WRO, l’Affaire Ojai, February, 2008

Adam Tolmach owns Ojai Winery, in California’s south Central Coast. He’s been making wine for more than 30 years, with significant stints at Zaca Mesa and a brief but important period as a partner with Au Bon Climat’s Jim Clendenen. He’s not new to the game, in short. He’s been around to see more than his share of innovations and trends, and evidently has given in to a few as well.

In October, just after harvest, Tolmach met with Los Angeles Times reporter Corie Brown to taste a few older vintages and to forecast what was, for him, a new direction for his wines and his approach to making them. In the course of the interview, Tolmach reported to Brown that he no longer drinks his own wines. “We lost our rudder when we went for ever bolder, riper flavors,” he said.  “We have to do the right thing. I’ve stopped drinking my own wines.”

Brown, like any good reporter, pursued this rather amazing statement. (Full disclosure: I am a freelance contributor to the LA Times, and Brown is a colleague.) What followed was one of the more intriguing articles about wine trends to have occurred in recent years, where a winemaker honestly admitted to losing his way, to succumbing to fashionable levels of extraction and alcohol in his red wines to the point that they no longer pleased him. His humble, thoughtful, contrite admission appeared in the article “Are California Wines over the Top?” in the Times food section on January 9th of this year.

I remember reading the story in the paper on the morning it appeared and thinking ‘Hot damn! It takes some serious cojones for Tolmach to say what he’s said. Good for him!’” I thought it was courageous, even heroic of him to admit that his focus as a winemaker had strayed. I thought, too, that it was probably useful for the wine community, and for consumers, to ponder the significance of his reversed course. Moreover Tolmach had given voice, very publicly, to what I supposed many winemakers have fretted over privately. I was hopeful that this public display might inspire others to consider the wisdom of his decision, and perhaps adopt it as well.

Within days, the blogosphere and the bulletin boards lit up with impassioned opinion about Tolmach’s stunning admission – the British wine magazine Decanter picked up the story on its website with an arresting, if not entirely accurate headline: “I won’t drink my own Parker-rated wines, says California winemaker.” Eric Asimov, the New York Times wine columnist, also devoted a blog entry about the dustup on his blog, thepour.com. Without meaning to, Tolmach was facing the scrutiny of the world.

All three venues generated dozens of posted comments and responses – nearly all of them supportive of Tolmach. Meanwhile on eRobertParker.com, one of the web’s most voluminous and vociferous online bulletin boards, discussions started to lather. “eBob,” as it’s known, is not directly affiliated with the Wine Advocate, Robert Parker’s journal of wine criticism, but it is where many of his devotees trade stories, opinions, tasting notes, rants and raves. Parker himself turns up on the site regularly.

Within days Tolmach’s statements – which never seemed more than personal and hard-won – became politicized. His decision was beginning to be characterized as dogma – one that directly challenged the wine preferences of many Wine Advocate devotees.

The comments started out rather innocently; a poster directed the board to the article, and with kudos for Tolmach for going to bat for his beliefs. A few others echoed his sentiments, though some wondered when the change in the wines had occurred – when did they go from ‘top’ to ‘over the top’ and when would they be going back? A fair question: Tolmach’s style, to my palate, has always been weighty, though usually his wines were supported by healthy acidity.

Eventually, the online discussion shifted into a defense of the styles Tolmach had forsworn. One poster suggested that a 15% alcohol can feel balanced in the right wine; another said, with evident sarcasm, that Tolmach was a great marksman, if he could make his wines for another man’s palate.  Some winemakers added to the fray by admitting they too have dialed back on their high-extract, high-alcohol winemaking, but one was careful to add: “none of my adjustments were dictated by reviews.” Another poster said, quite rightly I thought, that for Tolmach to change his style implies that those who like what he’s doing now must feel duped.

Finally things got a little nasty. One poster suggested if Tolmach wanted to make French wines, why didn’t he just move to France? Another posted that Tolmach had ‘a lot of balls’ to blame someone else for his mistakes (which wasn’t at all what Tolmach was doing, but whatever).

Suddenly, from out of the blue, Tolmach himself posted a statement on the board, a brief note that flatly disavowed his participation in the story! “I was misquoted,” wrote Tolmach, “and my statements utterly misconstrued in The Los Angeles Times article.” In the remainder of his post, he reasserted his commitment to balanced wines, and added comments that were entirely consistent with his published assertions: “Winemakers often wait a month after physiological maturity to pick,” he wrote.  “The resultant wines are monstrous alcoholic things with no acidity–and if they aren’t low in acidity and high in alcohol they clearly have been manipulated to the point that they have lost any personality.”

It appeared that Tolmach was contradicting himself. Was he coming clean or not? If he wasn’t, then why did he reassert his opposition to monstrous alcoholic things (even his own)? If he was, then what did he have to retract?

Postings on eBob erupted anew, as readers tried to process this stunning new bombshell. All of a sudden, Tolmach’s very clear, courageous message had been completely neutralized. Parker devotees seized upon the disavowal as a vindication, an attack defused.

“There is a nasty, snarky aspect to these arguments that is rooted in resentment, envy and arrogance,” wrote one poster. “I have no problem with anyone passionately presenting a position. I do have a problem when anyone resorts to name calling and insulting consumers.”

Finally Parker himself logged a post – one that mentions Tolmach only in passing; his real agenda took the form below:

I have NEVER met a wine-maker who made wine intentionally to try and please some preconceived and probably incorrect notion of what I like…if I did…I would have NO respect for them, and I seriously doubt they would be capable of ever succeeding in the wine-making profession…this is such nonsense and discredits a lot of creative and independent wine producers who may be happy I admire what they do, but first and foremost, follow their own vision of quality.

What does it mean when the world’s most influential wine critic refuses to acknowledge his influence? With documented cases of producers preparing super-ripe “Parker barrels,” with first year wineries rolling out Parker-pleasing indulgences in heavy-gauge bottles to mollify his palate, which are rewarded with out-of-the-box scores in the middle and upper stratosphere (and which can then command stratospheric prices), with wines all over the world trending toward the ripe style he favors, with correlations between fruit ripeness and his critical proclivities impossible to ignore, how can he expect us to take him seriously when he says that the notion of winemakers making wine to suit his palate is a “dirty, rotten, filthy urban myth”?

Who is he kidding?

I’ve got nothing against Mr. Parker personally; I have colleagues who work with him and find him congenial and his methods generally without flaw. And I applaud the recent changes he’s made with his critical staff, some of whom (like Germany, Austria, and Loire expert David Schildknecht) are some of the best and most balanced critics in their fields of expertise.

And Mr. Parker has been known to cast a very wide swath; that he praises Chave Hermitage and Mollydooker (a wine which a critic I know recently characterized as ‘glue mixed with jam’) suggests that his enthusiasms have a spectrum of sorts.

But please. This coy who? me?  stance is profoundly disingenuous, and it only reinforces the ill-formed opinions of so many of his followers who have adopted his palate preferences as their own. People can drink whatever the hell they want, as far as I’m concerned. But Parker’s vast influence and the blind devotion of his many subscribers has made the wine world a much less interesting place, precisely because that influence has steered winemaking into directions that are questionable at best, and frighteningly narrow-minded.

Poor Adam Tolmach. What started out as an honest, courageous admission has turned out to be neither.

Brown has issued a brief statement on these matters, but has otherwise kept silent, except to note that Tolmach has not written to the Times – the obvious first step to make if you’ve been misquoted or misinterpreted in a paper of record. If Tolmach had truly been wronged, it stands to reason he should seek a correction – that he hasn’t done so casts grave suspicion on his claim.

Meanwhile, any goodwill he may have earned from his admission has been effectively squandered through his retraction – and now the whole world knows he has no cojones at all.

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