To say that I was shocked when I read Andy Blue’s editorial in the latest edition of The Tasting Panel would be an understatement.
It’s a sharp, almost brutal attack on California Petite Sirah—so malicious in tone that I truly don’t understand where Andy is coming from—at least, the Andy I’ve known, liked and admired for decades. He’s a polite, gentlemanly type, thoughtful, wry and scholarly–not given to diatribes or the kind of invective displayed in this hit piece.
He calls Petite Sirah a “garbage grape” and a “Frankenstein monster.” He is “offended” by it, as though Petite Sirah had personally insulted him. In what is possibly the most hyperbolic exaggeration I’ve ever read in a wine article, he speculates that Petite Sirah is “European pay back for America exporting phylloxera to them,” thereby equating the grape and wine with a pest that kills vines and almost destroyed the French wine industry. He supposes that Petite Sirah is possibly better than “toxic bathtub gin,” but—one feels—not by much. He concludes that no one “in their right mind” would choose to drink it, even over Barbera, one of the most disagreeable wines in California.
I mean, what’s going on?
I’m not saying Petite Sirah is the greatest wine in the world. I drink very little; I would not normally buy it for myself. But there are hundreds of varieties and wines I would not normally buy for myself, but which I can be objective about as a critic; I don’t loathe them the way Andy seems to hate Petite Sirah. Even the title of Andy’s piece, P.S., I Don’t Get It, seems designed to mock P.S. I Love You, the Petite Sirah trade and marketing group.
Petite Sirah has its place, definitely, in the world of robust, full-bodied and dry red wines. And there is something historically Californian about it. I’ve particularly enjoyed bottles from Madrigal, Titus, Envy, Ridge, Kent Rasmussen, Zina Hyde Cunningham, Sirius, Turley and Grgich Hills, among others (and you’ll notice that most of those came from Napa Valley). Don’t forget, some of the ancient vine field blends we so rightly celebrate in California are based, largely or in part, on Petite Sirah. You want to talk ageabiilty? A great Petite Sirah will last longer than any Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignon.
Look, properly grown, well-made Petite Sirah can be a dramatic, rich, enjoyable wine; most of them are no longer the monsters they used to be, as vintners treat the vines and wines with more respect, ending up with balanced, less alcoholic bottlings. And Petite Sirah is the ideal partner to the kinds of foods restaurateurs serve up at P.S. I Love You’s “Dark and Delicious” event, held annually at Kent Rosenblum’s Rock Wall Wine Co.: pork and beef stews, short ribs, sausages, burgers, and anything with chocolate. So, old pal Andy–a great entrepreneur and brilliant media idea man–I think you maybe woke up on the wrong side of bed when you wrote that piece.
Lo and behold, the very next day, Macy’s announced that they were doing exactly that: they dumped Trump.
Much as I would love to take personal credit for that, I can’t. Hundreds of thousands of people signed the petition, which Macy’s apparently took very seriously. And so Donald Trump is learning that words, even hastily uttered, have consequences.
That was an example of what social media does best: galvanizing popular outrage and channeling it in effective ways. Another example is this issue of the confederate flag in South Carolina. We know how that turned out: they decided to remove the flag from their statehouse. Certainly, South Carolina’s governor, Nikki Haley, had a lot to do with the outcome, with her brave personal reaction; but in reality, it was “social media, not businesses or politicians, [that] drove [the] flag removal,” in the words of this perceptive San Francisco Chronicle piece.
Almost as soon as the dreadful Charleston church shootings were over and it was learned that the shooter fancied the confederate flag, activists began a concerted campaign to force major corporations, such as Walmart and Sears, to stop selling confederate flag-related products. Those companies responded quickly. Anti-confederate flag sentiment went viral on Twitter and other social media, and voters besieged South Carolina lawmakers, who also responded quickly, by voting to remove the flag.
I saw this power of social media to politically stimuate huge numbers of people as early as 2011, when tens of thousands of Egyptians, communicating via Twitter, mobilized in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to protest against then-President Hosni Mubarak’s repressive regime. The dictatorship responded in exactly the wrong way: by attempting to suppress Twitter and Facebook, “a grave mistake” that was “the beginning of the end” for the regime. The author Wael Ghonim has called this spectacular continuation of the Arab Spring “Revolution 2.0” in his book of the same name.
This is what social media was designed for: it encourages communication and sharing, empowers and amplifies the voiceless, and can bleed over into the mainstream media when things go viral—thus influencing the course of history. I could cite instance after instance of social media’s political muscle, from the people’s overthrow of Filipino President Joseph Estrada and the similar overthrow of Spanish prime minister Jose Maria Aznar to the Catholic Church’s troubles with pedophile priests.
I celebrate social media for these reasons—and I keep in mind that social media also has a less spectacular but no less wonderful use: that of merely allowing us to stay in touch with friends (both real and digital), to learn from them and be amused and inspired and make our lives less disconnected from each other. That is a fantastic thing, McLuhan’s global village writ digitally. What is far less clear is whether social media can play a strong role in the prosaic business of selling things. That is, as Dorothy noted, a horse of a different color.
Prosecco, as you know, has been on a roll lately, but when you read headlines like this:
“PROSECCO OVERTAKING CHAMPAGNE AS SPARKLING WINE OF CHOICE”, you know that something far more important than the ephemeral popularity of a particular wine is happening. Why is Prosecco so hot?
- Millennials coming of age
- The Great Recession
Concerning Millennials, they “aren’t earning as much money as their parents did when they were young,” a situation that’s even worse for Millennial women. Saddled with student debt, they’re unable to afford homes, and in general are feeling financial pressures in a way their parents (my generation) never did (at least, until the Great Recession struck). So when it comes to discretionary spending, Millennials are spending downward.
Speaking of that Great Recession, it impacted all of us. Trillions of dollars went down the drain. “The wealth of most Americans down 55% since recession,” CBS MoneyWatch headlined in 2013. We’ve made some of that back since then, but Americans of all ages still are feeling the pinch, which is why U.S. economic growth has been so sluggish.
Under the circumstance, you have to consider two things concerning sparkling wine: quality and price. Simply put, Champagne is expensive, Prosecco isn’t. The average price of a bottle of French Champagne on a restaurant wine list is $117. I couldn’t find anything online concerning the average price of Prosecco, but on Snooth, they list many Proseccos, mostly below $20 a bottle, so even if you double that for a restaurant wine list, it’s only about $40.
And qualitatively, as we all know, a good Prosecco is as satisfying as Champagne. So why would anyone choose to buy Champagne, except for image and perceptions?
For me, the issue here isn’t about Prosecco per se, it’s about the average American looking for less expensive wines than perhaps her parents used to. I was up in Napa Valley yesterday, and we were chatting about expensive wine, and how and if these pricy bottles of Napa Cab will continue to exist into the future. Someone asked me my opinion, and I replied that I’ve been wrong in my prognostications so many times in the past that I’ve basically given up on the prediction game. But still, a part of me just can’t see folks who are, say, in their twenties today spending $50 or $60 per bottle retail as they hit middle age, or spending $100-plus for a bottle in a restaurant. I just think some things in America have fundamentally changed: the Great Recession, as I said, but something else: We’ve become a more frugal country, less apt to consume conspicuously. The outrages of the super-rich have changed our sense of right and wrong; our moral compass has swung back to what it was at this country’s beginnings: living simply.
At the height of the Great Recession, there was much talk of “The New Frugality,” as for instance here and here; everyone agreed it was a reality, and the only question was whether it would continue once the Great Recession lifted. Well, the Great Recession now has lifted (the country actually hasn’t been in recession for years), but, as Forbes noted just last year, “an enduring ‘New Frugality’…has Americans of prime working age, mainly 25 to 55, spending less, working less, and buying cheaper.” That, it seems to me, is likely to mark this nation for many years to come. It’s why people are preferring Prosecco to Champagne, and why we’re likely to see a similar switch in other wine types, if it hasn’t already happened.
There used to be sexism in the wine business. I know, because I know some wonderful women winemakers who began their careers in the 1970s and told me their stories. Even though they had winemaking degrees, they couldn’t get hired anyplace but the laboratory, because the white men who owned the wineries thought they’d be incompetent as winemakers.
Well, we don’t have sexism anymore, thank goodness. But we have another form of prejudice that’s just as pernicious: ageism.
Read, for example, this piece, from Snooth, that refers to “old white guys.” The author of the Snooth piece, James Duren, is quoting Jeff Siegel, the proprietor of a wine blog called winecurmudgeon.com. In the Snooth piece, Duren is writing about the demise of the point-scoring system (yes, again…yawn), and apparently came across something Siegel had written on his blog (I tried to find it but couldn’t, so I will trust that Duren is quoting Siegel accurately). Siegel was going on about how social media is changing wine is such fundamental ways that the entire sales and distribution chain is being upset, which, he claimed, is “something the old white guys can’t even begin to understand.”
Okay, let’s break this down.
First of all, Siegel isn’t exactly some cool young dude. Here’s a picture of him from his website
that makes it clear his younger self is fast disappearing in the rear view mirror. So words of wisdom, Mr. Siegel: Be careful whom you disparage. What goes around, comes around, in this world of karma.
But even worse than Siegel’s uncalled-for rudeness is its absolute incorrectness. I’ve worked with plenty of “old white guys” in the wine industry who are a lot smarter and more successful than Mr. Siegel will ever be. In fact, the winery owners and executives I know understand precisely how social media, online buying and all that is rocking their world. They’re trying to deal with it the best they can, the same as everyone else: the problem, as I’ve pointed out for years, is that there are no easy solutions.
Look: When you’re a little blogger, it’s easy to pontificate. That’s what some bloggers do: From the ivory tower of their desktops they type the most vapid absurdities into their computers, then hit the “Publish” button and think they come across like Einstein declaring the Theory of Relativity.
But not a single one of these bloggers actually runs a wine business! (If I’m wrong, let me know. But I don’t think I am.) They’ve never sold a damn bottle of wine, never had to hit gridlocked roads visiting with on-premise or off-premise accounts, never had to come up with a marketing campaign, never had to develop a winery website, never sent a wine sample off to a critic, never lived with the fallout of a bad review, never hosted a winemaker dinner, never had to meet a payroll for field workers and secretaries, never had to fix a tractor on a cold rainy morning, never stayed up for three days and nights doing a harvest. None of that, nada, zero, zilch. And yet they think that being a blogger puts them in a position to criticize older winery owners and tell them how to run their business.
What is this fear and loathing these not-so-young bloggers have for “old white guys” anyway? Their psychological hangup obviously is connected to their hatred of point scores, and of wine reviewing in general, which they claim is elitist. But then these same bloggers turn around and review wines (from free samples, of course), just like older critics do—and yet without the experience, without the chops, without the context.
Perhaps they’re just acting out subconscious frustrations they feel towards their own parents. Whatever the cause, their anger, rudeness and vitriol is not only ugly, but will hurt them in the long run, because one thing that doesn’t change about the wine industry is that it’s a small town where everyone knows everyone else, and people value respectfulness and kindness. You want to succeed in this business for the long run? Do your homework, learn your stuff, play nice in the sandbox, and wait your turn. You don’t have to tear others down to boost yourself up.
And as for social media completely disrupting the traditional sales model and replacing it with a bunch of “friends recommending to friends,” if you believe that, I’ve got a bridge to sell you. Ain’t gonna happen anytime soon. Social media has become a useful tool in the overall tool kit with which to market and sell wine, but it’s just that: a tool, and not even a very good one, if we’re going to be brutally honest. We’ve been having this conversation now for eight years and social media still hasn’t displaced traditional marketing and sales approaches. If it worked as well as people like Mr. Siegel claim, don’t you think proprietors would have dismantled their sales and marketing departments—thereby saving tons of money—and simply depended on social media? Of course they would have. But they know something that Mr. Siegel doesn’t: Social media doesn’t work as advertised by its adherents. Are these proprietors simply “old white guys who can’t even begin to understand” how the real world works? Or are they savvy businessmen who require proof, not simple, self-serving assertions, that something works? The latter, methinks. No, meknow.
Predictions of the demise of almost anything are usually exaggerated, as Mark Twain had occasion to note. He was very much alive when it was reported that he had died. Along the same lines, neither are sommeliers about to go the way of the dodo bird, as suggested in this piece, called “Are sommeliers becoming obsolete?”, that appeared in the Chicago edition of Crain’s Business. (You may not be able to read the entire piece if you’re not a subscriber or a particularly adroit Googler.)
The author, Maggie Hennessy, suggests that today’s somms are becoming obsolete due to the phenomenon of “sommelier 2.0”– somms moving more and more into the business, management and financial sides of their restaurants. This not only takes them steadily away from wine, it forces them to concentrate on beer and spirits—beverages they may have only a passing knowledge of and interest in, but that are increasingly important to a restaurant’s bottom line.
I know a sommelier or two—or fifty—and I’ve seen definite changes in how they do their jobs. It used to be that the sommelier was driven more by the discovery of interesting wines and the personal passion she held for them. Of course, he or she had to contribute to the restaurant’s profits, but in the larger scheme of things, the somm was seen as adding a certain esthetic to the operation. It fell to the kitchen to be the profit center; one had the feeling that restaurant ownership felt the sommelier brought added value, in the form of a clear commitment on management’s part to a fine-wine program, which was something diners seemed to appreciate and expect.
Esthetics, unfortunately, don’t pay rent or employee salaries and benefits. The squeeze has been building on fine-dining establishments for years, and was vastly accentuated by the Great Recession, which forced many of them out of business, and compelled others to take a more draconian approach to the bottom line. This is when somms really began feeling the heat: Management said, in effect, “Show us how your monetary results in a return on the investment we’ve made in you, or else we’ll show you the door.”
This is understandable, but it also created a crisis for sommeliers, who suddenly found themselves in an existential dilemma. Were they first and foremost wine lovers whose primary task was to discover gems the public might not know about? Were they simply curators of bloated wine lists stuffed with First Growths and cult Cabs they, themselves, neither could afford nor particularly liked? Or were they mere tools of the CFO, part of a sales staff whose sole responsibility was making money by pretending to be independent arbiters?
Obviously, all somms participate to some extent in all three of these areas. It’s a matter of emphasis. But the point of the Chicago Crain’s article, with which I agree, seems to be that the emphasis has been shifting over the last seven or eight years. We see this, not only anecdotally, but in terms of the sheer numbers of sommelier accreditation programs out there, which is greatly increasing the applicant pool. There are more somms available for employment than there are jobs, frankly, and so management is able to select—not simply the most educated somm, but the one who is thought best able to make money. That requires sound business and management skills, not simply an extraordinary knowledge of wine.
So where does the somm go from here? Is he an endangered species—“becoming obsolete,” as suggested by in the Chicago-Crain’s headline? No. The fact that we’re talking about “sommeliers,” and in fact that so many people are talking about somms, means that we—in the industry, and those advanced consumers—have some weird kind of fascination with the cult of the somm. The sommelier has seized hold of the American wine-drinking imagination in a way few would have thought possible.
But the sommelier’s role is changing, radically, and we do need to recognize it. Less driven by passion than profits, today’s somm needs to be understood by diners in a different way: Not so much a pure messenger of extraordinary wines, or an objective educator, but a representative of the restaurant’s management. That, I should think, would shift our perception of the sommelier in dramatic and significant ways.
Here, you see, is the false dichotomy that infects so many of our wine conversations today: that there are “two different kinds” of wine and that we, as consumers and writers, “must pick one or the other,” as if we were in a vinous civil war where no one is permitted to be neutral and like both sides equally.
That is once again the premise of this think piece in San Francisco Magazine, whose very headline starkly presents the choice said to be confronting us: “Should You Be Drinking Parker Bombs or Trendy Reds?” The article lists six red wines from California that all received “a perfect score from the Wine Advocate” and then contrasts them with six other red California wines “which probably aren’t going to net any 100-point scores…”.
Civil wars are dreadful things. Most people caught up in them, I suspect, would prefer to be left alone to live their lives in peace, but the fact of a civil war makes that practically impossible. We saw this in our own American Civil War (particularly in the border States) and we see it again, horribly, in places like Syria and Iraq, where common people—husbands and wives, children and old people, farmers and merchants and mechanics and teachers—get sucked against their wills into the crosshairs of the most disastrous arguments. Sometimes—often—it seems like these are arguments between maniacs, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” as Macbeth described Life, “a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more.”
I submit that this false dichotomy is just such “sound and fury,” that it signifies absolutely nothing, except the unfortunate tendency of the media to fasten on anything that smells of controversy. Those proffering the argument that there are two kinds of wines, and that we must choose, frankly are almost exclusively from the “trendy reds” side of the spectrum. You never hear people who like Harlan or Verité or Saxum say that lighter red wines, such as Domaine de la Cote or Frog’s Leap Cabernet, are undrinkable. No sane or fair wine writer would take that position; if she were to do so, her credibility would be instantly undermined.
And yet the opposite is not the case; that is, writers and somms who like a lighter style of red wine (whatever that means) are able to charge, with impunity, that bigger red wines (whatever that means) are somehow marred or tainted or suspect.
How did we ever arrive at this impasse? More importantly, why do we suffer it to exist, in the exchanges that pass for our national wine conversation, which is supposed to be polite and reasoned, not polemical? This is why I have referred to the purveyors of the “lighter” side of the argument as the Taliban. (See here and here, for instance.)
An extremist, whether religious or cultural or stylistic, who insists that his interpretation of scripture is the only correct one is, by definition, a radical. And haven’t we seen that radicals of all stripes are the last things we need in this world?
So I return again to my old argument: When it comes to “lighter” or “more powerful” red wines, we don’t have to choose. We don’t have to feel as though we must choose, just because some authority (a sommelier, a newspaper columnist) tells us we must. People are so uncertain and insecure about wine; they look for whatever slender reed they can find, to grasp onto lest they be sucked into the quicksand of utter confusion. And this is why those purveyors of false choices do such a disservice to American wine drinkers. By creating the pretense that there is a true canon, as opposed to a false religion, they add to the confusion and, in the process, sow dissention where there ought to be nothing but respectful analysis and personal choice. It’s not and never has been “either-or.” It’s both. I wish that this phony argument, which now has enjoyed more than its expected fifteen minutes of strutting on the stage, would, like Macbeth’s walking shadow, go away and be heard no more.