Let me tell you a story.
There’s a medium-large winery in Australia’s Barossa Valley, producing Shiraz from the 2008 vintage. They bottle 18,000 cases of it. That wine receives a score of 94 points in Wine Spectator, just shy of the rarefied 95+ realm but still “outstanding,” and for a wine priced right at $20 retail, represents a windfall. Shortly after, Wine Spectator named it number 7 in its annual “Top 100” list, which further fueled demand. The US market rapidly gobbled up all the bottles allocated for export, so the winery re-allocated the wine designated for the domestic market. Meanwhile, the winery’s quickly running out of wine and its 2009 vintage is not yet ready. What to do?
The only reasonable business decision: they purchased more 2008 Shiraz and bottled another 5,000 cases under the same label. It should be noted that this bottling was never meant for export, intending to fulfill Australia’s domestic needs where Wine Spectator’s 100 clawed tendrils wield less influence. All good, right?
Wrong. In a move that would get somebody shot in the Westside Baltimore drug trade, fellow Barossa Valley winery owner Michael Twelftree dropped a dime to Wine Spectator when his wine maker spotted the additional bottling run. Snitch.
Wine Spectator reported on all of this on its blog a couple days ago. It’s an ironic and inadvertent mea culpa, of course the magazine would never see it (or admit to it) as such.
The fact is, the winery (Schild Estate) did nothing wrong legally or morally–despite what the “dean of Australian winemakers” might say. Schild Estate owns the brand and the labeling designation was accurate, end of story. It’s not their fault the wine sold well and it’s not their fault even the “educated” Wine Spectator reader is unaware that multiple bottlings, especially of large production wines, are quite common. They needed more wine for cash flow, so they produced it in accordance with regulations on the book and, by all reports, with attention to ensuring a quality blend. Were they estate vineyards? No. But they were Barossa Valley vineyards.
(Again, it should be noted that this wine was never intended for export and has not come to the United States. Following this report, the winery will also now be including a “second bottling” label on this final batch and Wine Spectator will taste it. I’ll be curious to see how Wine Spectator intends to “blind taste” the new bottling as there is no way I can think of to verify consistency with the other bottlings that would be completely blind.)
Where Wine Spectator appears blissfully unaware is to its role in fueling such practices. It would be naive to believe that this is the first time a winery has extended a production in response to demand and as long as the American Wine Media (my shorthand for Wine Spectator and Wine Advocate) privileges styles of wine that can be replicated, i.e. larger production, regionally generic, ripe and manipulated wines, this issue will come back up. It’s fine to take this winery to task and call foul, but what specific foul are you calling? They did everything legal and by the book. It’s not the winery’s fault Wine Spectator loves boring, replicable wines.
A wine of distinction is inherently a wine that can’t be replicated. It’s a wine that, by some combination of provenance and wine making philosophy, only exists and only can exist in its one bottling or batch. 20,000 case production Barossa Valley Shiraz, however good, is not that wine. 20,000 case production of any single wine, however good, is not that wine. Vintage wine is meant to be ephemeral and we’re meant to embrace each year’s departure and await its return next year. It’s a mythology as old as civilization.
Sure, in an ideal world you sell your last case of 2008 the day you release your 2009, but there’s a lot of great wine that sells out early and a lot of great wine that remains after a subsequent vintage comes out. There’s a lot of great wine to drink if you aren’t a slave to a producer or a score.
So cheers to Wine Spectator for turning its readers’ attention to yet another pip-speckled facet of the global house of cards that is score-fueled Big Wine. When you’re buying a 94 point wine, you’re buying a score–it doesn’t matter what’s in the bottle. It’s something we in the “anti-flavor elite” have known for years, nice to see Wine Spectator recognize it too–even if they don’t realize it yet.