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02.17.2014

Journalists Banned from Tasting Domaine Huet Wines

I was surprised to learn this morning that a Loire Valley winery refused to let two journalists taste their wines at the recent Salon des Vins de Loire trade show. And not just any winery, but the venerable Domaine Huet, widely regarded as one of the world's great wine estates.

Huet has been going through something of a transition since the abrupt resignation of winemaker Noel Pinguet from the domaine in 2012, where he had been in charge of winemaking since 1976. Upon his resignation, Sarah Hwang, daughter of owner Anthony Hwang, who purchased the domaine in 2003, was put in charge.

According to a remarkably even-tempered article by journalist Chris Kissack on his blog The Wine Doctor, he was cornered by Ms. Hwang and given a tongue lashing before being ejected from the winery's booth at the trade show. The reason? He had written less than complimentary reviews of the 2012 wines -- the first vintage, it should be noted, made without Pinguet in almost 4 decades, and not an easy vintage under any circumstance.

Kissack was apparently not alone. Journalist Jim Budd, arguably the world's leading English-language reporter on all things Loire, was also similarly snubbed, again by Ms. Hwang.

Kissack's detailed description of the encounter, as well as his history with the domaine, obviously represents only one side of the story. On its face, it might be regarded as a somewhat curious occurrence, and prompt questions about whether there were some bad blood between the parties, or some extenuating circumstances.

However with another journalist, who also recently wrote critically of the domaine facing the same treatment at the hands of the winery's new leadership, something begins to smell a little fishy.

Here we have two excellent writers, both long-time champions and serious students of Domaine Huet's wines, and quite possible among the best commentators to help us understand what is happening during an incredibly crucial transition at the winery. Yet when they raise doubts about the quality of the latest vintage, they are told they are not welcome.

This is, of course, not the first time wineries have banned journalists from tasting their wines, though I must say it is the first time I have heard of such an attempt at a large public tasting, the premise of which is to make wines available to anyone who wishes to taste.

Robert Parker suffered similar indignities in Bordeaux (famously emphasized in an attack by one Chateau owner's dogs) when his ratings were found to be less than favorable by some producers. But that was more than thirty years ago.

While no less petty, it also somehow seems slightly more plausible that a winery could decline to receive a visiting journalist who requested an appointment at the estate, should there be enough enmity to do so. But to bar someone from tasting your wines in a public setting and to do so with an open castigation about your past criticism of the product?

That's just stupid. And it smacks of the hubris and entitlement that can unfortunately accompany fame and recognition. When wines become known as among the best in the world, sometimes their makers believe that owning and tasting those wines are a privilege for them to bestow on the worthy. Such arrogance often comes with the tendency to believe one's own myth, to the point of blindness.

Ms. Hwang's approach to criticism also seems to display a staggering lack of consciousness of the possible ramifications such actions can have in the age of the Internet. Someone send in the PR swat team.

Can the Hwangs truly believe they are somehow above criticism? Or if not, how could they possibly imagine that they could exert control over the critical reception of their wines by preventing some reviewers from tasting them in a certain setting?

Of course, there's another explanation for this behavior which is no less appalling. Namely that this is as petty and vindictive as it sounds. Just like my five-year-old daughter who comes home from school and tells me that one of her friends is no longer invited to her birthday party because that friend did something she didn't like at recess.

Domaine Huet's actions, as embodied by its director Ms. Hwang are rude, childish, and unprofessional. Not to mention unbecoming of a domaine of its stature. It should apologize to both Kissack and Budd, and work on some humility.

Read Chris Kissack's piece here.

Comments (13)

Jim Budd wrote:
02.17.14 at 2:12 PM

Alder. Many thanks. A sorry tale! Over the years since 1979 I have bought wines from Domaine Huet, which have given great pleasure. I will now buy wines as samples that I need to taste but I suspect buy Vouvrays for pleasure elsewhere. Jim

02.18.14 at 6:33 AM

Here's what I wrote on my website of my tasting of Huet's wines at the 2014 Salon des Vins de Loire:

"Feb. 10, 2014: Fear not for the future of Domaine Huet!
When Noel Pinguet, Gaston Huet's son-in-law and the winemaker at the domaine for many years, retired after the 2011 harvest, some in the wine world were concerned that quality would suffer.
I knew that would not be the case after having interviewed the "new" winemaker, Jean-Bernard Berthome, who had worked beside Pinguet during the latter's entire tenure and whose parents had worked for Gaston Huet.
And tasting Berthome's wines at the 2014 Salon des Vins de Loire confirmed my confidence. There was very little to taste as Berthome harvest only 13 hl/ha in 2013 because of hail, and only 15 hl/ha in 2012 because of spring frost and mildew. But the three wines available to taste were all superb.
My coup du coeur went to the 2013 Clos du Bourg sec which had just finished fermenting. Its profile: 13 alc., 7 gms rs, 5.8 acid, it was harvested in two passes. Now usually my tasting notes are rather more detailed regarding flavors and structure and the like. For the 2013 Haut Lieu sec, for example, I was struck by how supple it was even with its vivid acidity; for the 2012 Le Mont sec, I admired the focus, the structure, the richness -- which seemed ampler than its 12.5 alc would suggest -- and its floral and pear-like notes combined with an appetizing bitterness.
But for that Clos du Bourg, well, I was simply gobsmacked. Even at this stage, with fermentation just barely finished, it exhibited grandeur, complexity, raciness. It was, in a word, sublime."

Before coming to the conclusion that Kissack and Budd were denied entry to the stand because they had written unfavorable reviews, I would suggest you do your job as a journalist and ask the Hwangs for an explanation. I think you'll hear quite another story.

Jerry Murray wrote:
02.18.14 at 10:07 AM

While it is tempting to ascribe "arrogance" as the emotion driving Ms Hwang's actions I suggest another: "insecurity".

I have for years considered the Huet wines to be among the best white wines in the world (especially when price is factored in). I could certainly understand the pressure that the Team at Huet might feel.

However; grow up! If Ms Hwang believed in the wines, believed that the tradition of quality continued why would she be so riled by a reviewer comments? I propose it is a lack of confidence.

I will no longer be buying Huet wines for my cellar. Not because of any reviewers negative comments, not because appalling behavior by ownership but simply because if the producer doesn't believe in a wine why should I?

Anonymous wrote:
02.18.14 at 11:39 AM

First of all, I think it is about time that people started looking into the journalistic integrity of Jim Budd. His personal agenda driven attack on the Baumards is just a small peice of his sorry excuse for journalism and I am glad that more domaines in the Loire are standing up against his trash. Funny how he did not publish getting thrown out of Thibaud Boudignons Domaine...

Second Chris Kissacks quality of his Journalism has waned and it was especially disappointing that this dip in quality seemingly has been timed coincidentally with the shift to this subscription model. This is my personal opinion that I get from the general quality and subject matter of his posts. It is not right when you give your personal opinion on wineries and do not make it public. Although many posts he does still open to the public, such as the one about this huet fiasco, I do not agree with bloggers being paid for what they write. Sure big media has its downfalls, but at least there is journalistic integrity and some sort of regulation considering fact checking and objectivity. Certainly more than the internet. Want me to take you seriously, go write a book or get officially published by something more than a shoddy wine magazine. When someone with an established reputation wants to put their name next to yours I may start listening. Until then you are grossly under-qualified. Jacqueline did it. If you are so good you and Budd should do it too!

Thirdly, journalists covering the Loire in general are some of the worst in the business. Seemingly almost every journalist, who covers the Loire seems to lose their sense of objectivity, even one of my favorites Jacqueline Freidrich suffers from this, with Jim Budd and Chris Kissak joining since his conversion. It is too bad this happens because of the infighting it drives people away from a region that is largely uncared for and hard enough to sell as it is. You all need to grow up and stop turning people away from the Loire. You whine and create a ruckus when someone tells you to get bent. You should really get bent and stop being such babies. Huet doesnt want you to taste? Stop covering them. If you wielded as much power as you thought you did that should be enough to penalize them for not allowing you to taste.

My fifth and final point speaks to the general quality of the Huet wines before 2012. If you taste most of that stuff blind, it is inconsistent as hell and the winemaking is still(to this date) in the stone age. I think it is a huge let down and hard for people to get into chenin when people claim this is the best chenin in the world and its a flawed bottle of Huet. It has happened far too much to me with this domaine pre-2012 and I have had my fair share of it. Imagine if I had never tasted chenin, loire white or vouvray for that matter and I had one of the bad years or a flawed bottle? These journalists have been crying about the converstion, but a new set of eyes of the job will do the domaine good. Its hard not to improve on the past in my humble opinion. This includes my tasting experience of several vintages including 47, 45 89 90 76 97 and several others.

Stop being babies and grow up. Go get published and then maybe people will care about your crap.

Thanks again to Jacqueline Freidrich who is actually doing her journalistic duty and seeking information on the other side of the story. Oh the internet.

Jim Budd wrote:
02.18.14 at 12:09 PM

Anon; 'Funny how he did not publish getting thrown out of Thibaud Boudignon's Domaine...'

I didn't publish this because this is complete fantasy. I visited Château Soucherie by appointment on 27th May 2013 in connection with Soucherie winning the 2013 Regional Sweet Wine Trophy in the 2013 Decanter World Wine Awards. A profile of every regional trophy winner is written and as regional chair for the Loire I am responsible for writing these for the Loire. The profile was duly published in the Decanter Awards edition (October 2013).

I was shown round by Florence de Barmon and it was a very enjoyable and interesting visit. Unfortunately at that time Thibaud was in hospital with a bad back. It is good to see that he has now recovered and in a position to make good wines both at Soucherie and from his own vineyards.

Alder wrote:
02.18.14 at 4:59 PM

Anonymous,

How nice of you to come here and widely disparage all sorts of people, while bragging of your own tasting experience, all with the perfect comfort of anonymity. Grow up yourself, and own your opinions if you're going to throw them around so flagrantly.

Alder

02.19.14 at 7:37 AM

Great line: "When wines become known as among the best in the world, sometimes their makers believe that owning and tasting those wines are a privilege for them to bestow on the worthy. Such arrogance often comes with the tendency to believe one's own myth, to the point of blindness."

Anonymous wrote:
02.19.14 at 12:14 PM

Budd, Im not talking about Soucherie. Im talking about when you tried taste the bottlings of his own wine. You know the wine he makes on the side called 'Domaine Thibaud Boudignon' Although he makes wine for Soucherie, he also makes his own wines which you got denied on. If I was talking about Soucherie, I would have said 'that time you got kicked out of Soucherie'. But I said Domaine Thibaud Boudignon. Basically you got told to get bent for being an ass. Learn to read, before spouting off about your decanter experience. Nice try on the deflect though, seems pretty stock for you.

and Alder, if Jim Budd can post unsubstantiated claims on the internet via bogus blogs, I can post anonymously. That is the beauty of the internet. I'm not bragging about my tasting experience, I'm backing up my claims. If you haven't tasted that stuff how can you even comment on it? If you want me to brag, I can. Don't confuse bragging for some sliver of knowledge. Easy enough to do I suppose with informed opinions in such sort supply here.

Jim Budd wrote:
02.19.14 at 3:56 PM

Report on the only time I have tasted Thibaud's wines at the J&B tasting last autumn: http://jimsloire.blogspot.pt/2013/12/loire-2012sj-tasting-on-18112013.html

Angel Buendia wrote:
02.23.14 at 8:24 PM

I would be very surprised if Sarah Hwang acted without the knowledge and consent of her father. Indeed, I would assume that the orders came from the top and Anthony Hwang directed the banning of Jim Budd and Chris Kissack, with Sarah only acting as her father’s axeman. Perhaps he would have done it himself had his reported legal troubles in Asia not kept him from attending the Salon.

I know the family to be very proud of their intellectual prowess and educational achievements and have seen how they run their businesses with an emphasis on total control and obsession to the bottom line, regardless of sentiment or tradition. We’ve seen it with the abrupt departures of Istvan Szepsy (Kiralyudvar) and Noel Pinguet who wouldn’t compromise terroir and tradition. This time, their obsession with total control has expanded to include bloggers/journalists, which they’re now finding out are not easy to control.

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