Back when John F. Kennedy was President, Helen Thomas, the White House correspondent and, at the time, the only woman to hold that post, asked JFK what he was doing to help women.
“Not enough, I’m sure,” smiled Kennedy, in his wry, bemused way. The implication was that, of course, no American President can ever do enough when it comes to the great issues, like women’s rights. All he or she can do is to try and make things better.
I thought of that long-ago incident when I read The New Yorker’s latest article on wine, called “Is there a better way to talk about wine?”
My answer? Borrowing from JFK, I’m sure there is a better way to talk about wine. I’m just not sure that I, or anybody else, knows quite what it is, or how to get there.
The New Yorker article breaks no new ground for readers of my blog, who are thoroughly familiar with these complaints about “extravagant tasting notes” that ooze “overwrought and unreliable…flowery, elaborate flavor descriptions” aimed at “wealthy men.” Familiar, too, are my readers with the various forms of experimental subterfuge of recent years, wherein studies report on how wine consumers, even educated ones, can be bamboozled if the wines are tasted blind, or if the labels are switched, or if information about them is deliberately distorted. The New Yorker article refers to these studies to bolster its case, and then reiterates that overblown wine vocabularies contribute to the “confusion” experienced by so many consumers. (You can almost hear the writer, Bianca Bosker’s, joy as she quotes a Wine Advocate descriptor: “liquefied Viagra.”)
It is of course easy as falling off a log to criticize anything in the world, as long as the person doing the criticizing doesn’t have the responsibility for coming up with something better. Bosker’s deconstruction of “minerality,” and the near impossibility of defining it, testifies to this fact: Just because something is hard doesn’t make it silly. She toys with the alternative of a “chemistry”-based descriptive vocabulary (fat chance) rather than an “obfuscating” one of poetry and metaphor. She even turns to Matt Kramer’s new book, True Taste, but completely misses Matt’s point: he’s not saying (as Ms. Bosker writes) that “only six [sic] words [actually seven] are necessary to evaluate a bottle’s essential attributes.” Matt himself writes that his book “is not, of course, about a mere seven words. Instead, it’s about those values that involve actual judgment,” and “is about tasting wine with discernment.”
Well, who could be against judgment and discernment? Matt, who has made a living of being a wine wordsmith (same as the rest of us), was looking for a new angle for a new book, and came up with True Taste: it’s a little frothy, but no harm, no foul, and plenty to think about. There’s nothing wrong with talking about “insight, harmony, texture, layers, finesse, surprise and nuance”—Matt’s seven words. But am I wrong in thinking that those concepts, if not explicitly spelled out then at least broadly described, have underlain good wine writing forever? They certainly lubricate the writing I know, from my own books and articles to Parker’s, Oz Clarke’s, Jancis Robinson’s, Steve Tanzer’s, Antonio Galloni’s, Benjamin Lewin’s, yes and Matt Kramer’s, and so on. If writers want to add things about raspberries and peppercorns, so much the better. I think Matt, who enjoys an adroit pen (can we say that anymore?), would be the last to condemn metaphorical wine descriptors. His grudge—mine, too—is when they go over the top.
But where is the line? Nobody really knows, and this is where Ms. Bosker’s article is so frustrating, in the way these “on-the-one-hand, on-the-other” New Yorker articles can be. The title seems to imply that, if the reader will just wade through the 2,098 words of text, he or she will be enlightened, and discover that there truly is “a better way to talk about wine.”
Alas, nothing of the sort happens. And, if you think about recent attempts to make wine writing “better,”–I’m talking to you, Twitter, and to a big part of the blogosphere—you’ll have to admit that failure is no success at all.
But perhaps I am too harsh on Ms. Bosker, for at the very end, she seems to change tone and switch over to a belief that “a little mystery” in winespeak is not such a bad thing. She even wonders “what a Baryshnikov in a glass might taste like.” Now, that’s good wine writing—and a good way to think about wine–but it’s also exactly the kind of “overwrought, flowery” metaphor that critics, including Ms. Bosker, came out swinging against. Happily, by the end of her article, Ms. Bosker apparently has undergone an intellectual metamorphosis in which she realizes that her initial concept was, if not erroneous, at least hopelessly incomplete to describe the challenge of talking about wine. As a writer myself, I’m familiar with that evolution: Writing makes you think, makes you analyze simplistic thoughts so that you realize they’re not as simple as they might have seemed at first blush. You end up, in other words, in a different–and better–place from where you started. This is a very good thing.
So is there a better way to talk about wine? I suppose there is, although I don’t think the best wine writing, from any era, including ours, needs improvement. But I welcome this chit-chat, if for no other reason than that it stimulates this sort of discussion.
Haha, people have been saying the 100-point system is irrelevant for at least 100 years. Well, maybe the last 10 years. And now comes this blog from the Napa Valley Wine Academy that makes it official.
Well, who or what is the Napa Valley Wine Academy? They call themselves (on their website) “America’s premier wine school” and say they are an “approved program provider” for the WSET. So they must know what they’re talking about, right?
Here are their reasons why the 100-point system is “irrelevant”, according to the author, Jonathan Cristaldi:
- “Parker’s influence continues to wain” [sic; he meant “wane,” but what’s a little spelling error now and then?)
- no other critic’s influence is as important as Parker’s [true, dat]
- people “don’t just buy when a wine garners big points” [well, nobody ever said points were the only criterion by which people make buying decisions]
- and besides, WSET seekers “will have the power to raise a collective voice that is louder than any one critic.”
I need to break this last point down. Do you suppose that there ever will be a “collective voice” of sommeliers? I don’t. Put ten somms in a room and you’ll have more smackdowns than a mixed martial arts bout. These people seldom agree on anything, unless it’s that Burgundy is the best red wine and Riesling is the best white wine. So how, exactly, will this “collective voice” operate?
- “the future of wine ratings is a future of recommendations, not points or scores…”
Proof? There is none. “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride,” the old nursery rhyme tells us. Merely wishing that individual critics will fade away, in favor of crowd-sourced opinions spread via social media, is the biggest wish-fantasy around. When Cristaldi tells us that “Friends and confidants will replace the lone wine critic,” he has absolutely no proof; no evidence supports it, except anecdotally; and even if the Baby Boomer critics, like Parker, are retiring or dying off, there is no reason to think that their places will not be taken by Millennials who just might be the future Parkers and Tanzers and Gallonis and Laubes and Wongs and, yes, Heimoffs. (Certainly, you know as well as I do that there are ambitious bloggers who ardently wish that were the case!)
So do I think the 100-point system will still be around in the future? Yes. It will, because schools still grade test scores on the 100-point system and Americans “get it” and know in their bones the difference between 87 points and 90 points. Will there be other graphic systems around (puffs, stars, and the like)? Sure. Will there be long-form wine writing that relies on the informative impact of words, rather than graphic signifiers? Yes. All of the above will make for a robust wine-reviewing scene.
Honestly, I continue to fail to understand why some people get so worked up over the 100-point system. It’s like a mania, the wine-reviewing equivalent of Obama birtherism. People: calm down. There are so many more important things to get upset about.
Where I will end this post is to re-quote Cristaldi’s quote from Jon Bonné, the former wine critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. Jon said (according to Cristaldi), “The 100-point system is flawed.” Well, breaking news! Thank you, Jon, for pointing that out.
Of course the 100-point system is not perfect. What system is? But the 100-point system has educated more people, sold more wine and benefited more wineries than anything else ever invented. That’s pretty cool, and like the old saying goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Old friend Alan Goldfarb asks some pertinent questions in this piece that was published the other day in an online trade publication.
The quandary he poses for wineries: “With wine writers dropping off the face of the earth…to whom does a winery publicist turn to get PR/accolades/reviews when the writer pool is evaporating?”
As evidence of that evaporation, Alan cites several longtime wine columnists whose publishers have taken their columns away or drastically reduced their word count. He might have added the San Francisco Chronicle, from which wine writer Jon Bonné recently departed (he’s supposed to retain some connection to the paper and/or its website, but I haven’t seen anything yet).
Alan makes another compelling point: With the passing of print writers, the number of “new media” writers, such as bloggers, online radio hosts and videographers, has swelled. But—and here’s the rub—of the hundreds and hundreds of online sources, “there are [only] about 20 (20!) who are worth yours and your client’s time…”.
That’s really sad, and frightening, too. Wineries need writers to tell their stories, and remind the world that they exist. But with fewer and fewer reputable channels all the time, as Alan asks, “To whom does a winery publicist turn?”
Indeed. Even if you take Alan’s “20” online writers who are “worth yours and your client’s time,” I doubt if any of them has the reach and clout that, say, Bill St. John did—he’s the wine columnist for the Chicago Tribune who, according to Alan, had his column “cut” last week. The Chicago Tribune’s average weekday circulation is 453,500, making it one of the biggest newspapers in the Midwest, and central to one of the nation’s most important wine markets. Do you think any of Alan’s 20 bloggers has that kind of readership?
Near the end of his article, Alan does cite a couple bloggers and other online sources whom he recommends. But it’s a pretty short list; his conclusion, as far as sending samples out, is for wineries to “proceed at your own peril.”
That would be my advice, too. The Internet has shaken everything up, and none more so than to hasten the end of traditional print reporting and replace it with “citizen journalism.” I liked traditional print journalism: I still read newspapers, and I trust them, believe it or not (I mean the news part, not the editorial pages of propagandists like the Wall Street Journal). In my current job, and even beyond it, I’m routinely reminded of the scurry to get publicity for your brand—any publicity, anywhere, so long as it’s generally positive. Winery executives have given up on trying to determine, with any precision, the return-on-investment of publicity. They wish they could, of course, but in the meantime, they’re happy with anything they can get. And yet, they no longer know how to get exposure, or even whom to approach for it.
You’d think that this “revoltin’ development” (T.V. fans from the 1950s, do you know who said that?) would mean the end of traditional P.R., which seems stymied at every turn. But P.R. is even more important than ever. Publicists are in demand, especially if they can demonstrate a grasp of new media. Like soothsayers of old, or necromancers who could divine messages from the gods through the intestines of a sheep, publicists today appeal to the utter confusion of winery proprietors, who have neither the time nor the personal inclination to master these arcane fields. In that sense, if you asked me how a winery should find and hire a reputable public relations expert to turn to for advice, my answer would be the same as Alan Goldfarb’s concerning bloggers: “Proceed at your own peril.”
We welcome this great magazine! Thank you Sunset for believing in Oakland!
I’ve struggled for years to find a broader context in which to talk about and understand wine. I decided a long time ago that the word “terroir” was hopelessly inadequate because it doesn’t describe enough of wine’s multiple dimensions. The most common definition of terroir includes only soil and climate, which is like describing a human being in terms of her height and weight. (Okay, maybe you can throw in eye color and astrological sign.)
Then I came across Professor Emile Peynaud’s term, “cru,” which is the combination of terroir plus human intervention: encompassing everything (according to him) from the land to winemaking techniques, marketing and even the physical attributes of the winery. That certainly broadens the perimeter surrounding what makes any particular bottle of wine that particular bottle of wine.
Still, the word “cru” seems limiting. It involves only the commercial or business aspects of wine. But what about the poetic and romantic parts? The emotional tug certain bottles give you? The way a wine makes you think and feel, what you ate it with, and with whom? Do we remember only great, rare bottles, or do we recall (as I do) that Zinfandel, drunk so memorably with friends on a deck high up on Mount Veeder, overlooking the vineyard, so many years ago? Surely these emotive reactions gird our attitudes towards wine as much as its objective qualities: the memory of having drank that bottle in that place, with that person, at that time in your life. Never mind the score someone gave it, or the amount it brought at auction, or whether it made some magazine’s top 100 list, or any of that stuff. Those criteria—imposed by others, rigid, almost alien—actually collide with our own, deeply personal comprehension of wine, and can confuse and befuddle us.
Then, the other week, my friend Vito Parente, an Italian wine specialist who runs the imports division for Jackson Family Wines, recommended a book to me: Vino Italiano: The Regional Wines of Italy, co-authored by David Lynch and Joseph Bastianich (Lidia’s son), with a foreward by Mario Batali. In it, the authors introduce the concept of ambiente, which they describe as “the feel of a place…not just the geology, topography, and climate of a vineyard but the culture that surrounds it.” Included in this notion of “culture” are “the food products that grow in the same soil…the culture that created it…the people, the place…anecdotes…food talk, and recipes…” and every other slice of life that goes into and surrounds the interaction between human being and wine. “To know all that is to have a sense of ambiente,” the authors conclude, “which is a lot more fun than rooting around in the terroir.
When you think of wine in these terms—as ambiente—you realize how profoundly narrowly we have circumscribed the way we talk and think about wine. Wine has got to be so much more than a number, or the product of east-facing hills, or a blend of this-and-that varieties. Think of your own child (I think of Gus), and how no data set can possibly chronicle everything that child means to you. Even when I was a wine critic, using scores and 45-word reviews to summarize the impressions wine made on me, I fully understood how inadequate that was to conveying an encompassing sense of the wine. I rationalized to myself that, after all, that was my job—it was what I was paid to do—and was similar to what almost all the other critics were doing—and it seemed to be something consumers liked—so it couldn’t be all bad. At the same time, I never hid my feeling that there had to be more to talking and writing about wine than that. That’s why I wrote my wine books. It’s why I started blogging. It’s something I tried to convey in the longer articles I was permitted to write for magazines. It was my way of atoning for having committed the sin (albeit a very minor one) of reducing wine to formulaic simplicity.
And now ambiente comes along. I like the concept: it feels natural to me, as if it were something I’ve always known, even though I first learned about it only yesterday (as you read this). The sense of ambiente perfectly describes every taste of wine I’ve ever experienced: and, in fact, viewed in that way, the technical dimensions of wine actually are less interesting than understanding its ambiente, which clearly is what Lynch and Bastianich mean when they talk about how much more fun that is “than rooting around in the terroir.”
This is exactly why old wine writing—nineteenth century through the 1960s—appeals far more to me than the newer, modern style. The writers of yesteryear were more inclined to speak of the way wine made them feel. Of course, they brought extensive intellectual and technical understanding to the experience, so when, say, Andre Simon or Professor Saintsbury committed their words to paper, their enormous depth of knowledge pervaded every phrase; they wrote poetically, but it was poetry (like Eliot’s) deeply steeped in knowledge. This was language you not only read, but consumed; and, like food itself, it provided sustenance, not for the body but for the soul. It fired the imagination.
I have some good wine-writing projects coming up. Even at this point in my long career, I have so much to learn. That’s the wonderful thing about his job: you’re always getting better, because someone smarter than you is always pointing out the way forward. Thank you, David Lynch and Joseph Bastianich, for acquainting me with ambiente. It’s a lesson I will not soon forget.
The Hosemaster has a pretty good spoof up on his blog. It’s a little harsh, even for him, but that’s Hosemaster for you, unsparing and direct, whose unblinking eye sees all and tells it like it is (and never with malice. Well, maybe a little…). But he does hit on some truths about the state of wine writing that require further comment.
Like Hosemaster, I peruse many of the wine blogs out there and in general stay abreast of the latest wine books. And like Hosemaster, I’m bemused by the quality of what I read. It’s not that these wine writers are stupid or unambitious or untalented, it’s that wine writing itself has undergone a sea change that makes traditional approaches to it anachronistic, and so these wine writers and bloggers are trying to do something that, fundamentally, has already been done, and better than any of them will ever be able to do it.
The problem is that wine writing implies wine readers, and we have a problem, Houston, when it comes to the latter. There are basically two kinds of wine readers in America: older ones and younger ones. (Let’s set an artificial boundary at 40 years of age.) The older readers, most of them Baby Boomers, already have read widely and deeply on the topic of wine. If they’re serious winos, chances are their bookshelves contain numerous books and handbooks and guides. So they neither need wine blogs to tell them what to think, nor do they have any other reason to read, much less trust, blogs, unless they’re on the marketing and P.R. side of the business, a thankless place where you have to read everything, even the dullest blather, and make nice to the dullest people, on the off-chance that someone, somewhere, will say something nice about your wine which you can then use in your promotional efforts.
The younger readers, on the other hand, are famous for not reading anything at all! They acquire their information (such as it is) from other sources. And to be frank, I do not have the impression that even the most ardent younger wine drinker these days has been possessed of the “demon” that drove their parents and grandparents to plunge deeply into the intellectual and literary side of wine. Younger drinkers, bless their hearts, seem content to see wine, not as something to be studied and understood, but as something to drink at the end of a day’s work. And clearly, there’s nothing wrong with that! I mean, isn’t that what we’ve all been urging since, like, forever?
So where does that leave wine writers? Nowhere, alas—between the devil and the deep blue sea, so to speak, or perhaps “a rock and a hard place” is more apropos. They have no audience to whom to speak, or for whom to write penetratingly or passionately. No one follows them. They know, or sense, that almost no one is likely to read what they write, and so why should they take the time and effort to write deeply when they can write conveniently and get away with it and maybe even win an award?
These are harsh realities and they underscore what Hosemaster was saying. He sums it up with “Wine writing is running out of energy,” an apt metaphor in that you can compare wine writing with the consumption of fossil fuels. American industry was built on the use of oil, coal and gas, but we all know that fossil fuel’s day has come, and gone, even though it might be 100 years before we’re fully weaned off it. Wine writing is in the same boat. Like the use of fossil fuel, there’s something hopelessly retro about it—reading a blog post about the Finger Lakes or somebody’s latest 400 reviews is like seeing a ’55 Cadillac chugging along with giant tail fins, filthy exhaust coming out the rear end, and getting 8 miles per gallon. The driver’s having fun, that’s for sure, but it’s not something that benefits anyone else, and certainly isn’t a template for the future of driving.
Should we mourn this crossroads in the history of wine writing? Well, whom and what you mourn depends on where you sit. For myself, I don’t, because I recognize that change is in the nature of the Universe, and you can’t hold onto the past no matter how pleasant you thought it was. We’ve come through a Golden Age of Wine Writing in the past century, but all Golden Ages—Greece’s, Britain’s, television’s, rock and roll’s—have their natural lifespans. They just run out of steam. Besides, there’s no reason why a healthy wine industry even requires wine writing in the first place. People love their cats and dogs, and yet America has no overwhelming pet writing industry; what few pet magazines are out there don’t have any influence on what breeds we buy, nor are there American Pet Writing Awards, nor is there a history and tradition of great pet writing, nor are pet writers showered with perks, or invited to stay at kennel guest houses with all expenses paid, or sent free samples of kibble, or in general as fussed over and pampered by pet stores as wine writers are by wineries. It’s easy to imagine America being a fabulous wine-drinking country without any wine writing at all.
Nonetheless, and despite the natural shrinking of consumer interest in wine writing, it’s likely to continue for a while, for two reasons: One, blogging is free and simple, so people will continue to do it regardless of how few others read them. And two, wine advertising will continue to underwrite wine writers, especially print ones, because that’s what advertisers do: they’re given money by wine company owners and then are expected to spend it somewhere, even if they can’t prove any return on the investment. The logical (although far from the only) place for wine advertisers to place their money is in wine magazines and, to a far lesser extent, on wine blogs. In this sense, there’s a direct linkage between wine advertising and wine writing—although one would hope that every wine publication has a firewall between the advertising and editorial departments. But that’s an entirely different story for me to tell one of these days.
I blogged the other day about a lawsuit brought by an L.A. guy against MillerCoors. He’s suing them because he found it “unsettling” to discover that they were really the producers of a beer he thought was a craft beer, Blue Moon.
Evidently, this topic—of when or whether a beer is an authentic craft beer as opposed to something else—has caused something of a brouhaha in the industry. This article, in Wine Industry Advisor, explains some of the complexities. Entitled “Craft: A term in controversy,” it points out the murkiness that a lack of definition of the word “craft” can cause.
I told a friend of mine, co-proprietor of a wine shop that also has a small but excellent selection of craft beers by the bottle, about the lawsuit, which she hadn’t heard of. I asked what she thought, and it was the same as I think: The L.A. guy is probably looking for some easy cash. Then she said, “If he wins, then half the wineries in the world will get sued.”
What did she mean? That wineries routinely use words and phrases that have no legal definition, but that have certain meanings or connotations in the consumer’s mind. “Reserve” is one such word. I wrote about numerous others several years ago in this blog post. At that time (2011), I suggested that the government should “clear up” these terms. But I’ve now changed my mind. As I’ve gotten older and, hopefully, wiser, I’ve become more concerned about the government getting its fingers into every aspect of our lives, so that now, I don’t think we need legal, binding decisions from On High on what things like “barrel select,” “Old Vines” or “Bottle Aged” mean. These are evocative terms that imply certain practices and conjure up pleasant visual images. That’s what marketers do, whether it’s with autos, high tech gizmos, perfumes, fashion or vacation spots, and if we forced every advertisement, commercial, brochure and packaging text to adhere to some strict, formal meaning of each and every word and phrase, we’d be even deeper into continuous litigation in America than we are today.
Besides, think how hard it would be to define these terms. Take “bottle aged.” Every bottle of wine sold anywhere has been aged in the bottle for some period of time, even if it’s just a few months. People may imagine dusty wine cellars where splendid old bottles lay sleeping until they’re nectar, but there’s nothing wrong with them having that mis-impression, especially if it adds to their pleasure when they actually drink the stuff. Do we really want or need to know that “bottle aged” means ten months, or fourteen months, or nineteen months? I mean, come on. Besides, if there was an overly-specific definition for “bottle aged,” wineries would just start using terms like “”aged in the bottle,” and then we’d have more regulations, more lawsuits and so on, ad infinitum. Ditto for “barrel select.” This, too, implies something very special about the wine, but in truth, most wine—whether sold in bottle, box or keg—has come out of a barrel. Can a stainless steel white wine be called “barrel select”? I wouldn’t go there, and I doubt if any winery would actually label a stainless steel wine “barrel select,” but if they did, I wouldn’t lose any sleep. (Besides, some investigative blogger would probably bust them for it.) And then there’s “old vines.” I, personally, think an “old vine” should be at least thirty years of age, but that’s just me. Besides, if a winery is really using ancient vines and is proud of them, they can always put that information on the back label. I’m a big fan of information on back labels—not ingredients, which I think can go on the winery’s website, but authentic, interesting information, like how old the vines are, what the varietal blend is, the vineyard’s elevation, amount of new oak, and so on.
This line of reasoning that I outlined above also touches on the nature of small wineries that claim to be, or are thought of as, “artisanal” versus larger wineries. I always said, as a wine critic who tasted many thousands of wines every year, that I didn’t care about the winery’s size. I cared about the wine: Was it good, savory, interesting, worth sipping and considering, or was it plonk? I always thought it was snobby to dismiss big wineries (whatever “big” means), and that it was disingenuous to celebrate small wineries (whatever “small” means) just because they were small. I had lots of wines from tiny little wineries that were awful, and lots of wines from “big” wineries that excited me. I still feel that way. We should experience things as they actually are, and not sweat the small stuff, like the way they describe themselves, or how many cases they produce. As for those fans of organic and biodynamic wines, I can’t tell you how many off-the-record stories I heard about bags of chemicals on the back loading dock of wineries that claimed not to use any. My advice: Don’t believe any hype. None of it. Taste the stuff, and if you like it, buy it, and tell the critics where to go.