Damage Control, the Winery and the Critic

When you think of "public relations" and PR people, most immediately think of "Spin" and "damage control". Public relations is a vast industry with specialist of all types. And, it’s "spin" and "damage control" that is usually bandied about by the press and others when my profession comes up for discussion.

So here is an interesting little fact: "damage control" is almost never a part of a wine publicist’s job. Not that we can’t undertake such jobs, it’s just that the nature of our industry rarely leads us down that road.

So it is an interesting occurrence when you see a winery forced to undertake this course of action. Chateau Montelena chose to go into damage control mode when it’s 2001 Cabernets, wines of great fame and acclaim, were given 69 Points back in November by Jim Laube of the Wine Spectator.

A 69 point rating is exceedingly rare. The wine has to be flawed in a serious way. Jim Laube suggested this wine was flawed by cork taint. We are talking about a $75 bottle of wine that is considered by most industry watchers to be among the best examples of California Cabernet.

Chateau Montelena called the claim of cork taint bogus. I have no idea what the condition of the wine is or was. I’ve never tasted it. But I’m not interested in that. What I’m interested in is the bold move that Greg Ralston, Chateau Montelena’s General Manager, took in response to this difficult situation. 

He took the wine on the road. Visiting a number of markets across the country, Ralston organized a series of blind vertical tastings for the winery’s wine club members and the press. He set up a situation that allowed him to look you in the eye and said: "you decided!"

While this could be seen as a defensive move, and it was, it was also the right move.

The winery could have stepped back and simply said, "The Wine Spectator is wrong! Just look at what Robert Parker said (95 Points)." They could have just sent letters to their wine club members and distributors and said, "It’s not true. It’s not true!" Or they could have set out on a campaign to demean Jim Laube’s palate. All but this last option would have been an acceptable response, though a weak response. The idea of trying to demean Jim Laube’s palate and abilities would be about as smart as trying to suggest George Bush is a bad politician just because you don’t like his policies. It’s ludicrous on it’s face.

I’ve always argued that any wine reviewer or wine publication that wants to be thorough should be willing to print the bad reviews along with the good. So, you’ve got to respect the Wine Spectator and Jim Laube for calling as they see it. But you have to respect the confidence and "fight back" of Chateau Montelena too. Great call by Montelena to carry out these tastings and put the ball in the consumers court.

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