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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.

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