Opinion: Ziliani responds to Matthews and Wine Spectator

The following translation is an excerpt of Franco Ziliani’s response to Wine Spectator Executive Editor Thomas Matthews, posted December 8, 2008.

How can one respond to the simpatico executive editor? They can make all the clarifications they want. They can reassure us that all the tastings are rigorously carried out “blind”; that no editor, not even “Giacomino” would dream of favoring “friends” or punishing “enemies”; that they have 2.6 million readers (and I don’t doubt those readers’ intelligence but I do wonder about their capacity for critical thought). Their readership does not doubt that the editors of the Wine Spectator are impassioned experts who aim to inform and educate. But the scores and the rankings are what they are. They are clear and evident and they negate the very suppositions being defended here.

One the one hand, Suckling gives a ridiculous and shameful 78/100 to a fantastic Brunello di Montalcino Riserva 2001 by Case Basse, noting that it “Smells like day-old tea, with stewed tangerine. Full-bodied, with lots of fruit and a chewy texture, but turns hard and uninviting. Volatile. Tasted twice, with consistent notes. JS.” And a 68/100 to the same wine from the 2000 vintage: “Turpentine remover, with a wet wool undertone. Has lots of ripe fruit underneath. This is better on the palate, with ripe plum flavors, round tannins and a funky finish. Not right. Tasted twice, with consistent notes. JS.”

On the other, he gives 97/100 to Marchesi Frescobaldi’s Brunello di Montalcino Castelgiocondo Ripe al Convento Riserva 2001: “Aromas of blackberry, licorice and tar. Full-bodied, with silky tannins, great mouthfeel and a caressing finish that’s long and exciting. Builds and builds on the palate. Very close to the legendary 1997. Best after 2010. 2,200 cases made. JS.” And 94/100 to Brunello di Montalcino Luce della Vite 2003 made by the same company: “Big and powerful for the vintage. Full-bodied, with loads of ripe fruit that turns to black pepper and sultana, with smoky oak and dark chocolate. Very long and opulent. On the edge of being too much, but it’s impressive. A debut Brunello from this estate and one of the best of the vintage. Best after 2011. 850 cases made. JS.”

There are two possibilities here: either Suckling does not understand much about wine (as many have suspected) or Suckling does not provide useful information to his readers. Objectively, he is serving as publicist for companies that would be hard not to define as his “friends” and wineries for whom he is ever at the ready to cater to their commercial interests.

I kindly ask Thomas Matthews: did Wine Spectator and Marvin Shanken Communications ever wonder if their coverage of Italy and its wines — overseen by James Suckling for too long — could end up being more harmful than profitable?

Kindest regards, Franco Ziliani

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7 thoughts on “Opinion: Ziliani responds to Matthews and Wine Spectator

  1. Pingback: Why Italians are offended by our ratings and rankings « Do Bianchi

  2. The Frescobaldi full page ad in the Wine Spectator coincidently appears around the same time as the top 100 list. Money talks. ” more harmful than profitable” ?

  3. I am neither American, nor Italian; but work in Italy, with Italian wines, as a wine educator, mostly with an American audience. Apart from what might be going on “politically” in Wine Spectator’s reviews & recommendations, I would like to point out another issue.
    I am amazed with most of my guests’ / clients’ inability to smell and taste aromas. The American palate is becoming numb. This is true for wine beginners as well, so I do think it has to do with (industrial) food and all the crap in there. Surely they are not the only country in this direction, but seems to me the most effected. I think this “numbness” is causing the American wine drinkers to like the bolder styles, as they are lost to the more elegant, complex and nuanced aromas/tastes.

  4. The debate about Wine Spectator’s objectivity has been going on since I worked there (and probably before that) in the mid-nineties. And while I was a low-man on the editorial totem pole, not privy to anything and everything that went on, I can say a couple of things:

    1) For more than 3 years, I managed the ratings database in NYC, and organized the editorial tastings in the NY office. All the scores and notes were entered into an anonymous database, marked only by a letter/number combination. If I recall, there wasn’t a way to return to a tasted wine’s note to alter it after the wine had been revealed. Also, I never recall noticing a score that changed between the time of the editorial tasting and publication. As I worked closely with these numbers, I would have noticed something, somewhere, especially at the top end.

    2) At one point, a large, corporate-owned winery lodged a complaint, and threatened to pull advertising because they felt their wines were being “unfairly” rated (meaning TOO LOW). This pressure was met by me personally researching the same wine in other publications, for numerous vintages to compare WS ratings with others. The scores were similar, and the threat was dropped. Never did I see the scores for that wine change.

    I cannot vouch for systems in SF, or Europe, as I was not directly involved.

    All in all, let’s be realistic here… I do believe that the “American” palate is a very real thing: Emphasis on big, bold, ripe, fruit and massive impact, instead of elegance, and complexity, especially the complexity that comes with proper ageing. The true beauty of that Casse Basse Brunello won’t be evident for years, as well as those less appreciated Piemontese wines.

    The error here is that this style has become a prevalent standard for wines worldwide, regardless of tradition and history. Granted, winemaking technology and practice has improved wines tremendously, but it also standardizes quality, a huge mistake.

    In my opinion, most Americans wine drinkers aren’t up to the task of understanding a Casse Basse, even when it’s served at it’s best. WS (etc) is catering to the common denominator (millions of readers) that are easily impressed by gobs of fruit and thickness and over-ripeness. Think of the millions(?) of beginner wine-drinkers who would read a 98-point review on a Casse Basse Brunello, go out and buy it never believe another WS rating again.

  5. @Wayne:
    I thank you for your explanation. But I find it rather insulting that the to think that the magazine would think so little of Americans comprehension about fine wine. I saw hundreds americans a week, working in wine tourims and they were so eager to know the difference about big forward wines and wines that have longevity that were austere. Why in the world are these type of wines treated with low scores. Soldera deserves 78 points? He is in the cellar racking the wine himself it’s like a child to him. I think all the readers would love that. And how lucky they would be to taste such a wine. I’ve seen Brunello from Dr. Biondi Santi also doesn’t get the well deserved attention. Why aren’t these fine wines treated with the due respect. One day we may not find these type of beautiful wines if people drinking wine are not educated. I don’t believe the great chateau’s are treated like that anad I regret that Italian wines don’t have the same respect. As I’ve pointed out in another time. These low scores jeopardize wines as they can’t be sold in Markets where monopolies buy. They only taste wines above 90 points on W.S. and W.A. I don’t hink it’s fair. For fairness maybe there should be a time limit that one person can hold in this position tasting wines for a certain country. I don’t know James Suckling and I imagine he is a fabulous taster and has alot to offer the wine world. But I think it’s difficult to always be objective and I think he’s been affected by his postion to make or break wineries and that is what’s happening. Why should the american public only know the big names? Where there are obviously economic returns involved.

  6. It may also be like Wayne is saying that Soldera Case Basse may not capture well the American palate, but I noticed during a tasting of top Brunello this year in Brussels (here http://vinonostrum.blogspot.com/2008_07_01_archive.html) where several different “palates” were present (meaning different nationalities and “experience”) that Case Basse, together with Biondi santi, received the highest appreciation. And both were quite “young” brunello (Case Basse riserva 2000 and Biondi santi 2001), but already pleasant, elegant and ready.

    At the same time, it must be noted that two other American wine magazines, Wine Advocate and International Wine Cellar, gave to Case Basse Riserva 2001 96 points.

    The 78 points of Wine Spectator appear rather “dysfunctional”. But is Mr. Sucking dysfunctional (and then its magazine Wine Spectator) or all the others that find Soldera Case Basse 2001 a truly magnificent wine?

    As I said in a post the American wine public deserves much better that wine journalists fighting personal battles against good winemakers. This is not journalism and there is no reason to pay any cent to buy a newspaper that is using the cover of “objectivity” to fight personal battles.

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