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Defending Mondavi and the Worst Kind of Liberal Elite

The worst kind of the liberal elite in wine media are those that use their keystrokes as wannabe Lenin communists under the cloak of quality.

As the playwright said, “the pen is mightier than the sword,” but most times the sharp edge of the writing (or cutting) device should be well protected in the sheath of defensible opinion.

Simply, basing opinion with substantive context and a smattering of fact always engenders people to the writer’s opinion.

As any storyteller will tell you, detail makes the story both interesting and credible. 

Unfortunately, however, for some mainstream media, notably Paul Gregutt, wine writer for the Seattle Times newspaper, he didn’t get the memo.

How else would you explain a largely baseless, fact less and sweeping indictment (with simpering caveat) of Robert Mondavi winery in his most recent column?

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I’ll give Gregutt, a writer and author of some merit, a bit of the benefit of the doubt because his column is a scant 615 words, about the length of a decent blog post, and certainly not long enough for a think piece on the state of Robert Mondavi winery, but his column sets up with an agenda that really reads like a grinding axe, hardly reason to extend much grace.

Now, mind you, I am no Mondavi apologist, nor mouthpiece.  However, I do have an affinity for the man, I have enjoyed my visits to the winery and, for the most part, I’ve found the wines to be consistently well-crafted, of high quality with a quality to price ratio that is usually spot-on.

Gregutt’s column reeks of the same kind of liberal elitism that permeates mainstream business media.  In the mainstream business press, the so-called liberal elite champion the underdog allowing big business to play the evil foil. 

Played out in the wine press, it is the same story with a different protagonist—small wineries are our heroes with corporate wineries playing the role of spoiler.

Ah, it makes good copy if it were not a threadbare angle and about as tired of a writer’s device as exists.

In his Seattle Times column Gregutt primarily laments the expansion of the Mondavi wine line-up under the ownership of Constellation (a fact that did not start with Constellation and actually was one of the well-chronicled divisive differences between Tim and Michael Mondavi as growth tugged at the company).  Juxtaposing a 1969 Cabernet he enjoyed for a recent birthday, Gregutt sets the table for a “then and now” piece using the President of Constellation, José Fernandez, and his phrase “premiumization” against the company.

And, of course, Gregutt references Constellation and their spot on the Wine Business Monthly (WBM) Top 30 wine companies (#3); this is well and good, if not disingenuous. 

Instead of using their position on the list of large wine companies as a Scarlet Letter, as Gregutt does, for balance, it would be nice if he encouraged all wine lovers to read the WBM annual report on the Top 30 wines companies. 95% of those that consider themselves fans of wine will be surprised at how much wine is produced from these large companies (who act more as holding companies for individual businesses than an evil conglomerate), and, by and large, there is nothing wrong with this scope in size – most of these companies keep the brands or the wineries largely autonomous and quality minded, and even the biggest wine company is still a pimple on the ass, in terms of size, of most corporations.

Big in wine terms, isn’t really big.  In addition, big can mean consistent—as in consistently keeping key members of staff by paying them competively and giving them tools to expand their interest and expertise.

To wit, Mondavi’s Director of Winemaking, Genevieve Janssens, has been in her post since 1997, by virtue of that, Gregutt’s premise of his column, to revisit Mondavi under the stewardship of Constellation, is largely a canard to present a pre-existing opinion.

In his reviews of wines he visits the Woodbridge line, Private Reserve wines, the Solaire line and the winery wines, with not a lot of good things to say along the way, ending his column with the following:

“My survey barely scraped the surface of the Mondavi wines. Perhaps some hidden treasures are out there; I did not find them.”

If Gregutt is serious about finding a Mondavi hidden treasure he should end, where he started.  If he uses the 1969 Cabernet as his baseline for Mondavi of days past, he should visit the 2006 Robert Mondavi Winery Napa Valley Cabernet. 

For about $20 he would find a stunning value in Napa Cab. – an elegant, concentrated, intense wine with fruit, earth and spice, built to age, but ready to drink.  It is a superb value in quality and price and an example of the best that a so-called “corporate” winery can offer as it does its “premiumization.”

Liberal elite messaging notwithstanding, I would urge anybody looking for consistent value to not give short shrift to Robert Mondavi Winery.  The man himself never gave up, bucking many setbacks along the way, and I have a hunch his namesake winery is not going to either, despite a popular wine media tide that may be against them.

What I blogged about a year ago: The $3M Question



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Posted in, Free Run: Field Notes From a Wine Life. Permalink | Comments (16) |


Comments

On 04/14, Greg Dyer wrote:

To be honest, I don’t get this post.  “Liberal media elite” is one of the silliest bogeymen out there, and to tie this notion to wine criticism is a stretch.  I suppose Robert Parker is now the Rush Limbaugh of wine because his style of wine “punditry” has been broadly influential and he is now considered the mainstream conservative voice.  How far should this analogy be pushed?

How about this explanation, which doesn’t involve a leftist conspiracy.  A wine writer is bored of tasting wine that is made essentially by formula.  It may well be good, but when you have to taste through it as a professional, I bet it sure does get boring.  So he writes a curmudgeonly article about Mondavi being bland.

You know, he has a point.  Wine conglomerates fill a hole in the market, but can you really argue that planting the current ‘hot’ varietal in a very warm climate to generate high yields is not a recipe for interesting wines?  Wouldn’t Zinfandel or Tannat or Sangiovese produce a more interesting wine in a Region IV climate than Pinot Noir?  Most wine shoppers buy a known varietal at a low price, but perhaps they should be aware there’s more to wine than Cab S, Zin and Chard.

On 04/14, Jeff wrote:

Hi Greg,

Thanks for the comment.

Maybe I used the liberal elite to loosely as a writing premise, but, I stand by the gist of the post which I think acts as a counterpoint to the Gregutt article.

Now, I do want to be careful because Gregutt was delicate in his bashing, but it was bashing nonetheless and there were some logic holes within the opinion piece, which I caveated given space limitations that he had to likely observe.

To your point, I would argue that conglomerates do more than fill a hole in the market—I’ve read reports that indicate they represent up to 90% of domestic sales.

And, on the whole, I was drinking the ‘06 Mondavi Napa Cabernet while I wrote the post and for $20 it is an exceptional wine and tremendous value.  I would urge you to seek this wine out, it’s very findable and very good.  Parker gave it a 90.  In three or four years, after it mellows in the bottle, it’ll be even better. 93-94 points, perhaps?  I’m going to buy a case.

Thanks again for reading, commenting and keeping me honest when I get, perhaps, a little too high concept.

Jeff
http://www.goodgrape.com

On 04/14, Leftcoast wrote:

I don’t get the liberal elite angle here either. (Leftcoast bias?)

For one thing, this post falls under the wine writers writing about wine writers topic that 1WineDude brought up the other day http://tinyurl.com/djfry6 .  Is Mr. Gregutt not entitled to his opinion?

Secondly, I worked for several years at one of the mega wine companies. I have seen family wineries bought and quietly turned into million case brands with no real character in the bottle.  Not always the case, but it happens.

I believe that Mondavi Oakville makes some good and great wines and will continue to do so.  Its the scores of other mediocre wines with Mondavi on the label that will continue to dilute what was once great about the name Mondavi.

On 04/14, Jeff wrote:

Okay.  two for two.  i’ll be more direct in allegory next time. 

In my opinion, I think writing about writing is okay, so long as its interesting and blog v. mainstream.  I’m, perhaps, not the best judge of my own blog posts, because I like them all.  Granted that blogging about blogging is deathly boring, though.

generally, I try to keep the self-absorption to a minimum and failing that I go self-deprecating.

I think Gregutt is certainly entitled to his opinion, I don’t begrudge him that, at all.  Though, I did think it was a particularly poor defense of his opinion, which I noted—especially because the Napa Cabs are perennially good. if he compared apples to apples he wouldn’t have a column which leads me to believe he had a conclusion in mind before he even wrote, which is great mostly, but not as a backhanded indictment against a winery.

I’m rambling, now.

Thanks much for commenting and reading!

All the best,

Jeff

On 04/14, Paul Gregutt wrote:

I appreciate the comments posted here from those who actually troubled to read my column and understand what was being said. Merely bashing me with absurd labels does not address the point – which is that Constellation has amplified, watered down and flat-out abused the Mondavi name. Citing a single decent cabernet out of some 60+ current offerings is a pretty lame argument all by itself. And concluding (from one column out of thousands I’ve written!!) that I universally am proclaiming that “small wineries are our heroes with corporate wineries playing the role of spoiler” is flat out wrong and entirely dishonest. I suggest you try reading more than one story before you brand someone with such silly and wrongheaded preconceptions.

On 04/14, Jeff wrote:

Hi Paul,

Thanks for coming by and commenting.

I won’t get into a tit for tat, but i will note that I am familiar with your work, your columns and your blog.  And, you are a skilled writer with pedigree—no intention to denigrate that and paint you with a categorical black brush, just your tact on your most recent column.

Jeff
http://www.goodgrape.com

On 04/14, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) wrote:

As both a disciple of sound brand management and a past wine brand marketer, I read Mr. Gregutt’s Wine Advisor column and never jumped to the conclusions drawn by this blog’s author.  There’s no indictment of large-scale winemaking or the companies that coordinate that enterprise in the column.  Instead, the column reminded me to consider the Mondavi name, the unfortunate way in which the Mondavi legacy plays out in today’s marketplace, and the fact that often the large corporate wine entities never understand the stewardship role that brand management requires – particularly when the brand is not your creation but instead is born of profound heritage, vision, and commitment.

Brand – be it wine or any other consumer-involved category – does not happen.  It’s built on a foundation that reaches an interested target, delivers consistently against meaningful promise, and remains relevant not for what says to consumers but for what it hears in the way of a consumer reply.  Brand is effective when it conveys the simple elegance of ideas that work – who the brand is, what it does, why it matters, and why you (the consumer) should care.

Robert Mondavi was one of the architects for brand relevance in the wine industry.  He understood the potential to influence with his name because it was a brand.  Today, Constellation has supplanted the idea of “brand” with the concept of “label”, wherein this case the Mondavi name is diluted across wines and labels that often lack varietal authenticity, distinctive character and, sad to say in this economy, real value. 

Unfortunately, Constellation has committed a similar error in judgment across its larger portfolio, whereby its stable of brands includes obvious redundancy.  Many of its brands today are labels that have no clear reason for being, no distinct character in their offerings, and no story to tell.  Many wine aficionados with an understanding of “brand” demand that a wine brand carry with it a story that lends richness and texture to the overall experience that a wine promises.  Constellation today presents a picture of label proliferation absent of the richness one hopes for in a category where over 16,000 “brands” are available in the U.S. alone, over 4,000 of which enjoy measurable unaided awareness, but fewer than 5 can be named by more than 10% of the total wine-consuming public.

I congratulate Mr. Gregutt in his effort to re-examine the Mondavi brand – in all its tiers.  With 60 wines, no one could reasonably expect a thorough examination of the full portfolio.  Instead, he sets up the reader with approachable insights that provide a measure of value and guidance and the intended readership undoubtedly appreciates.  For me, it also confirms what my palate has been saying for some years – the Mondavi value brands no longer deliver the experience I seek for my hard-earned wine dollar.

Keith

On 04/14, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) wrote:

Jeff,

I think this post was right on the money.  Blaming the watering down of the Mondavi legacy on Cosntellation is revisionist history.  Both the Woodbridge line and the Coastal line were launched before the Constellation acquisition. 

There are many examples of mega wineries giving winemakers the freedom to make excellent wines.  KJ and Gallo are prime examples.

Being profitable in the wine industry is an elusive target.  Having the financial backing of a large company gives small wine ventures the freedom to grow and experiment.  The reason the conglom’s have been able to buy these lovely little brands is because they were for sale.  The economics of the wine industry doesn’t work for them.

I prefer to judge each wine on it’s own merits, which by the way, pretty much means whether they appeal to me or not, rather than on their parentage.

Thanks Jeff for taking what I’m sure you knew would be an unpopular stance.

On 04/14, Jeff wrote:

Hi Keith,

Thanks for the thoughtful comment.  I believe it’s your first comment at this site.  Feel free to visit again.

I appreciate you adding your voice to the conversation though I stand by my post, my interpretation and my opinion.

Kindly,

Jeff

On 04/15, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) wrote:

I read the story in question, and came away thinking that it was a rather broad indictment in a piece that was too short to provide sufficient support.  As others have noted, Mondavi had a ton of SKUs (and brand dilution) before Constellation bought them.  The small sampling of wines used to create a quality generalization in the article didn’t help much.  Mondavi makes decent, even good wines, at the various price points (and the 04 CSR is wonderful), as well as a number of “what are they thinking” bombs.  Seems like this track record has been fairly consistent over the past decade, and is the same for all the Big Fish.  Could Constellation do better?  Sure, but do they need to, and is there a business case for it?  Probably not.

On 04/15, Dylan wrote:

Jeff, you’ve taken quite the knock from comments for this post. After reading through what everyone has posted, I don’t have anything particularly new to add to the discussion, but I would like to say I appreciate your demeanor in the reaction to these comments. Be them negative or positive, you react with the same candor and willingness to accept others opinions—it’s not just a writer’s best defense, it’s the best way to learn more. That’s a lesson in itself for anyone who decides to pursue a particular passion; accept that you know nothing so you can know everything—how’s that for high concept?

On 04/15, mydailywine wrote:

I was also a bit confused by the ‘liberal elite’ tag used in this post.
I have met people of all political persuasions who dislike corporate, paint by numbers wines.

On 04/16, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) wrote:

There is no question that Paul’s article implies that Robert Mondavi wines were good, or at least better wines when the family owned the winery, a contention that can’t be proven.
When Woodbridge was Bob red and Bob white there was merit to the wines, but it’s very hard to make millions of cases of varietal wine from Central Valley grapes and produce interesting stuff no matter who makes it, and by the mid 90s, long before Constellation, Woodbridge was exactly that.
When “Mondavi Coastal” was launched it was intended to be made Central Coast grapes and when that was the case it was a pretty good value, but the family didn’t keep that going either as the need for quarterly profit drove the quality of goods down.
My problem with Paul is that he presents as fact these assertions of quality when Robert and sons owned the winery.  Could it be that his fond memories wouldn’t be borne out with objective tasting?
“Liberal elite” may not be a perfect expression. The term has been a hot button in the political wars of the last 20 years, but liberal or not, wine reviewers are elitists, and Gregutt is just one of many. 
They get paid to be elitists.  They try to write about “everyday wines” but they usually write unenthusiastically about wines for some imaginary middle class housewife who is low on curiosity and just wants to buy something reliable. Where this misses the mark is that while consumers who regularly drink wine can’t describe in “wine speak” what they like about a wine, they can tell the difference between good and bad.
Their confusion arises not from a lack of taste but from too many choices and an overwhelming profusion of label conventions, place names and price points.

Good post Jeff.

On 04/21, 1WineDude wrote:

I can get paid to be an elitist?  Sh*t… no one told me… contemplating career change now…

On 04/22, Paul Gregutt wrote:

Get paid? Obviously Zinman has never tried to make a living as a writer. Oh I forgot - we get all that free wine! That surely is plenty of compensation for the 7 day work weeks, the endless deadlines, no benefits, no holidays, no vacations and no security of any kind that the freelance writer’s life entails. After all, we have our fill of Red Tricycle Merlot, Woolly Mammoth Shiraz and Smoking Guitar Vin De Bianco!!! What’s not to like? That Elitist lifestyle really rocks!

On 08/31, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) wrote:

A plain baking soda and water mask is by far the best you can do for acne prone skin. Mix a water and baking soda in a cup until the consistency of a thinner paste. Pat on face (do not rub) and let sit till it hardens then rinse off. This has done miracles for my sensitive acne prone skin!! Plus it’s all natural! Sometimes I add a few drops of tea tree oil too.

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