I speak later today at The Exchange, an organization, sponsored by Nomacorc, that periodically gathers “to improve the marketing of wine by creating a forum for the sharing of ideas related to wine marketing.” The topic of today’s gathering, which is at Bardessono, in Yountville, is “Telling the Story.”
I’ve been amazed the last few months at how this meme of “storytelling” has invaded corporate America—not just the wine industry but everywhere. It’s grabbed the attention of marketing and communications departments and the budgeters who fund them, which means that CEOs and company presidents also are onboard. Never in my professional career has so much attention been paid to this aspect of companies; marketing used to be a sort of minor adjunct to sales, finance and product development. Now, it’s the tail that’s wagging the dog.
We shouldn’t wonder why. Doing business in America is more complicated than ever. The nation is a welter of different, competing points of view, and a company that’s selling things (products or services) has to figure out how to make itself attractive people who are utterly different from each other. But why the sudden popularity of “the story”?
Well, for one thing, it’s not sudden. Companies, through their advertising divisions, have been telling stories for years. They didn’t call them stories; they called them “messages,” but it was the same thing. When Camel cigarettes said, in the 1940s, that most doctors recommend their cigarette—and the ads showed a “doctor” happily puffing away—that told a story. The human brain has a talent for seeing patterns where in reality only scattered bits of data exist. We see a stain on a wall and all of a sudden it’s a witch or Julia Roberts. In the same way, companies today put out creative tidbits of information and hope that we, the recipients, will fill in the blanks by interpreting the story in a way that makes us more likely to be attracted to the product.
Anyhow, that’s as close as I can come to understanding this modern infatuation with “the story.” Here’s some of what I’ll tell the audience at The Exchange:
A good story is always about something. It doesn’t necessarily have to be about a person: for example, I love books that explain plate tectonics. A good story is like a good wine: it has structure, tension, grip, an intriguing beginning and a long, satisfying finish. A good story can indeed have a formula: fiction writers like Steven King and John Grishom have been writing the same formula for years. That’s not to put them down: Shakespeare had a formula well-known to students of English literature. But a formula isn’t enough. One must know how to tell the story, which involves an intuitive sense of drama. (I say “drama” because even comedies are based on the dramatic conflicts between human beings or humans and their environment.) A good story also evokes feelings of compassion and empathy in the readers.
A good story has to be well-written. Many great stories have been mangled by writers who just didn’t know how to write. Sloppy writing, poor grammar and syntax, superfluous words and sentences all can kill a good story. I believe in Thoreau: Simplify, simplify!
If you think about it, every human interaction is a system of mutual story telling. Scientists have long speculated about what makes us “distinctly human,” different from all other animals. Some have said it’s our ability to laugh. Maybe it’s our ability to tell stories, and to listen to the stories of others. On the other hand, one of my Facebook friends once said—in reply to my question of why Gus sniffs lampposts and fire hydrants to much—that those repositories of canine scents are Facebook for dogs—that each scent contains a vast amount of information that only dogs can detect: the gender of a previous visitor, the dog’s age and so on. So maybe dogs, too, tell each other stories, not through the use of words (they can’t speak) but through chemical emissions. We know that ants communicate through chemicals their bodies emit. Maybe the essence of the Universe is that all its infinite parts are constantly telling their stories, from the quantum atoms to the biggest black holes. The Universe is a dazzling babble of stories.
This think piece by Matt Kramer is a little opaque.(I hope you can open the Wine Spectator link.) I had to read it twice to understand it—and I’m not sure I do even now—but it seems to be a rebuttal to the notion, widespread in America and somewhat anti-intellectual, that expertise is a form of pretentious bull. With specific regard to wine, Matt asserts that “what we [tasters] taste is real,” his J’accuse! to the doubters who, reading things about Rudi Kuriawan, or how even “experts” can be fooled, think that wine expertise is just so much hooey.
If that was Matt’s point, he’s got it right: great numbers of Americans don’t take wine seriously, even if they drink it, and some of them think that those of us who do take wine seriously are somehow illegitimate—less than true, red-blooded Americans. How and why this notion go so widespread is not hard to understand. It’s not that people think any form of expertise is bunk. Baseball fans respect the serious fact-collector who can cite ERAs going back fifty years. Nobody disrespects an epidemiologist who can cite instances of out-of-control diseases going back to the plague. We listen to movie reviewers thoroughly familiar with the genre.
But when it comes to expertise in wine, people tend to raise their eyebrows. I’ve encountered such skeptical behavior my whole career. It’s like when I meet someone and I tell then what I do for a living, their reaction is a mixture of disbelief, amusement and pity. “Really?” They seem to say. “You get paid for that?” If I was getting paid to be a CIA analyst tracking the worldwide movement of terrorists (another form of expertise) I’d get some respect. Even a restaurant reviewer would be seen in some sort of positive light. For that matter, if I was a whiskey expert, I think people would be respectful.
But wine? Something about it still weirds people out. This is related to what Matt calls “a bullying anti-intellectualism with a long history in America.” It’s the same kind of anti-intellectualsm that still manifests itself as a suspicion of science in this country. When I was a little boy, people called Adlai Stevenson, who ran for President twice as a Democrat (and lost to Eisenhower) “an egghead,” a disparaging word for someone who was educated and tended to think in complex, analytical ways, rather than with emotional gut reactions.
Why should wine, of all foods and beverages, be consigned to the egghead bin of history? It’s not really clear to me, except that, as an historian of wine, I understand its centrality to Western civilization and culture. Our greatest minds didn’t necessarily drink wine (and with most of them, we don’t know if they did or didn’t, for history didn’t record it. Did Aristotle drink wine? Did Thomas Aquinas? Did Shakespeare, Pascal, Gutenburg?) But there is something about wine that is unlike beer or spirits. I can’t pinpoint it, except to say it is a thinking person’s alcoholic beverage. It’s a drink that smart men and women enjoy. I’m not dissing beer and spirits drinkers;; I happen to like both myself. I’m suggesting that wine somehow appeals to a very high level of consciousness in our brains. It awakens something cerebral and thoughtful, but not everybody enjoys being thoughtful. For some people, thoughtfulness is a distraction, or worse, an indulgence in something they don’t even believe in. These are the sorts of people Matt writes about: “skeptics of sensory value, who fancy themselves penetrating thinkers,” when they’re really not.
The history of Prohibitionism in this country is rife with such figures. Whenever they rise up and have power, our country takes a step backwards in its inevitable progress toward the future. So next time you’re enjoying a nice glass of wine, smile at yourself inwardly, and know that you’re helping our country become a better place, for in a very real sense—in carrying the wine flag high—you are.
One of the hardest parts of being a wine writer in California is explaining the differences between appellations. It’s hard because, in many cases, the differences aren’t all that stark.
The way I look at appellations is through the lens of history. As the late, great Alexis Lichine wrote (in his Encyclopedia of Wines & Spirits, the single most informative book I read when I was coming up in the field), “Fine wines always bear the stamp of the place where the grapes were grown and…the more restricted the place, the better the wine.” The French had inordinate respect for, and understanding of, the qualities that terroir imposed on their wines, so, for example, Saint-Julien, Saint-Estephe, Margaux and Pauillac were deemed different enough from each other to warrant their own appellations. And “the system reaches its logical conclusion in Burgundy…”.
It’s only natural that the founders of the modern California wine industry wanted a similar system of appellational control. They’d been egged on for years by the likes of Frank Schoonmaker, so, with the cooperation of the Federal government, our own American Viticultural Area program went into place, in the early 1980s.
Once an official appellation has been declared, people start looking for the things that make it distinct. The only problem is that “distinctiveness” is irrelevant to the government’s declaration of an AVA. They care about other things—especially political unity—but government bureaucrats had no intention of actually tasting wines to see if they were “typical” for their appellation. So they left that sticky wicket alone.
Well, here we are, more than 40 years later, and writers, critics, sommeliers and others still try to figure out how AVAs are different from each other. The situation here in the U.S. isn’t made easier by the relative ease with which appellations are approved. I think everybody realizes that Oakville (for instance) is not really a single terroir, but at least three: east, west and the flatlands in the middle. So if you’re looking for an “Oakville” character, good luck finding it, especially if you’re trying to distinguish it from, say, the Rutherford Bench, or the east side of St. Helena or even Coombsville, and you’re tasting blind. For one thing, we grow our grapes riper than the French ever did, and there’s general consensus that ripeness trumps terroir, making everything taste more alike than not. (This is not an argument for unnatural underripeness!) For another thing, contemporary winemaking techniques tend to be similar to each other, for a variety of reasons. Thus telling the difference between AVAs isn’t as easy as it was for the French 100 years ago.
I’m running into this because we’re planning an event down in L.A. for early December, and as part of that I’m trying to pinpoint exactly how the Santa Maria Valley puts its terroir fingerprint on its wines, especially Pinot Noir. Having tasted hundreds of SMV Pinot Noirs over the course of my career, I think there is a distinct fingerprint; I feel it in my bones, experience it in my taste memory, and can make a case. But the case ultimately is not provable, for the simple reason that we’re not talking about a “right” or “wrong” answer (2 + 2 = 5 is a wrong answer, anywhere and everywhere; “Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir is silkier than Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir” is an assertion of belief, and is not fundamentally true in all cases).
Therefore, we can only make generalizations about appellations. Of course, the more wines we taste, and the more we study the details of climate and soils, the more we can point to the distinguishing features of an appellation. But when you factor in the human part of winemaking—clonal selection, vineyard trellising, harvesting decisions, fermentation routines, oak regimens, the whole nine yards—things get considerably more complicated.
A perfect world would be one in which external reality mirrored what’s in your mind (and vice versa). But, of course, the curse, tragedy and glory of being human is that external reality has a way of turning out to be not the way we thought or hoped, leaving us forced to reconcile the two, which isn’t always easy. I’m sure there’s a Santa Maria Valley terroir to Pinot Noir, just as I’m sure there’s an Anderson Valley, a Green Valley, a Carneros and an Edna Valley quality. I’ve spent my career trying to find those qualities and write about them. But I’ve always been aware that the exception, far from proving the rule, merely makes the rule obstinately hard to discern.
It’s important for us to have a conversation about drinking too much—about alcoholism—for two reasons. One is because there’s always been, and still is, a neo-prohibitionist mindset in this country that frowns on any use of alcoholic beverages at all; and so, as if in advance of an impending flood, we have to pile the sandbags around the door and be ready for anything. The second is because we Americans are rightfully concerned about our health, and while the debate rages on concerning whether a glass or two or three of wine a day is good for you or not, even people who drink moderately have to wonder, in the back of their minds, if somehow or other they’re actually bringing on diabetes, or cancer, or stroke, or heart disease, or something else we don’t want. The situation isn’t clarified—in fact is exacerbated—by conflicting studies that come out seemingly weekly, contradicting each other and leaving us more bewildered than ever.
No wonder more and more people are taking “Are you an alcoholic?” tests. The key phrase in this latest “self-questionnaire”, from England, is, “If you find that you ‘need’ to share a bottle of wine with your partner most nights of the week, or always go for a few pints after work, just to unwind, you’re likely to be drinking at a level that could affect your long-term health. You could also be becoming dependent on alcohol.” By this metric, I suppose you could say I’m “dependent on alcohol.” But what does “dependent” mean? I’m also “dependent” on breathing and eating. I’m dependent on Gus to bring joy into my life. I’m dependent on warmth in winter and dryness in the rain, on a certain amount of social intercourse, on being creative. I’m certainly dependent on going to the gym. Heck, I’m dependent on PG&E for almost everything! So this notion of “dependency” is a “slippery” one, as even the English questionnaire concedes.
I don’t doubt that some people have a drinking problem. But what gets me is this incessant stream of “self-questionnaires” published in magazines, newspapers and online, in which we’re asked to constantly question ourselves about our habits. The suggestion is that everything we do is potentially some kind of problem. Armchair psychologists make a living at this sort of thing, and they find publishers who are happy to give them exposure.
Another one bites the dust
Many of you knew Harvey Posert, who died last week at the age of 84. I met Harvey many years ago, when he was running Robert Mondavi’s P.R. shop. Then he went over to Fred Franzia’s outfit, Bronco. We had fewer contacts after that, but one was memorable. I’d long wanted an interview with Fred, who was notoriously shy of publicity. I called Harvey for years, but the answer was always “No.” One day, I was in San Francisco, and picked up the free weekly paper. Guess who was on the front page? Freddie, and they had a very long, interesting interview with him. In the free paper? So I called Harvey back and asked, what’s up? How come a throwaway free paper that has nothing to do with wine scores an interview and I don’t? Harvey arranged for a get-together with Fred, at his gigantic bottling facility in Napa. Well, to make a long story short, it didn’t work out. I never got that interview and I never saw Fred again (although I did get to spend a fascinating day with his son, Joey, a few years later), but I did hear from Harvey. He was apologetic, but after all, it wasn’t his fault: Fred Franzia can be a very stubborn individual. Anyhow, Harvey put in his time, the good, the bad and the ugly. He did a fine job the old-fashioned way, pre-Internet, pre-social media, in an era of press kits and controlling the message, and he always sat in on interviews with whoever was his boss (which I always hated). Harvey was one of the last of his breed. To paraphrase an old saying, winery P.R. people never die, they just go to some heavenly lounge and hang out. There are worse ways to spend eternity. R.I.P. Harvey!
I’m driving up to Occidental today, on the far edge of the Green Valley of the Russian River Valley, for a book signing at a winery called Fog Crest. I’m not familiar with their wines, and I don’t know the proprietors, but they invited me up, bought a bunch of my first book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River, and are putting me up for the night at the nearby Inn at Occidental, so what’s not to like about that?
That book was published in 2005, after a writing and editing effort that took about two years. Prior to that, I’d tried hard to get a book publishing deal. It was an era when having a book was the crowning glory to your reputation as a wine writer, but actually getting a book deal was hard. I’d written sample chapters, sent them to agents and publishers and worked the grapevine diligently, alas to no avail; nobody seemed to want my book.
Then serendipity struck, in the form of a phone call from an acquisitions editor at University of California Press. He invited me to lunch and, over sushi in Berkeley, informed me that I could write a book – about anything I wanted – as long as it was about wine – and U.C. Press would publish it.
Wow. That sort of thing just doesn’t happen. But it did. I came up with the idea for Journey – based on Heart of Darkness (alternatively, Apocalypse Now), I conceived it as a year-long journey from one end of the Russian River to the other end, where it spills into the Pacific, exploring along the way the region’s culture, plate tectonics, climate, personalities, food scene and, of course, winegrowing areas and wines. Because U.C. Press didn’t have a large budget like some for-profit publishers, they couldn’t afford a photographer, so I took my own pictures – with a throwaway camera. In the end, the rustic nature of the pictures echoed the book’s artisanal nature: I call it “the terroir of Steve” from a writing point of view.
I wrote one more book after that for U.C. Press, New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversations with Steve Heimoff, but by the time we started talking about a third book, I’d begun this blog, which, after more than six years, has amounted to perhaps two million words, the equivalent of many books. I always thought that said something about the nature of wine writing: that it’s migrated to the Web. Of course, wine writers still write wine books, and they still get reviewed, but somehow, a wine book doesn’t seem to have the glory it used to anymore. The times they are a-changing.
My readers know that I make a big deal of the art of writing. In Journey, something came over me that I can only liken to possession: I felt like it wasn’t me writing it, but some wonderful force that was expressing itself through me. It’s a terrific little book, if I do say so myself. When I proposed it to my editor, I told him, “I want to write a book people will read 100 years from now.” I was well aware of the brief lifespan of 99% of wine books: they come and go like gnats. Today, Eric Asimov is praising them in the New York Times: tomorrow, they’re in the remainders bin of the local bookstore. That’s not what I wanted. I wanted to capture a moment in time, in a particular place (the valley of the Russian River), in such a manner that later generations would read it and go, Ahh, that was an interesting time and place.
I haven’t been up to Occidental in years, so this trip will have some nostalgia. Today will be quite warm and sunny; we’re in the pleasant grasp of our last heat wave of the season before the rains come and transform the Russian River Valley into a dripping enchantment I once likened to Middle Earth in a storm. That is, if the rains come: we all hope they do. I don’t want to see Guerneville and adjacent towns flooded, as they so frequently have been, but we all are hoping for torrents to fall and fill our reservoirs.
Have a great weekend!
I’ve gotten so tired of geeks talking up the virtues of Riesling that it actually came as a relief when I read Jancis Robinson’s column on her blog yesterday in which she concedes she might “go to my grave” without the masses never properly appreciating the wine she has loved “for roughly 35 years.”
Riesling freaks have been telling us Americans for years that there’s something wrong with us for not loving Riesling. They say that we’re too bloated and superficial to appreciate a wine so subtle and pure as Riesling. They suggest that, if we prefer Chardonnay, we’re a bunch of heathens with no capacity for enjoying nuance.
Every time I read or hear someone like that, something inside me revolts. Of course, being the polite person I am, I don’t really reply. But Jancis’s column—and bless her for writing it—has enabled me to finally speak my mind on this overweaning tendency of the Riesling Drinkers towards arrogance and condescension.
I have had a lot of Riesling in my time, mainly German, often Alsatian and occasionally Australian, and certainly from California. Some of these have been everyday wines; some of them have been expensive. In fact, back in the 1980s, before I was a paid wine writer, I used to shop at the old Connoisseur’s Wines, on Bryant Street in San Francisco, which specialized in German wines. I knew the floor staff, and I still have labels in my tasting diary of some of the Rieslings I drank.
I never fell in love with it, is what I’m saying. Sure, I “got” it. It was usually off-dry, crisp in acidity and incredibly delicate. It often reminded me of water—not because it was bland, but because it was so light and pure and natural. Back then, I didn’t taste blind, so I was always looking for that “garden” quality Hugh Johnson spoke of, not to mention the petrol—and I usually found it. And I appreciated the acidity. I once went to a big tasting at Fort Mason of (I think it was) the 1991 vintage and tasted more than 100 young Rieslings. My gums haven’t been the same since.
So sure, I recognize Riesling’s greatness. It truly is one of the noble white wines of the world. But the reason I never fell head over heels in love with Riesling is precisely because of what Jancis says: It “just has too strong a personality to appeal to consumers to gain global attraction…unlike Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio, it has a very powerful flavour…even when it is young…which some people are bound to dislike.”
Good for Jancis for her candid appraisal of reality. She’s the only widely-published wine writer I’ve ever heard admit that there could possibly be something troubling about Riesling. The rest of them sound like it’s the Second Coming, and only those with eyes to see and ears to hear will be admitted to Heaven.
Riesling does have a very powerful taste. People complain about Chardonnay being too much of this and that, but I’ve never had a great Chardonnay that wasn’t at the same time subtle. It’s hard to explain how a rich wine like Chardonnay can be subtle except to use my usual metaphor of certain people whose wardrobe and hair and underlying good bones make them look like a million dollars and yet they still are elegant. George Clooney, perhaps, or Denzel Washington (in the past I would have said Cary Grant). Riesling by contrast is one of those wines whose personality is so overwhelming that you either like it or you don’t.
I don’t want to pick on Riesling, though, so much as reflect on the attitude, among certain wine writers, that you have to be like them in order to appreciate it—and if you don’t, then you’re not like them, which means your taste is questionable. Isn’t this the very elitism we’re trying to get rid of? Besides, it’s important to ask the question, Why haven’t Americans embraced Riesling when all the “important” tastemakers have been ordering them to for years? Jancis once again tumbles into the truth when she quotes a senior U.S. representative of an important German estate to the effect that “sales of both domestic and imported Riesling are now falling and that ‘Riesling remains a one-customer-at-a-time proposition.’” Are the American people stupid for not buying Riesling? Are they just a bunch of yokels who don’t have the sophistication to understand what their betters recommend?
One of the toughest parts of my job—of any wine writer’s job, actually—is finding reliable, historic data on which to base conclusions about terroir.
Lord knows, we have endless discussions about terroir, yet most of them are based on anecdotal information and as we all know anecdotes are not reliable. They may be interesting, they may be well-meaning on the part of the teller, and they may even be true. Yet there’s nothing like accumulated, provable data to underscore a scientific claim.
Having been in this business for a long time I can’t tell you how often I’ve been given directly conflicting info by winemakers who often couldn’t agree on the characteristics of their region’s terroir even when their vineyards were right next to each other! Or, along similar lines, they couldn’t agree on the qualitative aspects of the wines from the appellation they shared. Needless to say, this makes the wine writer’s job more difficult, so in the end, we’re forced to come to our own conclusions—for which the winemakers who couldn’t agree in the first place then criticize us. Sigh…
A nice example of my current challenge is to determine, precisely and clearly, the temperature and climate differences between the Santa Maria Valley and the Santa Rita Hills, especially for growing Pinot Noir. The two AVAs are, of course, close together. Both are open to the west winds from the Pacific; both are east-west-running valleys. Is one cooler than the other? How does one define “cooler”? This is where the tough part of my job kicks in. Where is the data? Who controls it? Is it a government agency, like NOAA? Do individual vineyards have weather sensors that could tell us? Is that data proprietary or is it sharable? Over how many years does the data span? I don’t want data only from a single year; to be credible the data should span multiple years. Who’s been measuring degree days or daytime and nighttime lows for a decade? How long does the high temperature remain high during the day—for 30 minutes? An hour? Both AVAs are long, in an east-west direction: how much does the daily high temperature vary as you move inland? A degree a mile, as is commonly cited? What part does elevation play (both AVAs contain significant hills). This only begins to describe the complexities. As the great Saintsbury winemaker David Graves notes, “What do you mean by cooler? Hours above or below a threshold? Nighttime lows? Daytime highs? The period between veraision and harvest? Bloom-harvest? And what role does relative humidity play?” For the wine writer these are difficult things to determine, but they seem central to me, if you’re trying to pick apart the differences between neighboring appellations. After all, if an appellation means anything to begin with, it consists of these very complexities and ambiguities.
Yet if a writer wants really to tackle issues of terroir, these data points need to be accumulated. The trouble is, where are they?
It’s hard work, which is why there are so many shibboleths and myths in this business. Who’s got the time to research this stuff, or even to figure out how to begin? So, too many wine writers look up something Matt Kramer, or Oz Clarke, or Steve Heimoff or Larry Walker or somebody else once said, and repeat it, as though it were the gospel truth. Which it might or might not be. It’s not that any of these individuals would deliberate misstate something (Heaven forbid!) but that they might have got it wrong to begin with, without knowing it and without having subsequently been corrected.
Anyhow, this is one reason why the more I last in this business the less I trust “the conventional wisdom.” Still, understanding appellations is as central to my job as breathing is to life. I hope to just be able to contribute some small part to it that will stand the test of time.