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The ethical limits of tasting? In the eye of the beholder

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A Facebook correspondent wrote me over the weekend: “You are probably the only person I can ask this question. Can journalists in the U.S. review wines with world renowned wine experts without the prior knowledge of the winery? I am asking this because of a recent wine video put out in Quebec that had Michel Rolland taste our wines against some of our competitors. I can send you the video link if you prefer. All in all, is this lack of professionalism?”

He did send the link. Here it is.

Unfortunately, I don’t speak French, so I wasn’t sure what to make of the question: “Can journalists in the U.S. review wines with world renowned wine experts without the prior knowledge of the winery?”

It could have meant several things, all of which are food for thought.

1. Is it legal for U.S. journalists to review wine under such circumstances? Of course it is.

2. The question might have meant: is it okay for a journalist to sit with a famous personality like Rolland and taste wines without the winery’s permission. (The use of the words “prior knowledge,” vague in this case, could be so interpreted.) The answer again would be “yes.” At my Pritchard Hill tasting, for example, I didn’t have Colgin’s or Bryant Family’s permission to include their wines. I’d asked them, and they both refused (why, is another question!). So we went out and bought them. I don’t think that showed a “lack of professionalism,” at least on my part.

3. The question might have concerned a variation of the blind tasting issue. What’s the difference between a wine of which the taster has no prior knowledge, and a wine in a paper bag? The obvious thing is that, in the former case, the taster would presumably see the label and know that (for instance) the wine is from Quebec.

That’s precious knowledge. It might easily be the case that the taster knew little or nothing of the wines of Quebec, but made an assumption about them. For example, he might have assumed that fine dry vinifera table wine cannot come from such a chilly climate (as opposed to ice wine). So the question could be reframed as, Is it unprofessional for a taster to come to conclusions about wines about which he knows little or nothing?

As it turned out, that was the case. I emailed the correspondent and asked him to explain, and he did. Here’s his reply:

In a nutshell, [Rolland] is tasting whites and reds from this region for the first time. He is cryptic and extremely cautious with his wording, not to throw too much praise.

His overall impression is that the wines are all good, but that he would prefer and suggest that [Quebec] focus on whites and not reds as the basis of our industry.

How can a man, who claims he has never tasted [Quebec] wines before, come to such a conclusion?

We are in the red wine business, and comments like those can hurt our business, especially from a high caliber man as this.

There was a little more, and then my correspondent finished with this question:

So, did MR overstep some ethical boundary? I think he very much did.

I’d have to say that Michel Rolland did not overstep some ethical boundary. He apparently was asked his opinion of some regional wines, and he gave it. There’s nothing unethical about that.

Since I don’t know exactly what Michel Rolland said concerning the wines of Quebec as a whole, I can only surmise. From the correspondent’s comments to me, Rolland seems to have written off Quebec’s capacity to make decent red wine based on this single tasting. If he did (and, again, I don’t know), that would have been a premature and unfair statement. The Europeans used to write California Pinot Noir off, claiming it was undrinkable and always would be because of California’s climate. We proved them wrong, didn’t we? Lessons should be learned from that episode. A wine critic, tasting wines from a region new to him, might not care for them, but he should never say the region is hopeless. Years ago, I tasted a lot of Front Range Colorado vinifera wines I thought were dreadful. (Their fruit wines, on the other hand, were great.) If the Coloradans had asked me for my opinion, I would not have said, “Forget about it. Stick to fruit wine and beer.” I would have said, “You’re not succeeding right now. But keep at it!” I think part of the wine critic’s duty is to encourage winemakers, give them hope for the future.

  1. Steve – you should come back to Colorado to taste again. The wines are getting better every year. Of course not every wine is good (same can be said for California, and Napa for that matter), but there are some very good wines and many offer good value, too. I’m surprised that you say you tasted Front Range vinifera as there are no more than a few acres of vinifera on the Front Range. It gets too cold in the winter for most vinifera to survive. Vitis vinifera is grown on the western slope in the Grand Valley AVA and the West Elks AVA. Perhaps you weren’t tasting the best selection of Colorado wines or perhaps you are confused about Colorado’s geography. Thanks for your optimism and I’m glad you enjoyed the fruit wines. There are quite a few stellar fruit wines here as well (not something California does much of)!

  2. Kyle: Maybe I don’t understand Colorado geography all that well. I was invited to your beautiful state sometime in the late 90s or early 2000s and tasted through many, many wines, both vinifera and fruit. I thought the general area is called the Front Range, but I do recall something about Grand Valley. Maybe you could send me some good examples of vinifera? I’d be pleased to try them.

  3. This is a subject that deserves a great deal of discussion. While Rolland did nothing unethical, he is displaying a closed mind to wines outside of a narrow viewpoint of what a wine should be. He has demonstrated this myopia worldwide.

    The beauty of the expansion of the wine busines to so many nooks and corners of our country and Canada the diversity of wines the provide for us to explore. Some pioneering wines may at first seem odd to those used to a certain character,but there always seems to be a style and direction where you can go with the flow. Like Pinot Noir (Spätburgunder) in the Rheingau, thay are not Russian River or Burgundy, but if you open your mind, you find their soft, silkiness. and fruit are delightful at the table. Sure they don’t have the color and are atypical.

    Atypical is a good thing and is much more of a challenge in winemaking. Napa Valley winemaking is easy. An idiot can make nice wine. There is a basic recipe that most follow.

    But step into a pioneering region and there is no recipe. Kyle, without tasting your wines, I am sure that you should as Steve so rightly suggests, “stick with it!” You are lucky to be where you are.

    Right now i am sitting in So.Oregon where my dad planted some Cabernet in the early seventies when Zinfandel was the local grape. I had an ’85 I made from these grapes last night,no recipe except a knowledge of wine chemistry, a bit of creativity, and the result was and still is wonderful.

  4. Blanket statements based on a single tasting are certainly dangerous territory for a critic’s reputation, but in this case the cynical part of me has to wonder if a little put down on the reds isn’t a cagey way to scare up some consulting work to help improve it. I’m fairly familiar with QC wines and his opinion is one that I have heard before, and in my own tasting I have seen whites perform better in general, but would not write off the reds, especially if the region ever chooses to modernize it’s hybrid stock, or if warming trends allow vine changes.
    That Cote d’Ardoise Rouge is the best one from that producer in my opinion, but is a bit oak heavy. The L’Orpeilluer Blanc is pleasing and successful. The Les Pervenches Chardonnay is a beautiful wine, small production, sure sellout annually. Given Rolland’s reputation and powers of creation, should he have tasted any irony given that Les Pervenches is Bio-D, and non-interventionist?
    I wonder when he’ll be visiting Vermont, or if he hasn’t been here already ;)

  5. I agree with Rolland and have tasted many Quebec reds I also taste most of the BC Okanagan reds every year looking for very good (not even outstanding) and alas don’t find it. The whites on the other hand are stellar. As Global Warming kicks in Napa moves to Grenache and the Okanagan moves to Bordeaux blends. Oh, and on 2 meeting with Rolland I found him a very knowledgeable and thoughtful man with a classical palate I would agree with.

  6. First, Rolland has no obligation to inform the winery of his tasting. The minute your bottle leaves the winery, it’s fair game for tasting, reviewing, and especially drinking. The comment that all reds from Quebec are less than impressive may be fair from his experience but I feel a statement like that is careless coming from an expert of his stature.

    Once thing we must remember about the world of wine is that it is now and always has been very conservative. Trying different varietals in new regions is generally not warmly received initially. In the late 1800’s a San Francisco financier named Tiburcio Parrott was made a laughing stock for being crazy enough to plant Bordeaux varietals on Spring Mountain.. until he won bag fulls of gold medals. Although California is now highly regarded, it has had to withstand “all California Merlot is flabby” and “all California Rhone style wines are fruit bombs”. “California Style” Chardonnay is still a badge of dishonor in many circles.

    As I stated before, statements like these are careless especially from reputed experts. Unfortunately, that’s where these generally start.

    I like Steve’s take that encouragement should be included in a less than satisfactory review of a region. If more of the wine establishment had Steve’s open mind, perhaps we could avoid these stigmas and perhaps be able to enjoy more fantastic and diverse wines.

  7. There are two questions here.

    One is the question asked by Steve’s correspondent? Did Rolland overstep some ethical boundary?

    Answer: Of course not. He was asked to taste wines and to give an opinion. His qualifications to give that opinion are well-known. He is world-renowned and world-experienced but has had virtually no exposure to the wines of Quebec. Should he have refused to speak when spoken to? Of course not.

    The next question then is how he could have couched his opinions. That is a matter of taste. I visited the same region last summer on holiday–as well as Nova Scotia where there is a burgeoning wine community. In all honesty, I did not discover the next “Spring Mountain” or even a threat to the Okanagan as Canada’s premier wine region.

    So what was Rolland to say? Some of us would have pulled our punches or have said that we don’t have enough knowledge to judge what is possible in the long run. But, when one asks a noted maker/consultant of world-class Vinifera to taste wines that so far very few have accorded any sort of world standing, the results should not be surprising any more than they would be if someone asked Rolland to taste Cabernet Sauvignon from Bakersfield.

    Besides, his opinion is just one opinion. Ask the folks who run the restaurants in Montreal what they think. After all, if the produce of the region is any good, they will be the folks who gravitate to it early on. In my limited experience (just four nights in Montreal), I did not see much Quebecois wine in Les 400 Coups, or Le Toque or Le Piment Rouge or, heaven help me, Schwartz’s.

    Hopefully, Steve’s correspondent will provide more information because we can all keep learning. Besides, I loved Montreal and plan to return soon–and to visit Quebec City this time.

  8. I live in Upstate NY near the Finger Lakes Region. The whites (especially Riesling) are terrific. But having had a lot of reds over the last 20 years from the Finger Lakes region, there were no world class wines. It is a lack of sunshine and heat. Quebec being that much farther North I would surmise would be even more difficult for reds.

  9. I watched the video, the host asks MR which wine he liked best in red flight and white flight, then overall between reds and white. He answers white (picked the Chardonnay over the 2 hybrids).

    Then he adds that the whites “match” the characteristics of lots of white wines from other wines regions whereas the reds have more unusual characteristics that might surprise some tasters …

    Hardly seems like a blanket statement on the whole region to me …

    I myself make one in one of those unusual regions (Texas), I think it is good for less classic wine regions like Texas or Quebec to get some feedback from an oenologist that consults just about everywhere on the planet.

  10. ** Discllaimer: I was a wine Journalist (in Quebec) for 5 years, while in Bordeaux for the Primeurs tastings, I have met Michel Rolland a few times.

    Steve,

    This story your correspondent — whom I know and respect a lot — shared with you is more of an interpretation than facts.

    I watched the video 4 times, Michel Rolland never suggested Quebec should focus on whites instead of reds. Never. He doesn’t even imply that.

    He said he prefered whites because they are more representative of what we (consumers) expect, and that they also can compete with many white wines in the world.

    About the red wines, he stated they have special characteristics that can surprise the tasters, and that the competition worldwide is very strong for red wines — which, you’ll agree, is true.

    Nothing more, nothing less.

    I have no intention here of defending Michel Rolland, I just thought that reestablishing facts could be helpful for your readers, and perhaps, avoid the usual — and too easy — Michel Rolland bashing.

  11. *I meant “Disclaimer”

  12. Benjamin, referring to “unusual characteristics that might surprise some tasters” is a back-handed compliment, a way of saying the wines are weird, but not wanting to outright insult them. I know — I’ve used the same words myself in my reviews.

  13. Steve, Denver is in an area called the Front Range (on the eastern side of the Rocky Mts). 95% of the winegrapes are grown on the western slope of the Rockies with most in the Grand Valley AVA (about a 4 hour drive west of Denver). I will mention your interest to some wineries and inquire if they would be willing to send you some samples of vinifera wines. The quality has improved by leaps and bounds in the last 12-13 years, but there still is work to do!

  14. Steve, can you email me an address that I can give to wineries that are interested in sending you samples? Thanks.

  15. Hello All,
    I am the masked correspondent that Steve so politely kept annonimous and I thank him for that.

    All the wines, apart from the one he selected as his preferred white, were made from one consultant; Matteo Meglioli. Matteo is a 3rd generation enologist from Italy and holds a doctorate in his field. His father is just as famous as Michel Rolland and has most likely worked on projects collectively with Michel.

    Therefore, I really do not think Michel had any clue of the background and nature of those wines, red or white, that he was tasting for the first time.

    To dish out backhanded comments on the reds is one thing, but to make blanket statements that the whites are representative of what customers expect? What the hell is that supposed to mean? Which whites? Which regions of the world? Australia, Italy, France, Argentina?

    I have enormous respect for Michel Rolland and we have and still use “his” techniques with many of our wines. Our facility incorporates many of his practices. Something which I find ironic in that he claimed that the Pinot Noir was not typical of a PN? From where? Canada, Washington, Burgundy, California?

    Given that he was tasting the very the third vintage of Pinot noir produced in this province, and where we have succeeded where others have failed, he should have been ecstatic that this grape can actually be grown here. Incidentally, that our VENICE Pinot Noir was selected to be served to Chef Philippe Parc, Meilleur Ouvrier de France (Best Craftsman, France) in pastry-making, during a recognition dinner – April 24, 2012 and selected in the Top 100 wines available in Quebec by the Grand Guide des Vins – 2011 and selected to be served during an homage dinner for internationally renowned chef Ferran Adrià’s during his visit to Montreal’s Institute d’hotellerie et tourisme du Québec (ITHQ) – November 22, 2011

    Plus we received Silver at Intervin international wine competition 2010

    No judge ever found the wine to have “unusual characteristics that might surprise some tasters”.

    Anthony Carone

  16. Meguma Terrane says:

    Anthony:
    As a blacksheep PN winemaker in the whitesheep world of the tidal bay around Nova Scotia Canada, I salute you neighbor!

    I am delighted to even see.. white and red on the same table east of Niagara Falls.

    “soon ripe, soon rotten”

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