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Wine & Pot? Why not


How ironic is it that, even as California seriously considers legalizing marijuana (to help stanch the  budget deficit), anti-alcohol forces are once again attacking the concept that a little wine each day is good for your health.

The “wine isn’t good for you” crowd was reported on in yesterday’s Times (come on, you know there’s only one Times in the country, right?) under the provocative header, Alcohol’s Good for You? Some Scientists Doubt It. After all these years (since The French Paradox) of study after study demonstrating that a little wine is good for everything from hearts to diabetes prevention and anti-cancer, there are still some stubborn scientists stuck in the “you can’t really prove it, so nyaah nyaah” camp.

The basis of their objection, the Times writes, is that “No study, these critics say, has ever proved a causal relationship between moderate drinking and lower risk of death — only that the two often go together.”

When I was a philosophy major back at good old Clark U. in Worcestor, Mass., we studied the Scottish philosopher, David Hume. I never forgot his metaphor about billiard balls to illustrate how hard it is to actually prove causality. When we hit the cue ball, we see it smash into the six ball, which then moves (hopefully, into a pocket). But we can’t directly observe this causality, which must happen on the atomic level. All we can do is infer that the causality is there.


Hume and Socrates playing billiards

So the anti-wine scientists say, in effect, “Just because people who drink moderate amounts of wine are healthier, we’re not justified in saying that wine causes them to be healthier. It may just be that wine drinkers lead healthier lifestyles (more balanced meals, going to the gym, jogging, staying slim, don’t smoke) and therefore are healthier, regardless of wine.”

On the scale of dumb, self-serving arguments, that one takes the cake. Look: whether it’s wine that makes you healthier — or the fact that healthy people choose to drink wine — either way, the bottom line is that WINE DRINKERS ARE HEALTHIER, not to mention happier! Would it hurt for these scientists to admit it?

Meanwhile, the Associated Press yesterday reported that momentum is building for legalizing pot. Seems that with states and municipalities struggling to pay their bills and keep services, a tax on weed could raise billions — money that Mexican drug lords are now getting instead of our local police and fire departments and public health facilities.

Here in (not so sunny) California, even Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has said he’s open to the idea of at least talking about legalizing pot. And I recall that the late William F. Buckley and the still very-much alive former Secretary of State, George Schultz, also expressed support for legalizing, or at least decriminalizing, marijuana. So it’s not like a Republican-vs.-Democrat thing.

It’s definitely worth looking into. Not only would this rob the drug kingpins of the source of much of their wealth, it would result in far fewer people being locked up in prisons, which would save the state money.

Think what a nice place California would be if everyone drank a few glasses of wine everyday, went to the gym, stayed healthy, ate right, and smoked a doobie every once in a while. Why, we could almost get mellow again, like back in the Sixties.


Generational sniping? I don’t think so


Yesterday I wrote about gender. Today, it’s generations. (Why am I thinking in such weighty terms lately?) It happened when I read this Q&A in the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, by one of their writers, Peg Melnik. It started out with her profiling a real, 23-year old Millennial and asking the question, “How can wine country court them [Millennials]?”

Good enough question to draw me in. Usually, if the first sentence of an article or blog don’t grab me, I move on.

A couple things struck me about the Millennial, whose name is Matt. First, he doesn’t want to be condescended to by writers, critics, merchants, tasting room personnel, or anybody else. Here’s a great quote from him: “If a winery wants to target Millennials, it should be accepting of how we demand quality, image, and history, but we like to think for ourselves.” All Matt asks is for industry folks to be respectful of where he’s coming from, not treat him like an idiot because he may not know as much as a Boomer. And “The winery should know that we network and market through each other and a warm smile and a memorable experience in a tasting room can go a very long way.”

That’s great stuff. Then Melnik concludes the Q&A by asking Matt “about the generational sniping from the Baby Boomers who think some of the Millennials drink wine with too much gusto. What’s the best way to bridge this generation gap?” That’s when my jaw dropped.


snipe [verb] to shoot from a hidden position, as at individuals of an enemy force; to direct an attack [at someone] in a sly or underhanded way

Have I missed something? I haven’t heard anything about sniping Boomers throwing underhanded stink bombs at Millennials. If anything (speaking on behalf of Boomers), we think it’s fantastic that people Matt’s age are getting interested in wine. When Melnik asks her readers, “Is there any more generational sniping going on?” I hope they tell her, loud and clear, “No! There isn’t. And stop trying to stir up trouble.”

I don’t know, was last summer’s Rockaway dustup an example of “sniping”? To the extent any criticism was expressed from my direction, it was concerning questions about journalism, P.R. ethics and full disclosure. I don’t think it was a generation gap thing. And it sure had nothing to do with anyone enjoying wine too much.

I did think that, when the magazine WineX came out about 10 years ago (could have been longer), I was discountful of it, as were most other people I knew, because I thought it condescended to young people, as if they had to throw in sexual or cultural terms of reference instead of just being smart. But that wasn’t a snipe at young people, it was my disgust with a magazine that pandered to some bizarre perception of them.

One of the best things that’s happened to America is that we’ve become a wine-drinking country. My generation led the way, simply because we were born earlier than Gen Y and Millennials. Now, people over 21 are turning to wine in droves (and we have a wine-loving couple in the White House, Yay!). I’ll lift a glass to that, and welcome Matt and his Millennial friends to the club.

Oops! When famous wine writers get it wrong


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!

Blogging and Pop Art: Who will be the new kind of person?


“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.

In the wine business, as elsewhere, relationships matter


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.

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