The Truth About the Winemaker-Consumer-Critic Relationship
There is an opinion (it's nearly a meme) that has been swirling around the wine industry for at least a couple decades now that needs to be put to rest. The best recitation I've read of this opinion was recently expressed in the comment section of my post on Robert Parker's Wine Advocate reviews of 2009 Pinot Noirs. The commenter wrote this:
"Parker has outlasted his stay as the geru of wine and the alltime judge of all of them. You get him on your side and you have it made in the shade. Look at Napa and Sonoma who molded their programs around his likes and preferences. When it was announced he was stepping down, panic ensued. Hope they are all alright. Make wine the way you want to. Not to please somebody for a buck."
There are rare occasions when a comment on this blog becomes the inspiration for a full blown post. The reasons for a comment rising to the post-level are varied. In this case, the reason is this: The comment, wrong in nearly every way and being a restatement of an idea that has traveled through the industry for way too long, needs to be rebutted.
The most important idea that needs to be rebutted is that any winemaker anywhere would craft a wine in a style to appeal to Robert Parker or the reviewers at the Wine Advocate (or at any wine publication or for any wine reviewer). Doing so might guarantee the purchase of the wine by one person.
The reason a winemaker crafts a wine in a style liked by Robert Parker is because there are 1000s of people who like the style of wines that Robert Parker likes. In other words, some winemakers are producing a style of wine for an audience they know have a long history of liking and buying that style of wine.
The comment seems to suggest there is something untoward or ignoble or unauthentic about doing this. The notion that a winemaker ought to "Make wine the way you want to. Not to please somebody for a buck" is an extreme example of the idea that a winemaker is best who produces a style of wine that represents nothing but the honest intent of the vineyard. This is crazy talk and I can say that without even addressing the notion that making a buck ought not be a factor in the winemaking process. Someone wake me a wine exhibits oak characteristics without being put in oak. Someone alert the media when a wine exhibits softer texture than it otherwise would without having been let to age in bottle or tank before release.
Here's the honest truth about wine reviewers like Robert Parker, Jim Laube, Steve Heimoff, Jancis Robinson, Stephen Tanzer, Allan Meadows and all others who have amassed a loyal audience: No matter how great they say a wine is, the moment their readers disagree en mass with them they will no longer matter because they will no longer have an audience. The point is that the proiminence of a wine reviewer is only as great as the degree to which there are people who agree with their tastes.
Robert Parker's stay as a guru of wine has lasted because the style of wines he likes and the wines that he thinks are wonderful match the tastes of those who have found him.
Knowing there is a large number of people who like the style of wines that Robert Parker likes, what indictment is there to launch at a winemaker that seeks to please this large number of people and thereby sell their wine? They are making unauthentic wines? Who can say that Harlan is unauthentic? Who can say that Sine Qua Non is unauthentic? Who knows the truth?
These winemakers who may make a wine that matches Robert Parker's palate are just out to make a buck? Is this an indictment one would toss at a steelworker who chooses to get up in the morning and go to the mill? Would anyone say such a thing with disdain about the person who provides marketing services to to the winemaker? What principle and set of ethics would motivate someone to dismiss the authentic yearnings of a person to make a living? After all, the steel worker, the marketer and the winemaker hurt no one.
If anyone believes that Robert Parker's palate is responsible for some sort of monolithic style of wine that dominates the marketplace due to winemakers slavishly following his tastes (and there clearly are many such people) then they simply have not tasted the diversity of wine very liberally. Additionally, they do not understand the nature of the critic-consumer-winemaker relationship. Such misunderstanding too often leads to libel and slander and goofballity.