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Wineries can’t have it both ways

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It’s an old story: Wineries that get mediocre scores from famous critics say they don’t care because critics are irrelevant. Wineries that get high scores love critics and cite their great reviews in their marketing materials. But what I mean by “you can’t have it both ways” is that you can’t criticize critics and then boast about the high score one of them just gave you.

Well, you can…but it’s a little disingenuous.

I am thinking about this because yesterday, via social media, I heard from a winemaker, quite a famous one, who happens to be an acquaintance of long standing and someone I have enormous respect for. S/he posted that, while the point-scoring system “is something we are not completely down with,” s/he then couldn’t resist citing two super-high scores from Parker. “It feels good,” the winemaker wrote, “when your work is recognized.”

Well, yes, it does. We all crave recognition, that validation in our lives, especially when it’s about our job performance. It feels horrible to be told that you suck, but it’s fantastic to be told you’ve done a great job.

These are the horns of the dilemma on which many winemakers find themselves impaled. They have this weird love-hate relationship with the critics that they don’t quite know how to deal with. I used to experience it myself, back in my day. I’d give a high score to somebody, and the next thing you know, they’d send me a thank-you card—as if I’d done them a favor. Then I’d give a lousy score to somebody, and they’d call me on the phone, complaining. I’d think, sigh… You just have to roll with the punches and not let the praise go to your head, but you also can’t let the anger get under your skin.

The smartest, or at least the most emotionally mature, winemakers I’ve known understand this. They don’t always get what they want in the way of scores, and that must hurt. They and their teams put in this amazing effort to produce what they hope and feel is great wine, and then some critic schlongs them with an 84 or a 67 or whatever. Very painful, and understandably so.

But emotionally mature winemakers don’t call up the offending critic. I mean, not to complain…they might ask for an extended explanation of the problem, and that’s all right. Instead, mature winemakers take a deep breath, send in the next sample, and get on with their lives. Today’s 84 may be tomorrow’s 97—you never know. Never give up hope, and make sure you don’t burn your bridges behind you.

I guess the hardest thing for a winemaker who gets a low score to figure out is this: If he honestly feels that his wine—the one that got criticized—is as good as one that the critic gave a high score to, it must be crazy-making. We’ve all been in life situations where you feel utterly misunderstood and wronged. It’s one of the hardest emotional wringers to go through. You think, “How could he possibly think that?” And you dwell on it, and mull it over and over in your head, but can come up with no explanation. So you might attack the messenger, or the very institution of wine reviewing. You start thinking that maybe the critic had ulterior motives. You begin to doubt your own palate—how could you find your wine so good when the critic found it so ordinary? You start wondering about all sorts of scenarios and fantasies. Maybe you get a little paranoid and resentful.

I would imagine this situation is compounded when you see a critic lavishing high scores over and over again on a wine you have no respect for. You think it’s overripe, flawed, undrinkable; meanwhile, the critic gives it high-90s vintage after vintage. That would make me crazy too.

But it is what it is. We have the wine reviewing system we deserve. It’s the one we must work within, regardless of how much it taxes our patience. So be of good cheer, ye winemakers. Go placidly through the noise and haste. All will be well.

  1. Bob Henry says:

    “… emotionally mature winemakers don’t call up the offending critic. I mean, not to complain…”

    What if the reviewed bottle turned out to be defective and therefore not representative of the crafted product?

    James Laube at Wine Spectator wrote some years ago of experiencing cork-tainted bottles around 8% of the time.

    I’m sure a winemaker would wish to see a retasting from unafflicted bottles.

    But how often does a wine critic have multiple bottles at his disposal for “second opinions”?

    Steve, how did you address the issue of suspected “off” bottles while reviewing for Wine Enthusiast?

  2. Bob Henry says:

    There is one measure of a reviewer’s praise that is almost never seen:

    “I liked this wine so much that I personally bought it.”

    I used to work in “high-end” audio(-phile) music recording and equipment manufacturing/distribution/retailing.

    At “The Absolute Sound” and “Stereophile” magazines, reviewers have “beats” like newspaper reporters: turntables, electronics, loudspeakers.

    A reviewer takes a product into his home for a weeks- or months-long trial. Compares it to existing components in his audio playback reference system.

    At the conclusion of that in-home testing, a written review appears.

    At the conclusion of some reviews — in support of “full disclosure” transparency — a reviewer might declare the product is so superior to what he already owns that he is purchasing the review model to upgrade his reference system.

    Do wine reviewers ever declare their “vote of the wallet” affinities?

    If not — why not?

    I encourage reviewers to make that a new year’s resolution.

    (We’ve all seen the Capital One® Credit Cards TV commercials that ask: “What’s in your wallet?” I ask: what’s in your wine cellar?)

  3. Points well-taken, Steve. Perhaps it is best for winemakers to keep in mind if you live by the points you die by the points. We should just keep doing the best job we can, and not alter wine styles to please the crickets.

  4. Rick Steele says:

    I imagine this is the same thing entertainers go through when the (insert award here) are doled out.

    When I was a lowly grape-counter at Robert Mondavi I remember the Verklempt Kerfuffle between Tim Mondavi and James Laube over what constitutes a 92+ wine. Tim’s contention, which was echoed from Oakville to Kaiser Road, was that Laube was suddenly into “fruit bombs” and that’s why Tim’s 1998s and 1999s weren’t getting the scores they deserved. If a peaceable denouement arose, I don’t recall it.

    Then there was my visit to Woodbridge where Dave Akiyoshi told us that the 100-point system was really a 20-point system and that’s what it should morph into. I kinda thought it made sense…oh well.

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