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Why wine is cool

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Years ago, during the heyday of Sex and the City, the San Francisco Chronicle ran a spoof piece on what “the girls” would be doing if they lived in the “cool gray city of love.” Samantha, you’ll recall, had her own high-end P.R. firm in Manhattan, where she represented restaurants, celebrities, clubs and so on.

In San Francisco, the Chronicle’s writer determined, Samantha would still be in P.R.—only it would be winery public relations. When I read that, I remember thinking that wine had finally and definitely come to dominate the zeitgeist. It was the cool-hot thing to do, the field everybody wanted to work in, whether in PR, writing or production.

(Sidebar: When I started out, nobody, but nobody, wanted to be a wine writer. I sometimes wonder, if I was beginning my career today instead of in 1989, if I’d even be able to get a writing job at a magazine, much less Wine Spectator. The field has become that competitive.)

Wine remains a highly coveted field for young people to work in, maybe hotter than ever, according to this article in the drinks business, which claims that winemaking and beer brewing are “among top dream jobs” for young people just starting their careers or thinking of changing. (The study was done in Britain, but there’s no reason not to think attitudes here in America are any different.)

So desirable are these winemaking and beer-making jobs that over a third (35%) of people said they would consider quitting their job to re-train in their chosen profession – regardless of money.” That’s good, because these types of jobs typically don’t make a ton of money. Funnily enough, Security guards (95%), IT consultants (91%) and accountants (87%) were by far the most eager to pack in the typical 9-to-5 and take up a craft career” such as winemaking.

I know people in both the wine industry and craft brewing, and most of them seem to be very happy. It’s true that the pressures can be difficult, but the joy seems to outweigh any of the inconveniences (such as basically having your normal life put on hold during crush). When I look back over my years in the wine biz, despite all the bitching and stress I went through (or put myself through), I consider myself incredibly lucky to have been able to do what I have. Coming up through the Golden Age of wine in America—the boutique era, the rise of the wine print media, the enormous popularity of wine (and beer), and the emergence of social media—has been a privilege, and also a great opportunity to see history being made, close-up, and perhaps to have been a tiny part of it. No wonder people want to work in this industry.

Have a wonderful weekend.


In the future, everyone will be a famous wine taster for 15 minutes

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Since by now it is obvious that anyone can write and publish a wine review via social media, we need to seriously address the issue of whether Anyone can become a wine taster with a little practice.”

That, at least, is the contention of Anna Harris-Noble, a Brit who runs a company called Taste Exchange. She rejects the notion that any special palate is required, arguing instead that Wine tasters are no different to [sic] anyone else, they’ve just had more training in identifying tastes and smells, so the good news is that anyone can become a wine taster with a little practice.”

Is this true, or does a real taster need special talent?

We’re all familiar with the concept of the “supertaster.” As developed by Linda Bartoshuk, it argues that some people perceive tastes more intensely, due probably to genetic factors; some famous critics, including Robert Parker and Ron Washam, might conceivably be supertasters.

But what is tasting ability, anyhow?

Whenever somebody reviews anything—movie, car, wine—and writes about it, the public inherently trusts that the person knows what he’s talking about. It’s human nature. “So-and-so wouldn’t be reviewing the thing, if he weren’t qualified.” This is particularly true if the review appears in a respected source, such as a well-known magazine or website, which almost guarantees credibility.

But the Internet and social media have begun eroding the trustworthiness of magazines in recent years; the public seems almost as likely to believe a self-published blog as a magazine with a circulation of hundreds of thousands.

Setting aside for the moment the question of “What is tasting ability?” we first encounter the reality of many people reviewing wine online. That is a fundamental truth: there may be upwards of 1,000 of wine blogs in the U.S. alone. They’re tasting wine, they’re writing about it, they are presumably thinking seriously about it, they are presumably being taken seriously by others. Therefore, from one point of view we have to assume that they have tasting ability because their behavior exhibits all the external parameters of a tasting professional.

But we think of tasting ability as more than the ability to publish a tasting note, right? So what is it? Is Harris-Noble right—wine tasters are no different than anyone else? Or do professional wine tasters have some sort of special gift that the rest of us don’t?

Harris-Noble suggests that it’s training and practice, not inherent ability, that makes for a professional taster. I think that begins to address the issue, but it’s only a beginning. Because, let’s face it, you don’t become a wine taster—a good one—solely because you get your hands on the occasional bottle of wine and write up some notes.

What else does it take?

I don’t think there are any absolutes, but if I were in charge, I’d want credible wine tasters to

  • Taste as widely and broadly as possible. You can’t taste everything, of course, but you can taste as much as you can.
  • Determine whether you will be a specialist or a generalist. A specialist focuses on a single country or region. I was a specialist. A generalist focuses on the world. Jancis Robinson is a generalist. One is not better than the other. You also should visit the places you’re writing about as often as you can.
  • Develop a certain craftsmanship in writing. The best tasters/writers consciously seek a personal style. Think of it as the terroir of your writing.
  • Read, study, learn. The knowledge of wine—its history, methodology, geography and so on—is a lifetime pursuit. Understanding, for example, the history of oak influence in Chablis wines will make you a better taster and writer.
  • Continuous self-evaluation, which depends on self-knowledge. If you’re not getting better as a wine taster all the time, then you’re getting worse. And you have to be honest with yourself about it.

By the way, I saw a news report the other day about a man born without arms who became a world-champion archer. He trained himself to use his legs and feet, and even invented a new type of bow. So can anyone at all be a good taster? Yes. But some have to work harder at it than others.


Are wine reviews stuffy and pretentious?

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Every form of description has its own particular jargon. Conversations about baseball are filled with references to ERAs and WARs (“wins above replacement”).

Fasionistas debate the distinctions between lettuce hems and unitards. Here in wine-reviewing land, we talk about cassis or earthiness, and get our heads handed to us by critics-of-critics who find us pompous and pretentious.

For instance, here’s Snooth calling wine critics “old men tasting wine in wood-paneled libraries.” Then there’s the wine writer for a Florida pub writing about the “Top 10 Pretentious Things to Say at a Wine Tasting,” including “I used to live in Napa” and “What percentage Malo?” So relentless has been the assault on winespeak that even some critics, apparently taking it to heart, have publicly wondered if their approach isn’t “too la-di-da,” as Harvey Steiman did in Wine Spectator.

Why is it more pretentious for a wine person to ask about the percent of malo than for a baseball fan to ask about Miguel Cabrera’s on-base percentage? I don’t think it is, but somehow we’ve allowed wine lingo to fall into this disreputable neighborhood of precious effeteness where you practically can’t say anything about it at all without someone wanting to pour their Chardonnay over your head.

It would behoove us, I think, to get to the bottom of this in a thoughtful way, and The Guardian’s wine columnist, David Williams, does a good job in this latest op-ed piece. I like particularly the distinction he makes between data-driven wine descriptions, such as you would find in a laboratory analysis, and an esthetic approach—“the juggling of a random assortment of associations”—that has dominated wine writing from the rise of English critics, in the 1800s, to the Parkers of today. (And I openly concede that my own approach has been the esthetic one.) Williams asserts that connections can, and should, be made between them. For example, a Touraine Sauvignon Blanc, described analytically, might refer to “thiols and pyrazines,” whereas the same wine, in more esthetic hands, would reference “gooseberries and grass.” The writer must, of course, consider his audience: a strictly lay readership will not understand “thiols and pyrazines,” but a good writer might wish to give them a little understanding of wine chemistry and its causative terroir in order to broaden their appreciation: after all, “gooseberries and grass” don’t just appear willy-nilly in the wine, but have specific reasons for being there.

But Williams also catches something that must always make a good tasting note at least semi-esthetic rather than purely analytical; and that is the ability to give “a sense of something more elusive: of the wine’s flow and feel, of how the flavours dovetail both with each other and with the wine’s texture, of its context in nature and the world of winemaking. All the things, in fact, that make a wine worth drinking, and, despite the inevitable ridicule, talking and writing about.”

It is impossible to over-stress the importance of this “more elusive” aspect. Every wine writer who has ever lived and dared to put her impressions into words for the benefit of readers has come across wines that inspire her to the heights of poetic allusion. Indeed, if a writer is incapable of rising to such lofty altitudes, he ought not to be in the business of wine writing! For he would then be a very dreary and boring wine writer, and who wants to read that sort?

How have we come to this pass? Our beer lobby—which is to say, the breweries that cater to the forehead-can-smashers who frequent sports bars—have been partly responsible for creating this impression that wine is not a real man’s drink. From there, it’s only a hop, skip and jump to ridiculing wine, and everything pertaining to it, including wine writing, as insufferably poofy. This is untrue, but it is perhaps not unhelpful for wine writers to be aware of this viewpoint in our culture; such a consciousness of the boundaries that some writers occasionally cross should help to keep the rest of us within the foul lines.


Putting wine into a greater context

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When educators talk about wine at the kinds of consumer events I’m doing this week at Karisma Resort, it seems to me that more than just the hedonistic and technical aspects of the wines should be discussed.

I mean, wine is more than just “cherries” or “limes” and bright acidity or steak-worthy tannins and an AVA. Yes, those kinds of things—its flavors and textures, it’s varietal mix, its appellation—are important, and consumers want and need to know about them. After all, the reason why folks pay to go to these sorts of events is because they’re hungry for more knowledge about wine (and bless them for that!).

But there’s so much more to wine. For example, it’s important for people who are tasting wines from the company I work for, Jackson Family Wines, to understand things like the Jacksons’ commitment to sustainability. It’s one thing to talk about (for instance) Stonestreet Christopher’s Cabernet Sauvignon, but that wine needs to be put into the context of the fact that Jess loved that mountain so much, he’s buried there, his wife, Barbara, lives there, and “Christopher” is the name of their only son. It helps consumers to know about (and I think it’s terribly interesting in itself) how Jess left corridors of pathways open throughout the vastness of the Alexander Mountain Estate, to let the critters who have lived there forever—cougars, bears, deer, wild boars and so on—prowl. These things may not have anything to do with the wine’s flavors, or how it ages, or the way it pairs with steak. But in a funny way, they do. It places the wine into a greater context, one you can call “intellectual” and “emotional” rather than (merely) hedonistic; and it’s in the brain—the seat of intellect and emotions—that wine’s greatest appeal lives.

This putting-wine-into-greater-contexts presents more of a challenge to educators. They have to do more research than to just read a tech sheet and regurgitate it to whatever audience they’re addressing—which is something I’ve seen far too much of (and something I admit to being occasionally guilty of myself). But, after all, in this day-and-age of “the story,” when we’re told that every wine needs something to distinguish itself from every other wine, it does behoove us educators to go beyond the routine and really find out what makes that wine that wine. Especially when the story connected to it is compelling.

Back tomorrow, reporting from this delightful part of the Maya Riviera.


OMGNAs: The wine writer’s nemesis

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When I was a working wine writer, it seemed like every year the magazine wanted the same story right around this time:

WHAT WINE TO DRINK AT THANKSGIVING

I dutifully handed in my assignments, but I never felt particularly proud of them. These kinds of stories are known in the trade as OMGNAs, as in “Oh, my God, not again.” It’s nearly impossible to do a good job writing them; writers loathe them, because they’re the same, year after year after year. And yet, if you complained, the editors and publishers always argued, “Well, our readers like them, so you have to write them.”

What can you say about Thanksgiving wine? Elin McCoy did about as credible a job as possible yesterday at Bloomberg News, when she gave the standard (and only plausible) advice: Put out a bunch of highly versatile wines—bubbly, red, white, and rosé…so people can chose for themselves.” I mean, what else is there to say? Nothing. That’s the truth in a nutshell. But a column requires more than 18 words, so you have to take that simple message and spin it out to 600 words or 900 words or whatever your word count is.

What are some other OMGNAs? Well, to some extent the inevitable varietal roundups are. Here in California there are 5 or 6 major varieties that wine magazines have to write about. Zinfandel is one. Every three or four years, they have to do their Zinfandel writeup, and the slant is always something along the lines of “What’s new in Zinfandel?” After all, that’s what the media writes about, right? The news! Problem is, there’s not always something newsy about Zinfandel. You can’t just write an article saying, “If you want to know what’s up with Zinfandel, read the article I wrote four years ago, because nothing has changed since then.” If you handed that in, your publisher would probably fire you, so you have to make it sound like Zinfandel has gone through breathtakingly awesome changes for the better since the last time you wrote about it, which is why such articles are usually headlined something like “Zinfandel’s New Face.” New face, my butt: Zinfandel’s face is the same as it’s been for a long time. (By the way, that’s not a slam. I love a good Zin!)

One of the OMGNAs I dreaded the most came with the arrival of warm weather. That was when we always had to come up with our “Summer Whites” articles. The meme was always the same: “Now that the long cold winter months are over, it’s time to break out the whites to drink by the pool and the beach.” Every wine magazine in the universe has to write that article, which appears in the May or June issue. The article never, ever varies: It’s always about cold, refreshing Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, whatever. You can recycle the same article endlessly, changing a producer here and there, substituting one recipe for another, maybe interviewing a famous hostess for her suggestions on how to throw the perfect backyard party. Writers hate that kind of thing. Well, I did. It’s not really wine writing, it’s entertainment writing. The two genres are totally different.

So what kinds of articles did I actually like? Terroir articles were the best. When I wrote about Cooombsville, I was in my element. Same with my article on Pritchard Hill, which was tremendously enjoyable. I got to dive down deep into issues of soil and climate. I met the major players and picked their brains, learning about their histories and their dreams. I tasted and analyzed the wines. The goal was for me to understand this area of Napa Valley, and so to be able to explain it to readers. That took real investigative reporting. It required the skills I had trained myself in for many years. There was no template: I had to come to my own conclusions and then frame them professionally and, I hoped, unassailably.

Well, I do realize that not every article a fulltime wine writer writes can be that fulfilling. I have some understanding of the way a wine magazine works, and how the bills are paid, and those Thanksgiving and Summer Whites articles are part and parcel of the process. So, I always told myself whenever I had to write them, just grin and bear it. That’s what pays your salary, Steve-o.


Is Chardonnay “back”? No, because it never left. Plus, a comment on wine writing

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There long has been a lot of Sturm und Drang about an “anything but Chardonnay” movement, but it was all talk and no action. As usual, elite “gatekeepers” pronounced Chardonnay passé (and felt all the more elite for doing so); meanwhile, hundreds of millions of Americans, apparently not having gotten the memo, continued to love Chardonnay. It never “went” anywhere, so how can it “come back”?

Well, it has, according to this article, from the drinks business, that says “consumers are getting into [Chardonnay] all over again”—at least down in Australia, with “the Chinese” poised to “go wild” for it “in time.”

In this country, if grape growers thought that Chardonnay was a dying variety, they wouldn’t continue to grow it. While it’s true that, between the years 2004-2013, Chardonnay increased only very modestly in acreage in California, at least it increased (unlike Merlot and Zinfandel). It’s still the top-selling wine in this country, red or white. So can we please begin looking at Chardonnay for what it really is—a noble variety that’s being made better and better all the time, not as buttery, oaky and sweet as it used to be, but much more balanced? Take it from me: You don’t have to be ashamed for loving Chardonnay anymore, because—it’s baaak!

And speaking of Chardonnay, one of my faithful readers, who read this post from last week, sent in the following comment:

You mentioned that Boomers saw the cultural “wisdom” of their elders as prejudiced and outdated.

Many young wine drinkers see the wine “wisdom” of their elders as prejudiced and outdated.

Three examples:

  1.  The way establishment wine writers view the wines of “The Other 47 States.”
  2.  The Hegemony of Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.
  3.  The bias against pink wines as ‘not-serious.’

Well, let me address each of those. I suppose it is true that “establishment wine writers” view the wines of the other 47 states (presumably, California, Oregon and Washington being the exceptions) as in a lesser light. How could it be otherwise? California wine, in particular, has dominated the national scene (and the quality scene) for, like, forever! But I, myself, am acutely aware that I’ve never had the privilege of tasting wines from about 44 of the 50 states, so I would never presume to say they’re not as good as ours. But if you think about it, a wine writer has to make a living: and there are multiple reasons why the wines of other states get overlooked. One is it’s hard to get tasting samples. Another is it’s hard to find outlets to write about them (you can write an article but if a reputable magazine won’t publish it, what’s the point?). If I write an article on “Napa Valley Cult Cabernet” a lot of people are going to want to read it. If I write an article on “The Tempranillos of Tennessee,” I doubt if anyone would even click open the link. So you need an audience and, in the case of most U.S. wine, there just isn’t one for most of the wines of the other states except for places like OR, WA, NY, VA and a few others (although that is changing). Cold, hard fact.

The Hegemony of Cabernet and Chardonnay. Well, this is a true accusation, and it’s one I’ve bemoaned in the past. Still, the truth is the truth: These are America’s top varieties. The customer is never wrong. Cab and Chard also are two of the world’s “noble” varieties and while we can argue about what that means, one thing I think we can all agree on is that Cabernet (whether you like it or not) is one of the world’s greatest red wine grapes and wines, and Chardonnay (ditto) one of the greatest white grapes and wines. So, again, articles and reviews concerning Cab and Chard are simply of more inherent interest than they are for many other varieties.

The bias against pink wines. Look, pink wine—rosé—has had more favorable press in the media over the past few years than any other wine type! “Brosés” are all the rage; blush wine is everywhere! So you can’t say pink wine isn’t getting its fair share of publicity. Now, is pink wine “serious”? What do you mean by “serious”? It doesn’t fetch the price of luxury reds or whites, but then pink wine is often saignée wine, or made from younger or lesser quality grapes, so it’s not meant to be “serious.” What it is meant to be is seriously good and easy to drink and with the right foods, the best possible wine. So I’m not a rosé basher, and neither is any other reputable critic I know. Would the other critics give a rosé 99 or 100 points? Probably not. You can make a case they should, but if you were a critic using the 100-point system (or puffs, or stars, or letter grades, whatever) you probably wouldn’t give a rosé your highest rating, either. In wine reviewing, there have to be standards: wine is not like the children of Lake Wobegon, where they’re all above average. Some wines are average, some are below average, some are above average and some are way, way above average, “average” being an abstract quality tier that exists in the wine writer’s mind. Rosé in my experience is never “way, way above average.” I admit I haven’t reviewed a lot in my years (maybe 1,000 or so), but I can’t actually recall a single one that blew me away—the way I can for Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, or various European wines.

Anyhow, it’s very easy to knock wine writers if you’re not one!


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