take that mr. smarty pants critic!

Friday, February 03, 2012

I don’t have a recent, totally juicy piece of hate mail to post, as my compadre Steve Heimoff did a couple of weeks back. His mostly uncensored exegesis of a scathing bit of drunken, late night effrontery from a disgruntled winemaker immediately shot to the top of the Wine Business top blog posts, and remained there for quite some time.

If only I had had the brilliant thought to post up one of the dazzling bits of criticism that have been leveled at me over the years! No, I must make do with silly snipes from aggravated readers of my newspaper column, generally from those who can neither 1) read nor 2) comprehend what I have actually written.

But I digress. There is a theme emerging here, and I will get to it, as the coffee is beginning to wear a bit thin.

That theme concerns the misguided logic that inspires some wineries to cut off samples to some critics, simply because the critic failed to perform like an unpaid PR person. Sometimes the winery simply stops sending wines, without a word of explanation. Sometimes the winery sends only the new releases of wines that have received exceptional praise in the past. Sometimes the winery feels obliged to assault the critic’s palate, ethics, and private body parts.

All of this is entirely a matter of choice, and a winery owner can send or not send wines to whomever they please. But it is particularly self-destructive when a winery stops sending wines to a critic who has been a longtime admirer of the wines, who has written repeatedly about the quality of the wines, and who, in some vintage or other, has simply uttered a less than hosanna-worthy phrase.

Here is why I call it self-destructive. Although many, if not most, in this industry have mixed feelings at best about the 100 point rating system, it is clearly here to stay. So be it. The great majority of critics try their very best to write clearly and carefully about each wine, rather than just tacking a number on it. The number is what the number is. Take it or leave it. Look at the prose. That is where some valuable feedback may be found.

Beyond any specific review or score, I can assure you that every wine I taste gets a detailed note and remains in my database. Those notes then serve as useful material for a wide range of un-scored purposes. Newspaper columns. Book entries. Nominations for various awards and Top 100 lists. Topics for seminar presentations or blog posts. In other words, if you stop sending the wines, you are in effect sending a message that you no longer want your wines to be considered or included in any or all of the above. How does that help you?

Back in the day, wineries could reasonably insist that a critic visit them personally. I did a lot of that for many years. Today, with over 1200 wineries just in Washington and Oregon, I could spend every day of the year visiting wineries and not hit them all in a three year period. So like many others, I rely on wineries sending their wines to me. They can expect, and will get, an open and transparent explanation of my tasting regimen. Every winery is entitled to equal treatment and consideration. Once in awhile, every critic boots a call. As one sympathetic winemaker recently wrote, it’s like being an umpire. You can get everything right and no one says anything. But call a strike a ball and all hell breaks loose.

Should that happen to you, I urge you to try discussing it with the critic in question, in a reasonable manner. Ultimately, that may serve your interests far better than simply slamming the door shut.


Anonymous said...

Wineries should also note that any press is good press, unless of course the press points out that their wine is flawed and undrinkable. That is one thing I believe you try to avoid.

Wine Harlots said...

Spot on.

My bitch is I get quite a number of pitches that ask me to write about their client's product -- but won't provide a sample to evaluate -- and seem surprised I won't endorse something haven't experienced.

All the best,

Nannette Eaton

PaulG said...

Very few wine critics take shots at specific wines. Unlike critics of movies, books, restaurants, plays, etc. the wine reviewer ranks are rather genteel.

Micah Nasarow said...


Your second to last paragraph says it all for me. I have mixed feelings on the whole ‘send wine out and get a just and critiqued review’. I really do fear that critics are biased, do not properly evaluate a product, and get a boner if they get a “top shelf” product to evaluate. I think that wine should be critiqued on first opened naked, then with some food, then the next day half bottle left.

I quote, “So like many others, I rely on wineries sending their wines to me. They can expect, and will get, an open and transparent explanation of my tasting regimen. Every winery is entitled to equal treatment and consideration.”

Shiiiiit…that’s all you had to say.

You can be expecting my rookie and sophomore vintage in a couple of months. All I ask in return is a fair and just critique. If the product is poor, please tell me why, and how I can improve. If the product is good, please tell me why, and how I can improve.


Jo Diaz said...

People just don't get that burning a bridge is never a good idea, regardless...

Tom said...

It may not be that they deliberately burned a bridge. Perhaps there's someone new at the winery and he or she dropped the ball.

Or perhaps the winery has decided to shift limited resources to avenues that bring more sales. It could be coincidental that this happened after a less-than-sterling review.

Anonymous said...

The argument is clear. Why send a wine to a critic who's palate isn't inline with the style of wine the winemaker makes? Could it be that simple? Maybe the winery has changed winemakers and thus wine style? Maybe wineries are finally smarting up and selectively giving you wines that you would probably like and score well and not sending you ones that you won't? Maybe wineries are finally smarting up and playing the 100 point lottery game to their advantage?

It isn't burning a bridge either. Let's face it, critics have certain 'taste preferences' and there are MANY channels to market without the need for scores by critics from major publications.

For the other anonymous poster, you clearly have no concept of the ramifications of how the 100 point game is played and how consumers respond to it. Do you know what a score of 85 points will do to your brand? How is that 'good'?

Charlie Olken, Connoisseurs' Guide said...

I see that Paul has not yet responded to "Anonymous"--so I will, and if Paul disagrees or finds my comments too harsh, he will say so.

Dear Anonymous 2: Critics sign all their reviews. Why can you not sign your own comments. They were not rude or insulting--just matters of disagreement.

But here is a real event in my life as a critic. There is a winery whose Chardonnay received big scores from my publication for years. Then, in the 2006 vintage, we found it less than wonderful and gave it (oh, the horrors) 86 points.

The winery owner called up, chewed me out, said the winery would never send the wine again because clearly we did not understand.

Did not understand? Or in your words, "had different taste preferences"? After ten years of highly positive reviews?

A funny thing happened the other day. After a couple of missed vintages, the wines showed up again. Despite a temptation to send them back, I instead put them into our blind tastings and one fo the two came up with clearly good comments and the other ranked in the middle.

So, I am now guessing that this silly winery will send us the Chard but not the PN. Now, I agree 100% with the notion that wineries can send or not send whatever and whenever the spirit moves them.

But, when they act like independent critics are their cheerleaders who are to be "punished", "vilified" and excoriated rudely, then they, not the critic, is in the wrong. I respectfully must ask if you understand that side of the equation.

PaulG said...

Charlie, I completely agree with you. As for why some people choose to post anonymously, well, that's a blog for another day. But your story about the winery that pulled the plug because of an 86 is all too typical. A couple of thoughts to add. First of all, the specific guidelines published by the magazine for whom I write (Wine Enthusiast) make it clear that scores in the mid to high 80s are not "bad" scores! It is the industry - the distributors and retailers – who have trumpeted the high numbers so loud for so long that now even a 90 or 91 is a "bad" score unless your wine is under $15. There are wineries that totally hate all scoring systems, but instead of working with critics to find a mutually acceptable solution, they often just prefer to take their bottle and go home. Their loss as far as I'm concerned. And Anonymous, you are quite wrong to assume that a good critic can't appreciate wines that are not "in line" with his or her personal preferences. I often give very good reviews to wines that I would not drink myself. If they are well made, they are well made, whether or not they suit my personal preferences. And vice-versa, just because a wine happens to be the sort of wine that I generally prefer, in no way assures an individual bottle a positive review. Those reviews must be earned, vintage after vintage.

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