Last night’s tasting at U.C. Berkeley
The 60 students last night at the Haas School of Business, at the University of California, Berkeley, are young, gregarious and curious about everything. At the thresholds of their careers in banking, business, or whatever (I met one guy who wants to make his bundle, then start up a Napa Valley winery), they’re members of the Wine Club because they have fallen in love with wine. Justin Owen, the club’s president, has assembled the club nine times this year, with such guest speakers as Michael Mondavi, from Folio Fine Wine Partners, and some of the P.R. and marketing team from Kendall-Jackson. Obviously, the curiosity of these future MBAs extends beyond wine appreciation itself into the hard-core business side.
And then there are the critics, of which I was the only one to speak this year. After briefly introducing myself (although there were a number of students who remembered me from last year), I told the group we could talk about anything they wanted to. I was surprised–no, make that stunned–that nobody asked a single question about social media. This is the generation that supposedly lives on their mobile devices. I, myself, talked SM up, suggesting how it might be changing the face of wine writing and publishing in general; and, obviously, I would not have minded talking about this blog. It was bait I thought they would take–but no one did. They just frankly didn’t give a damn about blogs, Twitter, Facebook or anything else like that.
So what did they what to know about? “What’s it like to be a critic?” “What’s up with the 100-point system?” “How do you taste?” There remains a great mystique, among the public, concerning the critics, who, to hear people express themselves, are something of a priesthood, with all the priest’s mysterious wrappings and trappings.
I tried to dispel the air of mystery. I told them how I’ve always tried to bring the impenetrability surrounding critics down to the level of the average person. I explained how blogging had introduced me to the concept of transparency, and that a large part of transparency is ripping aside the curtain to reveal that the man inside the booth, working the levers, is not a Wizard, but a plain, sometimes perplexed person, who’s doing the best he can. I think they appreciated that; they smiled. It never hurts to reveal the common touch, and besides, it happens to be true.
We tasted two Tannats, from Joseph Swan and Cambiata, and two Charbonos, from Shypoke and Robert Foley. Charlie Olsen suggested I was crazy to expose young newbies to such obscure wines, but he was wrong: They’ve been tasting good to great Cabs and such all year at their meetings, and I wanted to tell them to open their minds to alternative varieties, especially when produced by small family wineries that have trouble getting distributed in the three-tiered system. I think they liked the wines. At least, they seemed to; at the end of the two hour session, all glasses were drained, all bottles empty. I, myself, had less than 3 ounces of wine.
One of the greatest pleasures of my job is interacting with audiences like last night’s. The critic often gets stuck in a bubble. You’re either at work, tasting wines in silence, or you’re on the road, tasting wine and talking about wine with winemakers or your fellow critics. It’s refreshing and important to get into the real world every now and then and see what people are thinking. Judging by these future MBAs–who admittedly may not be representative of their Millennial generation–the wine industry will find itself with willing buyers. They’re drinking Two-Buck Chuck now, literally, but in a few years they’ll be elevating themselves. That’s good, but I’m still really amazed at how little they cared about social media. What’s up with that?