My thoughts on the Huet debacle

So, leading Vouvray producer Huet appear to have banned two UK-based wine journalists. Both Chris Kissack and Jim Budd were refused tasting pours by Huet at the recent Salons des Vins du Loire for some comments they’d made on a previous vintage, which happened to be the first one with a new winemaking team in charge. You can read their reactions here and here. Jim says that Huet boss Sarah Hwang said he had been ‘disrespectful to the Domaine Huet team’. Chris goes into great detail about what must have been a very interesting (and somewhat distressing, from his part) conversation with Ms Hwang.

Here are my thoughts on the sorry episode:

1. Any producer is perfectly entitled to decide who to pour their wines for. No critic has a right to taste, no matter who they are. If I had a wine estate, it would be within my rights to choose who to host, and it would be up to me whether or not I decided to pour my wine for a particular individual.

2. Huet is one of those appellation-defining producers who really don’t need critic reviews. They have reached a level of wine celebrity where they can probably do as they please: even if they pull up the drawbridge and host no more critics, and send no samples, and pour no wine, they will probably sell everything they make as long as they maintain wine quality.

3. Having said this, banning specific journalists because you don’t like what they say smacks of insecurity and is ugly behaviour. It’s a dangerous road to embark on. It can also be an ugly control tactic: step in line or you will lose access. I’d understand more if a wine domain started banning journalists because they were bored because of their tedious sincerity, or they found them poor company, or didn’t like their writing style.

4. The refusal of access is something that wine estates would be better off avoiding. It creates dreadful PR. To be honest, wine critics need domains such as Huet, more than these domains need the critics. This puts power in the hands of the top domains. From the journalist’s perspective, if you are an expert on a particular region and you get banned from several key domains in that region, you are no longer a useful critic for that region. From the producer’s perspective, once you start to cherry pick who writes about you, you have crossed over to the dark side. A vital life skill is being able to listen to criticism and respond appropriately to it.

5. If Huet really have banned these two journalists, they badly need some help with their communication strategy. If I was a consultant to them before this happened, I would have asked them: who are the Huet sceptics? Who has been lukewarm or even negative about Huet in the past six months, and is also a recognized commentator on the Loire? Then I would have engaged with those sceptics: invited them out for an overnight trip, taken them round the domain, and tasted wines, with a view to getting to know them better. With this sort of strategy, there’s a chance that they might move from being sceptics to being ambassadors. If they remained sceptical, so what? That’s life. As it stands, Huet have got themselves some really bad publicity, and left themselves in a position where they need to engage positively with the journalist community as a matter of urgency.

12 comments to My thoughts on the Huet debacle

  • Angela Lloyd

    With regard to your first point, I’m sure even in the UK, there are events to which at least some wine writers are not invited. It certainly happens here in South Africa. Such ommission should surely not necessarily be seen as threatening.
    ‘as long as they maintain wine quality.’ Your closing words in #2 would seem to lie at the nub of this particular issue. Having read Chris Kissack’s blog on the ban, it would appear quality was the issue. He writes; ‘With the 2012 vintage I saw something different in the wines though; they lacked the usual Huet grace and substance, reflecting what had been a difficult vintage for the region’ There’s nothing defamatory or unreasonably personal in this view, which could be understandable grounds for not inviting or wanting a wine writer to taste or review a producer’s wines. It seems Mr Kissack’s crime was to do his job as a critic, reporting, with his extensive experience on the wines, on the shortcomings he perceives in the 2012s. Of course, an alternative is to buy the wines, a route he suggests he might follow, depending on other opportunities to taste them. But, from personal experience, the opportunity of tasting wines with the winemaker, owner or other informed member of the winery team, is so much more informative.
    In all other points, I agree with you, Jamie.
    Not sure about wine writers receiving same treatement in South Africa, but before the annual Platter tastings start, producers are informed which taster has been assigned to review their wines; if, for some reason of substance, they do not want that taster, they may request another. Not sure how often that has happened.

  • Matthew Rinkerman

    Would they do this to Decanter or Robert Parker or even a retail client. A PR blunder.

  • I don´t agree that you have the right to refuse to allow certain critics to taste simply because you don´t appreciate what they say about you. As a winemaker one understands that one has to take the rough with the smooth. Most people like my wine, some don´t. Most people like me, some don´t. I´m a big girl, I´ll get over it. No to do so is nothing short of childish. Additionally to withhold wine from one of the region´s leading critics and the concomitant furore it has engendered is deeply unwise from a marketing and commercial standpoint. I also don´t agree that critics need certain estates more than they themselves need the critics. At any level the relationship between domaines and wine writers is a mutually beneficial one. It may be that certain of the former feel themselves to be above this relationship. I suggest that they could do with a good dose of humility. It may be that Huet is currently experiencing a commercial purple patch, but it wasn´t always the case. Having known Gaston Huet personally, I have no doubt that he would never have behaved in this way. He must be turning in his grave….

  • It does appear that Ms. Hwang had a thin-skinned reaction to fairly innocuous criticisms by Kissack and Budd. But PR “debacle”? I think more PR coup. Oscar Wilde was right when he said “there is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” Huet could not have purchased as much visibility as they got from simply refusing to pour for a couple of critics.

    I disagree with Charlotte Allen. Critics are like fleas – unavoidable but generally tolerable, occasionally in need of being washed away. “Critics need producers more than producers need critics” should be forcibly tattooed backwards on the forehead of anyone who seeks to enrich themselves by criticizing the productive work of others, so the critics are reminded of it every time they look in a mirror. As Mick Thomas from the band Weddings, Parties, Anything wrote: “Critics do as critics will, but did you ever hear one sing?”

    So long as climate change does not destroy the terroir – l’homme n’est rien l’vignoble tout – Domaine Huet will be producing brilliant wines long after Kissack and Budd and all the other current crop of critics are mouldering in their graves.

  • SFJoe

    In re: point #1, Jamie, the Huet wines are (or soon will be) in wide circulation. Jim and Chris will be able to taste them without difficulty whenever they are released. We are not talking DRC RC here, the wines are neither expensive nor scarce. And the Salon is very much an all-comers trade tasting, not some exclusive Huet event, which makes it odder to ban people there.

    But point #5, absolutely.

  • Thanks for your well-reasoned thoughts and summary. It’s good to take a wider perspective and the overall implications.

    Of course a producer can choose who they want to show their wines to, and critics have no right to demand. But if either party take those paths, their integrity and sense of being can be questioned.

  • Ed

    Live by the sword … Publicity made them rich, and it will make them poor. Any shitty product; film, lawnmower, wine deserves to be criticized because we poor consumers are in this together.

  • No.5 is really funny. You take a critic who has issues with the wine, invite them out, entertain them, let them taste through some undoubtedly rare wines/vintages and turn them into an Ambassador…..

    As a journalist who has written extensively in the past on the necessity of being open your readers on who pays for what then you know that the opinion of the critic who goes down this route is worthless.

  • I may be a California-based critic, but good manners are good manners anywhere in the world, and if you are winery pouring your wine in order to get its name out in the public, you cannot make yourself above critical examination.

    Moreover, you cannot innoculate yourself from examination–unless, of course, you choose not to let any critic ever taste your wine and you do not sell it and thus it does not become a commodity in the marketplace. As good as Huet wines are, and they are good enough that I have intentionally gone out of my way to taste them in the Loire on a recent vacation there, they are still being sold to the public and thus subject to critical review.

  • Jamie,

    As always, I appreciate your fair-minded, insightful impressions. I don’t follow either of the writers but I recognize they are established and respected specialists in their region. As a critic specializing in a particular part of the world, I respect the decision if a winery chooses to no longer taste with me, regardless of how long I followed them. I may have a conversation with the winery about it, but not always. Yes, it is a control tactic (I actually had one winery tell me that if they allowed me to taste, how could they possibly say no to James Suckling). Being a professional critic requires more skills than just writing, and often means taking the higher road. Blogging the details about getting shut out of a winery. Who benefits? That discussion should be between the two parties, which brings up:

    Your #5 illustrates an interesting phenomenon. The suggestion that wineries devote inordinate amounts of PR to change the minds of those critics who A. Have a forum, and B. Use it to write something negative. It only becomes more urgent if something like this public airing occurs. For example, just last week, a blogger wrote dismissively about wines he hadn’t even tasted resulting in one of the most polarized threads I have witnessed in my career, or at least in the era of blogging, with dozens of comments coming from individuals in support of one particular winery. What message does that send to critics who actually have an interest to write about wines on a level field as part of their regional focus and handle any and all communications privately?

    Thanks, John Kelly. We are still friends, right? 🙂

  • Doug Wilder, yes we are! And Charlie too I hope. I just think it’s funny that wine critics get all huffy when wineries have the temerity to criticize their work output.

    Also, reading around I see a lot about Kissack and Budd’s versions of events but Where is Ms. Hwang’s side of the story? Has she refused to discuss? Or are all the wine “journalists” out there too busy cycling their outrage through their human centipede that they can’t be bothered to ask?

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