A Northwest Winery Says No To Wine Critics

March 6, 2010
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(GH: Anna King of The Northwest News Network reports on a battle between wine makers and wine critics on Northwest Public Radio.)

Posted: Friday, March 5, 2010

Christophe Hedges holds his young son at his family’s winery on Red Mountain in Eastern Washington. Hedges is fighting against wine reviewers who want to score his family’s wine in magazines and other publications. Photo by Anna King

RICHLAND, WA – Some big names in the Northwest wine industry have been quarrelling publicly — online. Gut punches on Facebook have led to rebuttals on blogs and plenty of ringside jeering. The cause of the spat? Wine scores. Those are the numerical ratings wine critics use to help consumers navigate the world-of-wine. In the Northwest there’s a small but vocal movement to let vino speak for itself. But wine journalists are none too happy about it. Correspondent Anna King reports.

At Wine Spectator a score of 50-74 is not good. A wine from 95 -100, now that’s a classic. But it’s not just Spectator that uses these types of scores. They’ve become ubiquitous in the wine world, and they pack a lot of power.

Christophe Hedges hates scores.

Christophe Hedges: “We don’t want to give too much power to one person’s palate.”

Hedges is the son of the owners of Hedges Family Estate in Eastern Washington. It’s one of the largest, most influential wineries in the state.

Hedges says he had his epiphany about scores about seven years ago. He was in New York and walked into a new, hip restaurant with his laminated sheet of scores. He made the mistake of dropping the sheet down on the bar in front of the owner.

Christophe Hedges: “He glanced down at it and he said, ‘Get out of my restaurant.’”

He left mystified. Until his wine distributor later told Hedges he had offended the chef.

Hedges: “…he’s been buying wine for over 20 years, and you basically said his palate isn’t good enough, so why don’t you look at everyone else’s palate? Really? That makes total sense.”

Since then Hedges has been on a steady campaign to get rid of scores on his family’s wine altogether. Now many bottles of Hedges wine sport a no-score symbol – it looks like a no smoking sign. Hedges even produced an online cartoon. It features a balding wine critic verbally sparring with a hipster wine guy.

SOUND: [Hedges wine cartoon]

Cartoon wine critic: “I warned you, do not cross me, I will give you bad scores for your wines, you horrible hipster freak.”

Cartoon Hedges hipster: “Well … we feel that quantifying a subjective product like wine ruins the experience for the human race.”

The most recent object of Hedges ire is Paul Gregutt. The Seattle Times writer and popular blogger wouldn’t comment for this story. But there’s another critic who has seen both sides of the scoring show.

Dan Sogg used to critique wines for the Wine Spectator. Arguably, it’s the most influential press house in the wine industry. But his job ended at the magazine a couple years ago. Now he consults with wineries seeking higher scores.

Dan Sogg: “The 100 point scale … provides an easily digested nugget of information.”

Still, Sogg says that nugget of information comes with its own limitations. And wine judging isn’t always fair, especially when judges taste many wines at one sitting.

Dan Sogg: “It can become almost kind of like a cage fight. And the heavyweights tend to win. The wines with more richness, more oak, more alcohol and maybe more residual sugar. So other styles of wine that aren’t as weighty, but can be equally as well done, and might even be better at dinner are not necessarily going to get their due.”

The daddy of all wine critics — Robert Parker — is probably the most chastised for liking those ‘heavyweights.’

Parker wields tremendous power in the wine world. If he gets behind a wine, prices and demand can skyrocket. He sees Hedges opposition to scoring as just sour grapes.

Robert Parker: “I know we have reviewed Hedges and given them good, not great scores. I have to say this quite candidly, I’ve never known a winery that makes really top quality wine that didn’t want their wine reviewed. Some winery just coming out and saying we don’t want our wines to be scored sounds like they have more to lose than to gain by being evaluated.”

Wine reviews have become more democratized with the advent of social media and blogging. But Parker says professional wine scoring isn’t a job just anyone can do.

Robert Parker: “I mean it’s like taking a picture of a runner. You are trying to photograph this runner at a very beginning point and compare it to the other ones. There is a lot you can ascertain, and there is a lot you can’t. You make your best call.”

So far, not many wineries have rushed to Christophe Hedges’ no-scoring banner. But the young upstart says the next generation of wine buyers isn’t buying into the numbers.

Hedges: “A Lot of those young generation people will say, ‘I see that there are some points underneath this bottle of wine, but really I like it because the price is good, it has a nice label and I like the style from this region.’ They do not buy wines based on scores, they buy wine based on their experiences.”

As for Hedges and Gregutt, Christophe Hedges says the wine reviewer is no longer welcome at his family’s chateau winery. And Paul Gregutt says he respects the family’s wishes for no scores, but argues he still has the right, and even an obligation, to review wines.

On the Web:

Paul Gregutt’s wine blog about scores

The Hipster and the Wine Critic video

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The Northwest News Network is a collaboration of public radio stations in Washington, Oregon and Idaho. N3's reporters bring a regional perspective to daily news and produce features that go beyond the headlines.
Website:http://www.nwnewsnetwork.org/
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