When Merry Edwards asked me to introduce her at her induction Feb. 18 for the Vintners Hall of Fame, my first question was “Why me?” I was obviously honored, but really had no idea why Merry selected yours truly.
Her reply: “Because you’re an historian.”
Well, my reaction was, “I’m a wine critic.” I didn’t say that, but the thought instantly rose in my head. Somehow, Merry calling me “an historian” seemed to cast my role as a wine critic into a secondary light. And I take being a wine critic very seriously: rating and reviewing wine is the essence of what I do for a living.
But the more I thought about it, the more I realized how silly that thought was. After all, Merry knows me, not just as someone who reviews her wines, but as the author of A Wine Journey along the Russian River and New Classic Winemakers of California, in which she has her own chapter. So to Merry, I’m as much an historian as I am a critic.
And then it occurred to me: Why do we pigeonhole ourselves into categories anyway? Critic–historian–writer–journalist–blogger–these are all part and parcel of what I do. They’re just words for the totality of my love for, and interest in, wine and writing.
Actually, in terms of which came first, Merry’s right: I was an historian of wine well before I was a wine critic. I mean, in the sense that I’d made reading about the history of wine a consuming interest in my life by the late 1970s, ten years before I was ever paid to write about wine. I’m glad that, by the time I took wine writing on as a career, I’d built up a very extensive knowledge of wine history through the reading of books. That gave me a basis later on for making qualitative judgments about wine. I was able to understand that wine is (among other things) a hierarchy. There is nothing fundamentally democratic about wine, other than the fact that anyone can drink it. (Thank goodness.) Wine always has been about elitism: if you were wealthy you could afford to drink better wine than a poor man, because it costs money to produce a quality wine. It did when the Caesars had their favorites (which presumably few others could buy), and it still does. In fact, the history of Western civilization can largely be told through the spread of wine from its ancestral homeland somewhere in the Caucasus up the river valleys of Europe and, thence, to the New World.
It frightens me to think that there probably are wine “critics” out there right now–blogging away–who don’t possess a single good book on wine. Worse yet: it frightens me that there are wine writers whose chief resource is Google. I can’t imagine anything more contrary to the spirit of wine to have someone send you a sample of, say, a Muscadet, and then Google it in order to know what you’re drinking. This isn’t because there’s anything fundamentally wrong with a quick Internet search. I use Google all the time. But I use my library more. Why is a real library “better” (in every sense I can think of) than Google? Because I have inhaled my wine books until their information informs my DNA like genetic code. The patient acquisition of detailed knowledge, lovingly and painstakingly assembled over many years, can’t possibly be compared to a quick Google search. That is an insult to all great wine writers, living or dead.
And so I gratefully acceded to Merry’s request. To put her contributions in wine into historical perspective (and let us hope Merry’s career extends as far forward into the future as it does into the past), one must know the history, not only of California wine, but of world wine in general. One must understand, also, how Merry sees her own place in history (which is the purpose of the pre-interview). The history of wine involves elements from almost every aspect of human study, from anthropology to chemistry to religion to gender studies. It’s so much more than “Here’s what I think.”
I want to congratulate Alder Yarrow and his Vinography blog on the occasion of its ninth birthday. That’s quite an achievement—to keep a blog going for that long. (By contrast, my blog is only 4-1/2 years old.)
When Alder started blogging, the concept of “the wine blog” must have been practically non-existent. I certainly never heard of blogs until around 2005-2006, when I was asked by Wine Enthusiast to write an article about them. I looked into the matter and found a bunch of silly, amateurish drivel—with an oasis here and there, among which Vinography was one. (Another was Tom Wark’s Fermentation and Jo Diaz’s Juicy Tales.
These early blogs changed the face of wine writing, of the way readers communicate with writers, and and of how wineries reach out to critics. In the old days, everything was top down: wealthy publishers owned print publications, hired writers to (more or less) hew to their philosophies, and the only way readers had of becoming part of the process was to write a letter to the editor that might or might not get published in 4 months. Not exactly the stuff of dialogue.
Now, through platforms like WordPress, bloggers can self-publish, without interference or influence from anyone except their own conscience. Readers have the opportunity for instant feedback (in my own case, once I’ve approved your first comment, all subsequent comments are published as soon as you send them in. No censorship on my part). This fundamentally changes the way wine writers operate.
For instance, it puts our activities under a magnifying glass—or maybe an electron microscope is the better analogy. I’ve been forced by my readers to explain every aspect of everything I do related to my job—to my pleasure, I might add. In this respect, blogging has demystified wine to a greater extent than ever before. By its very nature, blogging echoes wine’s essence: sharing, communication, involvement, collectivity.
The one thing neither Alder Yarrow, nor any other blogger, has yet figured out how to do is to make their blog profitable. This isn’t their fault: it’s an inherent limitation of the entire social media sphere, which simply doesn’t seem to lend itself to pecuniary purposes. This could change someday, but it’s hard to imagine. If smart people–and Alder, who lives in San Francisco and whom I know, is smart—can’t figure out how to take all their visibility and renown and translate it into dollars, then it may not be possible.
Which leads to the question, why continue to blog? Alder himself answered it: “Frankly there are probably better things to do with my time, but I enjoy it so much, and a large part of that enjoyment is knowing that other folks find it useful, entertaining, or simply just a reasonable way to pass the time.”
This may be hard for some people to believe, because they, themselves, have little inclination in their own lives to do anything for altruistic purposes. For some people, it’s all about the scramble for money, power, prestige. They miss out on the simple pleasure of doing something nice for others, without demanding to be compensated. Very sad.
I think that’s the best thing about the wine blogosphere as it is today. It’s really a very pure space. Not everybody’s blog is worth reading, and not every post on each blog that is worth reading is particularly insightful. But wine blogs have become the global village McLuhan envisioned decades ago, a place where everyone is more or less equal, where decisions are taken collectively, and where understanding is shared by the group in truly democratic fashion.
So thank you, Alder, for starting Vinography, and for helping usher in a great era!
Randy Caparosa, in the December, 2012 issue of The Tasting Panel, writes: You do not go to Mendocino in search of “perfectly balanced” wines. What you can find are wines with intriguing blemishes: strong earth tones, prickling acidity, stringy tannins, strange or exotic aromas, seemingly from another planet. But at least they are real—distinctly “Mendocino”—which is why many sommeliers are loving it!
It took me three days of thinking about this before I realized I didn’t know what it meant. Or do I? There is, indeed, something to be said about wines that march to the beat of a different drummer. They can surprise, stun, make you look differently at varieties you thought you knew, or regions you believed you understood. On the other hand, the concept of “intriguing blemishes” is new for me.
Inherent in Randy’s comment, of course, is the notion that “perfectly balanced” is not the sine qua non of great wine. I would have thought it was: if “perfectly balanced” is not the highest good to which a wine can attain, then what is?
Well, that was my immediate reaction. Then I dug into Wine Enthusiast’s database to find instances where I used “perfectly balanced” or its close kin, “perfect balance.” Here are some I found from the past year: J. Lohr 2009 Carol’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (92 points), Robert Mondavi 2011 Moscato d’Oro (88 points), Ram’s Gate 2010 Durell Vineyards Chardonnay (93 points), Round Pond 2011 Sauvignon Blanc (90 points), Morgan 2011 Double L Vineyard Riesling (88 points), Jarvis 2006 Estate Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (96 points) and Sanguis 2010 Postcard From Morocco white Rhône-style blend (93 points).
This made me question what I mean by “perfect balance.” After all, if a wine can be perfectly balanced, yet score “only” 88 or 90 points, then “perfect balance” does not mean absolute perfection; if it did, the wine would score 100 points. So in what way is “perfect balance” merely a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition, for greatness?
When I think of balance, I think of a flawless equilibrium of the important parts of a wine that give it structure and overall integrity: acidity, tannins, oak integration [if any], minerality [ditto], and the spectrum of fruit-herb-earth-and spice flavors. If all these elements seem in harmony, with nothing sticking out (new oak is the sticky-outest thing a California wine can have, although acidity and tannins can be, too), then the wine is thought to have balance. Of course, “perfect” balance means calibrating degrees of balance; that is an angels-dancing-on-pinheads conversation we can have at another time!
What lifts a wine beyond “perfect balance” into true perfection is harder to define, and depends on certain assumptions, not all of which everyone may share. First is that certain varieties or families of varieties are noble whereas most others are not; and a non-noble wine cannot be perfect regardless of how good it is as an example of its type. I believe this. In California, it means that a Sauvignon Blanc-based white wine is never truly great, although the best of them can approach greatness. The same is true of a California Moscato or Riesling. This is why the Mondavi, Round Pond and Morgan wines are not perfect wines, despite their perfect balance.
The same is probably true of a California Syrah or Rhône red or white blend. In theory, I suppose, one could be perfect, especially a red, and especially if based on Syrah, which is a noble variety in France. I haven’t run across a perfect Rhône-style California red wine yet, but I’d like to, and I have an idea what it would taste and feel like: massive, dense, dark, deeply delicious, yet singularly well-structured and dry. We’ll just have to wait and see if one comes along.
Then we come to the Bordeaux-style wines I found to have perfect balance this past year, of which the Jarvis can stand as an example. At 96 points, it’s not far from absolute perfection. On another day, it might have shown even better. The thing to understand about these very high scores, from the mid-90s on up to 100, is that there is a certain subjectivity in these judgments. Perhaps “subjectivity” isn’t exactly the word I’m looking for. “Experiential variation of beauty” is more precise, although wordier. I hate to drag the psychedelic realm into this (and for me, it’s been many decades since I last tinkered), but on a high induced by a mind-altering drug, like LSD, one can experience beauty and meaning of such staggering power, in which the boundaries between self and not-self are transcended, that the memory remains forever seared into the mind. Yet at the same time, one realizes that this experience also is fragile to the point of ephemerality.
This ephemerality marks a perfect wine, or one’s appreciation of it. One captures it (or vice versa) at the most perfect moment in time—serendipitous for both the wine and for the person who drinks it. Mysterious, undefinable essences merge into something that overwhelms all further judgment into a single focus of wonder; one might even call it ecstasy. Whatever that thing is, or however you define it, “perfect balance” doesn’t adequately describe it.
I think that’s what Randy was hinting at. But we have to reconsider that more troubling phrase, “intriguing blemishes.” What does that mean?
Human analogies are necessary. “Blemish” in the most common usage refers to skin conditions, usually on young people. They are not generally considered “intriguing,” which is why there are so many anti-pimple ointments on the market. There are other sorts of “blemishes” (or perhaps “imperfections” is a better word) that we treat more kindly. Barbra Streisand’s nose has been, next to her voice, her most salient physical feature, and I think it’s fair to say no one ever said she wasn’t a beautiful women despite it. Would you say “because of it”? I wouldn’t. I don’t think Streisand’s nose makes her more beautiful than she would be with a “perfect” nose (whatever that is). But on this, we can disagree.
I have never used the word “imperfection” in a wine review, but I do frequently use the word “flaw” or “flawed,” and by it I never mean anything other than a negative criticism. Medicinal tastes, green, vegetal notes, mold, volatile acidity, excessive softness, violent tannins, wateriness—these are flaws, perhaps not technical ones but flaws nonetheless; and they are never charming or “intriguing.” I do use the word “intriguing” with some regularity, and by it I mean to pay a compliment. Last year, for example, I plugged it into reviews for Cuvaison 2010 Chardonnay, Saxon Brown 2009 Durell Vineyard Hayfield Block Pinot Noir, Bella Victoria 2009 Elena Syrah, Cambria 2009 Julia’s Vineyard Pinot Noir, and a few others. What I mean by “intriguing” are elements, usually beginning in the aroma and extending into the taste, that are not front-and-center (that’s usually, in California, the fruit), but pop up around the edges—things like bacon or charred meat, flowers, tobacco, stone, dried fruits, pine, mushroom, soy sauce, steel, mulch. These notes bring complexity to the wine: “intriguing” is a good word that connotes additional interest.
Still, I can’t in my mind conjoin “intriguing” and “blemishes” to come up with anything good. “Earth tones, prickling acidity, stringy tannins, strange or exotic aromas…” “Earthiness” isn’t a blemish, it’s a vital component of certain wines. If acidity is “prickling,” then it’s too high, unless it’s in a sparkling wine; “prickling” sounds like a secondary fermentation in the bottle that was unintended. I don’t know exactly what Randy means by “stringy” tannins; that’s a word I don’t use, but it doesn’t sound complimentary. “Strange or exotic” aromas? What are those? Exotic sounds okay, but strange? I don’t want no strangeness in my wine’s smells.
I’d love to hear from Randy and my readers more about specific wines that possess this oxymoronic quality of “intriguing blemishes.”
13 tweets and counting in the last 24 hours from Robert M. Parker, most of them seemingly designed to correct statements made by Lettie Teague, of the Wall Street Journal, in her article about “The Big Shake-Up” at the Wine Advocate.
Lettie apparently got so much wrong that Bob felt the need to correct the record as fast as he could, before the misinformation becomes embedded into popular consciousness (as these things tend to; even the New York Times’ Eric Asimov passed along some of Teague’s incorrect information).
Lettie: “the fiercely independent publication…will start accepting advertising, though none that is wine-related.”
Parker: “The Wine Advocate print edition will never take on ads.”
Lettie: “The company’s headquarters, an office just down the driveway from Mr. Parker’s home in Maryland farm country, is also moving to Singapore.”
Parker: “headquarters REMAINS [sic] in Monkton but a second office…in Singapore.”
Lettie: “Mr. Parker said the print version might disappear before the end of 2013…”
Parker: “no plans to eliminate the print edition…”
If Bob’s tweets have an air of weariness about them, it’s understandable. He even provided a link to a report on his sale of the Wine Advocate in Bloomberg News, which he apparently feels is more accurate. The Bloomberg reporter pointed out that the facts “contradicted a Wall Street Journal story, which said the Wine Advocate may phase out its print version by the end of 2013.”
In so many respects this story has been blown out of proportion, not just in the Wall Street Journal and other popular media but especially on the wine blogs, which are going nutso. Not much has really changed at Wine Advocate nor do I expect much to change anytime soon. Parker will “continue to focus [as he tweeted] on Bordeaux, Rhone, retros of CA & the big picture…”, just as he does now. My take: good for him. He’s worked his tail off for decades and now deserves whatever he got.
Far more interesting, to my way of thinking, is this paraphrase, from The Drinks Business, concerning Wine Advocate’s new editor-in-chief, Lisa Perrotti-Brown: She “hopes [the move] will give her more control over wine reviews.” Granted, this wasn’t a direct quote, but we have to imagine Perrotti-Brown said something to that effect. Will the current writers, including Antonio Galloni here in California, be content to “become full-time employees of The Wine Advocate, rather than independent contractors,” as The Drinks Business article said? And what does “more control over wine reviews” mean anyway? Danger, danger, when management says they want more control. Parker’s correspondents have some deep thinking to do: report now to a bunch of Singapore businessmen via Perrotti-Brown and lose the freedom of being an indie contractor? Risk being told their reviews need, uhh, editing? Or hold onto their ethics and lose their precious positions as writers for Wine Advocate, with all the perks it brings? As an indie myself, I can tell you these are difficult decisions for a writer to make.
The buzz in media circles for many years has been how traditional print publications, such as newspapers and magazines, can stay alive in this age of the Internet, where content (for the most part) is free.
The challenge of remaining relevant (and profitable) isn’t limited just to print pubs, however. It encompasses old broadcast media, too, including television and radio. Briefly, how can these models stay in business in a mobile era in which nobody wants to pay for anything, and advertisers are having second and third thoughts about investing large quantities of money into vehicles that look increasingly anachronistic?
There are no simple answers. This blog has grappled with the question for years, as have other blogs and social media platforms. Some extreme social media adherents have argued that print and broadcast media are inexorably doomed. Others, including myself, have said, No, that’s not the case, we’re in an evolution whose outcome is uncertain. Nobody really knows. On the many occasions I’ve been asked to make predictions, I’ve resorted to a standard quip: If Rupert Murdoch doesn’t know what’s happening (and he doesn’t), then how am I supposed to?
If you think about it, the times are indeed changing, what with the entire world going social and mobile, but beyond that, we don’t really understand what this means for traditional for-profit media. We know that the instrumentation of accessing media is changing—from paper and plugged-in electronic things to portable, wireless things. What’s so difficult to figure out, though, is how information is going to be researched and reported, if the money that used to pay for it is draining out of a system increasingly reliant on “free.” There used to be standards of journalism that reporters were expected to respect, if they wished to get paid. There used to be obligations to the society at large, to be useful and helpful. Now that everyone in the world can be his own reporter, what happens to those standards? To put it another way, can Twitter substitute—in value, relevance and historicity–for the New York Times or, for that matter, for the hometown newspaper or public radio station?
Smarter minds than mine are grappling with this question, and it’s not surprising that many of them live in my neck of the woods, the Bay Area, where not only Silicon Valley is located but also that bastion of traditional media, San Francisco (whose big newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, almost went belly up a few years ago). San Francisco also is home to one of the most successful, wealthiest public radio and television stations, KQED, which just announced that it’s partnering with two other nonprofits to create “a $2.5 million accelerator fund for selected media startups — of the for-profit variety — to tap.” (An accelerator fund invests capital in externally-developed companies in return for capital, whereas an incubator fund brings in an external team to manage an idea developed internally.)
The investors, who call themselves Matter Ventures, are looking for “media startups with multi-disciplinary teams who have early-stage prototypes, such as participatory platforms, mobile applications, B2B media services, and content production engines.” Ring a bell? Think of a website that produces content (say, a blog), that encourages two-way communication between provider and users (such as a blog), and that can go mobile. They seek “entrepreneurs who show high potential to create media ventures that make a meaningful, positive impact on society while pursuing a sustainable, scalable, profitable business model.”
That “profitable business model” thing is the catch. How would that work for, say, something on social media that’s wine related? Wine blogs have proven notoriously incapable of producing anything beyond modest profits, if any. In this, of course, they echo the Internet in general, where many are called but few are chosen. There are very few web platforms that make money. Porn does. Google does. Online stores do. But those aren’t what Matter Ventures is looking for. The CEO, Corey Ford [who was involved with ex-Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s venture capital fund), is aware that a “profitable business model” on a social media platform is really hard to achieve, but he believes that the brilliant minds can come up with something. “Is there a way that we can leverage that type of [Silicon Valley innovation] model to support innovations in the areas we care about, in the future of media that matters?” he asks. He thinks there is, but he can’t say what it is, anymore than anyone else can, beyond proposing that “a culture of experimentation”, properly loved and cared for by Matter Ventures, can succeed. The new business will have “to impact society in a way that makes its citizens more informed, engaged or empowered.”
Who knows if this will succeed? It’s risky for the investors and particularly for KQED, whose donors may well ask why their money is going towards such experimental things instead of paying the bills. But if anyone can figure out how to make social media make money, in a way that helps society, it’s the combined brain power of Silicon Valley and San Francisco media.
Most of how I taste, I learned from Michael Broadbent. Not the man personally—from his little guidebook, “Michael Broadbent’s Pocket Guide to Wine Tasting,” whose 1982 edition, the fourth, I bought for $5.95.
That book brought me from a dilletantish approach to tasting, in which I simply poured the wine, tasted it and thought about it, to a more structured, one might say scientific approach. Michael took the reader through the actual mechanics of swirling, sniffing and tasting, explaining what to look for, how to know what you were experiencing, what to expect from different wines, even how to write a proper note. I devoured that book, over and over, re-reading it time and again to ingest its wisdom. It remains, in my humble opinion, the best guide to wine tasting ever written.
I wonder how others came to learn how to taste. We call it “tasting,” but it’s so much more than that, really. First of all, on a perceptual level experiencing a wine involves all the senses, from the Pop! of pulling the cork to the feel of the wine on the palate. But there’s so much more to the wine experience than “mere” perception. There’s the intellect, which never stops thinking, and briefs us on other aspects of the wine: If we’re tasting blind (for instance) the intellect scrolls through its database and tries to determine if the wine might be a Cabernet Sauvignon, from Bordeaux, a new release or maybe one with some age on it.
There is also the esthetic sense that only humans seem to possess. (Do animals have an esthetic sense? Gus certainly appreciates certain things, like warmth, dryness, food and water, my lap, a belly rub, but I wouldn’t go so far as to call those “esthetic appreciations.”) Humans, however, have the capacity to be captivated by the artistic mastery of created things. We may stand before an El Greco in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (which I used to do when I was an art student) in absolute awe, mindful of how hard it is to create such complex beauty with nothing more than an arm and hand, paintbrush and paints. To think that human intelligence and taste, with all the education, practice and understanding that inform them, was capable of painting “View of Toledo” is part of appreciating it: that painting appeals to us on every level of being human. Same with wine.
But understanding wine needs more than an esthetic appreciation, for all its importance. It needs a structured understanding, and this can be achieved only by study and application. Which is exactly what Michael Broadbent gave me, thirty years ago: the practical tools to take what was essentially an inchoate experience and translate or elevate it into something that could be written about, described, repeated and remembered.
Every time I taste a wine, every wine I have ever experienced is in some mysterious way evoked in my memory. Not consciously, of course, because there have been too many, numbered in the hundreds of thousands. But in some alchemically subtle way, that wine I am now experiencing stands in relation to every other wine, finding its way into the pantheon and taking its place, in just the proper order, beside all the others. The population of memory-wines in my mind is a very orderly one, where the inhabitants behave properly, according to their place in the hierarchy.
It is for this reason, among others, that I remain comfortable with the 100-point system of scoring, which actually is a 21-point system in Wine Enthusiast’s way of doing things. When we were kids in grade school, our teachers used to make us “line up” by size place: smallest kids in front (usually, me), then medium sized kids, and finally the big guys in the rear. Each kid knew exactly where to take his place in the line, like atoms arranging themselves into molecules according to some greater force than themselves. Wine, in my mind, is like that. As soon as it enters the “schoolyard” of my head, it finds its way to its proper place in line, which in this case means its place in the 21-point system. Michael Broadbent himself did not subscribe to the 100-point system, but neither did he rail against it. “Points are awarded” to wines during tastings, he wrote, adding, “Maximum possible can be 7 points, more often 20, sometimes 100,” meaning that he was intellectually open to the validity of the 100-point system. Then Michael went on to ask all the right questions: “Are words necessary? On what sort of occasion? Great wine—for whom?”
Michael framed the conversation more articulately than anyone before him ever thought to. We are still asking the same questions today.