The ethics of wine criticism

[j'accuse]Wine writers are not doctors, lawyers, accountants or politicians, so any discussion of ethics is of an import several orders of magnitude below its more crucial applications. Nonetheless, ethical considerations do play a role in shaping the personality and work of a writer – and, especially, a critic – and those considerations are worth exploring in some detail.

Are ethics necessary?

On its face, it seems a silly question; of course ethics are important. But it’s worth asking: are they really? Is anyone truly harmed by an unethical wine writer?

Leaving aside the issue of the writer’s own karma, the answer is: not much, unless the writer is both unethical and malicious. To the otherwise-unarmed-with-context consumer of wine writing, there’s no functional difference in negative outcome between information based on inethics and information based on ignorance; both are entropic within the greater context of wine, but I would suggest that the latter is a much, much greater problem than the former. A parallel argument concludes with a similar lack of damage to the subject of the writing in question; again barring the presence of actual malice, ignorance and inethics are inseparably entropic. There are multiple paths to foolishness, but in the end one is still a fool.

What ethics instead provide are a framework for battling back the two actual dangers of unethical writing: malice (momentary or predetermined), and the purchased writer. Battling back, that is, but not eliminating. Human nature is such that any writer, no matter how self-professedly ethical, is subject to momentary (though recoverable) failure at any time. This is not something we should concern ourselves with overmuch, as writers remain human and subject to the accordant frailties. To expect writers to be otherwise is to desire the impossible. What should be expected is a thoughtful and open examination of ethics and consequences on the part of a writer, and frequent re-examination thereof…especially on the occasion of a lapse.

Ethics vs. responsibility

Ethics, as framed by the consumer of wine writing, are often characterized as responsibilities: the duties of the writer to his or her readers. This is a limited and ultimately incorrect view, but since it exists it is necessary to address it.

All that a writer is really responsible for are the fundamental necessities of wine writing. Consumers of wine writing are responsible for their own expectations, though of course a writer who fails to meet enough consumers’ expectations is going to be an unsuccessful writer. A writer is not responsible for the individual ethical beliefs of consumers, primarily because such standards are myriad and frequently contradictory, and secondarily because the adoption of external ethics is a poor substitute for thoughtfully-conceived personal ethics in which the writer actually believes. A writer who is primarily responsive to the external ethics of consumers will be a writer who is forever on the defensive, forever explaining and disclaiming and arguing until the writer’s own ethics are deformed by the debate itself.

A better term for what must exist in the writer-consumer relationship is trust. A consumer must trust that a writer is informed by their own ethics, and a writer must do as little as possible to strain that trust.

“The appearance of impropriety”

Formal ethical codes, and certainly those so often applied to journalists, place great importance on the external. This is done for a theoretically wise reason: institutional trust in journalism is predicated on the consumer’s assumed belief that the motivations of journalism are ultimately noble and separated from the baser passions. As a society we desire a free press, but as individual humans we are uncomfortable with the anarchy of true freedom, and distrustful of any class or group that seems to exercise it. We want journalists to abide by rigid codes of ethics because we ourselves live under various collections of codes and laws, and thus have difficulty relating to or accepting those who operate with potentially unlimited freedom. We say that ethical codes free journalists from a quagmire, but what they really do is tie their hands in a way that seems beneficial to the rest of us.

On the other hand, we can all see how well this is working out for journalists. Only politicians (who have their own extensive set of ethical guidelines, oh-so-closely followed) are viewed with more suspicion and mistrust. To repeat what I see as the key issue: the problem with external codes is that they are not fundamental to the writer. They work to eliminate environments for impropriety, but they do not address the desire for impropriety. Only a personal code can do that.

The concept of “appearance” as the problematic factor is, in itself, a widely-held and endlessly-repeated fallacy. Certainly what matters is the actual impropriety, not whatever public face one does or does not put on it. Focusing on mere appearance encourages a secretive environment of non-disclosure, which is no good for the consumer or the writer. And, as has so often been noted through scandal after scandal, it’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up that pushes people beyond redemption. Fair consumers can forgive admitted impropriety. What they’ll rarely forgive is an ongoing attempt to hide it.

Ethics, then, must discard the baggage of externally-applied expectations of responsibility and a misguided focus on appearances, and concentrate on core fundamentals, which can be summed up in four questions:

  1. What is fair?
  2. What is right?
  3. What is truthful?
  4. How do fairness, rightness, and truth serve the aims of the writer, the consumer, and wine writing in general?

Ethical dilemmas in wine writing

Some problematic ethical areas are specific to a genre of criticism. Some are specific to journalism in general. None, however, are specific only to wine writing; what’s important is identifying the commonalities and differences between different subfields of these practices, and discerning what’s sensible in the specific discipline of wine writing. Herein, an attempt (subject to future expansion).

bias

Freedom from bias is both impossible and undesirable. This point is greatly expanded-upon here and here.

truth-telling

It is manifestly unwise for a writer to make things up. It is even more unwise to deliberately employ mistruth in the service of an argument that could not otherwise be supported. Fictionalization for the purposes of entertainment is fine as long as the practice is obvious and transparent to the reader, but any intrusion of fiction into informational or critical practice is a betrayal of the necessary trust between writer and consumer.

If a truth is negative, this does not preclude or mitigate its importance. It’s understandable if a writer wants to avoid negativity altogether, but it lessens the importance of the writing, it lessens the contribution of such writing to the general subject wine, and it leads to dangerous opportunities for the replacement of negativity with untruth. This latter impulse, especially, must be fought.

judgment with (or without) expertise

Bafflingly to some, this is not an ethical concern, but a practical and professional one. Without question, it is preferable for a writer – and especially a critic – to possess contextual expertise before issuing judgment or characterization. It is not unethical for a writer who lacks such context to do so. It is merely silly and unrewarding in its extreme forms, and of limited utility in its milder forms.

completeness

This, too, is not an ethical concern, but one of practice and professionalism. What it means is that many – consumers, occasionally, but more often producers and those who move or sell wine – want writers to have wide and deep experience with any given subject, and to have that experience shared to its fullest extent. But there remains no ethical obligation of context or expertise, and if someone who has never tasted a Bordeaux wants to issue an opinion on Bordeaux based on an insufficiently large sample, that is their right undiminished by ethical concerns. Again, however, it is poor practice and of minimal or no utility.

free samples

Of all the ethical bugaboos that plague wine writers, the issue of free samples – their existence, their acceptance, and their use – is the one that simply will not go away. This is so because certain high-profile wine critics make a great and trumpeting noise about them, drawing bright, clear lines between themselves and the allegedly unethical masses who do not adhere to their particular practices. This is unfortunate, for even a cursory examination of the issue shows that much of the debate over the inethics of samples depends on the selective use and misuse of definitions.

A free sample is just what it seems to be: wine not paid for by the writer, with the implied corollary that such wine would require monetary compensation were the receiver not a writer. Wineries and the entities that represent them supply samples for the obvious reasons: exposure and coverage. Yet a sample takes many forms, and too often some of those forms are dismissed (as inconvenient) by those who which to paint themselves as ethical paragons.

Unquestionably, a free bottle of wine is a free sample. This applies whether the bottle is opened or closed. It applies whether the bottle is shipped to the writer’s home or office, or handed to the writer by someone else. It applies whether it is poured in a convention center by an importer or distributor, by a retailer in a store, by a sommelier in a restaurant, by a winemaker or waiter at a special wine-related meal, by a tasting room employee at a winery, or in fact by anyone else, anywhere, for any reason not caused by transfer of money equal to the wine’s value from writer to provider. But it doesn’t end there. A glass, a pour, or a barrel sample at any press & trade event, winery tour, or one-on-one meeting is also a free sample; these events are seldom completely open to the public, not all wines are willingly poured for those outside the trade and press, and the level of access required for such opportunities is rarely similar to that enjoyed by the general public.

So, for example, is it correct for a writer who tastes barrel samples at wineries to claim that they do not accept free samples? Only if each and every barrel sample would be equally available to any member of the general public, and if the writer compensates the winery for those samples. Since this is rarely (never is more likely) the case, the answer should be: no, it is not. Similarly, is a writer who has region-wide tastings in a hotel room organized for them (and paid for by someone other than the writer) free of the “taint” of samples? No. For a writer to claim they do not accept free samples, the writer must pay for each and every drop of wine that passes their lips (an exception may, but very probably shouldn’t, be made for pours provided by family and friends if those wines are then the subject of later commentary). While I am open to correction on this point, I do not know any wine writer who meets the purest form of this criterion. Not one.

Obviously, a core issue is that it is very difficult for any other than the extremely wealthy to practice informed criticism in this fashion (which leads to several fundamental difficulties; see the essay on independence for a careful expansion of this point). For some writers, the way out of this dilemma is to differentiate between modes of acquisition. A writer may choose to not solicit samples – that is, to not request them – but to accept those that are freely offered. Alternatively, a writer may choose to accept samples only in certain forms: yes to press/trade tastings, no to winemaker dinners or shipped bottles, etc. Obviously, at this point the writer has abandoned any pretext on which to deny that they accept samples (no matter how much they may protest to the contrary), and is simply picking and choosing among associated ethical challenges (special access, free food) that accompany the wine itself. On this, see below.

Ultimately, the hue and cry over the existence of samples can fairly easily be shown to be a vast forest of misapprehension among consumers, grown from seeds of distrust planted by allegedly well-meaning but misleading writers who wish to highlight their ethics in opposition to others. This is an unfortunate situation. None of this is to say that the question of samples is not important, merely that it is in no way as significant as it is made out to be by certain self-aggrandizing critics.

other forms of largesse

Wine writers enjoy – if they wish to – all manner of invitations to special access and complimentary booty associated with the world of wine. Access can range from simple distributor- or importer-arranged tastings to which press and trade are invited, to lunches and dinners hosted by sales representatives or winemakers, to exclusive and rare tastings in the cellars of famously private wineries. Food is a frequent accompaniment to such events. Gifts of wine-related tchotchkes are not uncommon. And, of course, everything up to and including the much-maligned junket is available to the writer who wishes to take advantage of such opportunities.

As with samples, bright lines are hard to draw. Writers who claim to reject hosted wine dinners can often be seen nibbling on the snack trays at larger press & trade tastings, rendering their professed standards merely a matter of price and formality, not of principle. Some writers accept gifts of wine but not of, say, t-shirts; others practice the opposite standard. Junkets are particularly problematic; the nearly unparalleled opportunities for education are usually coupled with a clear and obvious expectation of positive follow-up coverage flowing from such a large expenditure, and there are enough writers that those who host such trips can afford to sift for the pliable.

All of this, however, is cause and not effect. Again, surely the crucial issue is not the form or the value of the gift itself, but the result of the gift, and how it affects the writer’s subject, approach, and conclusions. Ethical codes that focus on the former are really trying to address the latter. Yet the potential for abuse does not inherently flow from the gift, but from the inethics of the writer, and so removing the gift does nothing to modify or combat the ethical failings that produce potential abuse. In fact, it may make it easier to hide abuse under a veneer of ethical behavior. Again, we return to the material difference between appearances and actual ethics; one matters, the other is simply window-dressing.

anonymity

The cult of critical anonymity worships principally in the restaurant world, but because wine is so often associated with food, some adherents to the cult have turned their attention to wine criticism and demanded similar practices. This is a mistake.

Wine is not like a restaurant meal, where the key factors that shape it can be modified at will and in the moment. Wine – with one exception, which will be covered in a moment – is a fixed product…bottled, sealed, and inalterable by any monetarily-involved entity thereafter (except negatively, as with a distributor who doesn’t protect their wines from the damaging effects of heat). In this, it is like a CD or a toaster oven, the criticism of which requires no anonymity on the part of the critic, and the criticism of which carries no expectation of anonymity from the consumer. That is the methodology that should apply to wine criticism.

The one exception is, of course, before a wine is contained within a sealed container. A barrel sample – thieved straight from the barrel or contained within a temporary receptacle – can indeed be altered by an entity sufficiently inclined to do so. (To be completist on this point, this exception could also apply to bottled wine especially produced for critical review; that is, not part of the regular for-sale production line.) The potential abuse is in the power of the entity providing such a sample to misrepresent the product under consideration. A winemaker can pour the best among multiple potential samples, or pour an entirely different wine, for example. More nefariously, they could provide a specially-concocted sample tailored to a critic’s known biases. (A few – very few – critics angrily insist that such “critics’ cuvées” don’t exist. Usually, those critics are those with the most to lose if their judgments are called into question, or perhaps they are merely willfully naïve. In any case, the key point as it relates to a discussion of ethics is not whether or not these doctored samples exist, but that they can exist, and their potential existence applies to the only instance where critical anonymity may in fact be preferable.) There’s really no defense against this tactic except vigilance, and the annoyances of anonymity are well beyond the slight protection it would provide for all but a tiny minority of very famous writers, for whom it is almost certainly too late.

independence

It may be seen that all of these potential ethical dilemmas hinge solely on the ability of the writer to assess and manage potential corrupting influences. The goal of formal codes of ethics is to enforce independence – to forcefully separate the writer from their subject – in order to maintain the aforementioned appearance of impropriety. But, as I hope I’ve demonstrated, the important word in that phrase is not “appearance,” but “impropriety.” And while it is not enough to simply declare one’s independence (all too often, this is presented as a misguided synonym for objectivity), the path of trust between writer and consumer can only be walked by the writer who puts into actual practice a code of ethics that create a recognizable shield of independence. And on that subject, we leave the realm of ethics and enter the difficult, but real, world of methodology.

[please don't feed the hippies]

Butcher, writer, winemaker

Never watch sausage being made.

That few want to know what goes into sausage is, I suppose, taken for granted by those who don’t. But most food-enthusiasts absolutely do want to know…not just what’s in the sausage, but how it’s made. There would be dismay over poor ingredients, yes, but as much or more from watching good raw material mauled into something unrecognizable via sloppy practice or an excess of adulteration. Who wants to pay the premium for a wild boar sausage if it’s indistinguishable from plain pork? What’s the purpose of using a top-notch source of veal and then studding it with stale dried herbs?

(…transitions are for amateurs….)

The Lord of the Rings was, and is, an important book to me. The first time I read it, I was a little too young to follow more than the frontline narrative, and I suspect that’s part of why regular and enjoyable re-readings continue to this day: each time, I find something I’d glossed in the past. Such understanding has, admittedly, been greatly aided by also owning and reading the vast library of revisioning and background material that has gradually been made available by Tolkien’s son Christopher. Watching this particular sausage being made led to greater admiration for the result.

When the news first broke, years ago, of a live-action filmic version – I’d seen the fascinatingly muddled animated hack job back in the day – I felt the same mixed emotions as most long-time Tolkien fans. Emotions which were mostly borne out by the results, as the films alternated between painstaking recapturing and inexplicable revisionism. On balance, though, and with innumerable complaints small and large to the side, I was pleased with the results. It wasn’t always The Lord of the Rings, no, but it was a pretty good cover version.

As a fan and completist, it was only natural that I had to own the extended-cut DVDs when they came out, in all their lingering and bonus-materialed glory. But my fellow fanatics who’d sat down with them before I had offered a warning: don’t listen to the writers’ commentary tracks.

Perhaps inevitably, I failed to follow their advice. I wanted another trip to the sausage factory. And anyway, I’d already seen the results, hadn’t I? What they’d gotten right and what they’d gotten so spectacularly wrong? How much worse could it be? Well, I suppose I should have listened. Few of the perturbations to the original text were as infuriating as listening to how they came about, explanations which the writers were extremely eager to provide in detail.

Changes necessitated by a shift in media – book to film – didn’t bother me that much. The book, as written and without a word or scene altered, isn’t filmable. I’d understood going in that there would be shortcuts and additions made to pump up the action, to sharpen conflicts, to elevate emotional climaxes, and so forth. I didn’t even mind a little bit of alteration to better suit modern norms (which, I knew even before the movies were filmed, would mean bigger and better roles for women than are evident in the book, though much of this material could be mined from appendices and supplementary texts).

What set my teeth a-grating was how changes always begat more changes to “make up for” a now-insensible narrative that only existed because of the original changes. How disbelief in a character’s motivations (as written) wrought small changes early in the story, then required massive, deformative changes later in the story. How caricature-like inventions were defended as logical inevitabilities when the original alterations that required this logic weren’t necessary in the first place. Worse were the number of times regret was expressed at one of these later, cumulative alterations; as the filming progressed, the sense of closer fidelity to the text had frequently been seen and attempted, but was often rendered impossible by earlier, committed-to-film alterations. Thus requiring even more severe changes to return a story or character back to some vaguely-recognizable place.

(…transitions are still for amateurs…)

Which, of course, brings me to wine.

Keep Reading

[pigtail]

Who are you writing for?

(NB: this essay was originally published in 2011.)

A mentor, and friend, died last week.

I choose the exceedingly unwelcome occasion of his passage to mount a passionate defense of the critical, of the unconstructive, and of the negative. (Yes, this is wine-related…to a point.)

Clif Garboden was not my first boss, nor was he my first editor. He wasn’t even, as a boss, my editor for the vast majority of our time working together. My early attempts at wine writing (oh how glad I am that most of them aren’t available on the web, and oh how I wish that I could choose which of the rest weren’t) were done for someone else, who was patient and excellent in his own way. But I did, on occasion, write for Clif on subjects non-vinous.

Clif was a journalist. A real journalist, of a type that’s very nearly extinct. He was also a crusader, which is all too common these days, except that crusading’s many, many practitioners usually lack the previous skill. In the alternative press, in which he spent the majority of his career, he was a giant. A towering figure. He had history, he had passion, and he had True Belief. In alternative media, where the hours are punishing, the pay laughable, and the positive outcomes an epic narrative of disappointment, only a True Believer could thrive as he did.

Click on Clif’s name in the third paragraph. You’ll pick up the style, the skill, and the inexorable, bulldozing passion right away. You’ll notice the humor. You’ll also see the unfiltered, often seething, occasionally boiling-over rage. He wasn’t just like this on the page or screen, either. Woe to anyone who ran afoul of Clif in person. More clever, incising, and precisely-directed acid I’ve rarely heard from any tongue.

The thing is, most people who worked for or with Clif loved the hell out of the guy, and respected him even more. So did I, even when he was yelling at me (which was not infrequent), because his venom was neither spiteful nor pointless, and it was never misdirected. The target was, each and every time, someone who disappointed him. Who let him down. Who wasn’t doing their best. Who wasn’t doing the right thing…which, for Clif, was not usually separable from the previous standard.

One of the longest things I’ve ever written – and regular readers of this blog may feel a certain measure of fear at that notion – was edited by Clif. It was for a single-subject supplement to the regular newspaper, which meant even lower freelance rates than the penny-pinching norm, more attempted interference from the sales department than usual (supplements were always stuffed beyond their gills with ads, and the constant tug-of-war between sales and editorial grew muscle-straining at such times), and as a result, a less-free hand at the keyboard than was afforded within the paper’s regular areas of coverage.

I wrote accordingly. Much sweat, much toil, and much second-guessing ensued. By the time I turned over the finished product, I lacked any sense of perspective on the quality of the piece. Not even a half-hour later – Clif could read faster than Watson – my phone rang. Could I swing by Clif’s desk?

“First of all, it’s good. Really good, especially for something this long.” I started to feel a warm suffusion of pride. “But…”

Uh-oh. Keep Reading

[hirsch]

The fault in our stars

Jasmine Hirsch is, these days, probably better known as the co-provocateur (provocateuse?) behind In Pursuit of Balance, but with that flashy (if sometimes haphazardly defined) project shuttered, she’s free to return to her other full-time job as the face and voice of her family’s eponymous Sonoma winery.

The cringe-inducing whining about IPoB was often as overblown as the wines against which it sought contrast (and even “against” is more antagonistic than the reality), but Hirsch’s basic message hasn’t changed at all: ripeness can obscure difference, intervention can obscure difference, even intent can obscure difference. Obviously her argument is more nuanced than that, but the core of the philosophy is to make wines of response or revelation rather than wines of intention…which is why there was always a certain irony surrounding the word “pursuit” in IPoB’s name.

By “intent” I mean something other than the basic desire to turn grapes into salable wine. Not even the most hardcore naturalistas operate from a position of utter indifference to material or process. Hirsch has selected its preferred grapes, its preferred clonal material, the sites on which its vines grow. It most certainly practices viticulture of intent, and harvest dates aren’t selected at random. A sufficiently problematic fermentation would likely be dealt with, one way or another. But on a continuum from industrial to natural, wines of intent invite — in fact, demand — a lot more meddling than is evident here.

“Revelation” is an equally tricky word, in that it usually bears a promissory burden. That’s not how I’m using it here. I mean only that a wine of revelation is one that differs from vintage to vintage in response to its natural inputs — weather, mostly, but also less welcome participants like pests and diseases — and the oenological decisions such inputs encourage. Big house non-vintage Champagne is the ultimate wine of intent, requiring dramatic interventions all through the process, up to and including blending to achieve the house style. Wines of revelation aren’t the total antithesis of such machinations, but they’re a lot closer to the other end of the spectrum. 

That said, it’s impossible to entirely disentangle intent from the drinkable results; Hirsch probably couldn’t make the style they obviously prefer were their vineyards in Paso Robles. Also, the notes below are for blended wines, not terroir wines (except in a general regional or communal sense). Still, the wines themselves can’t help but reveal the truth or lie in the claimed philosophy; if they hold fast to an identity, year after year, they’re wines of intent. If they waver in response to season and the resulting variabilities in vine/grape chemistry, they’re wines of revelation.

Hirsch’s are clearly the latter. Keep Reading

[trimbach hors choix]

Or ə

Trimbach 1989 Riesling Clos Ste-Hune “Vendanges Tardives” “Hors Choix” (Alsace)

I don’t normally include tasting notes in the the blog’s main feed (they’re exiled here), because I feel that they’re one of the least interesting ways to talk about wine. (The worst are point or ranking systems, of course.) But this bottle overflows with personal meaning…both its past and its present…and to relegate it to a word-salad of descriptors was to do it, and me, a disservice.

I can only find four instances of Trimbach doling out the incredibly rare “Hors Choix” designation, though there may be more about which I don’t know. Two were for sélection des grains nobles bottlings that were/are so overwhelmingly sweet that finding a sensible occasion to open them is virtually impossible. (Not that they’re in any danger of fading; they may well be essentially deathless.) I own one of those — a gewurztraminer so dark brown with botrytis that I think even the richest possible pâté de foie gras might fade into nothingness — and while it’s unquestionably an extraordinary experience, it’s more or less the Sagrada Familia of wine: impressive to admire, to be sure, but what does one do with it?

Keep Reading

[dirler-cadé]

Dirler prudence

One by one, the pinnacles of Alsace crumble. Sometimes it’s unexpected tragedy — I still have trouble believing that Laurence Faller is gone — and sometimes it’s the fickle winds of the marketplace. But mostly, it’s climate.

Global warming is ruining Alsace. Actually, let’s make that more strident: global warming has ruined Alsace. The region’s “best” vineyards — the solar-collector grand crus of the Haut-Rhin — are often too hot for anything but slow-ripening riesling (sometimes) and grapes that wine law prefers to dissuade from those notable slopes (like sylvaner, or even pinot blanc). Gewurztraminer? Pinot gris? Forget it. Vendanges tardives-level ripeness is sometimes achievable from a good grower’s first harvest, these days. Yet far too many wines are sweet, alcoholic, and just generally huge, lacking any sense of acidity or freshness such behemoths require.

Saving graces could be coming from the cooler Bas-Rhin, where many sites are fully entwined with the lower arms of the Vosges and their cooling breezes, but a majority of the northern producers seem ill-equipped to handle the change in fortunes. While it’s far from clear that the sites in the north are capable of reaching the same heights as their southerly brethren, it also may just be that producer inexperience with making world-class wine is holding back the quality. Loew manages it. So does Gresser. Kreydenweiss is capable of it, but the wines crack up far too quickly. There aren’t all that many others. And even if there were, who would buy them? The market for Alsatian wines has cratered.

Still, there are holdouts. Trimbach, obviously…though the techniques that preserve their house style are a matter of some debate. Lorentz. Blanck. Mann. Some of the (semi-)non-interventionists (Josmeyer, Barmès-Buecher) manage thicker styles with grace. It’s too early to know what’s going to happen at Weinbach.

I’ve been visiting Alsace off and on for almost twenty years, and the options for something local that I actually want to drink with its already weighty cuisine diminish every year. But there’s one producer I return to again and again: Dirler-Cadé.

Keep Reading

[rimbaud]

Noted in passing

I’ve hidden them from the main feed…because they’re the second least interesting way to talk about wine (points remain the absolute worst)…but the posting of tasting notes has resumed here on the newly rebranded and incompetently designed blog. They’re here. And I suppose I should offer a warning: while I do occasionally drift off into a list of ingredients, I’ve come to prefer experiential notes to iterative ones. If you need clearly replicable descriptors, I’m not your writer.

[stained barrel]

No filter, no cry

There comes a moment in every young wine writer’s life when they dabble at becoming Robert M. Parker, Jr. When knowledge of wines crosses the Rubicon into a vastly more satisfying (and self-satisfied) knowledge of wine, and the urge to proclaim their understanding suddenly becomes overwhelming.

With fair frequency, the very next moment in every young wine writer’s life is someone with vastly more knowledge explaining that they’re wrong.

I’m pretty sure my own era of ranting from a illusory mountaintops happened around the turn of the millennium; I was convinced I was on my way to being a Master of Wine (I wasn’t), I had done the work of tasting and study (but not nearly enough), I knew stuff (only some), and I had regular outlets through which to bestow my undoubtedly brilliant and precious insights on an eager audience.

Reading my work from those days is now a matter of silencing endless groans of embarrassment, and there are more than a few things I wish I could permanently expunge. But what I really wish is that I’d preserved the admonishments and corrections from (mostly) patient correspondents. I could make copies and forward a parcel to each new writer as they enter their own personal Enlightenment, accelerating the arrival of their own personal Disillusionment.

Most eventually pass through this boastful phase and move on to a truly satisfying era in which excitement and energy are drawn from unknowns, from yet-unsolved mysteries, from new horizons. An unfortunate few remain Parkeresque, driving anchors deep into their epistemological turf, cementing them into permanence, and screaming bloody murder at heathens and apostates who dare question their god-like authority.

And so it was that I prepared for the worst as the following pull quote scrolled past my not-quite-awakened eyes this morning:

Enough about sulfur already. More wines are ruined by filtration.

“Uh-oh,” I fretted. For the author is still young, and occasionally inclined to shout. Keep Reading

[white wines]

White privilege

Wine is getting whiter. The ascendance of white wine as not only the most logical, but the default accompaniment to dining at any level is all but complete.

Sure, there are always exceptions. Some of them are establishment- or cuisine-specific, some of them are national or regional, and of course there are individual holdouts who find the thought of drinking anything they can see through utterly inconceivable. But in defiance of seasonality, and whether amidst gilded formality or tchotchke-littered casualness, wine consumed in quantity (that is, by the bottle) increasingly tends to be white. The reason: it makes a whole lot more sense as an accompaniment to the food.

Keep Reading

[rosso & pet-nat]

Go froth & conquer

The “moment” arrived about ten years ago. Perhaps earlier? Memory’s forever bent by the convex lens of so very many wine glasses. Nor do I remember where, or who…though I have some guesses. I do remember what, though. It was Lini, and as expected it came in red…but it also came in pink, and white. The rosso was disruptive and I wasn’t yet prepared to understand it, the rosato was pleasant enough, but it was the bianco that grappled with my attention.

“Lambrusco comes in white?”

In theory, I’d known this. I’d read the texts, eyes flickering over the allowed expressions in the hilarious anarchy of Italy’s DOCs. Mostly, aside from a very small handful of internationally famous appellations with vaguely restrictive codes (regulations that would be impossible for any self-respecting Italian winemaker to ignore), the “laws” seemed to be the same everywhere. Make it white, pink, red, sparkling, dry, sweet, fortified, aromatized, or really whatever you feel like doing…

But still. “Lambrusco comes in white?”

I drank a lot of that white, over the next few years. As a by-the-glass pour it metastasized all over Boston, where I lived and wrote back then. Why not? It was delicious, and — perhaps more importantly, on the commercial side — it was inexpensive. I occasionally dabbled in the rosato. But the rosso…the rosso…

There lay the actual struggle, even though I didn’t realize it at the time. Keep Reading