“I know never to take a wine for granted. Drawing a cork is like attendance at a concert or at a play that one knows well, when there is all the uncertainty of no two performances ever being quite the same. That is why the French say, There are no good wines, only good bottles.”
This quote, from Gerald Asher, is pretty alarming, if you think about it: it means that you can take a bottle of whatever you think is the greatest wine in the world–I don’t care what it is, Romanée-Conti or Petrus or whatever–and be completely underwhelmed by it. How could this be?
The explanation is that wine is among the most psychologically complicated of all the world’s consumer products. By which I mean, subjectivity enters into your perception of it more than with anything else, with the possible exception of modern art. (The most subjective perception of things is, of course, a parent’s view of her child, but then, children are not consumer products.)
I’ve always been fascinated by the psychology of the enjoyment of high-end wine. I’ve tasted enough of the world’s most famous ones to assure you that there’s not that much of a difference between a fabulous, high-scoring wine and one that’s “merely” very good. The producers of fabulously expensive wines–in Napa Valley, Bordeaux or wherever–don’t want you to know this. They go to great lengths to prevent you from knowing it, and they go to equally great lengths to persuade the wealthy people who buy their wines that there really are quantum qualitative differences that justify their prices. And in this dual quest, they are aided and abetted by certain critics, in what we might call the producer-critic complex, in which both sides stand to gain by the perpetuation of the existing system. (I adapted this term from Pres. Eisenhower’s “military-industrial complex” remark in his Farewell Address.)
But really, most of the heavy lifting in this persuading is done by the buyers themselves. When they put so much money on the line, they have a psychological investment in finding the wine incredible. And, most of the time, they do. Notice I didn’t say the wine is incredible; I said they find it incredible. Big difference. In fact, what the wine is, is impossible to discern or define. The “thing in itself,” as Kant observed, is unknowable, because, even if it has a real nature, that nature is obscured in a welter of human expectations, thoughts, emotions, motives and conflicts.
This is precisely why alleged crooks like Rudi Kurniawan are able–for a time, at least, until they get caught–to get away with their counterfeit bottles. Even though the stuff being passed off as Romanée-Conti and de Vogüé obviously wasn’t, the suckers who bought it thought it was, because after all, (a) the labels said so and (b) they paid so much money for the bottles that their pride could not admit they’d been bamboozled. The kind of men (high-end “collectors” usually are male) who buy these rarified wines tend to have out-sized egos; they don’t suffer fools gladly, but neither do they suffer many intrusions into their inflated view of their own discernment. So Rudi was able to prey on them with their willing cooperation.
Thus we return to Gerald Asher’s wise dictum to “never take a wine for granted.” Each bottle in and of itself is a complete, indivisible reality. But, like all fragments of reality that we experience, it is nearly impossible to separate out what we, the perceiver, bring to the phenomenon, as opposed to what it is “in and of itself.” When I explain to wine novices how best to appreciate wine, the first thing I do is dissuade them from the stereotypes they’ve heard all their lives concerning “great wines.” There are no great wines, only great bottles. So lesson no. 1: Never take a wine for granted. Not a $700 one and not even a $7 one.
Am I part of the producer-critic complex? I have been. In this job, you can’t help but be part of something larger than yourself, unless you go entirely off the grid–in which case, my friends at UPS and FedEx couldn’t find me to deliver those samples. So, yes, I’m culpable. But I recognize it–I see the perniciousness that can result when critics who have given ultra-high scores to certain wines year in and year out feel that their reputations are on the line unless they continue doing so. What makes me different, I think, is that I give high scores to wines that aren’t on the A-list of cultdom, and so-so scores to wines that are. And the reason I do so is because in every case, they deserve them. Like Gerald Asher said, never take a wine for granted.
If you’ve been wondering just exactly what changes are afoot at the San Francisco Chronicle’s Food & Wine section, you won’t be any the wiser for reading this scoop Q&A with the paper’s managing editor, Audrey Cooper, which appeared late last week in San Francisco magazine’s online edition.
The news that the paper’s “Stand-Alone Food Section Faces Demise” hit the Bay Area like a lightning bolt last week when it was reported in the New York Times. The local Eater website picked up on it and headlined their article, “San Francisco Chronicle to Shut Down Its Food Section.”
Kudos to Audrey for giving the interview to San Francisco Magazine, even if her responses raised more questions than they answered. After all, we can’t really hold it against her if she, herself, doesn’t know what’s going to happen. I suspect that the Hearst Corporation, which owns the Chron, will have the final say in the eventual outcome.
What this story speaks to are two things: One, the ongoing evolution of print publications, with all their travails as they lose younger readers and advertisers; and the Bay Area’s absolute, unflinching need for a print publication of record that will deal intelligently and analytically with our food and wine culture.
Dealing with the latter point first: If you’ve ever been to San Francisco, its suburbs and nearby wine country, you know that the pleasures of eating and drinking are near and dear to our hearts. We tend to over-glamorize the expensive restaurants, like Meadowood, La Folie and Commis, but if they were all that the Bay Area had to lean on, our food culture would collapse. No, the truth is that it rests on a solid foundation of affordable, ethnic-based cuisine, ranging from Korean and Ethiopian to Vietnamese and Afghan, and probably a hundred others. Where do you think the city’s top chefs eat when all is said and done? They head over to some noodle joint.
So whatever happens at the Chron, Audrey (and her employers) understand full well that the paper’s readers expect continued coverage of the restaurant scene. That means the chief restaurant reviewer, Michael Bauer, isn’t going anywhere, and neither is Paolo Lucchesi, who writes the gossipy The Scoop (and whom I’ve invited to be on this blog numerous times, but he always turns me down. Come on, Paolo!).
And what of Jon Bonné and his wine reporting? Northern Californians recognize Jon as one of the most important and compelling voices in wine journalism and reviewing. I don’t always agree with his conclusions, but I read him avidly. In the Q&A with Audrey, the reporter didn’t ask anything about the wine section (I wish she had), but I can’t see anything bad happening to it or to Jon. There would be an uproar in San Francisco if the Chron diminished its wine coverage.
So this gets us back to the former point I made: that the story speaks to the ongoing evolution of print journalism. While Audrey’s answers were notable for non-specificity, she did mention advertisers twice, but in ways that are potentially troubling. For instance, she said that whatever changes are made, they will hopefully be “better for readers and for advertisers.” Of course, the meaning of the word “better” is different for those two groups, whose interests don’t necessarily coincide, and may sometimes collide (although the most important goal both advertisers and readers share is the Chron’s continued existence.) Along these lines, Audrey also said that before management makes any final decisions, there will be “a lot of…reader feedback [and] advertiser feedback.”
Here’s my advice to Audrey and senior management at the Chronicle. Let Jon be Jon, let Paolo be Paolo, let Michael be Michael. Shield them with all the power you can from feeling the pressures of advertising. This isn’t always easy for an editor, who, after all, reports to a publisher responsible for a bottom line; but it’s necessary in order for a paper to maintain its editorial integrity, and thus the trust of its readership. As for the Chronicle generating more revenue, I don’t know how to make that happen, but messing with the Food & Wine Section can’t possibly help. What corporations in America always should keep in mind is that cutbacks are double-edged swords: Yes, by eliminating staff and certain expenses you can save a little money. But you have to ask yourself what else you’re losing in the process. You don’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater, so to speak.
I couldn’t be more pleased by the California winners of Wine Enthusiast’s 2013 Wine Star Awards.
Barbara Banke is a natural for Wine Person of the Year. After Jess Jackson’s 2011 passing, Barbara stepped up to the plate to shepherd Kendall-Jackson to unprecedented new heights, not to mention the smaller wineries in the Jackson Family Wines stable. In my short article accompanying the announcement, I only begin to describe what Barbara has accomplished over the last two years. A classy lady leading a great company.
Rodney Strong Vineyards easily merits their selection as American Winery of the Year. They do such a great job, and the wines just keep getting better and better. They’re a fairly big winery, but the wines almost always taste artisanally hand-crafted. Rodney Strong’s commitment to Sonoma County’ fruit is admirable.
I’m particularly glad that Paso Robles is our Wine Region of the Year. Paso faced pretty tough competition (Douro, Rías Baixas, Stellenbosch, Walla Walla), and those were the finalists: in our actual meeting last summer to develop that list, even more famous wine regions were put forth by various editors. Paso emerged triumphant over all of them. Congratulations to everyone down there in this Central Coast appellation!
Last but not least there is Peter Mondavi, Sr., recipient of the magazine’s American Wine Legend Award. Who better to get that recognition than the 99-year old scion of the legendary Napa family of Mondavis, who to this day remains happily active at Charles Krug. It will be wonderful to see and hear him at the awards ceremony, in January. I can already see the audience of hundreds of dignitaries rising to their feet in thunderous applause when his name is called.
You know, in California there is such constant reinvention–new winemakers, new wineries, new wines–especially in Napa Valley that it can be easy to lose a sense of historical continuity, especially in the 140-character amnesia of Twitter. One day, a palatial new winery goes up. The next day sees the latest $300 Cabernet. The day after that comes a listing of Hottest New Winemakers Under 30. That’s all very well, but somebody has to make sure the train stays on the track. Peter Mondavi, Sr. is nonesuch: he remains a guiding inspiration in Napa Valley and has been for more decades than most of us have been alive. We ought to reflect more on the history of our great wine regions and personalities and understand how they got to where they are today, instead of being mesmerized by the latest this or that.
So my heartiest congratulations to all the winners, not just California but across the globe. I’ll see you in New York!
If I see one more report of a “global wine shortage,” I’m gonna hurl.
It all started with a report from Morgan Stanley, the big investment bank, that “Global wine consumption has been on the rise almost without interruption…since the late 1990s,” while at the same time, “World production hasn’t managed to keep pace.” Next thing you know, every news outlet in the world is screaming that the sky is falling. My in-box has been filled with such reports, thanks to Google Alerts. Here, for instance, and here, and here, and here.
The Morgan Stanley report went viral, instantly, but does it hold water? My first reaction, yesterday, was not to believe it: California, which still supplies the lion’s share of wine to the U.S., had its biggest crop ever in 2012, and 2013’s harvest apparently also will be a large one. (We don’t have the details until the Dept. of Food and Agriculture issues its Crush Report next year.) And, this just in: In Washingron State, the 2013 harvest will be the biggest ever.
My skepticism also was fueled by my increasing suspicion of “news” on the Internet. Reporters eager to file deadlines rush to embrace findings from “authoritative” sources, and Morgan Stanley certainly seems like an authoritative source, doesn’t it? And yet we’ve seen all too often how “authoritative sources”, including–gasp!–banks, sometimes get things wrong. (Ever hear of sub-prime mortgages?)
Then lo and behold, Thursday morning’s San Francisco Chronicle had a front page article in the print edition on the subject. The online version was headlined “Experts dismiss prediction of global wine shortage.” Here it is.
In it, the paper’s reporter, Stacy Finz, cited numerous people holding important positions in the wine trade, banking and analysis, each of whom said, in effect, that the Morgan Stanley report is twaddle. Go ahead, read Stacy’s article.
The dangers of mindlessly embracing every new report or study without subjecting it to proper journalistic scrutiny are obvious. A local ABC News affiliate in reaction to the report ran this online article suggesting that wine lovers “might want to start stockpiling your favorite bottles.” Forbes picked up on this and wondered if the looming “shortage” doesn’t “present a good investment opportunity.” Next thing you know, here’s the L.A. Times, parroting the warning: “You may want to start stocking up now.”
It’s like that old party game of telegraph, where one person whispers something in someone’s ear and then, ten people later, the message is total gibberish.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not disputing that there may be some upcoming shortage of wine in the future. Just last May, I blogged about similar reports that were surfacing about global shortages. However, as one of my esteemed commenters–the Hosemaster of Wine himself–wryly noted at that time, “isn’t there a shortage every ten years or so?”, the implication being that perhaps, just perhaps such dire predictions of shortages might benefit certain parties who stand to make more money if people start hoarding and prices rise. Who could such parties be? Hmm.
What troubles me about this latest feeding frenzy of media speculation is what has long bothered me about the Internet: “news” spreads virally around the globe and is routinely accepted as true by lazy reporters who then in turn are cited by even lazier bloggers, ad nauseum, until everybody believes it, except for the inconvenient fact that It may not be true. And if it’s not? Nobody’s going to come back in two years and accuse Morgan Stanley of getting their facts wrong. And even if someone did, I’m sure Morgan Stanley wouldn’t care.
I got miffed the other day at someone I love. We hadn’t seen each other in quite a while, and agreed to meet up in Oakland to catch up. No sooner had we kissed cheeks than she whipped out her iPhone and began fumbling with it.
I had thought that we’d chat for a while. “How are you? What’s new”–and do the real social thing, which is human interaction and communication. Instead, within 30 seconds of greeting each other, the lady was totally absorbed in trying to download a photo to her Facebook page.
Well, I took some umbrage at that. But what can you do? Fifty million Frenchmen can’t be wrong. Yesterday, I was having lunch with two young friends, both in their twenties, a prime demographic for living the online life. I laid out my case: People spend too much time gazing into blue screens, and not enough time in the real world, perceiving the things around them, making eye contact, talking to actual people instead of digital ones.
I was surprised that my two young friends agreed with me.
A few weeks ago, a man on a bus in San Francisco shot another man in the back, in what police called a random shooting. The victim died. This would be just another shocking case of senseless violence, except for this telltale fact: Although the shooter had raised and lowered his gun “several…times,” pointing it down the aisle of a crowded bus, no one on the packed bus reacted, or even saw it. Instead, “Their eyes, focused on smartphones and tablets, don’t lift until the gunman fires a bullet…”.
Their eyes could block out the reality around them, but their ears couldn’t. The San Francisco Chronicle, in reporting this troubling incident, headlined the article “Absorbed device users oblivious to danger.”
With all this fresh in my head, when I sat down at the computer yesterday morning, I found an online article through LinkedIn Today. The title, “Why Small Business Isn’t Winning on Social,” grabbed my attention, as a good headline should. I clicked on the link.
The article made some good, if hardly newsworthy, points: that lots of mom-and-pop businesses aren’t trying social media because they believe they can’t afford the time or the money. The author made the additional point that “many” social media consultants “can be dishonest about the realities of what they can do for their client,” which is something I’ve been saying about the social media consulting complex for years. (“Give me your money. I promise ROI!”) I thought it was pretty cool for the writer, who was obviously a proponent of social media, to admit that the field is riddled with fraud.
But my jaw dropped when, at the end of the article, the author came out and said the main problem with small businesses is that they don’t spend enough time at social media. He estimated it takes “a solid 9-10 hours a day of work”!!! I had to reread that. Didn’t he mean 9-10 hours a week? No, a day.
Can you imagine spending 9-10 hours a day doing social media? It’s impossible for me to wrap my head around that. How would it even be possible, with everything else that people do, such as working, commuting, eating, raising kids, walking the dog, reading a book, keeping up with the news, maintaining actual relationships with friends, working out at the gym, and, oh yes, sleeping?
The author has an answer for that: “You can always sleep a few hours less every week.” This, in a nation where “insufficient sleep is [already] a public health epidemic,” according to the Centers for Disease Control.
When I got to the end of the article, still gob-smacked and incredulous, I realized who had written it, and why. “You can find out more,” the author concluded, “at garyvaynerchuk.com.”
I was pleased to read yesterday that Wine Enthusiast is considered to be one of the two most influential wine magazines in America.
That’s the result of a survey taken by respected veteran market analyst, John Gillespie, who runs Wine Opinions, which describes itself as “the only Internet research organization devoted exclusively to wine.” (John also is President of the Wine Market Council. You may not have heard of it, but it’s a hugely important wine industry trade group whose Board of Directors includes Michael Mondavi, my friend Xavier Barlier of Maisons Marques & Domaines, Mel Dick of Southern Wine & Spirits, and the publisher of Wine Enthusiast Magazine, Adam Strum.)
There are several nuggets of interest buried in the Wine Opinions survey. Besides the obvious good news about Wine Enthusiast (which I don’t think is particularly surprising, as it’s been generally known in the industry for years), the other point John makes is that even more influential than any wine magazine or newsletter is “a wine knowledgeable friend” [or] sommelier.”
As an anecdotal example of this, John is quoted in the article as saying, “If you work at Binny’s [Beverage Depot] in Chicago and you have worked years to get [wine] certifications, and two people walk into your store and one leans into the other’s ear and says, ‘Buy that one,’ you’re finished. You can’t do your job. That must be frustrating.”
Indeed it must be. That’s the power of peer review, or word of mouth, whatever you want to call it. We all know that a friend’s recco is the strongest thing there is, particularly if the recommendee believes that the recommender knows what he’s talking about.
I do have a question, though. What percentage of wine do people buy based on a personal recommendation (from a friend or somm), as opposed to a score or review originally published in a magazine? I bet you it’s an extremely low percentage. I mean, Sure, if you walk into Binny’s with the guy in your office who’s known for his wine connoisseurship, and he tells you to buy bottle “x,” of course you’ll buy it, even if you see a bunch of shelf talkers touting 96 point wines, because he’s your friend, he means well, and his knowledge is far greater than yours.
But is every wine shopper accompanied by a trusted friend? I don’t think so. That’s not really how people shop. The way people really shop is to walk up and down the infamous Wall of Wine alone, trying to figure out what the heck to buy for dinner that night. There is no “wine knowledgeable friend” around. There’s not even a wine knowledgeable staff person around. The shopper is on her own, adrift in a sea of labels. As for buying on the advice of a sommelier, I do that whenever I eat at a nice restaurant. But I don’t eat out very often, and I suspect most other people don’t, either. Probably 90% of the wines people drink are at home, wines they themselves bought in a store.
This is precisely when the professional review has impact. The shopper may be aware of it through a shelf talker or bottle-necker, or perhaps an ad in the local newspaper. Scores and reviews are remarkably fungible things. Once they are born in a magazine or newsletter, they are apt to make their way around the world, through a variety of media and means, especially in our digital age.
So my feeling (not based on scientific research, obviously, but it makes sense) is that, while people might rate “the recommendation of a trusted friend” or a sommelier higher on a survey than “a score or review in a wine magazine or newsletter,” the majority of their wine purchases actually are influenced by scores and reviews. Which is just another way of saying that wine periodicals, including Wine Enthusiast, play a vital role in influencing wine buying patterns in the U.S.