26 January 2011

Color me surprised

[mosaic]So here’s a fun thing. Excerpted from Twitter, but with the graphics, etc. removed. It’s a dialogue between Evan Dawson, a journalist and spare-time (where does he find it?) wine writer from New York, and the auto-estimable James Suckling. Let’s count the evasions and logical fallacies, shall we?

Evan Dawson
If sunlight is best way to view color, why judge color indoors like you do?

James Suckling
Isn't that sort of a dumb question? Tasting outdoors doesn't work1. You know that.

Evan Dawson
Right. But 15% of the wine's score is color, and you admit you judge the color in sub-optimal conditions.

James Suckling
What do you do2? Do you have anything better to do today3...or is it a slow news day?

Evan Dawson
Just honestly curious. If a wine's color is 15% of its score, why judge in conditions that don't let you see it optimally?

James Suckling
May be you use your daylight flashlight when you visit cellars to taste4? Can [I] get one?

Evan Dawson
Ha! That would be great. But perhaps another reminder that assessing color for points is questionable.

Evan Dawson
And yes, I confess that I think it's strange to put so much weight on a wine's color. But your mileage may vary!

James Suckling
But just to be polite and answer your question. I have been tasting for 29 years5. I know how to judge color6.

Evan Dawson
A wine can go from 92 to 89 pretty easily all because you judged the score in artificial/lesser lighting. That matters!

James Suckling
Giving points for color works for me7, UC Davis8 and lots of people9.

So…by my count, that’s four evasions and five logical fallacies (though to be fair, some of the latter are reiterations of the same fallacy). I’d suggest that this is some sort of record, but then I remember that I’ve read/heard/seen political commentary more than once over my lifetime…

Since Mr. Suckling won’t actually answer Mr. Dawson’s (excellent) question about color – his defense of his self-alleged inerrancy, by the way, goes against science in the field – I’m free to opine.

Identifying color is fine, especially if it is any way unusual (opaque pinot noir, young wine not made from nebbiolo but with significant bricking, orange wine) but it is, to me, the least important category of descriptor. Why? Because it is so rarely useful in the note's afterlife. I often mock the fruit-salad tasting notes that writers (including me) tend to fall back on, because I doubt anyone has ever gone into a store and asked for a wine that tastes of “slightly bitter Rainier cherry skins and crisp, lemony acidity,” but even if that’s not true, I’m sure no one has gone in with an electromagnetic frequency range between which they wish to restrict their purchases. “No, sorry, that aglianico is just a bit too magenta for me.” Please.

But scoring color? Especially, as Dawson points out, in variable and sub-optimal conditions? Ludicrous. Of course, conditional variability can be a reason to suspect all components of wine scoring, but I’ve a pledge to myself that – the anti-scoring rant being well-worn territory – I won’t repeat what so many others have said on the issue, and yet here it’s especially damning. Unless the light source is being frequency-controlled across all wines in a peer group, it is impossible for wines tasted in different lighting to be scored for color in any reliable fashion. Especially when the color component forms as significant a portion of a total score as it does in Suckling’s methodology.

Why didn’t Suckling answer Dawson’s question, except with complaint, evasion, and logical fallacies? Because, obviously, he can’t. No one can.

(Yes, yes, I linked the word "science" to a Wikipedia article. I'll do penance in the afterlife. It was the best gateway to the actual science I could find in fifteen seconds of Google-fu.)

24 January 2011

Blood, sweat, & Theise

[wrestling]One of the worst consequences of the myth that those who sell wine can’t be trusted – the result of decades of trade-sliming from critics whose own monetary interests depend on you believing this lie – is that some of the best, most passionate, and most insightful writers on the subject are marginalized or dismissed.

This is a crying shame. Especially when one encounters someone like Terry Theise, whose annual catalogs have long been among the most enjoyable wine writing available. Self-interested? Yes, they are. Theise is, after all, trying to sell us something. It’s not like he hides it. But only a fool would thus conclude that the content of that salesmanship isn’t worth their time, for few know as much about their chosen subjects as Theise, and even fewer write about it as well.

Brevity may not always be Theise’s strong suit (take it from an expert), but he can turn a pithy phrase when the need arises. As, for example, this, which is as close to essential reading for oenogeeks as anything I’ve seen of late. Theise offers his take regarding an issue on which this blog has been harping for a while: categories are useful, philosophies are nice to have, but categorical dismissals are silly, and one can’t drink a philosophy.

Let me assert, before I begin to contradict myself at numbing length, that I wholeheartedly endorse most of what Theise writes in the linked essay. And even when I don’t, he makes an effective case for his thesis. That said, I do have some quibbles. And one of them is precisely what I’ve otherwise defended above: the way in which self-interest has the potential to deform one’s views.

[T]oo often aficionados feel the need to turn [...] knowledge into intractable wine dogma. Then, when they encounter a wine that unnervingly threatens their new knowledge […] they spring to protect their theory. "All serious wines must be dry," is a classic (and egregiously wrong) example.

This is an interesting opening example for Theise to use, considering the fair amount of pushback he has received – more of late than in the past – against his continuing defense of German wines with residual sugar. Among certain groups (German drinkers, for example), his position is increasingly the minority one. It’s not fair to say that Theise has always been against dry German riesling, but it’s eminently fair to say that he hasn’t always been its most enthusiastic supporter, either. The realities of German wine production have influenced his views on this point, both in terms of wine quality and commercial availability. But it’s amusing that the first category of wrong thinking that comes to his mind is so closely related to the exact reverse of the one of which he has most often been accused.

When we are insecure — we don't think we're knowledgeable enough, experienced enough, have good enough taste — we latch on to doctrine.

I don’t think this is entirely fair. There is more than one reason to embrace doctrine, and most reasons are not the result of insecurity. Some people really, truly, passionately believe in their preferences…organic vs. non-, local vs. non-, “natural” vs. industrial, terroir wines vs. branded wines, lower-alcohol vs. higher-, fruit vs. dirt, brett-free vs. not, and I could go on and on listing oppositional categories…for reasons that have nothing to do with insecurity. I have my own preferences, Theise does as well, and they’re not plucked from thin air nor mired in insecurity. They’re based on our experiences.

May they be in error? That’s not a relevant question; preferences can’t be wrong. Are they be subject to future revision as new data arrives? Certainly, and (as Theise argues), a wise taster is always open to such revision. Still, this is not the same thing as insisting that, faced with contradiction, a person must perforce abandon preference (or “doctrine,” as Theise puts it). It is both perfectly normal and eminently reasonable for someone to acknowledge that a given wine demonstrates an exception to one’s beliefs without modifying actions based on those beliefs. A continued refusal to do so despite overwhelming contradiction by data or anecdote is pointlessly stubborn and resembles religion more than sensibility, yes, but the question must be asked: so what? A counter-argument can only be made so many times. If someone won’t acknowledge it, sometimes it’s better to move on to those who truly don’t know, rather than beating one’s rhetorical head against those who have dismissed the possibility of same.

Even the wisest of tasters may fully acknowledge a cornucopia of caveats, exceptions, counterarguments, and counterfactuals, yet still possess firmly-held conviction as to the general utility of their preferences. Isn’t that what preference is, after all, once it’s backed by experience? It’s not black and white, X ≠ Y absolutism, but it is a trustworthy guide. When it’s not – if it repeatedly fails to guide – it’s not useful anymore, and the choice will not usually be the abandonment of preference, but the modification thereof. Choosing to term this doctrine rather than preference only burdens the concept with external judgment, rather than shedding light on the evidentiary basis for the choices themselves.

For instance, someone says that low-yield vineyards produce better wine, and it makes sense; the fewer grapes per acre, the more flavor each grape has. So you assume it's true, until you taste a wine you really like, made from yields you've been told are too high. Now what? A reasonable person would throw out his assumptions about yield. But many will instead question their own taste.

There’s a whiff of straw hominid, here. Who are the people who’ve pursued the latter path? Are there actual examples of such?

Further, I don’t think a reasonable person would actually “throw out his assumptions about yield.” That’s an overreaction just as unreasonable as the alternatives of rigidity or mindless relativism. A reasonable person might prefer to conclude that yield is a complicated subject, that different grapes and different places have different relationships to yield, that what works for pinot noir on one patch of land may bear little relation to what works for riesling on a different patch of land.

Theise’s lurking point – that successful wines follow many different and often contradictory paths from start to completion – is an excellent one, and one with which I wholeheartedly agree. But this is a different argument than the one against holding too tightly to doctrine. One is an argument about a process, the other is a criticism of a person. And still, one may demonstrate that a belief is factually inaccurate or inconsistently applicable without successfully influencing personal preference. (The reverse is also true.) Fact-based deconstructions of procedure are worthwhile. Criticizing people’s preferences might be fun, but it’s not very enlightening.

In the wine world the newest and sexiest doctrine is the so-called "natural wine" phenomenon. […] Hearing what these (mostly admirable) producers do not do, we're tempted to think the alternative must be unnatural wine, riddled with chemicals and fake yeasts. What's the alternative? "Partly natural" wines? The very use of the word "natural" tempts us into an all-or-nothing position. Doctrine.

For years I’ve been reading this argument. For years I’ve been wondering at who it’s aimed.

Are there people who, abandoning sense and rationality, worship at natural wine’s fundamentalist altar? I’m sure there must be. I’ve met a lot of the people who make, sell, and drink so-called natural wines, and this applies to almost none of them, but for any belief one can imagine there is almost always a puritanical adherent. And maybe Theise is, hourly, oppressed by hordes of such fundamentalists, though he offers no evidence for it in this piece. But I have to say that I simply don’t know these people. Not even the loudest philosophy-thumpers of my acquaintance, the ones who sometimes defy commercial sense in pursuit of their beliefs, insist that there are only Natural and Unnatural, and that the line between them is impenetrable, razor-sharp, and inherently obvious even to the most casual observer.

Do I know a few people who are, for me, far too quick to start categorizing and prejudging wine? Yes. Do any of them have a strong public voice? Yes, though only a very few among the few. But that’s not restricted to the natural crowd, nor was hyperjudgmentalism invented by them, and in fact I see at least as much, and possibly more, dogmatism among the pro-intervention gang. Most often, however, this is a situational and transitory fault. I would accuse myself of falling into the trap from time to time, for example, and I’ve also heard the charge leveled at Theise. We all make mistakes, from which one hopes we learn.

In one sense, I again wonder: so what? Cannot the proverbial multiplicity of flowers bloom, each with their advocate?

The thing is, the case for rigid adherence to doctrine is almost never made by natural wine folks. Yes, they decry industrial process in vineyard and cellar (and so, incidentally, do many who would never attach themselves to the “natural” crowd), but the people insisting that we must have either tablet-etched commandments or babies discarded with bathwater are rarely the naturalistas. And I bet if we all agree to remove one (and only one) particular writer from consideration, examples to the contrary would be extremely difficult to find. What, then, is the overwhelming power and influence of this one writer that must be so aggressively resisted by both philosophical enemies and potential allies alike?

I’d point out that some of the answers suggest themselves. No one likes to be at a marketing disadvantage, and the gauzy appeal of the word “natural” is not easily countered. It’s mindshare, it’s commercial self-interest, it’s the never-ending war of marketing vs. marketing, and one does not have to grant the accuracy of argument or counter-argument to see this battle played out. On the other hand, sometimes the resistance to concept comes from theoretical allies, in which case it often takes the form of a Chamberlainesque ceding of ground to the “other side” before a disputed claim for that ground has been adjudicated. I don’t really know why this happens. Fear that if a perfect defense can’t be mounted, it’s better that there be no defense at all?

Natural wine doesn’t actually require a detailed defense. Everyone understands the fundamental, foundational precept of more vs. less natural, more vs. less interventionist. Everyone with a functioning neuron understands that wine does not actually make itself (centuries of winemakers blathering otherwise to the contrary) nor is it actually “made in the vineyard,” and understands that the entire categorical debate is a matter of degree, of a preference for not-doing over doing, that natural is no more than the amorphous cluster of producers and practice at one end of that motivational and philosophical axis. No one in the natural wine milieu is demanding fealty oaths. The insistence that this state of affairs cannot exist, that there must either be iron-clad definition or wholesale abandonment of concept isn’t an argument, it’s Asperger’s.

Does an importer of self-identified natural wines have a commercial self-interest in defending the concept? Yes. And to the extent that they may on occasion attempt same, a careful reader will hear their arguments and defenses through that filter. But the exact same sort of filter must be applied to those who commercially represent that which is in competition with the self-identified natural category. And Theise, while he represents a few producers who hover around the perimeter of the movement, falls into the latter group. In no way does this invalidate his arguments. But it does contextualize them.

Here’s the rest of the context, though: earlier, both Theise and I were suggesting what we thought a “reasonable person” might think in the face of contradictory information. My argument was that the most reasonable person might soon conclude that a practice that works in one place, with one grape, might not work in another place, with another grape. The core of Theise’s portfolio is German wine (mostly riesling) and Champagne. The latter can’t ever be “natural” according to any ultra-fundamentalist view, because it cannot exist without human meddling…though there are unquestionably producers who craft and hone less than others, and some of them are in Theise’s portfolio. As for the former, it’s worth observing that the techniques and anti-techniques of the natural set are virtually nonexistent in Germany. Since almost everywhere there’s wine, there’s a group of enthusiasts exploring oenological minimalism, and yet no one seems to be trumpeting their success with same in Germany, it might just be possible that the techniques don’t work there, or with the grapes common to Germanic wine regions. Certainly sulfur use alone, especially as employed with residually-sugared wines, would disqualify most producers from even the softest possible definitions of “natural.”

Again, is there someone, somewhere, who is arguing that because this winemaking path is largely unfollowed in Germany, that German wine can thus be categorically dismissed as qualitatively inferior? I don’t know of that person, but he or she might exist, and maybe Theise knows who it is. Most people of my acquaintance whose drinking comes largely from the natural world make an exception to their philosophical preferences for several styles of wine, and riesling (especially German) and Champagne often make up the primary population of those exceptions.

Let’s face facts: the natural wine movement, no matter how many zillions of words have been expended on it of late, is a micro-niche. These are ultra-small production wines, curated by a tiny number of commercial gatekeepers, and sold in not very many places to a passionate and loquacious, but extremely small, number of consumers. And I think, frankly, that a lot of the people along this commercial chain like it this way.

What they are, however, is competition for the attention of the relatively small group of wine consumers whose tastes are not informed by mass-marketing or by point ratings in major journals. The very group that Theise, Lynch, Rosenthal, et al have been selling to their entire careers. Does the emergence of yet another set of competitors for this finite market spell trouble for such importers? In theory, I suppose so. But no more than any other form of competition. If one is doing a good job of expanding the audience for such wines palate by palate – perhaps, and paradoxically, easier in these days of fractured wine media than it was when there were just a few editorial powerhouses – the net effect should be a wash.

Instead, we have this internecine bickering among niche entities, fortifying their little philosophical empires and lobbing rhetorical grenades at each other, further factionalizing the audience that they need to be expanding, not dividing. You know who benefits from this? Not Theise. Not us. Instead: Constellation Brands and their megalithic counterparts, whose sides would be splitting with laughter at such bickering if they amounted to anything more than a rounding error on their balance sheets.

And so, here I am contributing to the problem, lobbing my own IEDs at an importer whose wines I adore and whose words I admire. Why? It was this paragraph right here:

I'm a wine importer, and a few years ago a customer, a sommelier, wanted to know what each of my 35-plus German producers did and didn't do in the vineyards and cellars. So I asked him to design a survey, which I then broadcast. And thus commenced as bitter a moral outrage as I have ever witnessed among my normally peaceable wine growers. A cynic could have supposed they were annoyed that this organic thing wasn't going away, which would now increase their workloads and expenses, besides which they didn't give much of a rat's ass about the environment. In fact, they found it arrogant that someone who didn't make wine for a living would dictate such standards. A survey to determine how environmentally "pure" they were came across like a green pogrom wrapped in piety.

I feel like there’s a whole lot more to this story that we’re not getting. Did the sommelier say, in his survey, “your answers to these questions will determine your place in heaven and your worth as a person?” Or did he ask not because he wanted to pass moral judgment on the growers, but because he wanted to refine a wine list that reflected his own philosophy and needed information to make that reflection an accurate one? In the absence of any evidence of the former, I’d rather strongly suspect it’s the latter.

The reported reaction of the producers is emblematic of the laughable, borderline insane, overreaction I’ve been harping about for a while now. Just how powerful was this sommelier? Was he the beverage director for the Starwood Hotels chain or the buyer for Walmart, and thus of overwhelming commercial importance, or did he just craft the lists at a restaurant or two? If the latter, why the angst and acrimony? Is he not allowed to write a list that reflects his own sensibilities, his own philosophies, his own tastes? Isn’t that, in fact, what Theise himself does? One could argue that it’s deeply misguided of Theise to not stuff his portfolio full of industrial Marlborough chardonnay and goopy pan-Californian zinfandel even though those aren’t the wines he’s interested in, and even though they don’t reflect his preferences. But that would be to misunderstand what Theise does and why he does it. If Theise was the gateway through which all available wine flowed, there’s be a reason to carp. But he’s not. He’s one source among many, and consumers have freedom of choice.

I’m reminded of the constant whining and sniping aimed at Mark Ellenbogen…what a coincidence that his name should come up just now…when he was doing the wine list for The Slanted Door. The crime of having a point of view on both the wines and their utility with the restaurant’s cuisine was one for which he could never quite be forgiven by differently-minded consumers and producers, who would serially lambaste him for not carrying more California wines, more high-alcohol wines, more burly reds, and more familiar grapes. As if, in San Francisco, it was impossible to find Napa cabernet, or Cakebread Chardonnay, or super Tuscans, on any restaurant list in the city. As if the very possibility of a list without them was a crime for which Ellenbogen could not be excused. As if he was not allowed to actually make choices, but was instead required to satisfy the tastes of all potential customers…even though they were allowed to arrive with their own wine if they just couldn’t abide his choices. As if the job and purpose of a wine director is no actual curative job at all, but rather little more than receiving shipments, slotting bottles into bins, and checking for typos on the wine list.

These were asinine complaints, and to say so I don’t even have to make a claim about the sense or lack thereof of Ellenbogen’s choices. Maybe he was a genius with exquisite taste. Maybe he was ridiculous and wrong about absolutely everything. I have my opinion, but it doesn’t matter. It’s still just one guy, and one list. Those who didn’t like it were free to spend their money somewhere else.

And so, we have a similar-smelling outrage and existential agony from the producers who received this survey. I hope they’ll pardon me (as I continue to restock their wines in my own cellar, because they’re terrific) if I’m not particularly sympathetic. Can’t they answer a simple question or ten? If the response is really that they can’t, then return the survey uncompleted. Are they afraid to have their practices known? If so, that’s not particularly admirable. And if the core issue is that they’re proud of their practices but are afraid that they will be misinterpreted by the unknowing masses…well, then, do a better job of defending the practices. Arguing that we can’t know what a producer does because people who don’t know any better will get the wrong idea is ridiculously paternalistic, and helps neither us nor the producer.

But no, I suspect I know what actually went on in their heads. Last year, in the Piedmont, I listened to producer after producer lambaste everyone who was making different choices than they were, as if the choices weren’t just different, but a threat to their own existence. A few weeks later, in Alsace, I got to enjoy a repeat performance…my favorite producer’s winemaker calling ambient yeast advocates “idiots,” and another beloved winery returning the favor a few days later by labeling the previous producer’s wines “industrial garbage.”

Overheated rhetoric. And deeply misguided, since both producers make excellent wine. This is, it’s worth remembering (since I’ve been a little harsh on him over the last few thousand words), Theise’s core point: there is not One True Path to wine quality. But the thing is, despite his claims to the contrary no one other than Theise is saying that there is. So when Theise reaches the pinnacle of his argument, here:

It is a better world if 90 percent of growers are 90 percent organic, than if only 20 percent are 100 percent organic. If our natural wine doctrine only is all or nothing, too many people will choose nothing.

…again I wonder: at who is this argument aimed? The first sentence is so unquestionably, powerfully correct, it should be repurposed for deployment in every other wine-related debate. It is, after all, just a restatement of the old trope that the perfect must not become the enemy of the good.

But the second sentence? Natural wine advocates are not the ones insisting on all or nothing. It’s their detractors who are doing so, in much greater numbers and with much greater rhetorical force. And since they’re criticizing ephemera, one must again wonder at their motivation in doing so.

I don’t wonder at Theise’s motivation. I think it’s clear. He believes what he’s writing, and he has a commercial interest allied to his belief. The latter does not invalidate the former, but the former does not render the latter nonexistent, either. Theise wants us to accept that one can simultaneously embrace multiple and occasionally contradictory modes of thinking about quality wine. About that he is certainly right. This is, after all, why readers should accord him that same benefit, considering his words neither because of, nor despite, his commercial self-interest. But he might want to view that assertion in a mirror for a moment or two.

In fact, we all should.

22 January 2011

Something fishy this way comes

[shark]One of the jobs of celebrity chefs running famous restaurants is greeting those guests that it is necessary to greet. And so when Neil Perry is pulled from his post by the absolutely breathtaking blonde that walks by, no doubt on her way to one of those coveted rear tables, we’re not particularly surprised. Not that I blame him; every eye in our dining hinterland is also on this woman as she enters, passes, and disappears…Chef Perry in smiling tow. I only wish I knew who she was. (The next morning, the gossip pages in the newspaper give the game away: it was Naomi Watts. Well, no wonder everyone was looking at her. As usual, my ability to recognize celebrities on sight is nonexistent. Though I did recognize Chef Perry right from the start. I wonder what that says about me?)

…continued here.

18 January 2011

What have you done for me latte?

[french café]French coffee sucks. Yes, I said it. I’ll pause here to let the vituperation and recrimination come to a boil…

(OK, everyone down to a simmering seethe by now? Let’s proceed.)

No, it’s not all bad. But it’s pretty bad nonetheless. The difficulty of finding a good tasse de Joseph in your average French café or restaurant has escalated beyond all reasonable imagining. This in a country that is, ostensibly, known absolutely everywhere for its café culture. The culture is just fine. It’s finding something to drink that’s the problem.

How did this happen? There’s a lot to it, but since this isn’t a coffee blog I’ll stick to the notes de Cliff: Robusta beans, bad temperature/pressure control, indifferent roasts, an obsession with the crema in lieu of the actual taste of the brew…those, and more, are the procedural reasons. But they’re not the reasons that matter.

What does? That the French like it, or at least have come to accept it, this way. Many whose backs were immediately up at the opening sentence of this essay felt that posterior elevation because, for them, French coffee most decidedly does not suck. And it probably wouldn’t matter to them if every other coffee-obsessed country in the world, or at least every self- and otherwise-appointed coffee expert, suggested otherwise

There’s more to this than the inherent subjectivity of taste. There’s a reason that one country’s coffee preferences might drift one way, while another’s will stand firm or drift in the opposite direction. And it’s that taste, while remaining subjective and contextually mutable, can be steered by external influences. Marketing works, after all. So do cultural nudges (witness the sales trajectories of domestic pinot noir vs. merlot post-Sideways). But easier and more likely than both is the organoleptic symbiosis between cause and effect. In other words: that which exists creates taste, and taste in turn creates what satisfies that taste. It’s a reflexive system.

(Reminding myself that this still isn’t a coffee blog, and since in no way do I want to wade into the syrupy philosophical murk of aesthetics – because I’m far from qualified, and if I was we’d be here all day – it’s probably time to turn this into a post about wine.)

That there are national (and regional, and local, and cultural) palates is patently obvious to anyone who sells wine to consumers. Oh, some people still object to this – no one wants to be stereotyped – but there’s a reason that wine lists in, say, Boston are very thin on West Coast wines when compared to West Coast markets, and it’s not because West Coast wines simply aren’t available to Bostonians. Again, it’s the aforementioned symbiotic relationship: tastes in Boston are more Europhile because residential origins in Boston are largely European (and Boston is, in general, a Europhilic city), a market to satisfy those tastes is thus created by how Bostonians spend their money, and that market in turn reinforces the Europhilic bent of Boston’s oenogeeks, because those are the wines that are more available than others. It’s the feedback loop of taste and consumption.

Bring an elegant, Old World-styled California syrah to a group of committed winos in France, and they will very frequently complain of excess size and alcohol, even if the wine is lauded for the lack thereof on U.S. shores. This sort of thing is only a surprise to those who don’t travel much, those who don’t drink far afield from their preferred styles, or those who believe that there are objective qualitative measures for wine (such True Believers are, alas, well-represented among the besotted rank and file). It’s just preference…the personal and cultural forms thereof intermingled…and the two can’t be as easily separated as some (many of them professional critics and winemakers with a commercial interest in insisting otherwise) would have you believe.

My cellar is populated by wines I prefer. My home coffee drinking is a daily encomium to my own preferences. And what I say about coffee, or wine, outside those preferences is inevitably colored not only by my own desires, but by the cultural milieu in which those preferences were birthed and educated. What I or anyone else writes about wine…or coffee…must be understood with that context. “In my opinion” is always the invisible coda, whether one agrees with that opinion or not.

This is, I think, an understanding that has devolved in recent years. Historically, professional criticism was accorded a sort of elevation; authority was more or less assumed, and respect paid to that authority. Without getting into whether or not this supposition of authority and concomitant respect were warranted or even wise, both have changed in this era of communal judgment, social media, and crowd-sourced opinion-mongering. Robert Parker can lose market share not just to Allen Meadows, but also to CellarTracker. Respect…or even the need…for a capital-C Critic issuing judgment has probably never been at a lower ebb. Again, we can debate whether this is an improved state of affairs or not, but it’s hard to deny that it’s our modern reality.

Despite this sea-change, culture – or more precisely, environment – still weaves its symbiotic web with taste. Communities of opinion form from communities of taste, as anyone surveying the various web fora on which wine is discussed soon recognizes, and those communities of opinion return the favor by (as described above) influencing the tastes of their assembled. But as more and more communication is conducted primarily within such communities, the increasingly unspoken assumption of shared values becomes a sort of rhetorical calcification, because those values are never challenged. Opinion can easily slip into orthodoxy.

This explains a lot of the tension one sees between different “camps” of wine lovers. It’s not just that tastes differ, it’s that when one spends most of their time drinking (and thinking) within a largely frictionless environment, actual friction is more than a bit of a shock. Disagreements and debates within a shared-value community tend to be about minutiae, not foundational assumptions. Encountering the words of someone with a different foundation can be more than jarring. Indignation is a common response, anger a frequent resort. More often than not, what’s questioned is not the opinion itself, but the very existence of the opinion…in other words, the “right” of its holder to express same. This is a profound misunderstanding of what criticism – professional or amateur – is, I might add. I often borrow the trope that everyone does not have the right to opinion, only an informed opinion, but the reality is that an opinion does not become any less subjective no matter how well-informed its monger.

This personalization of debate…a resort to ad hominem rather than concession of good intent…is an unfortunate consequence of the factionalization of taste, because we miss opportunities to learn from those with contrary views. But there’s another danger: the previously-described symbiotic relationship between consumer and product leads to this disruption in dialogue being reflected in the products themselves, and even those who make them. Indeed, there are clearly identifiable “camps” of winemakers these days, volleying accusations of cynicism, greed, scientific illiteracy, philosophical hogwash, and bad taste at each other. In what way does this help anyone actually attempting to understand the often-bewildering world of wine? It’s as if everyone much first choose a side, after which they will receive a customized set of answers to their questions. This is unproductive.

One of the easiest ways to identify the nefarious presence of this sort of epistemological closure is to look for short, sharp declarations that, on further examination, are actually no more than opinion wearing the frippery of authority. Like, for example, the opening sentence of this post. Does French coffee actually “suck”? I’ll reiterate that, to me, much of it does. But that’s a claim, not a proof. To many, many French people who drink and enjoy it day after day, it is very probable that it does not (or if it does, they’ve a much greater tolerance for masochism than I’d realized).

The problem, of course, is that aggressive brevity reads better. It’s much more suited to our current forms of media. It “sells copy,” to borrow an increasingly archaic term. And that, too, is why I led this post with an example of same. If I stuck all the properly-understood caveats about subjectivity and such in the opening sentence, immediately allowing for the validity of all potential counter-arguments, no one would finish the paragraph. It would be unreadable. Perhaps worse, it would be boring. This is why no one does it.

And so, the burden is on us – the readers – to mentally assume those caveats alongside any and all expressions of opinion. We should, I think, assume foundation and good faith even from those whose opinions seem shockingly misguided, unless their arguments demonstrate otherwise. Having done so, we can move on to a dialogue not about the validity of an opinion, nor the curriculum vitae of its author, but the reasons for and expression of that opinion. We can agree, disagree, or concede to a blend thereof. We can start to disassemble the impenetrable walls we’ve built…walls that we’ve come to believe describe our taste, but in fact only imprison it. And maybe we can do so over a cup of coffee or two.

In Italy.

15 January 2011

The long & the short of it

[angkor wat]At my right hand: a cereal bowl-sized vessel of coffee, the first from my own press in nearly a month. (Just a few inches closer to my hand: the mouse. This is a digital still life, after all.) To my left, a frostbitten window streaked with postmodern art that will vanish with the dawn. The frozen streaks and whorls hide the haphazard piles of snow outside, piles that my shovel has yet to deal with in their entirety. I hope my neighbors will forgive me.

Just a few days ago I was marinating in sweat, wishing that I could change into shorts but unable to do so, because I was on sacred ground. Specifically, Angkor Wat and its many, many templed neighbors. Before that, it was Vietnam, cooler than Cambodia but with a humidity that escalated to broth-like levels as we moved south. Both were bookended by four surprising days in Hong Kong, a city so insanely hypermodern that one expects to see personal spaceships flitting about, even while inhaling a pile of steamed pork buns in an impossibly crowded 19th-century storefront.

This isn’t a travelogue, though. It’s a reflection. Despite a grueling schedule of tourism (reminder to self: next trip, plan some rest every three days or so) I had some time for such, because for the first time since 2005 I left the house without my laptop. Yes, OK, there was the occasional moment of weakness involving my mobile device, but not often. Not reading (except The Quiet American, and not on an e-reader either), but more importantly not writing (except by pen in an increasingly well-worn journal, and wow has my handwriting deteriorated). Just taking it all in, then using the waning moments of each evening for collation, contextualization, and free-association. You know, like we all used to do before the rush to get our every fleeting and 140-character notion into the grist mill of our personal self-publishing empires.

Did I drink any wine? Yes, rather more than I’d expected to, though this was somewhat a function of the ludicrously lavish hotels at which I stayed, or perhaps just as much the lingering influence of Indochine (the place, not the movie). None of the previous sentence applies to Hong Kong, of course, which needs no post-colonial help with its explosive wine culture. Wineries are right to turn their commercial attention eastward. And Westerners are also right to fear the effect this could have on the cost and availability of their favorite wines, related to which I have a hard truth: it’s not just pointy Bordeaux, folks. The cultish, the quirky, and the natural are quite available, and though Big Dollars aren’t yet being spent on those wines (we need, here, to conveniently ignore Japan, where they already kinda are), at the quantities vs. the populations involved, it won’t take much to reduce everyone else to strict allocations on wines for which we had to beg importers and retailers just a few years ago.

And yes, in case anyone’s wondering, I did drink wine with a snake in it. It was really quite good, actually. I wanted to bring some home, but one can’t always rely on Homeland Security’s well-known sense of whimsy and good humor when it comes to unexpected customs declarations, so I didn’t try.

While I’m not exactly thrilled about coming home to impenetrable winter, some of the comforts of one’s own hearth have greater appeal. I ate well – very well – on this trip, even convincing guides that yes, I really did want to eat the dubiously-sanitized street food elbow-to-jowl with shocked natives. But to be honest, I’m a little sick of rice as a constant companion, and I could probably do without a noodle for a while as well. And prawns, which I think I ate at least twice a day in Vietnam and Cambodia? Not for a while, thanks. Yes, I know most of the world subsists on little more than these staples, and I’m already whining after three short weeks. It’s pathetic of me, and I’m rightfully embarrassed.

It’s not about distaste. I like both rice and noodles, quite a bit. It’s about the comfort of the familiar. Landing at JFK, then stuck in the airport for six hours waiting for a much-delayed flight home, what I craved more than anything was something in the cheeseburger with onion rings genre. Normally, that would be the last thing I’d get at an airport, especially for breakfast (it wasn’t yet 8 a.m.), and yet the yearn was palpable. I admit, to my shame, that I succumbed.

There’s a wine component to this as well. Almost everything I drank on this trip was white. Yes, there was a plurality of seafood, but even the meat dishes went best with aromatic whites (as Mark Ellenbogen proved many years ago), and by the end I was craving a red. At home, my preferences usually run towards the elegant, the transparent, the lively, but what I want now – perhaps after the coffee – is something with brawn and burl alongside a nice, big, fat American-sized steak. (Probably followed, one fears, by a few hours of manly grunting and football watching.)

I often say that I crave difference, that I’m a relentless neophile when it comes to food and wine. I think this is mostly true, but taking me as far out of my element as three weeks in Southeast Asia did shows the limitations of this claim. Presented with the alternative as a norm, I started to wish for the familiar as the alternative. I did not, as I insisted I would before the trip, have phở for breakfast every morning, and Vietnam’s well-regarded skills with French pastry became more and more appealing as the days went on. I succumbed there, too.

(Note for the curious: phở and croissant are not a match made in fusiony heaven.)

This isn’t a paean to there’s-no-place-like-homerism, by the way. I cherish the opportunities I have to travel, to experience difference, to draw what I learn into a (hopefully) ever-expanding redefinition of my own self. It’s an essential part of what and who I am. But kicking that self halfway across the globe gave me the opportunity to turn around and look at the anchors left behind. There’s more than one, and maybe at some future point I’ll see the one I left in Southeast Asia, but they’re there. They, too, are “who I am”…not the branches of the tree, but the roots. Everything changes, but some things stay the same. Faced with the biggest chasm between the two I’ve yet experienced, I’m forced to recognize both.

Is there a point to all this navel-gazing? Yes, actually. As with most of my points, I’ve taken a meandering and verbose path to get there, but the destination is now in sight. Before the holidays, I posted something in haste. Something reactionary. Something hot on the heels of an event. And in the chillier aftermath, I didn’t like the result. I edited, trimmed, edited some more. I still don’t like it, and I’m going to take it down right after I finish this essay.

What I don’t like about it isn’t what it says, necessarily. Another version of its essential points will, I think, rear its wordy head in the near future. It’s just that, looking back at things I’ve written in heat and things I’ve written after consideration, I much prefer the latter. I look at the live-blogging I did from the barbera orgy in the Piedmont and the posts written after my return to the States, and I think the latter are better. More informative, more contextual, less full of the emotions of the moment and the best snark-laden zingers a few minutes of typing peace can generate.

I can do that sort of writing, and can churn out clean content on tight deadline as well as anyone, but it’s rarely my best work. What I do better – my comfort zone, my anchor – is reflection. Consideration. Taking the time to examine an argument from all sides. The slow, winding march to a conclusion, even if it’s the realization that there’s no single conclusion to be reached. Explorations of other forms are interesting and necessary, and they make me a better writer, but this is what I do and who I am. Would this blog be more “bloggy” if I cranked out dozens of shorter posts rather than the occasional novella? Certainly. But doing that is to send the author on a permanent vacation, cutting the anchors and losing sight of land and home. Shorter and alternative forms will appear when they can, and I cannot promise a future without furious broadsides written in haste that are later seen to be ill-considered by all (including the author), but the long, patient stuff is what oenoLogic is and always will be.

Meanwhile, my coffee is getting cold, and enough frost has receded that I can see the shoveling yet to be done, lest my neighbors arrive with threatening pitchforks and torches. A queue of ideas for future blog posts rests, in barely-comprehensible scrawl, amongst the pages of my travel journal. And a fat-bottomed red wine is settling on the kitchen counter, waiting for its beefy demise.

It’s good to be home.