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The Artist and the Critic

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Jan 30, 2007 10:00am ET

Today I’m the guest speaker at the Napa Valley Vintners annual meeting in St Helena. This is an association of 280 vintners bound by a mission to make Napa the best winegrowing region it can be, and it's one of the most powerful and successful organizations of its kind.

Aside from having perhaps the most magical name in American wine, and one of the most illustrious in the world, Napa’s vintners enjoy a unique camaraderie. They're a diverse group of strong-willed individuals from many walks of life. Yet historically they've put the interests of Napa wine at, or close to, the forefront of their agenda.

Many wine regions, new or established, would do well to see how this group puts aside its differences and rallies behind the Napa name—an effort that works to the advantage of both the little guys and the big boys.

Most of these vintners have something in common with me as well, though I’m not sure they realize it. Few of them ever imagined that they’d end up being winemakers any more than I envisioned growing up to be a wine critic. We share a passion for our professions.

Today I’m going to talk about the role of the critic and the media, and within that context, the often-testy relationship between the artist and the critic. Writers write about things that are important to them. (I know that’s true for me and my colleagues at Wine Spectator.) Sometimes these topics are light and upbeat. Other times they’re far more serious and can be damning. For sure, being a critic is not about winning a popularity contest. Nor are we publicists for any wine or wine region.

I'm also going to address the challenges that Napa faces in the future, despite all of its successes:

The prices of Napa wine have risen sharply, and many wines are in danger of pricing themselves out of the market.

Napa vintners should take a hard look at its appellations and make them more meaningful, which in most instances means they should be smaller. Pope Valley is a glaring example of excess.

Napa vintners should be more vocal about corks and closures and adopt a stronger stance in favor of consumers’ interests. And for that matter, the issue of clean cellars and flawed wines is very real and should be addressed.

If global warming is a real threat, as I believe it is, then vintners should be more assertive about taking a stand on ways to mitigate its impact. Even if it isn’t for real, protecting the environment is in vintners’ best interests.

Tourism in Napa threatens to undermine the quality of life for those who live here. How many tasting rooms does Napa really need? Will too many visitors kill the goose that laid the golden egg?

Napa Valley is a national treasure, and its unique position in the wine world offers it unique opportunities to take an even stronger leadership role to make wine better for consumers.

Larry Schaffer
Central Coast —  January 30, 2007 12:06pm ET
James,I for one will be curious to hear reactions to your talk and the results of interactions you have with those in attendance . . . Would you therefore plan on posting these as well?!?!?I will also be interested to hear if you hear divergent views from the winemakers in attendance vs. the vineyard owners . . .
David A Zajac
January 30, 2007 12:44pm ET
Great topics all, I wish I was attending. The world has come a long way in making high quality wines which are made around the entire world today, from Napa to South America and Australia, to all of Europe. I think the biggest question is regarding pricing. I had dinner with a fellow wine lover on Saturday night and he informed me he doesn't even look to Napa anymore because he doesn't perceive there being a price to quality ratio that justifies drinking their wines. In all honesty, my purchases from Napa are probably half what they were even 5 or 6 years ago. The world makes great wines, my palate is wide open, show me the quality for a reasonable price! Napa cabs averaging $100/bottle, you can drink second growth Bordeaux for that price! I love your wines, but a reality check is in order in my opinion.
La Quinta, CA —  January 30, 2007 1:20pm ET
"How many tasting rooms does Napa really need? Will too many visitors kill the goose that laid the golden egg?" James, Napa is the grown up Disneyland for many. The tasting rooms is what also helps many vintners sell their wine, and get exposed to the general public. Do I think that Opus, Silver Oak, Caymus, Mondavi..etc., need tasting rooms? No, I don't, but for the smaller or boutique wineries, they need the exposure.
Clifford Brantley Smith
Portland —  January 30, 2007 1:59pm ET
Please address the price issue!!! And its not just price it's quality as well. Why pay 50 to 100 percent more when the wine scores are actually dropping? Look at issues from Wine Spectator this past year there are hardly any values coming out of California, in particular Nappa Valley. They should know that their market share is in serious trouble.
Larry Schaffer
Central Coast —  January 30, 2007 3:06pm ET
Clifford,Are you purchasing wines based on scores or based on the wine itself? I still find this problematic in the wine industry in general, and I don't think much will change in the short term. Some reviewers - not all - get caught up in the 'flavor of the month' concept, and the 'old school' wineries or varietals get 'left behind'. For instance, take a look at the top 100 wines this year vs. a few years ago, and guess what, there are more pinots listed! Does that mean that there are not as many cabs deserving or great scores? Most likely not . . . Just my $.02 . . .
Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  January 30, 2007 3:38pm ET
I was passing by a BevMo today and decided to stop in and see what was in the locked display cases (where they keep their expensive...err... premium wines). When it came to the California selection, not a single one was over 93 points (most were 90 or slightly lower) and they were all priced over $50. As you can imagine, most of the wines came from Napa/Sonoma. Not a good QPR on anything, and I was completely underwhelmed even though there was a decent selection.
Kevin Rogers
Geyserville, CA —  January 30, 2007 3:41pm ET
Mr. Laube, I know you've pointed out flawed wines in the past as a service to the buying community. Now I ask that you provide consumers with the actual alcohol numbers of some of these Napa Cult Cabs as it often is much higher than is listed on the bottle. I know by law, wineries are allowed 1% leeway on wines listed over 14%. I think both you and your readers would be surprised by how many of these Napa Cult Cabs are beyond even their legal leeway...
Paul Manchester
Santa Cruz, CA —  January 30, 2007 6:10pm ET
James, yet another great topic!! I agree with David. My opinion is that Napa in general (especially the Cab's) has become too pricey for the quality level. It's very difficult to find a solid Cab that's in the low to mid 90's that is under $50 anymore, or even $30. I don't go off of scores only and try to taste for myself, but have been disappointed far too many times recently. I'm getting very leary of buying affordable Napa wines. Especially when the rest of the world has so many great options at affordable prices. Even just up the road in Washington. The Columbia Crest and Chateau Ste Michelle wineries regularly crank out very tasty Cab's etc... for $10-$15!!
Russell Bevan
Sonoma Mountain —  January 30, 2007 10:16pm ET
Dear James,Several good points, but over the past three years I have stopped viewing winemakers as artists. I have come to believe that mother nature is the artist, our job is to guide what she has given us in a direction that will please our consumers. If anything we are detail oriented care takers who spend a considerable amount of time doing chemistry. All the best,Russell Bevan, Showket Vineyards
Bill Mead
January 30, 2007 11:16pm ET
The title, "The Artist and the Critic", fascinated me, because wine, as art, is a subjective experience. Wine Spectator, and others, assign numeric scores to wines-unheard of in the "art" world, unless you consider auction prices. Many winemakers truly are artists, relying on their creative impulses and skills , with little concern for scores or sales. I have my list of such winemakers, as you probably do, also.I have two points to offer: To those who care about the numbers, 4 of Wine Spectator's Top 100 Wines this year were from Napa; 13 were from California. Not that impressive. Also, to ask one person, James Laube, to basically judge all wines made in California is not realistic. Art is subjective, and accepting one person's subjective opinion on behalf of Wine Spectator for such a vast volume is asking too much. His recognition of the "artist and the critic", speaks to the point. (His evaluation of "lesser" varietals, (Zinfandels come to mind) presses the point.)The winemaker artists are no longer centered in Napa; there are probably more in Santa Barbara County. Winemaking should be creative and ever-changing, as any art, lest we, and the winemaker-artists become bored with it all.
Russell Bevan
Sonoma Mountain —  January 31, 2007 5:18pm ET
Dear Bill,I'm not claiming that winemakers don't put in the same amount of passion and effort as a great painter or composer, but we are dependant on the grapes and growing season, without great fruit there is no great wine. A great artist is not dependant on their materials to create something special, we are. They can go to any supply store to pick up supplies, we have to find a vineyard with a great site, planted to the right clone, which is also compatible with its rootstock. We are also dependant on the vintage having desirable growing conditions and we then have to manage the vineyard in a certain way to meet those conditions. Then if everything was done the right way, the winemaker can nurture what has arrived at the winery. From there we make sure that it doesn't become contaminated by TCA, VA or any other bad bug. Winemakers do create a plan on how to extract their desired amount of material from the grapes and how to develop it when it gets into barrel, but I believe the art was done before the grapes made it to the winery. All the best,Russell Bevan
James Laube
Napa, CA —  January 31, 2007 10:15pm ET
Nice to hear from you, Russell. No, I don't necessarily consider winemakers artists, anymore than I consider writers artists. It's more craft. How does care-taker chemist sound instead of winemaker? As for art, again, this is a fun debate since artists work with their medium -- that is they work with what's available to them, and I don't think many will dispute that it's important (vital) to start out with great grapes if you hope to make great wine.
John B Vlahos
Cupertino Ca. —  February 1, 2007 12:50pm ET
James, the price/quality issue need to be fully addressed. In Wine spectator's recent issue rating 450 cabernet sauvignons, by my count, 117 were rated at 82 or less, some of these were selling at over $100.00. In the same issue Charles Shaw Cabernet was rated 82, Selling for $1.99 (that's one dollar and ninety-nine cents). So, James, give'm hell on their pricing!
Larry Schaffer
Central Coast —  February 1, 2007 12:59pm ET
James,Still awaiting feedback / info from the talk you gave in Napa . . . care to illuminate or will this be a future blog? Nice to get timely info . . .
Harvey Posert Jr
napa valley —  February 1, 2007 4:00pm ET
on jim's talk: i was there and as a napa valley old-timer i was concerned because jim has had some tough, unfair criticism over the years. but when he finished, and he included the critical comments discussed above, he got a standing ovation (although some people remained seated). he credited bob mondavi and andre tchelistcheff for helping him get started, and generally a lot of winemakers, but he also alerted the 300 or so there (largest crowd i think the vintners ever had), that closures and wine stability were issues that needed to be dealt with, and that napa pricing is a problem. interestingly, the napa vintner staff's earlier presentation included the fact that their efforts supported the higher prices napa gets. the vintners had voted for speakers, and jim was their first choice. but it still took some courage to get up in front of them, and jim handled it very well.
Susan Owens
February 1, 2007 4:43pm ET
James,As a retailer, I find it disheartening that so many responding to your post are just interested in numerical scores. I have people score shop my shop all the time and refuse to look at anything less than a prejudged score, let alone purchase one. Wine should be enjoyed for the simple pleasures that it brings. As to the point of your post, the artist should make whatever they are passionate about without regard to the critic. The cardinal rule for a critic should be to never make themselves the story. I believe you crossed that line with the TCA issue. You find TCA levels at your threshold to be a flaw, that's fine and it's your opinion. Since the TCA levels will most likely go unnoticed by the large majority of the populace (at your threshold), you could have recused yourself, with explanation, and not given a numerical score. You did not. You became an advocate for a flaw that maybe one in ten could pick out. Objective journalism lost that battle.
David A Zajac
February 2, 2007 8:27am ET
Susan, objective journalism won the battle. How could Jim do anything other than what he did, would that then be objective if he knowingly said nothing about a wine he finds flaws in? To me, that is the worst that he could do. Maybe a no score with a note that he found this wine to have TCA flaws so he could not objectively judge the wine would be more appropriate, but that is a magazine issue (aka Marvin), not Jim's. As a consumer and not a retailer, I want to know so I can make an informed decision.
Susan Owens
February 2, 2007 9:46am ET
David, Maybe I was unclear. My wish is that Mr. Laube not give a score but provide an explanation. The recusal I was referring to was for the score. If I were a movie critic and noticed camera shadows in a shot (which I thought was a flaw in moviemaking), would I give a bad rating to an otherwise great movie. Would I ask them to reshoot an entire scene even if I was the only one who noticed?
John Danby
Napa —  February 2, 2007 12:16pm ET
What I find interesting on the TCA/scoring issue is that James' reviews of TCA-tainted wines don't typically mention TCA (in the review). There will be a low score (e.g., 01 Montelena cab, 01 BV GDL) with a comment on chalky tannins or wet cardboard. Why not mention TCA, perhaps with a footnote? Further, for all the complaints about James' low TCA threshold, is it not true that even if one does not detect the wet cardboard odor, the presence of TCA at these low concs will subdue the fruit characteristics of the wine? I'm of the impression that we are not simply talking about the detection of TCA, but also TCA's suppression of pleasureable wine characteristics. Therefore, the low score is not simply about wet cardboard, but what the wet cardboard tells us about the wine.

Susan, regarding the "score hunters" in your wine shop, until the industry as a whole, and retailers in particular, find a better means for guiding consumers to wines they might like, folks will surf for scores. Having said that, I have little use either for the retailer who tries to push a wine on to me because "Parker gave it a 93" (because I typically don't agree with much of Parker), or for my acquaintances who go to shops like yours to surf for wines scored 90+ by any reviewer. These people aren't thinking. Reviews, by anyone, are a tool, not an absolute. Retailers might do better by teaching consumers how to use these tools, for, absent other information, it's all we have. How else to decide amongst the thousands of choices?
Susan Owens
February 2, 2007 1:43pm ET
John, I have seen many retailers take the shortcut on educating consumers by heavily relying only on scores. I have chosen to remove the score from all tasting notes I have posted. This will, hopefully, will remove some score bias. To those who wish to know the score, I can provide it.
David A Zajac
February 2, 2007 4:37pm ET
Susan, good for you in doing that. My local retailer which without a doubt has the nicest store in all of Ohio has salespeople that are knowledgable, articulate and genuinely nice people that listen and are willing to help. They don't automatically go to the top shelf for the $100 wines every time you say you want a special bottle, which I like. They know me very well, of course, I have been dealing with that shop longer than most of them have been employed, but I love the fact that the owner hires these kind of people, not just someone to schlep wine for $9/hour. As for me, I have plenty of wine, but I sometimes still shop new wines I haven't had before by scores, as well as asking them for suggestions and even just blindly picking a bottle of the shelf I know nothing about, its fun to just experiment, as long as the wine is not $100+.

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