Wine Spectator defends its honor.

Dec. 26 2002 2:35 PM

Grape Rot

The new Wine Spectator's distinct aroma of fishiness.

Scroll down for Wine Spectator's response and the author's reply to it.

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Michael Steinberger  Michael Steinberger 

Michael Steinberger is a free-lance journalist.

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As if the holiday season isn't enough of a fillip for wine merchants, December confers another gift: Wine Spectator's annual Top 100. The Spectator is the outsized glossy that combines lifestyle features with wine ratings—the Robb Report meets Consumer Reports. Each December, the magazine ranks what it considers to be the 100 "most exciting" wines to have hit the market in the preceding 12 months, a designation that invariably ups their prices. This year's top scorer, the so-called Wine of the Year, is Etienne Guigal's 1999 Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Given the amount of abuse the Spectator takes from serious wine geeks, the selection of the Guigal can only be described as an act of self-mutilation.

With a paid circulation of more than 200,000, the Spectator is by far the most widely distributed wine publication (full disclosure: I have contributed two pieces to the magazine in recent years). Its content appears tailored to attract two groups of wine drinkers: trophy hunters and people fairly new to oenophilia. For the uninitiated, the Spectator is a superb gateway product: informative, topical, easy on the eyes, mercifully light on the jargon. Especially useful are its primers on wine regions and winemaking techniques. It also counts among its columnists Matt Kramer, one of the more insightful and entertaining wine writers around.

To appeal to the poseurs, the magazine runs lots of unctuous stories about insta-billionaires and their custom-designed cellars, invariably stocked with a millennium's supply of swank wines. It is partly for this reason that the Spectator is considered a joke by many wine sophisticates; some call it the "Speculator" after the aforementioned trophy hunters. The magazine is also knocked for its ratings, which are seen as inconsistent and inflated relative to other critics, and for its coverage, which often tends toward the sensational (indeed, "Vintage of the Decade" and "Vintage of the Century" are common headlines). (Editor's note: The magazine's superlatives are phrased a little bit differently. Please scroll down to Steinberger's response for more.)

Then there is the issue of advertising. Unlike Robert Parker, who relies entirely on subscriptions for the Wine Advocate, the Spectator carries ads, the majority of them from wineries. It's never been proved that advertisers influence scores, but suspicions run deep, especially in wine chat rooms. Which brings us back to the Wine of the Year. In bestowing its highest honor on Guigal's 1999 Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the Spectator has effectively issued a gold-plated "Kick Me" invitation to its critics.

The choice simply cannot be explained in a way that reflects favorably on the magazine. The editors claim to use four criteria for the Top 100: quality, value, availability, and what they term the "x factor" excitement. The whole notion of a wine of the year is asinine, of course. And it is absurd that the Spectator continues to weight value and availability because once it's crowned, the wine of the year skyrockets in price and disappears from the market. Nevertheless, it is true that, up until its moment of triumph, the Guigal Châteauneuf-du-Pape was easy to find and relatively cheap: 13,000 cases were produced in 1999, and individual bottles were selling for between $20 and $35.

But quality and excitement? These are not the first words that come to mind. Guigal is a major producer in the Northern Rhône, specializing in Cote-Rotie. The firm also doubles as a negociant, purchasing grapes and brand-new wines from elsewhere in the Rhône and selling the finished products under its own label. This is what it does in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the Southern Rhône's leading appellation. Guigal owns no land there, and its Châateauneuf-du-Pape is truly a wine of last resort: You drink it if you're in the mood for a Châteauneuf and there is nothing else around. In his latest Wine Buyer's Guide, Parker, who is generally considered at his best with Rhône wines, rated more than 50 other houses as consistently making finer Châteauneuf-du-Pape than Guigal.

Moreover, while 1999 was a good year for Châteauneuf-du-Pape, it was hardly a resounding success; the great vintages for the Southern Rhône were 1998 and 2000. Here's where the plot thickens: 1999 was an amazing vintage in the Northern Rhône. If the Spectator was determined to pick an affordable Guigal wine, common sense would suggest Guigal's 1999 Cote-Rotie Brune et Blonde. The Brune et Blonde is Guigal's bread and butter; the 1999, of which more than 20,000 cases were apparently made, sells for between $30 and $40, and while I didn't love it—I found it a bit oaky and anonymous—it was a definite step up from the clunky Châteauneuf-du-Pape. To be fair, Parker liked the Châteauneuf a bit better than I did, awarding it a 91, his equivalent of an A-minus. To me, the only really interesting thing about the wine was its funky nose, which mixed cherry and tobacco aromas with what I swear was a whiff of men's cologne. I switched glasses three times to make sure the smell wasn't coming from the stemware and ran the wine past my wife and mother-in-law, both of whom also detected a little Paco Rabanne. If that were my wine of the year, I'd want to turn the calendar back.

Why would the Spectator choose as its wine of the year a Châteauneuf that is considered middling at best, from the Southern Rhône's least noteworthy recent vintage, made by a producer that doesn't even own a vineyard in the appellation? Naturally, Spectator-bashers smell a rat. (And not for the first time: In 1999, the Spectator gave top honors to a wine that hadn't actually been released, a Bordeaux blend made by an estate owned by a wine conglomerate that advertises in the magazine; needless to say, the conspiracy-minded milked that one for months.) With Guigal, the black-helicopter crowd would probably connect the dots like this: Guigal has a huge advertising budget, the firm is said to be on the verge of buying a major Châteauneuf vineyard, the Spectator has now put Guigal on the Châteauneuf map, and ... well, you get the idea. [In fact, Guigal has no advertising budget, as this Fray post explains.]

I think the magazine was simply trying to reflect two trends: People are economizing, and the Rhône Valley is hot. The problem is the Spectator is probably at its least reliable with the wines of the Rhône. Obviously, there is no accounting for taste, and wine criticism is subjective, but the Spectator spends a lot of time as a minority of one in the Rhône. Take the 1998 Beaucastel Hommage, a Jacques Perrin limited production Châteauneuf-du-Pape. It is, by common consent, one of the greatest Châteauneufs of the past quarter-century. Parker awarded it 100 points, a perfect score. I've had the '98 Hommage, and if I did wine by the numbers, I would have said 110; it was that good. (At $350 a bottle, it should be.)