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.