People who are seriously getting into wine–who’ve crossed over from being “mere” wine likers to wanting to know more about what they’re drinking–often start by becoming interested in technical aspects. What’s the residual sugar? How much new oak? How many cases were produced? What clones did you use? Winery representatives who pour at public events or who work in tasting rooms are used to these questions. I often feel sorry for them because they have to say things like “It’s a mix of Clone 667 and Pommard” about 400 times a day.
I went through this technical phase in the 1990s. I would ask the kinds of questions I thought a wine journalist should ask. How many buds per spur? What’s the rootstock? Do you pump over or punch down? But somehow my questions bored me, and so for the most part did the answers. I was thinking about wine rather than feeling it, and over-thinking it, at that, which was a barrier to understanding the essence of wine, which is: Not numbers, but heart, life, soul, essence.
At some point, I decided to jettison that part of me. It wasn’t a conscious decision, like waking up one day and thinking “I’ll never ask a technical question again.” And it isn’t that I no longer ask technical questions; I do, when there’s a reason to. I simply found myself asking less about technique and more about the winemaker’s motives, perspectives, aspirations and understanding. Not “Is the wine fined or filtered” but What is the winemaker trying to do? What’s her vision, her ideal, her dream? Why that, and not something else? How has she evolved over the years? How does she reconcile the natural tension between the commercial aspects of her job and the artistic ones? How does she perceive her wine as an expression of its terroir? These are not technical questions; they are inquiries into the winemaker’s thought processes and practices, and their answers shed more light, I think, on why the wine is the way it is than any laboratory analysis. Besides, I think my readers, who always are foremost in my mind, would rather read about these things, and not numbers.
Writers obsessed with technique suffer from “paralysis by analysis,” which Wikipedia defines as “over-analyzing (or over-thinking) a situation, or citing sources, so that a decision or action is never taken, in effect paralyzing the outcome.” It also is the title of a blog Terry Theise wrote last week in the Huffington Post. While I’ve had my differences with Terry, primarily over his disdain for California wines, here he’s right on when he says “I’ve reached a place in my drinking career where I find…analytical stats otiose.” He quotes a German winemaker who once told him, “You don’t need these [numbers] anymore, Terry. Analyses are for beginners.”
Now, many wine drinkers are beginners, of course, as Terry rightly points out, and he observes that it would be “peevish of me to deny them the understanding they seek.” Yet he lets us know that “technical minutiae” are not what he wants to write about, nor are they the things wine lovers ought to obsess over. “If you’re stuck in the ‘how,’” Terry writes, with epigrammatic lucidity, “you’ll have a rough time finding your way to the ‘what.’”
What is the “what”? It is what the wine really is: its meaning in this world. That meaning need not be grandiose; it can be ordinary. Whatever it is, it can be written about–and it can be inferred by others. The “what” is, of course, what every wine writer ultimately wants to capture. It also is what true wine connoisseurs seek, yet it will never be obtained by statistics. Many people who taste wine at public events and in tasting rooms seem insecure, and asking a technical question is a form of compensation for their fear of appearing ignorant–it makes them look like they know what they’re talking about (to themselves, to the pourer and, often, to the others in their group). (By the way, writers can feel insecure, too, especially when talking with winemakers.) But really, technical information doesn’t advance the amateur’s understanding of wine. If anything, it impedes it–paralysis by analysis.
At the Michael Mondavi tasting the other night, Rob Mondavi, Wilfred Wong and I were tasting a Chardonnay from the Isabel Mondavi brand, when the question arose of how Chardonnay came to be the top-selling wine in America.
Between the two of us, Wilfred and I have approximately 400 trillion years of experience in wine, and so we began to offer our own explanations of this phenomenon. Rob listened to us gently correct each other, interrupt with added details, agree on a shared memory; at one point he laughingly described us as an old married couple, which I suppose most old friendships become, in the best sense.
I suggested Chardonnay’s triumph was due to a small cadre of California-based wine writers in the 1970s–Bob Thompson, Charlie Olken, Norm Roby, Earl Singer, Gerald Asher, Robert Lawrence Balzer, Nate Chroman–who told a wine-ignorant but increasingly wine-curious America what to drink and what to avoid; and when it came to white wine, it was Chardonnay, “the great white grape and wine of Burgundy” (as they used to put it), they pushed. Theirs were just about the only voices of knowledgeable wine opinion in the country; it was so unlike today’s cacophony. But, far from people resenting these “top-down” critics for their dictatorial approach, consumers were happy that someone impartial and knowledgeable was willing to teach them, and they were equally happy to buy their handbooks and subscribe to their newsletters.
Then Wilfred, with a gleam in his eye, said I’d forgotten someone very important. When I asked for a clue, he said his name started with “R.”
I racked my brain, but couldn’t recall anyone. So Wilfred had to tell me: Robert Finnigan.
I had indeed forgotten Finnigan, who died in 2011. He published one of the earliest newsletters, Robert Finnigan’s Private Wine Guide (this was well before Wine Advocate), and was hugely influential among restaurateurs and merchants. I knew Bob for a while in the 1990s, when he was perhaps a little past his prime, but still active, and certainly a pleasant, dignified San Francisco gentleman. He was running the old CMCV society in San Francisco, a marketing group sponsored by the Champagne houses that had established wineries in California. (I can’t remember what CMCV stood for; can someone help me?) Bob also was sort of the personal wine consultant for the Getty family, and it was in that connection that we were brought together. Billy and Gordon Getty had teamed up with a very young and ambitious Gavin Newsom to launch their first wine shop, PlumpJack, and Gavin asked me to join a small circle who would taste wine together, once a week for six months, in order for management to decide what wines to stock on the shelves for opening day. The whole idea was to choose only the best, so that staff could assure customers that every single bottle in the store had been hand-selected.
Well, the Big Day finally came, and PlumpJack opened their doors to the public. I wasn’t there, but about a week later, I stopped by on my way home from a tasting at nearby Fort Mason. Gavin was working the register. I asked him how things had gone, and he scowled. On the very first day, a customer had come in, told Gavin he wanted a mixed case of wine, and added that he didn’t care what the particular bottles were, so long as each had scored 90 points or higher from Parker. (This was in 1992, as I recall, maybe ’93.) After all the diligence Gavin and the rest of us had applied in personally selecting the store’s stock, Gavin’s Irish temper was–most properly–aroused.
Anyhow, Wilfred was right, and he made me apologize for forgetting Finnigan, right there in front of Rob Mondavi, which I, having no ego, was happy to do.
The point remains that Chardonnay was launched on its path to superstardom by a small group of smart, visionary writers who understood that it was the greatest white wine in California, which made it the greatest white wine in the America. And such was their power, nearly 40 years ago, that America listened to them. That was the kind of top-down, one-way conversation so loathed today by the social mediacs, and it worked. No group of writer/critics will ever approach that degree of authority, much less unanimity, in our quarrelsome times. But you know what? It’s all good.
Two recent articles seem to be about different things but actually address the same point, which has to do with a topic you read about frequently here at steveheimoff.com: What is the future of wine writing?
The first article is called “Wine tasting: Is ‘terroir’ a joke and/or are wine experts incompetent?” and was written by four men, including the economists Karl Storchmann and Orly Ashenfelter, both of whom have long had high profiles in the world of wine.
The authors advance the argument that most “wine experts” are unable to distinguish between wines based on the wines’ origins, “unless they can see the label of the wine.” Thus, in a blind tasting of classified growth Bordeaux, “most wine experts themselves can hardly guess which is which,” i.e., they can’t distinguish between, say, Pauillac and Margaux, when in fact centuries of wine writers have assured us that there are vast differences between these communes based on terroir.
Well, this is nothing new, nor is it particularly surprising. I don’t disagree at all. I’ve been saying that for years, and it’s true, not just in Bordeaux but in California. There may once have been differences between the Bordeaux communes that were obvious, but they have been minimized by winemaking techniques (picking riper, use of new oak, etc.) that reduce the impact of natural terroir and increase the effects of human intervention, so that these days, a Pauillac is more like a Margaux (or vice versa) than it used to be.
What’s noteworthy about the article, given the fact that its actual content is not noteworthy, is contained in the header: “or are wine experts incompetent?” For the first time in the long history of wine commentary (dating from at least the 18th century), “wine experts” have become a suspect class, like sex offenders. The very basis of their expertise is increasingly called into doubt these days, which is a very new development.
This ties into the second article, which actually is an essay, entitled “The future of wine?” The essay is based on an interview with Gary Vaynerchuk. Now, if you know anything about Gary’s philosophy (and most of my readers do), you won’t be surprised by anything Gary has to say. His message has been consistent for years: “the tectonic shift in the wine industry has been brought about by a ‘democracy of information’ that shifts the balance of power ‘away from the gatekeepers and towards the masses.’”
In fact, to the extent that this belief is shared by many in the wine community (among its most ardent defenders is 1WineDude’s Joe Roberts), Gary V. can be credited with having created it, fostered its dissemination through his Wine Library TV show, his books and his lectures, and given it its most articulate expression. From the conceptual acorn Gary V. planted some years ago has grown the mighty oak, one of whose branches predicts the death of print wine magazines, and another of which guarantees the end of the role of the powerful wine critic. No longer will consumers buy wine based on reviews that a few critics have “rationed out” to them. Instead, consumers will “mine their Twitter and Facebook accounts for clues on what to try next.”
My problem with these stark predictions is precisely that they’re too black and white. It’s not a question of “the democratization of information” versus “centralization” of wine information by gatekeepers. These are conceptual extremes; reality contains and in fact necessitates room for both. The issue, as I wrote last week, is that consumers want and need guidance, which implies the existence of–duh!–guides. Wine reviewing has become centralized for the most human of reasons: because people gravitate toward sources of information they perceive as being expert.
Now, having said all this, let us begin, as Marcus Aurelius wrote, with the basics. Here is where Gary V. and his colleagues are correct:
1. There is a greater, more widespread conversation about wine (and everything else) going on, due to the Internet and social media.
2. The older critics are passing from the scene.
3. Consumers do want a two-way conversation with the manufacturers of products and services they buy, including wineries and wine retailers.
All these things are true. Yet because a thing is true does not make it important.
The downside of the worldwide online conversation about wine is that what once was an intelligible exchange between a relatively small group of amateurs has now become a Tower of Babel. “Let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech,” the Lord said in Genesis 11. One thousand wine blogs, in this country alone, not to mention the thousands of essays that have been published concerning them, have accomplished precisely this incoherent babble.
That the older critics are passing from the scene means only that life goes on, as it always has. For every older critic who retires or dies a new one is appointed. The great Bob Thompson no longer is active; instead we have Jordan Mackey, who may be a flash in the pan, yet may accomplish greatness. Gary V. predicts that, instead of having critics with universal influence, “there’s going to be a Gary V. of Napa. I think there’s going to be a Robert Parker of Rhone Valley. I think there’s going to be a Wine Spectator of Central Tobago.” [I assume Gary said Otago, and someone erred in transcription.] I don’t think this is true, however, because I simply can’t imagine it, and if I can’t imagine something with my fertile imagination, it’s because it makes no sense. A single critic dominating the wines of Napa, but not other regions? Really? Does anyone reading this believe that? It would be like a film reviewer covering only Martin Scorcese’s movies; she might have a reputation in film semiotics, writing for obscure journals, but would have no impact on box office. (By the way, Gary drove the conversation about social media, but I don’t recall him ever having much influence over actual sales, the way Parker or Spectator–or Wine Enthusiast–did and does.)
Re: that “two-way conversation,” people have always wanted to hear from the producers they buy from. They always wanted to feel loved and appreciated and spoken to; this is the basis of advertising, which dates at least to the 18th century. The Internet simply automates this process and spreads it out over a greater population. Of course, it does something else that didn’t used to be possible: It enables consumers to feel that they’re listened to by the producers of products they buy, because they can now speak directly to the producer by hitting the “send” button. This is a very special feeling. But is anyone actually listening and, even if they are, so what? No one has ever managed to answer my fundamental question: Show me indisputable evidence that engaging intensely in social media benefits wineries on an ROI basis. I don’t mean just Twisted Oak or Jordan maybe garnering some increased sales because they’re really creative online. I mean something as powerful as a single great review by a single famous critic in a single credible publication. That moves cases. Chit-chatting with your “friends” on Facebook, or tweeting to your followers, or even putting up a great YouTube on the website, doesn’t.
So what is the future of wine writing? Same as the past, pretty much. The big unknown isn’t print versus online, it’s advertising, which is something most wine bloggers don’t understand because they don’t have to deal with it. If advertisers believe print publications are important, they will continue to underwrite them–which is what pays the bills, not subscriptions. There is no evidence I’m aware of that advertisers are keen to abandon print wine pubs and go online, for the simplest of reasons: print magazines reach a far greater number of readers than even the biggest blog. It’s all about eyeballs, and until online pubs can rack up eyeballs, advertisers will stick with print–with its dinosaur critics.
I sometimes feel like some wine writers are losing their minds.
From about the time I started this blog, in May, 2008, there’s been this constant din about how “Print journalism is dying” and “Wine writers are dinosaurs” and “Social media is changing the world as we’ve known it” and so on and so forth.
To which I say: balderdash. Most of this is journalistic blather, the product of reporters who need to be seen as saying something important, even though it’s not true.
Look, human nature doesn’t change just because some fancy new technology comes along. In fact, human nature is pretty resistant to change. People are more or less the same, in their habits and predilections, as they were a thousand years ago, and we’ll remain so–despite Twitter and Google+!
The latest example of “Henny Penny the Sky is Falling” is courtesy of Jon Bonné, the wine writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. His article, Wine Criticism Faces a Shifting Future, has gotten quite a bit of play. After rehashing all the recent news about Parker, the Wine Advocate and Galloni [which actually no longer is news], Jon postulates a “broader set of questions about wine criticism” that sounds as if he’s about to say something pontifical. Among these contentions are rehashes of dreary points that have been repeated so often, by so many bloggers, that they’ve become clichés.
Let me deconstruct a few of Jon’s quotes by explaining that just because a writer says something is new and revolutionary doesn’t make it so.
1. “the Millennial surge [is] compelled by a wine’s story, not its score.” The implication here, of course, is that the generation that preceded the Millennials, the Baby Boomers, wasn’t interested in stories, just scores. This is transparently incorrect and insulting. Every generation likes “stories” in its newspapers and magazines. My generation, no less than any other, wanted to read about people, personalities, personal histories. I can’t believe Jon is implying that the Milllennials want to read “stories” more than their parents did. If anything, the Millennials are reading less. Their attention span has been miniaturized by social media and twitter to 140-character tweets. Some story! And scores are not going away, not soon, probably not ever. If anything, scores and other graphic indications of quality (stars, puffs, letter grades) are on the increase.
2. “This generation of new drinkers… want[s] wines that are relevant and forthright.” Again, is Jon implying that the Baby Boomers wanted wines that were irrelevant and–well, what is the opposite of “forthright” anyway? Whatever this statement means (and I don’t think it means much), this generation of wine drinkers wants the same thing its parents wanted: the feeling that the wines [and other beverages] they drink are interesting and cool. Whatever wine seems cool at the moment (Muscat, Bull’s Blood, Malbec, orange wine) is what they’ll drink–until something cooler comes along, and then they’ll drink that. That’s human nature, and it doesn’t change.
3. The new generation, according to Jon, wants to know all about “a winemaker’s ethical and technical decisions – about farming, about intervention in the cellar,” about issues of “broader cultural commentary.” This sounds like solid reporting, but it’s built on sand. First of all, the Baby Boomers wanted to know everything, and I do mean everything, about every technical aspect of wine, from soil pH and irrigation systems to the type of fermenter and crusher to the source of the oak, its toast level and how long the wine remained in barrel. If anything, Boomers got too obsessed with technical issues, an obsession that thankfully began turning around some time ago. I don’t believe Millennials care about “intervention in the cellar.” Some writers are always telling consumers they should worry about reverse osmosis, or mega Purple, or whatever, but really, aside from some geeks, nobody cares about these things, and rightfully so. Concerning “a winemaker’s ethical decisions,” I assume Jon means being green. Who isn’t green, to some degree or another? Everybody says they are, and since there’s no way to prove it, we have to take them at their word. But when I go to a club or bar at night and the kids are lining up for their drinks, I don’t hear anyone asking about whether the grapes were grown biodynamically. They’re more interested in feeling good and getting laid. This implication that Millennials care more about “farming” than simply enjoying a delicious glass of wine is the kind of reporter’s BS that proves the old adage, just because it’s in a newspaper doesn’t make it true.
Since Jon bases all his premises on the Parker/Advocate thing, he has to return to it, in the form of a paeon of praise for Galloni’s new venture [and I wish Anthony all the luck in the world]. I’m not sure why Antonio Galloni quitting the Wine Advocate should stand as the symbol of The End of Wine Writing As We Know It, or of anything else, except, possibly, the continued weakening of the Parker brand. Along the way, Jon also references Wine Spectator–twice–although for what reason is unclear, except that Jon has always been bizarrely obsessed with the Wine Spectator. Perhaps he feels that an important article about the Future of Wine Criticism has to drop the S-word (Spectator) and P-word (Parker) in order to be taken seriously. Or to maximize search engine optimization. Whatever.
My point, folks, and I’ve been making it for going on five years now, is that the revolution is not at hand. We have new technology, in the form of smart phones, tablets, the Internet and social media, but humankind has always had new technology. Yet people remain the same. Consumers still want and need experts to guide them in purchasing decisions, whether it’s cars, DVDs, restaurants or wine. They still want to buy things that make them feel cool and plugged in. The Millennials are not so different from their parents. Journalists who wish to be serious need to get over their breathless embrace of social media and pseudo-intellectual analyses of how it’s changing the role of wine writing. It hasn’t, isn’t and won’t.
Perhaps we should start calling it “The Wine Hadvocate,” as in the past tense. Now that Antonio Galloni has quit that sinking ship, there’s little question the Beginning of the End is here for Robert Parker’s once vaunted newsletter.
That stomping sound you hear is hundreds of wine bloggers dancing on Parker’s grave. That other sound, like a miasmal wind blowing through a dead forest, is the groaning of all the snobby cult winery owners who gave Parker majesterial permission to pimp their wines, and who now have to wonder if they backed the wrong horse.
Answer: Yup, you did.
I personally wasn’t surprised by Galloni’s decision. After Parker sold the Advocate off to its new Asian owners, I thought that move must have come as a kick to Antonio’s gut. I’m sure he didn’t know anything about it until after the fact, just as I’m sure Parker knew he was going to be divesting even as he hired Antonio. That is Machiavellian politics, my friend. Poor Antonio. He didn’t anticipate reporting to some Singapore-based bureaucrat named Lisa Perrotti-Brown, and must have been frantically considering his options since last December. Now we know what his decision is.
What he says he’s doing with his new website looks a lot like what James Suckling did on his website, which seems to be less of a success than James hoped it would be. It’s not so easy to remain famous and influential when you leave the employ of the periodical that put you there. Not to say it can’t be done, just that it’s hard. Can Antonio remain “an authoritative voice in what is now a very big and very verbose world wine conversation,” as Eater New York wondered?
I hope so. I met the man once (last year, in fact, at Premier Napa Valley) and he was kind enough to give me a very long interview and pose for pictures. But it’s not Antonio I’m thinking so much about right now, as those snooty winery owners who lived and breathed by Wine Advocate’s blessing to the exclusion of almost anyone else, and who now have to figure out how to make their overpriced Cabernets sound exclusive when the bastion of exclusivity, The Wine Advocate, they were addicted to has been battered beyond the point of recognition. I always warned them (the winery owners) not to put all their eggs in that one basket but they did anyway. Well, maybe they put their eggs into two baskets, but the other basket isn’t what it used to be either, with the result that they now have only one basket for all those expensive, rather fragile eggs, and it’s looking a little tattered.
I’m here for you, brothers and sisters up Napa way. Here to help you in your time of need. No hard feelings. Life goes on. In a few months, you’ll get over the Advocate, over Parker, over Galloni, like your first husband or wife. It will all seem like a bad dream. One of these nights, maybe over drinks at the Rutherford Grill, you’ll be able to laugh about it, and wonder how you could have been so gullible for so long.
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.”