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Copyright © Ric Einstein 2009
Open Mouth and Extract Foot
When Cam Wheeler from Appellation Australia attended an industry tasting, tried some wine and posted his tasting notes on his wine blog, never in a thousand years did he expect to get an email threatening him with legal action.
As Cam was quite stunned, he emailed me asking if anyone had ever threatened to sue me (as I am such a shrinking violet who is afraid to speak my mind) and asking for background advice. Here is how it all came about.
Cam attended an industry tasting and on 26 February 2006, Cam posted the following brief tasting notes on his web blog:-
Graeme Miller Wines (Yarra Valley) - The owners of this winery were very friendly and I hope that the wines I tried were off-bottles rather than being representative. As always though, I can only review what is in the glass.
Sauvignon Blanc 2005 - Easy drinking with some tropical fruit on the nose and a crisp palate. 86/100
Chardonnay 2005 - Seems faulty - burnt rubber and smoke and earth with a dirty taste on the palate. 75/100
Rosé 2005 - I’m sorry to say this, but this was the most faulty wine I have ever tasted. Dominant onion skins, rubber, and some barnyard characters on the nose with the palate living up to the promise of the nose. 50/100
At the tasting Cam states he politely mentioned to the owners (one of whom is also the winemaker,) that he thought there was something wrong with the last two wines; the owners stated they thought the wines were sound and didn’t seem interested in opening new bottles.
Cam had reservations about posting the reviews, especially the Rosé, not because he was afraid to post the review, but because he thought it seemed a bit pointless, as it was a small winery that most people probably don't know. In the end he decided to post because he (as I do) likes to think that someone might use the information to make an informed choice if they were searching for information. In addition, Cam told me that before publishing these reviews he spoke to a number of other people who work in the industry (both in retail and well-respected winemakers) who tried the wines at the same event and they concurred with his evaluation. If they had not agreed he would have reconsidered posting his opinions.
Now fast forward four months to the beginning of July, the winery had ‘suddenly’ become so concerned they sent Cam the following email.
I request that all comments referring to our wines on your web site Appellations be removed or we will follow up with legal action.
Wow, nothing like the threat of legal action to win friends and influence people! Naturally Cam was gob-smacked. His initial reaction was that if the winery was so concerned about his reviews and confident their wines were better than his reviews would indicate, he would have expected the winery to offer to send him samples and allow him to re-taste the wines and post new reviews. His second reaction was to get some advice and think very carefully about his response to the winery, which was as follows.
If you could please provide specific information as to what you believe to be illegal about the tasting notes posted on my site? A review (good or bad) and a statement of opinion is not illegal. Truth be told, there were better ways for you to approach this rather than legal threats. I do not appreciate you attempting to bully me into retracting what is my honest opinion of the wines.
Please note that I even mention in the review that the notes are my opinion of these specific samples only, I do not extrapolate or imply that all of the bottles of these wines are going to be faulty.
I will not be removing my opinions on your wines at this stage.
The response from the winery was lengthy and quick!
Your comments come up on up under a search of Graeme Miller Wines directly under our web site and (being Appellations) the first of any entries. They are serving to absolutely denigrate our wines and our reputation and they have created the most embarrassing and distressing situations where we have lost business. A wine critic is expected to express opinion, but not to denigrate. You need to understand the impact that you are having and may have on others as well.
As to the wines you denigrated so badly (I am pressed to find a worse review on your web site), consider what others have said.
This is a review given to the 2005 Chardonnay by a panel of three leading wine critics including James Halliday, reviewed the week before the Sydney exhibition. Does this sound like the wine you are reviewing?
"Millers Dixons Creek Estate Chardonnay 2005
Winery : Graeme Miller Wines
Region : Yarra Valley
RRP : $24.00
Bright mid-gold in colour the 2005 Dixons Creek Chardonnay jumps out of the glass with ripe fruit aromas of pear flesh, citrus and stone fruits and toasty oak. The palate is fleshy and offers loads of flavour underpinned by a healthy use of toasty new oak. Fresh and lively on the palate, this wine needs time to fully integrate and for the fruit to swallow the oak. Given the intensity of the fruit this will happen over the next 6 months, and will then show a complete personality ready for consumption over the next 3-4 years."
This is a review of the Rose three weeks after Sydney by the wine writer for the Melbourne Times, Jeff Gordon:
"A beautifully crafted, soft pink wine made from Yarra Valley Cabernet from Graeme Miller of Dixons Creek Estate is made to be drunk young. We drank it with fish and salad and it drank well, although she closed her eyes and kept telling herself she was a normal Cabernet and imagined herself in the tropics. It looks and is so delicate, but has lots of character."
Graeme is a winemaker of many years experience and one of the pioneer winemakers of the rebirth of the Yarra Valley as a wine region. He won the first Jimmy Watson trophy for a Yarra Valley wine and numerous other trophies. He is passionate about his winemaking. In our new wine business, established in 2004 under the new label, we are working hard (and with integrity and professionalism) to get the business established in a competitive environment. Reviews and feed back from the industry and the public have been very good, but this utterly denigrating critique sits out at the top of all references to Graeme Miller Wines and is incredibly damaging to our business.
Further, on the Chardonnay in particular, one of the winemakers on the stand near to us, a highly respected Victorian winemaker, made the comment that he thought the Chardonnay one of the best at the exhibition. We received excellent feedback on it.
I request that you remove these remarks and reference to our wines. It is impacting on people who go on site and look up our wines under Graeme Miller and it is directly damaging our business on a daily basis.
Cam responded to this email and at the time I wrote this, he was yet to receive a reply from the winery, and whilst Cam comments were well written, I would rather post my comments about the two winery emails.
First and foremost, an empty threat using bully-boy like tactics is bound to get people off-side and provoke a negative reaction to any request; the original email was very poor form.
Cam started off his review of the winery by stating, “The owners of this winery were very friendly and I hope that the wines I tried were off-bottles rather than being representative. As always though, I can only review what is in the glass.” Firstly, he made a positive comment about the people and then, and this is most important, he spelt out that he hoped the wines he tried were off bottles; a perfectly fair and reasonable disclaimer indicating they may not be representative. So how does something like come about?
When Cam questioned the soundness of two of the wine he tasted, the winery had two options; open fresh bottles in case they were off, or stand behind the open bottles. As they elected to stand behind the samples they were pouring, all Cam could do was review what was in the glass in front of him, which is exactly what transpired.
In the Bernadette email, they quote a review from a panel of three tasters including James Halliday and ask, “Does this sound like the wine you are reviewing?” Now that is a damn good question!
The first point to note is that Cam’s sample was not from the same bottle as the Halliday et al review. It is perfectly possible that the bottle Cam tried was off; on a number of occasions I have seen winemakers and winery owners miss faults in wine. Bottle variation also comes into play.
It’s not just winemakers and winery owners that can miss faults in wine; look at two well known instances. The first was the Henschke 1998 Hill of Grace which was lauded by a number of professional critics, but when Jeremy Oliver was highly critical the wine, many people thought he had lost the plot. It turned out Oliver was correct; the wine suffered from Brett. In the second case, some of Australia’s most respected professional critics had very positive things to say about the pre-release samples of the Mount Langi 2002 Shiraz. The winery pulled the plug on the release as the winery deemed the wine to be defective. In this case, a highly respected winemaker made a defective wine, the winery missed it prior to the samples going out, and some of the critics missed it when it was reviewed.
I remember one situation at a trade show I attended where I asked a winemaker “is that the way the wine is meant to be” and although he thought it was fine, he opened a second bottle. Whilst it was not quite as bad, it still had a decided band-aid note and metallic edge, but the winemaker/owner still thought it was fine, despite my explanation of what I thought was wrong with it. Two years later I received a phone call from him telling me that he finally figured out why the wine took so long to sell; it was Brett and he had missed it. Now here is the frightening part, no one except me told him why they didn’t like the wine, or that they thought it was faulty. When he asked people what they thought, most would say “its ok” or “it’s nice” but did not buy it. He also had difficulty in getting the wine reviewed positively.
People also have differing tastes and this results in different perceptions about the same label. All you have to do is have a look at the judges comments in the Sydney International Wine Show to see how different judges can have diametrically opposed opinions on a particular wine; or have a look at the huge differences in perceptions between say Jancis Robinson and Robert Parker on a number famous Bordeaux wines. Everyone has their own right to their own taste and preference in wine; if we didn’t all have different tastes, then every tasting note would be similar.
In regard to the Halliday et al tasting note, we have no idea who wrote the note or what each judge individually thought of it, but is normal when you have a panel of three; what is unusual is there is no indication of a score of any sort attached to the tasting note.
The Chardonnay was almost a storm in a tea cup by comparison to the situation over the Rosé which Cam rated at 50 points. In Bernadette’s email the only positive tasting note she sites is from Jeff Gordon of the Melbourne Times. Now I have never heard of Jeff or the Melbourne Times so I did a bit of research. It turns out the Melbourne Times is a free community newspaper, and whilst I have no reason to doubt the ability of Jeff Gordon, the professional wine knowledge and ability of some (but not all) wine writers for free community papers is highly questionable.
If we have a look at Jeff’s tasting note on the wine it says:
"A beautifully crafted, soft pink wine made from Yarra Valley Cabernet from Graeme Miller of Dixons Creek Estate is made to be drunk young. We drank it with fish and salad and it and it drank well, although she closed her eyes and kept telling herself she was a normal Cabernet and imagined herself in the tropics. It looks and is so delicate, but has lots of character."
So what information can I glean from this tasting note? It says it’s beautifully crafted but does not say how or why, but that’s a minor criticism. It’s a soft, delicate, Rosé that’s made from Cabernet Sauvignon that has character. It’s designed to be drunk young, but then what Rosés aren’t; it goes well with fish and salad; no surprise there either.
In essence, this tasting note could be summed up as “A beautifully crafted, soft, delicate wine made from Cabernet that has lots of character.” Doesn’t really tell you a whole lot does it? And that’s the most positive tasting note the winery can provide on this wine to refute Cam’s negative comments; interesting!
The first paragraph of Bernadette’s email is very telling we will take them point by point.
“Your comments come up on up under a search of Graeme Miller Wines directly under our web site and (being Appellations) the first of any entries.”
I did a couple of searches on Google Australia for both “Graeme Miller Wines” and "Miller’s Dixons Creek” (Using Yahoo instead of Google brings Cam’s site up at #4 and #6 listings) and the number of relevant entries for the winery was unusually low and after checking the first 50 results, I gave up due to the lack of information. In fairness, the results did show the Chardonnay picked up a bronze medal at the Dixons Creek/Steels Creek Wine Show and another bronze at the Red Hill Cool Climate Wine Show. It’s no wonder that the winery is so concerned; the only independent tasting notes I could find on these wines were Cam’s. (The three were entered at Melbourne and failed to gain any medal, the two whites also failed to gain a medal in Sydney).
“They are serving to absolutely denigrate our wines and our reputation and they have created the most embarrassing and distressing situations where we have lost business.”
The lack of information, be it positive or negative, on these wines on the internet, is more of an issue than one negative review. If there were more positive reviews out there, the effect of Cam’s reviews would be significantly lessened, so the question one must ask is, “whose fault is it that there are so few reviews on these wines?” It’s certainly not Cam’s fault so there is no point in the winery blaming him for their own lack of positive publicity to out-way the one negative set of reviews.
“A wine critic is expected to express opinion, but not to denigrate. You need to understand the impact that you are having and may have on others as well.”
A wine critic is actually expected to express an honest opinion, be it positive or negative. The definition of “denigrate” is “to attack the character or reputation of; speak ill of; defame or disparage.” Based on this definition, according to Bernadette, no wine writer should ever express a negative opinion on a wine because if you take the famous 1998 Hill of Grace/Jeremy Oliver example, his comments attacked the character of the wine and it hurt the reputation of the winery, but critically, it was not defamation as his comments were true.
Many professional writers only publish positive scores and tasting notes because they are restricted by space considerations. Some readers think that writers only publish the positives because they are afraid if the authors post negative comments, the supply of samples and invitations to events from those wineries may stop. In my case, I have long held the belief that it is important to know what not to buy, just as it is important to know what to buy.
As far as the effect that the author of a wine blog or a site like mine has, lets face it, the winery can have a much greater impact on their wine sales by making good wine and marketing them effectively, which will lead to positive reviews. Nothing sells like positive press, but it’s up to the winery to generate it.
The irony of this move by the winery to threaten legal action unless the reviews were removed is that it has only served to highlight them.
Naturally, if the winery would like to respond to this story, I will be happy to post their comments in their entirety.
(Brian’s comment when editing: One of the best Yarra Valley Cabernets I can remember trying is the Millers Chateau Yarrinya Cabernet 1982, presumably made by Graeme Miller a few vintages before De Bortoli bought the vineyards/winery and terminated the Yarrinya brand.)
My thanks to Cam for providing the background information to make this story possible and his site is worth a visit.
Copyright © Ric Einstein 2006