Opinion

Felix Salmon

“We are searching for a different winery for this brand”

By Felix Salmon
July 24, 2009

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.

Comments
14 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

It is? I could have sworn the fruit-forward taste would give you away, whatever the relative status of the brand designer versus winemaker. If anything, this story indicates that you can’t, actually, just sell slop on a good review: they importer had to take back the wine from the market. I don’t know if I’ve ever read something more complimentary to Parker devotees, whom I previously held in uniform disdain.

As for branding, I am not nearly so shocked here as when I learned recently that Patron was not started by a large multinational distiller like Diageo, but by hair-products magnate Paul Mitchell. Who knew?

 

Gee, I just LOVE globalization!

Posted by Rockfish | Report as abusive
 

Nice summary of the problem. The guy who went out and bought a few cases of the wine without ever having tasted it or heard of it – from his other posts I think he’s a pretty inexperienced guy who is dying to learn more. He sure did!

As far as “globalization” goes – Rockfish – you’re very lucky enough to live in the Rhone Valley, or Tuscany, or some such beautiful area where you can get the local wines. Because certainly someone who has a problem with “globalization” wouldn’t live in the UK, where you had to import the wines from another region of the globe, or in northern Europe or much of the US or Canada.

Posted by dibbly | Report as abusive
 

I bought a few bottles when that deal came over. I was new. What can I tell you?

First bottle was terrible. Thick smell of black liquorice, which I hate. So bad I covered the glass as it was sitting in front of me. Gave a bottle away (they like black liquorice). Opened another when somebody was over, under the “want to try something weird” plan. No liquorice smell. Great tasting wine.

That turned me off to RP ratings and Spanish wine for a while. I use ratings now as more of a “is it terrible” filter. I imagine it would be tough to find a really great wine that isn’t Parkerized with a bad rating, but an OK rating, or no rating, doesn’t mean anything.

Posted by Kevin Galligan | Report as abusive
 

PS. that was also right about the time I stopped paying attention to wine library. Liked the show a lot before then, and have started to watch here and there, but you can’t buy something just because Gary is pushing it.

Posted by Kevin Galligan | Report as abusive
 

Great work, Felix. I hope you continue to follow this story unfold, as the coverup is always bigger than the crime.

 

dibbly:
My issue is not with “transporting” things, which is how people have procured silk, spices, etc from distant places since the dawn of civilization. My problem is with a world where a British marketing company “invents” a wine brand based on focus group testing, contracts a shady Spanish wine conglomerate to fill bottles with whatever grape swill they have lying around, and ships it to the US in the hands of some marketing lackeys where by some mystery it is declared “fabulous” and “undrinkable” by the same blogging wine critic.
I am mourning the loss of any shred of integrity or authenticity in the brand-managed, out-sourced world we find ourselves in.

Posted by Rockfish | Report as abusive
 

The disillusionment of Felix Salmon is seemingly endless.

Posted by Sterling | Report as abusive
 

The whole thing underlines the need for more standards on labeling. Between private retailer labels and instances such as this, the larger question has less to do with the critics reviews, and more to do with how consumers (and critics, for that matter) find out who actually made what is in the bottle, and where and how it was made.

Maybe Miller should have done more homework on the source of something to which he gave a 96 point rating. WA is pretty upfront, though, that it was established more as a rating service for consumers, and less as a source if vineyard/winery journalism. For the most part, I’m counting on critics to provide me accurate comments on what they smelled and tasted from the bottle. I’m counting on wineries, importers, distributors and retailers to tell me the truth about the wine, and on federal and local regulators to make sure what it says on the label is correct. I don’t know how much I can blame a critic if those folks don’t fulfill their responsibilities. With newspapers and other funding sources for serious investigative journalism dropping like flies, I am grateful for sources like Reuters to catch stuff like this.

Posted by KDS | Report as abusive
 

Interesting story. But i don’t think the issue is marketing companies creating brands or with Parkerization/globalization of wine, whatever… If one follows Parker, then i would assume they like wines rated high by Parker. If the buyer of a couple cases of this wine, doesn’t like it, well then, that should tell him to stop following Parker, or Miller in this case.

It seems like the real issue here is bottle variation. Sounds like huge variation, even to the embarrassment of the importer. I remember years ago when Parker stopped rating “Fighting Varietals” because by the end of a vintage, it was simply not the same wine (much like Two Buck Chuck). That is the biggest issue with any winery—whether real or virtual, is maintaining the integrity of the product— the blend at the time of bottling to make sure it is consistent. If not, I would hope that the wine critics eventually drop covering that winery.

I would hope that Mr. Kenny starts trying wine that is highly rated & purchased as a result and determining whether his palate is the same as Dr. Miller or Mr. Parker. To simply by 96 pt rated wines that you don’t like, is well, um stupid!

 

It used to be the importer\’s responsibility or that of a (domestic) wine merchant to assure his clientele that the wine he/she was selling was indeed the wine the vintner had sold him.

In case of imported wines I remember clearly that next to the listed name of a wine on a wine list the importer\’s name was equally prominently displayed.

Why?

The so-called famous \’best barrel/best cask\’ was and is still reality. Back then, different importers used to buy different casks of different qualities of the very same wine at different prices. The importer with a very well-off clientele and the highest reputation – established over centuries – was able to afford and offered to purchase the \’best barrel\’ priced at a premium. Those merchants who catered to other market segments and looked at wine strictly as commodities were only interested in \’buying famous vineyard/winery names\’.

Why does anyone believe that this situation has ever changed? It really hasn\’t. Those variations of quality still exist among the same wines.

I started buying individual \’lots\’ (individual casks/barrels/tanks) of wines 16 years ago and invented a system to guarantee that I would receive the same wines I tasted, selected and shipped – when I found out that not all things are created equal in the wine business (and not everyone could be (blindly) trusted).

Since 1985 my objective has been to establishing the reputation of the wine producers in our portfolio — not the fame or score of any particular wine reviewer/magazine. As a result almost none of our wines have ever been submitted for a review and therefore almost never been sold in retail shop (no score, no sale) but luckily we\’ve been able to build a loyal clientele of restaurant wine buyers/sommeliers who were and are interested in buying top-quality WINES not the newest highest point releases.

Unfortunately, the reputation of a bottle of wine has slowly shifted from the reputation of an importer/wine merchant/winery to \’famous\’ wine reviewers/wine magazines over the last decades.

This is how it works today: Once the producer receives a high score he\’s basically hit a home run. He\’ll be able to sell his entire production (of different qualities) at the very same (high) price and an importer can order the next full containers of \”more of the same\”…..

The way I see it, this \’problem\’ has been largely created by those who are in the business of \”SELLING POINTS\”…not WINE.

 

The last paragraph should read: “The way I see it, this ’problem’ has not been created by professional wine critiques but largely by those who are in the business of ”SELLING POINTS” (a large number of retailers, distributors, importers, wineries, restaurants)…not WINE.”

 

> I apologize on behalf of the winery for this apparent bait and switch.

Reminded me of a recent broadcast by the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) on how one can walk into a liquor store, buy a bottle in the “Canadian Wines” section, and walk out with a “blended” wine that is 75% non-Canadian. The bottler has wine from an overseas vineyard which they mix in with Canadian and sell as Canadian. I have no problem with globalization, I have a problem being told one thing and sold another. For shame on the propagators of both of these schemes.

Posted by bartkid | Report as abusive
 

The REAL problem are the CONSUMERS who BLINDLY accept ratings and wine show awards as gospel. That and lazy retailers/distributors who only sell wines based on these same results.

good article.

Posted by Ben | Report as abusive
 

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