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What is this wine doing?


My friend Hunter de la Ghetto has an installation/conceptual artwork currently on exhibit at my tattoo parlor, Old Crow Tattoo & Gallery. It was just reviewed in the art magazine, Juxtapoz, where the reviewer called it “a bizarre and surreal microcosm of false wealth and superstition” that “creates a tension between excess, wealth, and ritual” and “bridges…the imagery of wealth…and death.”

I like Hunter’s piece, which consists of hanging, paint-spattered windows, candles, skulls, piles of coal and lottery tickets, but I never came to the definite conclusions of its “meaning” the way the reviewer did. So when I saw Hunter, I asked him what he thought of her review, and he said he liked it, and thought she’d pretty much nailed his intention. Then I asked him if she’d gotten her ideas from him, or come up with them on her own. On her own, Hunter replied; he’d never even talked to her.

I found that interesting, because just the day before, I’d had a conversation with some winery people out in Fort Ross about critical reviews of their wines. What did they think of them, I asked. Did they ever read things they disagreed with? Did critics ever use language for their wines that sounded bizarre, as if they’d tasted something else?

Yes, and yes, were their answers. As is always the case when I ask a winemaker these questions.

I suppose reading someone else’s description of your creative effort can ignite a gamut of responses. You may be pleased, of course, if the critic praises your creation, and especially if she infers from it your creative intent. On the other hand, you may be offended, or baffled, by a description that’s completely out of whack with your own perception. I suppose this is why it’s said that some actors never read the critical reviews of their performances. It’s too crazy-making.

Winemakers need a thick skin to survive in this critical world. What the critic giveth with one hand, he may taketh away with the other. And what the critic experiences may be so far away from what the winemaker experienced that the chasm is unbridgeable. Maybe that’s why each winemaker has to struggle to decide whether or not to play the wine-sample game. Send the critic a bottle and risk getting a review that makes you want to pound your head against the wall. (Or the wine critic’s.) Don’t send a bottle, and risk not having a good score to use in your marketing. On the third hand, the proliferation of wine critics nowadays (when anyone with a blog can purport to be one) means that the winemaker has his choice of multiple reviews to use. Nine critics may strike you down; one calls the wine a sensation. That’s the one you quote on your web site.

It would be cool, and sobering, for critics to hear what winemakers say about us and our reviews behind our backs. I have no idea what they say about me. But the one thing I think they can’t say is that my reviews are pompous purple prose. I have deliberately moved away from hifalutin exaggerated nonsense toward simpler, leaner prose. It’s easier to get to the essence of a wine that way, in the same way that haiku strips away all that is non-essential to penetrate to the core of the thing being described. Aristotle called this “essence.” What is the wine’s essence? Marcus Aurelius asked, “This thing, what is it in itself, in its own constitution? What is its substance and material? And what is it doing in the world?” What is it doing in the world…that is the question I ask of every wine I taste (and every person I meet).

  1. Peter Rosback says:

    It may be true that there is a lot more meaning to find in fine art than there is in wine, which I’d argue is more of a craft (a high craft at its best) than art. (Too many of a wine’s qualities are delivered by the raw materials – not so with music, drawing and the like.)

    I will give you wine critics a lot of credit. Most of you have excellent, highly experienced palates. While you, Steve, have only reviewed a couple of my wines, your fellow WE critic, Paul Gregutt, has impressed me much over the years both reviewing my wines and those of others. Frankly, he has a better, more experienced palate than I.

    As winemakers we hear constant complaining about wine critics and wine criticism. Don’t know why. None of you claim to speak for anyone other than yourselves.

  2. Our winery has received at least one decent review from most wine publications. I think my favorite write-up came from 1winedude, for precisely the reason you mention at the beginning of your article. He didn’t give us as much praise as some critics, but he really seemed to “get” what we are trying to do as a winery. Rather than writing flavors to describe our wines, he got to the essence of who we are as a winery. A review like that is, at least to me, worth more than ninety-something points in a magazine

  3. My favorite quote from Jean Cocteau “Listen carefully to first criticisms made of your work. Note just what it is about your work that critics don’t like – then cultivate it. That’s the only part of your work that’s individual and worth keeping.”

  4. S. Ballesteros says:

    “This thing, what is it in itself, in its own constitution? What is its substance and material? And what is it doing in the world?”

    Ask this question of a wine critic, and what is the answer?

  5. Dear S. Ballesteros, clever, but misguided. Critics play a vital role in helping consumers make buying decisions in a complex world of consumer choice.

  6. Great piece, I can’t believe you only got 5 comments! Not controversial enough I suppose?

    I think I’d rather have someone understand the wine correctly and not like it as much than describe something that doesn’t sound at all like what we do or how the wine tastes and give it a great score. What confidence can I have then in the next wine they review and how can we use it for branding if it seems “off”.

    I love how you bring in metaphysics at the end. I often wonder, “why wine?”


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