should wine reviewers criticize pricing or just wines?

Monday, October 01, 2012

Let me set this up with a couple of true stories. In the spring of 2007, I received samples of four wines from a new producer in eastern Washington. Neither the winery nor the estate vineyards were familiar to me. The owner noted that this was “a dedicated red wine facility” and sent along four releases from estate grown grapes. In my original tasting notes I scored them 82, 81, and two 'not reviewables' (meaning not commercial quality). The best of the four, which received the 82, I noted was “sweet and grapey, soft and chocolatey, an uneasy mix of ripe berries and milk chocolatey oak. Nothing is quite integrated, and the acids stick out as if the wine had been badly acidified.” This 82-point effort carried a suggested retail price of $70.

The two unreviewables were priced at $50 and $80. The prices, as well as the poorly done packaging and amateurish winemaking, captured my interest. As a general policy, I will not come down hard on a brand new winery. If the wines are bad, I simply won’t publish any reviews. But in this instance, I went a step further. I contacted the winery owner, expressed my concern over the poor quality of the wines, and mentioned that he might consider sending them to a lab for professional analysis.

His response was not what I expected.

Essentially, it came down to “you must have had a bad bottle” or “the wines must have been damaged in transit.” And a few days later, I received a full case, with three bottles each of the four wines! At this point, I thought maybe I had a screw loose. So I drafted a friend to come re-taste with me. As before, the wines were horrible. My note (to myself) on this re-taste reads “Re-tasted in Waitsburg. Similar notes. Problems seem to be high pH, reductive issues (burnt rubber, bitter chemical finish).” My friend, a professional chef, wouldn’t even take the remaining wines for cooking purposes. They were that bad.

I dutifully reported the results to the owner, again suggested that a professional lab be engaged, and never heard a word from him again. As far as I know, the winery has gone out of business.

Clearly, those wines were priced at a ridiculous level, by someone who had not a clue as to their quality. But what about wines that are also (in my opinion) way overpriced, only this time by a big time, corporate entity that clearly knows exactly what they are doing?

This second situation led me to pose the following question on my Facebook page. “The wine writer's dilemma... I spent many hours tasting through an extensive lineup of single vineyard wines from a major producer. They will be scored and reviewed, but apart from that, there are comments to be made about the entire rationale behind offering so many high-priced wines from a vintage that is universally thought to be ‘challenging’ at best. Wearing my consumer advocate hat, I feel that I should be critical of that as well as of the wines. Wearing my reviewer hat, I feel that simply writing the reviews and scoring the wines says enough. What say you all?”

Many people responded, including several fellow reviewers and a number of winemakers. There was near-universal agreement that I should go ahead and be honest about more than just the quality of the wine. So here is the crux of the issue.

This well-known winery releases as many as a dozen single vineyard wines each year. They are priced at $50 and up – not cheap. In most years there are a few that, in my view, knowing what else is out there that is comparable, are fairly priced AND warrant the vineyard-designate status. Even in the best years, there are some that seem merely to be component material, and could have been blended to make more complete wines.

I almost never comment on pricing in my reviews. Wineries are businesses, and every business has the right to set its own prices. The free market should (and usually does) balance things out, especially with wines, where competition is fierce. But in this instance, the new lineup of a dozen or so wines came out in a particularly difficult vintage, and let’s just say the wines reflected that vintage all too well.

I thought to myself, perhaps prices would be adjusted downward? No way. In fact, some went up! Case quantities? Also up in a number of instances. Now the argument can be made that there may be collectors who want to keep their verticals intact. But really now, shouldn’t the winery have done the right thing for those customers and severely curtailed the single vineyard wines in this vintage? Many wineries produce reserves only in certain years. Vintage Champagnes and Ports are made only in certain years. Single vineyard wines come and go by virtue of many factors, not just vintage variation. I felt – and feel – that this winery should have made a decent blend out of most of these wines, priced it at about half the usual fare, and limited the single vineyard options to just a very small number. Wouldn't that be refreshing?!

They did not. I suppose that there are many good marketing and/or business reasons for putting out the full lineup and charging full price. But if I were a consumer purchasing these wines, I would be more than a little bit annoyed. In fact, might never purchase any of their wines again. And no, I am not going to name names here. When the reviews are published, it will be plain enough.


SUAMW said...

Denial is not just a river in Egypt.
I tasted a horribly flawed wine from Temecula (it reeked of manure) some time back.
It may have been putrescine, it may have been brett, but it was very bad.
The wine had received some sort of award at an LA thing that involved Somms. The owner winemaker invoked that award (because they're all uniformly infallible, you see...), asked for the remainder of the bottle back for testing (which consisted of? him looking at it under a microscope?)

Ron Washam, HMW said...

In a perfect world, large wineries might be able to adjust their prices to account for the quality of the vintage. But, as you know, in the real world, prices are dictated by the clowns with the sharp pencils, who may have to answer to stockholders or absentee owners. So it's no surprise the prices didn't go down.

As to your responsibilities as a critic, that's your call. Yes, your scores can speak volumes. However, in reality, wine buyers only remember high scores. So, in the long term, giving a wine an 84 has an effect for a few weeks or a month, and is then forgotten. The winery certainly won't remind people, and neither will the Wine Enthusiast. But a scathing review that mentions the hubris and stupidity of the winery in releasing below average wines at above average prices lasts a lot longer, and does the consumer a great service. When a winery makes stunning wines, you lavish an entire post here about them. That's admirable. It's also admirable, as an advocate for consumers, to spend a post scolding an established, not a new, winery for churning out crap at high prices.

You might catch some heat, but I know you can handle that. In a strange way, it comes down to "Whose side are you on?" Too much wine reviewing is like Fox News, imaginary "fair and balanced." It's always fair to call them like you see them. You're not an amateur, or a poseur. You've earned our respect as consumers. A simple score in this case isn't enough, I don't think. It's avoiding the real issue, and beneath you.

Luckily for the HoseMaster, nothing is beneath me.

HDChappy said...

Hi Paul,
I think the quality to price ratio is a very important factor in wine. No one likes paying top dollar for poor quality and I personally would love your thoughts on price versus quality in your reviews. This is one of the major complaints I have with CA wines and why I ovoid them for the most part. All too often the price and quality do not match, they just charge a higher price because they can. I would caution WA wineries to not go down the same road. I have convinced quite a few friends to abandon CA and seek out WA wines for much better price to quality ratios.
Thanks and great topic,

Richard Jennings said...

When pricing is greatly out of line with quality for that type of wine, I think those of us who critique wine should definitely mention that, just as we should mention when a very good wine is an unusually good value. A wine is a total package, and price is part of that.

@jascotswine said...

The price of a wine is absolutely crucial to any review, it can be the defining factor. A $60 dollar wine should be very, very good; if it fails to merit it's price then it can't be recommended even if it's reasonably good. A good wine doesn't need to be worth $60 but MUST be worth it's price.

Chris Wallace said...

When the reviewer comments about the price relative to the quality he gives their reader another perspective on the wine that I think most consumers would value. Keep it up.

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