My respectful reply to criticism of my reviews
Well, it happened again. A winemaker took umbrage at the scores I gave his wines, and emailed me with all the reasons why I was wrong.
So let me take a few minutes to explain. As I told the winemaker, I never mind it if someone reaches out to me to complain about my reviews. It’s fine to call me. We can agree to disagree, and just because you disagree doesn’t mean you have to be disagreeable. (That goes for me as well as for winemakers.)
That doesn’t mean I like it when I hear from a disappointed winemaker. I’m only human. I’d much rather someone call me up and say, “Way to go, Heimoff!” than “You really got that wrong.” Usually, these unhappy winemakers have three “facts” they cite in order to prove I’m wrong. They’ll tell me that the grapes came from a great vineyard and therefore it can’t deserve a middling score. Or they’ll tell me that other critics gave it higher scores than I did, and so I must have missed discerning its true qualities. Or they’ll simply cite their sincerity and passion as reasons why their wines should have scored better.
To all of which I say: That’s silly. Just because a wine comes from a “great vineyard” doesn’t mean that it has to be a great wine. We all understand that, don’t we? I should think so. And don’t even get me started on comparing my reviews to those of other critics. That’s fine, if you want to do it, but it carries no weight with me if you point out that ___ and ___ gave your wine 90-plus points while I didn’t. As for the sincerity thing–“We work our tails off to make the best wine we can”–a score in the 80s doesn’t mean to suggest that you don’t care, or that you’re not trying hard. I assume that every winemaker in the business is working his or her tail off and trying their best. The point is that trying one’s best isn’t good enough. The resulting wine has to deserve a great score.
I guess I should add a fourth “fact” often given to me by unhappy winemakers. They’ll review their own wine, find qualities in it that I didn’t, and hope thereby to persuade me that I somehow missed all that good stuff. Well, I think winemakers are the least objective appraisers of their own wines! They’re like doting parents who can’t bring themselves to perceive all the qualities–good and bad–about their children. We all know parents like that, don’t we? The same thing goes for dog owners. I know certain dogs that are not very nice animals. They’re angry, they snap at people and other dogs, they bark when there’s no reason to. And in some of these cases, their mommies and daddies are clueless that their pet has an attitude problem. It’s that way with some winemakers, too. Of course they love their product, and it’s only natural they’d be defensive about it, when and if it’s criticized. But winemakers also need to stand back and at least try to be objective. If they think highly enough of a critic to be upset if that critic doesn’t fall in love with their wine, then instead of complaining to the critic, they should read his words and try to understand the nature of the criticism. On the other hand, if they think the critic doesn’t have the chops to understand their wine, then why would they care what he says?
In most cases when I don’t enthuse over California wine, it’s because it suffers from one or more of the following issues:
1. too sweet in residual sugar
2. too fruity-extracted, i.e. a fruit bomb
3. too soft or, conversely, too tart
4. unbalanced in alcohol. I don’t object to high ABV, in and of itself, but I don’t like a wine that tastes and feels hot, which even some wines in the low to mid-14s do
5. an overall simplicity or one-dimensionality
Notice that I’m not even mentioning true flaws, such as excessive brett, TCA, botrytis moldiness, heat damage, etc. I’m talking about wines that are technically “good” (by Wine Enthusiast standards) and drinkable, but just don’t deserve high scores.
Every winemaker wants those 90-plus scores. A part of me deplores that selling wine has come down to that, in order to market wine. But that is obviously beyond my control. I wish it weren’t so (and I know for a fact that every critic who uses the 100-point system feels the same way). I think we were as surprised as anyone when, in the 1990s and 2000s, the situation reached that point. I, myself, often drink wines at home that I’ve scored (or would score) in the middle 80s, and I like them. They’re good, sound, interesting wines that just don’t happen to have the extra levels of complexity required to lift a score over 90.
I have the utmost respect for California’s winemakers. I understand their jobs, not in the technical sense perhaps, but in the applied sense of having to sell their products. Some of them don’t have to worry about what people like me think; most of them do. It gives me no pleasure to disappoint them, but that’s my job, just as making wine is theirs. It just doesn’t work to turn out average quality wines no matter what your excuse is, and expect them to get 90 points or higher, especially at high prices. That dog won’t hunt. American consumers have too many choices from around the world these days for that to work anymore.