One differs with Tom Wark and Julie Ann Kodmur with no small amount of trepidation. These two veterans are among the ablest and most effective of California winery publicists. I worked with them both for a great many years, and know for a fact that they have their fingers on the beating pulse of the business. But sometimes, you have to disagree with even the smartest people.
They have a new joint blog out (actually, “joint” blog makes it sound suspiciously herbal. The actual new “joint” publication would be Andy Blue and Meredith May’s “the clever root.” But I digress.) Julie Ann and Tom ran a post yesterday, “Ten 2016 Trends the Wine World Needs to Watch.” Most of their prognostications, I agree with; some, in part; others, not so much. Here’s the story.
“Natural Wine” Is Solidified As A Bonafide “Category” in the Wine World. Tom and Julie Ann may believe it. I don’t. To me, “natural wine,” whatever the heck that means (and it doesn’t mean anything, technically) is the new “biodynamique,” a buzzword for publicists to use to convince greenies to buy their clients’ wine. It sounds trendy and environmental—who wants unnatural wine?–but its meaninglessness limits its shelf life. (“Sustainable” is different. It’s certified by third-party organizations.) Even the people who peddle “natural wine” will soon tire and move onto something else, whatever that is.
Continuing Backlash Against the Wine Industry in Well Developed Wine Regions. Is there a backlash going on that I don’t know about? Well, yes: Julie Ann and Tom refer to demands by locals in wine country “to address problems this minority believes are caused by the wine industry,” e.g. traffic, crime, noise, environmental impacts, etc. This is indeed happening but there’s nothing really new about it. It’s a form of NIMBYism that does need to be addressed, but I have a feeling that where money talks, nobody walks: the wineries will pretty much get what they want, because they are the tax base in most of these regions.
Distributor Consolidation. This too has been going on for years. Yes, the problem is getting worse, from the point of view of smaller wineries that are locked out of the chain. There undoubtedly will be greater consolidation, but the good news is that the Internet and social media, with their DTC promise, are becoming effective counter-weights to the three-tiered system.
Emergence of Younger Wine Writers. It is true that “the older, experienced crew begins to think about retirement.” How could it be otherwise? It also is true that “young writers [have] been toiling at second tier wine publications and websites.” Will there be a simple one-two switch where Blogger Joe is the next Jim Laube? Well, somebody has to be the next Jim Laube so it might as well be Blogger Joe. However, what is missing from this analysis is the sad fact (from the point of view of young writers) that the number of influential writing positions will remain pitifully small. There are simply too many young writers and too few spots for them to work for decent money.
Increase in Use of Media (not Social) Relations in the Wine Industry. Being publicists, Julie Ann and Tom might be expected to predict how important their sphere will become. I’ve been around for a long time, and watching the interplay between wineries and P.R. firms has been fascinating. The theory is that increased competition will drive wineries to P.R. firms for “help reaching the media with their brand message.” Yes…and no. Some wineries will; some won’t, because they (a) can’t afford it, or (b) aren’t convinced external P.R. is worth it, or (c) are turning to their own in-house social media efforts, which they believe can replace traditional P.R. Can it? We’ll see. Traditional P.R. may (accent on “may”) be an endangered species—the streetlamp lighters of the 21st century. Too soon to tell.
Opportunity in Diversity. Will wineries, in an attempt to gain a niche, produce “different types of wines…new beers, ciders and spirits…” and so on? There are two schools of thought. One is that what has worked in the past (Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and so on) will continue to work in the future. The other is that the constant craze for new, trendy and different will enable some wineries to exploit consumer fickleness. Unfortunately, crazes have the lifespan of a gnat—remember Moscato? Personally, I can’t see wineries getting into “distilling or cider-making,” much less beer brewing; it’s not part of their core competency. So I’m not sure how much “opportunity” there really is in this new “diversity.”
More Groups and More Categories to Choose From. The idea here is that “group marketing” is easier/cheaper than individual marketing—a Darwinian herd strategy where the “pack” can better fend off the wolves than the lone individual. Julie Ann and Tom cite IPOB and ZAP as examples. There is truth here, but in a larger sense, wineries always have been torn between joining groups (which spread the benefits thinly but broadly over everyone) and going it alone, where they stand to gain a greater share of the glory and money. This is an inherently existential question each winery must ask itself. I, myself, can’t see any more groups, such as IPOB, successfully emerging. IPOB has been a pheenom, and will be hard to replicate. What I do see is more and more tourism opportunities for wineries: sponsored tastings at resorts and cruise ships, Uber rides from the hotel to the winery, that sort of thing. But this isn’t quite what Julie Ann and Tom are talking about.
More Virtual Wineries as Cost of Entry Continues to Increase. Obviously.
The Call For Expertise. I’m glad that Julie Ann and Tom agree with what I’ve been saying for years: “Many consumers [will] more actively seek out vetted experience in their pursuit of wine advice…in contrast to the Everyman Wine Critic and the Crowd as the source of knowledge…”. Amen, brother Tom and sister Julie Ann! I said it in 2008 and I’ll say it again: just because somebody runs a wine blog doesn’t mean that they have experience or credibility. At last, the consumer is beginning to realize that vetting counts. Despite predictions, widespread in the blogosphere, of the imminent demise of the major wine pubs, their “continued success…is evidence that consumers are looking for real expertise.”
Purposeful Authenticity Will Be More Important Than Ever. The message is that “wine companies that can provide…real, heart to heart, meaningful, authentic content will capture hearts, minds and possibly wallets.” Agree. The question is, how do you know if the “heart to heart” is real, or just a clever simulation of authenticity (like those oil companies that tout their commitment to the environment while actually wrecking it)? This is very hard; it requires consumers to put on their B.S. detectors. Ultimately, this issue of “authenticity” is the stickiest wicket of all, because nobody knows what it really means, and “the crowd” will always be divided as to who’s really authentic and who isn’t. One thing for sure: you can smell inauthenticity a mile away.
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I’m driving to Oregon today for more research into my Jackson Family Wines project. To think that just 72 hours ago I was on a warm, sunny beach on the Riviera Maya and now I’m headed up to the cold, rainy north country. I’m bringing my flannel shirts.
We’re coming up on the 20th anniversary of Bill Gates’ now-famous manifesto, “Content is King,” in which he made a number of predictions concerning the future of the Internet. Keep in mind that, in January of 1996, the Internet, or World Wide Web, was still an object of curiosity to most people, including even those who designed and operated it. Everybody knew how revolutionary the Internet was, but nobody was quite sure how to use it. Yes, the military already was utilizing it for communications, simulations and so on, but the average American was very much puzzled concerning what it meant for her.
I was one of them. I remember getting my first assignment to write about it. It was from Lewis Perdue, at the old Wine Business Monthly magazine, who told me to check the Internet out, and particularly to find out what I could about wine “chat rooms.”
I had no idea what he was talking about. I didn’t know how to get on the Internet (or if “getting on” was even the proper terminology). It turned out I had to go to the Berkeley library, rent time and use a hideously slow dial-up modem. It took forever to get online, and once I finally did, I hardly knew what to look for. But eventually, I found a few wine chat rooms and dutifully wrote up my article.
Back then, there was little talk of email, and none at all of social media. Winery websites were rare as unicorns (if in fact any even existed), and shopping via the Internet was a mere gleam in Jeff Bezos’s eye. Therefore, when Bill Gates wrote his little article, it caught people like a storm. He already was the most famous person in the world of computers and software (along with Steve Jobs), had been on the cover of TIME magazine in 1984 (when he looked like the nerd, Richard Hendricks, on TV’s “Silicon Valley”), and was understood to be a great prognosticator.
The title of Gates’ paper suggested his point. “Content,” he explained, would be the “long-term winner” in the race to make “real money…on the Internet.” And being a businessman, of course, Gates’ goal was for Microsoft to make real money.
Here are the predictions he made, which I have gleaned from the article. Following each prediction, I offer commentary as to how accurate the prediction was in terms of what has subsequently ensued, and to what degree the prediction has come true.
“Supplying information and entertainment” will be the “exciting things” that will fuel people to turn to the Internet.
PREDICTION ACCURACY: High.
HAS IT COME TRUE? Big “yes.”
The universal ease of “anyone with a PC and a modem” being able to “publish whatever content they can create.”
PREDICTION ACCURACY: High.
HAS IT COME TRUE? Big “yes.”
The ease with which this content can be “distributed worldwide at basically zero marginal cost to the publisher.”
PREDICTION ACCURACY: High.
HAS IT COME TRUE? Big “yes.”
“Intense competition,” some of it successful and some of it a dismal failure, “in all categories of popular content.”
PREDICTION ACCURACY: High.
HAS IT COME TRUE? Big “yes.”
“Printed magazines” can be “served by electronic online editions.”
PREDICTION ACCURACY: Medium-high.
HAS IT COME TRUE? Qualified “yes.” It’s still unclear how online advertising can raise the revenues that print advertising did.
“To be successful online, a magazine…must…have audio, and possibly video,” and not just “take what it has in print and move it” online.
PREDICTION ACCURACY: High.
HAS IT COME TRUE? Qualified “yes.” Too many magazines do exactly that: move what it has in print online. Magazines need to do a much better job of giving consumers a reason “to put up with turning on a computer to read a screen.” And Gates obviously underestimated the importance of video. “Possibly”? No, definitely.
Concerning the “breadth of information on the Internet,” it will be “enormous…”.
PREDICTION ACCURACY: High.
HAS IT COME TRUE? Big “yes,” but Bill Gates conspicuously missed the importance of “SEARCH” in order to find things in this avalanche of information. Perhaps if he had, Microsoft would have invented Google.
Concerning pay for content providers, “The long-term prospects are good, but I expect a lot of disappointment in the short-term as content companies struggle to make money.”
PREDICTION ACCURACY: High.
HAS IT COME TRUE? Big “yes.” Gates got it exactly right: Content companies (bloggers included) still struggle to monetize their efforts. Did Gates envision a solution to this problem? He did:
“In the long run, advertising is promising.” He also foresaw subscriptions as revenue-raisers.
PREDICTION ACCURACY: Moderate.
HAS IT COME TRUE? No. Gates wrote (1996) “today the amount of subscription revenue or advertising revenue realized on the Internet is near zero.” Now (2015), it still is pitiful, and most content providers can’t hope to make a living through either subscriptions or advertising. So, while Gates understood that “paying for content doesn’t work very well,” he was overly optimistic that the problem would be solved. His statement that “This technology will liberate publishers to charge small amounts of money” has failed to materialize. Unless you’re Parker or Jancis or somebody like that, almost no wine blogs make money.
Finally–gotta say it–Bill Gates missed social media. If he’d stumbled onto that, Microsoft could have invented Facebook.
Still, this little 1996 paper has turned out to be one of the most important and visionary analyses ever written concerning the Internet.
We know what “honest” means when applied to people: They’re telling the truth. And you can tell when they’re telling the truth by giving them a polygraph test. If they pass, they’re honest.
But you can’t give wine a polygraph test, and yet there is this persistent belief out there, especially among the gatekeepers, that some wines are “honest” and some by implication aren’t. The latest example is in the November 2015 issue of The Tasting Panel, in Randy Caparoso’s column, “In Search of Honest Wines at Our Somm Camps.” Beyond the headline, Randy quotes a local blogger as saying that Lodi Zinfandels are “among the most honest made in California.”
Okay, kiddies, pull up a chair and let’s talk. Now, I have nothing either for or against Lodi Zinfandel, but why would somebody say it’s more “honest” than, say, any of the following wineries that make Zinfandel, all of which I gave 95 points or higher during my stint at Wine Enthusiast: Seven Lions (Sonoma County), Hartford (Russian River Valley), Williams Selyem (Russian River Valley), Dry Creek Vineyard (Dry Creek Valley), Seghesio (Dry Creek Valley), De Loach (Russian River Valley), Deerfield (Dry Creek Valley), Zichichi (Dry Creek Valley), Ravenswood (Sonoma Valley), Gary Farrell (Dry Creek Valley). Then, at 94 points, we have Storybook Mountain (Napa Valley), Bella (Sonoma County), Bluenose (Dry Creek Valley), Joseph Swan (Russian River Valley), Beauregard (Ben Lomond Mountain), Rubicon (Rutherford), Seghesio (Alexander Valley), Schultz (Mount Veeder)—I mean, the list goes on and on.
What makes “Lodi” more honest than those?
I sometimes think that some modern gatekeepers trip all over themselves trying to discover the odd, the out-of-the-way, the underdog, the obscure, the heretofore despised, the outliers, the blue collar, the poor and struggling, in order to heap praise on them, thereby demonstrating their independence, vision, fair-mindedness, liberality and hipness. They seem to hate on the better-known appellations, varieties and wineries. What does Randy himself, a fine fellow whom I always enjoy running into, and a good writer, say about “honest” wines? Well, here’s his definition: They are “Wines that express places, not so much arbitrary conceptions of varietal character.”
Fair enough; let’s try to understand. First, I should think that critics would like it when a wine expresses “varietal character.” How many times have you seen critics panning something because it lacks “typicity”? But Randy’s use of the phrase “varietal character” is contained within a more complex phrasing: it should also express “place,” and the varietal character shouldn’t be an “arbitrary conception…”
With all due respect, all of the Zinfandels I mentioned above express “place,” in my opinion. As for “arbitrary conceptions of varietal character,” what the heck does that mean? I haven’t the slightest idea. Do you? What makes one expression of varietal character “honest” while another is “arbitrary”? For example, I have a certain notion of what a good Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel should taste like, and in my mind it does have “varietal character” that is modified by that special Dry Creek briary, brambly taste. Does that mean a good Dry Creek Valley Zin isn’t “honest”? I could ask the same thing about Anderson Valley Pinot Noir or Fort Ross-Seaview Chardonnay or Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon or Santa Ynez Valley Sauvignon Blanc or Edna Valley Pinot Gris. The best of those wines has “varietal character” as well as regional character i.e., “place.” This isn’t something that makes them “dishonest.” It’s something the grape grower and the winemaker worked very hard to achieve. Surely we can all agree on that!
Back to Lodi, which I admit has had a perception problem even Randy alludes to when he quotes a few somms who didn’t think much of Lodi until they tasted wines from there at one of Randy’s Somm Camps. It’s wonderful when someone who had a preconceived notion of something experiences an epiphany—we should all be so lucky. But what does that have to do with “honest” wines? The funny thing is that Randy, himself, writes, “Lodi does not grow the best wines in the world.” Ouch. He then goes on to praise it: “What it does produce are wines that are true to their Mediterranean climate [and] sandy soils…”. Well, I’ll drink to that—but does that make them more “honest” than a rich, heady Napa Cab?
Look, this is a fairly minor point, but you have to take it within the context of this entire conversation we’ve been having in California—largely somm-driven—about the meaning of words like “honest” and “balanced” and so forth. These are eye-of-the-beholder terms; there are so many conceptual and intellectual problems connected with them that it might be better if we just scrapped those kinds of subjective words as descriptors and moved onto adjectives that are objectively real, understandable and, yes, “honest.”
“A lot of mediocre wine is being sold on the basis of a story.” That’s a quote from a New York somm, Jason Jacobeit, cited in Lettie Teague’s latest column in the Wall Street Journal.
To whom is this “mediocre wine” being sold? None other than “Millennials,” who, according to sommelier Jason, “are more interested in the narrative of the wine rather [sic] than the wine.”
That’s scary, but it wouldn’t be the first time in the history of capitalism that the sizzle, not the steak, is what was sold, which is why the Latins, inventors of the concept of caveat emptor, realized, two thousand years before P.T. Barnum, that there’s a sucker born every minute.
Ms. Teague, who seems to agree with sommelier Jason, cites a few other instances of obscure wine that has had or is having its moment in the Millennial sun: “orange wine or Slovenian Chardonnay [and] Pét-Nat,” in addition, of course, to the wine that may have started this whole Millennial-social media thing, Moscato. Each seems to be the product of “rebellious tastes” that “lead [Millennials] into trouble” due to their “enthusiasm for the obscure.” Ms. Teague quotes another young wine director, Taylor Parsons, of the L.A. restaurant Republique (a very good restaurant), who observed that this obsession is due to “Millennials’…incessant search for the next cool thing…”.
How did we get here?
You know, when I was 17 years old, in my first semester at college, my parents drove up from New York to visit me, and my father was shocked by me wearing my white button shirt untucked. I mean, that’s not exactly the most rebelliously outrageous fashion statement in the history of teenage angst, but from my father’s point of view dress shirts were meant to be tucked inside the belt, not fluttering below the waist like a skirt. Boy, was he pissed—and I vowed to myself never, ever to get old and grouchy and complain about “this younger generation.”
To a great extent I’ve avoided that booby trap. But sommelier Jason and wine director Taylor are onto something. The biggest change, wine-wise, that’s occurred, in my judgment, between the Millennial generation and all that preceded them is that, as sommelier Jason points out, “few of his [Millennial] generation peers [take] the time to understand why certain wines are greater than others.” Champagne is better than Pét-Nat, and this is why Pét-Nat is likely to have the lifespan, in terms of popularity, of Moscato; I mean, does anyone even drink Moscato anymore?
But we have to understand why this fundamental shift has occurred. Partly it’s because (as Ms. Teague points out, citing a Wine Opinions poll) “Millennials regard the 100-point scale as the creation—and the provenance—of their older wine-drinking peers.” Actually, Millennials probably wouldn’t even call those of us who are members of older generations “peers”; Ms. Teague was no doubt being kind to avoid more offensive terms. Now, there’s nothing wrong with a new generation kicking over their parents and grandparents and exploring and discovering things on their own. It’s the way Life proceeds. But this tendency, which has occurred throughout human cultural development, has been greatly exacerbated, as never before, by another modern phenomenon: social media.
We used to have, here in America, some sort of social consensus. It extended from our values and practices all the way to our choice of wines. People tended to believe in the same things (the American dream, the Presidency). They went to the same movies, listened to the same music, ate the same kinds of foods, dressed similarly and more or less lived their lives in similar ways. You can criticize this as group-think if you want, and point out, rightfully, that this system harbored all kinds of social injustices: but one thing it got right was that it united us, as a people, so that we weren’t always quarreling over the smallest trivialities.
Not so today anymore, as our smart phones and tablets let us hang out, digitally, with those who really are our true peers: people who think just like us. Trouble is, there are so many sub-groupings, more all the time, and it’s so easy to find them and then to plug yourself in, that we are well on the way to living as much in the digital or virtual reality of online as in the “real” world. It’s McLuhan’s “global village” gone amok, not a “village” anymore but a series of isolated neighborhoods.
But how to account for this obsessive drive for novelty, for “the next cool thing”? I trace it to the pre-Internet media sensations of, first, People Magazine, and then MTV. Both shortened America’s attention span: People’s articles were short, pictorial, celebrity- and freak-oriented and addictively readable (the opposite of the New Yorker), while MTV was famous for never allowing a scene in a music video to last longer than three seconds. A generation that grew up watching those constantly-changing videos developed a craving for novelty, for incessant change—they wanted to be entertained with something new and more interesting than the previous thing, ten or twenty times a minute—think about that!—which suggests something evolutionarily radical and destabilizing. Throughout human history we—our forebears—were required to live with, and be satisfied by, an external reality that hardly ever changed at all. The walls of the cave were the same as they always were, the ground beneath your feet was the same ground you had trod all your life, the people who surrounded you were the same family and tribal members you were born into. Change was non-existent; you found value, meaning and joy, if you found them at all, in the actual world around you.
Because of this continuity, the human race developed the notion of the wisdom of the elder. Life was nasty, brutish and short; the only way to survive was to learn the tricks of the trade from the elders. You could rebel, but at the risk of getting into trouble. Now, I’m very proud of the fact that my generation, the Baby Boomers, did rebel against the stultifyingly uncreative, unconscious, environmentally stupid, racist, homophobic and anti-feminist culture of our parents. We really moved this country, and the world, forward. But maybe, in opening up Pandora’s box, we created a Frankenstein’s monster: Millennials have taken our independent streak and so boosted it up on steroids that, functionally, there is no unifying stitch to American culture anymore. It’s an everyone-out-for-himself world of tribes, cults, peer groupings and associations.
And so we come to the cult of excitement, the lust for novelty that characterizes the Millennial approach to wine. And we come, also, to the concept of “the story” that can be so annoying and misleading. Most of the stories wineries convey, so far as I can tell, are ersatz fairy tales that seem to have little connection to the actual wine. As a wine writer who really, truly loves wine, its history and culture and place in the world, I find it appalling that a winery could hire a P.R. firm to invent a story they thought would sell their wine, instead of focusing on quality; I have nothing against stories, but the phony, predictable ones that routinely hit the media are so trite, so boring. And because of this fractionalizing of our realities into millions and millions of separate spheres, experienced through our portable devices, the world of wine has shrunk to momentary entertainment—to a quickie–to a world where spin and hype and process are more important than the wine itself.
Heavy philosophical opining over at Jamie Goode’s blog the other day. Jamie sat down with “academic philosopher” Professor Barry Smith to talk about the philosophical aspects of wine tasting and specifically about “objectivity and subjectivity,” an old and slippery topic that will never be fully resolved, I think, because the question itself is misleading (more on this later).
The Professor did raise an interesting point: He said “all the great wine critics…say…taste is subjective,” but then these same critics “tell you which vintage is better…and which domain is better” and so, the Professor concludes, “They don’t really believe [tasting] is entirely subjective” because, if it is, then they should not be able to state so definitively (so “normatively” in Smith’s words) that something is better than something else, “normative” being a philosophical term implying the existence of objective standards or “norms.”
Well, the Prof does seem to have identified a paradox. How can tasting be subjective if the taster is giving normative judgments on things? But here’s the problem. No wine critic I’ve ever heard of has said that tasting is just a bunch of random subjectivity; I certainly never did. Let me explain why this whole thing of “objective or subjective” is misleading.
Some pronouncements are objectively true. If I say “Two plus two equals four,” that is fundamentally objective, at least in the Universe we inhabit. If I say “Lafite is more expensive than Two Buck Chuck” that is also objectively true.
With judging wine, though, things get more complicated. Consider: Let’s say we expose three different critics to a single wine, blind, and each reacts differently (as is to be expected). That can’t be explained by the wine: It is what it is—its chemical composition is the same for each of the critics. Therefore the difference is in the critics’ perceptions of the wine. The professor understands this conundrum (which is relativistic): The wine’s chemical properties are absolutely objective (i.e. they exist in the real world and can be measured), and yet the critics’ reactions are absolutely subjective. How are we to make sense of this paradox?
Here’s where the Professor introduces a novel solution: “an intermediate level…in between the chemistry and the variable perceptions.” What is this “intermediate level”? The Professor says it’s “flavour.” “Flavours are emergent properties; they depend on but are not reducible to the chemistry.”
Confused? Me too. I reread this part of the Professor’s answer a couple times and have to say I never did fully grasp it, perhaps because the Professor didn’t make himself clear (it wouldn’t be the first time a highly-trained academic found himself unable to express his theories in plain English). As near as I can tell, this “intermediate level” would form a bridge of sorts between the strictly objective chemistry of the wine (which we all acknowledge exists, independent of our personal reactions to it) and the subjective, personal impression the wine makes on us.
I think this is overthinking things. It has a bit of “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin” Talmudic disputation—argument for the sake of argument. Just because you can arrange words so that they take the form of a question doesn’t mean the question makes sense; but too much of our discourse is based on the premise that, if I can ask it and make it sound like a real question, then it has to have a real answer. It doesn’t.
Look, wine tasting shouldn’t be this complicated; it doesn’t require the skills of an epistomologist. A majority of professional wine tasters will usually agree on the more salient or obvious aspects of a wine—that it’s sweet, for example, or that it has heavy brettanomyces (or that it’s sparkling, for that matter). It’s in the more subtle realms that disagreement sets in (is the wine just a bit reduced? Is it too old? Over-oaked? Tannins too rough?). We should not expect agreement on such subtleties among wine critics, whose palates after all are not laboratory devices but flesh and blood, but that doesn’t mean that wine tasting is either totally objective (it isn’t) or totally subjective (if it were, we wouldn’t have broad agreement on those salient aspects of taste). To expect total agreement is to rest one’s thinking on several illusions: (a) that winetasting is a scientific pursuit (it has elements of science but is not in itself scientific), (b) that the taster will be consistent over time concerning the same wine (she will not be, which the Professor also discerns when he implies a “temporal dimension” to flavor), and (c) moving well beyond wine, that there is a such thing as an “objective reality” that all humans perceive in the same way. Yes…and no. Again, it’s the difference between “more salient aspects” and subtler ones: All humans will agree that the Sun rises in the East (if you disagree, then you’re nuts) but all witnesses to a hit-and-run will not agree that the car that struck the pedestrian was blue. The former (the Sun rising) is a salient perception, the latter (the car color) more subject to differing perceptions. When it comes to such subtleties, humans will always disagree; critics certainly will about wines. That makes life more complicated, and frustrating, and uncertain; but also more interesting, and forces us, in the end, to arrive at our own conclusions.
What are we to make of the winemakers quoted in Karen MacNeil’s latest column in The Somm Journal?
Asked by Karen their views on the word “cult” to describe their wines, the sextet unites in condemning a term they all say they loathe.
Bill Harlan says the word “implies blind followers who lack discernment.” For Doug Shafer, “It’s a manufactured term…I don’t understand what it means.” Dan Kosta calls it “lazy,” Celia Welch “something that simply has investment value,” while Sir Peter Michael dismisses it as “the so-called ‘cult’ status of a wine.” Ann Colgin cracks an uneasy joke: “I was born in Waco, Texas, why is why I’ve always hated the term ‘cult.’” (She refers, of course, to the infamous 1993 siege of the Branch Davidians.)
It may well be that these winemakers and winery owners are made uncomfortable by a term now so widespread that its use instantly telegraphs almost all that an English-speaking wine person needs to know about a “cult” wine: that it is red; that it is probably a Bordeaux-style wine from Napa Valley (Kosta Browne and Peter Michael excepted, but most of them are); that it is produced in small quantities; that it has achieved very high ratings from two, or three, or four top critics; that it is ultra-expensive and—as Ms. Welch implied—that it often is resold (via the Internet and auction houses) to amass sizable profit to the original purchaser. Indeed, as Karen herself, in her article, notes, “now…the term has been stitched into common wine language.”
My sympathies for the sextet, then. “I feel your pain,” as Bill Clinton, using that very phrase, famously said in a figure of speech in 1992 when responding to a critic of his AIDS policy.
So too is there a bit of figurative speaking when the sextet bemoans this most common and useful descriptor of their wines. They mean it, I guess—albeit with qualifications of which they may be unaware. So too there is a bit of disingenuousness. Harlan Estate’s fans may not “lack discernment,” but “blind followers” is a not inaccurate way of describing their lust, which most of us feel is inspired by high scores and the desire to show off, as much as by an appreciation of the wine itself. Dan Kosta’s “lazy” simply affirms that many layers of meaning—all of them accurate—are wrapped up in that single adjective, “cult”; there’s nothing “so-called” about it. As for the “investment value” part, well, that’s why people call it flipping.
The sextet has done well, extraordinarily well, with their wines, but it’s not as if their rare, exalted status happened ipso facto—by itself, with no external causation. The proprietors and their marketing advisors worked exceeding fine to manufacture exactly the desirability that is one of the layers of meaning of the word “cult.” I can speak only of my own personal experience, of course, but consider that:
Ms. Colgin pours her wines by appointment, in the Versailles luxe of her Pritchard Hill mansion. Mr. Harlan similarly tastes by appointment; he once requested that I taste BOND and Harlan Estate in separate places, a few minutes’ drive apart, in order, I suppose, to better appreciate their ambience. Sir Peter has been on endless magazine covers—with the honorific “Sir” conjuring up associations of English royalty and wealth (exactly as it is supposed to, and what is more cultish than the Royal Family of Great Britain?)—while Dan Kosta benefited from his “lazy” characterization to the tune of his share of the $40 million when Kosta Browne was sold, in 2009. So let’s not feel too sorry for these cult wine proprietors.
Look, I love their wines. Used to give ‘em high scores at Wine Enthusiast. I appreciate how hard it is to make them—how much effort goes into every aspect of growing and vinifying. I’m not even particularly bothered by the prices: crazy as they are, the market determines that. And some of these proprietors, the ones I know—perhaps all of them–are wonderful people. I’m just sayin’ that the “woe is me” croc tears aren’t credible. These guys are crying all the way to the bank.