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Do winemakers pander to critics?


You may remember a few weeks back when Jancis Robinson set the blogosphere agog with her remark, made at a conference in Spain, that wine critics are “parasitical.”

But overlooked was another remark made at that conference, by the editor of Decanter, Guy Woodward, to the effect that some winemakers make wines to suit the palates of certain critics. (I couldn’t find the exact quote, but the paraphrase is from an article on the conference published in last April’s Decanter.)

I wouldn’t think there’d be any debate about the truth of Mr. Woodward’s statement, but there was a flurry of incredulity that winemakers would even be conscious of critics. The article quoted one Spanish winemaker as saying, “I don’t even think it is possible to do this.”

Well, it is.

The first time I learned that winemakers craft wines to suit the palates of certain critics was years ago, when a California winemaker told me so. He wanted to make a Pinot Noir that would get at least 90 points from a certain well-known wine magazine (no, not the one I work at). So he studied every Pinot review that got 90 points, carefully analyzing the adjectives and the flavor descriptors, and Bingo! He eventually got his 90 point Pinot Noir (which he humorously admitted to me he didn’t much care for!)

Actually, that winemaker could have asked Enologix to do the analysis in a more scientific way. Enologix is a firm that describes itself as “the quality metric for the California wine industry.” Basically, you hire Enologix to tell you exactly what to do to get a high score on your wine. It’s paint-by-the-numbers winemaking (this is all from their website) to get “100-point scores.”

Now, lest you think I’m beating up on Enologix, or on the wineries that hire them, I swear I’m not. Heck, I’m sure I’ve given high scores to wines that were made using their “metric.” All I mean to say is that it’s obvious that winemakers aim to please certain critics.

Put yourself in the winemaker’s head. “Gee, I have to pay the bank. I have my mortgage, my kids’ college tuitions. Salaries, overhead, depreciation, rising fuel costs, new equipment and barrels. And we may have to replant that virused old section of the vineyard.” This is the hidden side of the “glamorous” wine industry. The winemaker can’t just make something he likes, he’s got to produce something that sells. And what better way to sell wine than to get a great score from a famous critic? (You think Spielberg wasn’t anxious about the reviews for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull?)

So, really, if some winemakers are pandering to certain critics, I can’t be too hard on them. It’s easy to throw brickbats from the outside. On the other hand (being a Gemini, I always see the other hand), the best winemakers strive to obey the dictates of what Richard Olney, in his little book Romanée-Conti, calls le génie du terroir: “whatever it is lying hidden there that makes a wine from a given climat different from its neighbors.”

It’s a tremendous balancing act, this need to respect both nature and the market, and I get impatient with purists who insist that any nod to the market is somehow disrespectful of terroir. In addition to le génie du terroir, le génie du marché is to have your wine respected among connoisseurs and bring a high price. (One of the best examples of accomplishing both is Harlan.) We need a new word, neither terroir nor market-driven, that describes the true genius of making it all work.

  1. Nice writing style. Looking forward to reading more from you.

    Chris Moran

  2. Morton Leslie says:

    I don’t think winemakers would pander as much as they do if critics didn’t make it so easy. If critics weren’t so easily influenced by oak, maybe Harlan wouldn’t be extracting brand new Taransaud barrels every year into each new vintage and we wine drinkers wouldn’t be choked by the everyone’s wood. If critics didn’t have simplistic attitudes toward wine quality like a darker colored wine is better than a lighter one, a few winemakers might seek a different balance instead of over extracting. But you get bitterness when you over-extract so you need alcohol to hide it, so you make 15% alcohol wines. What do you know? The critic turns out to like wine smelling and tasting more of ethanol and simplisticly a more intense flavor is better than a less intense flavor. It also helps that they line them up side by side so they can pick out the biggest. Sometimes I think wine critics are teens who also want the biggest and fastest car, the loudest stereo, the biggest screen television and the flashiest clothes.
    Besides being easy to predict. critics are even easier to influence. What if they didn’t believe everything a winemaker tells them? My experience is they buy 95% of what they are told and we later see it, always a little garbled, in print presented as the critics own observation. The art is coming up with something new, interesting, plausible, and something that makes them look good. That’s why the reader gets to read all this biodynamic B.S. or has to read about every Tom, Dick and Harry’s unique terroir. Tell Ms. Robinson that you bottle by the moon, recycle wine labels, and generate renewable power with a dynamo powered by pomace and lees and she will be scribbling for an hour about her new favorite winery.

  3. Rusty Eddy says:


    Putting you and Alice Feiring on a panel together to discuss Jancis Robinson’s comments would make for good theater. Full disclosure: I have enjoyed both Alice’s and your book…


  4. Rusty,

    Hey, fine with me.

  5. Steve,

    I too enjoyed the tone of this blog – it’s easy to ‘take sides’ in this issue and I’m pleased that you have eloquently viewed this issue from both sides.

    It is interesting that some critics believe that winemakers do not alter their ‘styles’ to try to impress said critics. I have spoken with numerous winemakers who have certainly ‘done things’ that they may not otherwise do in order to ‘impress’ critics and others.

    Looking forward to other comments and future blogs! Cheers!

  6. Great topic.

    I think the answer is a simple one – of course some wineries pander to critics. When a Parker score can up your selling price per bottle by 30% or more… well, that’s got to be tempting…!

  7. Morton, very wise post. I agree with a lot of what you say, having been exposed to the PR and spin all these years. I think the more reputable critics try to come up with their [our] own ideas and opinions, not just rehashing what we’ve been told. That’s why I increasingly prefer not to taste with winemakers but in my own, controlled environment — and I never read the winemaker’s tasting notes! All I’m i interested in is technical information, like alcohol, TA and case production.

    On extract, new oak, etc., well, we all like what we like! I’m not down on 15% alcohol wines per se. If they work, they work and can be yummy. I wouldn’t necessarily equate them with the fastest cars or loudest stereos. But this debate will never end…

  8. “When a Parker score can up your selling price per bottle by 30% or more… well, that’s got to be tempting…!”

    1WineDude, you have hit the nail on the head!

  9. The difference between a well-rated wine and one that is not rated is not necessarily $30 – it could be the difference between selling out a vintage and selling very little.

    Steve I really am struck by the sublime balance of your post on this touchy subject. I fear if I had tackled it, my effort would have come out as just another polemic. Chapeau!

    So in the spirit of balance I will say sure, winemakers try to make critic-pleasing wines! It is certainly not a new phenomenon. Back in 1988 I worked at a famous winery over on Silverado Trail, and the place went into a tizzy when the most influential writer panned their Chardonnay – the entire winemaking program changed overnight. I was appalled.

    A number of years ago I had the pleasure of dining with Riccardo Cotarella at his home. We went back and forth for hours (and over uncounted bottles – ouch!) about making wines to please critics. I was younger and more naive then, and I had a tough time swallowing his stance that he essentially wanted to be in league with his critic of choice.

    Today, I have to hand it to the man – he is still getting killer reviews out of New York, as well as “tre bicchieri” from Gambero Rosso, and as far as I can tell those guys still frown on the “international” style.

    In all honesty, if I had the money – and if I could manage to finally purge my ego from the equation – I too would probably turn over my winegrowing decisions to Leo and Susan at Enologix.

  10. “Do winemakers pander to the critics?” It depends whether by winemaker you mean the individual or the company.” The West Coast winemakers do not pander to anyone. The appeal and point of the American winemakers’ lifestyle is to be an individual, to be your own person. But companies throughout the new world do pander to the critics for economic reasons. I propose a segue question, “What’s really important about the critics?” Economically, taste scores are positively correlated with price. This leads to much larger question, “Do consumers trust the winemakers price with respect to claims of quality, aging potential and terroir?” As a mathematician interested relating winemaking to the consumer value-chain the question is, “Do winemakers pander to the consumer?”

  11. Leo, I think winemakers (and winery companies) pander to the critics in order to get high scores — as you yourself well understand. They also pander to consumers because they need to sell their wine. Sometimes there’s a conflict between the critics and the consumers and this causes confusion for winemakers. Hence the need for marketing and PR support, to help the winemaker know what direction to take. As for your question, “What’s really important about the critics,” at the risk of sounding self-serving, I’ll just point out that everyone in the industry says the critics are really important, so there must be a grain of truth in it.

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