When is a “big brand” not a big brand? Is Apple a “big brand”? Sure it is, but everyone loves it. We don’t hear complaints about Apple not being “craft” enough to satisfy the most demanding of users. Somehow, Apple has managed to be a financial behemoth while still retaining the allure of the brilliance of the garagiste creativity that the two Steves, Wozniak and Jobs, embodied.
I think about such things because for a long time I’ve thought that some critics and tastemakers celebrate “small” for the hell of it, and by the same token bash “big” because they think anything big has to be corporate junk. Well, as I just tried to point out, Apple lends the lie to such thinking. Now, I get paid by a big wine company, Jackson Family Wines, that occasionally comes under criticism from some gatekeepers who say that a big wine company can’t produce fine artisanal wine. I think you know where I stand on that. Then I read this article in The Spirits Business talking about Diageo’s contention that consumers are not necessarily rejecting spirits produced by big companies (such as Diageo) just because they’re produced by big companies! Diageo makes such spirit brands as Barterhouse, Old Blowhard [love that name] and Lost Prophet which, I suppose, their marketing people want customers to think are made in a garage by a couple of bearded wild guys who take no prisoners and insist on the most artisanal processes, which, to judge by the impression I get from the coverage of wineries, breweries and spirit producers in magazines like The Tasting Panel, is all the rage these days among Millennials who insist on “authenticity.” The designation “craft,” whatever that means, seems to imply just this sort of little guy David fighting against the gigantic monster of corporate Goliaths. What Diageo replied is this, in the words of their CFO: “I don’t think Millennials are that bothered [about craft labels], but they do want authenticity. I do not see people rejecting big.”
Nor do I. Purists and ideologues might reject “big” for its own sake; consumers clearly don’t. A “big” wine company can also produce limited-quantity “artisanal” wines; what’s so intellectually indefensible about that? This raises the question of “transparency” which, alongside “authenticity,” is one of the two reigning monarchs of our marketing era. If somebody buys Old Blowhard, do they know it’s from Diageo, which also owns Smirnoff, Tanqueray, and Ketel One? I don’t know and I don’t care. What should Diageo do, put a giant skull and bones warning label on the bottle and say, “Beware, this is from Diageo”? If consumers care about such things, they can find out anything they want to know about anything in about 30 seconds using the Google machine. But most people want simply something great to drink that they can afford.
Which leaves us with the definition of “authenticity,” as used by Diageo’s CFO. What is “authenticity”? I don’t know. Do you? I like this quote from a Diageo guy who works on the spirits side: “As for what is or isn’t a ‘craft spirit’, that’s up for debate… not all small distilleries are craft, and not all craft distilleries are small.”
Amen. I’ve had awful wines made by tiny little producers. I’ve had fabulous wines made by wineries owned by giant corporations. I think this distinction between “artisanal” and everything else is a fabrication concocted by some people with agendas, and picked up by a gullible media looking for something cool to write about.
I want to revert to a topic I wrote about last week, inspired by Jim Laube in his July 31 column in Wine Spectator. I talked about the 100-point system, but today, my imagination was sparked by a comment from a reader, who quoted something else Jim said, and then asked for my opinion on it.
Jim said: “There are Pinot Noirs grown elsewhere [i.e., other than Burgundy] that compare favorably with La Tache…”. My reader then asked me if I know what some of these other Pinots might be, since he’ll never be able to afford La Tache, and presumably wants to know what he’s missing.
My immediate impression was that the guy who asked me the question seemed to think that Jim Laube was saying that there are some Pinot Noirs that are just like La Tache. Of course, Jim’s statement is somewhat ambiguous; like a Rorschach test, you can interpret it as meaning different things. To me, Jim is not saying that there are Pinots that are a carbon copy of La Tache. I don’t think he’s implying that some Pinots have the same body as La Tache, or a similar perfume, or similar flavors or finishes or ageworthiness. There might be some Pinots that possess those qualities, but there might be some that are quite different, and yet, in their own way, are as excellent. So I think what Jim was doing is something fundamentally radical—and with which I agree: suggesting that La Tache, fabled as it is alongside Romanée-Conti as one of the greatest Pinot Noirs on earth, is not quite as objectively fabulous or unique as everybody makes it out to be.
Well, if that was Jim’s point, bravo. It has to be said. Every ivory tower in the world is coming down, from those of Middle East dictators to the ones inhabited by super-critics, so why should the ivory towers of “the world’s greatest wines” not similarly topple? I ask you, my readers, who are among the most discerning wine people anywhere: can you truly say that Yquem is the greatest sweet white wine, that Latour is the greatest Cabernet blend, that La Tache is the greatest Pinot Noir, or whatever? (You can substitute any of these wines with something else you think is a classic.) I don’t think you can, but chances are you accept the notion that there are (as Jim writes) “classic[s] of the past and of the present” because you assume that famous wine critics have far more experience and knowledge than you do, and therefore there must be classics, because they say so.
What if I told you that famous wine critics are just as susceptible to falling for the conventional wisdom as you are? That famous wine critics have the same uncertainties and doubts, the same fear of looking silly, the same desire to be seen as correct? Indeed, why would they not? Famous wine critics are only human—people with jobs and careers to protect. The only difference between them and you is that they have to publish, which means their words live forever, and so they had better be careful not to put into print something that will come back to bite them in the rear end.
I’ve tried for years to demolish the old concept that the world’s most famous (and expensive) wines are necessarily the world’s best wines. It’s very difficult to get this idea through to people, because once an idea is enshrined in the popular mind, it’s almost impossible to dislodge. We have these super-myths that we accept as true because they’ve been repeated so many times, and so authoritatively, that we feel they must be true. (Example: I love the exalted status we give America’s founding fathers, as though they were angels sent from Heaven to bestow a divinely ordained Constitution upon us. I know a lot about this topic because reading about it is one of my hobbies. The founding fathers were no saints. They quarreled amongst themselves as fiercely, and with as much invective, as any Republican and Democrat today. They harbored almost violent opinions about those who disagreed with them. The Constitution—far from being a divinely perfect instrument, handed down by God on Mount Sinai—was the result of months of bitter compromise achieved with great difficulty during the sweltering summer of 1787 in Philadelphia. And yet Americans continue to believe that it was the product of some choir-gathering of wise men who sang Kumbaya and midwifed this miraculous document. By the way, our Constitution is a fabulous contract; it’s just that, as a people, we don’t remember how all-too-human was the system that produced it.)
In the same way, we harbor this notion that the classic wines are the epitome of perfection. They may be perfect, in their own ways, in great vintages; but they are hardly the greatest wines on earth. This is the thing I wanted to communicate to my reader who asked for my “anything but La Tache” recommendations. Put out of your head the notion that La Tache will blow your mind and transport you to heaven while something you can find in your own home town won’t. You cannot, and will not be able to, appreciate any wine, until you rid yourself of the idea that that which you cannot have, because you can’t afford it, is greater or better than anything you can have.
When Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gregory Pardio hears “Bennie and the Jets”, something comes over him.
“I’ve always associated the song with abundant sunlight and clean-house smells and security,” he told the Wall Street Journal, explaining that when he was a little boy, his mother would clean their house “with the Elton John single playing.”
Now, I love “Bennie and the Jets” as much as anyone, but when I hear it I don’t smell Pine Sol and see sunlight streaming through Venetian blinds. Nor would my mother (who was not much of a house cleaner) have listened to Elton John under any circumstances. (Guy Lombardo was more to her taste.) But I take Gregory Pardio’s point that “Bennie” appeals to him on some highly personal level that ultimately is impossible to explain, even to himself. As he puts it, he adores the song “[e]ven if [I] don’t know the words or what they mean.”
We all have “our songs,” I suppose. Or, to put it another way, we all have songs that strike a particular resonance with us, for reasons that usually occur on an unconscious or subconscious level involving memory, emotion, nostalgia. And I think it’s the same with wine. It’s a cliché to point out how travelers to some little Ligurian town discovered the best wine they’d ever had in a trattoria as the sun set over the sea. Would anyone else like that wine quite as much? Probably not. Same with “Bennie and the Jets” for Gregory. His fond memories of his mother and his childhood wonder set him up for that song to impact him every time he hears it.
What about a “great” wine, like a Grand Cru Burgundy, a First Growth Bordeaux or a cult Napa Cabernet? Do they have some kind of objective greatness that makes them instantly revered by anyone with any sort of understanding of wine? I don’t think so. Most people, even wine lovers with considerable experience, wouldn’t swoon over them if they tried the wine blind, with no context whatsoever. There might be a few people who “got it,” who even when tasting the wine blind experienced something so soulful that they had to stop everything and just experience the reverie. But I don’t think most people would.
There are rock songs that the majority of critics put on their top ten lists. Most reviewers would include Stairway to Heaven, for example. For me, Brown Sugar always does it, but then so does Pink’s You + Your Hand, or Superstition by Stevie Wonder, or almost anything early Beatles, for that matter. I’d be hard pressed to prefer one over the other and would hate to have to declare which is the best.
This is why I say that there are no great wines, just great bottles. Each bottle means something different to each of us, when we sip it. It may mean different things on different occasions. This is why so many wine aficienados say that, while they can appreciate an expensive, critically-acclaimed wine, they’d really prefer to drink something else (cost aside), that means more to them. They want, in other words, a “Bennie and the Jets” wine.
I’ve been in the business of declaring one wine to be greater than another for many years. I still basically stick to that concept. Whenever I have a tasting of wines, one of them always sticks out above all the others. At the same time, I can’t help but be influenced by the amazing revolution I’ve been privileged to be part of, wherein several new generations have arisen that question the pronouncements of “experts,” and share their views over social media. For me, the Big Question going forward isn’t whether or not we’ll still have a handful of “Great Wines” dominating the landscape, but if they’ll be the same “Great Wines” that have dominated it in the past. With everyone having his or her own “Bennie and the Jets” wine, I wonder if we’ll have room for “Great Wines” at all.
It’s not an exact match, but if you superimposed a map of red and blue states on top of another map showing state per capita wine consumption in the U.S., there would be a lot of overlap.
So do Dems drink more wine than GOPers? The jury’s out on that one; lots of studies, but no definite conclusions. However, one interesting study does seem to suggest that liberals like wine more than their conservative counterparts. This scatter chart
has Democrat-skewing people drinking more alcohol than Republicans, and drinking different kinds, too: For example, Ravenswood and Charles Shaw veer Democratic, while Kendall-Jackson and Sterling lean Republican. Republicans, if they drink (and many don’t), also seem to like spirits more than Democrats (although you’d never know that after a night on the town here in Oakland!). I have no idea why that is, but I do know this: Wine and food trends start on the West Coast and then spread over the country.
This came to mind over the weekend, when the Wall Street Journal’s “Personal Journal” section published this piece, called “But How Will It Play in Portland?” The article was on how Portland, Oregon “is known…for setting food and restaurant trends that catch on around the U.S.” Despite the headline, there was nothing I saw in the article that particularly supported this argument—after reading it, I have no idea what trends Portland started.
So I interpreted “Portland” to mean the entire West Coast, especially Seattle and the San Francisco Bay Area, both of which really have bequeathed food and drinking traditions to America, everything from coffee and sourdough bread to California cuisine, the farm-to-table movement, locovorism, freshness, Asian influences, craft beer and, of course, artisanal wine. The philosopher and mystical gadfly, Alan Watts, once referred to coastal California, including Big Sur and Marin County, as power centers for spirituality—magical places where magically creative people want to live, free of the shackles of conventional norms. Surely Seattle, Portland and San Francisco are such places. And surely, such an iconoclasm is necessary for true innovation in the creative arts.
We have, then, the Bay Area to thank for the gift of wine culture to America. (Proof? Just read Harry Waugh’s diaries to appreciate how a small cadre of wine-loving friends made it all happen in the 1960s.) Perhaps it would have happened if, say, the West Coast ended at Sacramento, perish the thought. Perhaps. But I don’t think so. For all the knocking of San Francisco, and the coastal Pacific Northwest, by certain elements in society, we have influenced this nation in a tremendous way, and will continue to do so, because in order for culture to spread to new places and populations—to go viral, as it were—it has to appeal to the best and brightest: the young, the inquisitive, the intellectual, the creative–the artists and musicians and writers and thinkers, the poets and philosophers and chefs and winemakers, who make America what it is.
To say that I was shocked when I read Andy Blue’s editorial in the latest edition of The Tasting Panel would be an understatement.
It’s a sharp, almost brutal attack on California Petite Sirah—so malicious in tone that I truly don’t understand where Andy is coming from—at least, the Andy I’ve known, liked and admired for decades. He’s a polite, gentlemanly type, thoughtful, wry and scholarly–not given to diatribes or the kind of invective displayed in this hit piece.
He calls Petite Sirah a “garbage grape” and a “Frankenstein monster.” He is “offended” by it, as though Petite Sirah had personally insulted him. In what is possibly the most hyperbolic exaggeration I’ve ever read in a wine article, he speculates that Petite Sirah is “European pay back for America exporting phylloxera to them,” thereby equating the grape and wine with a pest that kills vines and almost destroyed the French wine industry. He supposes that Petite Sirah is possibly better than “toxic bathtub gin,” but—one feels—not by much. He concludes that no one “in their right mind” would choose to drink it, even over Barbera, one of the most disagreeable wines in California.
I mean, what’s going on?
I’m not saying Petite Sirah is the greatest wine in the world. I drink very little; I would not normally buy it for myself. But there are hundreds of varieties and wines I would not normally buy for myself, but which I can be objective about as a critic; I don’t loathe them the way Andy seems to hate Petite Sirah. Even the title of Andy’s piece, P.S., I Don’t Get It, seems designed to mock P.S. I Love You, the Petite Sirah trade and marketing group.
Petite Sirah has its place, definitely, in the world of robust, full-bodied and dry red wines. And there is something historically Californian about it. I’ve particularly enjoyed bottles from Madrigal, Titus, Envy, Ridge, Kent Rasmussen, Zina Hyde Cunningham, Sirius, Turley and Grgich Hills, among others (and you’ll notice that most of those came from Napa Valley). Don’t forget, some of the ancient vine field blends we so rightly celebrate in California are based, largely or in part, on Petite Sirah. You want to talk ageabiilty? A great Petite Sirah will last longer than any Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignon.
Look, properly grown, well-made Petite Sirah can be a dramatic, rich, enjoyable wine; most of them are no longer the monsters they used to be, as vintners treat the vines and wines with more respect, ending up with balanced, less alcoholic bottlings. And Petite Sirah is the ideal partner to the kinds of foods restaurateurs serve up at P.S. I Love You’s “Dark and Delicious” event, held annually at Kent Rosenblum’s Rock Wall Wine Co.: pork and beef stews, short ribs, sausages, burgers, and anything with chocolate. So, old pal Andy–a great entrepreneur and brilliant media idea man–I think you maybe woke up on the wrong side of bed when you wrote that piece.
Lo and behold, the very next day, Macy’s announced that they were doing exactly that: they dumped Trump.
Much as I would love to take personal credit for that, I can’t. Hundreds of thousands of people signed the petition, which Macy’s apparently took very seriously. And so Donald Trump is learning that words, even hastily uttered, have consequences.
That was an example of what social media does best: galvanizing popular outrage and channeling it in effective ways. Another example is this issue of the confederate flag in South Carolina. We know how that turned out: they decided to remove the flag from their statehouse. Certainly, South Carolina’s governor, Nikki Haley, had a lot to do with the outcome, with her brave personal reaction; but in reality, it was “social media, not businesses or politicians, [that] drove [the] flag removal,” in the words of this perceptive San Francisco Chronicle piece.
Almost as soon as the dreadful Charleston church shootings were over and it was learned that the shooter fancied the confederate flag, activists began a concerted campaign to force major corporations, such as Walmart and Sears, to stop selling confederate flag-related products. Those companies responded quickly. Anti-confederate flag sentiment went viral on Twitter and other social media, and voters besieged South Carolina lawmakers, who also responded quickly, by voting to remove the flag.
I saw this power of social media to politically stimuate huge numbers of people as early as 2011, when tens of thousands of Egyptians, communicating via Twitter, mobilized in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to protest against then-President Hosni Mubarak’s repressive regime. The dictatorship responded in exactly the wrong way: by attempting to suppress Twitter and Facebook, “a grave mistake” that was “the beginning of the end” for the regime. The author Wael Ghonim has called this spectacular continuation of the Arab Spring “Revolution 2.0” in his book of the same name.
This is what social media was designed for: it encourages communication and sharing, empowers and amplifies the voiceless, and can bleed over into the mainstream media when things go viral—thus influencing the course of history. I could cite instance after instance of social media’s political muscle, from the people’s overthrow of Filipino President Joseph Estrada and the similar overthrow of Spanish prime minister Jose Maria Aznar to the Catholic Church’s troubles with pedophile priests.
I celebrate social media for these reasons—and I keep in mind that social media also has a less spectacular but no less wonderful use: that of merely allowing us to stay in touch with friends (both real and digital), to learn from them and be amused and inspired and make our lives less disconnected from each other. That is a fantastic thing, McLuhan’s global village writ digitally. What is far less clear is whether social media can play a strong role in the prosaic business of selling things. That is, as Dorothy noted, a horse of a different color.