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Winecast 39: Mark Greenblatt and the sommelier cheating scandal

sommelier cheating scandal

Mark Greenblatt

How did the sommelier cheating scandal get to the point where people are afraid to talk about what happened?

Newsy’s Mark Greenblatt broke last week’s story detailing the possibility of more trouble at the Court of Master Sommeliers in the wake of last year’s sommelier cheating scandal. That’s when someone gave the list of wines for the blind tasting portion of the test to at least one candidate. Then, the results of the exam were “invalidated” and the sommelier group insisted all else was fine. We’ve heard nary a word since then.

That’s when Greenblatt, a long-time investigative reporter, got interested. There should be more transparency when something like this happens, he says, just as with any sort of accreditation process. People who work hard to get the MS initials deserve at least that much. And that it hasn’t happened, says Greenblatt, may speak to larger problems within the court, including possible conflicts of interest.

What struck me during our conversation was that so many sommeliers and candidates are afraid to talk to Greenblatt for fear of retribution from the court. Hence, the need for anonymous sources and leaked documents – hardly something that should happen in the wine business.

We talked about what has happened in the wake of the Newsy story, the followup that Greenblatt is working on, and why no one in the wine media did much with the story after it first became public. If you want to email Greenblatt, click this link.

Click here to download or stream the podcast, which is almost 11 minutes long and takes up 4.3 megabytes. The sound quality is excellent.

Wine of the week: Michel-Schlumberger Maison Rouge 2017

Michel-Schlumberger Maison RougeThe Michel-Schlumberger Maison Rouge is a textbook example of how to make quality, inexpensive California wine

How do you make a quality, $11 bottle of California wine? Check out the Michel-Schlumberger Maison Rouge:

• Screwcap, since you’re not trying to fool anyone into thinking this is a wine made to age.

• Light bottle with a minimal punt, so you’re not spending more money for glass than on the wine.

• California appellation, since the grapes are less expensive.

The result is the Michel-Schlumberger Maison Rouge 2017 ($11, purchased, 13.9%), a red blend from a top quality Sonoma producer that makes a second line of high-value, affordable wines. In fact, there’s a $30 version of this wine with a Sonoma appellation.

Unfortunately, I don’t see many of the second label wines in stores often enough. But when I do, I buy what I see. And buy it again.

This vintage of the Michel-Schlumberger Maison Rouge has rich, ripe, red fruit and soft tannins, and it’s likely more zinfandel than anything else. But the wine isn’t over the top or too ripe, in the way of some cheap red blends and zinfandels. Plus, the finish is just tart enough so the wine isn’t cloying.

Highly recommended. This is fall barbecue wine, and you can even chill it a touch.

Winebits 611: Cancer warnings and wine, weed teachers, and the future of craft beer

cancer warningsThis week’s wine news: Will wine bottles soon have a cigarette-like cancer warning? Plus teaching legal weed in college and the future of craft beer

Wine causes cancer? The cyber-ether was ablaze last week with the news that federal authorities may soon add a cigarette-like cancer warning to wine bottles. “More likely, [the health warning] will include a warning with the word cancer – no matter how weak the link is between cancer and moderate wine consumption.” Which, has been noted here many times, is so weak as to be almost no link at all. The wine business, if this happens, will have no one to blame but itself. It’s so preoccupied with selling overpriced wine to aging baby boomers than it hasn’t paid attention to anything else.

Call them budtenders: What do colleges in legal weed states do? Offer marijuana classes similar to the wine classes I taught at two colleges in the Dallas area, of course. Oakton College in suburban Chicago offers one of the classes, teaching its 100 students about molecular biology, drug laws and treating terminal illness. Says a student: “This is pretty intense.”

The future of craft beer: And it’s not necessarily bright, says Imbibe magazine. Craft beer evolved in response to Big Beer, but as it has grown in popularity, it has become more Big Beer-like, and many craft brands are now part of the biggest booze companies in the world. The article is long and little inside baseball, but it makes the point we’ve learned in wine. Consumers are fickle. Do something they don’t like, and they’ll go somewhere else.

Expensive wine 124: Beringer Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2008

Beringer private reserveThe Beringer private reserve cabernet shows off the style that made this kind of wine famous

The wine closet continues to offer surprises – witness the high-powered Beringer private reserve, a Napa red. This was a sample from the long ago recession, when producers were so eager to move product that they even sent pricey bottles to me.

The Beringer private reserve ($115, sample, 14.5%) has aged barely at all in that decade. It’s still a huge wine, with rich and luscious black fruit. I can’t even begin to imagine what it would have tasted like if I had opened it when I got it.

And, though the wine isn’t subtle, it’s not overpowering. The structure is round and supple, and if there aren’t layers of flavor, it’s much more than a one-note wine. There are very relaxed tannins hiding in the back, and all that fruit isn’t especially cloying. Despite the high alcohol, it’s not noticeable until you’ve finished the bottle. So it does need food as big as it is.

In this, it’s an excellent example of the style of Napa cabernet so beloved by critics who give points, retailers who use points to sell wine, and wine drinkers who buy wine according to price and points.

Chianti producers: We need to make our red wine more sweet

chianti producers

“These wines aren’t soft enough — let’s add sugar!”

Chianti producers are tinkering with 800 years of success to chase consumers who don’t exist

Chianti, perhaps the quintessential red wine – earthy, tart and oh so dry – is going to become more sweet. Why? Because Italy’s Chianti producers want “to sweeten its appeal to attract more women and a new generation of young consumers. …”

Is it any wonder the Wine Curmudgeon worries about the future of the wine business?

This approach is so pathetic on so many levels that I don’t even know where to begin to criticize it. Chianti is wine, not Hawaiian Punch or a rum and Coke. Why make it taste like something it isn’t?

More importantly, it works from a false premise: That women and younger consumers don’t like dry wines, don’t buy dry wines, and only want to drink sweet wines. Where do otherwise intelligent people (yes, this includes you, Bogle) get these ideas?

The world wine market is worth more than $300 billion, and almost all of that is dry wine. Why, suddenly, are those sales figures irrelevant?

Well, says the president of the group that represents Chianti makers, “When we participate in wine fairs in Brazil, America or in Asia, people often tell us Chianti is a great wine but too hard, with too much tannin.”

Ah, that’s it – anecdotes from other people who work in the wine business. Chianti producers are going to tinker with an eight-century success story because someone who sells wine told them what they heard from someone else who sells wine, who heard it from someone else who sells wine. Talk about hearing what you want to hear and disregarding the rest.

That’s an even worse reason to do something than a focus group.

The only good news in this is that the current legal residual sugar levels in Chianti are so low that the new, higher level is still less sweet than many California dry red wines. But that’s troubling, too, since the Chianti group president made the same point: ““It will still be a dry wine. The limit we have will be the same as other famous Italian wines like the Brunello and the Barolo. It won’t taste any sweeter.”

Methinks thou doth protest too much.

I wrote a guest piece for an Italian wine magazine in the blog’s early days; I was asked to offer my insight into the U.S. market and how Italian companies could continue to sell lots of wine here. Because, as the Italians never seem to remember, they sell more wine in the U.S. than any other foreign country.

I wrote: “Make Italian wines in Italy. Don’t make Italian wines that taste like they were made in France or California. What’s the point of that when people can buy French wines and California wines?”

I guess I need to find that piece and send it to the Chianti producers group.

Photo: “radda in chianti 012” by _gee_ is licensed under CC BY 2.0 

The sommelier cheating scandal just won’t go away

Podcast with Newsy journalist Mark Greenblatt: People are afraid to talk about what happened

Newsy website reports that sommelier cheating scandal may be part of more extensive problems at Court of Master Sommeliers

Remember last year’s sommelier cheating scandal, which grabbed the cyber-headlines and then mysteriously disappeared? The Newsy website reports that the scandal may be part of larger problems at the organization that oversees the master sommelier program.

“[S]everal current master sommeliers are going public for the first time by speaking to Newsy,” reports the website. “They have grown concerned about more ‘systemic’ problems plaguing the Court of Master Sommeliers, the nonprofit governing body that administers the group’s exams.”

The report – you can watch it in the video at the top of the post or read the transcript – outlines what appears to be an attempt to stonewall outsiders from finding out exactly what happened.  All we know is that someone gave the list of wines for the blind tasting portion of the test to at least one candidate, the results were then invalidated, and the sommelier group said all else was fine.

Since then, the court has revised its code of ethics to include a provision that would punish master sommeliers who criticized the organization: Newsy reports that the new code “warned of ‘disciplinary action’ for ‘any action or utterance’ by a master sommelier that ‘could be construed as detrimental’ to the Court’s good name.’ ”

Says one master sommelier in the report: “I took that as, you know, ‘Be quiet. Don’t question our authority or we’ll kick you out. There are some fundamental things that are wrong.”

None of this is surprising. I made a few phone calls in the aftermath of the scandal, and couldn’t even get anyone to talk off the record. They didn’t want to talk at all; as one well-known master sommelier told me, “I advised them to go public, and they ignored me. It’s their problem now.”

The reason for the group’s behavior is not surprising: money and power. As I wrote last year, “Sommelier-ing has become an industry in and of itself – movies, even. Sommeliers are the current rock stars of the wine business, perhaps even more quoted and revered than the celebrity winemakers who used to dominate the discussion.”

But the minute it looks like those MS initials are worthless, all of that collapses. So the court, according to the Newsy report, has done all it can to make sure no one finds out exactly what happened. And, if anyone does find out, to punish them for telling the rest of us.

It’s also not surprising that a Mainstream Media outlet had to pursue the story. There’s little incentive for the Winestream Media to follow up on the scandal. It has almost as much invested in turning sommeliers into rock stars as the sommeliers do. Who do you think put all these people on a pedestal in the first place?

Wine of the week: Cantia Cellaro Luma Grillo 2017

luma grilloThe 2017 version of the Luma grillo, an Italian white, is just as enjoyable and as delicious as the 2016 – and that’s saying something

Vintage difference is a good thing. What isn’t good is inconsistency from vintage to vintage, when quality appears and disappears seemingly at random. This is something that happens to wine at every price, a function of our post-modern wine world and its focus on price instead of value. So when you find a wine that shows vintage differences, but doesn’t show inconsistency, buy as much of it as possible. Which is the case with the Luma grillo.

The Luma grillo ($11, purchased, 12.5%) is a Sicilian white, and grillo is one of my favorite grapes. Grillo is a Sicilian specialty, and offers a welcome change from chardonnay and sauvignon blanc – not as rich as the former and not as tart at the latter. This vintage shows lemon and green apple fruit, and even some almond and spice. It’s exactly what grillo should taste like – balanced, interesting, and light but food friendly.

Highly recommended. This is a Hall of Fame wine and a candidate for the 2020 Cheap Wine of the Year, assuming availability isn’t a problem like it was with the equally wonderful 2016.

Imported by Gonzalez Bypass