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Superstar winemakers, blind tasting and bias



When I began writing about wine in the 1980s the “celebrity winemaker” had not yet been invented. I use this verb “invented” deliberately, in the sense that it was the media that came up with the concept that the guiding hand behind a great wine or, more accurately, a series of great wines must be a “genius” winemaker, the way Thomas Edison or Steve Jobs was a genius in his field.

It’s odd, because for hundreds of years the world had enjoyed great wine (Bordeaux, Burgundy) whose winemakers were unknown. Credit had used to be given to the winery and/or the terroir. Suddenly, by the 1990s, writers were proclaiming this or that winemaker as “stars” and, the ultimate accolade, “superstars,” almost as though the vineyard and its terroir were irrelevant.

Tom Wark recently opined intelligently on this topic, and included a list of superstar winemakers, from olden times to today, whose names make them as famous (in our little world of wine) as rock stars or movie stars. His theory is that this celebration of the winemaker continues today because “[W]e live in an age of self promotion and elevated promotional opportunities,” which surely is the truth; and, given this current zeitgeist, the media loves nothing more than to elevate someone to the pantheon of “star.” And, after all, a magazine can give a big award to a living winemaker and bask therefore in her glory!

I’ll just add to Tom’s trenchant analysis that I think today people want more of a personal connection with the winery and winemaker. They didn’t used to: Lafite and Latour became famous despite no one knowing anything about who made them. Even here in the U.S. a wine like Beaulieu Private Reserve was famous before many people had heard of André Tchelistcheff. But the advent of the modern media and the Internet in particular has given people the ability to know more about their wines and other things, and they want to know everything about these celebrated vintners behind the brands. Call it the People-magazinization of the industry.

I would think this phenomenon creates some difficulties for shier winemakers who don’t really enjoy all the fuss of public appearances and endless schmoozing with adoring fans. They may find that their reticence has economic consequences. Nowadays it’s so important for vintners to hit the road for winemaker dinners and tastings with important clients, such as sommeliers, merchants, writers and even distributors. These people are called “gatekeepers” or “tastemakers,” for it is they who decide what is sold (on wine lists and store shelves) and what isn’t. This gets us into the intricacies and difficulties of the distribution system, which is so infamously replete with problems; gets us, also, treacherously near to that Holy Grail of the modern wine industry, direct-to-consumer purchasing, through wine clubs and the like. DTC may indeed be the solution for the small winery that finds it difficult to get picked up by the large distributors, but DTC is not the end-all and be-all of sales: winemakers still have to get their faces out there, whether via You Tube, the winery’s blog or what have you.

Once upon a time (I’ll revert back to old Harry Waugh), the gatekeepers traveled to the wineries. These days there are simply too many wineries for gatekeepers to go to, even such well-traveled ones as Jancis Robinson; they can visit only the smallest proportion of properties in any given appellation. So, in an version of the old saw, “If the mountain won’t come to Mohammed then Mohammed must go to the mountain” (attributed to the 17th century statesman and essayist, Francis Bacon), today’s winemakers must go to the tastemakers and show them what they’ve got. This assumes that the tastemakers themselves are fair and honest. The worst thing a tastemaker can do is to be biased, either for a winery they’re impressed by, or against one they assume cannot be top tier. You’d think it was hardly possible for someone in the powerful and sensitive position of being a tastemaker to be biased, but guess what? There is bias out there, ranging from overt to subtle–and sometimes the tastemakers themselves don’t even see the beam in their own eye (Matthew 7:1). If I were writing a Consumer’s Bill of Rights with respect to tastemakers, especially critics, I’d insist that all tasting resulting in a review be conducted under formal blind tasting protocols–or, absent that, that disclaimers be published alongside the reviews!

  1. Bill Haydon says:

    I think it was also a notion nurtured out of self-interest by the California wine industry. Let’s face it, they can only get so far talking about soil and terroir vis-a-vis Europe to anyone slightly knowledgeable. They just don’t have it. The weather is too warm, and the soil is too fertile and vigorous. And before the inevitable howls of outrage at this very notion, lest we forget that up until the 1970s when the valley was largely turned over solely to viticulture, PRUNES were one of Napa Valley’s largest cash crops! How well do you really think PRUNE cultivation would fly in the Chalk of Chablis or the granite hillsides of the Mosel? Yet there the Trefethens sit, growing everything from Cabernet to Riesling side-by-side on a warm, fertile piece of land as flat as Kansas.

    So, what’s a hugely ambitious and pretentious winegrowing region to do? Take the narrative out of the vineyard and into the cellar. Make it all about what happens when the superrockstar gets his hands on those grapes. Throw in the Wine Spectator’s insatiable need to generate subscriptions by being the People Magazine of the wine world, and you’re there.

  2. Bill Haydon, I’m afraid I can’t agree with several of your points. Briefly, your remarks about Trefethen are wide of the mark. Their wines are very fine. As for the prunes, well, Napa has undergone an agricultural evolution to winegrapes. Nothing wrong with that–it’s a young region.

  3. I think the notion of the celebrity winemaker can be compared to the phenomenon of the celebrity chef. They arose at nearly the same time, and meet many of the same needs.

  4. You’re absolutely right about that, Patrick!

  5. Bill Haydon says:

    How can you say those wines have any character? You’ve always admirably advocated the view that California should plant what is right and where it is right. Here is an estate that is embodies the very antithesis of that view. Here, on one big, flat block of fertile land (that literally was partly a prune orchard when Gene Trefethen purchased it), you have every grape under the sun planted. Are you suggesting that Cabernet and Riesling can BOTH thrive in the same soil and climate, and by thrive, I don’t mean ripen which isn’t the problem but rather thrive in the sense of being planted in the right spot to make great wine. And let’s be blunt about the fact that there are no micro-climates or nuances of terroir on that property. You know as well as I do that it is one big, flat, sun-drenched block smack in between 29 and the Silverado Trail.

    Which brings me to my using it as an example of why Napa Valley had a vested interest in telling the world to ignore the vineyard behind the curtain and focus solely on the great and powerful winemaker in the cellar.

    As for the evolution, yes the business of Napa has evolved to focused solely on viticulture. The soil and the climate, though, have not changed. You could still rip up 97% of those vineyards and plant thriving prune orchards, and therein lies the problem.

  6. Bill Haydon, I’m saying that I taste what’s in the bottle–not what “logic” or “common sense” tells me. It seems to me that you have your mind made up regarding Trefethen (or Napa Valley in general), so when you experience those wines, you discover your own expectations. That is bias.

  7. wiremule says:

    I think prunes can do very well in the Mosel.

  8. Bill Haydon says:

    Yes, I’ve reached some strong conclusions about Napa Valley, but they were reached through working in production there for a couple of years and tasting the wines–and putting them into context with what was happening elsewhere in the world–over nearly two decades. Hell, I used to love Napa Valley, but with each passing year I watched both the wines and culture become more intolerable. To paraphrase an old Reagan quote, “I didn’t leave the Valley; the valley left me.” So does that make it bias or experience………or perhaps bias borne of experience.

    That being said, I’ve tasted a lot of exciting new wines coming out of California in the last eighteen months (Chanin, Yorba, Abrente, Scribe) as well as revisiting old favorites (Edmunds St. John and Hanzell) which leads me to believe that I’m not ready to slam the door entirely. So, does that make it bias borne of experience with a glimmer of hope?

  9. Steve the Old World wine makers were not acknowledged because they were merely employees of the wealthy estate owners who would have taken the credit for themselves.

  10. I had an interesting conversation about this subject with some very talented non-celebrity winemakers recently. I think our biggest complaint is that most of the ‘celebrity’ winemakers, at least in the Willamette Valley, are not the most talented or respected winemakers in the valley. Instead, it is the winemakers who devote their energy to networking, marketing, and self-promotion that get elevated to celebrity status. Meanwhile, winemakers who devote all of their time to improving at their craft remain relatively unknown.

    Realistically, it is probably no different in the world of art or music or literature. But it does seem unfair that a mediocre winemaker with a good PR firm gets written up in the New York Times, while legends like Russ Raney and John Paul fly happily under the radar.

  11. Rob Saks, I think you’re right!

  12. Let’s leave the “flat as Kansas” argument aside for a moment. I want to know who the rockstar winemaker is at Trefethen.

    Let’s also acknowledge, however, that he is right. I don’t see great Riesling being grown at Trefethen, but what I do see is that their Chardonnays have always been on the restrained side, and I don’t need a list of latter day “rockstars” like Chanin to know better than Mr. Haydon on that score.

    What all this adds up to is that people who diss the Napa Valley in broad brush terms come with an enormous built in bias. They do not judge wines. They don’t have to because their built in bias does not allow require them to. Fortunately, whether it is Trefethen or Corison or Matthiasson, it is the wine and not the name or the place that makes the difference.

  13. The “rock star” winemaker and viticulturist are largely about marketing. Your brand gains instant credibility when you hire them. Doors open.

    In that sense, they are worth more money than the unknown winemaker or viticulturist. Of course, their successful marketing of themselves means they likely cost a whole lot more than the unknown winemaker and viticulturist.

    Quiet/shy people should expect to be overlooked no matter how well they do their work. I’ve seen it too often. It’s a shame.

  14. It seems to me that there are many estates like Trefethan where a wide array of grapes can grow side by side and produce excellent wines. This is particularly true on warm valley floor sites. Just make sure that the nights are cool. Other sites where the coolness factor is more pronounced limit the range of varieties.

  15. Totally gree with Tom Merle. The proof is in the bottle.

  16. Bill Haydon says:

    Tom, by its very essence Riesling NEEDS one of those cool spots. If a sight is cool enough for Riesling or even Pinot Noir (which is also planted there), it’s too cool for Cabernet. And the results of this viticultural eggs in one basket aren’t excellent wines but, rather, utterly uninspired, run of the mill wines. And don’t get me started on the vigor of the soil. For Christ sake, they have thriving gardens of lettuce, blackberries and cucumbers planted in that same terroir.

    You know it’s amusing. I’m often stuck behind people from Napa at meetings in NYC and Chicago, and I can’t count how often they’ve started throwing around the word “terroir” in recent years. I can’t remember the last time one failed to do so. If, however, your attitude is pervasive, it just tells me that it’s nothing but insincere lip service….something they feel a need to do in a changing and often hostile market. Because if you can’t even look skeptically–much less condemn–a vineyard where Cabernet, Riesling and frickin’ lettuce are all planted next to each other in the same soils and climate, then you have no understanding of the term whatsoever. And Napatude and rallying around another member of the Napa elite are all that really matter.

  17. I can’t think of a single vineyard I’ve visited (at least where the farmer lived on site) that didn’t have a flourishing vegetable garden, flower garden, fruit orchard, etc. What does that have to do with grape quality? I think nothing. I think farmers like to grow things, and appreciate a good peach or tomato or head of lettuce as much as anyone else.

  18. Bill Haydon says:

    Clay, having a vegetable garden off to the side (preferably in a warmer spot where the soil is a little more vigorous than the vineyard) is not the same thing as having being able to grow fruit and vegetables out in the vineyard. That tells me that those soils are a little too fertile and vigorous to make truly great wine. Sure, you can ripen anything under the warm California sun there, but that hardly is enough to make it a conducive spot to growing great wine grapes. Again did I mention that those same soils grew PRUNES before being converted over to viticulture. In Europe, the most famous region for prunes is known best for producing grapes that are distilled into Armagnac, not $50 bottles of wine.

    I’ve yet to hear one convincing argument as to how Riesling and Cabernet can both make “excellent wines” coming out of the same soil and climate. Either the terroir is proper for one or the other. All I’m hearing is a blind rallying around the local and attempting to shut me up for daring to suggest that particular Emperor is buck naked.

    Tell me something, do you believe that your Pinot Noir vineyard is equally suited to growing Mouvedre as it is to PN?

  19. Dear Clay Gantz, my policy is usually not to name people I’m being critical of. But in my part of the industry, many people will know whom and what I mean!

  20. Mr. Haydon–

    You ignore the truth. The fact that Riesling grows next to Riesling does not make either bad or good. More than that, how many places in Napa actually grow Riesling next to Cabernet? The answer is damn few. You are positing a virtually non-existent situation.

    But this is all a false flag for you anyhow. The Napa Valley is dominated by Cab Sauv and its playmates, thus suggesting that the wineries know exactly what grows well there. You disagree with that premise as well. You just cannot decide with half truth or falsehood is more fun to wave in front of us.

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