The Truth About the Winemaker-Consumer-Critic Relationship

TheTruThere 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.



14 Responses

  1. Roger Black - November 8, 2011

    Tom, I think you are only half right on this subject. What you are not taking into account is the importance of bragging rights and the tendency of many people with more money than sense to want bragging rights. Translated, this means that for many people its important to be seen driving an expensive car, to live in the right area, to send children to the best school. All of this is a drive towards visible status. Its not actually good enough simply to be wealthy but you have to be seen to be wealthy. Wealth is no good unless it is visible. And collecting wine rated highly by “the world’s most influential wine critic” is part of the drive for visible status. It gives people the opportunity to say over dinner “Look, here is a little RPJ 97 point wine that I picked up. Its great isn’t it? And I have another three cases of it.” The bragging capacity is all in the scores. In many ways, its part of the move towards subcontracting our thinking to others because we are afraid to think for ourselves. A parrallel is to be found in the financial ratings industry where financial investments are “rated” by “ratings agencies”. The price of the instrument is determined by the rating. No thought have to go into actually thinking about what is being bought. Hence the major losses incurred when many of these hughly rated financial instruments fell over a few years ago.

  2. Bob R. - November 8, 2011

    Tom, not totally off the wall, but close to it. And get yourself a proofreader.

  3. Tom Wark - November 8, 2011

    What evidence do we have that anything more than a very tiny percentage of people who follow the Wine Advocate do so for reasons of ego?

  4. Tom Wark - November 8, 2011

    Regarding the proofreader: Gotcha.
    Regarding being off the wall: I await an explanation.

  5. Christian Miller - November 8, 2011

    Here’s a fun idea: serve a self-professed group of Parker devotees two flights of 10 wines each, all the same variety. In each flight, half are rated 80-85 points; half are rated 90-95 points. The first flight is completely blind. The second shows the point ratings for each bottle. See how much people value the points as opposed to the actual taste.

  6. John - November 9, 2011

    Tom – you know me and you know I have no love for scores. I may have recounted to you an experience I had early in my career: Parker gave a low score to a wine produced where I worked. Pandemonium ensued – growers were called to the carpet, heads rolled in production and marketing. I was fortunate that the wine in question had been produced before I worked there. Subsequent iterations of this product were deliberately made to be more in line with the style Parker gave higher scores to, and Parker did indeed rate them higher.
    You are ABSOLUTELY RIGHT that the purpose was not to satisfy the critic, but to sell more wine to the hundreds of thousands of buyers who value that critic’s opinion. All these pollyannas and Parker-bashers have no idea how important that validation is to a winery’s sales, especially into the middle tier of distribution.
    I think Michael Bay’s movies are pretty weak and formulaic. I’m just to cool and sophisticated to admit that I have enjoyed one or two of them. However, “weak and formulaic” is obviously working for him. He makes movies the way he does because they kill at the box office.
    @Roger Black – I have to point out the obvious fallacy in your equation of wine critic scores with ratings of financial instruments by the various agencies set up to do so. Parker’s ratings mostly affect the wallet of the individual end user. Moody’s and S&P’s ratings affected the financial market so far up the food chain that hundreds of millions of wallets were affected.

  7. George, UK wine merchants - November 9, 2011

    Have to agree with John. I know a couple of garage Israeli producers that crafted their top flight wines based on Parker’s “favourites” and did indeed get very good sales at very good margins and are improving vintage on vintage.

  8. Marcia M - November 9, 2011

    Mr. Kelly hit the issue right on the head! Of course it’s all about sales! It’s a business, right? First tenet of business success is to make a product (or service) that the target market wants — not just the one YOU like. If that were true I’m sure the menus at many restaurants would be vastly smaller with the chefs cooking only the dishes they loved.
    Point well made, Tom (and John).

  9. Thomas Pellechia - November 9, 2011

    Yes indeed: far too many people seem to think that wine is art and not a business…

  10. Roger Black - November 9, 2011

    I have no hard evidence other than what I see and observe. And, no I am not in “the trade”. I am an investment banker and I get to see plenty of ego driven behaviour. That behaviour includes flashy cars, expensive holidays. And wine with bragging rights (based on price or rating or both). All of this is very common behaviour in those circles (and in the corporate legal and accounting firms).

  11. Roger Black - November 9, 2011

    Rating bonds. Rating wine. Its the same basic thing: Depend on someone else to tell you whats good and whats not. They may affect different people in different ways but both enable the user to avoid having to think about the subject. I dont dispute your view that the S&P, Moody’s etc are well up the food chain. The issue is basically that if the (admittedly corporate) investors had though about what they were investing in rather than looking at a rating, they may have lost a lot less money. And we would all be a whole lot better off. But this is a wine drinkers blog and not a fincial whine blog.

  12. Dave Erickson - November 10, 2011

    My other job is working as a musician. I don’t play unless I get paid. Money is validation: If you get paid, you don’t have to explain to anybody how talented you are. The money explains it. On the other hand, I am not a “professional musician,” because I play only the kinds of music I like to play. This limits my income, but it is at the same time the source of my income: Insofar as I am successful as a musician, it is because I’m selective about what I will and won’t do.
    I would like to posit that it is possible that winemakers can be that way, too. They want to sell their wines and have success, but they don’t necessarily want to be hugely successful, if hugely successful means pandering to the crowd that buys by the numbers. Because then it’s just a job.

  13. Fabio (Vinos Ambiz) - November 11, 2011

    Re Parker-bashing. I’m not disputing wineries’ rights to produce the kind of wine they believe they can sell; in a free market economy this is obvious. Nor do I think that his influence has been negative overall; the great job he did was to widen the wine consumer base to include people who would never have drunk wine if it weren’t for him. But times change and things run their course. Maybe people are getting bored with big oaky fruit bombs now? maybe it’s time for them to discover that many different styles of wines exist? Maybe the next few decades will see the pendulum swing the other way, and we’ll have some interesting diversity and other wine styles will be rated highly too.

  14. Peter - December 4, 2011

    Do people like 90+ Parker wines or do they like the wines because Parker rated the wine 90+?
    I think there are some of both persuasions. I do believe many wineries make a particular style in order to get a good rating. While I haven’t had a winemaker admit it I have had them say they were under pressure to provide certain results.

Leave a Reply