20 December 2009

Mystify me

[ghostly vines]Didn’t I just get done saying that no one wants to read (or write) yet another holiday wine column? OK, this is me swallowing my words – mea gulpa – and starting off with a seasonal theme. Don’t worry, it won’t last long.

This is a time of year in which many celebrate the various mysteries and miracles particular to their beliefs. The rituals will differ, but except where it is disallowed almost all of them will involve an alcoholic beverage, even if only as part of a communal gathering of like-minded celebrants. Sometimes, those beverages will be mere quenchers. But in many cases, there will be something else at stake…some sort of symbolism or cultural/historic reference.

Throughout the history of our species, we’ve had no problem assigning liquids this sort of secondary meaning and import – not just ferments or brews that sate our thirst and alter our mood, but something more – within the boundaries of practices spiritual, ritualistic, and social. And in fact, it’s probable that wine has fulfilled this transubstantiative role more than any other beverage.

So it passes strange that the first thing just about every journalistic wine writer must promise, as they make their entry into the field, is to “demystify” wine. This promise is usually extended to the readership, as well. Hell, I’ve done it myself, back when I was first starting out.

The appeal of the idea of obvious. Wine’s a reasonably complicated subject around which there has been built an unreasonable amount of cultural fear, and in most cases those with expertise and a forum are inherently charged with the duty to make themselves understandable to other than their peers.

But let’s once again compare fields of inquiry. A newspaper column on the merits of, say, a pitcher acquired by a baseball team does not stop to define the position, iterate the various pitches that can be thrown and their most accomplished practitioners, and delve into an explanation of how the physical structure of the baseball interacts with the pitcher’s musculature to produce certain physical effects. Why not? Because no one interested in baseball wants to read those explanations time and time again, no one interested enough in baseball to write about it wants to write those explanations over and over, and the practice itself would bring any interesting narrative to a screeching halt. Yet a wine column on Crozes-Hermitage will almost always have to locate the appellation, define its cépage, identify its best producers, and talk about its uses with food.

The same is true for coverage of equities, in which a columnist need not explain and define the workings of the stock market and the history of the Dow versus the S&P 500 to cover the day’s news, and in most other fields as well. Yet a column on how to select a wine by identifying its importer will inevitably find itself mired in an explanation of just what it is that importers do (which should be obvious, I would think) and their role in the three-tier system, which will start referring back to Prohibition…and suddenly, we’ve got the history of the alcoholic beverage industry in the United States, when all we wanted was an explanation of what Neal Rosenthal vs. Eric Solomon means for the consumer.

No, for some reason wine writing, unlike other types of specialist coverage, must somehow appeal to the lowest common denominator or risk the heavy hand of an editor’s (electronic) pen. Referring to Morgon in a column? Better explain that it’s a Beaujolais, that’s it’s made from gamay, that all Beaujolais isn’t Nouveau (and the yearly ritual of Nouveau must then be explained for what must be the ten-thousandth time), and so forth. Is a micro-buying guide for spätlese-level riesling on tap? It’s not sufficient to talk about balance as if everyone knows what that is, it’s necessary to attempt a ground-up explanation the interaction between acidity and sugar in wine, why that is of particular interest along various German riverbanks, how this philosophy differs from that operative in the Wachau or the Bas-Rhin, and so forth. In other words, wine writing in its journalistic, general-interest form, must be presented as if utter novices comprise the entirety of the audience, novices who must be gently coaxed from square one with the first paragraph of each new column, and led no further than square two by the conclusion.

But aren’t (you might object) novices the actual audience? Maybe they are, and maybe they aren’t. The question remains: why does this matter so much when the subject’s wine, and not hockey? Mergers? Senatorial shenanigans? Contract negotiations? All may occasionally hold back on the most arcane terminology, but none will suffer the editorial supposition that the reader is new to this planet, that the audience is comprised of dull children, that it might not be interested enough in the subject to read more than just the one column, as if it would be impossible to infer information that’s not spelled out in painstaking and word count-chewing detail.

I have little idea why this state of affairs should be, though I have theories. But those theories aren’t actually the point of this little rant. Instead, I propose an alternative philosophy to all this wine-for-dummies pandering.

Knowing that Morgon is Beaujolais, and that Beaujolais is gamay, is – I suppose – useful. It may, to the dedicated seeker of vinous knowledge, even be interesting, though in all cases I’d argue it’s reference material, and not the sort of thing one expects to find in the immediacy of a journalistic or columnar setting. But it is certainly nowhere near as interesting as the story of Marcel Lapierre and what he represents for all three of those above-referenced nouns. And it is unquestionably less interesting that the sensory revelation possible in a glass of Lapierre’s Morgon.

Wine writing limited to the first of these three modes of inquiry will never be more than a pale shadow of what’s possible. It should aspire to the latter, even if this isn’t quite achievable without providing samples of the wine in question. But the potential stories in a glass of wine are myriad, they’re very much beyond a rote recitation of facts and figures, and they’re best told from a position not of mere expertise, but of expertise fired by passion. They’re something elevated, something symbolic, something more.

The mere act of experiencing a wine that, more than any before it, somehow reaches or speaks to the taster can be as powerful and as unquantifiable as any mystery. We celebrate, honor, or at least respect those mysteries elsewhere in our lives. Why must wine suffer the dishonor and disrespect of demystification?

15 December 2009

Semi-regular reminder

What's a wine blog without tasting notes? A wine blog with a dysfunctional fraternal twin, that's what. All the notes -- all of them -- are over at oenoLog. If reading lots and lots of tasting notes is your thing, seek professional help head over there and feast your senses until your insomnia is cured.

10 December 2009

In the Can

[cathedral tomb]We’re led to a table in the front, where they seem to have grouped most of the non-locals, and pretty soon they’re wheeling a pair of large wooden carts – they looked like sawed-off lecterns –in our direction. These are the wine lists…and yes, that word is plural by design, rather than finger-slip.

…continued here.

09 December 2009

Holiday leftovers

[bungee jumper]In the comments section of the Eric Asimov article to which I linked a few days ago, there were some interesting responses. Most, it seems, agreed with the central premise that wine writing constantly revisiting the same ground is as tedious to read as it is to write. (NB: it’s much more tedious to write. Says the writer.)

Some, of course, disagreed. Journalists need to know their audience, and the audience is not knowledgeable…or so the argument runs. Since is this is the standard position taken by editors of wine columns, the argument is well known to writers, and to a certain extent the source of much of wine writers’ angst as they endlessly revise well-worn subject matter, decorating it with different adjectives and newer vintages, but still adorning the same steaming pile of tedium. (Says the writer, with more than a bit of whine in his voice.)

And then there was a middle ground, in which some tropes were indeed found to be tiresome, but others were worthwhile and even necessary. Here, for example, is Asimov himself defending one of them:

I’m with you — except on holiday columns. Have to distinguish between no-longer-relevant boilerplate and service pieces that readers continue to find useful. You would think, for example, that in the age of Google a recipe for Thanksgiving turkey would no longer be necessary. Yet people still want this, preferably a few weeks ahead of Thanksgiving. Same with the annual wine column. The trick is to find new and different ways to frame the recurring discussion, and perhaps new and different wines to recommend, though the wisdom remains the same.

My first instinct is to ask whether – “in the age of Google” – people still look to the pre-Thanksgiving newspaper or magazine for their turkey recipe and wine recommendation in anywhere near the numbers they used to. I rather suspect that those seeking a current newspaper or magazine (print or electronic) source are declining, while the number looking at Epicurious or just Googling is rather ascendant. So while Asimov’s argument may be true now (and may, for all I know, not), I see nothing to support the notion that it will be true much longer.

The second is to wonder what the “new and different ways to frame the recurring discussion” would be, having become cynical enough to think that we’re pretty much sold out of frames at this point. What we’re left with is recommending different wines, which Asimov has done, to the point where just about every wine that can be recommended to go with bird and bloating, has been recommended to go with stuffing and the stuffed. Is that really reframing the discussion, or is that simply narrowing the consumer’s choice to “everything”…in which case: how is this helping, exactly?

And the third is to ask something that I’ve always wondered: where’s Paul Krugman’s annual pre-holiday mutual fund gift article, which leads nicely into his annual tax advice column and his very popular “American companies to watch for July 4th” feature? Where’s George Vecsey’s fantasy football roster, his table tennis power rankings, his list of the ten most gut-busting YouTube videos of terrified cats on soccer pitches? I mean, certainly these articles are all very popular and perhaps even necessary for them to write, since they get written by someone over and over again, right? And shouldn’t they be writing gentle into that good column, for the novice who might know what a dollar or a base are, but might be intimidated or confused by talk of derivatives or slugging percentages, not to mention the completely impenetrable Austrian school or Moneyball?

Oddly, it seems that neither their audiences nor their editors think so.

For example, read this. Everyone follow that? Anyone lost at any point? Any terms that might have benefited from definition, references sitting there without explanation, assertions made without the entire history of economic theory appended as a supportive footnote? Yeah, I thought so.

Now read this. If you’re a devoted baseball fan, that probably all makes sense. If not – even if you’re seen a baseball game or ten – well, it probably makes only marginally more sense than this, an article on cricket.

So where is the push…from editors, the audience, or even the writers themselves…for repetition of themes, for simplified language, for an abandonment of jargon and expertise in favor of a theoretical common man’s understanding in any of these opinion pieces?

There isn’t one, of course. So why is wine different?

It isn’t. Or at least, it shouldn’t be.

But, more on this later…in which it will be necessary to face up to and defeat the enemy of wine writing, the cancer at its heart, the bane of all it can and should be: the destructive and yet inexplicably popular compulsion to “demystify.”

08 December 2009

Eric + Eric

Two great things today, elsewhere...one accessible, the other high-concept wine geekery:

Eric Asimov on what wine writers should leave unsaid.

Eric Texier on the theories of Jules Chauvet, hero of the no-sulfur movement. Which it turns out he maybe shouldn't be.

03 December 2009

Speech, broad & bent

[the billionaire’s vinegar]Brewer-Clifton isn’t the only entity that would like you, the consumer, to just shut up. (Note the lack of a “please” in that request.) Oh, no. It gets much worse.

(A bit of background is necessary here, for non-obsessive followers of titillating wine gossip. I’ll try to make it brief.)

Once upon a time, there were these bottles of wine that were, allegedly, owned by Thomas Jefferson. They were auctioned for an awful lot of money to the rich and famous, who either seemed to do desperately stupid things with them, or display them as the (undrinkable) jewels of their collection.

Except it turns out that they might have been fakes. There’s a lot of that going around the high-end wine world now, but that was a more naïve time, and people may not have been as wary as they should have. Most of the current attention has focused on the alleged sources, but a little has soiled the collars of their facilitators: collectors and auctioneers. One luminary thus tainted by association was the very, very famous writer, taster, and auctioneer Michael Broadbent, whose self-described friendship with one Hardy Rodenstock – the source of the Jefferson bottles – is now as much a liability as it was a benefit, in those earlier days.

The guilt or innocence of the various parties isn’t what I’m interested in here, and so I’ll leave a discussion of lawsuits and investigations for another forum. What matters to this backgrounder is that a book on this very subject, entitled The Billionaire’s Vinegar, was written by a guy named Benjamin Wallace.

It turns out that Michael Broadbent didn’t much care for his portrayal in the book, for reasons I’m still not going to adjudicate here. So he sued for libel (in the U.K., where such matters have a much easier standard of evidence to meet than they do in the U.S.), and the case was settled out of court by the publisher…who paid Broadbent some money, issued an apology, and so forth. It was a “victory” in a very limited sense, as it only applied to the U.K., and unquestionably brought more attention to the book’s contents elsewhere in the world than there had previously been. Nonetheless, I presume Mr. Broadbent got what he wanted, the publisher and the book weren’t adversely affected outside the U.K. market (if anything, the opposite), and post-settlement life should have gone on as before.

Except that it didn’t. Michael’s son Bartholomew (who I have met on more than one occasion, and have liked very much on those occasions) decided that it was in his father’s best interest for Bartholomew to engage mid- and post-trial discussions of the case around the internet, something most lawyers probably would have told him was a little unwise on the face of it. Broadbent fils got in a few snippy exchanges with the author of the book in various locales, and perhaps this added to his understandable feelings of agitation over the state of his father’s reputation, but on Jamie Goode’s blog, he went much, much too far in addressing some commenters in the case. Emphasis mine:

[name redacted] doesn't know the specifics of the case and clearly his views are a reflection of nothing more than reading the book. My father won the case and they will not hesitate to win damages from further defamatory remarks made by others who continue to ignore the ruling. [name] would be better off accepting the court's decision and the Publisher's apology. He has no idea about the true facts and his statements show incredible ignorance. However, his views are precisely the reason that this case was won. [name] is actually setting himself up to be sued too, if he continues to repeat such defamatory views which have no basis on truth. As Jamie's Blog is published in the UK, it and its commentators fall under the same defamation and libel jurisdiction.

The thing is, Bartholomew was probably right: were his father especially litigious, he could have gone around suing anyone who continued the debate, and may even have won. Thankfully, and to Broadbent père’s credit, this does not appear to be happening. But the threat issued by Bartholomew was at best distasteful, at worst a reprehensible way to quash debate, and in practical terms an entirely unhelpful way to “help” clear his father’s name. And it was one more instance of someone – this time in the trade, which Bartholomew most certainly is – trying to squelch online discussion of topics they do not wish to have discussed, or at least not in the manner in which they are being discussed. As with Brewer-Clifton, my personal interest in supporting the wines he sells with my purchases is diminished as a result.

In any case, it could have ended there, too. But it didn’t. The discussion, inevitably, roiled across the U.S. wine scene, where similar legal threats wouldn’t have carried much weight given the very strict legal standards for proving libel. Something not everyone was happy about:

here's a vote for libel laws in the USA as strict as they are in the UK

Who said that? Before I answer, it’s the same person who said the following (NB: the following quotes have had to be edited for grammar, spelling, and readability, though the words are unchanged):

bloggers...or should I say blobbers since they are the source of much of the misinformation, distortion, and egregious falsehoods spread with reckless abandon on the internet


[bloggers’] passion can be a great asset, but it can be dangerous as well...the Taliban has passion is just one example...

That’s right. Bloggers are analogous to the Taliban

(No, he didn’t call bloggers the Taliban. But unfortunate-yet-revealing analogies extend well beyond those covered by Godwin’s Law, and here is one more example of same.)

Who is this paragon of free discourse, this defender of the right to speak against entrenched interests? The same person who endlessly crusaded against the established writers he supplanted. And the same person that wrote the following:

It has been said often enough that anyone with a pen, notebook and a few bottles of wine can become a wine critic. And that is exactly the way I started…

Yes, joining Brewer-Clifton and Bartholomew Broadbent in a heartfelt desire for all you rabble to just stop your bloody contradictions so they can be accorded the respect they deserve: your Wine Advocate himself, Robert M. Parker, Jr.

02 December 2009

The Brewer's art

[pig’s rear end]Grapes can be thin-skinned. So can critics. To their great credit, winemakers usually aren’t. As with any other producer of a critique-able product or work, they’re the constant recipient of feedback, both good and bad. The good can go to one’s head, the bad to one’s heart, but the majority of winemakers take it pretty much in stride, accepting the fundamental truism that taste in all things is personal.

Oh, there are some exceptions. Angry rebuttals in the press, lawsuits, dogs set upon visiting critics as they exit their rental car. I’ve had a few run-ins myself. And even the most mild-mannered winemaker can be pushed beyond their limits by what they perceive to be a particularly egregious slight.

But at least critics know to expect this sort of thing, given what they do. Consumers don’t. It didn’t used to matter, but in this evolving age of many-to-many communication, the consumer who voices an opinion becomes as much of a potential target for retribution as any critic. Perhaps even more of one; a winemaker may not wish to burn a bridge to a powerful critic, but an everyday consumer might be dismissed without a second thought.

Not long ago, the denizens of one of the web’s various wine fora got into a discussion about Brewer-Clifton, a well-known producer of pinot noir and chardonnay from California. As with any robust discussion, there was both positivity and negativity, and a full range of opinions was aired. But I’m sure no one expected what happened next.

“You have received this notification from Brewer-Clifton because you are a registered user or you or some other registered user requested some information for you from our store.

Dear [name redacted],

Your profile at Brewer-Clifton has been deleted.”

This reads as it looks. Step one: criticize Brewer-Clifton in public, or at least appear to do so. Step two: get dropped from their mailing list.

Putting aside the dubious sensibility of shedding customers in a flailing economy, Brewer-Clifton had three choices when faced with public criticism. One, ignore it (the path chosen by almost everyone in the wine world). Two, respond to it (a path with its time-sucking and image-destabilizing dangers; only those with quick wits, faster fingers, and a taste for the arena usually survive this sort of thing unscathed). Or three, punish their critics.

Did they choose wisely? Not in the view of some of those dropped, some of whom hadn’t even criticized the winery or the wines, but instead had been critical of the scores accorded the wines by famous critics. As one dropped customer objected:

“Of course, I was not referring to BC or their wines as ‘a complete joke’ but rather referring to The Wine Advocate’s lazy review [of] their wines.

It’s important to note, after the fact, that those deleted have reportedly been reinstated. But what went on here is worth examining a little more closely, because it has fairly profound implications for the open and collaborative world of wine commentary into which we are decisively moving.

What was behind Brewer-Clifton’s move? Simple pique. Read for yourself (both excepts edited for clarity):

So I decided to call Steve Clifton to see if this was the case. He returned my call about ten minutes later and indeed confirmed that my post was the reason. Steve went on to explain to me that these kind of posts on wine boards are extremely hurtful, and that because it’s a bottle of wine doesn't mean that there aren’t real people behind the scenes, and if I don't like the wines why should I be on the list?

“A complete joke” is what led Greg Brewer to terminate me from Brewer-Clifton's mailing list. He felt like if I, or anyone really, thought the wines of Brewer-Clifton were a complete joke then why would that person want to be, or deserve to be, on the mailing list?

As pointed out by some, including one of the above-quoted victims, everyone was within their rights here. People were free to say anything they wanted about Brewer-Clifton, short of actionable defamation. Brewer-Clifton was free to drop anyone from their mailing list, for any reason they could come up with. And in an earlier world of wine communication, that’s where the story would have ended. Except, of course, we’re no longer in that world.

As it turned out, everyone else knew what Brewer-Clifton was up to while it was happening. Some, even those that counted themselves fans of the winery and their wines, weren’t too happy, and their relationships with both soured. In the end, despite the reinstatements, the move counts as a minor PR disaster for the winery, for they have now set as an apparent condition of receiving their wines that one may not engage in public conversations that the winery principals find disagreeable.

I, for one, reject that standard, and while I don’t enjoy Brewer-Clifton’s wines, I do appreciate wines from the related Palmina label. This new situation calls my support into question, and I am most certainly less likely to choose those wines in the future. The winery is free to act as they will, and so am I, by my lack of future support. (As a consumer only; a critic’s responsibilities are somewhat different.)

But all these personal acts of retribution and counter-retribution are insignificant in the face of the greater danger they pose to the very nature of many-to-many wine communication. The new paradigm has positives and negatives, but one of the of the unquestioned benefits is the free flow of a wide stream of information. Whether for good or ill, someone with information is going to bring it in front of the public.

In the world that Brewer-Clifton apparently seeks, this flow of information can no longer be trusted. People may post their experiences with Brewer-Clifton’s wines (or the winery itself), but they may now only post positive reports, lest they risk losing their access. The information stream is tainted. It is no longer reliable, which is always a danger, but in fact it is now worse: it is actively untrustworthy.

Think about what this means for an entity like CellarTracker, which trades on its community of tasting notes and ratings. Think anyone who values their presence on the Brewer-Clifton mailing list is eager to post a negative review or score now? Don’t count on it.

The effect will be no different than if one of the winery principals or their hired guns were to “spike” the database with hyped-up notes and ratings…an action which I suspect few would endorse. But in a sense, I suppose Brewer-Clifton has done something awfully clever here. Because rather than fouling the waters themselves, and paying the price, they’ve gotten their customers to do it for them.

Which makes it all the more important that they, and any other winery that tries the same trick, suffer equivalent public shaming. It’s the only defense the consumer has against such practices.

The hiatus ate us

OK, so...I'm back.

Apologies for the long hiatus. Batteries needed to be recharged. Energies redirected. And also, the oenoLogician needed a haircut. (Still does, actually. No one trusts a wine writer with a double mullet.) But the hiatus is over, and the controversy and carnage friendly debate will soon resume anew.