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Are consultants “killing” wine?

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They’re easy to pick on, those flying winemakers, like Michel Rolland, who travel the world getting big bucks for advising wineries on how to get 95 points from Parker.

And they do get picked on! Mondovino, the 2004 movie, famously took on Rolland, showing a small vigneron who declared that “Wine is dead” due to people like Rolland, who it was said bring an “internationalization” of wine flavors; and the director even brought Michael Mondavi in to talk about “the globalization of wine.” It didn’t help to show Rolland, in the back of his car being driven somewhere, on a phone laughing about “These journalists, if you don’t hit them on the head, they can’t remember a thing.”

As a journalist, I resemble that remark (as Groucho said), even though I totally understand it. There are some “journalists” who will repeat anything they’re told, without the slightest effort at fact-checking.

It would take a telephone book to list all the Bordeaux chateaux associated with Rolland. In California, the list is smaller, but impressive, and includes or has included Harlan, Dalla Valle, Sloan, Staglin, Araujo, BOND, Bryant. These are wines I’m more familiar with. Are they all the same? Are they marked by an “international” character? Has Michel Rolland, and people like him, in fact “killed” wine?

Affirmative on that, according to a Saumur winemaker, Thierry Germain, whom the drinks business wrote about yesterday. They quoted him as saying, “Wine consultants are like plastic surgeons trying to make ugly wines beautiful. There’s a trend at the moment for trying to create beautiful wines over authentic wines. The result is that they end up tasting fake and artificial.”

Wow, tough words. This is, of course, the territory of “authenticity” that critics like Matt Kramer and Jon Bonné have been exploring for years. I never fully subscribed to their black-and-white notion that some wines are authentic while others are fake, for the simple reason that too many consultant-driven wines–Harlan, Staglin, Araujo etc.– are so stupendously delicious that you wonder how much better red table wine ever can be.

Still, I have to say there’s a certain sameness to these Napa Valley cult wines that reminds me of the contestants in a beauty pageant.

 

MissUniverse

While you have to admit these women are stellar examples of what we (or some people) think of as traditional female beauty, there is a certain, uhh, sameness to them, as well as an implication that women who do not conform to that particular template of “beauty” are, by definition, unbeautiful. I know a lot of women—men, too—who are utterly turned off by this exclusionary attitude. Men, too (including me), suffer from these stereotypes: if you’re not tall, buffed and handsome, you have far less of a chance of getting a top job, or even of being respected. (I’ve done research on this and I know what I’m talking about.)

Well, the gender wars are tricky, so I’m getting out now, but the fact remains that it’s not surprising that wines “advised” or “consulted on” by the same consultant should bear a certain similarity to each other. It’s like a guy who impregnates multiple women who then have his children. While all the kids will possess certain inherited traits from their moms, they’ll also all have things they got from dad, and in that sense, they’ll be alike. Whether this is good, bad, or angels-dancing-on-pinheads navel-gazing (to mix metaphors) is, I suppose, in the eye of the beholder.

I, myself, have always wondered why a winery would hire a famous consultant. Don’t they trust their everyday winemaker? Don’t they trust their growers? How would you feel if you got a great job as a winemaker and the next thing you know, your employer tells you he’s bringing in Michel Rolland as a consultant? What does a consulting winemaker bring to the table, anyway, except bragging rights for ownership? It’s never been clear to me. I guess if a winery is just starting out, and their winemaker doesn’t have much experience, then sure, bring in an expert, to be the training wheels for a vintage or two. But the top winemakers I’ve known for the last 30 years—and I’ve known most of them in California–neither want nor need outside help. They just ask to be given good grapes, and then enough of a budget to make good wine, and some time to figure out how to express the vineyard’s potential. If you can tell me why these consultants are necessary (rather than just bling), please do.

  1. Big-name consultants can be more than just winemakers and in other industries. There are advantages and disadvantages to bringing in outside consultants. Media advisors, political advisors, PR/communication/education advisors. Are any of these advisors necessary? Necessary needs to be defined…

  2. Ed Masciana says:

    Come on Steve, you make it sound so hopeless! I’ve been selling cheap wine to smaller distributors for almost 15 years. No, it’s not easy, but once you get out of LA, it’s amazing how many small to medium sized wholesalers there are who like doing business with small to medium sized wine operations.

    Wine people are a funny bunch. Most of them hate the big guys and will do whatever they can to support the rest of us.

  3. Bill Haydon says:

    Why bring in a consultant? Why engage Enologix? Simple, it was all about score chasing and grabbing the fat man’s attention. Nothing too complicated or mysterious about the motivation.

  4. Michel Rolland doesn’t bother me that much. He’s done great things to improve the quality of mid-tier Bordeaux.

    Where Authentic Wines should embrace consultants in on the business of selling wine. Most of the powerful wine businesses sell a generically good product. If the unique, interesting, and (there’s that word again) authentic wines could harness a consultant to help them sell their unique proposition, that would really be something.

  5. This all reminds me of one of my favorite experiences back in my tasting room days (will intentionally leave out any identifiers). I was working for a winery that was owned by a major corporation and, although our brand was well recognized, we had experienced a lull in scores over the previous decade. We brought in a new winemaker who was able to shore up winemaking practices and get us back into the 89-92 range, but that apparently wasn’t enough for those in the corporate office.

    One year, they threw a bunch of money at a high-profile consultant winemaker, who came in on their white horse and changed the paradigm. That year, we let the fruit set longer in all of our vineyards to get higher concentrations of sugar (and of course, elevated alcohol), which led to bigger, bolder flavors and darker color extractions. Then we were told to stop using ANY filtration during the winemaking process… sure, it may remove some unwanted entities, but can cost you 1 or 2 points right there!

    Sure enough, six months later, we open our first bottles and they are big, bold, fruity… everything a California Wine Critic could ever want and the scores started coming in… 93s and 94s! Hurray for us… success!

    and then…

    … a few months later, every wine that we didn’t filter turned bretty as s***!!! Intense fruit flavors suddenly became skunkier than the close-out bin at the local medical marijuana dispensary! That wine that scored a 94 earlier in it’s life came back with a 76 and “undrinkable” from a major publication months later. Hundreds of cases of high-end wine had to be written off and literally dumped down the drain (and no, this wasn’t a case of “well, maybe I’ll salvage a bottle or two for cooking”… it was REALLY undrinkable).

    The consultant rode off into the sunset with their bags of money, never to be officially associated with this debacle (thus able to do the same unto others down the line), and the powers that be decided that maybe trusting the actual head winemaker they hired who made 89-92 point wines of actual place and character would be good enough for this brand.

    And that’s the crux of this story… indeed, consultants may be able to make wines of their particular character, but unless they have 1st-hand knowledge of (a) the vineyards they are sourcing from and (b) the facilities in which they are being made, you are probably better off just sticking with the winemaker you have (unless they are under-performing to begin with, in which case, you should probably just hire someone else anyway).

  6. Dear Graham, great story. Thanks for writing in.

  7. redmond barry says:

    Thanks for illustrating your theme. After judicious study, I offer my opinion that the examples shown, though similar in overall appeal, offer significant variations in colors, textures, firmness and body to delight any connoisseur.Furthermore I detect no signs of artificial enhancements beyond ordinary cosmetic adjustments. How they will age is another story.

  8. iugradmark says:

    I am not sure the gulf between people talking about the “New California Wine” style and established wineries is as great as it seems to be played out by all of the insiders. I think both camps are making wines that match the style of the vineyards from where they come.

    My take on some of the more restrained styles are that they are coming from location choices for the most part. Some winemakers are choosing to push to the coast, the deep end of Anderson Valley, the colder parts of Russian River, etc. The wines naturally carry these characteristics. I think one of the attacks on these winemakers are that they are just picking earlier or forcing vineyards to behave in ways that is not optimal. Certainly some of that is happening but for most of the producers I speak with, they start with matching the place to the style and not the other way around. This is why I don’t think 2011 is a good comparison to what these folks are doing.

    On Adam’s point, 2011 forced early picking in vineyards that were often not ready but had to be harvested due to rain and other issues. For many, these wines were outside the normal managing of the sites and how the wineries typically make their wines so not a true test of market preference.

    In the end, I think that the movement towards wines with higher acidity, lower alcohol, less winery intervention is about the food movement as much as anything else. As the explosion of farm to table, farmers markets, farm CSA’s, local ingredients, etc. moves forward there is a certain group of consumers looking for wines that meld with these ingredients dare I use the term more european in nature. I don’t see how this is a threat or fight against established brands but an expansion of matching our vineyard sites in the new world to the wine styles that bring out the characteristics of these locations.

  9. It is not about the consultants. It’s about those that hire them. Their purpose is to have the consultants make a wine with a style that will rate high on the 100 point scale to create a stronger market and higher prices for their wine. We would not have the consultants if we didn’t have the 100 point scale,
    which ……
    Misrepresents the subjective nature of our gustatory and olfactory senses.
    It acts as a driving force for creating wines that are uniform in style.
    It discourages diversity and creativity preferring cookie cutter wines that please the reviewers.
    It gives the illusion that the specific score was scientifically measured and it is absolute.
    It forces winemakers to make wines that are designed for the higher ratings abandoning their passion or their emotional connection for these wines.

    It’s sad but true. It’s all about being opportunistic and taking advantage of the system to sell more wine at higher prices.

  10. Ed Masciana says:

    All this points to the mania in the wine biz. It’s all about scores and getting noticed, NOT about making wine. The fact is, most of these wineries are owned by people who made their money doing something else. They’re hobbiests, not winery owners who have to make a living.

    Once your ego gets in the way, you deserve to fail. And that’s what is going to happen to most of these hobbiests.

  11. Why would any winery bringing in a talented individual to help make better wine be a bad thing?

    Why would one style of wine please all reviewers? The fact is that Laube is not Tanzer is not Jon Bonne is not me is not Parker.

    The idea that anyone deserves to fail is an unfortunate thing to say.

    And the idea that the 100-point system has anything to do with using Rolland or anyone else is patently absurd. For one thing, Rolland is basically a claret consultant. What does he have to do with Zin or Chard or Riesling?

    One simple example as counter to the consultant style argument. Corison Cabs are not only very different from the International Style that is getting pilloried here, but it is also exceptionally successful with a very wide range of tasters because it is good wine, not stylistic imitation.

  12. Bob Henry says:

    Steve, et. al.:

    Regarding . . .

    “I, myself, have always wondered why a winery would hire a famous consultant. Don’t they trust their everyday winemaker? Don’t they trust their growers? How would you feel if you got a great job as a winemaker and the next thing you know, your employer tells you he’s bringing in Michel Rolland as a consultant? What does a consulting winemaker bring to the table, anyway, except bragging rights for ownership? It’s never been clear to me. …”

    . . . in the business world, many CEOs are assigned “career coaches” by their boards of directors.

    These “Paladins” encourage management to get out of their comfort zone, question their preconceived notions and the received/conventional wisdom, and see the world with fresh eyes.

    “Flying winemakers” consultants can serve the same function.

    At my former ad agency client General Electric, they have maintained a multi-decade long relationship with a management consultant who serves those functions and more. You don’t get to the upper echelon of G.E. without being an “outlier” in smarts and talent.

    And to their credit, G.E. doesn’t fall victim to corporate hubris. They recognize that they don’t have all the answers — and incisive questioning by an outsider elevates their game.

    And who is this real-life Yoda?

    Ram Charan.

    Use this link to learn more about his stature in the business community:

    From Fortune magazine
    (April 24, 2007, Page Unknown):

    “The Strange Existence of [General Electric consultant]
    Ram Charan:
    What he does is hard to describe.
    But the most powerful CEOs love it enough
    to keep him on the road 24/7 and make him
    the most influential [business] consultant alive.”

    Link: http://money.cnn.com/magazines/fortune/fortune_archive/2007/04/30/8405482/index.htm

    By David Whitford

    ~~ Bob

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