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Are winemakers cynical?


Alder Yarrow set off a s**t-storm last week with his post at Vinography that asked the question, Are “cynical” winemakers deliberately making “bad enough [wine] that they wouldn’t want to drink it themselves”? What led Alder to wonder this was a conversation he had with an unnamed friend, who told him that “many winemakers in Napa are making wine that they know is bad, just because they think it is what the public wants.” Alder, being a good-natured, trusting soul, could scarcely believe this could be the case.

Well, could it?

Without giving a lie detector test to every working winemaker in California, we can’t know what goes on inside their minds. But maybe I can shed a little light on the topic.

I first realized that winemakers don’t always make the kinds of wines they personally like years ago, when a Central Coast vintner told me how he had studied the scores and texts of Wine Spectator Pinot Noir reviews in order to produce one he was reasonably sure would be rated at least 90 points (90 being the threshold below which wines die a slow death). I remember him telling me that it wasn’t his style — not the kind of Pinot he would produce if he could do whatever he wanted. But he couldn’t do whatever he wanted, because the marketplace was out there, and to succeed he needed a 90-point Pinot Noir (which, by the way, he got).

So was the winemaker being cynical? My dictionary defines cynical as “believing that people are motivated in all their actions by selfishness…”. Well, now we have to define “selfish.” “too much concerned with one’s own welfare or interests and having little or no concern for others.”

If being “selfish” shows a lack of concern for others, then it can’t really be selfish to make a wine you believe others will like, can it? If that were the case, then being “selfless” would be to make a wine you like. Which makes no sense at all.

Look, we’re all concerned with our own welfare (unless you’re Mother Theresa, and look at the Dark Nights of the Soul she experienced trying to resolve this contradiction between self and non-self).


There’s a body of philosophical thought stressing that self-interest is actually in the common good. This was popularly expressed in the 1987 Oliver Stone movie, Wall Street, where Michael Douglas’s character, Gordon Gekko, tells his company’s shareholders:

The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed — for lack of a better word — is good.

Greed is right.

Greed works.

Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit.

Greed, in all of its forms — greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge — has marked the upward surge of mankind.

Was the Central Coast winemaker being greedy? I don’t think so. Nobody in his right mind would make a wine he clearly suspected the public would dislike. We thus have to assume that every winemaker is “greedy” in the sense he hopes his product will reward him and keep him in business.

Yes, I know many winemakers who so lust for a Parker 90-plus that they hire consultants like David Abreu and Michel Rolland in order to achieve that Parkerized style. Is that cynical, selfish and greedy? Again, I don’t think so. I know a ton of winemakers, both self-employed and working for others, who understand that their jobs depend on satisfying what the public wants. It’s an insult to them to suggest they’re being cynical, any more than you are for trying to comply with your company’s wishes.

Are there winemakers out there making wines so bad, they themselves wouldn’t drink them? I seriously doubt it. Sure, there are lots of dreadful, horrible wines; sometimes, when I’m tasting, I’m driven to distraction by how downright nasty some of the California plonk is. But are these wines made by cynical winemakers hoping to foist something over on the public, or just untalented winemakers who don’t know, or don’t want to know, they’re producing crap? I would suggest the latter, and that includes some truly expensive wines. Just because you’re charging 80 bucks for your bottle doesn’t mean you know squat.

  1. Winemakers have also told me that they often make wines to a formula – be it one for mass appeal or high scores. Some will defend this, speaking of it in matter-of-fact terms and conveying through their tone that this is a perfectly normal and legitimate approach. Others will speak about doing this in ways that convey their distaste or disdain for these formulaic wines and implicitly or explicitly convey that these are wines made for one sector of the market (to pay the bills or whatever) while the other wines they make are closer to their hearts.

    The interesting tangent that arose on Alder’s blog was one addressing the question whether winemakers are artists (or maybe artistes), craftsmen (-women) or artisans.

    I did not take too many art history classes in my (not-so-distant) youth, but I seem to remember that quite a few of the greats knocked out a few portraits of the rich, some frescoes or murals to subsidize their more lofty artistic pursuits.

  2. I believe that “the public” generally is afraid of being wrong. For this reason, they trust “experts”, like Parker, to tell them what they should like. As a consequence, the money rolls into the anointed wineries and the greed snowball takes off, as Steve has eloquently demonstrated.

    Last week, I sat down with my wine making team and wanted to come up with a plan that we all agreed upon that would develop certain metrics that if attained, could earn them a bonus. Sadly, the first thing that came to mind was critical rating success. We all agreed that we could not possibly use a wine critic to judge our own success. We left the meeting without a concrete plan, but with the intention of making the best wines possible and listening to our customers for feedback. The bonus will be some sort of team goal.

    The bottom line, from our winery, is that we’re not going to play in the critic’s sandbox, we’re focused on our customer alone. We see chasing scores as the Hare and hard work and customer service as the Tortoise. We all know who wins that race.

  3. Arthur: great point about artists knocking out frescoes. I believe Michaelangelo was hired by the then Pope to do the Sistine chapel and ceiling. It was strictly a “contract labor” job. Nowadays, we call it the highest expression of art. Go figure.

  4. Thanks, Steve.

    That was my point precisely. Yes, there are esoteric works which were done for art’s sake which have survived because their appeal and value transcends time. However, many of today’s prized, classic, benchmark works were commercial “contract jobs”. A large portion of the latter do pass into obscurity. The ones that persist as iconic do so because the patronage of entities like the church or noblemen allowed their creator to marry commercial and artistic needs. Those forgotten “contract jobs” sustained their creators enough so they had, time, energy and resources to create their loftier pursuits.
    Even in commercial endeavors like wine, there is an impetus (in the form of the precedent of a formidable reputation or the need to maintain standards) that drives winemakers to make high quality products.

  5. East Coast Winemaker says:

    I find it interesting that this would not be an issue in any other industry. That GM or Kraft or Rolex would make anything OTHER than something that is geared for a specific audience is laughable. It seems this boils down to the idea that winemaking is a “passion” and that winemakers pursue some misty, faint, personal artistic goal. While that is true to a certain extent, I still have a mortgage to pay and house to heat. So if you want your oaky Chardonnay, well, I think I can make that happen!

  6. Tannic:

    I am with you. One can only do the best possible job one can, letting one’s vineyards and fruit, and winemaking philosophy shine through as authentically as possible.

    One can never truly know what another will see in his/her wine anyway…so we make ourselves proud first, make wine for our guests next, and hope the critic will enjoy it too.

    Steven Mirassou

  7. Brad Alderson says:

    It’s not a question of being cynical it’s a question of being a professional. Winemakers, like chefs, need to work with their audience. If you need to make a White Zinfandel to please your Aunt (who still represents a large and loyal part of our market) you make the most the wine that gives her the most pleasure. You might prefer a dry Rose instead and you should make one and promote it.

    A better question would be, “Is their a herd mentality in winemaking that is causing California wines to lose their style and personality, and become generic clones of each other?”

  8. i don’t think winemakers are cynical at all. In general, they are very dedicated, and want to turn out a top-notch product. That said, you can’t ignore what the drinking public seems to want, or wine critics either. Fortunately, there isn’t one wine-drinking public, but millions of individual wine drinkers, each with their own likes and dislikes. While wine critics seem to tend as a group towards riper, fuller bodied wines, there are many who do not fit that profile. So two winemakers can make very different wines, each of which will please some part of that public, or one wine critic but not another. I have a hard time believing that there are many winemakers who are making what they believe are bad wines. I doubt I’ve met one. But you can’t rely just on what you like either. Each winemaker needs to understand his own likes and dislikes, and where his preferences may be outside of what most people prefer. I like wines with lots of tannins, but know I can’t expect most people to agree with me on that. So I get others’ opinions about tannin levels instead of relying solely on my own preferences. I end up with a wine that has perhaps less tannin than would be my preference, but it’s still a good wine. I wouldn’t make a wine I thought was bad under any circumstances, even if I thought it would garner critical acclaim.

  9. Brad, I go back and forth on “Is there a herd mentality.” The International Style has been much written about, but there are really some great wines made that way. I think California is broadening out from chocolate and vanilla. Look at the number of white and red varieties that barely existed ten years ago.

  10. I have to say that I continue to be amazed by the notion that winemakers solely craft wines that are true to their hearts and by the fact that people are surprised when they find out otherwise. Go to the wine shop or the wine aisle in the grocery store and look around. Do you think that every wine there is the product of someone’s passion and artistry? Of course not. Most of the wine on those shelves is just a product that someone is creating to satisfy someone else, usually the consumer and sometimes the critic (whose job it is to inform the consumer). When you have the luxury not to have to worry about selling your wine only then can you create a wine that is true to yourself and yourself only. Are there wines like this being created? Sure. Do critics like these wines? I’m sure some of them. Do customers like these wines? I’m sure some of them. But what percentage of wines are these? I’d guess about 1%. Maybe less.

  11. Loved your response to a very provocative article. Sometimes I wish people would just admit the huge subjectivity involved in reviewing/judging wine. We winemakers see it everyday with the public who come into our tasting rooms as well as in our “expert tastings” with fellow winemakers.

    Of course it’s wonderful and usually, but not always, profitable to get a great review for a particular wine. But my former GM at Clos du Bois gave me a really good piece of advice in 1987 about gold medals: you win some; you lose some. Don’t take it too seriously!

  12. Nice to hear from you, Margaret!

  13. Are there cynical winemakers? Sure. Some folks would say that wineries that craft their wines so that they can always be great restaurant wines would be cynical. Others would claim that wineries who double oak their wines (new barrel aging followed by time in another set of new barrels) are cynical.

    The problem is in the eye of the beholder as much as with anything else. The person who made the remark referenced by Vinography has not been identified, but I believe that she also should come in for some examination. If one is tasting a large group of Napa Valley Cabernets, many of which resemble each other because Napa produces lots of what I consider to be very good Cabernet with related characteristics, and then looks at this group of expensive wines, does not like them, and then calls them “cynical”, it seems to me that the “beholder” has her own problem.

    Big Al suggests that only 1% of wines are crafted to the maker’s personal standards. That may be true–or even close to being true, but the tasting in question was of Napa Valley Cabernets and those wines, especially those not created by big wineries in tens and hundreds of thousands of cases, are, in fact, crafted to a standard, to a vision of excellence. Very few people make $80 to $200 Cabernet just to get on wine lists or to earn big scores. Rather, they make their wines to be as good as they can be within the model that each maker individually has for what will taste best. That is why Shafer Hillside Select is different from Stags Leap Cask 23, why Corison Kronos is different from Spottswoode, why Diamond Creek is different from von Strasser. It matters not whether you like any of those wines, a few of them or all of them. Every single one of them comes from a vision of what will be excellent.

    And make no mistake. The person who called those wines “cynical” was not tasting an unending string of high production wines. She was tasting just the opposite. I respect, indeed I honor, her right to not like those wines, but to call them all “cynical” is as absurd as it is uninformed.

    One final word. Steve Mirassou, whose new line of La Rochelle Pinot Noirs from the Santa Lucia Highlands, have a style that someone who likes the tighter lines of Burgundy might also label with pejorative terms, said it best. Most winemakers try to make the best wine they can within the constraints they are under. Santa Lucia Highlands Pinots are not Burgundy. They are also not cynical just because they have a style that someone does not like.

  14. Morton Leslie says:

    Either there are a great number of winemakers who are passionately making Cabernet to their own tastes in a style similar to Cheracol or they’re simply making wines in a style they think will get them critical recognition, brisk sales (as well as soothe the common cough.) It’s one or the other.

    Either way it is an interesting story that should be pursued.

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