In general, I'm not a big fan of wine competitions. Between the research papers suggesting that judges are wildly inconsistent, and the fact that medals seem to be awarded to a huge percentage of the entries-- wine competitions just don't seem to be as meaningful, and informative for consumers, as they might ideally be.
Despite the fact that here at Justice Grace Vineyards I've have a hard time letting go of my ideals at any point along the path, I decided to enter a single Petite Sirah into the 2013 SF Chronicle Wine competition, for this first time. Lo and behold we were just awarded with a "Double Gold", placing our 2010 Wolff Vineyards, on this particular day anyway, near the very top of dozens and dozens of Petite Sirah's priced above $20.00 a bottle.
As I opened the envelope and read the results, my brain had just finished processing the words when I also "heard" the booming voice of an old-timer I once worked for, as he often used to say: "Better than a kick in the pants..."
Indeed. When I got the news, I was relieved and excited. Then, I was swept away in reflection. Ten years of winemaking. Along the way, the juice that propelled me were the many kind words, smiles and genuine enthusiasm heard from consumers and industry insiders alike. Yet, because of my nature, it is more likely that the handful of not-so-nice, spit bucket dumping, non-plussed faces (frowns if you will) ferment in my mind.
Like the ones who grab a glass, taste without paying much attention, turn to me and say, "I really don't like Merlot anyway" (but it's a Petite Sirah!). In the same day you might hear, "It's too sweet", "It's too dry", "It's too big", "It's not big enough", "I usually only like whites anyway", or "it wasn't the worst wine I've had today." The professional tasters are only slightly less confounding: in one day, you might hear industry veterans add, "I pick up a green note I don't like", or "I pick up an intriguing green note that I love", and "It's not big enough for our customers", or "It's too big for our customers".
How all of these remarks affected me has varied in intensity with each passing year. My emotions ranged from exuberant to broken-hearted in the early years-- and to be honest, depending on the source, still have that potential. After all, I have worked tirelessly for ten long years trying to put my heart and soul into each and every bottle (and a little of my boy's huge heart as well). It's hard not to associate those tasters who like "it", with the notion that they like "me", and vice versa. In many respects, Shoe Shine Wine, is me.
Buddhism has taught me (my apologies to the real practitioners out there) about the "Middle Way." Not too high, nor too low. And grasping for more of one, and the end of the other, nevermore. Sounds nice. And for the most part, it has helped in managing the emotional impact of getting such contrasting feedback from consumers and professionals alike. For my taste and goals, the "Middle Way" has no place in winemaking itself, but it has everything to do with having the self-confidence and insight to chart our unique course.
But here is where it gets trickier: sales. While professionals certainly influence the taste expectations and even generate pre-conceived notions about certain wines, consumers increasingly have a palate of their own. And reports are suggesting that as consumers rely more heavily on friends ("taste buds"?) and social media for recommendations, their range of taste influencers is expanding beyond the traditional trend setters. They are open to what tastes good to them, vs. "how it's supposed to be."
The industry is responding. Led by boutique wineries, new winemaking approaches to traditional varietals are revealing newfound complexities in the grapes, and new varietals are being introduced.
If you are grounded, and Open to it, all feedback is good. Helpful even. I doubt many businesses have been successful ignoring customer feedback, whether they believed it at the time, or not. So if it is true that professionals and traditional wine media gatekeepers are having a lesser role in shaping taste preferences, and more experienced consumers are trusting themselves more -- who do I listen to more as I shape my winemaking direction to succeed in this hyper competitive marketplace?
Or do I at all? Am I a leader, or a follower? Innovator or lemming?
A few days before our 2010 Wolff Vineyards Petite Sirah was awarded the "Double Gold", I was informed by the wine buyer for a long-time customer (whom I highly respect), that the same wine wasn't as well received by his customers as other wines, from another vineyard, in the past. And, surprisingly, he didn't place a re-order. My personal experience directly pouring this wine for consumers and professionals alike, has been exceptionally positive. In fact, it was so positive that this was the wine I chose to enter into the competition. Yet I can vividly recall when this wine buyer tasted my recent lineup that he was less than enthused. I could tell that he was reluctant to continue to support me at this time. He offered critical feedback-- which I asked for, and absolutely want.
Does the medal award in this notable competition change anything as I shape my winemaking style going forward? Do his comments, instead? How about all of the other wide ranging direct consumer and industry feedback? What about the relative sales of the wines as an indication of style direction?
The Ups-and-Downs of any given wine, on any given day, can make a heartfelt winemaker's head spin.
Take thy tongue from out my heart, and thy medal from out my hand.
Quoth the Buddha: "Nevermore".