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.
There’s an ill wind blowing in Napa these days. The county seems torn about how it sees its future, which is really about how it sees its current status and its past. This all was the subject of a letter in the St. Helena Star newspaper written by Bill Ryan, who I believe is a columnist. Development versus non-development always is an issue in wine country, but Napa seems to be the most sensitive about it of all regions, perhaps because it is the most famous and most sought after destination for wine tourism.
Mr. Ryan’s letter is a reply to critics who he perceives are “trashing” Napa Valley’s wineries. He seeks to convince readers that all is not “doom and gloom” in Napa. I agree with him—up to a point.
Here’s my take. Traffic really has risen to insane proportions along Highway 29. It’s terrible, but hardly unusual; in post-Recession California, traffic has become worse than ever, from L.A. through the Bay Area to Sacramento and right up to wine country, and it shows no signs of getting better. In my opinion, Governor Brown ought to declare a State of Emergency, summon the Legislature into Emergency Session, and convene a committee of wise men and women to figure out where we go from here. I myself have no idea if there’s a solution, but that’s why we need experts to consider all the alternatives.
To the extent Napa is battling with traffic, concerns about new wineries or winery permits for special events are understandable. I would hate to have to drive between St. Helena and anywhere south, in the morning or during the evening commute.
Mr. Ryan correctly points out that Napa’s golden age, the 1960s and 1970s, accomplished “something that had never been done before in all of history – create a New World wine district that competed favorably with the famous regions of Europe.” Indeed it did. He is proud of his compatriots for so doing. I am too. He suggests that today’s men and women of Napa Valley can help to “find a positive pathway to aiding winery growth and prosperity,” a judgment with which surely no one can disagree. There are such men and women. I don’t know if outsiders who got rich elsewhere and then bought themselves a Napa Valley lifestyle are the kind of people who can lead Napa through its travails, as opposed to the families who have lived there for a long time. Maybe some of them are.
Mr. Ryan also puts his finger on a big issue: “Our key item, cabernet sauvignon, is quickly losing sales and position against pinot noirs and other more drinkable reds.” This is surely true. The reasons are not clear. Is it because of alcohol levels? My own pulse-taking of the market suggests that Cabernet may be down, but you can never count it out. In modern America, fashion has the lifespan of a gnat. Woe be to the winery that bases its long-range business plan on temporary trends.
If Napa Valley really is losing traction to “Sonoma Coast, Anderson Valley and Dundee Hills,” as Mr. Ryan fears, is it too late to reverse the trend? No. But Napa’s biggest enemy may be itself. When every winery in the valley started charging an arm and a leg just to taste a few wines, I thought that was a mistake. A weekend for two now in Napa, including lodging and good meals, will set the happy couple back close to $1,000. You can go out to Jenner or Boonville for a lot less, and less traffic, too. Napa Valley will never be a cheap place to go. But it really has to make sure that it doesn’t price everyone out except Silicon Valley millionaires and rich overseas tourists. The golden age that Mr. Ryan celebrates would have been shocked to sense that nobody except the uber-rich could afford to visit.
I don’t have anything against rosé. I like a good rosé, as long as it’s dry. One of the best tastings I ever went to was at the old Vertigo restaurant, in San Francisco, which claimed to have the nation’s biggest rosé wine list. The bartender set me up at the bar one afternoon before the place opened, and I happily explored the wonderful world of [mostly French] rosés.
What I do have something against is this meme, which seems to have popped up a year or two ago, that rosé is the greatest thing since sliced bread. I mean, you can’t pick up a Sunset Magazine or a wine magazine or an airplane magazine without an article trumpeting rosé as the chic new black. The latest is the San Francisco Chronicle’s Sunday article, “Planet Pink: How rosé became the wine lover’s darling—and a social media sensation.”
Let’s get this straight right away: rosé is not “the wine lover’s darling.” There’s no such thing as “the wine lover’s darling.” It’s not orange wine, and it’s not Prosecco, and it’s not anything else that has hitherto been acclaimed to be the next big thing. Rosé is simply a nice little wine that can be delicious with charcuterie, but “darling”? I think not.
What is it about the wine press that they always have to be discovering some trend? I suppose it’s inherent in the nature of media publications. If you write for a newspaper, then you have to dig up some “news.” If there isn’t any, then you take some current thing and inflate it so that it can plausibly be called “news.” This happens in politics all the time: it’s the “shiny new thing” phenomenon, also known as “shiny object syndrome,” where “a new idea captures your imagination and attention in such a way that you get distracted from the bigger picture and go off in tangents instead of remaining focused on the goal.” In my opinion, Republicans do this all the time: they dangle Obama’s birthplace, or some other nonsense, in front of the electorate, hoping to divert our attention from real issues, such as jobs, healthcare, the cost of college education, climate change and the vast disparity of incomes in America—issues for which that political party has no answers.
Wine writers are not quite as cynical or calculating as political operatives, but “shiny object syndrome” is something they indulge in due to the pressures of their jobs. One couldn’t really publish a wine section in a major daily newspaper and say, “There’s nothing particularly new in the wine industry today,” could one? So you come up with yet another “darling.”
Now, what’s this about “a new social media sensation”? Same old same old. If you want to bolster your case that something really is a darling, then you go to the Google machine and find as many glowing references to it online as you can. That bolsters your case: not only is it your claim that something is a darling, but all those wise people out there on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter are saying the same thing! Therefore it must be true: for social media doesn’t lie, exaggerate or distort, it is a magical expression of authentic thinking in the world, and thus the perfect tool for trendspotting.
Well, I am being sarcastic, of course. Social media is filled with the same ridiculousness as life itself. The rule of social media is fifteen minutes of fame, after which the phenomenon in question sinks back into obscurity, to be replaced by the next “darling.”
Besides, what if rosé really is the new “darling”? Does that make you want to run out and find a rosé? Maybe you’re the type of person who feels that you don’t want to miss out on something that everybody else knows about. If that’s the case, it’s not rosé you’re looking for. But, as I said, rosé can be delightful, especially during the kind of heat wave that California is now experiencing. It’s forecast to be one of the longest heat waves we’ve had in years—started yesterday and will continue at least through this week. This is not what growers need at this time: it will profoundly speed up the ripening process on those grapes not already picked, leading to a possible crush rush; there will be cases of sunburnt fruit; and if you can’t find pickers to harvest your grapes in time, you’re going to have sugar spikes to deal with.
I am off on another road trip for Jackson Family Wines, down to Newport Beach for a fancy dinner. This time, alas, I must leave Gus behind, but he’s in good hands with my family. Have a great day. Grab yourself a nice rosé, chill it, and savor it later this afternoon by your pool, if you have a pool. If you don’t, savor it anyway.