Wine Talk

Snooth User: Richard Foxall

Point mongering confidential

Posted by Richard Foxall, Mar 19, 2012.

Hush hush and strictly on the QT... I was at a family function the other day that was also attended by a family friend who is high up in management at a significant Sonoma producer.  We were talking about (among other things, like his grandchildren) the WS ratings for the 2009 Sonoma Pinots--a big part of this winery's business.  My friend confided that the winery had stuck to their traditional cuvee for their standard bottling, which has a restaurant, wine club and even Safeway supermarket following, but had tailored a SVD with James Laube's tastes in mind to give themselves a better shot at a 90+ rating.  This can be used on shelf-talkers, to lead in ads, and to keep distributors pushing the other product.  It allows them to charge distributors more and keep discounting down, which was a problem over the last couple years as the economy cut into their customers' willingness to spend, and their distributors' ability to make up in volume what they lost in margin. Sure enough, the wine got a 90+ score.  (I can't reveal the exact score because I didn't want to know, but I can tell you that none of their '08s--which was the last release available for the 2009 Cal Pinot roundup in WS in October 2011--got a 90+.)

I might really like the wine, too--haven't tried it--but they didn't make it for my tastes.

Interesting that they were able, because they knew it would be Laube and his tastes have become well known.  Parker is just not a factor in the Pinot world, they feel. Nothing "spoofy" that I know of, but the site, ripeness, yields, probably even the yeasts, barreling, were, from the beginning, aimed at a score from a particular critic.  They have several bottlings, and they only did it with one, but interesting that they were so forward about it.  And I have no doubt that large wine companies do this often; smaller producers probably do it with all their wines to get on the map, if that's their goal.


Reply by JonDerry, Mar 19, 2012.

Nice report, though can't say i'm surprised at all. Were you able to glean what exactly Laube's preferences are and what the winery does to tailor to them?

Reply by dmcker, Mar 19, 2012.

A known fact and factor for many wineries. Gets even better when wineries make special barrel blends for en primeur. Isn't RP in Bordeaux sometime during the next fortnight? Wonder how they mark the special barrels for him.

Didn't know you were an Ellroy fan, Fox!

Reply by GregT, Mar 19, 2012.

Yeah, not that much of a surprise and not the first one. Winemakers have to sell wine and they'll tailor their work to what the public wants and if the critic drives the public, to what the critic wants.

To be honest, I don't have a problem with it. There are some winemakers who sniff that they're just going to do what they want and they don't care about the critics, but no winemaker wants to have a garage full of unsold stuff.  It can be very lucrative to market against the prevailing winds, but it's tricky and bottom line is that I'm not interested in a winemaker who's not interested in me. So if someone wants to pursue a vision, that's great, but I don't feel a need to chase the product down and marvel at the "artistry". Who would patronize a bakery that always over-baked their bread because they like it dry? Or a pizza place that always undercooked their pizza because they felt that it was better if the cheese wasn't completely melted? Or a coffee place that felt they could burn the coffee and the public was too dumb to realize it.

Whoops.  That was Starbucks and they've introduced lighter roasts in response to the people who don't liek the burned stuff.

I wouldn't think Laube has that kind of influence but hey, whatever works.

Reply by Richard Foxall, Mar 20, 2012.

In California, thanks to Parker's semi-retirement and general lack of impact in the Pinot world, Laube is a big factor, according to many, including Tina Caputo at Wines and Vines, who posted a video about score mongering a few years ago. She mainly talks about Parker because at the time, he was the 800 pound primate, but Laube is mentioned at the outset as well.  (I've posted the link before; it's more like a PowerPoint in style, but with voice over. Full disclosure repeat:  Tina is a friend of the family.)

I have no doubt that many do this, as Tina illustrates, but I never had anyone tell me this unsolicited and point blank.  I'm not an industry professional, so to drop it in normal conversation seemed noteworthy.

GregT, I don't have much patience with anyone who makes a big deal about NOT caring what anyone thinks of their wine--at least have a customer in mind, okay?-- but I am really disappointed when I taste a revelatory barrel sample and am told I can never drink it from a bottle because they are going to mix in some oaked-up chardonnay to please the market, or a critic.  The problem becomes that the market becomes a one-size-fits-all place and the stuff that I like gets harder and harder to find.  It's like the opposite of setting aside barrels for Robert Parker--Foxall gets a great glass of wine he likes and the critics get the market pleasing butter bomb. And it's more likely to lead to me having a hard time finding what I like, because it's a much bigger phenomenon than the guys who claim to not care at all whether anyone likes their juice.   That's not the same as saying you make wine you would like to drink, unless you think no one shares your taste, either because it's weird or because it's too advanced for anyone else.  (Cornelissen?)

BTW, Parker has boosted scores for wines and vintages, but has he ever gone back and said, "sorry, folks, those wines don't really have all that 'stuffing' to last.  I was wrong--better drink 'em up now." In theory, if the ratings are relative--with some group of numbers that are "average," wouldn't that require that he downgrade some vintages as the average quality of wine improved?  More to the point, isn't it the case that he's been wrong about the long term (and even short term) prospects of a region in a particular vintage?  I personally think he completely missed on the S. Rhone 2007:  Not bad, but I've been comparing to relatively young 2009 wines that I think have much more promise and are drinking better now.  Haven't done a ton of CdP side by sides, but a few, and more Vacqueyras, Ventoux, CdR, and my small sample (wrote about it elsewhere) makes me less than amazed by 2007.

dmcker, got to tell you about the Ellroy connection:  He used to be married to a woman named Helen Knode, also a writer.  Helen and I were at Cornell at the same time, she a graduate and I an undergraduate.  I had the keys to the word processing facility(tells you when that was--right before the Mac consortium) and we used to work on our theses on Wednesday nights from 8 p.m. till dawn in my final year.  Years later, I went to a reading of Ellroy's and he opened the floor to questions.  No one asked any, so he said, "Come on, you can ask anything, even if it's personal."  At the time he was still married to Helen, so I said, "Does Helen still own that red leather jacket she had in grad school?"  He said, "You must know her.  Come up after the signing and talk to me."  Ever since, when he speaks at the Noir Film Festival, or does a reading, we'll hang out a bit afterward if I show up.  BTW, he hates it when people say, "I'm a fan, I saw L.A. Confidential."  He asks if they read the book and when they say they haven't, he basically tells them the book and the movie are two different things.  That's public knowledge.  I have read most of his books, but not L.A. Confidential.  My fascination with the Black Dahlia murder started when I saw a TV movie with Lucie Arnaz long before his interest became public, and I think he's actually gotten a bit tired of being asked about it, but he's so weird and contrary--he thought "The Sopranos" was depraved and didn't like it for that reason--that I no longer try to figure out when he's being sincere.

Reply by EMark, Mar 20, 2012.

Very interesting report, Fox.  As others have posted, your friend's strategy is very reasonable.

I know there is no upside to disagreeing with GregT.  Every time I do so, either in print or in thought, he comes back and proves to my satisfaction, the error of my way.  So, I'll pose this as a request for clarification.

Don't you think that most wine drinking upwardly mobile professionals with too much discretionary income in the U.S. either have subscriptions to Wine Spectator or are aware of and are influenced by WS ratings?  In Foxall's post he says that the plan is to use this 90+ rating on shelf talkers.  I do believe that seeing a 90+ rating for a wine at a retail store in the U.S. does influence buyers.  Does that not give Laube significant influence?  Now I won't argue that all these people know who James Laube is.  I'd be willing to bet that a large number of the subscribers look only at the back of each issue to find "Wine Spectator Recommendations" and lists of ratings, and they never read an article or editorial from start to finish.  Similarly, shelf talkers are going to give "Wine Spectator Ratings," not "James Laube Ratings."  So, while I would agree that James Laube's name may not carry the weight of Robert Parker's (let's not get into the discourse of the merit of Parker's weight, I would suggest that Laube has sufficient influence to reward the effort of the producer in Foxall's report.

And I loved the Starbucks comment.

Reply by dmcker, Mar 20, 2012.

Yeah, I don't think this Greg hangs out much in cafes in Italy...  ;-)

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