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Real wine-drinking countries don’t need wine critics

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Matt Kramer makes a good case about the difference between “enjoyment” and “assessment” of wine in his Dec. 15 Wine Spectator column—too good a case, for in describing the importance of “context” in wine appreciation, he carves out a huge exception for “truly great wines” in a way that is not entirely consistent with his argument.

Briefly, Matt’s argument runs thus: “Context is everything—or nearly so.” A humble little Tuscan wine that was so good in Florence is “a little thin” back home in the States. Port on a hot summer day just doesn’t work. A big Napa Cabernet that tasted so good at Farmstead can be “a little too strong” someplace else. Yes, “context” as such is of supreme importance in how we experience our wines.

The logical extension of this is that every wine is a product (or victim) of its context, and therefore, there is something fungible about our impressions of wine quality: it all depends on what Dr. Leary called “set and setting.” I can buy into that theory, although it does imply the (rather alarming) wrinkle that there is no such thing as objective quality.

This is dangerous territory for critics, who make their living by appraising quality. Matt senses this risk: he gets this close to affirming it, yet instinctively backs down or away at the last second. (Even his headline, “Context is [nearly] everything,” testifies to some inner wrestling with himself.) After telling us, correctly, how context trumps objective quality, he retreats to the following loophole big enough to drive a fleet of trucks through: “Obviously, this is not always the case—and certainly not for truly great wines…”.

Think about this statement. It states rather categorically that there is a subset of all wines, namely “truly great wines,” that is “protected” (or, in Matt’s exact words, “protect themselves”) from the context dilemma by virtue of their greatness—a sort of vinous nobility that is above the laws to which the rest of us ordinary mortals are subject. Matt, like wine writers throughout history, creates this exclusive carve-out and contrasts it with “lesser wines.” The former need no context to be appreciated, only the discerning powers of the critic. The latter can be appreciated—must be appreciated—only in context.

This is a very strange dualism. For one, if the world can be divided into “truly great wines” and everything else, who’s to say which camp any particular wine is assigned to? When the world of wine commentary was restricted to a mere handful of (white, male) critics, this was a simple matter. These men dined and drank at the same clubs and shared the same outlook. But that is no longer the case. As the stranglehold of the ancien régime loosens, so too, and inevitably, must our concepts of what makes for “truly great wines.” The Internet unleashed this genie on the world, and we have to live with, and adjust ourselves to, its destabilizing results.

But of course any critic who has made a career of curating wines into the “truly great” and everything else must hesitate before taking the enormous step of declaring that everything is context—even the evaluation of LaLas or Latour. I count myself among them. I am hugely reluctant to declare that wine quality is a myth perpetuated nowadays by a complicit media, and that everything is relative. For I know that everything is not relative. There are degrees of quality, and we in this business are expected to make distinctions.

At the same time, I’m aware of the fact that the way we hierarchize wine is changing. We may in fact be coming to a point where we abandon the notion of objective quality and come down instead on the side of “enjoyment,” as opposed to “assessment,” where the first duty of a wine is, not to garner praise from “experts,” but to please the person who buys it. I don’t expect this to occur in my lifetime, but we’re closer to it than we ever have been, for the simple reason that America is more of a wine-drinking country than it has ever been, and real wine-drinking countries don’t need critics to tell them what to drink.


What’s the different between “developing a strategy” for social media, versus just having fun?

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Every social media advice book or article tells wineries to “develop a strategy” but nobody ever explains what a strategy is, or why you need one. So thousands of responsible winery personnel are left scratching their heads wondering if their “strategy” really is a strategy, or just a tactic.

Tactics, as we know from war, can be successful, but are relatively mundane efforts which may not affect the war’s outcome. Strategies, on the other hand, are game-changers. In World War Two, the U.S. had many tactical victories in the Asian-Pacific theatre, but the strategical importance of the atomic bomb meant winning the war against Japan, not losing it.

I was never big on the concept of developing a strategy for social media because it seemed to me an exercise in silliness. What does it mean, anyway? How would you develop goals? And if you do, how do you measure them? How can you show the relationship between a desired outcome and any particular social media tactic? So I’m not sure that the use of these war metaphors, including strategies and tactics, is even appropriate. It makes social media seem so grim, which in reality social media should be fun and light-hearted.

This article, which reports that winemakers interviewed for a study “were not really sure what their strategy was,” comes, then, as no surprise. Winemakers are not trained to look at things that way; besides, they’re too busy to be developing strategies not directly tied to their main job, winemaking. The entire notion of a “strategy” implies grand, sweeping things, but few of us actually live our lives consciously planning grand, sweeping strategies. Mostly we hope for things, cross our fingers and do our best to make them come about.

The other thing the study, out of Australia, suggests is that consumers don’t want to feel like they’re the objects of some winery’s strategy, anyway. It makes them feel like laboratory rats or guinea pigs, just some subservient factor in a grand strategist’s game. That’s not how people want to feel. They want to feel cherished—as the article states, when they go to a winery’s social media, they want “something more personal and human, not a mass marketing message about buying the wine.”

Ever since the whole social media phenomenon gained traction in the wine world as a possible way of driving sales and customer loyalty, I’ve been in the same position as Queen Elizabeth, whose role in Britain’s political life is restricted to only three areas: “to be consulted, to encourage and to warn her ministers.” I’ve tried to warn wineries not to be heavy-handed online, not to rush the consumer and clobber her over the head with a blatant sales pitch, not to view social media as the digital equivalent of a cash register—a tool only for venal ends. My attitude has been, your first duty in using social media is to have fun and enjoy yourself. If that somehow leads to more loyal customers and increased sales, it’s frosting on the cake. But even if it doesn’t, it’s still cake.

I’ve also said that posts don’t even have to be about wine. “[Consumers] are actually quite comfortable with seeing posts that might not necessarily be related to their wine or wine in general,” the study’s author concluded. What social media has enabled is a general de-mobilization of humankind. This is a grandiose statement but what I mean is that it is smashing down the barriers (nationality, age, physical location, etc.) that historically always divided us and is instead emphasizing our shared human-ness. It is almost a betrayal of trust to use social media in an insincere way. It’s also a losing proposition, because insincerity comes across really clearly on social media.

But so does a good attitude. It may be odd that we’ve reached a point where people are more willing to buy things from people they like and trust but whom they know only online. In fact, it is odd, if you think about it. But it’s also what it is: so my two cents remains what it always has been: Don’t overthink social media. Don’t be persuaded by “experts” that you need a “strategy” or otherwise it’s all a big waste of time. The worst way to waste your time is to spend it on doing social media things you personally don’t care for. Is that why you got into the wine business?


On those mega “wine rooms” that are so popular out there

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I myself don’t have a “wine room,” as these new mega-cellars are being called. In fact, Mr. Casimano’s “wine room” is bigger than my entire condo! I do rent space at K&L Wine Merchants for some bottles, and I have one of those 120-bottle Eurocaves, but that’s about it. I never did see the sense of piling up a vast collection of wines the majority of which I’d never be able to drink in my lifetime.

That was the situation in which many of the wealthy men whom I met over the years found themselves. They had 50,000, 100,000, 250,000 bottle cellars full of rare and expensive wines, the collecting of which seemed to me to be the symptom of some sort of hoarding mentality, like those cat ladies with 100 felines wandering around a one-bedroom apartment. I used to hear stories of these gentlemen. Eventually, most of them auctioned off their collections, which raised the question: Did they buy them with the intention of aging and enjoying them, or were they investments in the first place?

The concept of “wine as investment” always rubbed me the wrong way. Maybe it was the romantic in me: Wine was the complete opposite of a stock certificate. How could you reduce wine to a commodity that might or might not appreciate in value? Didn’t that take all the love, passion and artistry out of it? For me, it did. There was a point, back in the ‘90s, when I briefly considered buying some First Growths for investment, just as I was day trading at Schwab; but reason soon was restored to my senses, and I refrained.

It was due to my experiences early in my wine writing career, working for a magazine that catered to high-end collectors, that I came to harbor some downbeat feelings about that segment of our wine community. Too many of them were buying wine to out-do their friends in the show-off game. Oh, the stories I could tell (and have told, if you care to wade through my older posts). I felt one could be a good critic while decrying the tendency on the part of some to slavishly label-shop the latest critical darling. What about all the honest, good vins ordinaires of the world, the kind I, and everybody else I knew, drank happily on a day-to-day basis? Was there no room for them at the inn?

Of course there was, and is. But this in turn raises the inevitable question of wine scores and reviews. No matter what system you use—100 points, stars, puffs, 20 points—wine reviewing is a comparative practice: It pits wines against each other, in a sort of sporting or beauty contest, and claims that some wines are better than others. This is certainly true: some are; and some are a lot better than others. To experience a great wine is indeed a memorable experience.

But why does that lead, in some cases, to this relentless piling up of collections? I scratch my head. At some point, having too much wine is like having too much of anything: you get jaded. Scarcity is the mother of appreciation: if you don’t have much of something, you love it all the more when it comes your way. Or so it seems to me.


Those Parker scores: Score inflation?

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Quite a lot of buzz in the brouhaha-sphere over all the perfect 100s Parker have been bestowing lately. This time the commentary is from Narsai David, the food and wine critic for our local KCBS radio affiliate in San Francisco, and an old acquaintance.

The most common reaction in the commentariat has been to use the word “exponential” or a variant of it to describe the increase in Parker 100s. Wine-Searcher used it last Wednesday (“the list is growing with exponential speed”), while Narsai’s phrasing elevated the adjective to adverbial status (“this number has grown exponentially in recent years”). This naturally all gets picked up and echoed on social media; Terroirst blog quoted the Wine-Searcher article, while Narsai’s column also was reprinted, as for instance here, at the Daily Meal.

First, the numbers: As Narsai writes, Wine Advocate has given a perfect score to a total of 511 wines, but this number has grown exponentially in recent years. Just five years ago, only 69 wines scored 100 ‘Parker Points’ and in 2004, the number of perfect bottles was only 17. Narsai calls this rapid increase in 100s “a little troubling,” because it implies (to Narsai, anyway) wines that are higher in alcohol than some vintners who are “trying to satisfy Parker” would prefer, thereby leaving them in “a real quandary.”

[Fantasy segue: A conversation between a winemaker and her priest-confessor:

Winemaker: “Father, I would like to keep the alcohol-by-volume on my Cabernet under 14%, but then it would never get a hundred points from Parker.”

Priest-confessor: “My daughter, wherein lies your heart?”

Winemaker: “That’s the problem. I have expenses…”.

Priest-confessor: “You are in a real quandary.”

The word “quandary” derives from the Latin, and means “a state of uncertainty.” American Presidents routinely find themselves in quandaries during crises. Lincoln was in one after the Confederates seized Fort Sumter: Should he abandon it, or fight for it, thus starting a Civil War? FDR, a great Lincoln scholar, similarly faced a quandary after Britain declared war on Germany for invading Poland, in September, 1939. Should he support Britain with materiel, even though he had an election coming up, and the majority of the country was isolationist? And yet a winemaker’s “quandary” can hardly be in the same category as either Lincoln’s or FDR’s.]

The conventional wisdom is that the pace of 100s has picked up because, as Narsai observes, “wine [technology] production in the last 25 years has really improved.” That’s undeniable. We also have had, here in California, a series of excellent vintages. My own company, Jackson Family Wines, has certainly enjoyed Parker’s largesse: perfect 100s for Lokoya and Verite (multiple times), which puts them in the company they deserve: Colgin, Dalla Valle, Harlan, Screaming Eagle and Hundred Acre, among others in California. (Here’s a list of all Parker’s 100s.)

I’ve always said that, when it comes to 100-point wines, critics should be either remarkably stingy or generous. I was the former; Parker is the latter. There is intellectual support for both positions, but not for the muddy middle. To be stingy implies that perfect wines are so rare that the awarding of 100 point scores must necessarily be limited as is, for instance, the giving of the Congressional Medal of Honor. To be generous means that, once you have stipulated that perfection exists, you have to recognize that it’s more widespread than commonly thought. Both of these positions are sound. The muddy middle makes it seem like the critic who straddles the fence is simply indecisive.

So, to answer my question, Do all those Parker scores indicate score inflation? No. They suggest that wine really is better than ever, and, in California’s case, the meaning is clear: We are world class. No ands, ifs or buts about it. If certain critics can’t see that, they had best remove the beam from their eye.

 

 

 

 

 


Lots of wine books, not very many good ones

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As the author of two tomes on California wine, I know full well how short the lifespan is of a book. They come and go with the regularity of coastal fog, drifting in and out of existence. Some, because of the peculiarities of the media ritual of book reviewing, are more persistent than others. For example, anything Eric Asimov reviews and raves about can be counted to have a longer shelf life—say, a couple of months—than others. But 98 percent of wine books are destined, in my humble but experienced opinion, to evaporate quickly, finding their way into the remainders bin at the local bookstore within one month—if, that is, the local bookstore hasn’t yet gone out of business.

Why most wine books have such a short shelf life is not hard to discern: it’s because they’re ephemeral. They’re reflective of moments in time, or perhaps moments in the zeitgeist is more appropriate. But in grasping the immediate here-and-now they fail to grapple with larger, long-term issues, the ones that really matter to both history and to the people who must live through the unfolding process of history, which happens to be us all.

Actually, I’m luckier than many wine book writers, in that my two—A Wine Journey along the Russian River and New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversations with Steve Heimoff, continue to sell well, despite being ten and six years old, respectively. I’m nowhere in Jancis Robinson’s league, though, much less Karen MacNeil’s, whose “The Wine Bible” will survive the next nuclear holocaust and asteroid-Earth collision, combined. But my books sell tolerably well, which satisfies me.

It’s hard to write a book because it takes a ton of organization and research. But it can be done by anyone with enough time and skills of literacy. (Actually, a great many wine books, especially those little pocket guidebooks, aren’t written by the famous authors on the cover. They hire anonymous writers and pay them, say, 20 cents a word, or $2 a review, although the reader would have no way of knowing that.)

It is, though, even harder to write a good wine book, not only because it’s always harder to do something well than mediocrely, but because in order to write something penetrating and long-lasting you really must have your eye and mind firmly set on the long span of history, which means you must understand history and, most importantly, be objective enough to let history do its own thing, rather than seek to impose your own will and conditions upon it. Some books claim to have identified historical trends, but as the immortal baseball manager and existentialist philosopher, Casey Stengel, warned, “Never make predictions, especially about the future.” The psychologist and Nobel economics laureate Daniel Kahneman expanded on this: “Most successful pundits are selected for being opinionated, because it’s interesting, and the penalties for incorrect predictions are negligible. You can make predictions, and a year later people won’t remember them.

We see this latter insight keenly illustrated when it comes to vintage prognostications. More wine writers have gotten them wrong, over the years, than they’ve gotten anything else wrong, or right for that matter; but no one has ever called a wine writer to account for a bogus vintage declaration, and probably no one ever will, for the simple reason that people have better and more useful things to do with their lives than busting an incorrect vintage assessment, twenty years after it was issued.

Here are some of the wine books that I’ve read over the past few years that I love and that are classics. Get them if you can:

  • What Price Bordeaux? Benjamin Lewin, M.W.
  • In Search of Pinor Noir: Benjamin Lewin, M.W.
  • Postmodern Winemaking: Clark Smith
  • Claret & Cabs: Benjamin Lewin, M.W.
  • Secrets of the Sommeliers: Rajat Parr and Jordan Mackay

I wish I’d written them all, but I couldn’t have, any more than Benjamin or Jordan or Raj could have written “A Wine Journey along the Russian River.” A good wine book reflects the writer’s personality, judgment and insight. Remove any of those factors, and the book is not so good. By the way, I don’t know Benjamin Lewin, M.W., and I profit in no way by recommending his books so strongly. He’s just a damn great writer.


A nation that twitters together fritters together

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This scares me: “Calvin Lee, a graphic designer, is a massive tweeter. ‘I really can’t stop,’ he joked. In Twitterland, Lee has become a rock star. ‘I’ve gone through life wondering what my ‘thing’ would be. I believe I’ve found it.’ Lee describes himself as a ‘social media ho. I tweet at least 200 times a day.’ He has been quite successful, amassing nearly 80,000 followers. ‘I was not very popular in high school,’ Lee says, ‘but now I’m like the big jock on campus.’ Lee’s growing influence has won him celebrity-status perks. In addition to a free Virgin Airlines flight to Toronto, brands have reached out to him and provided

  • a brand new Audi A8 to test drive for a week
  • hundreds of dollars in gift cards
  • a pass to a House of Blues VIP event
  • a free Samsung Focus smartphone
  • flight, hotel and meals to attend an exclusive conference
  • eight passes to the VH1 Do Something Awards

“Anybody has a chance to experience life on the other side of the velvet rope. Anyone who is willing to work for it…can have true celebrity status and all the associated perks.”

The writer of all this is Mark W. Schaefer, whom I met while we were both on a recent panel. This quotes are from his new book, “Return on Influence: The Revolutionary Power of Klout, Social Scoring, and Influence Marketing.”

[I edited the above remarks for brevity.]

I suppose if I were looking for the poster child of what I consider the dark side of social media, it would be this. Not Calvin Lee so much: he seems like a nice, ordinary dude who’s enjoying his cool new freebies. No, it would be Mr. Schaefer, who celebrates Mr. Lee’s “accomplishments” as though they were right up there with achieving something real and lasting and contributory to society, not to mention providing Mr. Lee with an actual living.

I don’t gainsay Mr. Lee having his fun. I understand the world of swag. I don’t think I ever did anything egregious, but heaven knows I’ve had some freebies in my day. However, two points: (a) I never exulted over them, nor considered them my ‘thing,’ and (b) I always understood they were irrelevant from the point of view of making a living. Test-driving an Audi and going to the House of Blues are fun, I suppose, but at the end of the day, I still need a paycheck to pay the bills. So what exactly does “being a tremendous success at social media and having a high Klout score” really mean to a person’s life? Maybe Mr. Lee has found his ‘thing,’ and that’s fine, if by ‘thing’ he means a hobby, like following the San Jose Sharks or collecting Pez containers. Everybody should have a nice, interesting hobby.

But to treat this kind of addiction to social media—especially if it’s fueled by the hope of getting free stuff—as an admirable goal for a young person, is troubling. This is not something I think young people should view as an attractive potential way of making a living or spending one’s time; nor do I think it’s healthy for the larger society. In fact, it can be downright detrimental to making a living. If you work in an office, can you really tweet 200 times a day (not to mention all the other online activities you’re probably engaged in) without your co-workers feeling some resentment that they’re carrying your work load? Wouldn’t your boss object? How would you concentrate on your work, anyway? I don’t know Mr. Lee, but he seems like one of the people I see on the sidewalks of Oakland or San Francisco coming towards me with their heads down, eyes fixed on their smartphones: I’m the one who has to get out of the way to avoid a bodily collision.

I don’t mean to entirely disparage Mr. Schaefer’s thesis that an “epidemic of influence” by a new group of “Citizen Influencers” has the capability of reshaping our society in certain admirable ways. I love it that the street demonstrations in Tahrir Square, tweeted around the world, helped topple an ossified government in Egypt, or that instant “citizen reporting” from disaster zones informs people what’s happening before the mainstream media even knows it. When Occupy Oakland was at its peak, I was in the middle of it, tweeting like mad, and people were thanking me for giving them the news before they got it anyplace else. I love staying in touch with my family and friends online, anytime, anywhere. I’m glad social media is in my life.

But we’re talking about apples and oranges. There is a positive, plus side to Twitter and a side that should concern us all, when it turns into the mindless addiction to constant tweeting with the expectation of “celebrity perks” that, in the end, are worthless from a moral, family and human perspective. Is crashing the “velvet rope” to some kind of faux-“celebrity status” really what Millennials aspire to? If Mr. Lee reads this, I hope you find a “thing” that’s more productive and lastingly satisfying than tweeting 200 times a day. It may mean less swag, but it could lead to a fuller life and a better job, and you might even discover that your neighbors are real people worth knowing.


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