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FRIDAY GETAWAY DAY
02/08/2013
Friday Fishwrap
Honesty In The Wine-Critic Industry

By Charles Olken

The other day, Steve Heimoff and I were vamping about how one goes about doing wine reviews when a winery sends a truckload of offerings of the same variety. The topic at hand turned out to be the dozen-plus Pinot Noirs from Williams Selyem. Steve commented that the wine inspiration at WS, Bob Cabral has pointedly requested reviews done in tastings with peer competitors, and I chimed in that Mr. Cabral has made the same request of CGCW. The ensuing discussion led to a question from Tom Barras, he of the eponymously named blog*.

The question, raised straightforwardly enough, challenged Steve and me to confront the problem of reviewing wines made by people that we know and have come to like. It was a fair question so I have brought it and my answer here for your pleasure and what is a dreary Friday morning here in northern California and promises worse weather elsewhere.

THE QUESTION
Steve and Charlie,

The two of you have much experience that goes beyond the wine you are tasting. I envy that, as I’m sure others do.

You likely personally know the winemaker, his/her family, their viti and vini-cultural history and philosophy, and their committment to making a wine that transcends the very average pour. Your connection often goes beyond rating the wine . . . or at least it should. You likely break bread with them.

For lack of a better term, you are somewhat “connected” to many of them, and as such, it may have some effect on the way you review and critique their efforts. Positive reviews are no issue, but would imagine that anything other than that could be troubling for you.

Can you comment on those relationships?

Tom

MY ANSWER
I know nothing. Nothing I tell you. I hate all winemakers. They are capitalist pigs. Break bread with them? I would rather break their bungs.

And then I woke up.

It is true enough that one cannot work deeply into the wine business, especially when one lives essentially in wine country as I do–and Steve does, with getting to know and even to become friends with many of the people whose wines we review.

One of the ways that writers have of avoiding the negative is to avoid publishing negative reviews. That is a somewhat harder task for comprehensive reviewers, but some publications, and I think WE is one of them, limit the damage by not publishing notes under 80 points. Steve will confirm or amend that understanding.

My publication, which started as tasting notes by a couple of consumer/collectors and does not take advertising, has a policy of publishing reviews on every wine we taste–no punches pulled. We at least partly cover our backsides by tasting a second bottle of every wine getting a bad review. And of course, we also retaste, as I mentioned in my comments above about Williams Selyem, those wines that will be recommended highly. All of those wines are tasted blind.

But even that policy as regards negative reviews does not save us from the wrath of the wineries. I could name a couple of dozen wineries that refuse to talk to Connoisseurs’ Guide anymore because our reviews did not live up to their expectations/desires. Sometimes, a chat will help them see that we have no axe to grind, but others treat us as pariahs for telling the truth as we have seen it twice.

I respect the rights of any winery to send or not send wine, to be open and helpful or to be recalcitrant and obnoxious as they see fit. They do not owe us a living, anymore than we owe them anything.

It does get a bit silly at times, though. There is a Napa Valley winery whose expensive PN and Chard got consistently top review for years running until one wine, from the 2006 vintage, was given the dastardly rating 86 points. The winery owner sent me an unpleasant letter saying they would never deal with us again. I called her up and wondered how it was that she could be so out of sorts over one review in ten years over two varieties. “It is clear”, sayeth the raging lady, “that you no longer understand our wines”.

There are two bottom lines here: We have always purchased wines for our tastings and we continued to review the wines from her winery with bottles that we got at K & L or Wine Club or Jacksons or wherever. The reviews were done blind. The ratings were generally good, and then a funny thing happened. Her wines, not quite as well received broadly as before because they were fat, ripe, high in oak and violated the sacred rules laid down by the upstart sommeliers and Jon Bonne, began to lose traction in the marketplace. And lo and behold, all of a sudden those wines were showing up again on the UPS truck.

We don’t penalize her winery because she is an obnoxious rich socialite who inherited a winery at a young age, and we do not upgrade the scores of wineries whose owners are good people.

One final story. One of those winemakers with whom one can sometimes get to be friends became a family friend. He lived around the corner, we played soccer together, went out to nice dinners around SF, and I was asked to be the godfather to his son. I had no hesitation because it was personal at the family level. Not soon thereafter, he released his one and only Chardonnay and it was oxidized and volatile and got 75 points and loud raspberry by way of a review.

The point is that we live by the accuracy of what we write. Some wineries stop talking to us and some do not. That is their right.

Does this deny that friendship can be an influence? I often ask myself that question, and my best answer is that I dare not recommend wines that people will not like lest they stop subscribing to my magazine and I therefore stop enjoying the lifestyle to which I have become accustomed.

* http://tombarraswinecommentary.blogspot.com/


 

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Comments

The Question at the Beginning
by Adam Lee/Siduri Wines
Posted on:2/8/2013 10:58:45 AM

I didn't see an answer to the question.  You are asked by a winery to taste wines in a certain manner (not sure if that is the normal manner for you or not).  But to make sure the wines are tasted in a certain way (in this case alongside peer competitors).  Is that something you do?  Is that something you normally do?  Are you more likely to do it because somebody asks for it?  And if it is somebody you know and like are you more likely to do it?

Adam Lee

Siduri Wines

Tasting Methodology
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:2/8/2013 11:18:57 AM

Hi Adam--

We reserve the right to taste the wines in any manner that we deem responsible, likely to reveal the best understandings of the wine, etc,

In the case of the WS wines, we tasted them against each other first, and organized by geography, and then retasted them on a different day, with fresh bolttles, against their competitive peers.

We respect everybody's opinion, but we are only beholden to ourselves and to our readers. Most wineries ultimately understand that point of view. Some small number think that we are part of their PR machinery. We are not.

So, when some late-twenties socialite excoriates us for not "understanding" her wine, I am sure she is right from her perspective. But we are not changing our opinions or methodologies for her or for Bob Cabral or anyone else.

I don't mean that in any nasty, in your face way. It is just that we have a methodology, developed over time, that we think it is rigorous, unbiased and geared towards getting as close to replicable descriptions and evaluations as we can produce. Not everyone is going to agree with us. We accept that problem as coming with the territory.

Agree
by Adam Lee/Siduri Wines
Posted on:2/8/2013 11:31:56 AM

Charlie,

No worries about me thinking any comments are nasty.  I'm easy!

My question was simply whether or not you would change methodologies based on a winemaker asking you to do so.  You could still easily say "we tasted blind" because you did.  But if you taste one way for one winery, it would only seem fair to do so for another winery as well.

That was it.

Adam Lee

Siduri Wines

Thanks
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:2/8/2013 11:38:08 AM

I am pretty sure that we taste according to our methodology. At least I hope so. Bob Cabral and I had a long and not always easy conversation on this point. I understand his position. He tastes his wines against themselves all the time. So, he pretty much wanted me (and Steve Heimoff--as you will see over on Steve's blog) to taste the wines in a larger context.

Because we always taste recommended wines twice, we do accomplish a second tasting of his wine in that larger context. But that is because we taste that way as a matter of long-standing policy.

 

 

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