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Thursday Thorns
Dan Berger Called Me . . . . . . To Discuss Wine Critics

By Charles Olken

Over the years, I have taken Mr. Berger’s name in vain numerous times. Lord knows he deserves it—but that is another story. So, when I was informed that he was calling, it was with great trepidation that I picked up the phone.

In fairness, Dan has given me an earful or two over the years as well. We are like a couple of bull walruses butting heads. In order for us to agree on anything, we first have to argue about it. Anyone who knows us both will recognize that we are not immune to argument at the drop of an opinion, yet I had not spoken to or about Dan for weeks, or at least days, so I could not imagine what bone he wanted to pick with me this time.

Turns out, miracle of miracles, that Dan called to say something complimentary. He had read my editorial about wineries afraid of the media and phoned up to tell me that it was spot on. I naturally reacted with all good graces and did not tell him that it was an anecdotal story that in no way applied across the board. Well, what I finally gleaned from friend Berger is that he gets a bit of stick from wineries that find his brand of rhetoric too narrow or too challenging or too something or other.

So here is the truth, as told to Dan. Wineries do not trust writers because we are not cheerleaders. When we do not applaud them or do not applaud the categories in which they are working, they get upset and they say so. My views on Chardonnay are somewhat more broadly accepting than Dan’s, and thus he gets far more pushback on that subject than I do.

I don’t want to make too much more of this except to say that one need only look at the large number of comments from winemakers who felt their efforts with Syrah were being assaulted and insulted, deprecated and denigrated because I am not ready to anoint Syrah generally as the second coming of the vinous nirvana. Okay, I get it, and so probably does Dan. Conversation, discussion, presentation of another point of view is what the comments section of the CGCW blog should be about. Many of the winemakers who provided their views understand that equation. I hope they all do, and I hope that they will back up their beliefs with wines that can be judged blind against what I think are very good standards.

But I will repeat what I said above. A good critic tells the truth as he or she sees it, and the value of that criticism is not measured by how well it plays with the winemakers. A good critic is not a cheerleader—and that is why some wineries are afraid of the media and others get upset at times with what gets written. It has always been thus in the continuing struggles between purveyor and critic. And, if that essential equation ever changes in favor of the purveyors, then the wine-drinking public for whom we write will be getting short shrift.


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by John
Posted on:7/1/2011 7:59:17 AM

Charlie - fear is a loaded word. Fear of what? I suppose there are winemakers and winery owners out there who require the approbation of the media to find worth in their own wines. They fear bad or indifferent reviews as challenges to their validity, rather than what reviews really are really are: opinions.

Other wineries are so driven by the bottom line that the success of every media outreach is judged on whether and in what direction these outreaches move the sales needle. The question of metrics aside, the choices these wineries make on whether or not to send their wine to this or that reviewer are purely business decisions - nothing personal.

But in my own case (and I believe I am hardly unique) I recognize that when you render an opinion on where a wine of mine fits in your pantheon, all that matters is the mention. I assume that your readers who base their buying decisions on your reviews share your palate. I don't lose potential sales to them if you give an indifferent assessment.

What would be nice is, unless a wine is truly flawed or horribly insipid,  reviewers would say something like: "this wine is interesting; I didn't care for it enough to rank it 92 points but it should find an appreciative audience."

As for reviewers "getting stick" from wineries - how about giving some of us the same sort of respect you give Dan? Sure some are going to simply complain about getting low scores, but others recognize that maybe we (wineries/reviewers) need to argue over our differences of opinion.

What? Me Worry?
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:7/1/2011 9:30:17 AM


Believe me when I tell you this. I give you a lot more respect than I give Dan. We just know how to disagree with each other and remain friends even while we find much to criticize about each other's views.

When CGCW issues an opinion about a wine, it is, as you say, just that. It is an opinion. It is our opinion based on blind tasting in peer-to-peer comparisons. Wines get or do not get positive reviews based on what they show on the tasting table.

There are wines for which reviews do suggest that the style is going to appeal to some palates and not to others. But there are also some wines where the wine is pretty clearly of a particular quality level based on focus, balance, adherence to varietal norms, overall attractiveness, and the reivew says so. Each wine deserves and gets respsct, but the review is something it has to earn.

I never mind disagreements with folks. What I mind is being insulted because I disagree. And what I equally mind are namby-pamby reviews that do not have the gumptiion to state what the reviewer actually experienced for fear of offending the wineries.

There is no disrespect for the wineries in printing a review that is precisely the opinion of the critic. And it cannot be elsewise--ever.


by John
Posted on:7/1/2011 10:28:54 AM

Charlie - I wish all reviewers were as up-front about the process (and result) of wine criticism, and what it means in the grand scheme of things.

In my opinion, the lack of transparency evinced by some critics, the hints of a connection between scores received and advertising dollars spent in others, and the clear tit-for-tat by a very few (gee, I wish I had a private jet to fly you on to my chateau for the weekend, and a dinner with priceless wines from my cellar and amazing cigars after, before we go to the cellar to "rate" our wines!) begs for some degree of outrage from the industry, and deserves some level of insult. At the very least it generates a modicum cynicism among producers.

But just like all California Syrah isn't equally shite, painting all reviewers/critics with the same brush is a mistake.

I don't send our wines for review where I don't believe they will get a fair shake. If our wines get average reviews from a fair, transparent critic, I'm accepting of it and never would consider flinging an insult, any more than I would insult a customer who comes through my door. That's just bad business.

hate, not fear
by Thomas Pellechia
Posted on:7/1/2011 10:59:02 AM

Hell, my wine writing is not in the review and criticism realm, yet if I don't write glowingly about one particular winery in my neighborhood, about which I have written many nice things, I am accused of hating them and trying to bring them down. Recently, I wrote about a certain practice with which I disagreed and sure enough, the "you are trying to bring us down" phone call arrived.

ergo ego
by Jack
Posted on:7/1/2011 12:32:50 PM

Interesting, very interesting... I think I love John's view, in fact I share his ire. That said, I believe its fairly obvious to the wine buying public ($30 ) that at least one magazine and only one subscription based publication do just as John so eloquently stated above. Furthermore, I believe critics, the ones that earn a living their pen, realize, that they need to raise awareness on behalf of our industry (winemaking) to keep us in check, so to speak. I think it was Dan, or maybe Nick that wrote about the sameness in wine (1996 or 97 ?) "globe trotting consultants" that actually helped us not go down that road, and hone our own skills when we set up shop in Sonoma. But, powerful critics need to also think, with regard to wineries (sine qua non) and can not lose site of the fact that every man is righteous in his own eyes "EGO BABY" we all got-em.

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