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An imaginary conversation between a critic (me) and a cult winemaker


The critic: But why will you not submit your wine to my blind tasting?

The winemaker: Because I don’t believe in the “beauty contest” of a blind tasting. The only way to properly appreciate my wine is to taste it at the estate, with me the winemaker, and with a full understanding of what we are trying to accomplish.

I understand your point of view. But can’t you see that the sole objective of wine reviewing is to actually taste the wine in and of itself, without the distorting effects of environment and knowing what the label is?

Perhaps that is true for others, but not for me. That is not why I make wine, nor is it how I wish for critics to taste my wine.

So you’re saying the only way to properly appreciate your wine is to do so in the full knowledge of what it is.


Can you concede that, under such circumstances as you propose, the wine would probably strike the critic as better, than if he tasted the wine under blind conditions?

Possibly. But you overlook another point: Let’s say that the critic has high expectations on visiting the property, which is very famous and has a long history of producing great wine. Then the opposite of what you fear might occur–namely, that the wine failed to live up to his high expectation, and the review therefore would suffer.

I can see your point. But it strikes me as extremely unlikely. A great winery always makes great wines. Except in the event of a catastrophe, it seems impossible for a critic to visit a great winery and fail to give the wine a glowing review, especially if he knows what it is.

I think you still fail to see my point. We put everything we possibly can into creating our wine. It is the product of many years of labor, on the part of the most talented team I’ve been able to assemble. The wine is a work of art–not simply a liquid inside a bottle. Besides, no normal person drinks wine the way you propose–from a paper bag with no knowledge or understanding of what it is. That is counter to the entire concept of a great wine.

And yet, suppose the wine has certain minor flaws: maybe it’s a bit thin, or too sharp, or too fruity. Maybe the oak has been applied with a heavy hand. Maybe the tannins are hard and will never resolve. These things all are important to point out to consumers, but if the critic tastes the wine openly, with you, at the estate, then what we call “tasting room bias” will occur. These relatively minor flaws, which would instantly be apparent under blind conditions, run the risk of being undetected, with the glamor and psychological perturbations of tasting at the winery.

That may be true, but consider this: If I send you my wine and you taste it blind, in a flight of its peers, it will no doubt achieve a respectable score. Let’s say in the mid-90s. Do I really need yet another 95-point wine? All the other critics, who come here and taste it openly with me, will give it 95 points, maybe even  97 or 98 points. Therefore, I have absolutely nothing to gain by sending you the wine.

That is not true. It’s better for you to have more high scores, not fewer. After all, some of those critics who visit with you may someday turn against you and give your wine 87 points. Wouldn’t it be better from a marketing point of view to have a 95 point score to tell people about?

The people who buy my wine don’t care about scores. They’re on my mailing list because they love my wine. We would never use a critic’s score to promote our wine. That would demean everything we’re trying to do.

I don’t believe that. There’s a reason why your wine is in high demand, and that’s because certain critics gave it high scores. You can’t have it both ways.

Well, I suppose we’ll have to agree to disagree. However, I do respect your ability as a wine critic, and I’d be happy to host you at the winery anytime you want. We can taste whatever you want: current releases, barrel constituents, older wines. Even if you’re not able to review them in your magazine, at least you’ll have the opportunity to understand what it is we’re trying to do.

Thank you. I’d like that. And perhaps, someday, you’ll change your mind, if for no other reason than out of sheer curiosity.

Maybe! But I doubt it.

  1. PAWineGuy says:

    Winemaker: “If you personally open the bottles, then put them in the bags yourself, how could you possibly NOT know what you are tasting?”

  2. raley roger says:

    “After all, some of those critics who visit with you may someday turn against you and give your wine 87 points.”

    This is an alarming statement if it’s true;that for reasons other than poor wine quality, a critic might “turn” against a producer and assign an arbitrarily bad score based on something other than wine quality?

  3. PAWineGuy – exactly what I was thinking…


  5. Steve,

    You blog regularly about the refusal of “cult” winemakers (Harlan, Screagle, etc.) to “submit” their wines to you for blind tastings.

    Considering the list of “cult” wines isn’t terribly large, why doesn’t Wine Enthusiast purchase these wines for you, so you can taste them single blind? None of these wines are impossible to acquire. And I’m sure WE readers would love to see your (blind) reviews of these wines.

  6. Yeah, I know, Brewer won’t send his wines to anyone. He and Chad Melville make the same contentions in support of their policy. It’s their policy. The way around that is to order (and pay for) the bottles yourself.

    That said, the bigger concern is that, when face to face with the reviewer, a winemaker can try to convince (sometimes aggressively) the reviewer the wine has organoleptic properties it simply does not. Or, that it deserves a higher score than it got.

  7. 87 Points, Wine Enthusiast Buying Guide: Very Good, Often Good Value, Well Recommended

    That said, “organoleptic properties” is something I plan to incorporate into a back label very soon, it’s just got to be done.

  8. TomHill says:

    Roger sez: “This is an alarming statement if it’s true;that for reasons other than poor wine quality, a critic might “turn” against a producer and assign an arbitrarily bad score based on something other than wine quality?”

    This is an easy one as to “why”. A change in style. Back in the early days (by crackey), both BobLindquist and SteveEdmunds and AdamTolmach made big/extracted Syrahs that were/still are the favorite style of Parker. Over the yrs, both Bob & Steve have strived for a more balanced/elegant/less alcoholic/less extracted style of Syrah. Both were taken to the woodshed by Parker for their Syrahs not being as “good” as they used to be. And given lower scores. AdamTolmach has been ratcheting back extraction/alcohol levels on his wines and was recently accused by Galloni of allowing his yields to get too high…an accusation that’s easily refuted by Adam’s numbers.
    I expect PaxMahle will also be taken to the woodshed because of his style change. To my judgement, all four of those winemakers are perhaps making the best wines they ever have. Just not in Parker’s favored style anymore. Some of my favorite winemakers hang out in the Parker woodshed.

  9. Patrick says:

    I see the point, and I agree that the “cult” winemaker sounds like a terrible snob. But on the other hand, Wine Enth. is also sticking unreasonably to its “principle” of not paying for bottles. Actually buying a few of these cult things for blind tasting would then become a subversive act. Just do it, Steve.

  10. Dear Patrick, we do buy bottles. In fact we’re spending quite a bit for an upcoming tasting I’m doing of Napa Cabernets.

  11. David White, we do purchase wines on occasion and will be doing so more in the future.

  12. Raley, by “turn against you” I didn’t mean personally. I meant that the critic may, for whatever reason, give the wine a bad score. Maybe the winemaker changed his style. Maybe the critic just had a bad day. It happens.

  13. Vinny Barbarseco says:

    You say that a wine critic can have a bad day and that this could effect scores. What happens in these instances? Do you re taste the wines or invite fellow wine colleagues for a secon opinion?

  14. Tom Hill, great comments. I am a friend of Adam’s and could not agree with you more!

  15. Steve,

    Thrilled to hear WE is going to be purchasing more wines! That’s great news for consumers.

    I’ve long thought that publications like WE and WS are equally to blame for the cult wines refusing to submit for blind tastings… after all, nothing is preventing anyone from purchasing the wines.

  16. Vinny, if I know I’m in no shape to taste, I don’t. But that doesn’t happen very often. I do retaste wines occasionally, especially if I think the bottle was bad [corked]. I would never ask for anyone else’s opinion.

  17. raley roger says:

    Thanks for the clarification, Steve. Makes sense.

  18. Steve said: “I would never ask for anyone else’s opinion.” Trusting your palate is important; how long did it take for you to arrive at this level of confidence, and you’re never interested in what ST, JS, or RP has to say about a wine you’ve reviewed?

  19. Tom,

    To be fair, Adam’s scores were between 87-94 from the Wine Advocate on 22 different wines. And Wind Gap’s 10 wines ranged between 88 and 94. If that’s the woodshed, then I’ve lived in various woodsheds (including our host’s) my entire winemaking career.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  20. Dennis, from the start I never checked JL, RP etc. I don’t even subscribe to their publications. I really don’t care what they think.

  21. Why do people in the industry persist in using the terms ‘cult wine’ and ‘cult winemaker’? It’s disrespectful to the individual and the winery. The term is derogatory in every way and shows a great lack of understanding of the wine industry. Small production wines made by a good winemaker don’t make them ‘cult-like’, any more than small-batch brewers and their beers or vegetables grown by local farmers and sold at farmers markets.

  22. Kathy, I’m sort of a repeat offender. I keep telling myself I won’t use the “c”-word, then I go ahead and do it. If there was some short, snappy substitute that worked, I’d use it.

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