I’ve wasted a lot of words being critical of mainstream wine writing, but the latest wrinkle to invoke my disdain is this peculiar assertion that there are two fundamentally opposed groups of wine drinkers who feel compelled to waste time reading, writing and discussing wine. The first group is made up of drinkers who seek nothing more than the arbitrary imprimatur of a seasoned and esteemed paunchy middle-aged man. The second is comprised of drinkers who are seeking the latest Dingac co-fermented with capybara hides during a harvest moon while the local priest has intercrural sex with an effigy of Roald Dahl. The first group will happily pay a premium to know they’re drinking a wine that men with page-boy haircuts award 90-100 points, while the second group finds this violently offensive. That second group will waste no time informing the status-seekers that they’re foolish idiots, to which that first group will merely nod and smile in bemusement as they cash a seven-figure bonus check and fly to Bermuda with a pair of Croatian prostitutes whose fathers, coincidentally enough, made the Dingac that the blustery wine geek will then go home and enjoy.
Or some less-exaggerated version of that same story. It’s a view of the wine world that reached some mainstream attention–or as mainstream as any wine debate gets–when esteemed critic Robert M. Parker, Jr. wrote a drunken screed about the shittiness of certain types of funky terroir-driven wines, provoking quite a few responses from wine geek blogs as well as some well-known newspaper writers. Most recently it was distilled into a painfully simplistically reasoned binary Sharks versus Jets rivalry analogy by a writer whose name, like that of John Lennon’s assassin or You-Know-Who, I vowed never to again mention in print lest he or she continue to ride my coattails to fame.
This “rivalry” should stop, mostly because it’s simply not an accurate depiction–it’s more a reflection of the general “us versus them” mentality that is pervading all public discourse in the Teabagging era–and most importantly because it’s hurting wine.
By circling wagons into these tiny, issue-oriented camps we’re ruining what should be an open and engaging dialogue about one of the world’s oldest and most important commodities. The last twenty years has seen an explosion in wine availability from all corners of the globe as well as from a growing number of regions in the United States. The wine enthusiast in any major city can therefore choose from exponentially more excellent wines in 2011 then could even be imagined in the late 1970’s when many of our most esteemed wine publications and critics got their start. Couple that with an entire generation that has grown up with both premium wine and the internet and you have an explosion in wine discourse, much of it from people who have never read–or maybe never even heard of–Robert M. Parker, Jr. or the Wine Spectator. So when’s these lumbering middle-aged dinosaurs sorta-kinda figured out how to use Twitter and how to write blogs and began inelegantly pushing back, the hipster wine literati and Young Turk wine makers engaged vigorously.
I would argue, however, that this is not an argument in which either side has been equally obstinate. Although there are a significant minority of “Parker Suxx! Natural Wine or Bust!” wine writers and bloggers out there, I think that most of these web-based writers–myself included–wanted to honestly engage the wine establishment. We wanted them to defend the 100-point scale as anything other than a tautology (I’ve yet to read one). We wanted to know why the majority of their written output continues to be about more or less the same wines from Napa, Bordeaux, Burgundy and Northern Italy. Why, if you have access to the most lucrative wine-buyers in the world, do you ignore the vast majority of the world’s wines? Why do you have a system for reviewing wines in place that fundamentally eliminates from consideration the vast majority of the world’s wines? Why is your “Award of Excellence” simply a cynical revenue-generating farce?
(The answer of course to all of those questions is, at its core, advertising money, but we were more optimistic once. After all, why wouldn’t a wine magazine by and for wine lovers want to encourage its readers to learn and discover? Oh right, because only big character-less wineries or ultra-expensive cult producers are able to buy advertising space in national magazines and that therefore incentivizes the creation of a Fox News-esque echo chamber [deliberate or otherwise] from the wine media to reinforce the wineries’ legitimacy so they can continue to sell expensive wine and buy advertising space. Meanwhile their target drinkers and readers continue to age.)
( As another aside, check out this cover from a recent Wine Spectator for some unintentional self-parody:
Seriously? Your new star in Napa is a sixty year-old man with an unironic push broom moustache. How cutting-edge.)
So when these questions popped up online–largely, I would argue, with the intent of creating discourse, not unilaterally shouting–what did the mainstream press do? First, they largely ignored it then–as comments got more critical and more prevalent–they actively excluded those voices. Parker put his entire website behind a pay firewall. Once open-forum blogs became heavily moderated and critical comments, however well-reasoned, were deleted. In order to preserve their legitimacy to an aging but lucrative audience, many mainstream publications essentially walled in their gardens.
Is that there prerogative? Absolutely. But I will always advocate for a world view that supports inclusiveness and open discourse over one that is provincial and restrictive.
It should be noted that, to his credit, former Wine Spectator editor James Suckling has made an honest effort at engagement–he’s very active on Twitter and has produced a website that, so far anyway, has quite a bit of good free content. Whether or not you agree with a critic’s palate, tasting methodology or reasoning, there is value in engaging someone who has a wealth of tasting experience. I’ll be curious to see if Suckling is successful. I think his success will be largely contingent on whether he continues to espouse the virtues of wines that are largely out of reach to the Twitter-engaged wine consumer or if he will shift his focus to more accessible wines and price points.
So when you take being ignored and excluded and then you add weird vindictive lashing-outs, the attempts at good-faith discourse from the upstart online wine community naturally faded to the point of cessation. The geeky aggressive terroir-driven natural wine camp hangs out in its clique and the score-chasing dinosaurs hang out in their clique. Meanwhile, the vast majority of enthusiastic drinkers are left kind of befuddled at the whole mess.
(One last aside. A common criticism of wine bloggers is that they “like to hear their own voices.” In fact, it is the amateur blogging community that is the one having the conversation about wine and it is the Establishment writers who are being largely unilateral. Not all wine bloggers write blogs because they want to turn it into a full-time career or because they can’t get published anywhere else. Many of us simply like promoting discourse. An opinion expressed to promote engaged discourse is not a monolithic act–in fact, it’s an act of community.)
And that is a long and detailed way of saying that I think it was the Establishment that took the initial steps to destroy wine discourse and that both sides do not share equal fault.
And now for the vaguely metaphysical coda to this long (hopefully) thought-provoker….
Do my tastes skew toward terroir-driven wines? Sure. But have I had “international”-styled wines or broad table wine blends I’ve enjoyed? Absolutely. Will I espouse my opinion on what I think makes a good wine? Of course. Will I try to engage people with whom I disagree? Sure. At the end of the day will I think less of you because you love Australian Shiraz instead of a funky blend from the Dao? Nope. Some people love skinny blondes with big tits, some people love curvy tattooed girls with horn-rimmed glasses, some people love Charlene Yi. The point is merely that you love and that you love openly, honestly and (most importantly) self-critically.
Good wine is good wine, which merely means a wine that you personally enjoy. If you enjoy a wine more because it has been affirmed by a well-known critic and it makes you look like a big swinging dick when you pop a bottle at the country club, that’s fantastic. If you enjoy a wine more because the wine makers followed a particular set of natural practices to produce it and buying it makes the cute boy at Silverlake Wine smile at you and say “good choice” when you buy it, that’s fantastic too.
But recognize them for what they are are–constructs to help us make sense of our enjoyment. The experience of pleasure–and wine is merely a vehicle to deliver pleasure–is, as any cursory examination of niche pornography will prove, an uniquely personal and idiosyncratic moment.
And sometimes it’s fun to experience that pleasure in the company of similarly-minded (not hive-minded) enthusiasts, other times it’s better to experience that pleasure alone in a closet with a belt, some tissues, and a bottle of Amarone.
To those of you who made it all the way to the end, thank you. You’re the real heroes.