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02.26.2009

In Search of the Cynical Winemaker

interrogation_chair_bw.jpgI had a conversation the other night with a fellow wine writer that unsettled me. We were tasting a number of different wines, and comparing notes on a few that weren't so hot, and that's when she said something along the lines of "Can you believe how cynical these winemakers must be?"

At first, I wasn't quite understanding what she meant, but as we talked, it became clear that she meant quite literally, that many winemakers in Napa are making wine that they know is bad, just because they think it is what the public wants. She went on to say, when pressed, that she knows a lot of winemakers who don't drink their own wine, and don't think that the wine they make is particularly good. And she wasn't talking about the Sutter Homes and Kendall Jacksons of the world, she was talking about folks that made wines that cost $40, $60, or even $150 a bottle.

I find this proposition both fascinating and disturbing. Fascinating because it illuminates the dichotomy of winemaking as both a business and an aesthetic pursuit, and disturbing because it doesn't square with my experience.

Before it is anything else, winemaking is most certainly a business. At least for all but the most dilettante winemakers. But at the same time, the majority of people who make wine professionally bring to the task an aesthetic drive to make something great with the raw materials they have at their disposal.

Those raw materials as well as the other myriad constraints imposed by the business side of wine production most definitely force winemakers to make certain hard decisions. But within those constraints (some of which may be the stylistic preferences or traditions of the winery, winery owner, or brand) I believe most winemakers strive to make the best possible wine they can.

I do know some consulting winemakers that work for many different clients who have told me that sometimes they make a wine that suits their employer's palate more than their own, but I haven't yet found a winemaker who thinks the wine they make is bad enough that they prefer not to drink it. On the contrary, and sometimes much to my dismay, there are a lot of winemakers out there who are quite proud of wines that they think are great, but which to my taste are quite bad.

Bad vintages and problems in the winemaking process aside, most winemakers I've met seem to talk about their wines like most parents talk about their children. And just like parenting, I think the cost, time, and intensive effort required by winemaking generates a certain amount of investment in the final product that can even blind some winemakers to the faults of their wine. Telling a winemaker that the wine they just poured me is awful produces the same sort of facial expressions I would expect from mothers if I went around telling them their babies were ugly.

Of course, most winemakers are professionals, and know that some people won't like their wines. But that professionalism, combined with ego, and the human tendency to strive for quality, is precisely the reason that I have a hard time believing that there are a lot of winemakers out there who spend their days making wine they think is bad. That's as strange to me as the thought of a Michelin-starred chef holding a job churning out food that she knows is unhealthy and tastes bad in some fancy restaurant somewhere.

So here's the question: am I just being naive?

I know a lot of people in the industry read this blog, as do a lot of wine lovers who have connections to people who make wine. I give you full permission, even encourage you, to comment anonymously or send me private e-mails and tell me if you know people who make wine they think is bad enough that they wouldn't want to drink it themselves.

Where are all these cynical winemakers?

Comments (54)

Iris wrote:
02.27.09 at 3:22 AM

Well Alder, judging from the enormous quantity of insignificant, cheap wines, which stand for the greatest part of what is sold on the market at least in Europe (nearly everywhere, wines between 2 € and 2,50 € sell best and are purchased in discounter shops and supermarkets), I would even hope, that all the winemakers, who are able to aliment this market, do at least know, what they are producing and have enough interest in wine, to have tasted the other, minority part of what we consider as authentic product of our centenary culture...

Whether they drink their own products daily by taste (we all know that, by getting used to highly sterilized milk, we end by finding fresh hole cream one "strange"...), whether they prefer more consistent wines at least for their Sunday meal and celebrations - who knows.

But you can be sure, that they will tell you, that they produce, what the market demands - and what allows them to continue in their business. If you call that cynical - you may find a majority of cynics everywhere.

And I think, that's where your comparison with parents pride comes in: I imagine those people like parents, who don't bother, whether their children have outstanding character values, all what is important, is that they have success in business, a good job and a high bank account.

It's just a choice - as always. From my point of view, I would call it cynical, from theirs, it will be different.

You can more easily adapt your wine to a mainstream passe partout taste, than your children - at least I hope so for our future. And most people will always end up by adapting their philosophy to their acts, because they want to sleep well - that's the human nature.

Personally, I don't "know people who make wine they think is bad enough that they wouldn't want to drink it themselves" - but judging from the sales, they must exist - otherwise, I would have to think, that a great majority of directors of big wine making structures does have as main feature a very mediocre image and taste of wine in common...

02.27.09 at 5:04 AM

Well, I could go either way. I think all winemakers enjoy their work to the extent their given the freedom to do so. But like any other job, you often cater to your employers. As a design professional, you must know about fighting against a clients desire to ruin a perfectly good product with an oversized logo, or excessive information. I'm sure winemakers are faced with that problem often, going against their better instincts in favor of over the top fruit or excessive oak.

However, when I do think of cynical winemaking, I think of Opus One, and even recent Silver Oaks. I mean c'mon, have you tasted any of the recent vintages? Its hard to think of it as the prestigious wine its supposed to be, and the winemaker must know it. Although its possible my palate has shifted significantly. With wine, how can you really assess, when we all perceive the product different?

Hank wrote:
02.27.09 at 6:06 AM

I know winemakers that would rather drink other wine than their own. Heck, I know winemakers that don't really like wine all that much.
I also know a small group of winemakers that sometimes forget the demands of "public acceptance" and make wines basically for themselves. And those wines don't sell particularly well. Other winemakers often ridicule those "personal" wines as weird, or as mistakes.
Hmmm...now that I think about it, winemakers are, in general, a pretty conformist bunch.

Alfonso wrote:
02.27.09 at 6:25 AM

I am in the first stages of a project in Italy with a notable winemaker and consultant and one of the top points we are discussing right now is the need to make affordable wines that don’t taste manufactured. It is a bit of a challenge for the Italians who want to please the American wine drinkers. But I am telling this winemaker that the American tastes are changing and going towards a more relaxed, natural expression.

Thom wrote:
02.27.09 at 7:05 AM

Any winemaker that doesn't have inexhaustable sums of money on hand has to make a decision between making a wine that is what he wants it to be vs. making a wine that will sell.

Some winemakers have the luxury of making a handful of wines in their portfolio that are geared toward the connoisseur, and a couple of wines that keep the winery in business by selling tons of it. Some of the wines that pay the bills are not necessarily amazing wines that the majority of afficionados would choose to drink - but they appeal to a large segment of consumers.

That's not to say the wine is "bad". I think saying they are "bad" is an exaggeration. They just aren't what true wine-lovers are really looking for.

I don't think there's anything wrong with this. An artist may have to paint a cheesy portrait now and again if he wants to be able to afford his canvases and pigments.

Michael wrote:
02.27.09 at 8:05 AM

When I read this, with your particular reference to Napa, I think of this not as an issue of "manufactured" flavors in wine, but as one of the trend towards huge, ripe, alcoholic wine, that most winemakers I have spoken to or about don't really like for themselves. I used to not want to believe the hype about big wine, world-wide winestyle, etc. I think that the longer I drink wine the less I can deny it though. Maybe I'm way off, but that is what I get from your post, and from the content of your conversation. It is like you take a bunch of musicians yearning to play jazz, or classical, and you tell them that the only thing selling is speed-metal, so they play it, but at home they don't listen to it. Of course that, fortunately, doesn't seem to happen in the real musical world, but it seems an apt metaphor.

Mike wrote:
02.27.09 at 8:35 AM

Great post, I enjoyed it.

Alder wrote:
02.27.09 at 8:50 AM

Iris,

Thank you for your thoughtful comments as always. Perhaps the reference didn't translate overseas, but my naming of Sutter Home and Kendall Jackson were meant to exclude from my argument those winemaking behemoths that are corporations, producing millions of bottles of wine on an industrial scale.

Alder wrote:
02.27.09 at 9:07 AM

Vivek,

Thanks for the comments. Your analogy to design is welcome. Yes, of course, as a design firm we always are doing work for hire, which means the client is free to direct us to create a design that is different than we would have done with completely free reign. However, we always create something that we believe is high quality within the constraints that we are given -- that is part of our pride in our work. If we ever find ourselves in a situation where we feel like we're making crap because our client is pushing us to completely subvert our skills, I'm sure we'd fire the client. In a way, I think this is probably true for winemakers, too. Life is to short to spend your time making wine you don't want to drink.

Like Mike commented, the analogy to musicians is also apt. A jazz guitarist might play an occasional gig to make a buck, but would never get into a situation where they had to play music they hated day in and day out.

Nathaniel wrote:
02.27.09 at 9:16 AM

They may well exist: who knows?

From a WM's POV (and one who enjoys the wines he makes), making wine without feeling pride in what you've done (in other words, without producing something you would like to drink and show to friends/peers) would not be much fun, nor rewarding. There are plenty of jobs that are not rewarding or fun. I'll bet with the level of education, attention to detail and drive that most WM's have, they could easily find a non-rewarding job that pays better and requires fewer hours than being a WM. This observation begs the question "if they don't like what they're producing, why are they still a WM?".

Professional WM's do probably enjoy others' wines as much if not more than their own. It's difficult to try your own bottled wines without being overly critical or daydreaming about what could have been had this or that gone differently. If you ever meet a WM who doesn't think he or she has room to improve on what they've done, I'll show you someone who is on cruise control and is setting themselves up for a fall.

So, I think there may be sightings of WM's who don't like their wine, or even anyone's wine, but that they are the exception. I'll grant that there are no doubt places where WM's are pushed by owners or GM's to produce wines that are not exactly what they would prefer or to forget about anything other than reviews. I think those are the places that see a lot of churning and WM turnover, though, because that is inherently difficult for someone who has developed their own ideas about to quality to swallow.

Saul wrote:
02.27.09 at 9:47 AM

The best example may be Stephen Hansel of Walter Hansel Winery. He enjoys the wines he makes, on occasion, but primarily drinks Burgundy. For one reason or another, he doesn't like his wine *that* much. Great wine, obviously a talented/caring winemaker, but doesn't think the world of his own wine.

jdfvino wrote:
02.27.09 at 10:02 AM

I would love to remain naive as well but I just met a winemaker the other night (who drinks their own wine but shall still remain nameless!) that had various stories of neighboring winemakers who do not drink their own wines. They are making wines they basically despise just to get the ratings. Ouch.

I realize wine is a business (and their livelihood) but why in the world would you want your wines to get a great ratings and then pop open someone elses wine when friends come over for dinner???

It makes no sense to me. Where is the passion? We don't even sell wines in our shop that we don't taste and believe in. The truth hurts sometimes. That said, I still believe there are enough passionate winemakers out there to keep the romanticism of it all alive. Please, someone, tell me I am right.

Martin wrote:
02.27.09 at 10:20 AM

If there is a winemaker that truly doesn't think that their wine is any good, he or she needs a career change. Honestly, I don't believe it. Most of the time, the winemaker is the primary spokesman - responsible for meetings with distributors, winemaker's dinner, etc. If you truly didn't believe in the product you helped craft - it would immediately be apparent. More often, I find that winemaker have large egos and are a little blind to their own faults. I think a little humility is required along the path towards becoming a great winemaker.

Stuart Smith wrote:
02.27.09 at 10:30 AM

Alder,
A very provocative subject and one that I’ve been wrestling with for a very long time. My answer really has two parts.

The first is the easiest to dispense with. All the winemakers I know are very passionate about what they do. Wines are like children to us winemakers. Are our children really as smart, skilled and beautiful as we believe they are? Do we sometimes fail to see those faults, small or large, in the children we love so much? Most of the winemakers I know do not knowingly sell wine that is not good. The wine may not be as good as it should be, but they are blinded by love and/or a cellar palate – not cynicism.

The second part is much more complicated and I will give examples. Some while ago I was hosting a luncheon and a guest brought a Chardonnay that had just been anointed “Wine of the Year.” The non-winemaker guests were dazzled by the wine, but the several winemakers hovered around one another and agreed the wine was terrible and undrinkable. We shrugged our shoulders and threw the wine out. Later tastings of the wine confirmed it was not an off bottle. The wine was over the top with too much oak, out-of-balance and cloudy. My old professor, Dr. Maynard Amerine, would have looked over his glasses and scrunched up nose and said “commercially unacceptable.” I know this winemaker and know he has good taste and makes well crafted wines and always suspected that the wine was made solely to impress the reviewer.

The second example is another Chardonnay in the well over $100 price tag and with great internet sales legs. Not long ago I was discussing this wine with a colleague that I greatly respect and admitted that I couldn’t stand this Chardonnay made by our mutual friend. I had several bottles of it and was perplexed at both the demand and the quality. This was another of those wines that I simply couldn’t drink – it would have been another of Dr. Amerine’s “commercially unacceptable” wines. The wine was cloudy, flat with that high pH bitter taste and intensely over-oaked and out-of-balance. This was a wine more out of a home winemaker’s garage then the pinnacle of Napa Valley Chardonnays. My colleague confided to me that the winemaker knew the wine was not good, but also knew that this particular critic loved this style and decided to go with the flow and thus to the bank. Score one for your friend’s opinion.

The problem is that several wine critics of world renown give glowing reviews to super ultra price premium wines that are simply not good and like the Pied Piper the consumer follows. I don’t know why these critics give such high scores to such poor wines – maybe that’s a future topic for you.

I have always told any one who will listen that the first thing wine drinkers should learn is to drink with their mouths and not their eyes.

Stuart Smith
Smith-Madrone

East Coast Winemaker wrote:
02.27.09 at 11:31 AM

Many winemakers do not drink their own wine regularly, but not because it's not good wine. It's natural to visit something less often if you have an intimate knowledge of it. Besides, how many of you take your work home with you?

Alder wrote:
02.27.09 at 11:42 AM

Saul,

Thanks for the comments. I wonder how much of this is just great humility on his part? Certainly it doesn't sound like he feels like he's making wine to some other style than he would like? He's been doing it far too long (and too consistently) for that, I would guess.

Corie Brown wrote:
02.27.09 at 12:22 PM

I have never understood why wine lovers want/need to believe that the object of their affection is somehow "pure." It is damn hard to make great wine, or great art of any kind. Most artists try and fail. When it comes to wine, a handful of gifted artists set the highest standards for themselves and are able to consistently meet those standards. Considering the wild ride of an individual vintage, these folks often take enormous risks. Their accomplishments are real and should be heralded. Then there are the cynics who play it safe while pretending to work on the cutting edge. These faux artists play consumers for fools, a game that is easier to play at high price points where consumers are invested in the hype. Discerning the artists from the cynics is the challenge, and the fun. Quit believing all winemakers are precious. You devalue the ones who truly are.

Arthur wrote:
02.27.09 at 12:35 PM

That many wine makers - sole proprietors, directors of winemaking at larger installations or consultants - make wines to a formula is a fact.
I don't know if all of them are cynical. It's probably true that they all express varying degrees of cynicism: from none to extreme cases where the individual is just toxic with it.
I think the fact that so many winemakers start their own labels is a good indicator of how many of them have visions of what wine should be and that those visions diverge (to varying degrees) from what they make for their bosses.
Granted, besides stylistic or artistic freedom, their own separate label may bring in additional income but am curious to what extent the motivation for their own label is monetary and to what extent it is philosophical.

Rusty Eddy wrote:
02.27.09 at 1:03 PM

Your post touches on so many other issues. I really don't think winemakers dislike their own wines, but as many folks have noted, I think the reality is that winemakers often make wines for the market, rather than for themselves. If we were dealing with basic commodities, I wouldn't have a problem with this approach. But wine is an inherently emotional thing (or I think it should be) and should therefore please the one who makes it first. An artist, no mater what the medium, would be loathe to produce a work that didn't please the artist. Too bad most wine critics don't take this into account, and too bad we try to rate objectively what should be subjective.

My brother is a winemaker who probably drinks more of his own wine than he should, because he made his wine in a style that he likes to drink (so do I, but I can't always afford it). His Cabernet is not overripe and overly alcoholic, so it doesn't get the ratings of some other Napa Cabernets (that he doesn't like to drink), but it sure ages well.

Another good thing about his making and drinking only what he likes: When I bring my 1-liter tetrapack of Bandit Pinot Grigio to our family cabin, I can rest assured that I'll be able to suck down the entire box, while he eschews my Bandit and enjoys his own Sauv Blanc.

02.27.09 at 1:28 PM

It's hard to know if winemakers are being cynical, or if they just don't realize how bad their wine is. After all, not everyone has a trained palate, not even winemakers. I can't count the number of times a winemaker has extended me a glass of his wine and proudly told me how many "gold medals" it won. I taste it; it's horrible. I always wonder why they don't know, but they don't.

Dean Tudor wrote:
02.27.09 at 2:09 PM

Alder, the cynical winemaker is just following along the same path as the cynical wine critic/writer. I also know quite a few cynical sommeliers. [It cannot be just a "Canadian" thing] The difference between a skeptic and a cynic? The cynic is always better informed...

Arthur wrote:
02.27.09 at 2:11 PM

Steve,

I agree with you 100%
As with many other professions, not everyone is optimally to be doing what they do for a living.

Alder wrote:
02.27.09 at 2:47 PM

Corie,

Thanks for the comments. So how many, exactly, is a handful in your mind? Because your comments seem to imply that there are only a few winemakers (20, 30, 70?) in the world that make consistently great wine, and the rest are cynics that are taking consumers for a ride based on hype?

It seems like you're focused on dividing winemakers into two camps: the artists, and the cynical charlatans. I guess I'd put the world of winemakers into several more tiers that would include many categories including:

1. The mad geniuses
2. The excellent ones
3. The ones who do their best and can make good wine and bad
4. The ones who are making wine to some formula that sells or scores points
5. The ones who make bad wine while trying to be in one of the above categories
6. The ones who aren't even trying to make good wine

etc.

And I'd say that there are plenty of folks who fall into categories 2, 3, 4, and even 5 who exercise their talents without cynicism. That's different than thinking they're precious. If I had to replace the word precious I'd probably replace it with integrity or dignity. There are very few winemakers I'd put on a pedestal, but I do think that there are a lot of them out there trying to make wine the best they can without being "corrupted" by the system.

As for playing it safe, well yes, there are very few people who have either the financial backing or the lack of concern for finances that can afford to take every risk in the book required to produce something phenomenal. Which is why winemaking really, in my opinion, is not an art, but a craft that we often (and at times correctly) romanticize to the level of artistry.

Rajiv wrote:
02.27.09 at 5:07 PM

Great post, Alder!

In your recent response, you touched on a point that was discussed at length in Barry Smith's compilation, Questions of Taste: Whether winemaking is an art.

I think you are right to a certain extent - certainly many winemakers (Paul Draper comes to mind) agree that winemaking is better described as a craft than an art. Yet I think some winemakers, perhaps many whom you would place in the "mad genius" category, like Ludovisi, Thackrey, Schoener, etc., could be called artists because of their intensely personal approach to winemaking. Their wines could not be made by anyone else. In fact, Ludovisi tore up his vines to ensure this, an action remarkably reminiscent of avant-garde or performance art.

But going back to the topic of your post, I think this is a crucial question for reasons that weren't immediately obvious to me. Why should we care whether there are cynical winemakers out there? Are we simply worried that some day there will be no more good wine? I don't think this is the heart of the motivation. To me, this question matters immensely because one of the fundamental characteristics of an art or (especially) a craft is the presence of INTENT.

Intent is what turns paint splatter into fine art.
Intent is what turns a wrong note into a dischordant interjection.
Intent is what turns a graceful tussle into contact improvisation.
Intent is what separates a great vin jaume from the Jura from an oxidized train-wreck of a wine.

Intent is part of the context of wine. It is the reason I would rather pay more for carefully crafted wines than dig through a mountain of crap to find an industrial wine that got lucky and achieved balance.

Moving on... I'd like to suggest one more category of winemakers: those who make wine to the tastes of whoever pays their salary, or who undertake projects that they personally do not agree with in order to hone their craft.

I don't know for sure if people do this, but if I were to study winemaking, I might try to make an Aussie fruitbomb, and a cat-pee laden, over-grasses NZ sauv blanc. And an over-oaked CA chard, just to see if I could master the technical aspects of these wines... or to see if I could make my own imprint within these styles.

The analogy in music would be practicing scales, or playing Clementi Sonatinas - maybe you want to perform Chopin and Rachmaninoff, but you have to start somewhere. Everyone young pianist plays Fur Elise, to the point where I almost can't stand to hear it anymore... but it's a jumping-off point.

Arthur wrote:
02.27.09 at 5:12 PM

What is art if not the skillful and meticulous application of technique and methodology to achieve a pleasing product?

Alder wrote:
02.27.09 at 6:14 PM

Arthur,

The first three words of your rhetorical question have been debated for decades. As for the remaining words, if you're suggesting that art is just technique, methodology, and pleasure, then I think you'll find a lot of people in the establishment to disagree with you. Of course it depends on what you mean by "methodology" and "pleasing."

While I have no desire to make this a discussion of what is art and what is not, it's interesting to me that the traditional answer to that question is "whatever the critical establishment says is art." Which prompts the question that, if winemaking is art, why is it that there are so many people who object to what the critical establishment says is "great" ?

Alder

Arthur wrote:
02.27.09 at 6:31 PM

Alder

My point (touched off by your exchange with Corrie) is that art in any form is not some magical, ephemeral thing.

Art is an intentional act and as such is not created randomly (chimpanzee finger painting anyone?) but rather through the artist consciously and deliberately applying "technique and methodology" which they have practiced, tested and developed - be it color selection, brushstrokes, musical modes, dance moves or a myriad of decisions during elevage - to create a product of appeal or representative of a concept or message.

So art - as applied to performance, visual or viticultural mediums - is born of technical excellence in one form or another.

The finished product can be aesthetically or intellectually pleasing. A crucifix in a jar of urine is not necessarily visually pleasing, but the intellectual process it sparks can be rewarding and thus pleasing in its own right.

In that vein, then, the conclusion to your last question begs being said: not all art (wine) is for everyone.

This, of course, touches on the question of who among the critical establishment KNOWS art (wine) and who simply knows quite a bit about it and enjoys it.

ned hoey wrote:
02.27.09 at 8:00 PM

"Bad" or just in pursuit of the wrong goals. I don't think cynical winemakers believe their wines are BAD, they just know that the wine is a confection, and if they have decided to confect a wine, they set out to do the finest confection they can. Like global warming, there is no doubt that there are many wines made for scores, the debate that no well known estate of any consequence does not is fraudulent. The question becomes, why do confections score and sell?

Kathy wrote:
02.28.09 at 1:47 AM

A friend of mine is a flying winemaker with clients in Europe and South America. The WM deals with a very wide variety of grapes, raw materials, winery conditions, money, skills, and owner interest. The object for all is to create a wine that is correct and will sell to identified markets/clients. The WM is very good, passionate, professional and realistic. Should all those wines be made according to the WM's personal taste preference? I think not. For one thing, that taste may not be the market's taste in the most positive sense. But it must be correct and balanced.
And anyone who has tasted the same wine in different countries also knows that the product may vary. Moet et Chandon NV is not the same in the US as in France. Is one-which one?-therefore a bad wine? No.
Why shouldn't a winery make a wine that is correct and pleases a particular palate and therefore sells? That's what movie studios do and an Oscar is the result.
When a wine is out of balance (as noted in other comments) that wine is not correct. And that is the winemaker's fault, not the fault of price or a critic's palate.

Alder wrote:
02.28.09 at 9:55 AM

Confections score and sell because people think they taste good. Simple as that.

Jake Kosseff wrote:
02.28.09 at 12:42 PM

This is a great post, and a stunning discussion that gets to the heart of one of the great aesthetic mysteries: why do people like what they like? The thing that I would add to all that has been said is that my experience as a sommelier has led me to suspect that many people think they like a lot of things that they don't actually like. Or to put it a different way, a lot of people like things for reasons other than that they are aesthetically pleasing.

There is a strong urge to like things that other people like, as it brings acceptance. There is also a strong urge to like things that one is familiar with, because they bring comfort in being familiar. There is also a strong urge to agree with someone who one believes to be an authority or a savant, because it reflects intelligence and good taste. None of these tendancies is bad in and of itself, and they all probably serve very usful purposes in our physical and social evolution. But they don't help us much when it comes to discovering and enjoying good wine.

The interesting thing about liking things for reasons besides liking them is that they almost always are likes for one or two specific stylistic elements of a wine: oak; sweetness; jamminess; power of or lack of tannins; and etc. They aren't about what truly makes a wine good, which is a much harder element to pin down, but almost certainly has to do with a very broad idea of balance (not in the very bourgeois sense of equal parts of everything, but in a much more inclusive sense of everthing complimenting everything else, like a work of art).

The stylistic elements of the wines are what is easy to manipulate, and often result in this or that wine, that most of us agree isn't great, receiving a big score and commanding rediculous prices. Despite my best efforts I am even swayed by these stylistic elements, especially when tasting lots of wines end on end such as in judgings, because certain stylistic elements such as oak, jammy fruit and concentration trump nearly everything else after you've tasted 300 wines in a day. So it might not even be so much of a fault of the critics, as a flaw in the method of wine criticism itself (tasting large groups of wine out of context).

True enjoyment of anything comes when one can get past searching for a specific style, and start appreciating the thing as whole. As writers, enthusiasts and wine professionals we can help ourselves and the wine drinking public greatly by encouraging them to be adventurous, try new things, and think about what it is that they really love. The side benefit to all of this is that if there are, in fact, cynical winemakers (I have no doubt that there are, though I haven't met any of them), their wines won't stand up to the enlightened scrutiny of a public in search of what they really like, and if they do, can they really be that bad?

smartypants wrote:
02.28.09 at 12:51 PM

My husband is a consulting winemaker and makes wine from $3.99/bottle to $150/bottle retail and puts the same time and consideration into both. It is inexcusable for any winemaker to knowingly produce wine of poor quality in todays market. Quality is quality no matter the price point. We too are flabergasted by the c*$p that is being put out by "So called" experts. Unacceptable. Don't buy bad wine!

East Coast winemaker wrote:
02.28.09 at 3:46 PM

The great myth being put out there mostly by wine writers/critics/bloggers is that wine is MOSTLY art and a LITTLE bit of science when actually none of that is true. There is a subjective component to making wine that is commonly mistaken for art. For example, we tend to like wine made from V. vinifera more so than wine made from our native (USA) V. labrusca. But I wouldn't say that it took any great artistic genius to make that decision. Someone made the comment that winemaking is more craft than art. That's on the right track, but both views assume that there is unlimited resources to achieve your goal. If a painter needs more of one color paint to complete the painting, he squeezes more from the tube onto the palate. If a sculptor needs more bronze to finish the statue, he buys more bronze. But what does a winemaker do when he needs more cassis character? Nothing. Nature gave you so much to work with and you can't add more. We're always working with limited resources.

Remember too that the famous wines that make winemakers famous are a very small percentage of wine that they make. Often that tiny volume of wine is the result of the owner saying "spare no expense in making these 100 cases, I want to make the the best wine in the world!" So the winery has these wonderful 100 cases of wine for sale and this wine makes the reputation of the winery and the winemaker, but it certainly doesn't come close to paying the bills and salaries. What does that is the bread-and-butter wine made in large volumes that critics/writers/bloggers don't really care about.

Winemaking is mostly accounting. With limited resources (quality grapes) you have to make your reputation-maker wines and your profit-making wines. So then you play the allocation game. The first growths of Bordeaux have figured this out and relegate a part of their grape production to their second label. The get less for their 2nd label, but the save the reputation of the first. This game works for some, and not for others.

The "great winemaker" is a misnomer. Wine is mostly a product of place. The winemaker has some input but that's it. Take a famous winemaker and put him here on the East Coast, with our humidity and tropical storms and let's see what he can do. THAT'S the mark of great winemaker - what he can do with limited resources, not unlimited resources and the owner's unlimited wallet. A great winemaker is just like any other "great" - a product of pedigree, hard work, timing, and luck.

I take pride that I make great wine in a difficult climate with a limited budget and under a profitable business model. But that's not a sexy story is it? It's easy to get distracted with a winemaker's "passion" (what a cliche!), but that passion has to be judged against all the failures that came before.

For what it's worth, in 12 years of being in the production end of the business, I've never met a "cynical" winemaker. Some are more business-minded than others. Some have great palates, some have terrible palates. Some came from a family history of winemaking and do it because it's easier being in the family business than going out on your own. It runs the gamut, just like any other profession.

02.28.09 at 4:44 PM

Should they be making wines that consumers like, or that they like? Maybe an artist chooses the latter, but a craftsman the former.

Corie Brown wrote:
02.28.09 at 8:09 PM

Fascinating string. Good for you Alder for stirring up so much emotion. The question: Is winemaking different than every other human endeavor? There are cynics in all walks of life. These are the folks who could do a better job than they do, but make a choice to make more money/go for the easy critical raves/compromise to get ahead/stop short of making the extra effort to do their best. There are so many over-priced/underwhelming wines that, I confess, I often wonder why wine lovers are not more discerning. As this economic depression deepens, I bet we all work harder to recognize the difference between artisan/craftsmen and cynical winemakers playing us for fools. Of course, to do that, we have to admit that winemaking is just like every other human endeavor.

Don wrote:
02.28.09 at 11:22 PM

I can only add 2 comments: Fist it does seem that SOME winemakers only drink and taste their own wine and never calibrate their palate with different grapes, countries, etc. And second, what really gets my goat are winemakers who think that their own wine is the greatest and is unique, and who take it as a personal insult or think you are a jackrabbit if you say something neutral or negative about their wine. And by negative, it can be as simple as saying "I don't think this wine is any different than 20 others just like it." Or "I personally don't really get excited by this high alc. I can taste it but can't swallow more than 2 ounces in 10 minutes." I mean really, how unique can 200 Cabernets from Napa be? They can be good, but not too many are unique. And how different are all those Chardonnays from one another? If you take 10 or 15 of the typical high end $30 to $50 Calif. Chards, and the winemakers of SOME think that theirs is the one & only true best wine, you must take it with a large grain of salt. I mean a dollop of butter. Sorry, got my metaphors wrong. Oh, well, here is my 3rd comment: in the real world, to some consumers, wine is just alcohol and that is all they want from it.

Uzi wrote:
03.01.09 at 10:08 AM

Corie Brown is on to something. Winemakers are humans, you get all kind.
Also, I detect a theme here, an assumption that winemakers have to make a choice between what they like and what the public likes. There are quite a few of them that make crowd pleasers and like them at the same time. No compromise.

Although I have heard winemakers comment about room for improvments in their wine, it is also as if they were talking about their kids, pondering what could they have done better during 'elevage'.
Don't we all?

ganks wrote:
03.01.09 at 11:10 AM

Unless you are a small scale operation making one or two different wines, I would suggest that it is irresponsible of a winemaker to attempt to make wines that cater only to their palate. The sales of your wines not only make money for the owners(if they are lucky), but also pay the wages of any number of empoyees. If wines simply pile up in the warehouse, no-body eats!

Scott wrote:
03.01.09 at 5:49 PM

Having been in the industry for a few years, I've seen both types of personalities: winemakers with 'baby syndrome' and those who fit your friend's definition of cynical. I don't think their distaste for their own product is as much a result of their cynical personality but more a blend of familiarity, boredom, and self-criticism. After making a particular bottle, the winemaker may have tasted that wine and it's components fifty times. They know exactly how it tastes, it's flaws, the things they wish they had changed, and how they had hoped it would turn out. I think that knowledge and pursuit of perfection leads the winemaker to enjoy drinking something else, something they can enjoy the taste of without thinking about it's pH from harvest to finish and contemplating what they'd have done different. Writers and actors usually don't enjoy their own work for similar reasons. I'd much rather have a wine from a self-critical winemaker than one who loves their own baby a bit too much.

ChasOlken wrote:
03.01.09 at 6:04 PM

Bully for Corie Brown. Winemakers, wine critics, wine lovers, wine retailers all come in various sizes, shapes, patterns and visions.

I happen to be an ardent fan of Genevieve Janssens, the head winemaker at Mondavi. She also has her own label, Portfolio under which she and husband Luke have made a string of brilliant wines.

She would seem to fit just about any label that someone would like to pin on her. Some might call her efforts at Mondavi cynical. Others would say that she does the best she can within the constraints imposed by working at a big, corporately owned winery. And some, tasting her limited production Cabernet Sauvignon, would label her a winemaker who loves her own product.

What is missing here is the realization that situations differ, and the use of the term "cynical" is far too pejorative when applied to most winemakers.

No one has focused on the person who first hurled that term around so loosely, but, from my perspective, Alder got it right when he rejected it.

Morton Leslie wrote:
03.01.09 at 8:33 PM

Naive might be a good word. Winemakers are no different than anyone else. They do what they think will bring them the most recognition, the largest following, and perhaps a reputation at some point which will make them wealthy. They do what they think will make them successful. If it is making wine that they do not like, but which people fall over themselves for, there is no hesitation.

Alder wrote:
03.01.09 at 9:41 PM

Morton,

Fair enough, but one of the mitigating factors in my mind (which, again, may be naive) is the fact that winemakers have to taste their work all the way along, and it is THEIR tastes which they have to use in order to shape the final product. Just as a chef has to taste his or her own food as he or she is inventing a dish. Like some have said above, spending months and months tasting a wine you don't think tastes very good, and shepherding it towards a fate where you know you won't like the way it tastes, seems like the definition of masochism.

And, what exactly do you mean "like everyone else?" I know countless people who do not run their careers according to the criteria you outline above, most notably every person I know who has decided to pursue an artistic or aesthetic career path. The sentences "They do what they think will bring them the most recognition, the
largest following, and perhaps a reputation at some point which will
make them wealthy. They do what they think will make them successful." do not describe a single musician, artist, or writer I know, not to mention anyone I know in the non-profit world.

People, for the most part, don't go into winemaking first because they think it's their ticket to success and wealth. They generally do it because they are passionate about wine, at least as far as I can tell. Doesn't that passion impede the tendency to forsake one's own tastes and make wine you don't like?

Morton Leslie wrote:
03.01.09 at 11:00 PM

It is very naive to think that writers, musicians, or artists are not in it for recognition. Otherwise they would not publish, play for the public, or put their work in galleries. And it is also naive to think what writers, musicians, or artists create is not affected by their critics, agents, or their book-record-painting buying public.

It is also, incorrect, to compare writers, musicians, or artists with winemakers. Winemakers should be compared to other craftsmen like cheese makers, chefs, and luxury goods producers, and fashion houses. All of which craft their products to please the critic, the reseller, and the consumer... all of whom will posture that they are "doing their own thing." But I wouldn't take that too seriously.

Do you think these 16% alcohol, dead vine wines are not masochistic and are instead some winemaker's passion? Look if Parker began to love 12.5% alcohol wines tomorrow, three years from tomorrow the average alcohol in luxury red wines would have dropped 2 points.

Kathy wrote:
03.01.09 at 11:45 PM

Where are the winemakers-and, importantly-the cultists and multiple brand corporate wineries in this discussion?
You and your PR folks lurk. So, come forward and enlighten.

Alder wrote:
03.02.09 at 7:56 AM

I don't deny in the slightest both the influence of the market and the influence of the Parktator on wine styles -- though perhaps I am less of a chicken little than most about such things.

But even those winemakers that are influenced by such things -- do they actually think what they're making tastes bad? Do they intentionally make a product they think is inferior?

David Gaier wrote:
03.02.09 at 8:39 AM

It seems like a cliché, but there’s a lot of truth in the idea that American palates have been trained (or is it trellised?) to favor big, bold, dense fruit bombs, and to think of subtle, elegant, nuanced wines as not just different, but somehow second-rate, or even flawed. It’s too bad of course, silly and ignorant, but it’s not like soldiers dying in Iraq or a mudslide killing thousands in Colombia. Let’s have some perspective here.

The Flying Winemaker makes a great living, and Parker is still the king, because people like what they are told to like, because that’s what precisely they then go on to buy and taste, to bring to parties and to order at wine bars and restaurants. Just as American infants are fed babyfood laden with salt and sugar and develop a taste for them, so is American wine consumer. It’s the job of the wine writer to light a candle and not bitch about the darkness, and hopefully the retailer has a bit of the same spirit.

AuntKathy wrote:
03.02.09 at 8:39 AM

Surely the press must accept its responsiblity in creating what consumers view as a desirable wine.

I spend most days selling wine. In every market I visit, retailers ask about Spectator or Parker ratings. In some markets, its impossible to sell without it.

My mantra: consumers want to know its "safe" to purchase that $50 bottle of Cabernet. They want to know they'll like it. And Spectator and Parker have become their "trusted source" of information. What's unfortunate about this situation is (1) ratings are based on the reviewer's wine style preference, not yours; and (2) if the reviewer becomes very popular, it creates a market for that reviewer's wine style. Instead, consumers should recognize what they like in a wine, be able to communicate that, create a relationship with their local wine store, and have them find wines that match their style. In restaurants, they should seek out the advice of the sommelier, letting that person know what wines they enjoy so the recommendation is valued. These guys should become your "trusted source" - not a magazine.

I live in Napa, am in the business, and personally don't know any winemakers that make wines they hate just to get a rating or sell better. They are like most artists who have a child-like anxiety when it comes to hoping you will like what they've made. Despite what they might say to the contrary, all of them would love to get that 100 point Parker rating. Its all about acceptance.

03.02.09 at 8:47 AM

"...it became clear that she meant quite literally, that many winemakers in Napa are making wine that they know is bad, just because they think it is what the public wants."

Two things to keep in mind in this debate is that:
a) very very few wineries do the kind of complex and expensive research that would be necessary to really determine "what the public wants" in terms of the flavor and style of the wine.

b) the public as a whole does not "want" a particular style, since taste preferences and perceptivity vary widely across the winedrinking population and the occasion and winery image directly affect taste perception.

Therefore, saying that a winery is making wine a certain way "because the public wants it" tells you more about the winery than the public. Conversely, fears about formula wines that are perfectly tuned to a dominant palate are overblown.

ganks wrote:
03.02.09 at 9:08 AM

I have been making wine for over 15 years on 3 different continents. To imply that winemakers get into it for recognition and wealth is ludicrous and shows a lack of understanding of what 99% of us do and what our responsibilities are. Unless you are one of the 1% that rise to "cult" status, winemaking is not, and never will be a path to riches of the monetary kind. The vast majority of us work extremely hard and endure many sleepless nights to try and create something that will be pleasing to others. It takes many years and more than a little luck to be able to make a good living doing what we do.

sangio wrote:
03.02.09 at 10:27 AM

One element that has not been taken into account is the fact that wine hardly ever turns out as the winemaker exactly intended it to,but only with the style that was imparted intentionally.What I mean is that the difference between a good wine and a bad one is often very slight and determined by a series of circumstances that are difficult to assess beforehand.It's easy to say that a wine is good or bad AFTER the wine is made, more difficult is to make a good wine, every time.This is independant from the fact that wine may be made in a commercial or a artisanal way, even though commercial wines obviously tend to be more fool proof for the winemakers to make them.

Frank wrote:
03.03.09 at 2:33 PM

Winemaker's claim to be omni present spiritually when transforming their raw material into a polished art, but the truth is, they, like many facets saturating the rest of this country, are in a mode of intellectual laziness, conveying a disingenuous product. Thus, allowing for the birth and rise of the numerical point scoring phenomenon and corporate wine culture. Do you REALLY think our clients want wines with 15+% alc's (and bodies by glycerin), obscenely high ph's and enough wood to chock a mule??? NO! We allowed the rise of WineGod's cuz it was easy for us to fall in line, make crap that won’t last and hope your lotto ticket comes up. It's up to us in this industry to take BACK the lead point and be more responsible for the wines we craft.

Genevieve Janssens wrote:
03.03.09 at 2:39 PM

ChasOlken,
Thank you for your kind support.
I love to drink all the wines I am making, and will never bottle a wine that I don't enjoy. I don't feel there is any cynicsm in my work at Robert Mondavi Winery. We are lucky to work with beautiful vineyards and are able to make beautiful wines. They are made with all the passion and soul that Mr. Mondavi inspired in us. I am happy to say that I don't feel any constraint in my winemaking. Come and taste with me sometime!

Alder wrote:
03.03.09 at 5:28 PM

Frank,

Thanks for the comments. I do believe that's the first time I've heard of American winemakers being blamed for the rise of Robert Parker and the 100 point hegemony! And by the use of "we" I take it you number among those winemakers?

Richard wrote:
03.10.09 at 5:44 PM

Hi Alder,

I'm a day late and dollar short on commenting, but as a very small "boutique" winemaker who uses a custom crush, I make wine to please myself and hope that it will please others. I'm doing it because I enjoy it - if I hated doing it, I wouldn't have started in the first place.

I know quite a few winemakers in Napa and Sonoma and I cannot honestly point to one who hates or dislikes her/his own wine. Perhaps I'm out of touch. And you are correct, these wines are our "babies" and we are generally very proud of them. I have been fortunate enough to produce three vintages (so far) and have three in barrel that I love and others seem to love (given some of my accolades). Having said that, it is a tough business and one does not, will not, and likely will never make enough to make much more than a scraped out living making wine.

All the people who see winemaking as some glorious lifestyle of the rich and famous are way off. At the moment, I lose more money than I make and am doing it completely for the sheer pleasure I get from my wine - I don't mean this as a conceited jerk - but I worked really hard to make a good wine I thought everyone would like and it turned out well. If it were a bad wine, of course, I would be disappointed but certainly, sadly, would tell everyone that it was bad because I wouldn't want to let my customers down.

Last, forgive me for disagreeing, but I completely, totally, wholeheartedly, and emphatically disagree with Frank and others re: the high alcohol, glycerin wines. I don't care what my alcohol level is, so long as the wine is balanced and not hot - most of my wines have come in at the 14.5-15.8% level and they are not hot, but I simply don't care about the alcohol - I let the wine ferment, age in the barrel and do it's thing - if it's 12% or 17%, I don't care, so long as it tastes good.

Granted, Robert Parker has influence but I think both James Laube and Wine & Spirits have a greater influence on Napa/Sonoma - and both differ quite a bit from Parker.

So, can we stop the bi*ching and moaning about high alcohol, whine, whine, whine, fruit bombs, whine, whine, whine, glycerin, whine, whine, whine. Wine is what it is in the 21st century and I don't make my wine for anyone but myself.

Cheers,

Richard.

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