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No such thing as the “best” wine

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It’s interesting how different media outlets described the wines that were recently stolen from the French Laundry.

The San Francisco Chronicle’s headline reads “Wine thief with nose for best reaps huge haul from French Laundry.”

Calling the Domaine de la Romanée Conti and Screaming Eagle the “best” grants the highest esteem to these wines, suggesting to readers that no other wines in the world can approach them in quality. KRON Channel 4, one of the Bay Area’s leading news outlets, took a more cautious approach, calling the purloined wines “high-end,” which carries vastly different connotations than “best”: ‘high-end” implies a certain rare desirability that gives the wines prestige, but does not elevate them to the highest category of perfection. The Contra Costa Times took a decidedly neutral approach: They called the wines merely “expensive,” a just-the-facts-ma’am description of reality, for in truth, those bottles certainly are among the most costly in the world. Still, they are not “priceless,” as USA Today trumpeted in a flashy headline.

This may all seem trivial, but for students of the media, who wish to understand how news is actually communicated in this country, it underscores the importance of optics—perceptions that become fixed ideas among the public. Now, the job of the headline writer is different from that of the reporter. Usually, reporters don’t write their own headlines; that is considered a special art and is reserved to editors. But no matter who writes the headline, it can achieve a life of its own. When a criminal killed a bar owner and then forced a hostage to decapitate him in New York City back in 1983, the New York Post certainly was correct to give it full front page coverage. They could have headlined, as the New York Times discretely did, “Owner of a bar shot to death; subject is held,” and then relegated the gory details of the “head in a box” to the fourth paragraph. But that headline never achieved anywhere close to the immortality of the Post’s “Headless body in topless bar,”

 headless

which has become one of the most famous headlines in the history of American journalism. (Its author, Vinnie Musetto, excelled at eye-catching headers. He also penned the Post’s “Khadafy Goes Daffy,” about the former Libyan strongman’s antics.)

Long before there was an Internet or social media, headlines like these went viral: they were repeated in many media outlets, proving that a great headline is at least as important, in terms of popularity, as what is actually contained in the article itself. This is where, however, a sort of Continental drift between the headline and the actual news can open seismic chasms. In the story about the French Laundry theft, it is only natural that some headline writers would decide that the word “best” sounds stronger than “high-end” or “expensive.” High-end, expensive stuff is stolen all the time, but when “the best” is taken, people pay attention.

However, the fact is that Romanée-Conti and Screaming Eagle are not “the best” wines in the world. There are no “best wines” in the world. Any critic will tell you so. What these wines are, indisputably, are among the most expensive wines in the world. But there’s a big, huge difference, and to call these wines “the best” only reinforces the public’s perception that they can’t get really great wine unless they pay really high prices. That’s the biggest myth in all of wine.

  1. Thanks, Steve.
    We were worried that there might have been such a thing as the best wines in the world.
    We are all the better for the relief in knowing that this is false, and we shall all enjoy those wines that we do drink that much better for this truth.

    You coming to the Bordeaux 2012 tour when it swings through San Francisco later this month?

  2. redmond barry says:

    I believe Michael Broadbent has given each of them 6 stars, whatever was in the bottles.

  3. Bill Haydon says:

    While I don’t have much use for what’s printed in the Post, their covers are truly a national treasure. Two of my all time favorites:

    GI JOE VS JIHAD JOE (the day we went into Afghanistan)

    DAPPER IN DEATH (Gotti’s funeral)

  4. Bob Henry says:

    “Oh no, Mr. Bill!”

    From NPR
    (August 16, 2013):

    “‘N.Y. Post’ Axes ‘Headless Body In Topless Bar’ Headline Writer”

    Link: http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2013/08/16/212560519/ny-post-axes-headless-body-in-topless-bar-headline-writer

    By Mark Memmott
    Supervising Senior Editor, Standards & Practices

  5. Bob Henry says:

    And see the headline anthology:

    “Headless Body in Topless Bar:
    The Best Headlines from America’s Favorite Newspaper”

    By Staff of the New York Post

    Link: http://www.amazon.com/Headless-Body-Topless-Bar-Headlines/dp/0061340715

  6. Bob Henry says:

    Not a New York Post headline:

    From Slate
    (posted February 13, 2008):

    “The Greatest Wine on the Planet:
    How the 1947 Cheval Blanc,
    a defective wine from an aberrant year, got so good.”

    Link: http://www.slate.com/articles/life/drink/2008/02/the_greatest_wine_on_the_planet.single.html

    By Mike Steinberger
    “Drink: Wine, Beer and Other Potent Potables” Column

  7. Patrick Frank says:

    Fun post today, thanks. I think the most famous headline in history is Sticks Nix Hick Pix, from Variety in 1935. Which the NYTimes snarked very well in 2002, when Wm. Safire was commenting that the Bush administration refused to believe the U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix about the status of WMD’s in Iraq: “Hicks Nix Blix Fix”.

  8. Bob Henry says:

    Patrick,

    Out here in La-La-Land, one could argue that Variety magazine’s slanguage (“Hollywood haiku”) is one possible progenitor of Twitter’s 140-character message “tweets”.

    http://variety.com/static-pages/slanguage-dictionary/

    ~~ Bob

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