You remember recently when the news out of Italy was that some seismologists who had failed to adequately warn residents of an impending earthquake were threatened with lawsuits? According to published reports, some of them actually were sentenced to prison terms for manslaughter.
When I heard that, I thought it was insane. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I idly wondered if perhaps a wine critic, who was trying to be similarly objective in his reporting, could not someday be sued, for giving a wine a lousy review. The winery proprietor could argue something along the lines of slander, or defamation, or interference with his ability to run his business successfully, or monetary damages–something like that. And, in our litigious society, that proprietor might easily find a sympathetic jury. As this thought was mildly disturbing, I quickly got rid of it.
Then, there came this report, from just a few days ago, where a Minnesota doctor sued someone who had given him a bad review on a rate-your-doctor website. According to the report, the case has now reached the state’s Supreme Court.
Now we have Rob McMillan, the resident wine guy at Silicon Valley Bank, musing on the question, “Can you sue a wine writer?” From Rob, we learn (I didn’t know it) that Parker had been sued back in the 1990s by Faiveley for libel, after Parker implied that the Burgundy producer might have been “cheating” [Rob’s word].
Rob also wondered about whether a bad Yelp review could result in a lawsuit, and about the culpability of bloggers. Speaking for myself, as both a published critic in Wine Enthusiast and as a blogger, I can’t imagine a winery proprietor coming after me legally for a poor review. He or she would be so attacked by the media (other bloggers, editorialists, critics, mainstream columnists, the ACLU and other free speech defenders) that it wouldn’t be worth his time or money to pursue such a case.
Besides, most of the wine I review–pretty much all of it, actually–is either sent to me by the proprietors, or submitted by them to large, regional blind tastings in places like Napa Valley and Santa Barbara County. If a proprietor elects to send his wine to a critic, he is rolling the dice and has to accept the consequences.
On Yelp’s Usage Language box, they write that posters “…may expose yourself to liability if, for example, Your Content contains material that is false, intentionally misleading, or defamatory…”. A review cannot be “false,” since it’s the writer’s opinion, not a statement of fact. Nor can it be “intentionally misleading,” unless someone can prove that the critic’s state of mind was such that he really liked the wine in question, but then deliberately wrote otherwise. The word “defamatory” is harder to parse, but “defamation” means the intentional slander or libel of someone or something, and that, too, would have to be proved in court. Of course, an angry proprietor could know he didn’t have a case and still wish to harass a critic, legally and financially, out of sheer pique.
I can see it happening one of these days, maybe not to me, but to someone else. It’s already happened to restaurant critics. The San Francisco Chronicle’s great reviewer, Michael Bauer, wrote a few years ago on his blog about how restaurant critics in both Australia and Philadelphia were sued for “liable for a defamatory review…These type of cases are nothing new,” Michael wrote, adding that “The next frontier will be when a restaurant decides to sue a Web site, community reviewer or a blogger about comments made on the Internet.” We may be perilously closer to that frontier than we think, if in fact we haven’t already crossed it.
Slow news day in wine country, with the harvest proceeding apace and not much else going on. So we take a little trip down memory lane. I turn to my old wine diaries, which I started in the early 1980s and continued for 15 years. It’s interesting to me to note the evolution of how I wrote about wine.
The first diary contains labels of the wines I drank and the following categories: date, color, aroma [usually] taste, food pairing [sometimes] and price. For example, here’s a Georges DuBoeuf 1981 Morgon, tasted 2/16/83:
color: deep scarlet, purple highlights
aroma: [not included]
taste: slightly frizzante, fruity, soft and balanced, delightful.
note: onions hurt taste.
I guess I know what I had for supper on Feb. 16, 1983! It’s a pretty good note, short, sweet and to the point. I was definitely under the influence of Michael Broadbent and specifically his “Pocket Guide to Wine Tasting” which really to this day remains an ideal introduction to the topic. I like that I used the word “frizzante” which I think means slightly fizzy. It’s not a word I’d use anymore–I’d just say slightly fizzy. Why borrow foreign words if you don’t have to?
By 1986 I’d begun a system of actually rating the wines with a visual graphic: stars. I don’t know where I got that from. The San Francisco Chronicle maybe? Could have been Charlie Olken or Broadbent. Here’s a Louis M. Martini 1978 Cabernet Sauvignon (alcohol 12.5%) I tasted on Dec. 4, 1986:
color: brilliant ruby, consistent (no depth at center)
nose: cherry candy. Later: Cabernet aroma, dusty, clean
taste: round, sweet and balanced. Simple, mellow, true varietal character and totally dry. This wine has aged into a completely satisfying, distinguished and wise Cabernet–for $3.79!!! Not much complexity, yet smooth, satisfying and excellent with broiled steak. Developed in glass over time.
* * * 1/2
I think my puffs went up to 5. I’m not sure I know what I meant by “wise.” Maybe sure-footed? It’s not a good idea to personify wines, i.e. call them “precocious” or “teasing,” although I sometimes do it.
When did I start using the 100 point system? I can’t say exactly, but it must have been in the early 1990s. I think I’d just started writing for Wine Enthusiast, although it would be another several years before I was officially reviewing wines for them. Here’s an early example of a wine I scored using the 100 point system.
Chateau Woltner 1991 Howell Mountain Chardonnay.
Note: tight, lean, focused aromas of lemon, dates and spice, toasty oak, butter. Very clean, sharp and acidic. Lean, tight on the palate, flavors of citrus, but almost austere, good acidity, finishes short. May improve with 1-2 years in the cellar.
I didn’t note the price. Chateau Woltner, long since gone, was owned by a member of the family that owned and sold Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion, in Bordeaux. I believe this wine was then the most expensive California Chardonnay, something like $60. It didn’t work for critics or consumers at a time when people’s taste in Chardonnay was turning to riper, rounder, sweeter wines.
So you can see from the beginning I had a penchant for reviewing wines, or at least writing about them for my own pleasure. I never thought that anyone would read my notes, or want to; never thought I’d be doing it professionally. I just liked the experience of sitting down with a glass of wine and taking a little time to get to know it better. Don’t really know where that came from. I collected stamps as a kid, so maybe the two are connected. I also always liked to write, to put my thoughts and feelings into the English language, on paper (now, on computer). I still do. Putting a liking of wine together with a love for writing just led naturally to being a wine writer. I’m amazed I get paid to do it.
Got the following comment on my Facebook page concerning my recent post (“How will the 22nd century view wine critics?”):
Enjoyed your blog very much, I don’t read too many facebook links but I’m very glad I did. This may be a bit off the topic but it touched a little on something I’ve been mulling over for the past few months. Is the role of a wine writer heading more toward the service or entertainment industry, or is there room for both? I feel like at least since the sixties being a winemaker has involved more showmanship which of course leaves less time for other things. At first it really bothered me but now I feel as long as everyone is having fun and your not hurting anyone go ahead.
The writer, who apparently is a winemaker, raises several interesting issues. “Is the role of a wine writer heading more toward the service or entertainment industry, or is there room for both?” is a question I hadn’t thought of quite that way. Wine writing always has been a service, in the sense that it seeks to educate readers and consumers, but since it’s writing done professionally, for profit, it also has to have an element of entertainment. I mean, we read Hugh Johnson not only to get educated about wine but also because he’s such a good writer. The first edition (1984) of The University of California Book of California Wine is such a good read, I’ve read it cover to cover more than once. Same with Alexis Lichine’s 1981 New Encyclopedia of Wines & Spirits and, more recently, The Billionaire’s Vinegar and Tom Stevenson’s World Encyclopedia of Champagne and Sparkling Wine. So good wine writing always has had both educational and entertainment value.
What I think my questioner was aiming at, though, is contained in his use of the word “heading.” Is wine writing becoming more like infotainment and less like education with an entertainment twist? Here, I fear the answer is yes. Especially in the blogosphere, but also in the rash (I use the word deliberately) of bad wine books that show up dependably at Barnes and Noble, you’ll find tired old retreaded material, often packaged with silly pictures and graphics, that dumb wine down to the lowest common denominator. Fortunately, there’s still enough serious writing around that discerning readers can find and enjoy. But, like “journalism” in general (both print and broadcast), entertainment is trumping serious content, and that’s sad.
My questioner’s other point concerns the showmanship winemakers are expected to demonstrate. That’s certainly true. I’ve asked scores of winemakers, maybe hundreds, over the years (privately, off the record) if they enjoy being little dancing monkeys for legions of tourists tramping through the winery, or for guests at meet-the-winemaker dinners that could be in Omaha on Tuesday night, Cleveland on Wednesday, then it’s on to Charlotte and Atlanta. The reason I ask is because I myself would not like that kind of itinerant lifestyle where you’re schmoozing from breakfast until midnight with people asking the same old questions over and over again, like a bad episode of Groundhog Day. “What’s the pH of the grapes?” “What’s the toast level on your barrels?” “What’s the precise blend on your Cabernet?” The winemaker, no matter how bored she feels internally, must put on her game face, smile and be fascinating. Similarly, a winemaker conducting a group of tourists on a tour of the winery has to point out fascinating things about destemmers and tanks to people who may be almost as bored hearing about them as the winemaker is talking about them. Yet the winemaker must always keep that brio, that vital elan that’s the mark of the Vegas crooner or standup comic.
My questioner said this sort of thing used to bother him but no longer. I’m glad. It’s part of the winemaker’s job, so even if it does bother him, he’s got to do it anyway, and do it well. Even the most famous winemakers at the most famous wineries have to do the dancing monkey bit. Personally, when I’m with winemakers, I try to let them off the hook by letting them know they don’t have to feel they have to entertain me. Once you get the platitudes out of the way, you can have a real conversation, which is the only kind I like.
How useful and informative would it be for a wine consumer to learn from a critic that a wine has the aroma of geosmin? Not very, you’re likely thinking. You’d have to look it up, and even then, you’d suffer from a serious case of MEGO when learning that the proper chemical name for geosmin is (4S,4aS,8aR)-4,8a-Dimethyl-1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8-octahydronaphthalen-4a-ol, that “Geosmin is produced by several classes of microbes, including cyanobacteria,” and that “In 2006, the biosynthesis of geosmin by a bifunctional Streptomyces coelicolor enzyme was unravelled by Jiang et al.”
On the other hand, such information could very well be of enormous interest and value to a winemaker. If it is true that “Geosmin…is an organic compound with a distinct earthy flavor and aroma, and is responsible for the earthy taste of beets and a contributor to the strong scent (petrichor) that occurs in the air when rain falls after a dry spell of weather…” then it might be important for that winemaker to control for geosmin–to discourage or encourage it, depending on how much of that “earthy taste of beets” she wants in, say, her Pinot Noir.
In other words, there are at least two different methods to describe the aromas, flavors and textures of wine: one suitable for an amateur audience, and another for a scientific one. The two are light years apart. In my job, it isn’t in the least necessary for me to understand the ins and outs of geosmin, as long as I can properly describe a Pinot Noir as smelling like fresh beetroot (a favorite word of Michael Broadbent for Burgundy, and one I occasionally turn to, usually for certain Russian River Pinots). I do like the metaphor of “the scent of the air when rain falls after a dry spell of weather”; it’s almost poetic in its connotativeness. But I doubt I’ll ever actually use it.
These thoughts arose in my head when, by chance last week, I happened to read this article, in the latest issue of Andy Blue’s The Tasting Panel, about an olfactory expert, Alexandre Schmitt. He holds workshops with winemakers, in order to heighten their awareness and understanding of aromas. Among his clients mentioned in the article are Caymus, Harlan, Ovid and Cliff Lede. I was up at Ovid last Friday, where I spoke with their winemaker, Austin Peterson, about his studies with Schmitt, which have been going on now for three years. Later, at lunch, the topic arose again, this time involving another wine writer. The discussion grew a little heated when the other writer said that it’s important for wine writers to have a thorough understanding of very technical topics, including wine olfactics, in order to do our job well.
I couldn’t disagree more strongly. As I explained to the other writer, the winemaker and the wine writer have entirely different jobs. The winemaker must have a grasp of grape and wine chemistry (and many other technical fields) in order to do his job properly. (Austin, incidentally, is a very great winemaker.) Just as a NASA engineer has to be thoroughly grounded in everything from math, physics, chemistry and earth sciences to writing, public speaking, management and leadership, so the winemaker must be master of viticulture, enology, sanitation, oak barrels, machinery and equipment, pest management, employee relations, local ordinances and on and on.
The wine writer doesn’t need to know about any of that, or just minimally. Sure, a certain base knowledge of, say, rootstocks and clones is useful. Just how much, however, is an open question. Pinot Noir winemakers obsess on clones. Does 115 tend to ripen earlier or later than 114? Which is more tannic, 777 or 667? These are vital to the winemaker’s eventual success or lack thereof.
How important is it for a wine writer to know such things? Look at it this way. Let’s say I taste a Pinot that’s very tannic. That’s certainly important information to convey to my readers. But–assuming I even knew that there was a lot of clone 777 in there–how important is it for me to tell readers that the tannins come from 777? First of all, I can’t prove it, although clone 777 is generally associated with strong tannins. Let’s say the winemaker herself told me the tannins are from 777. Do I repeat that to the readers? Is it necessary or even interesting for them to know that? I don’t think so, any more than it’s necessary for the buyer of an automobile to know where the steering wheel was manufactured (political and economic considerations aside). A car buyer wants to know how the steering wheel feels in his hands, how the car reacts to turning it, what options in its material construction he has, if he can control the sound system without removing his hands from it.
A wine consumer similarly wants to know the basics: What does the wine smell like? What does it taste like? How’s the finish? Should he age it? What foods should he drink it with? Is it a particularly good value? Of course, depending on how much space the writer has to express himself, he can fit more or less information in there. If I have 250 words to devote to describing a single wine, I might well say something about the toast level of the barrels, or the soil composition of the vineyard, or even where the winemaker worked before. If I have only 40 words, my options are limited: I have to get the basic information across, and moreover in a way that’s well written. I might even be able to get a little poetry in there, a la “rainfall after a dry spell.” But no matter what my word count is, I can’t see the point of using a word like geosmin.
I believe many of my readers are wine bloggers, who write for themselves, alone, sans editors or art directors or other members of a staff. Which is all well and good. But tonight, after a long day of meetings (actually a very long day) followed by a long night of eating a fabulous dinner at a great restaurant, with–naturally–plenty of great wine, I want to offer a few words on the pleasures and advantages of writing about wine in a team setting, namely, at Wine Enthusiast.
To plan out 14 issues for 2013 is a terrifically hard feat. So many things have to be taken into account, too many to mention here, except to say that there’s never enough room in the magazine for even a fraction of what deserves to be covered. Which means that a sort of triage system has to be worked out. What’s absolutely vital for readers to know next year? We can’t predict the future, of course, but a great advantage of having seasoned editors at their posts (which the magazine does) means that each of us is in a better position to suss out what will be vital in, say, June, 2013, than perhaps someone who hasn’t labored in the vineyards of a wine region like Tuscany or Port or Australia or Chile or California for a long time, and thus hasn’t earned (yet) the broad view that long work earns. That’s not a diss toward younger writers. But it is to say that planning out the “book,” or editorial calendar for the period from January 2013 through December 2013 takes some doing.
It’s such a demanding process that it not only took a good part of today, but will occupy us tomorrow, and even then, an editorial calendar is never really complete. I have articles set to appear later this Fall of 2012 that weren’t even a gleam in my eye last summer. Things happen that are important, couldn’t be foreseen, but must be covered…now. That means previously scheduled articles have to get bumped. That’s just the way it is.
If we didn’t have a team that liked and got along with each other, this could lead to difficulties. Someone gains an article; someone loses one. We all want to get published as much as possible; that’s the ego of the writer, who pours her blood and sweat onto the page with the ultimate hope that readers–unseen and unknown, out there is the world somewhere–will like what is written. To lose an article hurts. But we’ve all been through it, and our senior editors in New York do their utmost to even everything out. In the end, knowing that fairness reigns in your workplace is a great thing, indeed.
But of course the camaradie wouldn’t be complete if it didn’t include serious eating and imbibing, and at Wine Enthusiast, it does. Often, and together, with combined restaurant bills I wouldn’t want to pay. But that’s part of keeping a team united and letting them known they’re valued. For the record, I didn’t keep track of all the wines we had tonight. Each was selected by our Tasting Director, Lauren Buzzeo, and was among the best of our regions from all over the world. We’re lucky to be in that position. Afterward, we discussed and argued about and agreed about and disagreed about the wines, and while people’s positions generally are predictable–the Europhiles in our crowd tend to find Cali wines too sweet, fruity and simple, while I tend to find the European wines austere and acidic–it’s far from always; and it gratifies me when a great European taster like Roger Voss loves a California Cabernet, like Ovid 2008, as much as I did.
I think I write better for being part of a team, having to defend my theses among very smart people. The best wine writing, I firmly believe, must be edited. Blogging by yourself can be fun, can make for a good read, can be instructive and entertaining–but the guidance of impartial others, who want only to make your writing better than you can do it on your own, is imperative.
I used the phrase “intellectually appealing” on a wine I reviewed yesterday. I’ve used it before; I know what I mean, in my mind, but I never really tried to define it before, and I think that some people who read a review that contains the word “intellectual” might scratch their heads or arch their eyebrows and think, “What the heck he is talking about?”
So it’s time for me to define it, both for you and for me.
The wine in question yesterday was Foxen’s 2010 Williamson-Dore Vineyard Syrah, from the Santa Ynez Valley. I went into my notes and looked up further instances where I recently used the word “intellectual.” There was Boheme 2009 Stuller Vineyard Pinot Noir, from the Sonoma Coast, which I described as “an intellectual wine, elusive and challenging, that makes you think.” And Lynmar 2010 La Sereinité Chardonnay, from Russian River Valley: “austere and tantalizing…an intellectual wine.” And Lucia 2010 Soberanes Vineyard Chardonnay, from the Santa Lucia Highlands: “An eccentric Chardonnay…well-made and has intellectual appeal.” And Korbin Kameron 2008 Cuvée Kristin, a Bordeaux blend from Sonoma Valley with “extra complexity that makes it intellectually interesting.” And Baldacci 2010 Sorelle Chardonnnay, Carneros, which has “a complex intellectual appeal.” And on and on.
What can “intellectual” possibly mean when applied as an adjective to wine? The word means “of or pertaining to the intellect,” so we must first come up with a satisfactory definition of intellect. The conventional dictionary meaning is “a mind or intelligence, especially a superior one,” but this hardly begins to scratch the surface of what I mean when I call a wine “intellectual.”
We all have minds. Some of us are more prone to live interiorly than others. To call a person “an intellectual” long has been a mixed message. On the one hand, the culture has a history of anti-intellectualism: “pointy-headed intellectual,” also known as “egghead,” has been an epithet applied to certain individuals by others who believe they think too much, or, at least, think the wrong thoughts.
On the other hand, our culture also has had a sort of grudging admiration for intellectuals. Albert Einstein was practically a national hero, even though almost nobody could say exactly what his intellectual achievements had been. People just knew he was smart and on our side, and that was enough to make him admired.
I’ve been perceived as an intellectual all my life (when I was younger, my friends used to call me “Professor”). I do tend to live in my mind: among other things, I’m fascinated by cosmology. Why are we here? Why does something exist, rather than nothing? What does it all mean? Thinking as hobby, as recreation, comes as naturally to me as jogging or lifting weights at the gym, or writing this blog, for that matter. I think Tom Wark picked up on this quality of mine when he wrote about me, one month after I launched this blog in 2008, and headlined it “Steve Heimoff and the Active Mind.”
This long segue into the architecture of intellectualism is meant to shed light on what I, and others, mean when we describe a wine as having intellectual appeal. Lettie Teague, in Food & Wine, said she often was told that “Barolo is an intellectual’s wine,” although she admitted she wasn’t quite sure what to make of that claim. Another writer, from a New York wine store, called a 2007 Levet Côte-Rôtie La Chavaroche Côte-Rôtie “both intellectual and savage,” while the Montreal Gazette’s wine critic quoted Olivier Humbrecht, from Zind-Humbrecht, as telling him Riesling is “an intellectual wine” that “demands too much of wine drinkers to ever become a mainstream wine…”.
This last begins to get to the truth of the matter. An intellectual wine is not a hedonistic wine, one that charms you right off the bat. An intellectual wine tends to have a certain austerity. It most certainly possesses structure. There are many wines that are austere and have structure that are not intellectual wines: they are simply lean. An intellectual wine, on the other hand, makes you think, because you discern that there’s something elusively tantalizing about it you can’t quite put your finger on. But you want to. You long to understand what it is that titillates your imagination and keeps you coming back for more. You have to think about the wine, play with it, dig deeper down into the bedrock to see what you find. I will quote Quintessa’s former winemaker, Aaron Pott, who, although he is describing his own creation and therefore can be accused of some bias, wrote, of the 2003 vintage, “It is an intellectual wine requiring study to understand its full profound genius.” I myself reviewed that wine six years ago, and while I did not use the word “intellectual,” I scored it 94 points and called it “beautiful.” Yes, an intellectual wine can be beautiful, too.