A Sip of Wine, A Mean Email, A Bad PR Move—An Ugly Tale

Wine PR Pro Tip: If a well-known and respected wine critic sends you a private message to express their disgust at the quality of your wine that they drank at a restaurant, don’t inform the world of the critic’s opinion.

I don’t think I need to explain why promoting a private message of disgust with your product is a bad idea. Let’s just say it’s counterproductive where sales and reputation are concerned.

This is surely the advice I would have given Ms. Jess Mavromatis, winemaker at New Zealand’s Ekleipsis, after she received a private message from well-known critic and wine judge Jim Harre. Apparently, Harre had ordered a glass of the Ekleipsis “nouveau” Pinot Noir off the list at Moiety Restaurant. As the story goes, Harre found it undrinkable, told the waiter about it, and the wine was replaced with something else. Still, Mr. Harre felt the need to reach out to Mavromatis and express his thoughts on the wine. They were….direct:

“Hi, I tried your wine at Moiety Restaurant this evening, the worst Pinot Noir I’ve tried in years. Give up. The wine I tried was disgusting. As an international wine judge who lives in Waipara, you should be ashamed of yourself — get a new hobby.”

Crass? Yes. Mean? Yes. But, one thing it was not was a public review published anywhere but on the winemaker’s phone.

This should have been the end of it, but somehow the story of the personal message from Harre got out to Emma Dangerfield who wrote about the incident for New Zealand’s STUFF journal and to the New Zealand Herald, where another story on the incident was written up. Since these write-ups, the incident has spread, even motivating an 80-comment threat at Reddit.

There is an intellectual and mental process that goes on in one’s head before they decide to announce to the world that a wine critic wrote you a private email telling you your wine is shit. The decision could be based on the desire to provoke sympathy. Or the decision could be based on simply being angry about the email and wanting to do a bit more than writing back to Harre and telling him to “fuck off”. In the end, however, it appears that the calculation to make public this private and mean email revolved around the determination that the bad press for one’s wine would be outweighed by the pleasure that would be had in successfully embarrassing Mr. Harre.

This is a bad calculation.

Mr. Harre is respected by far more people than are the Ekleipsis wines of Ms. Mavromatis. It’s highly unlikely that Mr. Harre is going to experience too much embarrassment. In fact, it will be notable to many that Mr. Harre did not publicize his views of these wines. No doubt he could have found a public outlet to admonish the winemaker. Moreover, he could have taken to Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram to let his feelings be known. He did none of these things—to his credit. What’s going to happen here with the move to publicize his private note is that hundreds of thousands of people will know that a respected wine critic thinks Ms. Mavromatis’ wines are shit.

However—and here’s where things get interesting—what if the desire in publicizing the private note was not simply to embarrass Mr. Harre, but to somehow damage his reputation and his career. But how could you do that? Here’s how:

“Mavromatis says it [the note] offered no constructive criticism and that it reeked of an ‘incredibly condescending, patronising and misogynistic’ tone.
Mavromatis—New Zealand Herald

“But he was angry at Harre’s ‘old white, privileged and entitled’ behaviour, after he told Gasson he had judged wine all over the world.”
Moiety Restaurant owner, Sam Gasson—STUFF

“Misogynistic”. “Old white privileged and entitled”.

Yes, what if we can portray Mr. Harre as a sexist and racist old white man bent on exerting his unearned privilege upon an unsuspecting young woman?

Of course, there is nothing misogynistic or racist about Mr. Harre’s note to Ms. Mavromatis. Again, was it crass and mean? Sure. But nothing more. If the restaurant owner, Mr. Gasson and Ms. Mavromatis wanted to strike back, I suppose that’s what they did by exposing Mr. Harre’s mean streak. But more than that, they went for the jugular by attempting to cast him as some sort of racist and sexist. While Mr. Harre may have been mean in his private email, Ms. Mavromatis and Mr. Gasson acted immorally by accusing Mr. Harre of being motivated by sexism and racism. They should publicly apologize. But they won’t.

There is a happy ending to this story. Foodstuffs, which owns the New World Wine Awards where Mr. Harre has been a judge since 2008, was made aware of the private note. Here is there response:

“We are aware of the personal feedback provided by Jim to Ekleipsis Wines. Jim is a respected wine judge who is deeply passionate about consumers enjoying good examples of different styles of good quality wine, and in this instance, as a customer, he felt the product fell short. Jim has worked with us for many years and will continue to do so.”
Antoinette Laird—head of corporate affairs and CSR

This is a case not merely of very bad and poorly thought out media relations on the part of Ms. Mavromatis. It is an example of letting one’s emotions override one’s best interests. While Ms. Mavromatis may not have deserved such a harsh note, it’s equally true that Mr. Harre did not deserve to be falsely accused of being a sexist and a bigot. Of course, no one does. It also brings to mind whether the terms “misogynist”, “white”, and “privileged” have become the newest replacement words for “mean”. I fear they have.


30 Responses

  1. John Skupny - December 8, 2020

    Two [three] wrongs don’t make a right but Mr. Hare was a jerk in the first place to admonish anyone the way he did, privately does not make it any better. Maybe not misogynistic, but pompous, aholish, and way over the top. There is always an inherent conflict between the artist and the critic, maybe battling it out in public is not the right way, but Mr. Hare needs to learn some manners and decorum. No matter how important he thinks his need is to express such a nasty and denigrating opinion to anyone. “He felt the product fell short”!

  2. Keith K Wollenberg - December 8, 2020

    Well said. Following an attempt to fight misogyny and racism, the world has begun to too easily lob these generic insults.

  3. Tom Wark - December 8, 2020

    John,

    I don’t think we’ll find anyone who will argue that Mr. Harre’s note was mean and over the top. However, he could have made his thoughts public. That would have been…well, wrong. But he didn’t do that. This affair could have been over with a quick note back from the winemaker telling him to F*ck off.

  4. John Skupny - December 8, 2020

    I would have sent him another bottle and an apology, said perhaps “the wine was off, or your palate!”

  5. Phil M - December 8, 2020

    John, while I can appreciate that the email from Mr Harre was pretty brutal there are some cultural nuances here which are lost on most of our fellow Americans (Note: I’m also a proud Kiwi/American with production experience both in NZ and California).

    Kiwi’s talking to other Kiwi’s are often very blunt with each other. To the point that most American’s would often find it incredibly rude. We just find it concise,efficient and has been referenced as a historical cultural hangover from being part of the Commonwealth and the “stiff upper lip” cultural trait attributed to the English.

    This frank (or some would say rude) dialogue is common in PRIVATE communications in the production side of the business in NZ. I’m not saying it’s right or wrong. But it is different to how industry interactions often happen here in the US – which can also take a lot longer.

    Just because we do things here in the US a certain way, it doesn’t mean we do it the best way or that everyone should fit into the US wine industries cultural matrix.

  6. Jim Bernau - December 8, 2020

    Good reminder we can increase our effectiveness in life by making our views clear while remaining kind and respectful.

  7. John Skupny - December 8, 2020

    Cultural nuance?…. come on – ‘Give up’ & ‘you should be ashamed of yourself’… I think it has more to do with the lack of common decency. He still comes off as a first class tool, no matter the national morays.

  8. rh drexel - December 8, 2020

    I have never heard of this Harre guy. That he has to announce he’s a international wine guy in his email just demonstrates how insecure/pompous he is. Lets just get one thing straight…wine criticism is a niche field. Every wine writer or critic is a big fish in a little pond. Harre wanted to pump himself up so wrote that condescending, rude, myopic, misguided letter. What a punk. Glad he got outed. Someone telling another person to “give up” on their dream to make wine because it doesn’t suit their palate is really quite full of shit.

  9. Phil M - December 8, 2020

    John,

    Thank you for proving my point.

    RH Drexel,

    A 30 second google search will tell you everything you need to know on who Mr Harre is and his credentials. But I can understand how it’s easier to just make uneducated assumptions instead.

  10. Tom Wark - December 8, 2020

    RH,

    What would your response to that private email have been?

    Tom…

  11. Jeremiah S. - December 8, 2020

    The review was private and free of charge. I would blame one who exposed it to the world.

  12. rh drexel - December 8, 2020

    Tom,
    I would have either ignored it or told him to go to hell. I’m not a big fan of social media and the like, so I wouldn’t have publicized it, bit that’s just me. Harre should know that, in this day and age, if you’re gonna come in hot like that, you better expect some response. It was naive and arrogant of him to think he could be that rude and petulant without recourse.

  13. Mike Dunne - December 8, 2020

    You are weighing sins here, Tom, and the heaviest of all is for a wine critic to tell a winemaker to find another hobby.

  14. CRV wines - December 8, 2020

    As a winemaker I would want to know what exactly was lacking… like why was it disgusting and so bad? Was it actually flawed and if so what was wrong? The comment was nothing but mean and totally unconstructive. Definitely don’t go public, respond and ask for specificity.

  15. John G. Skupny - December 8, 2020

    I concur with CRV, I’ve had confreres let me know, with respect, that they had one of my wines and it was ‘off’ or worse – it helped me work with the account to see if this was a reoccurring problem, an old pour from a WBG program or a one off problem. Constructive criticism is welcome.

  16. Bob Stern - December 8, 2020

    Those who can do (or at least try), those who can’t critique (aka a critic). His employer may have supported him initially, but “no one likes a critic’, particularly an insensitive self-riteous fool. He will suffer from this mishap, and deserves to. I would not denigrate the great people of New Zealand by characterizing them as complicit with this type of treatment of others, even in private.

  17. Tom Wark - December 8, 2020

    RH,

    I would have done exactly what you suggest.

  18. Michael Wangbickler - December 8, 2020

    “Never argue with a fool, onlookers may not be able to tell the difference.” ― Mark Twain.

  19. Jon Larson - December 10, 2020

    As a newcomer (relative) to the winemaking space, I see it a bit differently. I don’t know either party, and I am increasingly uncomfortable with the weight critics wield in a space where the ‘acceptable’ style is getting narrower and narrower with most wines being so manipulated that highly rated Pinot Noir might as well be Napa Cab. If your wine doesn’t taste smooth, jammy, sweet, and oaky with enough residual sugar to encourage even conscious moderate drinkers to overindulge, it will not break out of the 80 point range with most critics. Definitely do not have any vintage to vintage variation even when the temperature, rainfall, and other weather characteristics go to extremes.

    I am not at all surprised that the elder statesman thought the wine was undrinkable. He likes (I don’t know him, so I’m guessing…….) pinot noir that is jammy, off dry or off dry tasting, fruity, without a hint of any of the flavors that make Pinot Noir interesting. I quit drinking Pinot Noir because none of it tastes like Pinot Noir, instead taking on a cloying, slightly sweet, cherry cola feel that I find disappointing. Let’s not discuss how one feels the next morning………………

    Is it really more civilized to have Robert Parker or another established critic give your wine an 86 and then write a description that bears no resemblance to the wine submitted? Is that more ‘sophisticated’? Is it more sophisticated to have a young man at a tasting comment that the wine is ‘too bitter and won’t be ready to drink until i’m married’, not noticing the wine is built to last, forever. Maybe it’s more civilized to have critics berate you in person, comment you should give up winemaking, and then write reviews that do not accurately describe the wine and give it a low score. At one point my aspiration was to make a wine that got an RP79 or lower, but he quit tasting. Ahhh well, there are plenty of other critics who hate red table wine with any varietal character or sense of place, maybe I’ll give them a shot…………

    I was a general surgeon before I worked in wine. If an email insult like that is enough to undo you, getting shouted down and berated in front of the entire team would probably cause you to kill yourself. I was frequently disciplined in a way that would break people responding to emails in this way. The guys I trained with used to all it ‘being taken out to the whipping shed’. At one point, a group of nurses decided they didn’t want to call me ‘doctor’ (I’m black, but I’m sure that had nothing to do with it……..). They called the NSA and said I was an enemy combatant. I nearly took a ride with three overarmed, undereducated ‘gentlemen’ in an unmarked van. I still didn’t write an angry email, throw a tantrum, or even quit my job, although I was ‘let go’ some time after.

    The point is this (sorry it took so long to get here…..);

    If you want to make wine that speaks to place of origin, displays varietal typicity, isn’t an oakbomb, has interesting green notes, and displays balanced astringency, you will need to make sure there is absolutely no glass in your jaw. If the wine strays even further from the established paradigm, make sure your midsection isn’t a chandelier either. Because sooner or later an old, white, male critic with an enormous following and a palate preference for port is going to find it. It doesn’t make him sexist, racist, misogynistic, or even wrong. It’s who he is, and taking the beating is the price of admission to the dwindling club of vintners, growers, and enthusiasts who still like wine with truly unique characteristics that speak to the wet forest around the vineyard, the earth beneath the roots, the animals who come in the night, snow before bud break, the clone selected over millennia, and tight oak barrels from exclusive forests with their feather light touch (or no touch of oak at all).

  20. Bob Stern - December 10, 2020

    As a retired old white guy Ob/gyn, who unpredictably chose that sub-specialty instead of surgery because of the selfritous misogynist behavior of surgeons at the time, and someone who has railed AGAINST the overly “politically correct’ passive treatment of residents, verbal abuse is still abuse. No one deserves this type of attack, in person or in private. Holding someone responsible, giving them guidance and being firm, is not the same as being abusive. This is inexcusable and indefensible. Bottom line for me, the remark and the person who delivered it should be ignored as unworthy of our respect.

  21. Judy Parker - December 10, 2020

    I for one would like to now try the offending wine to see if my palate is as refined as Mr Critic. I know my anxiety is far beyond that of Ms Winemaker so I would never email (or forward) such a criticism. But, it does make me want to try that wine.

  22. Blake Gray - December 10, 2020

    Tom, you are more wrong on this issue than I have ever seen you be wrong before. And I am a regular reader.

    First of all, the asshole isn’t a “critic.” He’s a wine judge. A critic publishes his critiques for the public (at least those who pay the subscription fees) to read. Therefore a critic has accountability for his words. A wine judge sits on a panel with other wine experts and votes on whether or not a wine gets a medal. It’s very, very different. I could find no evidence that the asshole ever has written anything about wine. This should change your perception of the argument.

    If Jeb Dunnuck or Karen MacNeil were to send a note like that to a winery, the winery should pay attention. It might presage a scathing review and the winery. I’m not suggesting the winery should do anything different. But a lot of wineries would like warning about negative publicity.

    This asshole, at worst, could possibly, if he remembered a wine when blind-tasting, give it a low enough score to get a lesser medal — if it ended up on his table at the competition at all. He could have no real impact on the company’s business. He’s just a full-of-himself asshole, and should be treated like any other asshole customer.

    Do I think the winery should have published its interaction with an asshole customer who felt the need to inflate his importance? That’s an individual decision. But if you look at the response, the decision to publish seems validated. This tiny winery that most of us had never heard of is world-famous. It’s free publicity for a winery that sells its wine by the glass. The barrier to entry to try its wines is low. Wouldn’t you want to try a glass, if it were on the list, to see what you thought?

    I hate to put myself in anyone’s head, but I wonder if you were upset by the fact that the asshole got called a sexist old white man exercising privilege. You’ll note that I’m just calling him an asshole, as that is indisputable. Try that if it helps you get your mind around it.

  23. Tom Wark - December 10, 2020

    Blake,

    How goes it?

    So, I’m going to go out on limb here and say that a marketing strategy based on trolling fo sympathy purchases by publishing portrayals of your wines as undrinkable isn’t the best way to go.

    On the other hand, your portrayal of Harre’s status as an asshole is accurate. I think I made that clear when I noted the proper winery response was a email back with a hefty “F*ck You” embedded in the subject line.

    All that said, then their is the question of publicly calling the man a sexist and implying he’s racist on the part of the winery owner and restaurant owner. What’s that about. There’s no evidence to that effect. And they knew that. Yet they said and implied it nonetheless. That’s immoral.

    Whether or not the man is a critic or a renowned wine judge is beside the point. He knows wine. That’s not to say the wine is undrinkable. How do I know. It’s only to say his was not an uneducated crappy comment.

  24. Blake Gray - December 10, 2020

    Tom: It’s going poorly because I’m chatting here when I should be writing.

    The fact that he “knows wine” is immaterial, and also incorrect.

    Natural wine is an accepted style now. You don’t have to like it just as I don’t have to like Pinotage, but you can’t wish it away, and to express surprise at it is to show that you’re not actually as educated about wine as you claim. Just order something you like better instead.

    Let me put it to you this way: will you agree that I know wine? And am well known for giving my opinion?

    Under what circumstances would it be OK for me to send an email like that, even leaving off the comment about a hobby? I’d like to know.

    PS: In addition to not knowing wine as well as he thinks, he doesn’t know grammar. As an international wine judge who knows fuck all about anything, I at least know not to misplace my modifier.

  25. Tom Wark - December 10, 2020

    Blake, I’m not defending his sending of the email. I’d agree with your assessment of his personality based on this email. I just think the response wasn’t smart, either mainking it public or the claims as to his motivations.

    And why do you think he doesn’t know wine?

  26. Blake Gray - December 10, 2020

    If he ordered a natural wine and didn’t know what it was, or what it was attempting to be, in 2020, he doesn’t know wine.

    It’s perfectly fine if he doesn’t like natural wine. I struggle in group dinners with other wine writers to order natural wines because I have a number of friends who don’t like it. Once in a while I get an order in anyway and if they don’t like the wine, they blame me for ordering it — not the winery for making it.

  27. Tom Wark - December 10, 2020

    Blake,

    You bring up an interesting point. In the Age of Natural Wine, does anyone have any warrant to criticize a wine for being poorly made? I’ve had my share of natural wine. Some were lovely. Some had refermented in the bottle. Some had very high amounts of VA. But if these worse examples of natural wine (wines that at one time would have been dismissed as fatally flawed) are today simply “natural wine”, is there any way to legitimately call a wine bad or poorly made?

  28. Charlie Olken - December 10, 2020

    Tom—
    It’s all in the choice of language. As a critic, I try to describe wine and not skewer it unmercifully. But I also bring a certain set of standards to the job, and they cause me to react negatively to wines that referment in the bottle when they were not meant to, and to dislike and react negatively to wines with VAs so high that my tooth enamel’s health is threatened.

    Everything is subject to review. And intent does not enter into it. Successful or unsuccessful; good or bad; 100 points or 70; three stars or none. And descriptive words that express those opinions are fair game.

    It is not surprising that the makers of wines that are judged negatively would react badly. But just as critics like me learn early on to avoid name calling with wineries that don’t like my judgment, so too do wineries need to not resort to profanity and threats—and you can take it from me, that winery insults hurled at critics do happen all too often.

    In the New Zealand case, both parties violated civility codes—in my humble opinion of course. I vote for the John Skupny model.

  29. Blake Gray - December 11, 2020

    Hey Charlie Olken, how are you?

    Tom: If the wine has a technical flaw, I wouldn’t be shy about pointing it out to the person who sold it to me. If I knew somebody at the winery, I wouldn’t be shy about telling them exactly what was wrong with it. I have, in fact, done this. It can be an attempt to warn the winery that it has a problem.

    That isn’t what the asshole did. He offered no technical critique whatsoever. If, as you say, the wine was refermenting in the bottle, it would be a worthwhile email to tell them.

    But for a guy who claims to know wine, he was quite unspecific. It wasn’t at all helpful to know that the asshole didn’t like the wine without knowing why.

  30. Blake Gray - December 11, 2020

    BTW you might enjoy reading Oliver Styles’ take on it: https://www.wine-searcher.com/m/2020/12/wines-problem-with-old-white-men


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