I heard Roger Rosenblatt, the writer, on NPR yesterday, being interviewed about his new memoir, The Boy Detective: A New York Childhood.
(I haven’t read it, but plan to.) In the interview, Rosenblatt described how he used to pretend to be a detective when growing up in Manhattan’s Grammercy Park neighborhood, and how that sense of imagining later helped inform his writing.
When I was a boy, growing up in the borough of The Bronx, just north of Manhattan, I too used to play in the park, across the street from our apartment building, and would pretend to be an archeologist. I’d find scraps of discarded materials–the top of a cola bottle, a rusty nail, a crumpled piece of cardboard–and pretend that they were treasures I’d unearthed on an archeological scavenge or dig. I would make up, spontaneously and in the greatest detail, complete histories of those artifacts: who had owned them, how old they were, what they were used for. It was all silly, harmless pretending, but, looking back now, I can see that I was developing the intellectual tools (curiosity, improvisation, the elaborate construction of a narrative) that were later to prove so useful in my own career as a writer.
You might think that wine writing has nothing to do with imagination, but you’d be wrong. At first glance, talking about wine seems to have nothing to do with anything but facts: where was it grown? What is the alcohol? What kinds of oak was it aged in? What are the specific flavors? But of course, such a recitation of facts would give nothing of value to consumers, who want to know: What do you think about the wine?
This is where imagination comes in. When I used to pick up a rusty piece of metal in the park, that was all it was: a rusty piece of metal. Garbage, most people would say. And in fact, if you simply looked at it as a rusty piece of metal, that’s all it was. It took imagination to see it as something left over from the Stone Age, a scraping tool to carve out a lump of stone formed into the shape of a fertility goddess. Yet that’s how my mind worked.
It’s pretty much the same with a glass of wine. At the most fundamental level, it is what it is. Even the greatest wine doesn’t blow your mind if you don’t know what it is. Wine is just fermented grape juice, sometimes elaborated with winemaker bells and whistles such as malolactic fermentation, lees aging and barrel fermentation and/or aging. There’s not much more going on, whether it’s Two Buck Chuck or Petrus. What you find in it depends in large part on what you bring to the experience: your expectations and imagination.
When I was a young druggie [yes, let’s get that out], Dr. Timothy Leary used to say that the acid experience depended on the combination of set and setting. “Set” was the underlying psychology you brought. “Setting” was your immediate environment. “Set” was unchanging: you are what you are. “Setting” varied enormously and could be the determining factor in whether you had a good trip or a bad one.
What all this has to do with imagination is that the judgment of a particular wine has to do with subjective factors. I believe that there is no “external reality” to a wine. The ultimate judgment is dependent on the setting: what do you know about it? How are you experiencing it–at the winery, tasted openly with the winemaker? Blind, in a paper bag among a flight? When you taste blind, you are in the same boat as an archeologist who comes across an artifact in a dig. What is it? You know very little, but your mind desperately tries to put the pieces together. And so you come to a conclusion: it’s early period Egypt, or pre-Columbian Native American, or a Neanderthal tool. You make inferences based on your knowledge, and your excitement level rises or falls with your conclusions. If you have no knowledge, you can make no inferences. You simply like the wine or you don’t, which is useless from the point of view of helping others understand it. If you understand a great deal about wine, you can develop a historical narrative that others will find useful and compelling. But to do so requires imagination. The wine writer’s seeds are found in his or her childhood fantasies.
I suppose I can see the logic (if that’s the right word) of charging many hundreds of dollars for a wine of known provenance (Lafite, for instance). But when a new brand, right out of the gate, releases itself at triple-digit prices, some sense of justice in me is aroused to the point of disgust.
I wrote “releases itself” but that is, of course, an intransitive verb structure, the kind we writers recoil from, because nothing in this world occurs intransitively. So let me rephrase it: When a new brand is released by its owners at triple-digit prices, something in me is disgusted.
I could choose from among any number of Napa Valley wines to illustrate my point, but since I have to live, and get along, with these people, it’s probably a better idea for me to turn abroad. To Australia, in this case, where the new Thousand Candles winery has released a Pinot Noir and a Shiraz, both at the price of $110 U.S.
The winemaker, William Downie, told Bloomberg News’ Elin McCoy about “the surprising backstory” (McCoy’s words) concerning the wines’ “true expression of the site” (we’ve heard that before). “I believe a great wine tells one story: Who am I?” Downie said. (Never mind that Thousand Candles’ owner is anonymous, and Downie didn’t disclose his/her identity; what kind of “story-telling” is that?)
Downie did admit to McCoy that “We have been accused of hubris,” referring to the controversy that gripped the Australian wine scene when the wines’ prices were revealed. Indeed, Qantas Airlines’ online web site said “No inaugural wine release was more controversial than that of Thousand Candles…”. (I should add that I have not tasted the wines, nor has anyone at Wine Enthusiast, yet.) Such reviews of them as I’ve found online have been mainly positive. Most emphasize the wines’ uniqueness, and that may well be true.
There are certainly arguments supportive of releasing some new brands at high prices. One is the pedigree of their creators; indeed, this is generally the most-used rationale. Such-and-such a famous viticulturalist and winemaker is involved; such-and-such great terroir: these usually are the prime justifications. In the case of Thousand Candles, there seems also to be a desire, on the part of the winemaker at any rate, to reassure the world that Australia, despite its well-publicized woes, is capable of producing top tier wines. Now this gets us into the through-the-looking glass world of perceptions: If a wine costs that much money, surely it must be good!
We know, from studies and through anecdotal evidence, that the tendency of the consumer to believe that price and quality are related is practically hard-wired into the brain. I don’t quite understand what the evolutionary value of such reasoning is; perhaps someone can explain it to me. But it’s a powerful driver; even if you intellectually understand that price and quality aren’t that tightly connected, a high price has an emotional impact on most people that’s makes it hard for them to reasonably dismiss it. Look at art: if it’s a scribbled daub on the bulletin board at a local school, it’s considered minor. Put it in a fancy frame, in a museum, and suddenly connoisseurs are willing to pay millions for it.
There’s something else going on with these super-expensive wines that also touches in on human psychology. It’s the feeling that, even if you taste the wine and don’t particularly care for it, there must be something in you that’s missing in action, not something in the wine. If you tasted a Two Buck Chuck and thought it was a thin disappointment, you wouldn’t give it a second thought: It’s just a cheap wine that doesn’t deserve to have you lavish time and energy trying to understand it.
But a $110 wine is somehow different. Consider this review of Thousand Candles, from the Wine Will Eat Itself blog. The writer, Jeremy Pringle, is trying very hard (it seems to me) to be fair and objective in his assessment, for which I give him credit. He doesn’t robotically fall into line worshiping the wine, just because it’s expensive. Instead, he revisits it, thinks about it (a lot), considers the opinions of its critics, doubts himself, and retastes–these all are admirable qualities for a wine critic to possess. In the end, he writes, while the wine may not immediately dazzle (“Those who criticize this wine based on some sense of objective value for money are probably spot on”), he concludes that “it is a cerebral wine…best shared with others and within the context of a discussion if not a debate.”
I understand where he’s going…kind of. But why would you give a wine so much power over you, if your first impression of it is “Meh”? I’ll tell you why. Because it’s expensive, because it has a “surprising backstory,” because the chattering classes are all mumbling about it, and because you, as a wine writer, don’t want people to think you’re not “up” on the latest important developments. So you give that wine extra consideration–extra time in the glass–extra thought. You want to find great stuff in there, so you look, and look, and look, and talk and talk about it, and suddenly, Voila! There it finally is: great stuff.
Well, this of course is precisely the reason to taste blind. But I am not ignorant of the fact that there’s a huge other side to this debate, and that is, as Pringle writes, “There are occasions when context matters a great deal.” Evidently, tasting Thousand Candles requires context. Does tasting Lafite require context? Does Harlan Estate require context? Does an Arrowood Cabernet require context? Does Two Buck Chuck require context? Where is the line? How does the critic determine which wines require context, and which can be summarily dismissed?
Good questions; no good answers.
I was talking yesterday with my old friend, Andy, who lives in Northampton, an area of Western Massachusetts I have close ties with. Andy told me that John Wolfson, the son of another friend of ours, is Editor of Boston Magazine, which makes me proud of the kid. At the same time, Andy’s wife, Jan, has gotten a contract to write a book about art, but it’s going to be a digital book. This led to a conversation about the future of print journalism versus digital publishing. I told Andy that the roadblock so far to the success of digital publishing has been the reluctance of advertisers to pay anything close to the rates they pay for ads in print publications. Since advertising is the lifeblood of publications, that means that publishers can’t pay their writers as much for digital contributions as for print articles. I don’t know what the overall average is nationwide, but I’d guess that print pays at least five times, maybe ten times as much as digital.
I also pointed out to Andy that this situation not only bodes ill for people who wish to make their living doing journalism, but also for the American people. If a reporter can’t make a living reporting, then who’s going to report on the shenanigans of the local City Council (or, in Andy’s New England case, Board of Selectmen)? The heart and soul of American democracy is tied to an independent press, investigating and reporting without fear. This vital issue is at stake in the new reality.
Finally, I told Andy how grateful I am that I got into this wine writing gig during what I think of as The Golden Age of Wine Writing, which I estimate to have occurred over the last 30 years or so. Before that, nobody made much of a living writing about wine in the U.S., for the simple reason that not enough people cared about wine to buy and read a wine magazine. There were a few wine writers at big newspapers–Frank Prial at the N.Y. Times, Nate Chroman at the L.A. Times–but that was pretty much it.
However, with the growing up of the Baby Boomers and their (our) amazing, historic embrace of wine and wine culture, all that changed. Wine magazines started popping up all over the place, and while wine writing has never been a way to get rich (with a few exceptions: Jancis Robinson, Hugh Johnson), it was at least a way to practice an honorable career, one moreover that afforded the writer quite a bit in the way of perks.
All that is changing. Nobody knows what publishing is going to look like in five years, much less 25. But I think we all have the feeling that something revolutionary, and possibly destructive, has occurred. Was publishing, in the traditional way we think about it, simply a phenomenon of the Age of Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution that is now fading away, in the Age of Digital Information? Nothing lasts forever. People need and want information, but do they care where it comes from, or what the motive of the information provider is?
As for wine writing, there are a lot of really talented young writers out there who would just love it if they could make a decent living at it. My fear is that they won’t be able to. But maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe future generations won’t need wine writers anymore than we need soothsayers. After all, with Wikipedia and Google, all the information in the world is right there with the click of a button. Right?
My Tasting Director at Wine Enthusiast, Lauren Buzzeo, who has a hard job but carries it off with aplomb, sent us reviewers a link to this article yesterday. It’s a defense of tasting notes by a Washington State guy who runs the wine department in a grocery store.
He begins by postulating that “Most of the stuff I have read lately suggests that tasting notes are a complete waste of time, and most people do not even pay attention to them.” He then proceeds, logically and patiently, to demolish this theory. Then, based on his own experiences with his customers, he concludes that “Tasting notes have an important place in the wine world. They give the consumer some insight into what they are to expect out of a wine.”
I’ve written endlessly about this topic on steveheimoff.com. As the Washington State writer noted, the issue of whether or not tasting notes are irrelevant “seems to be the hottest debate on most of the wine blogs or wine related blogs and websites these days.” As I’ve repeatedly pointed out, the fact is, quite obviously, that consumers do like to read tasting notes. As the writer stated, his customers love them–and by extension, that means that customers around the country feel a need and desire for expert tasting notes, for why would Washington State wine consumers be any different from those elsewhere?
But that’s not the point I want to make…again. Instead, I want to answer this question the Washington State guy posed: “Why are so many wine writers taking a negative stance towards tasting notes?” He himself posited a few possible reasons: (1) these critics don’t actually sell wine, so they don’t get the kind of positive feedback about tasting notes that he does; (2) the critics simply aren’t very good at writing tasting notes, so they prefer to just sit back and make fun of them instead of trying to do it themselves.
Both of these are completely true, but I’d like to offer a third reason for the continual bashing of reviews by certain writers: Jealousy. They can’t stand the idea that some wine writers actually make a living at writing wine reviews. If you look at who the review-bashers are, they’re mostly bloggers, and you know what that means: They’d love for somebody to pay them to be professional wine writers, but no one will, so their only outlet is their blog. I sometimes think the fierce attack we published critics come under is also motivated by the hope by these bloggers that somehow their criticisms will tarnish us so much that we’ll eventually fall, and guess who would take our places? The bloggers!
So I’d like to propose an end to this silly non-debate about whether or not tasting notes are useless or irrelevant. It is the biggest non-issue in the wine industry today. The only reason it gets any play at all is because the Internet is free and immediate, so anyone can make any idiotic claim they want, and launch it around the world with the push of a button. I will end simply by quoting the Washington State guy: “I write [tasting notes] for the consumer. I could care less what another columnist thinks about my notes and I certainly don’t agree with their criticism of the notes themselves.”
What should a critic do when he’s confronted with a wine he himself would never consider drinking, yet isn’t so awful as to be undrinkable?
I come across this problem all the time. I’ll pour myself a tasting sip from the bottle, which is in a brown paper bag. The color seems all right. I smell: an immediate reaction of negativity. It can be boiled vegetables, like mushy asparagus, or it can be the nostril-pinching mold of botrytis (rather more common these days, as the 2011s come out). It can be exceptional amounts of oak, or some oak-like smell, heavily toasted and caramelized. It can be many things, but my first reaction to the “nose” is Uggh.
Then I taste, and the wine is no better in the mouth. It’s thin and simple. Yesterday I reviewed a round of Chardonnays that were so watery, your palate had to frisk them up and down to find any trace of fruit. Or certain red wines can transfer the vegetativeness or mold of the aroma into the mouth. Such wines, too, elicit an “Ugh!” factor in me: I conceivably might drink them, but only were I stranded on a desert island and they were the only wines available.
So how do I deal with them, in terms of a score and a text review?
Well, for starters, there’s a big difference between an undrinkable wine and one I personally loathe. Granted, the line between them can be blurry: it’s not the same as the difference between two adjacent squares on the checkerboard, with a strict delineation between red and black. It’s more like the edge of a shadow: fuzzy, inchoate. It’s hard to tell exactly where the line of the shadow is, because, due to the scattering of atoms, there is no line, just an interference pattern that is “Heisenbergian” in indeterminacy.
That makes the choice between a score of 22 (absolutely undrinkable, under Wine Enthusiast’s rules) and 80 or 81 (barely drinkable) a difficult one. On Tuesday the wine may be 22; on Wednesday, 80. So we have to admit there’s a certain arbitrariness here. But the important thing to keep in mind is that my own personal preference or reaction to a wine ought to be irrelevant to my review of it.
This really can’t be emphasized enough. In general you can say that any wine I review that scores between 80-84 points is not one I would wish to drink; yet such wines are drinkable, often eminently so, and, if priced right, can be bargains that receive the highly coveted “Best Buy” special designation the magazine lists in the wine’s formal review in the Buying Guide. (Producers love it when their wines get “Best Buys” as they can use this in their marketing.)
I will often think, when writing a review of an 82-point wine that costs, say, $9, that millions of consumers will like it and consider themselves lucky to have gotten something so good at so affordable a price. This leads to the question of the critic putting himself in the shoes of the people he imagines himself to be writing for. In my case, this is an “average” consumer, one looking for value, as well as one who wants to enjoy his wine and have fun with it, preferably with companionable food. Since I have friends and family members to whom this description applies, I’ll often visualize them in my mind as I review, in a sort of version of “What Would Johnny Think?”
However, as a wine critic, I’m aware that people of a higher order of wine appreciation, more akin to my own, also read Wine Enthusiast and will be curious about my reviews of rare and expensive wines. And so I wish to do a good job of reviewing those wines as well. And I think I do. This illustrates the balancing act that Wine Enthusiast tries to accomplish: to be the magazine (and website) of the “masses” as well as the source of high-class information about the world’s greatest wines.
Most magazines and wine review newsletters do not do this. Some cater exclusively to the upper end. Others, who do not have access to the upper end, exclusively review what I call “supermarket wines” (and I’m sure you know what I mean). Few straddle the entire spectrum, at least in terms of the sheer numbers Wine Enthusiast does.
I’m very proud of the fact that, despite my preference for reviewing the greatest wines in California, I also have the opportunity of reviewing the commoners. Is it my favorite thing to do, to taste through 15 California-appellated Chardonnays that all cost less than $15? I’d be lying if I said it was. But I take that tasting to be as great a challenge as going through 15 high-level coastal Pinot Noirs or Napa Cabernet Sauvignons. Yes, I’d probably take two or three or even four times as long to taste through the latter as the former (because they’re vastly more complex wines that require more time to understand). But if I can give a Best Buy to an inexpensive wine–even one I’d never drink myself–it makes it a happy camper.
The traditional firewall between editorial and advertising–a staple ethical and practical tenet of publishing for at least a century–is being breached, and Ground Zero for this incursion is online.
This leakage never, or only extremely rarely, would have happened in traditional print media, where the guardians of the firewall, including editorial staff but also ombudsmen and even publishers with a sense of moral rectitude, would not have permitted it.
However, online, the traditional rules are being dissolved. Experiments are taking place: website owners and online publications are seeing how much they can get away with (in breaching the firewall) before critical blowback goes nuclear.
But the question is, will it? Do the people accessing the digital world and getting the majority of their information from their smart phones and tablets–mainly younger people–know, or care, who writes the content they read? As long as they’re getting [free] information they find useful and/or entertaining, are they fussy whom it comes from?
All indications are that the answer is no.
Will this integration of editoriai and advertising become the new reality? Have we reached that point on the slippery slope where the only way forward is down?
These questions need to be asked.
Experts in the field–usually consultants selling their services–suggest a win-win: content that helps readers and viewers, but that also fulfills advertisers’ needs. Sounds good, but can this win-win actually be achieved? If it can, then why did generations of publishers and journalists labor so long and hard to create the firewall to begin with? Was their concern simply an unjustified fear that “truth” (that elusive quality) would be compromised by the profit motive of advertisers? Did they simply suffer from a phobia, like fear of flying, that had no basis in reality? Or did they know something that we’re in danger of forgetting?
I can’t answer these questions. But what concerns me–and should concern all writers who wish to make a living through journalism–is that the very nature and substance of journalism, as the West has understood it for 400 years, is under dire threat. It may be that what is in the best interests of consumers and providers of digital content is actually a death sentence for writers, who may be the gas lamp lighters and ice delivery truck drivers of the 21st century–anachronized out of existence. In fact, we already see this occurring now, with “customized content” delivered to your inbox by software whose creators or users have proprietary, for-profit relationships with advertisers whose “articles” are thinly disguised pitches that don’t even bear the warning “advertorial” label. (If Facebook knows that you’re into fly fishing, you may find yourself getting articles that look interesting but whose purpose is not only to inform, but to lure you to sponsoring resorts or fishing equipment.)
This revolution is happening faster than any layperson can possibly suspect. I mention all this not to point fingers, or to put things into blunt black-and-white terms when, in reality, things are more complicated. But we are entering a world in which discerning consumers of information must ask themselves a few questions:
1. Where is this information coming from?
2. Who wrote it?
3. Why is it being sent to me?
4. What was the motive of the person or organization who is sending it to me?
5. Has there been an attempt to influence my behavior?
6. Has this attempt been camouflaged in such a way as to suggest that the sender is not being transparent?
Informed consumers will demand these answers. There’s some evidence that this demand for greater transparency already is occurring (e.g. the fears of government intrusion into our phone and online conversations; the resistence to Facebook ads popping up in our feeds). However there may be considerably more evidence that, in the end, consumers, and especially young ones, don’t give a damn.
What this means for the world of wine writing is clear and ominous. Readers need to understand whether they’re getting untrammeled information and opinion from reputable, reliable sources they know and trust. Or, they need to understand if those sources are picking and choosing the information they offer based on payment. It’s that simple.