When wine writers lose it
David Butner’s comment on Facebook yesterday, concerning a blogger’s put-down of one of his wines, raises questions of enormous interest to the world of wine criticism, especially in this era of “everybody can be a critic through the magic of the Internet.”
Butner is owner/winemaker at a Washington State winery, Kaella. One of his wines (which I’ve never had) is a 2010 Sangiovese, from the Ciel de Cheval Vineyard, and bearing a Red Mountain appellation. The blog that reviewed it, on Dec. 10, was WAwineman’s Northwest Wine Weekly. Among other things, WAwineman wrote: “Nose: sudsy, rubbing alcohol, dirty cherry. Mouthfeel: tangy, soft medium-bodied. Tail trail: 4 seconds. Flavors: sour cherry punch, midpalate Bhopal-style alcohol plume, green cranberry, chainsaw’d oak, heavy dose of drying tannins. Even rougher 24 hours later.” Rating: 59 points!
Now, this upset Dave Butner so much that he put up his Facebook post, in which he shared his anger with all of us readers. The review of his wine “ripped it to shreds. I mean, just one of the most brutal reviews I’ve read, a real hatchet job,” Dave wrote. Turns out he wrote the blogger a note, apologizing for his “bad experience with the wine,” suggested it was an off bottle, and offered him a replacement bottle.
The blogger, according to Dave, wrote back: “Yes sir, it really sounds like one bad bottle in the bunch. I visited your tasting room recently as well as attended your inaugural opening weekend so I know the quality of your wines across your portfolio. This one clearly did not fit with the consistency of the Kaella label…” Which led Dave to wonder how the blogger “agrees it must be a bad bottle…and then writes a scathing review of it, making no mention at all about the possibility of a bad bottle? I don’t think that is cool,” Dave concludes.
His Facebook post resulted in a ton of comments, most of which gave the blogger a negative review. A typical one was this: “there are bad wines that deserve bad reviews, but it seems like this guy could tell there was something wrong with the wine, but he didn’t say ‘This was a bad bottle, I think’, instead he implied that 25% of your output was like this. That’s pretty bad.” Another commenter was Sean Sullivan, who’s just been hired to be one of Wine Enthusiast’s Pacific Northwest reviewers (alongside Paul Gregutt). Sean wrote: “Ed Matsuwaka is his [the blogger’s] name. He’s a troll who just likes the attention. Ignore him.”
WAwineman responded to the criticisms of Butner and others with what I can only describe as a spirited defense of himself. Here are a couple bullet points:
- Why is it so damn hard to just rate a wine for what it really is?
- bottom line is, this is a real, truly independent wine blog. Why I have to continue proving this is the winemaker’s fault, not mine.
A truly independent wine blog should be fearless in reviewing wines, regardless of whose ox is gored. I have no doubt that WAwineman’s blog is independent, and that he prides himself in his take-no-prisoners approach. And if he hated the Kaella Sangiovese, fine. There are wines I hate, too, although Wine Enthusiast’s policy is to “bury” anything below 80 points, to avoid exactly the kind of public humiliation Butner endured.
But WAwineman clearly avoided coming to terms with the huge criticism that, if he’d visited the winery and truly “kn[e]w the quality of your wines across your portfolio,” then he ought to have bought or requested a second bottle to review. There’s no way for him to get around it. The most he could do was to complain that wineries should “NEVER” sell bad bottles. Well, in a perfect universe there wouldn’t be bad bottles, but the universe we live in isn’t perfect. Bottles suffer—happily, not many, but some—and a wine critic with any sense of professional responsibility would take the time to retaste a wine if he had reason to believe the first bottle was flawed. And in this case, it sounds like WAwineman had plenty of reasons to suspect that there was something wrong with his original sample.
On the other hand, all the above is predicated on the supposition that WAwineman knows anything about tasting wine. After all, the Sangiovese could have been quite a good wine, by any reasonable standards; it might have been WAwineman’s tasting ability that rates 59 points. There is one other critic I know of who tasted the 2010 Kaella Sangiovese and loved it: my friend Paul Gregutt, who reviewed it for Wine Enthusiast. He scored it 91 points and wrote: “There’s much to admire here – moderate alcohol, great vineyard, varietal expression, sophisticated winemaking – and all at a more than fair value.” In fact, in all his years of reviewing Washington wines, Paul’s only scored 5 Sangioveses higher than 91 points. I know Paul, I trust Paul, he’s the Pacific Northwest’s senior wine writer. Which means, ergo, I cannot trust WAwineman.
Finally, in his self-defense, WAwineman couldn’t resist indulging in some hating on other wine writers, like Paul.
And, that brings me to the topic of those hoidy-toidy wine snobs who think they know wine. Hey, if these wine writers really knew their shit after all these years, why aren’t they “Master Sommeliers” or “Master of Wine” designees? Why not? Because, bottom line, they are no different than any other newbie wino. Chan, Sullivan, Gregutt, and even Sealey… not a single one of them could duplicate their tasting experiences in a truly blind tasting. No one can. Their narcissitic problem is that they THINK they know wines and deceive the public into thinking that. They are f*cking with other people’s money and that’s their crime against humanity. My greatest wish is that I testify against these buttf*ckers at The Hague, as they sit chained next to Assad, Morsi, and Kony.
I don’t know who “Chan” or “Sealey” are, but I presume they’re professional wine writers. Sullivan is the Sean I referenced above, who now writes for the Enthusiast. Sounds to me like this WAwineman is filled with anger at the fact that some people are making a living at this gig and he isn’t.
Look, as a professional wine writer who’s been at this for a while, I have strong feelings about ethics, standards, professional practices. Wine writing and criticism has always been the profession of gentlemen and gentlewomen. I expect a new generation of bloggers to inform themselves about how this business is done and behave accordingly. If the wine blogosphere doesn’t clean up its act, it will be worthless. One proactive thing wine bloggers could do is to identify those in our midst (as in the recent Natalie McLean brouhaha) who over step over the line. WAwineman has stepped over the line. Peer pressure might work where conscience doesn’t.
If WAwineman wants to continue in this business and achieve any respect, he should learn about professional standards, and try to play well with other writers in the sandbox. Oh, and he might clean up the smutty language, and learn the correct spelling of “narcissistic.”