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.
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.
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.
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.
- The way establishment wine writers view the wines of “The Other 47 States.”
- The Hegemony of Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.
- 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!
I was up over the weekend in beautiful Seattle for my grand-nephew, Joey’s, bar mitzvah, a large and decidedly inter-ethnic affair: in my extended family we have, not only Jews, but Filipinos, Central Americans, African-Americans, Syrians and folks from just about every country in Europe—a veritable United Nations of humanity.
Not everyone knows everybody else; in fact, we were joking that the only person who knew everyone was our hostess, the mother of the bar mitzvah boy, who did the invites; but I think even for her, some of the names were familiar only from paper. So, as you might expect, there were lots and lots of introductions, and the usual ice-breaking topics like “Where are you from?” and “How are you related to Joey?”
There were doctors, and engineers, and builders, and gas station owners, and administrative types of all kinds, and so forth (one in-law I met breeds hunting dogs in Kansas). Usually, when you learn of most of these occupations, you might nod in acknowledgment and make a few politely perfunctory remarks (“Oh, a doctor? What kind?”) and then, having satisfied that most elementary form of getting-to-know-you, move onto the next topic. But wine writing (if that’s the proper description of what I do, and I’m not so sure it is) seems to elicit more curiosity than most other fields of endeavor. The common reaction is an arch of the eyebrows accompanied by a widening of the eyes, meant to convey an impression of surprise, curiosity and, perhaps, a bit of incredulity that anyone, especially in this rather ordinary family, could possibly make a living from something so exotic.
People understand, I suppose, that America has a rather large wine industry, and that somebody has got to work in it; but judging from the reaction I get, most of them have never actually met such an individual (which always makes me feel rather like an alien). There may follow questions like “Whom do you work for?” or “Exactly what is it that you do?” and of course I’m perfectly happy to go into as much or as little detail as seems warranted under the circumstances (I can usually tell if my stories start to bore people). But the biggest question of all—the one everybody asks, as invariably as the sun rises in the east—is: “How did you get into wine?”
I have my standard answer for that, too, which involves the tale of my cousin and me in the Safeway wine aisle, back in late 1978; but I won’t repeat that now. It’s actually odd for that particular question—“How did you get into wine?”—to arise so often. I mean, very few people ask, for example, “How did you get into insurance?” or whatever (although the trainer of hunting dogs told me he does get asked a lot about that, which I believe, because I also asked him). I think most people just don’t care all that much how most folks “got into” their jobs.
But wine seems obviously different. I have my theories as to why, but I confess they’re only that—conjectures—and I have no proof that I’m right. Wine conjures up in most people’s minds something romantic, mysterious, glamorous, and, as I said, exotic, but it’s also slightly risqué, perhaps even dissolute. It’s not just that it’s alcohol; it’s wine, not “just” beer or spirits. Although wine is in everybody’s life, even people who don’t drink (after all, we all pass the wine aisle in the supermarket, and the floor stacks, and we see Kathie Lee and Hoda getting pleasantly blitzed on morning T.V., and you can’t pick up a lifestyle magazine without something about wine), wine retains, for all its ubiquity, a tantalizingly “other” feeling that separates it from the “real” or workaday world. (Whether that’s good or not is another story.) Therefore, someone who works in the wine world shares that aura of otherworldliness.
I guess people think that folks like me spend our days drinking fabulous vintages in idyllic places, while barefoot servants come and go, speaking, not of Michaelangelo, but “More caviar? Lobster mousse? Champagne?,” as we engage in amusing chit-chat with glamorous, beautiful people. That’s sheer nonsense. (If you want to know the reality, send me, as Click and Clack say, a hundred dollar bill, and I’ll write the answer on the back.) But wine always has been as much about fantasy as about anything else; and if the fantasy ever disappears, so will much of the ambience surrounding wine. I do not always disabuse people entirely of their misconceptions; neither do I entirely enlighten them.
Anyhow, it’s great to be home in Oakland. Back to work tomorrow: lots of interesting assignments. Gus is glad to be back in his own bed, and so am I.