called me “a trust fund type.” That’s a laugh, as my CPA will tell you. I’m “a bloodsucker.” An “oddity.” I “aspire to be accepted by the elitist pigs.” Really? Tell that to my friends in Occupy Oakland.

Okay, the emailer had to get it off her chest. I feel her pain. I need to vent, too, when stuff happens to me that I think is unfair. But really, have we descended so far down the etiquette chain that it’s now considered appropriate to send crap like this?

  1. Wow. It’s too bad that this winemaker thought that sending you wine would automatically result in a good review. And yes, it’s inappropriate to send such ugliness your way. I can tell you – after being in the theater for many years – if you get a bad review, just suck it up and do better next time.

  2. WOW! Some people just take shit way to serious! It’s wine, fermented grapes. Drink it and be merry! When I got in the wine business I made an effort to NOT send wines for review so that I wouldn’t get that upset…..:-) 5 years later, still NOT one review and I sell my wines just fine! She should stick to building relationships, but that sounds like it could be a problem with all her tact…:-)

  3. Kyle Wilkinson says:

    Yeah, definitely a psycho. Although I have to admit, I’ll be using the phrase “erectile inversion, get the pump” as an insult as often as I can in the future.

  4. Steve, I would give your correspondent about 24 hours to cool down and apologize, and otherwise I think it’s time to “name and shame.”

    Seriously. A lot of wineries love to play up what nice folksy, friendly, family operations they are, and I think this kind of nastiness runs exactly counter to that. Not that we should be paying much attention to it either way — it’s the wine that matters, not the PR — but they can’t have it both ways.

  5. Steve, I don’t feel sorry for you! Yesterday I stopped for a red-light and the driver behind me flipped me the “finger” for doing that, and in my opinion on Dec. 23 you stopped and flipped Alabama the “finger” igniting a good deal of nasty stereotyping (Your right-my disappointment). So, please stop whining and get to something more informative, or at least more poetic.
    Steve said: “There’s always a way to say something critical in a kind way. . .” You should have applied that to Alabama. I suppose that to you and many others here that your statement: “Those wacky ‘Bamans are at it again. Now, the Bible thumpers that run the former Confederate state. . .” was “cute” and innocuous, but to me it revealed a deep-seated animosity toward “flyover country”. Karma’s a bitch.

  6. PA Wine Guy says:

    You reap what you sow.

  7. I’m astonished that someone in the wine business could send such a vitriolic email to you based on a review. Maybe you should publish the winery’s name so that drinkers can make sure to avoid it.

  8. Carlos Toledo says:

    I’d like to see both of you on that despicable show (does it still exist?).

    Jerry, Jerry, Jerry, Jerry!

  9. Emotionally immature.

  10. Given 5 minutes, I could devise a list of at least 50 ways in which that producer could have handled the situation more professionally (or “at all” professionally). Pathetic.

    Would love to know privately who it was so that I can avoid the mistake of reviewing their products…

  11. James McCann says:

    Hard to feel sorry for someone who publicly bashes and ridicules those that don’t agree with his political agenda.

    (Although that woman is downright crazy… is there more history?)

  12. Totally unacceptable. The winemaker should be ashamed of herself.

    Three points to what you wrote today, Steve. First, you state that you did not like the wine. 84 points, according the the WE rating descriptions, is a good wine that is acceptable for everyday consumption. Now, you taste a lot of wine and I am all about drinking better, not more, wine, but 84 points is more indicative of being apathetic towards a wine. than dislike. To me, this is clear evidence of grade inflation. People read your reviews for your personal/professional opinion. If you don’t like a wine, use the appropriate score.

    Second, you always claim that the numerical rating is an accessory to the actual review. By now stating that you “write the review up in more positive terms, for the sake of compassion” for mediocre wines. Wouldn’t this imply that the number is the most important part and the prose is just a take it or leave it accessory? This is (one of…) the problems with assigning numerical ratings.

    Third, you write up a review based on the score. Do you really taste a wine and think of it in terms of a number before you think of it and describe it in terms of words? Do you just pull a number out of a hat (yes, I realize that you can score wines in terms of the plethora of other wines you’ve rated) instead of having a rubric for assigning/detracting points for certain characteristics? The writing after the rating is perhaps the most worrying part of your method.

  13. Steve,

    The other day I was talking to another dad about raising kids. We both agreed that if we don’t get our boys mad at us, once in a while, we are not doing our jobs as parents. So rest assure you are doing your job just right.

    If the winery owner’s prose is indicative of her wine, then you gave her a score that is way too high (hell, it didn’t even rhyme). My only surprise was she did not include a racial insult in there. By the way, how did you manage to force her to send you her wine for review?

    I also tell my kids: “Engage brain before mouth or hands”. I can only imagine how stupid this lady must feel for not having done so.

    BTW (to all) I’ve known Steve for a long time on the professional level. He’s scored my wines everywhere from 84 to 95 and neither score affected sales of wine, distributor relations or my professional relation with Steve in any way. Hell, my best Syrah, a $45 bottle of wine got a 79 score from the Wine Spectator and is my best seller (it also got a 4 star award from Decanter, but that’s another story..)

  14. Colorado, you raise a good point. In my post I was speaking colloquially, so if I said I didn’t like it, I just meant it was a so-so wine: “good” by Wine Enthusiast standards, but nothing special. And that is exactly what I thought of the wine when I reviewed it.

  15. Two words: Mail Goggles.

    For anyone that doesn’t know: http://gmailblog.blogspot.com/2008/10/new-in-labs-stop-sending-mail-you-later.html

    I can’t imagine something like that wasn’t induced by heavily drinking her sorrows away.

  16. Cabfrancophile says:

    The winery should be outed. If they choose to use wine magazines as a marketing tool, then they have to accept mailing the wine in does not guarantee anything. Live by the sword, die by the sword. It’s not like you went and bought the wine off the shelf, then damned it with a “Good” (80-84) rating to spite them.

    With so many gold medals, why do they need a WE 90? Maybe because medals at state fairs are (correctly) viewed with general indifference.

    Oh well, chalk it up to an occupational hazard. At least you’re not associated with Pancho Campo. Critical reviews have their inherent weaknesses, but at least we know there is some methodology to your approach.

  17. My Grandma sends me letters like these… I jest.

    Shame though.

  18. Bill Green says:

    As emotionally immature as that email seems (she’s obviously a kook) and as entertaining as it was to read, it doesn’t seem professional to publish it. You had your say with the review, she had her say with the email. Isn’t that basic professional journalism?

  19. Steve,

    Just when I thought nastiness couldn’t get any nastier I read those horrific words sent to you and realized I was wrong. Difficult as it may be, good on you to expose it and deal with it in this positive way.

    This may be of little comfort, but I think this is a perfect example of how stressed our country has become, and you just happened to be in the way when the pressure cooker exploded.

    All the best,
    Stu Smith

  20. Vino Thor says:

    Wow, who knew that there was such a direct correlation between scoring a wine under 85 points and erectile performance. Better be careful out there reviewers. I know that a certain maker of very very big Howell Mountain cabs who is somewhat famous for being outspoken in his criticism of that guy at Spectator, but that missive is pretty incredible. Love the reference to winning medals as validation and/or proof that your review was somehow “wrong.” There are maybe 2 or 3 medal competitions that might be worthwhile, but it it’s sort of like me saying I am the best basketball player…in my house – my kids are 8 and 10 and my wife’s drop step move isn’t what it used to be. It is unfortunate that she had an issue with a distributor, but that seems like more of a problem with how the distributor does business (or maybe the distributor was looking for an excuse to drop someone who might be difficult to deal with?). I appreciate that you shared it.

  21. Bill Green, I think it’s important to publish things like this. But I did not identify the person or the winery. I considered it, but a powerful inner voice told me not to.

  22. Steve:
    I believe it is your duty to expose this infantile behavior by naming the winemaker, the winery, and the distributor. There is no excuse for this type of personal attack. In the real wine world, you take the good scores with bad, and leave the attitude at the door.
    George

  23. Anonymous says:

    It would be unfair to publish her name and the name of her winery. A wine is not made in vacuum. There are cellar crews involved, sales people, tasting room staff, marketing teams, etc; many who care very much about how their product is perceived. Revealing her identity might hurt her colleagues and the brand, as well. I see no need for it. We’re none of us perfect, either. She may have written that after a few too many glasses of wine. Some people show their worst selves when they drink. It’s a very immature letter, no doubt, but I don’t see a reason for a public lynching.

    On another note, I do some pr on the Central Coast. I’ve hosted Steve Heimoff over the years. He does not look for freebies; he’s very professional on the road and sticks to strict editorial standards.

  24. Wow. Just wow.

    Steve, I think you did the right thing by not outing the winery and lowering yourself to their level, even though industry gossip is eaten up like candy (myself included).

  25. While I absolutely understand the desire to publish the name of the winery, as well as all of us being curious as hell, I think you did the right thing in not doing so Steve. In the end it would look like the same kind of petty lashing out that this whacked out woman did. I can understand….to a point, her being upset and even contacting you to tell you how your review has or will damage her company, not that it should or will make any difference to you or the way you review wine but, the second she went personal she lost all credibility as well as any sympathy anyone might be inclined to bestow upon her. I agree with someone above that implied it might be a drunk fired email but drunk aint an excuse for stupid which hitting send on the email clearly was.

  26. I doubt this is Steve’s first letter like this, or his last, though it does seem to me to be a bit more over the top than some I have seen. I’m sure that every critic has received similar. A couple of my acquaintances in politics get letters like this all the time, though most of these letters have far more errors in spelling, grammar and punctuation than this one did. Steve, if she threatens to maim or kill you, call the authorities. But I will be disappointed if you “out” this person.

    Oded made great points in his comment. The way I look at it, if you are not getting bad reviews as well as good, you are not making wines with any distinction. I’d much prefer to be known for making “love it or hate it” wines than for making pap.

    It would be really pathetic if this person (probably a total noob in this business, BTW) actually believes their distributor relationship was harmed by an 84 from WE. Lady, your distributor had already determined that your wines were weak.

  27. George, thanks for weighing in. I think most people agree that I should not identify the sender. My own inner voice is telling me the same thing.

  28. Gotta give her credit for creativity.

    She went above and beyond in expressing her feelings – and isn’t creative writing the most important element of assessing and evaluating something?

    I’d be curious to see what the TNs on this wine were…

  29. STEVE!

    Well, that’s a letter for the Hate Mail Hall of Fame. I’ve received quite a few in my time, but yours just might trump any of the poison that’s been hurled my way. Congratulations!

    I certainly come down on the side of not publishing the person’s name. In fact, I would never publish the original letter. I had a similar situation once, similar in the nastiness of the attack, and thought about putting it on my blog. But that’s, in essence, what the writer wants. It makes them feel vindicated and powerful, and probably even victorious, believing that some of the people who read it will agree with them. Another reason not to publish the name–they might indeed get some congratulatory letters from others who are equally disturbed. I hope that if the writer is reading this she is feeling the utter contempt we all feel for her, as well as our opinion that she is desperately in need of counseling. Get Help, Whomever You Are!

    I always say that if you don’t get hate mail as a writer, you’re probably not doing it right. Same with reviewing wine. Take it as validation that you’re one of the best in the business.

    Writing a letter like that and then calling you “evil” is remarkable. That kind of letter is a career-ender, but it’s the compassionate thing to do not to out her. However, I would hope that you and your publication would never review her wines again.

  30. Hosemaster, thanks. My assumption is that the winery in question will no longer send me their wines for review!

  31. Nasty letters, wisely written can be funny. This is neither clever or funny. The circumstances that surround this, particular a wine score from a blind tasting by a critic of widely recognized integrity, is troubling. An average wine score that we all take with a grain of salt, it’s a crap shoot, is taken as deeply personal. The degree of imbalance, over reaction, and frankly, lunacy should not be taken lightly. This is more than “hell hast no fury like a worman winemaker scorned,” and though no specific threat of harm is made, in totality this is wacko. (a clinical term, I think) This public exposure of her imbalanced thinking may be playing with fire.

  32. Morton,

    “Wacko” is a less formal clinical term, but “ape-shit” is quite legitimate…

  33. As I said in a previous comment, nasty letters, wisely written can be funny. I thought it would be fun to relay a concise, well written, nasty letter that was sent to the film critic Pauline Kael. (This is from Nathan Keller’s piece, “What She Said” , in the Oct. 24th issue of the New Yorker.)

    As background, though a good writer, Kael a limited understanding of the film arts, particularly how movies were made. This led to aggravation on the part of film producers when her criticism displayed such a lack of understanding. This was aggravated by the fact that rather than just say what she liked or didn’t like, she often ventured thoughts as to how it should have been done.

    When she harshly criticized Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid dialogue with reference to ” the dead sound of the studio”, she got the hackles up on the director, who had taken great pains to shoot the film out of doors, not in a studio. Hence, this short letter from George Roy Hill, to Pauline Kael.

    “Listen you miserable bitch, you’ve got every right in the world to air your likes and your dislikes, but you got no goddamn right at all to fake, at my expense, a phony technical knowledge you simply don’t have.”

    It is said that Kael enjoyed his note, more than she enjoyed his movie.

  34. Morton,

    I believe I have seen wine equivalents of Kael’s comments…

  35. Morton: Your Kael anecdote is spot on. That’s why I never (well, almost never) render technical judgments in my reviews. I’m afraid of being incorrect if I say (for example), “Has too much residual sugar” if I don’t actually know the RS. Another example concerns the many off-putting aromas a wine can have. If I don’t know the precise cause, I’m not going to speculate.

  36. Steve, I take it from your deleting of my comment with the name and a link to the description of Clinitest tabs (used by almost all home winemakers) that you do not want to know about free, authoritative on-line resources that would help you understand the precise causes of off-putting aromas (there is really only one way to get geraniol in wine) or weather data that would help you correctly characterize an AVA’s or a vintage’s climate?

  37. When it gets that personal, it’s just pathetic. I wouldn’t out her here, but I’d be tempted to let the proprietor know how their wines were being represented. For the record, Steve falls very much on the professional side of the relationship ledger. Hell, we like each other and I can’t get him to do anything other than evaluate the story, the wine on its own merits, sans any meal, marketing or moxie.

  38. WayToBeProfessional says:

    Steve, you routinely spout off asinie and incorrect things about wines and vintages and AVAs.

    When I offer you a tool to avoid that, you delete the comment.

    Way to be professional.

  39. There you go again, Steve. Deleting completely civil comments…

  40. This is a great lesson about waiting until the next morning to click the send button when writing such emails. The best example of the perfect way to respond to a critical review with which one doesn’t agree comes from German composer Max Reger:

    “I am sitting in the smallest room in my house. I have your
    review in front of me. Soon it will be behind me.”

  41. To the Anonymous Hate Mail Author-
    Thank you so much, whoever you are, and bless you. You’ve saved me untold hours of painstaking composition. I’m pretty slow on the keyboard, and sometimes it is late into the wee hours before I have fully expressed my thoughts in text. Now, when I feel like posting, I can simply cut and paste. Gratefully, Mark
    To everyone-
    According to Steve, it’s a winery owner, not a winemaker.
    Steve-
    Is the writer really a female? Wow! I think I’m in love.

  42. Hahahaha…

    Thanks for posting this. It gave me a long, hard laugh. Some people just don’t know how to compete, and don’t know how to handle “losing.” That letter was classic and I hope you frame it.

    And lighten up, Dennis. Steve may be very open and honest about his politics, which I’m sure infuriates a good chunk of the population (obviously you are one of them). However, this has nothing to do with how he perceives a wine. In fact, his overall honesty shows integrity. I trust a critic who does not care whom he offends versus a critic who makes sure to please the ‘big boys’ in this industry.

  43. Dear WayToBe, I don’t know what you’re talking about. I delete spam (which I get a ton of), not legit comments. I suppose it’s possible that occasionally a comment seems like spam.

  44. WayToBeProfessional says:

    Funny, others who have had their comments deleted by you say you told them the same thing….

  45. Controversy comes with the territory, Steve (you knew that!). And I hope you don’t back-channel the identity of the sender to The Dude. That, I think, would be unethical on your part and also on his if he banned that winemaker from his charts.

  46. WayToBe, you can believe whatever you want.

  47. SUAMW, this is a good example of the type of comment I delete because it looks like spam. I opened the link in your comment and it led to an advertisement for some kind of pharmaceutical product. If you had explained what it was, I would have approved it, but you didn’t, so I assumed it was spam even though it had your name on it. Why would I delete anybody’s comments? It makes no sense.

  48. Patrick, don’t worry. I won’t backtrack anything to The Dude!

  49. Letters like this should be treated one of two ways. Kept quiet, or completely exposed. I appreciate that Steve, or any wine critic may be the subject of disdain due to a less than stellar rating. Personally I have encountered blowback from wineries that felt I should have reviewed their wines better but never suffered a letter like this or felt a need to out the winery. Unfortunately, this discussion is now stuck in the middle, and hopefully will result in a private apology to Steve and this whole thing will just go away.

  50. Eric, to lighten up is probably good advice, but as for “However, this has nothing to do with how he perceives a wine[.]” is not the point; I was addressing Steve’s blog post and what he wrote, if that’s not pertinent to the discussion then I apologize for wasting anyone’s time.
    Tell you what Eric, why don’t you start scoring comments on this blog using the hundred point scale.

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