Yes, wine writing is “an imprecise art,” as the headline on Philip White’s opinion piece in the Adelaide (Australia) InDaily News says.
As someone who’s had lots of experience in wine writing (magazines, books, blogs), I’m the first to authenticate Philip’s viewpoint that “writing about smells and flavours and the feelings they impart is as imprecise a sport as writing about music or fine art.
I like Philip’s take. He is, himself, a wine “communicator” (his word) who “pl[ies] the waters of simile and metaphor, hoping the beloved readers at least get a feeling.” To instill a feeling in readers: that is the highest goal to which a wine writer can aspire.
It’s not always easy. Critics of wine writing (and they are legion) point to the hyperbolic, obscure, over-blown rhetoric that does, indeed, characterize much of wine writing. Philip (quoting another writer writing about wine writing) assembled a list that could stand as the poster child for stretch: “nail polish remover, petrol, burning rubber, eucalyptus, wet wool, banana, shit and lead pencil.” Not that those aromas (including “shit”) aren’t present in some wines, but the average reader can be forgiven for scratching her head and wondering if she can just, please, go about the pleasure of drinking the stuff.
But there are many different forms of wine writing. When you’re reviewing dozens of wines on a daily basis, you’re forced into certain economies of scale. Woe be the writer who agonizes—Thesaurus by his side—about this or that descriptor. When deadlines are looming, sometimes you just go with “cherry-berry” and have done with it.
Still, I take Philip’s point that “the single most important thing about wine is the way it makes me feel.” I, myself, sometimes wrote about my feelings in wine reviews, but only for the best wines: they merited more words in the review than small peasant wines, and seemed to allow for some celebratory expressions of joy—at least, the extra word count afforded me that luxury. The small peasant wines, when they weren’t very good, also made me “feel” certain things—disappointment, disgust, impatience to get it over with, sometimes anger if the price was insane—but I was the sort of wine critic who hated to say terrible things about a wine I’d already given a low score. There are certain critics (I could name names, and so could you) who seem to take pleasure in kicking a wine when it’s down and bleeding in the gutter. Not me.
But surely Philip is onto something when he suggests that communicating “feeling” is important. I tried to do that in my books; long-form writing is a lot easier to convey emotions. I try to do it in this blog. But I’ve seen writers of the “feeling” school take things too far. Some of them reach for bizarre metaphors whose meanings, if you’re not familiar with them, will zoom right over your head. Some of them bring too much of themselves into their review. I read a review, after all, to learn about the wine, not about the writer’s personality. A little personality, fine, but—like salt in food—not too much. But then, good writing achieves precisely the correct balance of all its parts: objective information, subjective revelation of the writer’s soul, literary references and so on.
I love Philip’s quote from Leonard Cohen: “Each wine has a specific high, which is never mentioned [i.e. in most reviews].” If I correctly understand the great singer-songwriter (who in this instance was writing about Chateau Latour), he meant that the experience of drinking Latour resulted in a particular mindset that was somehow qualitatively different from drinking, say, Margaux. I reckon that could be true only if one knew one were drinking Latour, and if one had a specific love-attachment to Latour. Anytime you do anything with love it does result in “a specific high.” But lucky is the paid, professional wine writer who can truthfully say that he finds love in all his labors. Sometimes, writing is just writing, and to make it work for readers—to make them feel—is the result of effort and talent. It is artifice: not “artificial,” but something that looks and feels like feeling, even when it is not.
No one much noticed last Friday’s report in the Wall Street Journal that Diageo is going to start listing calorie counts “and other content information” on its spirits, including Johnnie Walker Scotch and Smirnoff vodka, “in what it said was a first for the industry.”
That nugget was buried on page B5 of the newspaper, on the same page as the weather. But it’s big news, with implications for the entire industry.
The article didn’t say anything about Diageo’s wine brands, which include Chalone, Sterling, Blossom Hill and Rosenblum. So I went to the company’s website and clicked on the “News & Media” link, which led to a March 19 press release from the company that strongly suggests that the disclosure will include wine. There is this phrase: “Diageo believes that consumer information for alcohol is best provided per typical serve, so that consumers can understand the alcohol and nutrition content of serves of different drinks, which vary in size across beer, wine and spirits.” Moreover, at the bottom of the press release, in a “Notes to Editors,” as an “example,” the company showed a label of a Blossom Hill wine. The press release also hints that Diageo will go much further in their disclosures than simply listing the calorie content; they vowed also to reveal “nutrition information…,” although they didn’t say what specific nutrition information they will publish.
It’s unclear to me whether “nutrition information” is the same as “ingredient information,” although it wouldn’t seem so. The latter has been a contentious issue nipping at the edges of the wine industry for the last few years. Ridge Vineyards has already begun ingredient labeling, listing such things as calcium carbonate, SO2 and indigenous yeasts on the back label. Besides, as Harvey Steiman points out in Wine Spectator, ingredient labeling for wine is tricky. It’s complicated, a lot harder than ingredient labeling for, say, a can of soup. And there also are financial considerations for smaller wineries. Sometimes I think that this consumer demand to know about every micro-molecule that enters their bodies in every sort of food and drink borders on the obsessive.
Still, that’s politics. Diageo’s move is significant because, as one of the nation’s largest wine companies, they clearly believe they’re reading the handwriting on the wall, and want to get out in front of what may become a mandated trend. So be it; what will be, will be. Personally, I’m against ingredient labeling or content labeling on the actual wine bottle. That sort of thing could easily be done on a website. Everybody’s got a computer or smart device these days, so it would not be an imposition on consumers to click on a link or two. Wine labels are lovely works of art: producers go to great lengths to make them graphically appealing. To clutter them up with ingredients and nutritional data would be ugly.
Well if this isn’t the strangest thing I’ve read in a long time, I don’t know what is. “Why the government should fund research into finding a replacement for alcohol,” it’s called.
It was written by Ryan Cooper, a national correspondent at TheWeek.com, which is by no means a wacko rightwing pub. Ryan’s basic premise is that alcohol—the “ur-drug: the oldest, most common, and most widely abused drug in the world,” can cause “brain damage; severe memory loss; cardiovascular disease and strokes; cirrhosis of the liver; cancer of the mouth, throat, larynx, esophagus, liver…” Well, Ryan’s list goes on and on, but you get the idea. His solution, as the headline implies: Have the gummint look into funding studies into “alcohol replacement,” to come up with something that’s “better than booze.”
Is this the latest installment from the neoprohibitionist crowd? They never go away, do they? Look, anything and everything is potentially dangerous: automobiles, bicycling, eating certain foods, taking certain medications, flying in an airplane, joining the military, playing, making love, breathing. All we can do, as individuals and as a society, is to try and understand the risks involved, and adjust accordingly. In the case of alcohol, the solution is not to do away with it entirely, it’s to teach people the benefits (and pleasures) of moderate consumption—and to not drink and drive!!! (I can’t emphasize that enough.)
I actually don’t think Ryan is some kind of wild-eye prohibitionist, like the Marin Institute, which earned itself such a bad name that it had to reinvent itself as Alcohol Justice.
Still, in writing these inflammatory articles, Ryan links himself to the fire-eaters. He’s also not particularly consistent in his claims: A couple years ago, he wrote a piece for Washington Monthly in which he condemned hyperbolic diatribes against drugs, including alcohol: “[W]e should avoid alarmist, simplistic slogans” such as calling them “poisons,” he warned, because “calling various drugs ‘poisons’ as if this counts for something is foolish. By this standard basically everything, including water, is a poison…”.
And yet, in The Week article, Ryan states: “the most popular recreational drugs, particularly alcohol, are atrocious.” It is “very often terrible.” In fact, he adds, even heroin is “not as bad” as alcohol.
Those sound like alarmist simplistic slogans to me!
I’m glad that Ryan emphasized that he is “certainly not in favor of reinstating full-scale prohibition.” But notice that hedge: “full-scale.” Whatever does that mean? If he was really against restating prohibition, he wouldn’t use weasel words like that, he’d just come out and say “Let’s not even think of reinstating prohibition in any way, shape or form. We tried it once, and it was an abject failure and a national embarrassment.”
We already have some pretty stringent laws against alcohol consumption: age limits, shipping restrictions and so on. Alcohol is one of the most heavily-regulated consumer products in the U.S., which means that we continue to have a residue of prohibition, even though historic Prohibition was formally repealed in 1933.
I understand the concern Ryan has about all the problems associated with the inappropriate use of alcoholic beverages. But the answers are a lot more complicated than naively calling for the government to fund alternatives to it. Is that really something we want our precious tax dollars to go for? Instead, let’s be smart about this. Wine, beer and spirits are miraculous gifts to us from benign Nature. We don’t need to do away with them; we need to be smarter about using them, and we need to teach our children to be wise, not foolish, about alcohol and everything else.
You know that old saying about how you can’t put the toothpaste back into the tube? That was my feeling when I read this article, from Monday’s Napa Register, on a debate taking place in Napa Valley. And, no, it’s not about wine.
The topic is nothing new: Growth versus preservation. In its latest incarnation, it shape-shifts into whether Napa should be (in the words of a county official) “a resort area [or] an agricultural area.” California, with our natural beauty, always is a hotbed of such debates, and Napa Valley, for many reasons, is no exception. This conversation has been going on for as long as I’ve been aware of the valley.
In particular this brouhaha over the number of tasting rooms and wineries hosting “events” like weddings has also been around for a long time. It’s only natural that some valley residents would be upset over the traffic (truly, truly awful on Highway 29) and the feeling that their pastoral little slice of heaven is turning into a tourist-drawing WineryLand theme park.
So is it time to take drastic action, like limiting the number of tasting rooms, or wineries, or vineyards, or resorts and hotels? This is the problem of the toothpaste. Napa can’t go backwards to the bucolic 1960s or 1970s. And there are limits to how much it can do to prevent the invasion of the tourists, which now seems to occur year-round, not just in the summer, as the climate dries and warms.
It’s interesting to read the comments to the Register article. Typical of the slow-growthers is this one from a reader who’s had it up to here: “Anyone catch the traffic on 29 today? Basically heading south it was backed up from the light in yountville all the way to the CIA. It was almost just as bad heading North. It was still backed up at 6:45 at night, about 35 minutes to get from st Helena to yountville. That should be a 7 minute drive.” And this from someone else: “Experiencing the growth in the last fifteen years, one could argue that the tipping point has already been reached. Does one honestly wish to make the traffic even more intolerable?”
It’s not clear what the solution is, but we should be looking at this from a wider perspective, namely: Napa Valley isn’t the only place in California where traffic is an enormous, and growing, problem. It’s a problem throughout the state, from our local city and suburban streets to the freeways and bridges that form California’s nervous system, from the Pacific Coast Highway to the byways of the Sierra Nevada and all chokepoints inbetween. Californians have always complained about traffic in our state’s notorious car culture, but things are worse than they’ve ever been, and if you’re wasting hours of your life everyday sitting idle, you’re understandably frustrated. And what I can’t for the life of me understand is why our government isn’t taking the problem more seriously. This isn’t something that local government can tackle. It’s a gigantic elbow to the throat of California’s economy (not to mention drivers’ peace of mind) and only government has the means to address it.
Maybe, in Napa’s case, the answer is to limit the number of tourists (especially on weekends) in some way that’s legal and fair. Of course, the state would have to be involved, too, and possibly the Feds. Back in the 1970s, when we had the nation’s first gas shortage, you could only fill your tank on certain days, depending on the number on your license plate. I don’t recall there being any riots; people understood that there was a crisis and we all had to be a part of the solution.
Could something like that work in Napa’s case? There are really just two main ways in, from the south and north, Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail. Maybe they could build checkpoints with automated cameras, like the ones they use for FasTrak. Get the word out, through media and signage, that Saturdays are for “x” drivers and Sunday’s are for “y” drivers, and then levy a hefty fine on anyone who’s caught cheating (just the way FasTrak works). Of course, you’d have to figure out some way to screen out locals so they didn’t get caught in the net. This would inconvenience many tourists, granted; but once they got the hang of it, they’d get used to it, and they’d probably eventually welcome the more open roads.
I know it’s a crazy idea, but maybe it could work. And if things get bad enough (and they’re heading in that direction) it may be the only way.
A few days ago, the one and only Hosemaster of Wine caused a dustup in the world of sommeliers with his blog post, “The six people you want to avoid in the wine business.”
One of his “six people to avoid” was “the Master Sommelier Working for a Corporation.” It was a good spoof in the best Hosemaster tradition, of course, and—having been the recipient of numerous Hosemaster barbs over the years–I appreciate his wit and am happy when he mentions me. Hosemaster, AKA Ron Washam, is a satirist, in the great twentieth-century tradition of Mort Sahl, Joseph Heller and even Stephen Colbert. But he is never mean-spirited.
Master Somms, like the rest of us, have to work somewhere. They may not choose to work in a restaurant; they might want different sorts of opportunities, and many go through a series of different jobs as their careers develop. So after you’ve invested all the expense and time of obtaining the coveted M.S., where are you gonna go?
Into the business world, as so many Master Sommeliers have done. As you can see if you browse through the membership page on the Court of Master Sommelier’s website,
some go to work for wineries, big and small. (And, yes, Master Somms work for my company, Jackson Family Wines, which by the way is not corporate, but family-owned.) Others work for distributors or in retail trade. Some consult; some are independent wine educators. The latest Master Somm to rock the business world is Ken Fredrickson, whose investment group just took over Brewer-Clifton.
In other words, Master Somms do all sorts of interesting things.
What’s wrong with a Master Somm working an honest day for honest pay? There are only 140 of them in all of North America, and 219 worldwide. With such limited numbers, these men and women are in high demand. They can essentially work anyplace they want. Actually, in going into the business world, they move beyond rarified sommelier circles into networks of on- and off-premise professionals and consumers—democratizing, as it were, the world of fine wine, which is as it should be.
I don’t think Hosemaster actually believes it’s “sad” for a Master Somm to work for a winery. After all, he’s a former sommelier himself and understands the terroir. But for anyone who does think along those lines, let me quote Hosemaster’s own words, on Charlie Olken’s blog, “[G]ood sommeliers…understand that their only job, their ONLY job, is to help assure that the customer has an enjoyable evening.” No matter where they work or what they do, good sommeliers do exactly that: they help customers enjoy their wine.
I love this article by Karen MacNeil in the latest issue of The Tasting Panel on “Somms and Salespeople.”
I don’t think I would particularly have cared about the topic when I was a wine critic, but now that I work for Jackson Family Wines and have hung out with sales people (I’m what they aptly call a “ridealong”), the article resonated with me. For I’ve seen, up close and personal, how “the relationship between sommeliers and the reps who sell them wine…is often fraught with tension.”
As the somms whom Karen interviewed point out, they have quite a few “pet peeves” when it comes to salespeople. I wish, though, that Karen had asked salespeople what they think of somms! From my experiences, I’ve seen somms treat salespeople with haughtiness and even dismissiveness. “Rudely,” as my southern-born mother would have said.
We all work in a very small world, those of us in the California wine business. And I’ve always believed that there should be no room for negativity or animosity. I’ve seen bad attitudes from winemakers toward wine critics, from wine critics toward winemakers, from wine writers toward each other, from small wineries toward big wineries, and so on. I’ve tried to avoid such stuff. Why can’t we all get along?
Look, somms depend on salespeople for their business. And just because a sommelier is “more educated” (an arguable point) than a wine salesperson is no reason for them to take a superior attitude. Didn’t we all learn in kindergarten to get along with each other—to be nice and polite and treat others as we would have them treat us?
Reading the somm quotes in Karen’s article, I can sympathize with some of their peeves. Certainly, people shouldn’t be late for appointments if they can help it. And I can see why a busy somm would object to a cold call—somebody stopping by who didn’t even bother to make an appointment.
I can also see why some of the somms would complain about salespeople not knowing very much about the wines they’re selling! I don’t believe that’s a problem at Jackson Family Wines, because our sales force is highly trained. But, on the other hand, it’s probably impossible for a salesperson to know as much about wine in general as a sommelier, so I would hope that somms would temper their expectations. If I have a tip for salespeople, it’s to be sensitive to the somm you’re with. If you detect that they’re not really into a conversation about the terroir of the wine you’re selling, or its acidity and sugar level, then don’t go there.
In the end, I have great sympathy and empathy for salespeople. They have what is perhaps the toughest job in the wine business. They’re road warriors who spend half their lives in cars or on planes, schlepping from account to account even when they’re tired and not feeling so good. Selling is difficult; you have to have a certain calling for it, and also have a high tolerance for rejection. And you always have to keep that smile on your face—a rule that apparently doesn’t apply to somms in the sales interaction. (But somms do have to keep that smile on the dining room floor, where they may encounter rude, supercilious people. So I’d remind somms to think of their own experiences when they’re tempted to be haughty with a salesperson.)
To all the somms out there—and I love you all—I say, be nice to your salespeople. If you have a problem with one, explain it. Try to realize that, just like you, the salesperson has a job to do. We’re all in this together, so we might as well make life as pleasant as it can be for each other.