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When is a review not a review?

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The San Francisco Chronicle’s restaurant reviewer, Michael Bauer, really stirred up a dust storm with this post, “DNR: Three restaurants I’m not reviewing,” on his blog.

First, let me say that I’m a Bauer fan. If I’m checking out a restaurant in the Bay Area, I first want to know what Michael said about it. I might look at Yelp, but I don’t entirely trust Yelp. At least I know that Michael is independent and has no skin in the game.

I also trust the very concept of a trusted critic. Yes, I was one myself, so maybe that makes me more empathic about them and their jobs. A good critic actually works very hard; just as a wine critic doesn’t just sit around the house all day, sipping wine and snacking, a restaurant critic doesn’t just go out to eat. The research and writing are hard, and the critic has to know what he’s talking about, not only to land a prestigious job at a paper like the Chronicle, but to last as long as Michael has.

So what was so controversial about Michael’s post? Go ahead, read through the comments—they’re hilarious—and see. For the most part, people said that although Michael said he wasn’t reviewing the three restaurants he wrote about, he then went ahead and kinda-sorta did. As one commenter said, satirically rephrasing Michael’s post, I won’t write about these places. Let me write about them to tell you why.”

Well, let me come to Michael’s defense. First of all, he said upfront that he “decided not to move forward with a full-blown three-visit review.” (One of his rules is to eat at a place three times before he does the formal review, which makes a lot of sense to me.) But these are not full-blown reviews, they’re mini-takes. And keep in mind that they appear, not in the pages of the Chronicle itself, but in Michael’s blog. Michael’s blog is less formal, more easy-breezy than his full-blown reviews. So the readers who criticized Michael are a little off-base.

Plus, I think Michael is doing a great service to the three restaurants. It’s nice that he has some way of alerting them to his concerns, before he actually publishes the review. That way, the restaurateurs can fix the problems (which don’t seem to be major), so that when and if Michael does come in for a full review, it’s more likely to be a good one than a bad one.

Finally, the snarkiness of some of the commenters leaves something to be desired. It’s fine to say you don’t agree with his conclusions, but to resort to pique, like being mad at Michael because he doesn’t have to pay his own food bills (the Chronicle does), is just silly. Some others criticized Michael for not reviewing local places, but he does. He’s reviewed thousands of restaurants over the years, not just the famous, expensive ones but plenty of local joints. Just last week, he reviewed Hawker Fare, one of my faves, just a ten-minute walk from my house in downtown Oakland, where the most expensive item on the menu is about $13. So, yes, Michael does review local places.

 


How about some fruit juice with that Chardonnay?

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It must drive some winemakers crazy to hear that two-thirds of younger wine drinkers (ages 25 to 40) in America are mixing their wine with fruit juice, that nearly half are making club soda-based “cocktails” with wine, and 46% actually add ice to their vino!

Those are some of the findings from a new consumer survey by E&J Gallo on “the current state of Americans’ wine drinking attitudes and behaviors.”

Things might not be as dismal as those anecdotal tales of Chinese pouring Coca Cola into their Lafite or vice versa, but a hard-working winemaker who has studied long and hard figuring out how to create wines of terroir cannot be blamed for tearing her hair out when she learns that a 20-something is mixing her Chardonnay with an orange-peach-mango drink from Safeway.

Well, that’s kids for you! I, myself, have done all the above: on a hot summer day I’ve been known to make a wine cooler, even to the extent of adding a couple ice cubes from the freezer. I’ve put sparkling water into red wine on occasion, and thoroughly enjoyed the results.

It sounds sacrilegious, but why should we not feel free to fiddle with our wine? We paid for it, it’s our appetites we’re whetting, and there’s no law that says you can’t. After all, you can go to the finest restaurant in the world, and still feel that your food needs a little more seasoning. That’s not a criticism of the chef, it’s just personal preference. Nobody thinks twice about adding a little freshly-ground pepper to Thomas Keller’s sweet corn velouté, do they? What’s the difference between that and putting a splash of fruit juice into your wine?

I guess the bottom line is that we should all chill about wine more than we do. We get so uptight and fussy about it, no wonder wine seems like a huge and risky puzzle to so many people. I like this statement from the Gallo study: “Unlike previous generations, [younger wine drinkers are] seemingly unbound by traditions that have often governed wine.” That’s just fine with me. I love the good traditions behind wine—the history, the culture,  the magic of food-and-wine pairing, the way wine encompasses so many aspects of human knowledge—but there really is some silly baggage we should jettison, and one of the silliest is the utter seriousness, amounting almost to an autopsy, that accompanies some aspects of wine appreciation, especially at the high end.

Anyway, lest winemakers despair that their art and craft is being sluiced away by juice, take comfort: I think the Gallo findings are probably exaggerated. It may be true, as the study says, that 66% of younger drinkers mix fruit juice with their wine, but I doubt very much that they do it all the time, or even most of the time. Probably, they do it a little bit, same as I do. If someone had asked me “Do you ever mix fruit juice with wine?” I would have answered “Yes,” and then hoped they’d follow up with, “How often,” to which I would have replied, “Not very much at all, and only when it’s hot.” I suspect that most wine drinkers buy and drink wine for the reason people always have: Because wine is damned good, in fact irreplaceable, all by itself.


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.

 

 

 

 

 


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