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When wine writers lose it

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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.”

  1. When I was about seven years old, I got up one morning and went to visit my friend Milk Lahey. We enjoyed playing together. That one morning, he was sitting in his sandbox with one of his toy guns in his hand. Back then, these guns were made with really heavy materials. I still remember the simulated pearl handle of that toy gun. I had always liked it. We enjoyed playing cowboy and cowgirl together in his sandbox and surrounding yard.

    I sat down next to him and said, “Hi, Mike!” He looked right at me, took the gun and swiftly switched it around to be holding the barrel; then, with full force, brought the handle down upon my head.

    I left in shock, crying from the pain. It took a long time to figure out that he had even moved, because I didn’t ever go back, because I’m not into S&M. (Now I know that he was angry with having to move, and “we always hurt the ones we love,” as the song goes.)

    Time wounds all heels, and anyone who fancies him or herself as someone that wine companies will send their wines to, hoping for someone professional on the other end to be writing an endorsement that will help sell the wine, had darn well mind his or her manners, or that person will be weeded out.

  2. Bill Haydon says:

    [Ron Burgundy]Boy, that escalated quickly. I mean, that really got out of hand fast![/Ron Burgundy]

  3. He is not a wine writer. He’s a hack who will hide behind the Joe Everyman label that allows for a total lack of standards and accountability.

  4. “Chan” is probably Christopher Chan, a Seattle sommelier who runs the Seattle Wine Awards.

    “Sealy” is Rand Sealy, who started Washington’s oldest wine shop back in the ’60s (Esquin Wine Merchants in Seattle). He has been tasting for four decades and has a wine review site.

    Both are great guys and highly respected professionals in the Washington wine scene.

  5. Thanks Andy!

  6. There are times in winewriting when we disagree with what we have read. And some of us will say so.

    I happen to disagree with an editorial in Sunday’s SF Chron. It went too far and I have said so. But in so doing, I did not find it necessary to demean the author. One can disagree and be respectful of others.

    I don’t know the person who insulted a bunch of other writers in the most cheap language seen in a wine column in some time.

    It does not matter whether Gregutt or wineman is right about the wine in question–save for the idiotic refusal to ask for a second bottle. What matter is that winewriting is about opinions. Any of ours are only as useful as our readers think them to be. It is hard to see how anyone can think wineman’s opinions now have any validity.

    I don’t blame the Internet or the blogosphere. This all goes with the territory. The blame goes back to wineman.

  7. I am a relative newbie to the ‘blogosphere’ (in fact, today is my one year anniversary of my blog), but it seems to me that many bloggers are simply looking to be controversial in order to drive traffic to their site. I can’t help but think that WAwineman is basking in the glow of this new found ‘fame’.

  8. Drunken Cyclist has it right. WAwineman is written anonymously. I’ll quote this from his “About” page, so others needn’t lend traffic to his site looking for background.

    “All you need to know is I AM THE MOST ELECTRIFYING BLOGGER IN WINE ENTERTAINMENT TODAY! Know your role and git back to the main page, fu!

    “Whether you like it, or don’t like it, LEARN TO LOVE IT cuz it’s the best thing you’ve read TUH-DAY. WOOOOoooo!””

  9. Charlie, my point was that the wine blogosphere is going to have to start uniting against crap like WAwineman. Of course, asking the wine blogosphere to unite on anything may be too much. Herding cats.

  10. Thank you Fred Swan for posting that. I was curious but refused to go and give the wanker any more traffic than STEVE! already did with this post. What the hell is wine entertainment anyway?!

  11. Kurt Burris says:

    Steve: While I agree with your points, I think the most effective way to deal with a twit like WAwineman is to ignore him/her. Which is probably what the offended winery should have done. Instead, I got to read the “review”. I didn’t give it any credence, but I did read it.

  12. Agreed, that recognition is what the WAwineman may have been seeking to vault his place in the blogisphere but his lack of professionalism towards Dave, I believe will keep other producers from seeking his ah er professional opinion.

    As a relatively new propietor, sifting through the blogisphere for reviews of my wine. I have great fear of this experience…

  13. I don’t understand why anyone would send a sample to an wantabe reviewer like WAwineman. Are they that desperate for a meaningless review? Just look at his tasting notes. He has no idea what he is doing. Worse yet than sending him a wine, but to complain about a bad review from a obvious amateur? Washington winemakers should be embarassed that they give him the time of day.

    My pet peeve is a winemaker who lacks the courage to defend their wine and instead falls back on the “bad bottle” excuse. A corked wine is the only excuse for a “bad bottle”. Everything else is the on the competence of the winemaker. Being unable to bottle wines of identical quality from beginning to end is just as bad as making a whole lot of bad tasting wine. If a winemaker can’t get a good sample to a critic in good shape, what chance does the consumer have of getting a decent bottle?

  14. Morton, actually, WAwineman wrote someplace that he bought the wine. It wasn’t sent to him.

  15. @Fred Swan: I think his guru was Gary Vaynerchuk, who used to have a blog.

  16. doug wilder says:

    I think I have heard of this blog but had never looked at it until today. From glancing at a couple posts, he seems to write fairly actively.

    In this era of technically well made wines, it is rare for a wine to just completely fall apart in the glass and not be corked. But it does happen. In those instances, I use <80 and write nothing further. I support anyone voicing their opinion, even if what they say is scathing as long as they make sure they have repeated the test to make absolutely sure and can discuss their findings in a a respectful, intelligent manner. Further, I am not bothered by two critics having different opinions on a wine. At the end of the day what we say is our own viewpoint yet still needs to be responsibly and respectfully debateable when brought up. If questioned on it, a professional will do all they can to defend their viewpoint without discrediting the work, or opinion of others. As we know that doesn't always happen. However, the type of vitriol spewed out by WAwineman directed at other writers can never be considered acceptable and indicates not only serious disrespect for professionals in the craft of writing but should also serve to inform the wine community that there is a difference between someone who is 'hip and edgy' and someone who is a sociopath. I would be surprised if this is the first time he has lashed out publicly to anyone who dare to question his opinion.

  17. The internet and blogosphere have actually done something great for wine writing. They have created an open market with low barriers to entry. Good writers who may previously have struggled to get an opportunity to show their stuff–bucking against old-boy networks or their equivalent–can now get their material to a large audience to judge on its merits. But it is in the end an opportunity to rise or fall in the market. The great thing about a good market is there is no need, Steve, as you suggest, to go try to regulate it by “uniting” other good bloggers against bad ones. Assuming this could even be done from a practical standpoint, what would it mean? Would respected bloggers somehow blackball ones they collectively deem to be unworthy? That would almost certainly stifle innovation and new voices from being heard. Readers will sort out quality with their feet (or their eyes as they case may be). Quality bloggers/writers/critics such as yourself can trust the collective verdict of ordinary readers.

    I’d never heard of WAwineman and probably never would have but for this blog entry. But I can tell he probably won’t succeed in getting much of anyone to pay attention to him. I have heard of Paul Gregutt and Sean Sullivan and read them alot because I like Northwest wines and these guys are good by reputation and in my own experience. Lots of people pay attention to what they say for that reason. Their work speaks for itself.

    Kudos to WE by the way in hiring Sullivan. He’ll be a great addition.

  18. george kaplan says:

    FWIW, I disagree with Charles and agree with Samantha. I”d say turn the Hosemaster loose on him, but even if you agree with charles, why publicize the guy?

  19. Reviewing a bottle you know is bad is a waste of band width. Looking through the bloggers website, it looks like he is after controversy to increase his sites hits. The “ripasso“ of Sangiovese would be fairly unique and the blogger didn`t understand it even with a good bottle in hand he may not have liked it.

  20. All very good points here but I’m afraid to tell you that there is demand out there for crude hatchet job reviews like this. How much I don’t know but I can tell you the main criticism I get for my poodle is that it is too positive. I purposely don’t rip wines, wineries, wine events, etc. mainly because I’ve spent enough time with winemakers and grape growers to know how hard they work and how hard it is to make great wine. That said, even my own contributors and readers have suggested a periodic negative or critical post from time to time.

    I read through a number of his posts and found them childish. He’s trying to be the Hosemaster for the common man (whatever that is) but simply lacks the talent and humor that Ron puts into his site.

    Fortunately for the folks at Kaella, I don’t believe anyone would take this guys reviews very seriously but I’m afraid to say there will be more like him.. possibly worse

  21. Interesting comments. Let me just state that Steve is correct, I did not submit the wine to wawineman for review. In fact, this wine is newly released and currently only available in my tasting room. So, I knew that the reviewer (who was previously unknown to me) had to have been in my tasting room, tasted the wine, and then purchased the bottle.

    I also was aware that Paul Gregutt had reviewed, and liked, the wine. As such I was frankly unsure if it was truly an off bottle, or just that the reviewer had a bad experience with it. There are just so many factors which can contribute to someone not liking a wine at any moment in time. Someone just being in a bad mood can be an influence. And evidently it seems this guy has moments when he is in a bad mood. :)

    I found his review from a google search, and so I wrote to him that I would be happy to replace the bottle with another, or even with a different wine.

    What led me to post on Facebook about this was that I was shocked by his reply – that he was familiar with my wines, that he liked my wines, and that he actually indeed did think that it was an off bottle. Under those circumstances, I don’t find it acceptable to slam a wine like that. However, I have since been made aware that this particular blogger has quite a reputation.

    I’m quite sure that the attention from both my Facebook post, and now this post by Steve, has resulted in more hits to his blog than he probably had in the past year. I think Mr. Sullivan is right. This guy should just be ignored.

  22. Assholes are everywhere folks. Yes, even in the blogosphere.

  23. Any press including bad press is good press..

  24. Dave Butner and others, it may be true that the blogger will experience a temporary bump in visitors. But it will quickly decline to where it was before.

  25. David Vergari says:

    Dave Hickey is an art critic who is self-deprecating enough to have written: “…criticism is the lowest form of writing…it’s the written equivalent of air guitar.” IMO, the critical evaluation of wine should always be accompanied by responsibility and a certain degree of ethics, and I respect those who try to do so. As for the blogger in question? His guitar was missing a few strings; the remaining ones were grossly out of tune.

  26. Wine blogs come and wine blogs go. I can see this as a blog heading quickly to the “inactive” column on our list.

    Steve, you are doing a great job helping to coordinate the group policing of wine blogs. Well done.

  27. It’s very clear from WAwineman’s writing (as excerpted here, I too don’t want to add to traffic numbers) that he’s a hack. His commentary is so outlandish it ONLY reflects upon him and NOT on the wine at all.

    I would add to Mr. Vergari’s comments that not only is the blogger’s air guitar missing a few strings and out of tune, he’s in the wrong band in the wrong building.

  28. oh gawd, more wine blog drama!
    Maybe its a good thing not many consumers read wine blogs, or say 80% of them.

    YAY! another meaningless article ping pongs around the inner circle. :)

  29. Matt Meyer says:

    Hmmm, this entry is a little fire in the belly to help with the January cold snap. You know what else is a great warmer, Thom Yum Gai. Think I’ll track some down.

  30. Dear Allen Wright, thank you. It’s comments like yours that keep me blogging.

  31. Thanks Steve, well done. I, too, submitted a comment/rebuttal to the blogger (who does not deserve to be repeatedly referred to…), which of course he deleted and didn’t add to his page… his credibility has been challenged, for sure!

  32. If a wine is really bad, more wine writers should have the guts to say so. But the sampling must be done from more than one bottle to ascertain that it is indeed bad wine and not just one bad bottle in a bunch. Repeat sampling should come from different cases. If possible take note of the batch number too.

    Remember André Simon’s quote, “There are no great wines, only great bottles”. It works the other way too!

  33. Steve,

    Thanks for taking the time to paint over this yahoo’s boorish and stunningly ill-informed blather and vitriol with a dose of sanity. Since you know Paul Gregutt, I don’t have to assure you that not all of us who write about wine in the Northwest are as petty, vindictive, and irrationally self-congratulatory as that person. I’ve never seen the point in dumping all over a winery for a bad wine. I taste, usually, 60 – 100 wines to find the one I think is special enough to write about. Why even waste time with describing mediocrity when there’s no shortage of dazzling wines out there? I like winemakers and want to celebrate their best efforts, not cost them their livelihoods. I think Paul and Rand and Sean and most of us here allow for the fact that our own opinions may just not be the definitive take on any given wine. It’s called humility and this guy is, sadly, one of those Teflon personalities who will sniffily dismiss any criticism of him or what he writes as the rantings of the uninformed. I smell epic over-compensation for a fierce and completely justified inferiority complex. It would be funny if it didn’t have real-life ramifications for good winemakers like Dave.

  34. As a producer, I empathise with Dave. Even if the audience is tiny, reading an unpleasant review about your wine is not pleasant. When you have only one bad review out of hundreds, and its about a wine that has good sales, you know that something was either wrong with the bottle or the reviewer had some kind of bad experience – or an agenda.

    The problem is that despite the opinions of the blogosphere, the review still stands. The public can still read it and one bad review takes 10 good ones to balance the books.

    Has this blogger removed the review or is he still proud of it?

  35. Wow! That is the most I can say. I think WAwineman very angry at the world, he probably tried to become an MS or WM and failed, and now he simply is taking his anger out on the world, both on people and the wines. I truly believe that consumers are smart enough to simply ignore the reviews of this kind, as they say more about the reviewer than the wine itself…

  36. Our policy, when we review a wine, is not to post a wine that is really bad. Just because I didn’t care for it doesn’t mean someone else won’t love it. But we don’t usually taste that much wine that’s flawed these days.

  37. I remember back when the Spectator reviewed a wine in print, gave it a 50, then said it was corked. Why bother with the review, get another bottle. This dude is starving for attention, ignore him and don’t waste anymore eneregy on this. There more important things in life abd wine.

  38. Joanna Breslin says:

    BTW, WAwineman also misspelled “Hoity-toity”, though he seems to instinctively grasp its meaning:

    Pretentiously self-important; pompous.
    (Free Online Dictionary)

  39. Donn Rutkoff says:

    For a fun exercise in the art of reviewing, take a peek at Edgar Allan Poe, twin pieces, “How to Write a Blackwood Article”, followed by “A Predicament”. Goog them, piece of cake. Or for more refined view, read Schiller on Naive & Sentimental Poetry. Let’s elevate.

  40. Kevin Whelan says:

    I never heard of him but after reading this blog entry I felt compelled to check out his blog. I’m not impressed with his attempts at irreverent humor, no matter how many times he literally writes that I should admit that I am. Vulgarity is no substitute for wit.

  41. Good post Steve. Definately weird and bizarre given the wine was purchased at Dave’s tasting room. i think he is trying to get exposure and, looks like he succeeded.

  42. I’ve long thought too many blog, not to mention a fair amount of print, writers seem to feel they need to be outrageous, gonzo so to speak, to be noticed. Too often that approach spills over to personal attacks. And we all are left impoverished.

  43. Jon Campbell says:

    hey at least we’re talking about washington wine for a day!!!

  44. It is a real shame when people forget that behind every wine are real people, usually with love and passion for wine whether they are a tiny producer or working for the ‘big, bad conglomerates’ (some of the most wonderful people in the biz many times). It is sad to see when negativity runs amok like this.

  45. MagnumGourmet says:

    Caveat – I am not defending WAwineman!!!

    The thing that struck me as I read the exchange is that there seems to be a definition misinterpretation between Dave and WAwineman on what “bottle” means. Dave communicated to WWM that it was a flawed “bottle” and would replace it. WWM in turn meant (I think) that he felt that the Sangiovese was a flawed “bottling” and another Sangiovese would have tasted the same.

  46. MagnumGourmet: That’s not the way I understand it. Sounds to me like WWM thought that particular bottle was flawed.

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