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Oops! When famous wine writers get it wrong


I liked Eric Asimov’s mea culpa last week when he wrote about how he had mistaken a Syrah for a Pinot Noir, in the company of people he was having dinner with at a restaurant. Of course, it’s always gracious to acknowledge one’s faux pas with a dash of self-deprecating humor, and Eric did, claiming that one of his missions “is to do away with the aura of omniscience that so often adorns wine writers.” Well, there’s nothing like getting the variety wrong, in public, to take that aura of omniscience and pulverize it to smithereens.

It does happen to the best of us. Harry Waugh‘s famous, and similarly self-deprecating, remark that he hadn’t confused a Burgundy for a Bordeaux “since lunch” comes to mind. Now, Eric put up a little fig leaf to hide his nakedness when he said that, after all, it hadn’t been a light, silky wine he’d confused for Pinot Noir, it had been a Copain Syrah — Copain’s style being dense, dark wines. Here’s where the psychology comes in. Eric knew he’d ordered Copain off the wine list. His brain was expecting a broodingly ripe, dark Pinot Noir, so when he tasted the Syrah, that same brain censored, in essence, the wine’s “Syrah-ness” (pepper? violets? crushed blackberries? meat?) and hallucinated instead a “Pinot Noir-ness” that was in accordance with Eric’s expectations.

Remember all the debate in the blogosphere last summer about whether wine tasting is “subjective” or “objective”? I should think that this settles the matter. It’s “subjective” because the brain can never be entirely neutral. Somebody once said that Andy Warhol’s films of the 1960s, such as Sleep or Empire State Building, were the only authentically neutral films because they had absolutely no point of view. But that’s not true. Their point of view was precisely that they had no point of view. And the reason they had no point of view was because Andy Warhol had decided to simply point his camera at something, and then leave it running while he read magazines or went to the bathroom. His films therefore did have a point of view: boredom, banality, unconventionality.

The most extreme example of a wine taster having no point of view with regard to the wine is the Master of Wine tasting blind. This is supposedly the classically objective way to critique a wine. The mind as a camera, capturing incoming information, with the brain functioning as a computer, analyzing it in a completely detached way, then printing out data in the form of a review. But does anyone really believe a person can function like Frank Herbert‘s mentats, in Dune, which Wikipedia defines as “humans trained to mimic computers: human minds developed to staggering heights of cognitive and analytical ability…the embodiment of logic and reason”? Can’t be done, and that’s the overarching reason why wine reviewers must approach their jobs with humility and even a bit of apology. As Eric discovered, mistaking a Syrah for a Pinot Noir comes with the territory.

Okay, so what happens when that “aura of omniscience” is stripped away from a wine writer? It’s not exactly a case of “the emperor has no clothes.” But it does mean that wine writers not only have to review to the best of their ability, they also have to be great historians, students of popular culture, with an aptitude for science and geology and — above all — transcendent writers.


This emperor is missing some clothing!

Are expensive wines the next bubble?


Bubbles. By their very nature, they get big, and then, Splat! They burst. Dom-com stocks were bubbles. The housing market was a bubble. The Dow Jones of the last few years was a bubble. What did they have in common, and what does a bubble have to do with wine?


What they had in common was values so high, they were unsustainable. The Dow peaked at just below 14,000 in October, 2007, by far its highest ever. Now it’s scraping 9,000. Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, the newspapers reported two days ago that home prices, after rising to ridiculous levels, plunged in December to 31% lower than they were a year go, with the end nowhere in sight.

Now consider expensive California wine. These wines, led by Cabernet, are like the real estate market: Just as the number of million-dollar homes soared between 2001 and 2008, so too has the number of expensive wines. Robert Reich, the former Labor Secretary under Bill Clinton, recently analyzed the housing market in this gloomy article he wrote for the online periodical, RGE Monitor. Briefly, the economic downturn will force Baby Boomers to sell their homes over the next few years, downsizing to smaller homes and condos, or even renting. That will dump even more homes on the market than there already are, what with all the foreclosures, and that in turn will force housing prices even lower. Sounds like a death spiral. There were simply too many big, expensive homes built in the first place, and then easy credit led to a dash to buy. It was an unsustainable bubble, and now it’s burst.

Sounds to me like the expensive wine market. Just as there were too many pricey houses and not enough people who could afford them, so too there are too many pricey bottles, and not enough people able to buy them. I went over Wine Enthusiast’s database and counted 336 wines I’ve reviewed since 2004 that retailed for at least $80. Broken down by the year I tasted them, they were:

2004 and earlier: 1
2005: 67
2006: 98
2007: 71
2008: 99

So the number of expensive wines (judging by my unscientific count) appears to be growing, with the over-$80 segment up 47 percent in 4 years. That tells me it’s over-heated, just like home prices were.

When supply exceeds demand, there’s no getting around the economic consequence: prices must fall. That popping sound you hear is the cult wine bubble bursting. Who survives the shakeout? We’ll just have to wait and see. Not everybody will.

I’m a jock. You telling me I can’t have a glass of wine at dinner?


As part of this blog’s continuing battle against neoprohibitionism — which I define as the use of fearmongering tactics to discourage even the moderate consumption of alcohol — I bring to your attention this misleading commentary from something called the Athlete Resource Center, written by a guy named Dominic. You can read it yourself, but basically, it warns athletes to completely shun any alcohol at all, if they want to avoid the following problems:

– inability to synthesize proteins
– loss of memory
– mood swings
– sleeping disorders
– dehydration

“Your coach wouldn’t be too happy if you can’t remember plays, or even participate due to poor grades, because of your alcohol use,” the column warns jocks.

What’s so objectionable about this “advice” is that it utterly fails to distinguish between the moderate use of alcohol, and an excessive consumption that can, in fact, lead to the above problems. Nor does the article refer, even obliquely, to the well-established health benefits of moderate wine consumption. This is not a message that’s credible to athletes or anyone else. Reasonable people will realize that a little wine or beer at dinner is not going to cause anyone to forget a play the next day, or “hinder you from absorbing and utilizing nutrients you need,” or cause “dire consequences on your individual performance, as well as on other team members.” This hyperbole is reminiscent of the old Harry Anslinger scare tactics about marijuana, when he was the nation’s drug czar back in the 1930s. Here is a gory description he wrote about a young “marijuana addict”:

“With an axe he had killed his father, mother, two brothers, and a sister. He seemed to be in a daze…he was pitifully crazed. The boy said that he had been in the habit of smoking something which youthful friends called ‘muggles,’ a childish name for marijuana.”

I have always considered myself an athlete. I was a longtime competitive runner, earned my black belt in traditional Japanese karate (Wadokai), and continue to enjoy weightlifting and heavy aerobics. Being in peak physical and mental shape has always been a centerpiece of my life, and so has been the enjoyment of wine. Far from wine interfering with my athletic pursuits, it has balanced them. I completely reject the notion that the moderate use of alcohol is in any way a conflict with the athletic life.

The writer, Dominic, seems to be a smart, caring and thoughtful guy. If you go to his Reading List, you’ll find some great books there. I did email Dominic to ask why he doesn’t allow even the moderate use of alcohol, and his answer was, in part: You are correct, I do not make any distinction between moderate and excessive alcohol use.  However, moderate use has been shown to negatively impact athletic performance. Then he resorts to the slippery slope argument: Also realize that for many athletes, and non-athletes, there is no such thing as moderate use.  One drink becomes two, two becomes three, three becomes ten. To me, this is like the Mormons saying that same-sex marriage will inevitably lead to marriage between men and dogs. I mean, come on. Here’s a partial list of famous ex-athletes who own vineyards and/or make wine: Tom Seaver, Joe Montana, Mario Andretti, Peggy Fleming, Greg Norman, Mike Ditka and Larry Bird. I don’t know if they drank during their performance days, but I don’t believe any of them would be selling dope to active members of their former teams.

More Obama fallout: Happy days are NOT here again

[From the Danbury, CT New Times] The New Milford Republican Town Committee has announced that their wine and beer tasting, scheduled for today (Friday), is POSTPONED until January. Any ticket holder may request a refund by calling Katy Francis at (860) 354-7137.

Dept. of Oops!

Idiot tries breaking wine bottle with head and fails

The stupid ideas just keep coming


Two more examples of how not everybody shares equally in intelligence.

Stupid Idea #1

In North Carolina, they have 80 wineries that bring in more than $800 million a year to the economy. It’s become America’s tenth-biggest producer. So important is the industry that the state’s Department of Commerce commissioned a study earlier this year about wine tourism; among its findings were that by far the majority of people visit wineries for 2 reasons: to taste wine, and to buy wine.

So you’d think it’d be a no-brainer that when the North Carolina State Fair is held in Raleigh this week, wineries would be allowed to sell wine to the 850,000-plus visitors expected to attend. But no! The state’s Republican Agriculture Commissioner, Steve Troxler, says over his dead body. (For a report on the story in the Winston-Salem Journal, click here.)

Steve “No Wine” Troxler

I Googled Mr. Troxler’s name and found out a few facts about him.

– He’s North Carolina’s first Republican Ag Commish.

– He rode a tractor to his swearing in.

– He’s a tobacco grower. (Way to go, Steve. Alcohol’s bad – tobacco’s good. Huh?)

– Last year, Mr. Troxler and someone named Jeremy Troxler (son? brother? dad?) went to a “Convocation & Pastors’ School” event at Duke, where they presided over a seminar called “Growing in Grace in Rural Communities.” Hmm. I wonder if Jesus would have a word or two for tobacco growers whose products kill millions of people every year.

Stupid Idea #2

Now we’re in England, whose neoprohibitionists are as weird as ours. The government is considering forcing alcohol buyers in stores to use “alcohol-only checkouts which would be operated by specially-trained staff.” The purpose, according to The Telegraph:

“It is hoped it would put shoppers off from buying excessive amounts of alcohol under the scrutiny of fellow customers…”.

Oh, great. Picture it. You stop by Sainsbury’s for a nice bottle of Pommard for dinner, and endure the Perp Walk of Shame while the “normal” shoppers raise their eyebrows and tsk-tsk.

Who’s pushing for this insulting law? An ambitious young MP named Nigel Evans.

Mags & Nige

The Right Hon. Mr. Evans is (you guessed it) a Conservative, Britain’s equivalent of a Republican. Google tells us that Mr. Evans believes that sunspots, not carbon emissions, are the cause of global warming, and declared himself as among those “who don’t like being spoonfed by Al Gore.”

Good lord, why is it always the idiots?

Beaujolais winemakers: “We’re not plonk!”

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Beaujolais vintners have started a new public relations campaign to convince people that their wines are not “plonk,” Reuters is reporting. “We are the only appellation in the world known for plonk and not for its top quality,” the Reuters article quoted Jean Bourjade, Managing Director of Inter Beaujolais, the official trade association for the wines of Beaujolais, as saying.

Great word, “plonk.” My dictionary says it may derive from “blanc,” the French word for white, and defines it as “cheap, inferior wine.” I personally never thought of Beaujolais as plonk. I used to drink a lot, everything from Nouveau every November to Villages up through the finer crus, such as Morgon and Brouilly. I had a particular love for Moulin-a-Vent, which I could find at the old Draper & Esquin wine store, on Montgomery Street in San Francisco.

As part of their campaign, the Beaujolais producers will hold tastings around the world in 2009, including in New York, Philadelphia and somewhere in Florida. That’s a good idea. Exposing your finest wines to the curious, and explaining to people why it’s good, is a no-brainer if you want to attract customers and publicity. I bet the local bloggers will show up, and then, bingo! Free publicity on the Internet. (Memo to Beaujolais producers: Don’t forget the food table, especially the pate de foie gras and broiled salmon.)

As in France, there are regions in California that are considered a little plonky. Temecula has struggled to gain respect, and last month they launched a $100,000 do-over: the new Temecula slogan is “Southern California Wine Country.” It comes with a redesigned logo and a 32-page guide for tourists. Lodi, the Sierra Foothills and Livermore Valley also have wrestled with identity issues. Two areas that used to be considered plonky, but have broken through to genuine quality, are Lake County and, especially, Paso Robles. They prove that with a concerted effort, plonkocity can be overcome. But a cautionary note: PR campaigns, tastings, glossy brochures, logos and slogans will never be enough to persuade consumers, not to mention gatekeepers, that a wine region merits respect. I hope Beaujolais regains the world’s affections, the way it once did. As the late, great Alexis Lichine wrote, “If ever wine-makers were blessed, it is the growers of Beaujolais.”


Came across this invitation from a local restaurant to a wine and food event. “______ prides itself on fine food accompanied with fine wine and would love to be your Somalia for the evening. We have paired some of our incredible dishes with wines to create a perfect intoxicating match to the palate. Please note: Our parings and dishes change with seasonal menu change.” Duly noted, but one question: Would those parings be potatoes?

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