I liked Eric Asimov’s mea culpa last week when he wrote about how he had mistaken a Syrah for a Pinot Noir, in the company of people he was having dinner with at a restaurant. Of course, it’s always gracious to acknowledge one’s faux pas with a dash of self-deprecating humor, and Eric did, claiming that one of his missions “is to do away with the aura of omniscience that so often adorns wine writers.” Well, there’s nothing like getting the variety wrong, in public, to take that aura of omniscience and pulverize it to smithereens.
It does happen to the best of us. Harry Waugh‘s famous, and similarly self-deprecating, remark that he hadn’t confused a Burgundy for a Bordeaux “since lunch” comes to mind. Now, Eric put up a little fig leaf to hide his nakedness when he said that, after all, it hadn’t been a light, silky wine he’d confused for Pinot Noir, it had been a Copain Syrah — Copain’s style being dense, dark wines. Here’s where the psychology comes in. Eric knew he’d ordered Copain off the wine list. His brain was expecting a broodingly ripe, dark Pinot Noir, so when he tasted the Syrah, that same brain censored, in essence, the wine’s “Syrah-ness” (pepper? violets? crushed blackberries? meat?) and hallucinated instead a “Pinot Noir-ness” that was in accordance with Eric’s expectations.
Remember all the debate in the blogosphere last summer about whether wine tasting is “subjective” or “objective”? I should think that this settles the matter. It’s “subjective” because the brain can never be entirely neutral. Somebody once said that Andy Warhol’s films of the 1960s, such as Sleep or Empire State Building, were the only authentically neutral films because they had absolutely no point of view. But that’s not true. Their point of view was precisely that they had no point of view. And the reason they had no point of view was because Andy Warhol had decided to simply point his camera at something, and then leave it running while he read magazines or went to the bathroom. His films therefore did have a point of view: boredom, banality, unconventionality.
The most extreme example of a wine taster having no point of view with regard to the wine is the Master of Wine tasting blind. This is supposedly the classically objective way to critique a wine. The mind as a camera, capturing incoming information, with the brain functioning as a computer, analyzing it in a completely detached way, then printing out data in the form of a review. But does anyone really believe a person can function like Frank Herbert‘s mentats, in Dune, which Wikipedia defines as “humans trained to mimic computers: human minds developed to staggering heights of cognitive and analytical ability…the embodiment of logic and reason”? Can’t be done, and that’s the overarching reason why wine reviewers must approach their jobs with humility and even a bit of apology. As Eric discovered, mistaking a Syrah for a Pinot Noir comes with the territory.
Okay, so what happens when that “aura of omniscience” is stripped away from a wine writer? It’s not exactly a case of “the emperor has no clothes.” But it does mean that wine writers not only have to review to the best of their ability, they also have to be great historians, students of popular culture, with an aptitude for science and geology and — above all — transcendent writers.
This emperor is missing some clothing!
“There’s going to be a new movement and a new kind of person and you could be that person.”
The writer Victor Bockris thus quotes Andy Warhol as saying to friends in the early 1960s. This was when Pop Art was massing up like a big wave about to coalesce into a tsunami that would sweep away all previous schools of painting. Not merely realism but even the abstract expressionism of Franz Kline, de Kooning and Pollock was about to be eclipsed, and everybody in the art capital of the world, New York, knew it.
Pop art — cool, unsentimental, ironic, ambitious and uniquely American in its commercial references — was the answer in those post-Eisenhower years, but it was far from clear who would lead the new movement. Jasper Johns and his lover, Robert Rauschenberg, were first out of the gate, and Warhol wanted desperately in. “There was rivalry,” Bockris writes in his 1989 biography, Warhol. “Egos were gargantuan — and there was a lot of competition…”. The old world was crumbling, the new world a-borning, and Warhol perfectly captured the wide-open possibilities, in which anyone could be a star, when he told everybody he met, “You could be that person” (thereby pre-figuring his 1968 prediction that “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.”
Now here we are in the dreary, depressive year of 2009, when every pundit is predicting the demise of print journalism, and every blogger believes, in his heart of hearts, that “I could be that person” — the person whom History will record rode the new wave and defined its weltanschauung. The philosopher Thomas Kuhn called a change of basic assumptions in how people think about elementary things “a paradigm shift” in his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. When I studied it in high school, we thought in terms of the way Newtonian physics replaced Copernican, only in turn to be replaced by Einsteinian physics (at least, with regard to the Universe). But another paradign shift occurred when Gutenberg’s printing press made manuscripts endlessly replicable, thereby bringing them potentially to everyone in the world. What is more replicable, more endlessly repeatable with the click of a mouse than material created on and for the Internet?
Print journalism gave rise to the late-twentieth century phenomenon of wine criticism, of which Robert Parker, Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast have been beneficiaries. But there will be a successor movement, and the people who lead it won’t wait for it to happen, but will make it happen by themselves.
Warhol had he lived — he’d be 81 now — would have been pleased with how history has treated him. He wanted to be the new person, and it turns out he was. “The prince of pop art” he’s been called, but that only begins to define his place. His name is world-famous for a kind of jaded ennui in the midst of celebrity culture but “this very celebrity of Warhol’s, his sheer, inescapable fame, has often disguised the fact that he was one of the most serious, and one of the most important, artists of the twentieth century,” in the words of The Museum of Modern Art’s chief curator, Kynaston McShine. Warhol thus takes his place alongside Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso and, stretching further back, Goya and Raphael as signatories of their centuries.
Warhol’s stylized off-register silkscreens, repeated images and disaster paintings did not come overnight. He experimented for a decade, slowly finding his style. “He pissed on some canvas to see what it would look like,” Bockris writes — a technique not worth repeating. He tried dripping paint, like Pollock – tried cartoon characters (Popeye, Dick Tracy) like Lichtenstein – tried putting canvasses on the sidewalk outside his apartment so people would walk on them — and was annoyed with himself that he did not discover Claes Oldenburg’s soft sculptures first. Then came the breakthrough: a 1960 painting of a Coke bottle.
Some wine writer will be the new person, and the medium will be the Internet. Most likely that somebody is already blogging, and thinking about his or her blog’s style and approach, tinkering, feeling the outer limits, borrowing here and there, rejecting the irrelevant, improving what works, which is to say, what people like. That blogger is establishing a style that, when and if print becomes moribund, will re-define the dominant culture of wine writing. He or she won’t necessarily be the foremost blogger, right now, but will be the new person to come.
I was raised to take relationships personally, including working relationships. People have criticized me for sometimes taking things too personally, but what the heck, it’s the way I am. It’s easy to make me happy — just be nice to me — and it’s easy to make me miserable: be mean. But if you’re nice to me, I’ll be nice to you, and then it will be a better world.
What put me in this reflective frame of mind is that I got an email from the P.R. representative of a certain Napa Valley winery whose name I won’t mention, except to say that they were made famous when a bottle of their wine was featured in a Hollywood movie. The P.R. firm had just taken over the account and they wanted to know if I would write about the winery, which the email described as a “cult” winery no fewer than three times (just in case that fact escaped my attention).
Well, I’m certainly aware of the winery. I wrote about them in Wine Spectator when I used to work there — not a shabby place for a brand new winery to get a write-up. But you know what? When I left the Spectator to go to work for Wine Enthusiast, the winery owner never again contacted me, never returned a phone call, never invited me up to visit, never sent me a review bottle to sample. It was like I’d ceased to exist. Sure, it bothered me, to an extent, but I know how the game is played. All during the 1990s and 2000s, the winery didn’t need articles or reviews from me. Business was booming; they really had achieved cult status. Fine. I had more than enough fish to fry without losing any sleep over something like that.
Fast forward to Feb. 24, 2009, and here’s that incoming email basically begging me to show the winery a little love. But they’re gonna have to get their lovin’ someplace else, cuz it ain’t comin’ from me. (Why am I suddenly starting to talk like a blues singer?)
Is that unprofessional behavior on my part? Probably. Hey, I never said I was the most mature guy. I’m just a helluva good wine writer who’s made a modest success of things. But I’m still human, still Steve, and I feel like if you give me the finger for the better part of 20 years, then please don’t come to me for salvation just because the economy is tanking and you’re not selling those $100 bottles like you used to.
Like I said, relationships matter.
In San Francisco they’re having another turf war over whether to let a chain store open in one of the city’s neighborhoods. People out here in the Bay Area hate chain stores on the theory that they drive mom and pop indies out of business. I personally think you have to look at each case individually. You can’t just say “No to all chain stores” or “Yes to all chain stores.” Well, here’s a case where I think the “No on chain stores” side is seriously misguided.
It concerns Beverages, & More! (BevMo), a big box liquor outlet with scores of branches throughout California and Arizona. (Disclosure: A few years ago, BevMo was Wine Enthusiast’s Retailer of the Year, and BevMo’s cellarmaster, Wilfred Wong, is an old and good friend. But that’s not why I’m defending BevMo in this instance.)
There’s this blog, Booze Reviews, which over the weekend had a post called “Why you shouldn’t shop at Bevmo”. My problem with the post is that their reasons for opposing BevMo are illogical and/or just plain wrong. First of all is the argument that BevMo “sets out to crush” small liquor stores “in an effort to drive the small, locally-owned businesses out.” The author contends that “If there’s something you want that the corporate HQ [at BevMo] hasn’t approved,” you’re out of luck; BevMo handles just “popular booze makers [and] a ton of crap and some mass-produced good stuff. But they’re not going to stock the small, boutique wineries and breweries that are really at the cutting edge.”
It may be true that you won’t find many smaller producers at BevMo. But — and please, memorize this, because there’s a quiz afterward — low production does not equal high quality!! Trust me on this one, folks. Besides, if people really were looking for these “boutique wineries,” they’d support the small indie shops that stock them. If the indies are going out of business, it’s because they’re not delivering what their local customers want.
One example the writer at Booze Reviews picked was Gary Farrell. As we all know, Gary sold the winery to Allied Domecq (it’s now owned by Ascentia) years ago. But the Booze Reviews writer didn’t know that, which is why he wrote: “I was also recently impressed when I found a bottle of Gary Farrell Russian River Pinot available at Bevmo online. Until I found out that the Gary Farrell winery was recently bought out by some huge conglomerate.” The writer automatically made the assumption that Gary Farrell wines had suffered in quality merely because the brand was acquired by a big company. But I have news from him: I’ve reviewed Gary Farrell wines forever, and they’re better than they’ve ever been! The vineyard sources haven’t changed, and winemaker Susan Reed, who was mentored by the great Zelma Long, worked at Matanzas Creek, and was trained by Gary Farrell himself, would probably quit if her bosses forced her to compromise quality. So it’s a form of reverse snobbery to say a big company must ipso facto produce inferior wines.
As a final argument against BevMo, the writer says it’s better to spend your money “in a locally owned business” instead of a chain store. There may be some validity to this argument, but not much. For one thing, obviously, if BevMo opens in my neighborhood (and we do have one), it’s still a local store, even if it’s not owned by locals. It provides jobs and benefits to local people. I have no way of knowing if the register clerk at the little wine shop on the corner makes more or less money that the register clerk at BevMo, or has better or worse benefits. But if BevMo were truly a horrible place to work, people wouldn’t be lining up to get jobs there. And BevMo stocks some darned good wines at just about the best prices in town. So it’s not just about employees, it’s about all the local consumers who are looking for decent prices these days.
Let’s cut BevMo some slack!
And now, that quiz. Does low production equal high quality? Write down your answer on a $30 bill and send it to me care of Steve Heimoff, in Oakland.
Please consider voting for my blog
Here’s the URL for Tom Wark’s American Wine Blog Awards. If you like my blog, you might consider nominating it in one of these categories, or all three:
- Best writing wine blog
- Best industry/business-oriented wine blog
- Best overall wine blog
Most consumers don’t know it, but the Portuguese cork industry is one of the most ferociously defensive businesses around. For decades, they’ve had this massive P.R. army extolling the virtues of cork, warding off every conceivable attack. Even before there were viable alternatives to cork, their minions were assuring us that no effort was being spared in the cork forests to keep animals from peeing on the bark. As for cork’s TCA rate, well, it was miniscule, and getting lower all the time. That this did not accord with the experience of critics, including me, who were getting taint rates of about 5%, was irrelevant. The cork industry wanted everyone to know that they were on the side of the angels.
Then alternative closures started appearing, and the cork industry had to re-double its efforts to stay relevant. About that time, I started getting regular invitations to visit Portugal, courtesy of the cork manufacturers. Hell, every writer/critic did. (For the record, I’ve never accepted a junket.) I guess the idea was that a free vacation in Europe would warm our hearts and make us write nice things about cork.
Now, the industry has a new argument: It’s greener than any other closure! That’s according to this study that “clearly shows the environmental superiority of natural cork stoppers over alternative wine closures,” in its own words. Specifically, the study looked at the carbon footprint created over a 100-year life cycle of cork stoppers, compared to plastic stoppers and screwtops. It found that corks have 1/9th the CO2 emissions of plastic stoppers, and 1/24th the CO2 emissions of screwtops. The study was paid for by Corticeira Amorim, the world’s biggest wine cork company.
Look, when you’re reduced to hyping that over a 100-year cycle, corks emit less CO2 than other types of closures, you’ve basically admitted you’ve lost the argument. That’s cork’s claim to fame? I don’t think that dog will hunt. The cork people are going to have to come up with better rationales than that. I mean, we’re all green nowadays, but that doesn’t mean that everything we buy and use has to be calculated to the Nth degree to figure out its carbon footprint. That’s a kind of green fascism we ought to avoid.
There are lots of reasons to move beyond cork. Here are two: screwtops are less intimidating to millions of people who don’t want to struggle with a device just in order to open a bottle. And a screwtop will never taint a wine with TCA. Cork is an anachronism — a seventeenth century artifact like the spinning wheel. We don’t need it anymore.
But we do need bling, don’t we?
On the other hand, here’s the world famous coutourier, Karl Lagerfeld, telling the New York Times: “This whole [economic] crisis is like a big spring housecleaning — both moral and physical… Bling is over. Red carpetry covered with rhinestones is out. I call it ‘the new modesty.’ ”
No bling for Karl
Maybe it’s the freezing cold spell we’ve been having lately, but I’ve been thinking about the weather, and how it affects grapes in these modern times, when there are so many weapons in the winemaker’s tool box to un-do any damage it might cause.
It’s so different from the old days. Prognosticators used to opine on a vintage almost before the grapes had been picked, and buyers would genuflect and base their buying decisions on the edicts of a few. I was reminded of this when I picked up my old copy of Michael Broadbent’s The Great Vintage Wine Book, which is one of the best wine books ever. Michael colors entire Bordeaux vintages with a few flourishes of his pen:
1863: mediocre quality
1864: A truly grand année
1866 and 1867: unripe vines and feeble green wines
1870: the greatest, possibly, of all time
Blog disclosure: This is not my cellar!
Of course, Michael wasn’t alive then, but resorts to reports then current from vignerons and brokers, as well as his own extensive tasting of old wines. How easy it was then to paint Bordeaux vintages with a single brush. After all, it’s a smallish region — only about 40 miles separate St. Estephe and Bordeaux — and a relatively homogenous one, weather-wise. True, it might hail on one vineyard and spare another next door, but mostly the entire district has the same weather. Also, because Bordeaux is in a damp continental (as opposed to Mediterranean) climate, yearly weather patterns can differ dramatically.
California is so different. With our Mediterranean climate, the old saying that “Every year is a vintage year” is truer than not, although it was long the fashion among critics to claim otherwise. If you live in California, you know this to be true. Summers are dependably warm and dry. Autumn is typically gorgeous. Yes, it can rain in September, particularly in the north, but not heavily, and even if it does, the next week usually will be sunny and dry, allowing the water to evaporate off the grapes instead of spoiling them.
Winter can be nasty, with floods and freezes, but the vines are dormant and don’t much care. Spring is iffy, with late rains and frosts sometimes wreaking havoc in the vineyards (as they did in 2008). But for the most part, a bad Spring will result in a short crop, but not an inferior one. California’s weather is so dependable — even with climate change — you can set your watch by it.
And then there are all the tricks vintners use to counter the effects of weather, in both the vineyard and in the winery. The sciences of viticulture and enology have salvaged crops that would have been ruined once upon a time.
I write up Wine Enthusiast’s California vintage chart every year, and I’ll praise a year like 2005, which was so kind to Pinot Noir, or 2001, when North Coast Cabernet excelled. But the truth is, everybody tends to make more of vintages than they deserve in California. The downside of a harsh vintage rating — for example, the way some critics trashed 1998 — is that consumers, buying into the anachronistic Bordeaux model, tend to shun everything from that year, including some very good wines that didn’t suffer at all. The bottom line for consumers — and for budding bloggers — is that vintage variation should be taken with a grain of salt.