David Schildknecht from Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate on Tasting Wines in Person in the Languedoc-Roussillon
Very cool news. David Schildknecht, who writes about the Languedoc-Roussillon for the Wine Advocate, has contacted us with a detailed response to my post regarding Elin McCoy’s keynote at the European Wine Bloggers’ Conference.
The conversation so far
On my return from the EWBC, I shared some thoughts about Elin McCoy’s keynote titled “Beyond the Ivory Tower and Wine Criticism today”. To summarize my post, Elin suggested that the Wine Advocate was the archetypal ivory tower wine publication and I timidly offered my impression that the Wine Advocate’s writers don’t necessarily match her definition of ivory tower criticism.
Here’s a video of McCoy’s presentation so you can see what she said for yourself:
“Often the critic had never visited the winery or the region whose wines he or she was rating. This is what I call ivory tower wine criticism.” — Elin McCoy, EWBC 2010
David Schildknecht’s Response
Since I try to base a lot of my writing on personal experience in the Languedoc Roussillon, I specifically mentioned David Schildknecht who tastes our region for the Wine Advocate (despite the fact that the French in the region still often refer to “Parker ratings”).
I mentioned that David comes to the region every two years and visits wineries during these travels. Admittedly, I didn’t go much farther out on a limb to defend the Advocate or its writers. But David Schildknecht’s emailed response gives me something concrete that I can share with you. So, fearlessly, I relay his report:
Since beginning my work at The Wine Advocate (though my methodology differed little during my nearly 20 years writing for Steve Tanzer’s International Wine Cellar), my reports and tasting notes have been based primarily on tasting at the estates and with the growers.
Presently, I taste on-location and with the growers to the following degree(s):
New York 95%
Beaujolais 70% (though several group tastings with growers to supplement cellar door visits)
Languedoc & Roussillon 70%
The Loire 50%
Hungary and Slovenia 40%
Those percentages reflect tastings WITH the growers. Note the caveat on the Beaujolais where he admits that a few of these are group tastings to supplement cellar door visits. So all the rest are individual visits to the wine growers. So not only is he visiting wine regions, he’s tasting with hundreds of winemakers separately.
And there are hundreds. He gives us an idea of the quantity of winemakers he stays in touch with to arrange these tastings. “Around 200 collections a year in greater Burgundy…circa 120 every second year in the Languedoc and Roussillon” and so on. And these numbers can be verified with a quick glance at the actual articles. He noted 47 cellar visits in his 2008 visit to the Languedoc, and there are lots of tasting notes on the site. And then there are a good 27 cellar visits in the Roussillon which, for good reason, he tends to keep separate.
And it’s not all tasting notes either. The article starts off with an overview of how the region is doing. Schildknecht talks about trends, strengths and discoveries in the area. He integrates a dozen estates as examples of the trends he’s uncovering. Topics include the growing quality of white wines in the region and the growing number of good biodynamic and organic estates. Then the next year he writes up even more wines in his article on value in the region.
So, it would seem that Schildknecht is really devoted to getting out of whatever towers Elin is referring to.
Is Ivory Tower Overly Pejorative?
While David Schildknecht obviously favors tasting in person, he also offers a defense of the tastings journalists do off-site.
I am the first to admit that while I consider my many reasons for favoring in situ tastings to be sound, there can also be advantages to blind tastings or non-blind but comparative tastings of a sort that can only be undertaken with samples and away from growers. Unfortunately, I do not have the time to be able to taste most wines in both sorts of circumstances. (And shortage of time is a principle reason I have relied to such a great extent on samples in my tastings of Loire wines.)
A very good point. When wine critics taste blind in a lab far from the winemaker, we say they are out of touch. When they taste with a winemaker, we sometimes suggest they are corrupt or affected. Damned either way.
Furthermore, (this is my argument; not David’s) what percentage of bloggers get to visit the wineries or regions that they taste? I get the impression that the vast majority of self-publishers can’t visit vineyards or wineries nearly as much as the current vanguard of dedicated print journalists.
I know lots of people who blog about the wines of the Languedoc Roussillon without visiting us. I wound never disparage them as ivory tower bloggers. Although that particular phrase does sound hilarious. Instead I am grateful that they are trying to learn about my region and communicate that knowledge despite the fact that they don’t have the time or resources to visit in person.
Other Regions and Writers
David sent me an additional email concerning the work of his colleagues at the Wine Advocate. While he doesn’t attempt as much detail, he offers a general idea about the travels of Lisa Perotti-Brown, Neil Martin, Antonio Galloni, Jay Miller and Robert Parker.
The majority of tastings done for The Wine Advocate of New Zealand wines (by Lisa Perotti-Brown and Neal Martin); and of Australian wines (by Lisa Perotti-Brown) are done in those countries (I cannot however estimate the percentages.) Antonio Galloni is regularly in Italy for tasting, though again I cannot estimate precise the percentage of his work that is done via in situ tastings. Robert Parker is in California and the Rhone each year; Jay Miller annually in Washington and Oregon and regularly in Spain, though the sheer magnitude of wineries covered from several of these regions (especially where there are only a few wines per estate) dictates that a higher percentage of tasting – even when done in the country of origin – will be via the collection of samples.
Am I missing the point?
Elin suggests part of the definition of an ivory tower critic is that the wine journalist is sitting in a laboratory atmosphere tasting wine and spitting it into a sink instead of visiting the winery or regions they are tasting. But she addresses a lot of other topics in her keynote.
Am I overly focused on the “visiting wine regions”-thing? Well it was sort of in the crucial definition of an ivory tower critic at the beginning of her presentation. And I think it’s inaccurate to say that Parker’s time is over because he’s not visiting enough wineries or he’s getting out of touch or even that his publication is overly dependent on Tasting Notes. Lots of people actually do read it for the articles. Almost nobody reads the tasting notes front to back. (Only wine merchants do that )
If I am guilty of harping on a point that isn’t even that important to Elin, I apologize. But I hope that my exploration of this is helpful and interesting to all of you out there. And I’m very glad that David Schildknecht took some time to share his methodology with us.
Agreement with Elin
I should probably take a moment to admit that Elin does say a lot of things I like.
- Tasting Notes are sort of boring to a lot of people
- Regional specialists are awesome. (wonder why I like that one)
- Blogging is cool
- Blurred boundaries between publishing & production / journalism & marketing
- Few negative articles in wine journalism
- Controversy gets the most comments
- Wine writers should be brave and write unpopular views
Considering that last point, I am hopeful that everybody who hates the wine advocate forgives me for defending it in this respect. I’m not a WA shill. If anything, I’m an O’Vineyards shill. Or maybe a Languedoc-Roussillon shill?
Anyway, I’m writing this because I think it’s interesting to a lot of folks, and I just don’t think Parker or his writers are quite the villains we want them to be.