In the February 2008 edition of Robert Parker’s hugely influential Wine Advocate newsletter, critic Jay Miller gave a highly-coveted 96-point rating to a formerly pretty-much unknown Spanish red called Sierra Carche, a Monastrell-based wine from Jumilla. Given that most Americans — indeed, most wine drinkers — have never heard of either Monastrell or Jumilla, the rating was a huge boon for the wine, and directly resulted in at least one consumer, Robert Kenney, ordering several cases without having ever tasted the wine at first hand.
Dr Vino picks up the rest of the story at some length, but suffice to say that Kenney was disappointed in the wine he bought, Miller agreed with Kenney’s opinion, and the importer ended up emailing this note to Miller:
“We have had similar problems with this wine and had a meeting in March with the winery to find out what the problem is. There was clearly some substandard product shipped by the winery and we have had to take back a large chunk of this wine from the market because it was rejected by the trade. I apologize on behalf of the winery for this apparent bait and switch. Going forward we are searching for a different winery for this brand (owned by our UK partner Guy Anderson wines).”
Yep: “we are searching for a different winery for this brand”.
Conceptually, most of us are dimly aware that if we buy a big, mass-produced wine like Yellowtail or Jacob’s Creek, we’re not going to always get juice from the exact same vineyard. But Sierra Carche was different: the labels were individually numbered out of 16,000 bottles, it was getting rave reviews in Wine Advocate, and it was made from a mix of obscure grapes grown in an equally-obscure region of Spain. On its face, this was the antithesis of the kind of homogenization and globalization excoriated in Jonathan Nossiter’s documentary Mondovino.
It turns out, however, that the opposite is the case.
This was the first vintage of Sierra Carche, which is owned by Guy Anderson in the United Kingdom. Guy Anderson Wines describes its business: “As one of the UK’s leading brand creators, …. [w]e are constantly researching and learning what people look for when choosing a wine…. We have a strong track record of producing innovative new wine brands…. [B]rands created by Guy Anderson Wines such as Fat Bastard, Mad Dogs & Englishmen and Gran Familia have found success in markets around the world.”
Sierra Carche, in other words, is a brand dreamed up by a UK wine-branding agency. And when there were problems with the first vintage of the brand, they just decided to go to some other winery to make the second vintage of the same brand. Indeed, it’s still incredibly unclear where, exactly, the first vintage came from, or who the winemaker was, or even whether there was any particular winery at all involved in the production of this brand. More likely the brand was created in conjunction with the commercial arm of a group of wineries in southeastern Spain, who were looking for a way to move their juice.
Now I have no problem with foreign winemakers doing interesting things with grapes sourced cheaply from unfashionable regions. Indeed, one such wine won a Pinot contest I held at my house in 2007. But it did so honestly. Sierra Carche, by contrast, looked for all the world like a high-end wine lovingly crafted from local terroir by a dedicated Spanish winemaker, rather than a mixture of juices driven by second-guessing “what people look for when choosing a wine” and designed to be one of “a raft of wines available at your local store”.
Once you know that, the Wine Advocate’s 96-point rating becomes easier to understand: this wine was designed to get high ratings, because high ratings are the best possible driver of international sales. It had been, to use the wine-world term, “Parkerized”. And the importer will of course have done everything in his power to ensure that Parker’s critic drank the very best possible expression of the wine.
Parker has thousands of loyal followers, and if they want to go out and buy Parkerized wines, that’s entirely up to them. If the wines then turn out to be very different from what the critic tasted, that’s a genuine scandal. Guy Anderson Wines will go off and find “a different winery” for Sierra Carche, but will keep the brand, because that 96-point rating, even if it’s for an earlier vintage, is still a great way of making sales on later vintages. Consumers will assume there’s some kind of continuity there.
But many of them will also assume that Miller somehow stumbled across this gem from Spain, rather than thinking that they’re drinking an English brand, made from Spanish grapes, specifically designed to appeal to Miller’s palate. But that’s what a lot of winemaking is, these days. And it’s increasingly difficult to tell the difference between honest local wines, on the one hand, and Parkerized global brands, on the other.