A column with notes of obscure snarkiness
READERS: I’m in New York for Wine Enthusiast’s Wine Star Awards and editorial meetings. This is a repeat of a post I wrote in May, 2008, shortly after I began blogging.
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Badmouthing wine critics is a parlor game anyone can play. Why not? The first guy who talked about “legs” put a Mark of Cain on the rest of us for all time. Ever since then, we critic types have been walking around with a big target on our butts that says “Kick here.”
I’ve learned to laugh at it and roll with the punches, but every once in a while somebody says something snarky about me and my collegues that makes me want to defend our occupation of wine criticism. This time around, it’s a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, Joel Stein. Now, I don’t know Joel, and he didn’t mention me, or anyone else for that matter, although he did quote Gary Vaynerchuk, who name-dropped Jancis Robinson, Spectator and Parker.
Joel seems to cover the culture beat at the Times. His online biography says he’s appeared on Comedy Central’s “Reel Comedy” and E! Entertainment’s “101 Hottest Hot Hotties’ Hotness,” so I guess we should take him seriously.
The object of Joel’s ire (I hope he doesn’t mind my calling him by his first name) is winespeak. Like I said, this is always an easy one for a columnist to knock, especially one who’s on deadline and can’t come up with anything more germane.
Joel’s hard-hitting column gets right to the point. He likens people who talk about “notes of cherries, tobacco and rose petals” to “a whole lot of jackass. The language of sommeliers, winemakers, sellers and writers,” he goes on, “has devolved into nothing besides a long list of obscure smells that tells me nothing.”
Well, hold on a gosh-darned micro-minuto here. As one who’s used “cherries, tobacco and rose petals” to describe more than one wine over the years, I feel as if the Hand of Destiny has tapped me on the shoulder as the Poster Boy to stand up and defend us over-worked, underpaid, and too-often mocked Wine Writers!
Here are the hard, brutal facts, my friends. Wines really do have very complex aromas and flavors of flowers, herbs and fruits, and other things as well: spices, minerals, animals, vegetables, and organic chemicals. The reason for this is that there are thousands of different kinds of molecules in wine, and many of those molecules are found in flowers, herbs, fruits, etc.
Now, Joel says he doesn’t care about these aroma and flavors descriptors (although, obviously, a lot of people do). He says, “I want to know if a wine is rough, balanced, acidic, sweet, simple, tannic, soft, hot with alcohol, mineraly [sic], watery or has a long finish.” Well, the better critics I know (and I know many of them in the U.S.) do tell their readers these things, as a matter of routine. A critic can say a wine has notes of cherries, and also say it’s rough, or balanced, or tannic, or hot, or whatever. No mutual exclusion there!
Joel also quotes Vaynerchuk saying this about critics: “[T]here’s a lot of people who suck at communicating…Nobody has guts.” Well, I’ll drop the names of some wine critic friends of mine who have guts and are damned good communicators. Alan Goldfarb. Dan Berger. Steve Pitcher. Eric Asimov. Jim Gordon. Jim Laube. Karen MacNeil. Kathy Marks Hardesty. Wilfred Wong. Laurie Daniel. Alder Yarrow. Harvey Steiman. My colleagues at Wine Enthusiast: Roger Voss, Monica Larner, Paul Gregutt, Michael Schachner and Joe Czerwinski. And, ahem, me. I could go on and on. Maybe Joel Stein is a wine critic manqué. He wouldn’t be the first.
I think Joel just woke up on the wrong side of bed and was feeling a little meow. I forgive him. Next time I’m tasting a great Pinot Noir with notes of cherries, tobacco and rose petals — and maybe even hints of licorice, mocha and green tea — I’ll lift a glass to Joel. L’Chaim!