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Sean P. Sullivan

2019 Tour Guide

Reviewed Wineries

On April Fool’s Day (coincidence?) Bloomberg writer John Mariani published an article titled, “Washington Wines Pack High Alcohol Wallop, Little Else.” Mariani notes in the article that his impressions came from a recent visit to Seattle, and he mentions about a dozen wines and brands, some of which he apparently tried on said visit.

Now let me just say in advance that I haven’t read other articles from Mariani, and it is unwise for any writer to draw sweeping conclusions from a fly-by visit and a small sample size (right?). However, I’ll play along and say from reading this article that Mariani appears to be one of the many writers who favors hit generating headlines over articles of substance (see what I did there?).

In terms of research for the article, the bulk of it seems to have come from not one but two quick trips – one to the Washington Wine Commission’s website for story details, such as 750 wineries, $3B, 13 approved appellations, varietal experimentation, etc., and the other a brief jaunt to Seattle where Mariani proceeds to proclaim the state of the industry over a few bottles and a veal chop noteworthy enough to warrant a subheading – though not the name of the restaurant.

Much of the writing in the article is breezy, disconnected, and quaint. For example, Mariani states, “Washington has always prided itself on intense, highly tannic, high-alcohol wines that show well in their youth but often lose brightness and complexity with age.” Umm, what?

Putting aside the present, look back even fifteen years let alone forty in the industry’s history and one will be hard pressed to find any wines that match that description, so the use of the word “always” seems odd here. Additionally, I’m not sure any winery anywhere would “pride itself” on wines that show well in their youth but not with age let alone an entire industry. But perhaps this is just sloppy writing (or editing), which brings me to…

Pictured at left in the article, Chaz Point – one of the wineries mentioned - is listed incorrectly as Chazz Point (unless that bottle shot is missing its second ‘z’!). Can’t say I’ve heard of them personally but Mariani liked the wine, so we’ll let that wine represent the industry, right? One of the paragraphs disparages a specific 2003 Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon but fails to even provide the winery’s name. Presumably, based on other things Mariani writes, it’s Quilceda Creek but the omission of the name seems unintentional.

Mariani writes, “Washington vintners have a knack for quirky names for their wines, like Boom Boom, Livewire and Jigsaw.” This seems an odd point to mention in a short article that says so little, especially since Washington does this no more than any other New World wine region. Perhaps it’s just another way to trivialize Washington wine but it seems trite. However, unless there’s a Washington winery using the Jigsaw moniker (in which case, lawyer up!), Jigsaw is an Oregon Pinot Noir from Ransom, not a Washington wine. Overall, errors and inaccuracies like these make the article seem specious and unbefitting of a outlet like Bloomberg.

Does Washington have an alcohol problem as Mariani posits? Yes and no. Yes, there are many wines from Washington where the alcohol (and oak) levels are higher than many people such as Mariani would like to see. But no, no more so than many New World (and even many Old World) wine regions. That is to say, it is a problem in some producers but not a uniquely Washington problem. This world-wide trend has been written about exhaustively over the last decade, perhaps even by the likes of Mariani himself.

It’s notable – but not noted by Mariani, however - that there are many producers in Washington and elsewhere that are bucking that trend. Washington has a growing and diverse wine industry where many winemakers are pouring their heart and souls into trying to create wines of distinction. Many of them are succeeding and are not making wines characterized by the broad strokes Mariani paints. They deserve better. To cast them all aside on the basis of a few bottles on a short visit is not just intellectually lazy, it’s a disservice to these wineries and to the entire industry, let alone to Bloomberg’s readers (and publisher).

Just as wineries shouldn’t be convinced that bolder is always better, writers shouldn’t either. Mariani’s readers would be better served by ratcheting down the attention grabbing headlines. Instead, offer articles of work and substance before making sweeping, potentially damaging proclamations about an entire industry. You wouldn’t, for example, want me to make faulty generalizations about the overall quality of Bloomberg based on one shoddy article would you?

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  1. Anonymous Says:
  2. 100% Agree Sean. The article painted with too broad of a brush and shows that not enough homework was done. Having done this myself, contacting 1 good local wine professional would have steered him into a whole different universe of experiences. Great to see several people comment so the article wouldn't stand unchallenged.

    Shawn Luke

  3. kevin Pogue Says:
  4. Agreed Sean - that was the most poorly researched and poorly written review of the state of Washington wine that I've ever had the displeasure to read. Thanks for taking the time to pen that classy evisceration of this bozo - if only he'd been half as thoughtful.

  5. For the record, Quilceda Creek's 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon carried a Washington appellation, not Columbia Valley. There was a lower-priced Columbia Valley red, very plush and over-the-top, and that might have been the wine misidentified in this misbegotten report.

  6. For the record, Quilceda Creek's 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon carried a Washington appellation, not Columbia Valley. There was a lower-priced Columbia Valley red, very plush and over-the-top, and that might have been the wine misidentified in this misbegotten report.

  7. I was surprised by the article myself, as I was in Seattle about the same time as Mariani, attended Taste Washington, tasted maybe, I don't know, 60 wines, and didn't consider that enough to make a sweeping statement about the state.

    Mariani's generalizations were just like those most tourists make: the food of Delhi is like this based on the three restaurants I visited. One expects a higher standard from Bloomberg than from most tourists. But let's just keep it as a data point for people who argue that blogs are not superior to print journalism. You couldn't get that article into Palate Press, but you can get it on the Bloomberg wire.

  8. Linda Murphy Says:
  9. Mariani is so off the wall here that at first I thought it was indeed an April Fool's piece. But he appears to be serious in his assessment of the state of Washington's wines ... and seriously misinformed.

  10. Santo Roman Says:
  11. Sorry Sean but I have to agree with the author. Wines from our state are loaded with NFO, high tannins and are usually hovering around 14.9-15.5% alc. Winemakers in our state have figured out that if they cannot get WS, WE or RP scores, they cannot sell wine. I've actually had a winemaker in my shop tell me that they need that 15.9% in order to hold up for the next ten years. Funny since the bottles of '79 Lafite were only at I believe 11.5% and from the 3 bottles I've had in the last year, they have held up just fine. This is one reason why my customers do not want to by WA orCA wines and why I only carry old world wines. Less oak, less alc and the wines are a hell of a lot cheaper. Even though author did not do his homework all they way, he brings up a good wa wines have to much alc, use to much oak and tannin heavy?

  12. As a Washington winemaker that has kept the lid on high alcohol for 28 years, I can tell you that if it isn't over 14% no one has heard of you!

  13. As I posted in the International Sommeliers Guild on LinkedIn, while I respect John Mariani, I totally disagree with his premise. I have been collecting, drinking and writing about Washington State wines (among others) for more than 10 years. He is painting every wine with a broad brush. Are there not hot, high alcohol wines in California?

    Just for the record, I have no horse in this race. I am a former Manhattanite, now living in Newport Beach, CA.

  14. Katie Sims Says:
  15. Bravo, Sean. Another example of your thoughtful commentary. Thank you, Katie Sims

  16. Anonymous Says:
  17. I, too thought this may have been an April's fool prank...
    Obviously Mr. Mariani suffered a self inflicted premature generalization.


  18. Darcey Small Says:
  19. While we can all debate the appropriate level of alcohol in various wines, the truth is that anyone in the business that believes that the alcohol stated on the label is always the real number is naive at best. Wineries can legally, and I bet that over 90% do, fudge the number up to a full 1% on wines 14% and over. So the wine labeled 14.2% can in reality be 15.2%. The Woodward wines discussed displayed the true alcohol on the labels which begs the question as to whether the comments would have been the same if the label showed them 1% lower. Comment what you will on a wine, but don't tie your wagon to the number on the label because it is pretty meaningless.

  20. Nice post, Sean. Thanks for writing a response to that absurd Bloomberg post. Cheers!

  21. ibglowin Says:
  22. Excellent response. The writer (if you could really call him that) really "phoned" that one in didn't he. Alcohols levels are going up all over the world these days and a lot of that has to do with the warmer world we are now living in so unless you want to dealcoholize your wine, pick fruit before its ripe or arrest the fermentation, higher ABV wines are here to stay for the forseeable future.

    I will just keep quietly snapping up all the best from WA state and making converts one by one using the only real way to sample new wines. By letting them evolve over a nice dinner with great friends and a few bottles of WA state wine on the table.


  23. Anonymous Says:
  24. Great post Sean. John Mariani is a writer who deals in generalizations and hyperbole. This works well in his normal column in GQ and in the reviews on his website. Bloomberg should be ashamed to have published this. However, if you were lucky enough to have had John has visit your restaurant, regardless of how the review went, you know the man is a buffoon. Coming from someone who was reviewed quite positively in a national publication...I would tell his PR firm "NO" the next time they call announcing a desire to visit...

    Focusing this conversation on alcohol levels gives both Mariani and Bloomberg a pass on this BS.

  25. Jeff Curry Says:
  26. Sean: A fly-by visit equals a fly-by post. Thank you for you comments and bringing this to our attention. We can all learn something from this piece i.e., it says a lot without saying much at all.

    Jeff Curry

  27. David Larsen Says:
  28. Great comeback Sean. I hope somebody at Bloomberg reads it and our comments. Mariani was obviously going for the attention-grabbing headline at the expense of getting his facts right.

  29. I agree with the majority of commenters here that Mr. Mariani did not write a particularly good article. Add to the list of reported flaws: his use (in the sixth paragraph above "One Dimensional") the word "then" instead of the correct "than", and under Veal Chop he speaks about "round levels of fruit". When a writer talks about round fruit, I know what he means, but can a level actually be round? I think not. But it was not the small nits that really irked me, it was the taste-by-numbers approach to his overview. His tasting premise seems to be high alcohol quoted on the label = bad wine. Alcohol is only one of the sensory factors exhibited in a wine and is a problem (either high or low) not of itself but only in relation to all of the other sensory factors. It is a question of balance. While I have not tasted Woodward Canyon's 2008 Old Vines nor Artist Series, I have drank numerous other vintages of their wine. Recently I had the 2007 Old Vines which was an absolute delight! I don't know what the stated alcohol was, I tend not to read those stats as I am much more interested in the sensory experience. That wine was outstanding and certainly not out of balance. In fact one of the factors that has drawn me to WA wines for the past 15 years is the balance that most do exhibit. It's Northern climate gives longer days and wider diurnal temperature swings which produce rich flavors balanced by good acidity.

    My tastes tend to lean toward older wines. Recently I have drank WA wines from the 1999, 2000 and 2001 vintages. Maybe it is because of their age but none were excessively tannic as Mr. Mariani has reported of the wines he tasted. I wonder how he would find a 5 year old classified growth Bordeaux if he thinks WA wines are tannic? Mr. Mariani is certainly entitled to his own opinions but not his own facts, as he seemed to want to report.

  30. PaulG Says:
  31. Very good comeback, Sean, and I totally agree. I cited a couple of other miscues in my blog today, but the entire Mariani piece could be easily dismantled as not only "breezy, disconnected and quaint" but also factually inaccurate, careless and intentionally damaging. It's entirely possible that Mariani did not write (or even see) the headline – editors often do the headline writing, and often do it poorly. But even so, the actual writing presumably was his, and to say he phoned it in is about as complimentary as anyone could be. Adding to this distressing bit of hyperbolic disinformation yesterday was the news that David Schildknecht has been knocked out of the job he had just barely begun. As you well know, a lot of people - media, winemakers, PR people, etc. – spent a lot of time and energy helping to get David quickly up to speed, and no one worked harder than David himself. It's another indication of how little regard the east coast writing establishment has for Washington wines.

  32. Dave Butner Says:
  33. To Santo Roman, proprietor of Rain City Wines in Bothell - setting aside the ignorance of Mr. Mariani, who is not a resident of our state, I find your comments even more ridiculous. Are you aware that there are close to 100 tasting rooms within a 5-10 minute radius of your store? If you have not found Washington State wines do not "have too much alc, use too much oak and tannin heavy" you simply have not tried. I completely understand if you want to stock your store with old world wines, but to make a blanket statement like that is simply ignorance, especially when you can find plenty if you tried right under your nose in your own backyard.

  34. I just posted an open letter to the editor there:

  35. David Lawson Says:
  36. I am as disappointed in Wine Business monthly's decision to to post such an article as I am with Mariani and Bloomberg.

  37. Agree, Sean. Poorly done.

  38. Agreed... lack of facts and sufficient data to pontificate on the subject. Wine from all regions can be high ABV, Bretty, "Over-Oaked" etc. I am a wine shop owner and retailer in Washington and taste lots of wine from all over the world. In my opinon, Washington wines have lots to offer to all palates. You just need to know what your customers want and steer them in that direction. I am in the business of selling wine to match my customer's palates so they have an enjoyable experience... not forcing my palate on my customers.


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