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Is The Golden Age of Wine Writing over?

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This question hit me last night shortly before I went to bed. I come from an era when wine writers took the art of writing very seriously. They actually sweated over each word, using Thesauruses (Thesauri?) and dictionaries, piling sentences elaborately upon sentences, building up paragraphs into a narrative, worrying over leads and looking always for the flourishing finish.

Of course, it all had a purpose and was well-rewarded. One wrote for a publication — be it a book, magazine or journal. One had the option of writing at length. One was aware that, even though we were merely “lowly” wine writers rather than serious novelists or investigative journalists for the New York Times, we nonetheless were members of an elite: writers. And I think we wine writers, who became active in the 1970s and 1980s, were aware, at least semi-consciously, that we had plunged into a Golden Age of Wine Writing that had been going on for quite some time, and showed no signs of waning.

What is a “Golden Age”? The term is most commonly used to refer to the Greek Age of Pericles (c. 440 BCE), when Athens was at its classical height. Sophocles was writing his plays, Socrates was busy corrupting Athenian youth by encouraging them to think, Democritus was theorizing the atom, Protagoras was inventing a little theory that someday would be named for him, and Herotodus and Thucydides were recording it all, and inventing History in the process. Several centuries later, the Greek poet, Hesiod, wrote that during the Golden Age “Men lived like gods without sorrow of heart…with legs and arms never failing they made merry with feasting beyond the reach of all devils.”

All Golden Ages end, sadly. Hesiod accorded the demise of Greece’s Golden Age to the time when Prometheus gave mankind the gifts of architecture, mathematics, astronomy, navigation, medicine and fire, among other blessings. For this, Zeus “became angry at Prometheus for making people powerful by teaching them all these useful skills.”

The Chief of the Gods, of course, famously punished Prometheus by chaining him to a rock and causing an eagle to forever eat his liver.  Why was Zeus pissed at Mr. P. for elevating mankind? Probably for the same reason the Hebrew God was angry at Adam and Eve for eating of the tree of knowledge. Gods are jealous. They want all the power to themselves. Perhaps they fear that a mankind made equi-powerful to them will bring about destruction and madness. It’s hard to know just what a God is thinking.

We wine writers of a certain age had our Golden Age. We had our Platos and Sophocles, our Pythagorases and Pericles, and long, sunny days in which to labor at our love of writing. Now, who was our Pericles, what was the fire he delivered to mankind, and how are the Gods punishing mankind today? Our Pericles was the two Steves (Jobs and Wozniak) and Bill Gates. The fire — the great power — they gave us was the personal computer and the Internet. To what rock are we now chained, and what eagle is it that eats our livers?

Hence the decline of the Golden Age of Wine Writing.

Who writes anymore? People tweet. They misspell (on purpose?). They Facebook. They churn out silly little books like Crush It! and 101 Wines: Guaranteed to Inspire, Delight, and Bring Thunder to Your World that nobody cares about and nobody will read tomorrow because they have nothing to say. I’m not complaining, exactly. Life goes on. The Millennials deserve their chance. Will the wine writers amongst them reverse the decline and restore the Golden Age? Golden Ages, once gone, do not typically come back. I can see a time, in 300 years, when somebody says to somebody else, “Can you believe that once upon a time there was a class of wine writers that was like a priesthood, elevated and slightly mysterious but revered, who pronounced mystically upon wine, and wrote lengthy treatises on it, which were purchased and studied by the masses?” To which the other person replies, “You have got to be kidding!”

[to be continued]


Thoughts on a few reader comments from yesterday

45 comments

I want to riff on some points that some readers made yesterday, as they raise issues that I’ve thought long and hard about for 20 years. In response to my post on California terroir, Corey wrote a long comment that included this:

It seems to me that your job as a full-time wine writer and critic should be to expand your understanding and appreciation to the utmost. That is to say, to develop as many independent reference points as possible and to push others with less opportunity to…think outside the “California sunset” box. After all, it’s easy to have a single reference point that we constantly come back to. It’s much harder to appreciate things independently for their own intrinsic qualities. It takes time and energy that most of us don’t have. Isn’t it your grand challenge as a pro to help guide us along and promote our deeper understanding instead of allowing our stagnation on what we already know so well?

And Tom Merle wrote: Trouble is Steve H, following the opening comment by Steve M, many of your readers are fans of Rhone/Spanish/Italian/German etc., etc. varietal wines and with your personal preference for Burgundian and Bordeaux style wines, are you not giving short shrift to these wine enthusiasts of which there are many?

Boiled down, the criticism these two gentlemen are offering of me (if I’m interpreting it correctly) is that (a) I don’t taste enough non-California wines, and therefore (b) I have no reference point except for California’s major varieties, (c) so I’m not doing a good enough job enlightening my writers by educating about (for example) the wines of Rioja or Barolo or Hermitage or the Rhinegau. (I’m sure Corey and/or Tom will let me know if I’ve misinterpreted their points.)

The basic theme here concerns whether a wine critic should have a regular “beat” (in the old newspaper sense) or be a roaming reporter. A critic with a beat focuses on a particular area or variety. For example, Alan Meadows, AKA The Burghound, writes only about Pinot Noir from his beloved Burgundy, as well as wines from California and Oregon. He’s a “beat” wine critic. On the other hand, Jancis Robinson covers the entire world of wine, fltting from Argentine Malbec to St. Estephe to Madeira with the effortless ease of a Cirque du Soleil trapezist.

Is one skill set better than the other? Is Meadows giving “short shrift” to the rest of the world’s wines by concentrating exclusively on Pinot Noir? I don’t think so. One could just as easily ask if Jancis gives short shrift to the complexities of the regions she covers, by looking only at a few top wines from each. With all due respect to Jancis, when’s the last time she tasted through a bunch of Sierra Foothills Zinfandels?

Corey said, “it’s easy to have a single reference point that we constantly come back to. It’s much harder to appreciate things independently for their own intrinsic qualities.” I suppose so, but in wine criticism, the appreciation of things for their own intrinsic qualities represents a slippery slope. Every wine has its intrinsic qualities, no? A Sauvignon Blanc laden with cat pee has the intrinsic quality of cat-peeness. But I’ll never be able to appreciate it and it will always get a low score from me.

Corey asks also “Do you really believe that Cab, Pinot, and Chard are, ‘the greatest’, or is it simply that they have been touted as such louder and longer than any others?” Well, yes, I do believe they’re “the greatest” wines in California. Does that mean I give “short shrift” to Tuscany because California can’t make a decent Sangiovese? Nope. Do I give “short shrift” to Piedmont because California Nebbiolo sucks? Nope. Do I give “short shrift” to the Rhinegau because California Riesling rarely amounts to much? Nope. I could go on and on. You get the point.

Sure, I’m exhibiting some defensiveness. But part of the transparency of this blog and of social media in general is that people like me make for easy targets. Whenever you’re visible, someone is going to pin a “kick me” sign on your butt. And someone else will take advantage of the invitation.

I wish — I really do — that I had more time to taste more of the world’s wines. I actually envy someone like Jancis who can jet her way around the world and taste so many great rarities. But I envy The Burghound, too, who knows more about Pinot Noir than anybody else in the universe, and is a flamboyant speaker, as well. Jancis and Alan both have great jobs. I do too, but readers need to take everything in the context of what it is. You can criticize anything you want for not being other than what it is. Meadows is not a Cabernet guy, or a Tempranillo guy or a Chenin Blanc guy. I suppose he could be, if he set his mind to it, but every bit of energy he put into understanding Tempranillo would be taken away from Pinot Noir. That would make him other than The Burghound, and diminish his worth.

I also really wish California could escape from the chocolate-vanilla cage of Cabernet and Chardonnay and get serious about other varieties. A few winemakers are, here and there, but the market tends to shackle serious efforts to expand our varietal spectrum. That’s too bad. Until that fact changes, I’m going to have to keep Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir as my reference points — wines of quality to which all other California varieties aspire.


California never will have a winery classification, and it shouldn’t

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I was shopping at Rockridge Market the other day and stopped by the Goodwill Store to check out their books. Came across a familiar old one I hadn’t thought about for years: The Wines of California, by Roy Andries de Groot (Summit Books, 1982). Its subtitle: “Including the First Classification of the Best Vineyards and Wineries.”

I read that book when it was new, and it made quite an impression on me. Twenty-five years ago, I was a novice wine amateur, reading everything I could get my hands on. Of course, back then the bedrock of all wine knowledge rested in Europe, and in France in particular. I was very familiar with the Classification of 1855 and was in awe of it. It seemed to represent the pinnacle of everything California aspired to: great wine, grown in the right places, organized into established tiers of quality. Before I came across the book, I had wondered if California wines would ever be classified. It seemed like a natural thing to do. So the book really grabbed my attention.

If there was an inherent weakness in de Groot’s book, it was that it didn’t distinguish clearly between wineries and vineyards. That distinction is crucial in Europe. The Clos de Vougeot is classified as a Grand Cru vineyard of Burgundy, not the wineries who buy its grapes and bottle it. So when de Groot classified, say, Heitz Wine Cellars as one of his three highest-ranked (“Great”) wineries, mainly on the strength of Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, he failed to note that Heitz bought those grapes, whereas Stony Hill (another “Great” winery) grew all of its own grapes. (The third “Great” winery was Schramsberg.) If Heitz had lost access to Martha’s Vineyard grapes, it could not have remained a “Great” winery.

Still, what de Groot did was audacious and interesting for the time. And where he led, others followed. There were numerous attempts to classify California wineries over the next several years, most notably by Wine Spectator’s Jim Laube. In his 1989 “California’s Great Cabernets,” he stole the five-tier Bordeaux model and applied it to Cabernet Sauvignon.

We haven’t heard much about California classifications since the turn of the 21st century, and for good reason. As sincere as these attempts were, they were naive. A moment’s reflection would have prompted the following objections to any sort of California classification:

– as noted, a failure to distinguish between wineries who own their vineyards, and thus can never lose that fruit, and wineries who buy their grapes. Even a long-term contract may end someday.

– an inability to include wineries that did not exist at the time of the classification. This is not such a problem in the Médoc, where new wineries arise only rarely. But in fecund California, a classification would be futile because new wineries pop up all the time. For example, Laube did not include Harlan Estate, Cardinale, Staglin or Araujo in his book.

– the difficulty of revising the classification should a winery move up or down in quality. This problem afflicts all classifications in Europe. But it would be particularly misleading in California. Laube classified Shafer as a Third Growth, but surely, Hillside Select is of First Growth quality. De Groot placed Glen Ellen as a “Superb” winery — his second-highest tier. But that clearly was before Glen Ellen became a jug wine producer.

– it’s unlikely that any single wine critic could ever review all of the wines of California. There are simply too many brands (about 4,000 and counting). So any classification would be faulty for not considering everybody equally. True, a critic could focus his attention only on the more famous, culty wineries, but that would be patently unfair to the others, and could even reflect a pre-existing bias.

Despite the inherent weaknesses of a classification, the spirit of the 1980s permitted these efforts. It was a time of great optimism when anything seemed possible. We were still in thrall of Europe. Their systems had withstood the many tests of time; they must have been good, no? So why not try the same thing over here. Besides, the Baby Boomers were discovering fine wine by the millions; not only that, they were buying wine books. A wine book that purported to classify California wine was bound to sell lots of copies.

How times have changed. Can you imagine anyone having the temerity to classify California wineries? It would be ridiculous, and would meet up with the ridicule it deserved.


Sorry, Fred, lots of wines are worth more than $10

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It’s time somebody replied to Fred Franzia’s claim — repeated endlessly in interviews and again the other day — that “No wine is worth more than $10” and various permutations thereupon.

It’s a good line, and Fred’s a good showman who knows the value of controversy. But let’s put this one to rest, along with other shibboleths such as Obama’s death squads, the birthers and the moral superiority of the Republican Party.

Some wines are worth a lot of money. Why? For starters, there’s the law of supply and demand, which you’d think Fred — a shrewd businessman — would understand. If everybody wants Harlan Estate, and there’s only so much of it to go around, then it’s worth whatever price people are willing to pay. By the same token, if everybody wants Two Buck Chuck, and there’s enough of it available for everybody who wants it, then it’s worth exactly the two or three bucks you pay at Trader Joe’s. (ABC News online reports that Fred is about to sell his 500th millionth bottle of TBC, so evidently there is a lot of it to go around.)

There are other reasons why some wines cost a lot. Viticulture at an estate like Harlan, which has winding vine rows set on steep hillsides that are picked by hand, is expensive, whereas Fred’s Central Valley vineyards, which can be miles long and utterly straight, can be cheaply harvested by machines. Fred eschews expensive new French oak; Harlan doesn’t, and that also pushes the price higher.

I could go on and on about why superior viticulture and enology makes superior wines. But we now come to the crunch of the argument, which needs to be addressed squarely. Is any wine worth more than $10?

The answer is obviously, indisputably, uncontestedly yes.

Fred, at his Bronco Wine Co., makes a lot of wines that I give “Best Buys” to, which is a strict bottle price-rating formula we use at Wine Enthusiast. Brands including Forestville, Forest Glen, Crane Lake, Silver Ridge and Harlow Ridge routinely score between 83-86 points and cost below $10, which automatically gives them a Best Buy ribbon. I applaud these wines and Fred’s other brands because they’re priced at a level everyone can afford, and Fred deserves huge credit for helping make sure that consumers can drink clean, sound wine at a good price.

But let’s not kid ourselves that there’s no difference between a ForestVille Cabernet Sauvignon and Shafer Hillside Select! I mean, come on. Now, it may well be that Fred prefers to drink his own wines over any of the world’s great, expensive bottles. That’s his privilege. But it’s just incorrect to say that no wine is worth more than ten bucks.

It kind of reminds me of a tasting at Beaulieu about 6 years ago. Joel Aiken, the winemaker, had opened every bottle ever made of Georges de Latour Private Reserve and invited a pretty stellar audience, which included Robert Mondavi and Ernest Gallo. After we went through them, Joel asked people what they thought. Mr. Mondavi stood and eloquently praised the wines for their beauty, elegance and longevity. Then it was Mr. Gallo’s turn to have his say. He said (I paraphrase from memory) “I don’t like any of them.” He added that none of them measured up to Gallo’s Hearty Burgundy. I remember wondering if he really meant it, or if he was just trying to shock the audience (which he did). And it may be of some interest here that Ernest Gallo was Fred Franzia’s uncle.

There’s one more reason why some wines are worth a lot of money, and it tends to get overlooked. It’s the psychological satisfaction of drinking a great wine that has a story behind it. Not just any story (“I got this Two Buck Chuck at Trader Joes!”) but something that makes the person who serves the wine, and his guests, happy to know about because it stirs the imagination and intellect. The story could be as simple as “This is Lafite.” It could be “I own a share in the chateau.” Or “My Dad bought this for me on the day I was born, to open on my 21st birthday.” Or “Parker gave this wine 100 points.” Or “I’ve followed every vintage of Sloan so I’m really looking forward to the new one.” Or “This is the new wine from Heidi Peterson Barrett, and I love her style.” Cheap wines tend not to have stories because they’re industrial products. They get the job done, which is their purpose in life. A great wine, on the other hand, is so much more than simple organoleptic impressions, or something to wash down food with. It involves thinking and feeling and emoting and loving and remembering and contemplating and, yes, conversation. These are attributes of great wine as much as are barrels, and for them, we pay a premium. That is why many, many wines are worth more than $10, and sometimes, a lot more.


When rap stars do wine

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from Paso Robles

Seems there’s this rapper, Lil Jon, who started a wine company, Little Jonathan Wine Company, that made a Central Coast Chardonnay that just won a silver medal at the L.A. International Wine & Spirits Competition.

Now, readers of my blog may know what I think of such competitions, but that’s beside the point. What’s really interesting is that Lil Jon tweeted about the award, in caps: “FOR ALL YALL SUKKAS THAT WERE HATING ON MY WINE CHECK THIS OUT!! WE WINNING AWARDS TWITT!!! GET U SOME.”

We can presume that this is the written equivalent of the way Lil Jon talks on the street. It’s a form of urban speech I hear all the time, living in Oakland. Invented by black kids, it’s now been appropriated by some Asian and Latino kids (at least, those who yearn to live the hip hop lifestyle), as well as every white Eminem wannabe in the land.

On his winery’s website Lil Jon writes:

While traveling the world, I’ve had the incredible opportunity to experience some of the world’s greatest wines. My passion for enjoying those fine wines has led me to pursue my lifelong dream of starting my own winery. Our premium collection is simply some of the best wine that California has to offer. I’m very proud to present our rich, complex blends and world class varietals from the finest vineyards in the Central Coast, Monterey and Paso Robles regions. Our wines are hand-crafted to ensure excellence in evnry bottle and I personally invite you to try our wines and share in my passion.

How does he go back and forth from hip hop talk to the King’s English, with such ease? On his tweet he provides an insight: Jonathan Little Wine Company sounds “a little bit more upscale than regular ‘Lil Jon.’ … This is not no ghetto Boone’s Farm; this is some real wine.”

What’s notable about this, aside from a rapper turning into a winery owner (just another version of celebrity wines), is the glimpse it provides into the different ways we relate when we’re in different groupings of society; also, the way that Jonathan sees wine, which is probably the way most people see it. Lil Jon sees the world one way, and sings it the way he sees it, because his listeners see it the same way as he does, and he wants to relate to his listeners. But when Lil Jon becomes Jonathan Little, he’s no longer a rap star, or, more properly, he’s more than just a rap star: He’s a businessman, selling a product. So he has to act in a way that’s more appropriate to the business world, which is to say, speaking and writing the way business people, and most people in the wine industry, talk and write. No double negatives, no deliberate misspellings or mispronunciations.

We all do that, don’t we? When I’m in New York with New Yawkahs my speech reverts to the Bronx accents of my boyhood. When I’m with serious winos, such as my San Francisco tasting group, we talk in a way that would be as incoherent (and probably sound a lot more pompous) to outsiders as Lil Jon’s urban speech may be to some. Wine geek-speech is no different, in substance, than urban hip hop speech. Both are forms of communication that allow us to function in and bond with specialized groupings of people.

Hey Lil Jon, if you read this: let’s get together and drink some wine. I can teach you geek-speak and you can teach me hip hop talk.


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