Day 2 at the Wine Writers Symposium
Eric Asimov and Karen MacNeil had a panel on “Sensory Analysis vs. Wine Reviews” in which Eric reprised an earlier topic about “the tyranny of the tasting note.” He calls tasting notes “pernicious” because it makes wine seem “unambiguous,” which it isn’t, and “rips the heart of out its mystery.” Well, yes…and no. Yes, because it’s awfully hard to summarize the experience of a wine in words. No, because if you’re reviewing a wine, you have to say something, so all you can do is your best. That is, after all, what writing is all about: doing your best.
Eric is right on about the laundry lists of descriptors many critics use. It’s too often pretentious, precious and downright silly, all those olalaberries and grilled asphalt and so on. I myself have vastly simplified my metaphors over the years, and moved more toward writing about balance, structure and elegance (or the lack thereof). My problem with some young bloggers is that they’re going back to the use of obscure fruits, flowers etc. Maybe they have to; maybe that’s something the novice wine writer has to do.
Earlier, my old colleague Jeff Morgan had a panel called “What wine writers need to know about wine” that was particularly welcome, I’m sure, by all us writers. There’s been much discussion, including here on my blog, about how much technical knowledge a wine writer should have. A little? A lot? Obviously, some knowledge is desirable, but I’ve always thought a lot is unnecessary and can even be a hindrance. A move critic doesn’t need to know all about digital film technology or lighting manufacturers or Dolby sound. If technical knowledge made for a better wine critic, the best of them would be viticulture and enology professors — which is patently not the case.
Jeff raised the question of watering back wines or musts to combat high alcohol — which he said 80% of Napa vintners routinely do. He said although this actually improves the wines, the winemakers are loathe to admit to writers that they do it. “It’s because some powerful columnists lambast anything they perceive as interventionist, and the public buys into that,” I said. Jeff, or course, agreed. I personally am not bothered by so-called “interventions” to make better wine. Everything about winemaking is interventionist. It’s a bogus controversy ginned up by some writers who don’t actually have to make wine themselves. If a winemaker waters down, or acidulates, or sulfurs, or uses R.O. — whatever — who cares, as long as the wine is good? So next time you read a critic ranting about “intervention,” understand he’s just looking to pick a fight.
Later that day, we did a blind tasting of 5 Napa reds with Ms. MacNeil and I completely wiped out. We all did. I don’t necessarily feel bad abut guessing Barbera when the wine was an old field blend, and so on. The important thing in these useful exercises is for your logic, your deductive process to be correct. I understand that in the M.W. tests they don’t care if you guess the wine correctly, they want to know that your reasoning was accurate.
In the evening Bill Harlan hosted a few of us for drinks, and then it was on to the Restaurant at Meadowood. The food was obviously great but for me the highlight was sitting (and drinking) with Eric Asimov and Alder Yarrow, both of whom I got to know much better than ever. Such smart guys, so savvy and brilliant in their own unique ways. Easy to see why they’re both where they are in their blog careers. We had what easily was the greatest conversation about blogging, social media and where it’s all going that I’ve ever had. (And I was so pleased to discover that Eric and I share a martial arts education.) Now, this morning, it’s on to the two big panels, Alder’s on Monetizing your new media writing (which I’m on) and mine on Wine writers, ethics and income streams. This is going to be hot stuff. I’ll report tomorrow.