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THURSDAY THORNS
12/22/2011
Thursday Thorns
Criticizing Blake Gray

By Charles Olken

My friend Gray Blake is in trouble again. I think he looks for it, enjoys it. And even when I get his name backwards, he is still in trouble. This time, he is picking on Antonio Galloni, who some of you will remember is Robert Parker’s handpicked replacement to cover California wine.

Mr. Blake has apparently been nosing around the way that Galloni has set up to do business here in California. Galloni writes in an email, justifying but not fully explaining why he works through local vintners’ organizations to find the wines he will review, that he does not charge the organizations to taste and that he insists that those organizations treat all local wineries equally whether or not they choose to belong to said organizations.

Turns out however, that the truth lies somewhere else. The organizations are essentially strong-arming wineries that do not belong to their group into joining under threat that their wines will not be passed along to Galloni (Parker) for review. Blake Gray, being the journalist that he is, has dug around for the back channel story and found the offending local emails and published them in his blog. He of course could not miss the obvious contradiction between the Galloni statement of policy and the local organization statement of policy.

I call Blake G. my friend, but the truth is that we are journalistic acquaintances who have crossed swords more than once. Blake can be a little bit prickly that way, and I can be a little “in your face” with my opinions at times. Still, we are more friends than not. But, after all, truth is truth, and if my truth offends Blake, well, too damn bad.

And that, folks, is how I react to all the hullabaloo that broke out over on his blog after he published the truth. Truth is truth, and too damn bad if some folks think it is muckraking or sensationalism. If he were wrong or shading the facts, then he would rightfully be in trouble. But, he is not. He has published actual statements from the folks involved and hung them on their petards. For that, he is being criticized. Blake is no different from the rest of us, save for liking to dig out the details better than most of us, and for doing that, he should be congratulated, not criticized.

Congratulations, Gray. We are friends again—for today.


 

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Comments

Your Truth
by Adam Lee/Siduri Wines
Posted on:12/22/2011 9:41:43 AM

Charlie,

I could not disagree more.  Here's part of what I posted over on Blake's blog:

"Antonio Galloni is coming to Sonoma County, the most far-flung and varietally diverse wine county in California. So he approaches the largest and most-geographically diverse Winery marketing organization in the county about putting on a tasting for him. They contact Member Wineries first and these tastings largely fill up the two days that Antonio has to taste. People are upset because this isn't what they believe to be the "maximum inclusion" Antonio mentioned in his email.

But wait, Antonio isn't just tasting Sonoma County Vintner's Association wines. He is also tasting wines from the West Sonoma Coast Vintners -- yet another AVA Winery Marketing Group (fee required to join....nobody mentioning them. We just joined as an Associate Member, btw). So that's more inclusive, right?

But wait there's even more. you, Charlie, mention that Antonio, on his own is going to visit other "favored" wineries....so apparently you don't have to be a member of either Winery Marketing group for Antonio to taste with you. That's more inclusive, right?

But wait, there's even more. In my only experience with Antonio, I read that he was visiting the Central Coast. I emailed him asking him if he was interested in tasting our Central Coast wines. He wrote back, said that he was, asked me about tasting other wines from the SLH, which he did, and also wanted to visit the vineyards and learn about the farming so he could have a better understanding of the wines. So it seems that email might also be a way to get him to taste your wines.

And this is what we are complaining about? I can tell you that most wine writers don't go to that inclusive and comprehensive on their first visit to a region."

Adam Lee

Siduri Wines

The Truth
by Lee
Posted on:12/22/2011 10:02:53 AM

Adam (et al)

The SCVA specifically stated they would not present wines to Galloni UNLESS you were a member.

When asked how to submit wines from SoCo to WA, Galloni (WA)  said (and I paraphrase) :

You must get them to SCVA.

Therefore, in this particular case, you MUST be a member of SCVA to get your wines tasted by Galloni, EVEN THOUGH he specifically states that this is not WA's policy, and that WA has given strict instructions not to exclude Non Member Wineries.

That's the story.. and I think Blake provided a good service by publicizing it, as it has resulted in the SCVA recinding the offending requirement.

Your Truth
by Adam Lee/Siduri Wines
Posted on:12/22/2011 10:13:23 AM

Lee,

Am I not correct that Antonio is tasting wines the West Sonoma Coast Vintners Association?  And he is making arrangeents to taste at other wineries as well?  So there were obviously other ways to have your wine tasted.

As far as the blog goes....if there was an issue it was  apparently with the SCVA, as you correctly point out.  So to publish that under the headline, "Wine Advocate in Sonoma County: No Scandal, So Far" is, IMO, misleading, and throwing the Wine Advocate under the bus when they seemingly didn't do anything wrong.

Adam Lee

Siduri Wines

My Truth
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:12/22/2011 10:15:23 AM

Hi Adam--

I get your points but I find them a bit too limiting for my purposes. You have to remember that my attitude is all-inclusive and does not rely on trade organizations to get me wine to taste. Individual wineries supply whatever they want to supply and I buy the rest.

That puts every winery on an equal playing field in terms of access to CGCW.

Then, CGCW tastes the wines at our own table, blind, with only knowledge of vintage and variety. We do not know which wineries are in the tasting nor do we know the provenance. Once again, an equal playing field.

It does not matter, therefore, if we have a prediliction or not for RRV or SLH or West Sonoma or Rutherford because the wines have to speak for themselves within the context of the totality of available bottlings.

Beyond that philosophical difference, I don't get why anybody would pillory Blake for his reporting. He did not report falsely. I don't like the "preference" system that Parker and Galloni and the late-lamented Jay Miller employ. But in this case, Blake is reporting it and for that, he got an excessive amount of stick--in my opinion, of course.

Your Truth
by Adam Lee/Siduri Wines
Posted on:12/22/2011 10:42:42 AM

Charlie,

If we are going to chat about tasting methodology I would, as I posted in my comments in Blake's blog, prefer blind tastings.  I agree with you wholeheartedly about that.  But didn't think that was part of Blake's blog.  And, fwiw, I don't know that Antonio isn't tasting the SCVA or West Sonoma wines blind (do you?  I once saw Parker tasting the Hospice du Rhone arranged  wines and they were bagged). --

I do wish that you separated Oregon Pinot Noir out from CA Pinot Noir...but that is my personal preference. I also wish that you had a tasting for some more obscure varietals, such as Pinot Meunier (which we make), Mourvedre (we don't make that), Dessert wines (we make one), etc.  Then I would think that would be more completely access.

As to why I would take issue with Blake's reporting....well, there's the aforementioned headline and  the focus on Antonio not on SCVA.

Adam Lee

Siduri Wines

 

My Truth
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:12/22/2011 10:50:51 AM

Thanks, Adam. All good points.

well....
by SUAMW
Posted on:12/22/2011 11:36:14 AM

Truth is absolute. That is why it's called "truth". Opinions, like interpretation of facts, vary between individuals.

 

Blake's blog
by Steve Heimoff
Posted on:12/22/2011 2:49:26 PM

Like I commented on Blake's blog, it was sad to see Blake trying to pull a Jim Budd and "expose" Galloni for pulling a Jay Miller! There's nothing wrong with a visiting critic asking a third party to help coordinate a tasting. I do it a couple times a year, including through the Napa Valley Vintners. It is my belief that Napa wineries know who I am and where to find me, so even if they're not members of NVV, they can easily have me review their wines. The same would obviously be true of Galloni. This is a non-issue.

Issue or Not
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:12/22/2011 4:22:59 PM

Steve--

Judging by the comments from those wineries who have been excluded from WA tastings, it is an issue for those wineries and thus should be for winelovers who pay the WA for coverage but do not get as much of it as perhaps they should.

None of us, including Parker Galloni, Heimoff, Olken, Laube, Tanzer can taste every wine. In compiling the list of possible inclusions in my recent book, some 5,000 winery and second label names popped up in California--and those were only the ones I knew about. 5,000 wineries adds up to 25,000 wines or something like that. If one slants the playing field, then there is no chance for those against whom the field is slanted to get their foot in the door.

That is the issue. It is partly, or even mostly, an organizational issue, but it becomes a Parker Galloni issue when they say they have an open door policy but the people with whom they choose to work do not.

Missing the point?
by Lee
Posted on:12/22/2011 7:13:28 PM

Steve H.....re: There's nothing wrong with a visiting critic asking a third party to help coordinate a tasting....

Yeah, but this is not just that...

This is "a visiting critic asking a third party to help coordinate a tasting, and requiring the fourth party (the winery) to pay the the third party (in this case the Sonoma or Napa County Vintners Association) for access to the visiting critic...

I'm sorry if I'm daft, but this seems to be exactly the same thing that the Jay Miller issue was about, albeit without any accusations that WA or Mr. Galloni was the net recipient of these fees.

Respectfully, Is it possible that this has been such a standard operating procedure for these organizatons, and even though it's explicatly against WA's stated rules, that you are not able to see it as in issue? (at least for smaller unknown wineries?)

No Subject
by Anonymous
Posted on:12/22/2011 8:26:30 PM

Lee,

First off, is in wrong to ask what winery you are associated with and what your interest is? Generally, it is common practice to post with that knowledge available....as I do with the words "Siduri Wines" after every post. I think if you want to quote SOP that would be a practice you would follow. -- And as far as joining an organization and reaping the benefits go....I think think that  most folks can see the difference between that and paying for access....if you can't  then I am sorry for you.

Charlie, you seem to critcize (easy to do) but not provide an answer. You say that it isn't possible for every critic to taste every wine, but then don't provide a solution for that problem. You, Antonio,Steve, etc. don't taste them all...so his solution is found wanting...but so is yours. What gives you the temerity to criticize then if your solution isnt' more successful than theirs? Your open door apparently isn't letting in any more visitors than theirs......

Adam Lee

Siduri Wines

My Solution
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:12/22/2011 10:41:46 PM

Adam--

My solution does not result in anyone being excluded or needing to pay large sums of money to be included.

Connoisseurs' Guide has an absolute open door policy. If you send the wine, and it is a variety we are tasting, then we will taste it.

Beyond that, we shop at several wine stores with broad inventories to fill out our issues. While we make contact with wineries, we do not send out regular solicitations nor do we ask any organization to do that work for us.

An alternate solution for Parker Galloni and for every other taster would be to follow the CGCW example of buying wines to supplement what wineries supply. And then for those wines to be tasted blind in a neutral setting.

If Parker Galloni need someone to accumulate the wines for them, let them hire someone on a part-time basis to do it. CGCW has a wine coordinator. Heimoff has a helper. Leslie Sbrocco has a helper. I dont know specifically what the Spectator does, but I think they have staff who accesses wine directly.

But, it is also true that Steve Heimoff does use the same organizations to help him get access to wines to be tasted in their settings, not his. He claims to have no problem with that. CGCW does not do that, but then again, we grew up in a different era when the rules for critics were a lot more stringent than they seem to tbe today.

Soluion
by Adam Lee/Siduri Wines
Posted on:12/22/2011 11:12:55 PM

Charlie,

I understand what CGCW does and I like it.  I like blind tasting, I like sending bottles, and on and on.  I expressed the couple of things I don't like about what you do...but think those are minor.

I don't think that WA requires anyone to pay large sums of money to be included.  That has not been my experience at least, and that is all I can go on.  I have also been a member of the SCVA for a long time, and have received great benefit from that membership (including lower insurance rates that more than pay for the membership cost) long before any tasting came up.

I personally don't see any issue with having a group accumulate wines for tasting, especially when combined with winery visits and tasting samples sent in...which is, again, what the WA has done in my experiennce.

As far as the era  you grew up in, I was friends with one of the fine wine writers of the era of which you refer, Jerry Mead, so I would posit thtat the era you grew up in wasn't more stringent in its standards than today's era.

Adam Lee

Siduri Wines

 

My Solution
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:12/22/2011 11:44:37 PM

Adam--

I love Jerry. When he moved up to Carson City, I used to go up every Spring to visit with him.

But, yes, Jerry had a different set of standards than the rest of us. He would get stick for it from his friends, but somehow, with Jerry, it was OK because he operated in a parallel to universe to mine. Never saw him as a competitor.

Ethics
by Patrick
Posted on:12/23/2011 11:19:40 AM

As a knowledgeable (I hope!) consumer, I have to say that the CGCW model is emerging from all this controversy as the one that best passes the smell test. The rest, with their back-channel access points and flexible tasting rules, seem to suck.

A long time ago
by Doug Wilder
Posted on:12/23/2011 11:31:07 AM

To get a bottle in front of a critic, do what Adam did when Siduri was unknown. He found out Parker was staying at Meadowood and personally took a bottle over. Recently a vineyard owner read a mention on FB about a tasting I did with a winemaker who also makes her wine. She emailed me and we met at her Knights Valley vineyard that afternoon where she handed me a couple bottles. I doubt I would have learned about this excellent, tiny brand otherwise.

Part of the value of a trade group such as Napa Valley Vintners is in their organization abilities and members recognize the benefits that economy of scale in marketing provides. If they want to belong, they need to justify the cost. In the example above, others do their own marketing, which is a lot easier if the product is of high quality.

NVV organized a significant selection of wines for me through an email sent to their members. It was more efficient than doing it on my own and wine came to one place. I am using that approach for visiting Oregon and Washington and will do it for Napa spring release as well. 

Wine Spec
by anon from Napa
Posted on:12/23/2011 3:39:44 PM

No one has mentioned another way of exclusion. The Wine Spectator (read: Laube) chooses not to review wineries or wines from a specific winemaker for personal reasons known only to himself and doesn't have to comment or ever explain other than they will not guarantee to taste any wine sent to them and that is the way it is. I know of a couple of cases where someone apparently "rubbed" him wrong and were effectively banished and another where a winemaker caught him doing something that could be seen as prejudicial with another winemaker personal friend of his and to whom he has done nothing but drown in praise. Since that incident he has ignored the others wines completely.  

No Subject
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:12/23/2011 6:35:49 PM

Doug--

Nobody, not Blake and certainly not me, has taken a stand against trade organizations. They exist for a number of reasons, some of which you have enumerated quite effectively.

Promoting your products collectively; sharing ideas; working as an industry--these are all good ideas. I grew up in an industry in which my father and then my brother went to the very top of the trade organization. It happened to be the bicycle industry, and during their times in office, they pushed for such useful things as youth hostels, bicycle paths, helmet laws, licensing programs.

I truly believe in the good that such organizations can do. But the issue that Blake brought out, by way of reporting, shows another side, and, if I judge by the comments on his blog, there are plenty of wineries who feel that the associations, esp in Sonoma, may have overstepped its bounds.

To Anon: I have no way of corroborating your comments, and while I have trouble believing that Jim Laube, whom I like very much personally, would engage in some systematic set of exclusionary practices, I would be saddened if it were so.

Winewriters get pilloried, villified and verbally kicked around by wineries all the time. We get shut out, blackballed and badmouthed publicly for honestly derived reviews that offend wineries who think they wines are perfect, and thus, we are unworthy.

I do not hold it against the wineries who will not deal with CGCW for those reasons, but, would it be unreasonable of me or Jim, if I or he did? Like you, I won't name names, but I can tell you from my side of the fence that there are some very unkind people on the winery side of the fence. Maybe Jim ran afoul of one of them. Fortunately for both Jim and me, most of the folks in both sides of the fence manage to get along even as we work in ways that are not always the best ways to make friendships.

WS
by anon in Napa
Posted on:12/23/2011 7:31:28 PM

I can tell you that there were no "bad" reviews involved to cause any ill feelings in either case.

WS
by Thomas Matthews
Posted on:12/24/2011 1:31:09 PM

Ah, Christmastime – Peace on earth, good will towards men…

 

Except apparently in the blogosphere, where “anon in Napa” hijacks this thread to make unsubstantiated accusations against James Laube’s character and Wine Spectator’s ethics.

 

It’s true that Jim doesn’t review every California wine made in every vintage. Neither does the Connoisseur’s Guide; that would be impossible. But it’s not true that we would ever “banish” a winery that “rubbed us the wrong way.” The charges by “anon in Napa” are completely baseless, and until he (or she) provides evidence – and signs his name – they should be dismissed as malicious gossip.

 

Charlie, I’m surprised that your response was more appeasement than repudiation. Let’s all hold ourselves to higher standards. That would be a real step towards truth, peace and good will.

 

Thomas Matthews

Executive editor

Wine Spectator

Appeasement?
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:12/24/2011 4:07:19 PM

Tom--

Let's face it. All of us in this life are only human. I don't know the circumstances to which "Anon" alluded, and, there are wineries whose behavior towards me has left me with distinct distastes towards them--like the guy who should up drunk at my table at ZAP and threatened to punch me out for not reviewing his 24 case bottling of something or the winery owner who cussed me out and promised to never send us a bottle to review again after the 25th review was decidely average in tone after 24 laudatory reviews. She has managed to keep that promise.

So, when I hear that a winewriter may hold a grudge against someone, it would not surprise me, given the unkind, unprofessional behaviors I have witnessed in my three-plus decades in this business, that someone might have a bone or two to pick with those kinds of folks.

I have not, Tom, appeased, Anon, but told him of my high regard for Jim. And I am pleased that someone from the Spectator has come around to dispute the claim.

I would have preferred, however, that Anon had not been anonymous and had named names and that Jim himself had come around to counter the claim of Anon.

Tom, I am happy to continue the personal nature of this conversation and would expect it to move to email if you would care to contact me via the CONTACT button at the top fo the page.

Charlie

Appeasement Part 2
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:12/24/2011 4:18:59 PM

--In the first paragraph, "should" was meant to be "showed".

No Subject
by Gregg Burke
Posted on:12/27/2011 9:54:55 AM

Hey Charlie,

I read Blakes post and I really like his blog, but this one was just clutching at straws. Parker bashing is big right now so why not grab some views by jumping on and kicking the crap of a dead horse. You are better than that Blake.

As for the accusations that Laube banished this person or that person is nonsense if there are no facts to prove it. Do I believe it to be possible? Yes, he has shown a tendency to wear his bias's on his sleeve, but I hope that he has more integrity and professionalism then to do such a thing.  Critics are people, and as people they have likes and dislikes. And those likes and dislikes shade their opinion. And let's look at this correctly, critics are not journalists, they are critics.  Journalists work with facts, and criticism is not a factual enterprise.

 

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