We entered it as stealthily as we seem to be exiting it: the era of the Big Critic, which began, roughly speaking, around 1980 with the rise of Wine Spectator and its cadre of writers, and then really burst into prominence with the emergence of The Wine Advocate and its owner, Robert M. Parker.
That was 34 years ago—three and a half decades in which America gradually got used to the idea of a handful of (mostly white male) wine critics who were the Promethean equivalent of the faces on Mount Rushmore:
Stupendous, larger-than-life names, known to everybody who cared about wine, legends in their own time, whose opinions could elevate a winery to heavenly heights, or crush it mercilessly.
For thirty-four years this lopsided culture presided. It changed the face of the wine industry, especially in California but even in France, and its influence shaped the evolution of everything from winemaking style to marketing and even the kinds of foods we eat. That this handful of Big Critics was anointed to almost holy status was not their own fault, or their plan, and perhaps not even their desire: uneasy lies the head that wears the crown, which is why the description you heard most often of the personality of the Big Critics was “humble,” as if people were surprised they weren’t the height of arrogance. The Big Critics were aware of the incongruity of themselves being accorded all this power, and seemed almost embarrassed by it.
So, it was not their own fault. Whose, then? Maybe “fault” is the wrong word; there was nothing wrong with this crazy new system, it just happened. Like Athena springing full-blown from the head of Zeus,
the Big Critic was forged into being by the Zeitgeist of a Boomer nation suddenly all grown up and responsible for itself. America found herself in thrall to this handful of super-beings, half-man, half-deity–big fish in a small pond, perhaps, but no less awesome for that.
And yet there always seemed something “faulty” about it, didn’t there? One heard, from the recesses of the wine community, sounds of concern that “it’s come to this,” that such a handful of men could cause entire segments of the business to sway or topple. It was heard in whispers, over drinks at the bar: “I can’t believe the influence he has,” although nobody seemed truly to mind too much because, after all, almost everyone stood to gain from the phenomenon: producers, for whom a high score would be a bonanza; merchants, who needed no longer to form their own judgments but could simply shelf-talk someone else’s; other critics, who could gaze up at Rushmore and fantasize “There might be I, someday…”…
We will look back at these 34 years someday as a sort of fever-haze we went through, a national delirium. Someday, someone will ask her grandfather, “Is it really true your generation wouldn’t buy a wine unless a Big Critic told you to?” and Grandpa will smile ruefully and admit that, Yes, that’s the way it was, but you have to understand the times, the context…We were a young wine-drinking country, we needed help and guidance, we didn’t realize at the time how slavish the whole thing was, and besides, everybody else was doing it, we were all in it together, how could we have known it was only a fever-dream?
Why do I say the 34 years is over? Well, maybe it’s not. It could turn out to be 36 years, or 41 years, but by 2025 I can’t see the Big Critic thing remaining in any form, except memory, or perhaps in the mind of someone who fancies himself a Big Critic but isn’t really. The death knell came, of course, with the rise of the Internet and social media, which formed the basis for what is called “citizen journalism,” a lofty-sounding phrase that means, simply, that anybody can write anything and launch it into the universe, forever, with a keystroke. This is “publishing,” of a sort; it is words on a page (or screen), read by people who are interested in such things. And, occasionally, it does rise to the rigorous standards according to which modern journalism has been practiced for 100 years.
But the very universality of the Internet has proven to be the undoing of the era of the Big Critic. It’s not an either-or situation—I mean, we can have 1,000 citizen journalist wine bloggers co-existing with an aging cadre of Big Critics for a certain amount of time. But it’s an unwieldy tension; it can’t go on for much longer, because it’s inherently unbalanced: 5 or 6 Big Critics on one side of the seesaw, 1,000 and counting citizen journalists on the other side, there is no longer equilibrium, the center cannot hold. Somebody wins in such an unequal contest. The Big Critics lose, or fall off the seesaw; the citizen journalists are the victors.
And that changes everything. America changed when the populace that was not originally given the right to vote by the Founders—women, slaves, non-landowners, 18 year olds—eventually obtained that right. That tectonic shift in the weight of the voting population radically impacted the course of our country’s history: we became more “democratic” (with a small “d”), a nation in which—in theory—everyone’s voice was counted as equal. (Whether it really worked that way or not is another story…)
I for one will not regret the passing of the torch. The era of the Big Critic was fun, it was interesting, I personally benefited from it, but everything must pass. Life marches on and stops for nothing. “Eras” happen more frequently these days than they used to, and they last for a shorter time, too. The Paleozoic Era lasted for hundreds of millions of years; the Victorian Era for 64 years; we now measure eras in months (the current time has been referred to as the Era of the Selfie). It may be that future eras will be measured in microseconds.
If the Big Critic is gone (or going) then of course we are now entering the era of the Small Critic. When anyone can be a critic then everyone can be a critic: the ultimate democratization of wine criticism results in claims like this:
From clueless to connoisseur in an instant. Welcome to the Internet! Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, I don’t know. But it does seem to be related to everything else in the world that’s falling apart.
It’s a slow news day, it’s been a long week, so you’ll have to cut me some slack here with this rather tongue-in-cheek post that actually does contain a kernel of observational sanity. An online news site, Uncover California, has a story today that claims “Many people believe the promising wine region of the Valle de Guadalupe in Baja California, Mexico, has the potential to become ‘the next Napa Valley’…”.
I did a quick Google search on “the next Napa” and it resulted in 9,170 hits. The first was called “5 Reasons why Lodi, California is the Next Napa Valley.”
Another is headlined “Texas Hill Country: The Next Napa?” (I like the way it hedges its bets with that strategic little question mark, rather like the fig leaf that Renaissance painters used to discretely place over Adam’s private parts.)
Then there’s good ole Fox News, which doesn’t exactly call New Mexico, Virginia and Ohio “the next Napa” but but implies they could be: “Look out Napa: 5 up and coming wine regions.” (Hey Rupert Murdoch, tell your writers not to forget the proper use of the hyphen.)
Finally, “Is the North Fork the Next Napa Valley?” asks Hamptons, an online zine.
Some of this is crass promotional over-zeal. Some of it may actually be believed by the people claiming it. But it’s an interesting angle on the hold that Napa Valley has on our collective imagination.
That there currently is only one Napa Valley is indisputable, the way there is only one Pope or one World Series champ. But speculation over who the next one will be is one of the delights of the media, and especially of headline writers, a breed unto themselves whose role in formulating the template of the day has never been properly analyzed. (My favorite headline of all time goes all the way back to 1975: FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD.” That would be President Gerald Ford and New York City, respectively.)
Sorry to end the fun, kids, but there won’t be a “next Napa Valley.” The time is gone when an American wine region can leap to the top of the charts and fire everybody up. That train left the station in the 1990s and isn’t coming back. The public is too smart to fall again for such an anointing by the media, especially the wine media, whom it doesn’t much trust these days.
Have a great weekend!
It is fairly common, in the anecdote-sphere (a universe parallel to the blogosphere), for knowledgeable people to say that superpremium California wine is nearly impossible to sell back East, or even east of the Rockies.
According to this take, nobody in America likes California wine anymore, except, possibly, Californians—and even they (or so it’s claimed) are having second thoughts. The culprit? According to the anecdote-spinners, it’s due to the “imbalance” of California wine, an accusation that usually includes alcohol levels, fruity extraction and oak.
The latest expression of this theory comes via a regular reader and valued commenter on my blog. I don’t know if he wants me to name him, so I won’t, but here’s part of what he wrote yesterday, on my “I weigh in on Jamie Goode” post. I will quote him in some detail, because his points are powerfully expressed, and, as I say, one often hears similar views expressed.
“Last Winter [he wrote], I counted the glass pours at three Michelin 1* restaurants while in Chicago, all of whom carry some California wines. The breakdown for 54 total glass pours was 39 European, 9 Southern Hemisphere and 6 Domestic (of which some were Oregon, Washington and Midwestern). That is marginalization [of California], and if the Lords and Ladies of Napashire dare not speak of it with wine writers or their neighbors and let the unsold cases quietly pile up in American Canyon awaiting the longed for Chinese buyer, you can damn well bet that it is coming up in conversations with their accountants.”
I’ll quote more of his comment in a minute. First, let me weigh in that my commenter is absolutely correct that Napa Valley winemakers and owners do not speak of their cases “piling up in American Canyon,” presumably at one of the wine storage warehouses along Highway 29. At least, they don’t speak of it to me. So my commenter is right about that. And although I have no certain knowledge that such is the case, the anecdote-sphere also contains numerous allegations that it is indeed the case: that is, cases and cases of unsold triple-digit Cabernet piling up someplace.
My commenter also wrote: “there are a lot of good, well balanced and not excessive California wines that are probably being unfairly excluded from restaurants and wine bars. Unfortunately, these exceptions that prove the rule are suffering for the sins of the last two decades of excesses in both winemaking style and hubris that came to define California and Napa Valley.”
The reason I’ve long been in such disagreement with the anti-California (and anti-Napa Valley) bashers is because, due to my recent job, I had the opportunity to taste so much great, interesting California wine. And while it’s true that there’s a lot of crapola out there, you can say the same thing about every wine country and wine region in the world. Let us not throw the baby out with the bathwater! I simply have tasted too many wonderful California wines to not realize that our state makes incredible wines; and I often pitied the bashers for not being able to taste all the good stuff I was privileged to try.
So my commenter also is correct when he states that the “good, well balanced” California wines are “unfairly excluded” from the conversation. But whose fault is that? And when did we arrive at this weird, bizarre situation where so many influential and apparently knowledgeable people—Americans all!—are so down on California wine?
It’s quite unprecedented for a large chunk of a wine-producing country’s cognoscenti to hate their own country’s wine. I can’t think of anything similar, in the long history of winemaking in Europe. If anything, the French (and, to a lesser extent, the Germans and Italians and Spanish) have been positively chauvinistic about their wines, as well they should have been; they were proud of what their nations contributed. I, too, am immensely proud of California’s contributions to the world wine scene. So, from an historical persepctive, does the situation here in the U.S.—with so much self-loathing–say something about California wine? Or does it say more about the people bashing it? “The question,” as Jesse Jackson, playing himself on Saturday Night Live, once said, “is moot.”
As reluctant as I am to enter the minefield of any discussion about “natural wine,” I’m going to do so, because I have views on the topic, and because Jamie Goode just won a Wine Bloggers Award and if he can opine on the subject, so can I!
Jamie supported natural wine rather obliquely the other day on his blog. He didn’t quite come out and praise natural wine in multi-faceted specifics so much as give a face smack to another writer, Bruce Palling, who it seems had the temerity to criticize natural wine. Palling called the product of natural winemaking techniques “undrinkable rubbish,” a characterization Jamie took issue with, and he (Palling) also said wine writers have “a tendency…to try and keep their head down for a quiet life and never actually articulate how much of it [i.e., natural wine] they believe to be undrinkable…”.
Jamie shot that statement down, too, although it’s funny that in his article he manages to avoid any definition of “natural wine”; in fact at one point he writes, “Forget the discussions about the term ‘natural’ because that’s a sideshow.” I don’t see how defining the term to which we’re referring is “a sideshow” because, after all, if we don’t know what we’re talking about, then we shouldn’t be talking about it, should we? But for Jamie, the importance of defining the term “natural wine” is insignificant, compared to the “truly great” nature of “some natural wines”; people who don’t “get” these wines don’t have “the energy or inclination” to try them because they’re “slightly smug,” which is what he accuses Palling of being.
Well, talk about “slightly smug”! I do agree with Palling on the “head down for a quiet life” thing: there are certain topics most wine writers approach with trepidation, because these topics are complicated, controversial and ill-defined; they thus are the source of major risks (to one’s reputation; to one’s mental state; who wants to be attacked on the twittersphere over such perilous issues?). “Natural wines” is such a topic; there are others for which the philosophy “Life’s too short” apply. What is natural wine? What is sustainably-made wine? What is biodynamic wine, organic wine, green wine? I now have some knowledge of what “sustainable” means due to my job, because Jackson Family Wines is committed to sustainability and so I have caused myself to study it more closely.
But “natural wine”? I have no more idea what it really is than does Jamie. I do admit to having a sense that the whole concept is slightly muddled; there can be a cultish aspect to it, as there can about anything arcane, in which a few people believe passionately and the rest of us worry that we may be missing out on something vital. But in this case I’m not really worried. My attitude toward natural wine is the same as my attitude toward religion: You’re free to believe anything you want, as long as you don’t try to make me believe it.
Besides, I part ways with Jamie when he implies that the only “vital, dynamic stream of fine wine that is really exciting” these days is coming from the natural wine camp. That is just not true. It reminds me of the old saying “to go native,” which came from British colonial officials, living in conquered places like India, who under the influence of local conditions take on the sympathetic airs of natives, gradually losing their British ways. Or perhaps “Stockholm syndrome” is more apt: hang out long enough with radicals and you might eventually find yourself rather liking them, enough so that their beliefs start to make sense.
Anyhow, I don’t trust the claims of “minimal chemical and technological intervention” made on behalf of natural wine. No winemaker I’ve ever met claims to be in favor of “maximum” chemical and technological intervention. They all talk about hands-off approaches. It’s the first thing a winemaker says when you ask about their winemaking philosophy. But if natural wine consists of, in part, the following: no commercial yeast, no adjustment for acidity, no added sulfites, no fining or filtration (which can lead to instability), can it be any wonder that, every now and then, one runs across natural wines that taste (in Palling’s words) “like putrid apple cider, stale sherry or just as bad – characterless, bland and acidic.” We’ve all had “natural” wines out there that are that bad; one hesitates to mention names (another reason to keep one’s head down in such politically-charged waters is to avoid personal antagonisms), but I could name multiple critics and somms who agree with what I just wrote (and will name names off the record), even if they’re not ready to say so publicly.
So I’m not advocating making natural wines illegal or anything like that. I am saying that sometimes in this modern world, ideology can capture even the most well-meaning wine critic in its grip; and ideology is never a good thing, is it, because it insists that one way, and one way only, is the approved way, and everything else is false. As Palling writes, referring to the D-Day invasion of Europe that spelled the doom of Hitler’s Nazis in World War II, “it personally pains me when anyone tries to force their opinions or taste onto me or anyone else. That, after all, is what thousands of people laid down their lives to prevent, on those beaches in Normandy, precisely 70 years ago.”
Elon Musk made a bit of news last week when his Tesla Motors announced that the company is “opening all its electric car patents to outside use.”
This “open sourcing” means that anyone can use Tesla’s proprietary procedures without having to worry about a patent lawsuit.
Why would a successful company like Tesla give the farm away? Originally, Musk had hoped that “the big car companies would copy our technology and then use their massive…sales and marketing power” to promote electric cars. While this would have presented Tesla with serious competition, it also would have promoted the concept of the electric car, which is a hard sell for most consumers. This “rising tide lifts all boats” concept would, Musk hoped, in the end benefit Tesla.
But it didn’t happen. “The unfortunate reality,” he said, “is…electric car programs…at the major manufacturers are small to non-existent.” Musk therefore is gambling that giving his manufacturing secrets away for free will help lift the tide that will help lift Tesla.
This story neatly dovetails with something that’s been on my mind lately, namely whether a winery in an appellation should promote only itself, or promote also its appellation, which means promoting all the other competing wineries in its appellation. This can be a tough decision for a winery. For example, I remember when I was a critic how surprised I was that Fess Parker Winery almost never put local appellations on their wines, like Santa Ynez Valley. Instead, they put Santa Barbara County. I thought it was wrong then, and told company officials so, but they argued that in their judgment no one had ever heard of Santa Ynez Valley, whereas everyone knew about Santa Barbara (which conjures up images of white-sand beaches, palm trees, movie stars and affluence). When I asked them, in turn, how the public ever would learn about Santa Ynez Valley, if wineries wouldn’t put it on their labels, there was radio silence.
We have a similar situation with regard to the Santa Maria Valley. It’s a great place to grow wine grapes, as I assume readers of this blog know. But it’s off the beaten path; even wine tourists to Santa Barbara County are more likely to visit Santa Rita Hills or Santa Ynez Valley than this northwestern, fairly remote part of the county. How, therefore, should S.M.V. wineries deal with the situation?
In different ways. Although they all (to my knowledge) put Santa Maria Valley on their labels, they still struggle with the public’s general absence of understanding of this region (which is shared, alas, in too many cases by sommeliers and merchants). Therefore, it would stand them all in good stead to promote the valley, but this would mean cooperating together, which is easier said than done. There have been efforts over the years to promote Santa Maria Valley, mainly through a local association, but, having followed these efforts, I have to admit they’ve been fairly tepid. Some influential local powers organized the Chardonnay Symposium a few years ago (with which I was involved), and held it at Byron Winery, where it largely showcased Santa Maria Valley wines. But this year, the Symposium closed up shop and moved north to Shell Beach, so now, even that slight exposure of the valley’s wines to consumers has ended.
My own feeling is that a single winery can’t promote its appellation, especially these lesser-known AVAs. A winery doesn’t have enough money, manpower or clout to pull off the massive consumer educational program that’s needed. It takes collaboration between all the local wineries, but as I said above, this can be politically difficult to achieve, because after all, these wineries are competing against each other. But in the end, collaboration is something they should do. It’s like Ben Franklin’s old woodcut says: Join, or die.
Unity is better than disunity. It worked for Napa Valley: that region promoted itself with ruthless efficiency, so that now, a winery that isn’t even making very distinguished wine benefits from having “Napa Valley” on the label. Even earlier than that, it worked for Bordeaux. Promoting the appellation is a tried-and-true practice.
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I’m off to Anderson Valley today, to spend a little time at Edmeades. It’s been a couple years since I’ve been there and I’m looking forward to it. I’ll be reporting from there for the next several days.
I haven’t written much about my new job because it’s been important for me to keep steveheimoff.com a place independent of whatever job I have, whether it was the guy who wrote wine reviews for Wine Enthusiast or my new position at Jackson Family Wines.
The reason it’s important for me to preserve and protect this space as a sort of safe house is because I have (or think I have) a compact with my readers. That compact is terribly important to me. It’s almost a marriage—I mean, that’s how seriously I take it.
The thing to understand is how hard I’ve had to fight to maintain this blog’s independence. My former employer strongly encouraged me to end it—why, I never could understand. Obviously, I refused. After that experience, I am tremendously grateful to Jackson Family Wines for being supportive of the blog’s continuation.
My official title is director of wine communications and education. As such—and things are still evolving—my work is mainly confined to three areas: writing (they call it “content” creation), giving advice on various matters of my expertise to colleagues within the company, and working with outside gatekeepers in the ongoing work of tasting Jackson Family Wines.
This latter task is driven largely by the fact that there is a body of opinion among some people that Kendall-Jackson is a single wine company and that all of the company’s other brands must somehow be associated with K-J. That perception—real or imagined—is, of course, nonsense. Mentioning only some of the California wineries, it is clear, or should be to anyone who pays attention to these things, that Champ de Réves, Edmeades, Stonestreet, Verité, Hartford Court, Cambria, Atalon, Cardinale, Freemark Abbey, Mt. Brave, Lokoya, Byron and Matanzas Creek, etc. (I could go on) are wineries of the highest caliber; in my years as California editor of Wine Enthusiast I gave many high scores to their wines, including several 100 point scores (and I had the reputation of being stingy with perfect scores). I personally long ago formed the opinion, which was based on fact, that Jackson Family Wines was a large company, with brands at virtually every price point, and moreover, those brands met or exceeded in quality their competitors—and often at a lower price. This gave me great respect for the company.
So when I began to hear, from various others in this company, of an outside attitude that K-J somehow impugns the other brands in the portfolio, it was rather shocking. I wonder how anyone working in this business could fail to make the distinction between price tiers. After all, one doesn’t hear of a gatekeeper’s revolt against Mouton Rothschild because its parent company also produces Mouton Cadet, which is said to sell around 1 million cases annually, making it very much a commodity wine. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Besides, I have never heard anyone offer any reasonable argument to dispute the concept that a large wine company can walk and chew gum at the same time: that is, produce fairly-priced wine in large quantities for the everyday wine drinker, and simultaneously make ultrapremium wine, based on estate-grown grapes from the finest coastal appellations, and vinified by some of the top winemakers in California.
If I have any gripe at all with the upper tier of the industry—not the wines themselves, but the critics and somms who concern themselves with those wines—it’s that they so often give the impression that the everyday consumer doesn’t matter—that everyday-priced wines, the kind you find in a supermarket, are somehow illegitimate when compared to the little garagiste labels. This, too, is nonsense, and patently unfair. At Wine Enthusiast, I developed an affection for the everyday segment of the market (and the magazine reflected that affection). It always made me happy to give a Best Buy to an under-$15 wine, because I appreciated, having come from that part of the population that can’t afford expensive wine, that some wine companies take seriously the notion of making inexpensive quality wine, and I also knew how technically difficult that can be on a consistent basis, across vintages. That is one reason why Kendall-Jackson so often got my nod.
So what is it about some gatekeepers that makes them unable to appreciate the qualities of an ultrapremium wine made by the same company that produces an everyday wine? I have to confess that this is an aspect of my job I take most seriously, as I have great respect for “the truth,” and truth, after all, ought to live at the heart of every conversation about wine. Does the wine taste good? Is it clean and well-made? Does it drink well with food? Does it have the interest and complexity to satisfy over the course of a meal? These are the criteria by which sommeliers and gatekeepers should judge wines—not some hocus-pocus about scarcity or romance or garages.
I mean not to impugn any gatekeepers. I was one myself, so I know how hard these people work, and how honest they feel in their own hearts regarding the wines they recommend. I simply look forward to sitting down with them, as best I can, and asking them to put aside whatever stereotypes they may harbor, and perceive reality as it actually is: the wine inside the glass.