The Brewer’s art

[pig’s rear end]Grapes can be thin-skinned. So can critics. To their great credit, winemakers usually aren’t. As with any other producer of a critique-able product or work, they’re the constant recipient of feedback, both good and bad. The good can go to one’s head, the bad to one’s heart, but the majority of winemakers take it pretty much in stride, accepting the fundamental truism that taste in all things is personal.

Oh, there are some exceptions. Angry rebuttals in the press, lawsuits, dogs set upon visiting critics as they exit their rental car. I’ve had a few run-ins myself. And even the most mild-mannered winemaker can be pushed beyond their limits by what they perceive to be a particularly egregious slight.

But at least critics know to expect this sort of thing, given what they do. Consumers don’t. It didn’t used to matter, but in this evolving age of many-to-many communication, the consumer who voices an opinion becomes as much of a potential target for retribution as any critic. Perhaps even more of one; a winemaker may not wish to burn a bridge to a powerful critic, but an everyday consumer might be dismissed without a second thought.

Not long ago, the denizens of one of the web’s various wine fora got into a discussion about Brewer-Clifton, a well-known producer of pinot noir and chardonnay from California. As with any robust discussion, there was both positivity and negativity, and a full range of opinions was aired. But I’m sure no one expected what happened next.

“You have received this notification from Brewer-Clifton because you are a registered user or you or some other registered user requested some information for you from our store.

Dear [name redacted],

Your profile at Brewer-Clifton has been deleted.”

This reads as it looks. Step one: criticize Brewer-Clifton in public, or at least appear to do so. Step two: get dropped from their mailing list.

Putting aside the dubious sensibility of shedding customers in a flailing economy, Brewer-Clifton had three choices when faced with public criticism. One, ignore it (the path chosen by almost everyone in the wine world). Two, respond to it (a path with its time-sucking and image-destabilizing dangers; only those with quick wits, faster fingers, and a taste for the arena usually survive this sort of thing unscathed). Or three, punish their critics.

Did they choose wisely? Not in the view of some of those dropped, some of whom hadn’t even criticized the winery or the wines, but instead had been critical of the scores accorded the wines by famous critics. As one dropped customer objected:

“Of course, I was not referring to BC or their wines as ‘a complete joke’ but rather referring to The Wine Advocate’s lazy review [of] their wines.

It’s important to note, after the fact, that those deleted have reportedly been reinstated. But what went on here is worth examining a little more closely, because it has fairly profound implications for the open and collaborative world of wine commentary into which we are decisively moving.

What was behind Brewer-Clifton’s move? Simple pique. Read for yourself (both excepts edited for clarity):

So I decided to call Steve Clifton to see if this was the case. He returned my call about ten minutes later and indeed confirmed that my post was the reason. Steve went on to explain to me that these kind of posts on wine boards are extremely hurtful, and that because it’s a bottle of wine doesn’t mean that there aren’t real people behind the scenes, and if I don’t like the wines why should I be on the list?

“A complete joke” is what led Greg Brewer to terminate me from Brewer-Clifton’s mailing list. He felt like if I, or anyone really, thought the wines of Brewer-Clifton were a complete joke then why would that person want to be, or deserve to be, on the mailing list?

As pointed out by some, including one of the above-quoted victims, everyone was within their rights here. People were free to say anything they wanted about Brewer-Clifton, short of actionable defamation. Brewer-Clifton was free to drop anyone from their mailing list, for any reason they could come up with. And in an earlier world of wine communication, that’s where the story would have ended. Except, of course, we’re no longer in that world.

As it turned out, everyone else knew what Brewer-Clifton was up to while it was happening. Some, even those that counted themselves fans of the winery and their wines, weren’t too happy, and their relationships with both soured. In the end, despite the reinstatements, the move counts as a minor PR disaster for the winery, for they have now set as an apparent condition of receiving their wines that one may not engage in public conversations that the winery principals find disagreeable.

I, for one, reject that standard, and while I don’t enjoy Brewer-Clifton’s wines, I do appreciate wines from the related Palmina label. This new situation calls my support into question, and I am most certainly less likely to choose those wines in the future. The winery is free to act as they will, and so am I, by my lack of future support. (As a consumer only; a critic’s responsibilities are somewhat different.)

But all these personal acts of retribution and counter-retribution are insignificant in the face of the greater danger they pose to the very nature of many-to-many wine communication. The new paradigm has positives and negatives, but one of the of the unquestioned benefits is the free flow of a wide stream of information. Whether for good or ill, someone with information is going to bring it in front of the public.

In the world that Brewer-Clifton apparently seeks, this flow of information can no longer be trusted. People may post their experiences with Brewer-Clifton’s wines (or the winery itself), but they may now only post positive reports, lest they risk losing their access. The information stream is tainted. It is no longer reliable, which is always a danger, but in fact it is now worse: it is actively untrustworthy.

Think about what this means for an entity like CellarTracker, which trades on its community of tasting notes and ratings. Think anyone who values their presence on the Brewer-Clifton mailing list is eager to post a negative review or score now? Don’t count on it.

The effect will be no different than if one of the winery principals or their hired guns were to “spike” the database with hyped-up notes and ratings…an action which I suspect few would endorse. But in a sense, I suppose Brewer-Clifton has done something awfully clever here. Because rather than fouling the waters themselves, and paying the price, they’ve gotten their customers to do it for them.

Which makes it all the more important that they, and any other winery that tries the same trick, suffer equivalent public shaming. It’s the only defense the consumer has against such practices.


  • Anonymous

    December 2, 2009

    Madness. How can this work for a winery? They have to have full mailing lists, and waiting lists, and be so confident that people are desperate enough to get the wine that they will let the winery dictate their public reactions to it.

    Otherwise, the winery will kick people off the list, others will leave of their own volition, not all the wait list will take up the invitation for the same reasons, and pretty soon the winery has enough stock to actually have to sell the stuff through the usual retail channels. Shock, horror! The damn wine might have to stand on its own merits at this point, which presumably it will struggle to do, because that's what prompted publically-expressed disatisfaction in the first place.

    If you're suddenly copping public flack for your wines, first step is to look at the wines…

    Doubtless this is the most obvious thing in the world – stand by while the winery pays some PR flack a fortune for the same advice.

  • thor iverson

    December 2, 2009

    Actually, I think many California mailing list wineries of repute are quite confident in the continued desirability of their lists. Maybe overconfident, maybe not, I don't know. I'm sure the market will sort them out.

    I don't think the problem with B-C is their wines (which, as noted, I don't particularly like), because they seem popular enough among people who like a different sort of wine than I do. I think it's an inability to deal with the open, and admittedly difficult, modern marketplace of opinion in all its unedited anarchy. I do have sympathy for that inability. I just don't have sympathy for the attempted solution.

    Anyway, there are more posts coming on this same subject. Both more topical than this one, which was started back in October and is now awfully stale. But it was a necessary opening salvo.

  • Hoke Harden

    December 2, 2009

    Why does this remind me of Seinfeld and soup?

    No wine for you!

  • thor iverson

    December 3, 2009

    Exactly my thought, Hoke.

    Oh: finally got off my tail and linked to your blog. Thought I had already done that, but apparently not. Keep up the good work.

  • Anonymous

    December 3, 2009

    The world has changed…suddenly, everyone can find out any "public" criticism about themselves in real time. These are the types of comments that used to be made in private and the criticized party arguably never would have become privy to them. Some people just can't take criticism…interesting that B-C chose the "low" road and chose to make a big deal out of it and highlight the criticism. Don't they have PR flacks that get paid to smooth this shit out? Maybe a better tack would be to ignore it and let it die in the blog wilderness or invite said party to the winery for a private tasting?

  • thor iverson

    December 4, 2009

    I don't know that B-C has "PR flacks," though I'm sure they do contract with a PR agency in some fashion. I'm not really surprised when said agents aren't engaged to handle these sorts of problems for what are, after all, smallish wineries, but I am surprised that the much more beneficial path of ignoring the entire matter, and the somewhat more beneficial path of engaging in a non-confrontational way ("sorry you don't like our wines, we can't please everyone" and so forth), aren't obvious to everyone.

    FWIW, I'm even surprised at myself when I choose something other than the two above-mentioned responses to some sort of criticism or attack. It's a "triumph" of emotionalism over intellect. I guess we all have to work on that, at times.

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