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wine writing

[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

The Pall & the proceedings

[clown art]Witness the urtext of lousy writing about natural wine.

Bruce Palling isn’t even trying.

(This is almost literally true. Be amazed at the lack of effort.)

The grand generalizations and profound ignorance — not to mention the errors — aren’t what makes this article terrible. Nor does it matter one whit whether or not Palling likes, or even understands, natural wine. What makes it legendarily, appallingly, brilliantly horrid is what has made millions upon millions of words of wine writing numbingly bad down through the ages.

Because this is what Palling has written:

“I tasted some natural wines and didn’t like them.”

No worries. More for those who do. At least the tl;dr edition doesn’t make everyone look foolish…for wasting the time reading it, but also for the more egregious sin of wasting the time writing it.

Twice.

Curtains for Oz

Louis XVI & Marie-AntoinetteThat the end was approaching for Robert Parker and The Wine Advocate has been clear for years. It has long been no more than a matter of time. Thus, today’s signposting of that end, which is still clouded by contradictory statements and may be overtaken by further clarifications, doesn’t come as too much of a surprise.

But this sort of end? Robert Parker giving up and selling out – and that’s absolutely what he has done – with one giant middle finger pointed squarely at Robert Parker himself? Advertising? Paid advocacy, in the form of seminars, of wines that are otherwise under review? No, I didn’t expect that at all. Robert Parker, the young firebrand Naderite with a wine newsletter, would not have been pleased.

I suppose I really should have seen this coming, though. Parker has gradually given up even the illusion of his own claims to independence over the years, defending and justifying each (or, at most, offering a slap on the wrist of policy and then changing nothing). Still, I always felt that he at least had convinced himself of the illusion, and that he would cede the field with that conviction intact.

I don’t, by the way, blame Parker for grabbing the lucre when it’s offered. He’s worked hard, he deserves a well-funded semi-retirement (he’s still going to be reviewing his favorite regions). I don’t say that with the slightest hint of sarcasm. Whatever I may feel about the content of his criticism, he built a wildly successful brand from scratch, and that’s to be admired.

At the end of Felix Salmon’s Reuters article, he writes, “The idea that a 95-point wine is always better than an 85-point wine is an idea which deserves to die.” This is true, and one hopes that this will, indeed, be one of the outcomes of the erosion of The Wine Advocate’s brand, though there are no lack of alternative publications offering the same false sense of objectivity.

But what I hope is a good deal more fundamental: that the long, oft-times slow, but now firmly-accelerated demolishing of the Parker model of criticism will lead to people realizing how poorly that model serves them.

When wine’s universe was smaller, it was perhaps useful for a lone voice (or a tight collection of same) to offer comprehensive assessments. That is now an impossibility. Within discrete categories of wine, there’s still a measure of utility…especially if one is purchasing for reasons of investment or prestige as much or more than personal taste…but the task Parker set himself is no longer achievable.

It’s not just that the world of wine has sprawled, though that’s certainly a major factor (note, for instance, that the publication will now cover Asian wines. Asian wines.) It’s that the market has sprawled along with it. There was a time when sought-after names were easily available, though still for a price, via a long-term relationship with a retailer with his or her own long-term relationships. Now, there’s skyrocketing international competition – some of it completely unknown even a decade ago – for desirable wines. And not just the blue-chip brands, either; even the cultish, counter-cultural, ultra-natural stuff can be both impossible to locate and impossibly expensive. Anyone tried to buy Overnoy Vin Jaune lately?

The days of the ranked shopping list, which was always what Parker’s work boiled down to, are almost over, except for – as mentioned – those with unlimited funds and time, who will continue to derive great value from them. But for everyone else? Even at the speed of online dissemination, a moment’s hesitation (whether temporal or monetary) cedes the market to someone else. Only wines produced in truly industrial quantities – supermarket dreck, négociant Champagne, classed-growth Bordeaux – will be available to all, albeit at a price, and even then the latter is crumbling under the weight of a worldwide demand that even the counterfeit market cannot sate.

From now on, most wine lovers will have to be content with getting only a little of what they want. The future of wine, as with everything else, is the niche. Obviously, the future of wine communication must, of necessity, also be niche. Even Parker, in his limited fashion, saw that when he hired a handful of collaborators, but he saw it too late and from too high a perch. In any case, fractionalization brings a more important change: the inexorable demise not just of the comprehensive critic, but of criticism as we know it.

This isn’t to say that critics will cease to exist. They’ll continue, and to the extent that they can live up to the ideals that Parker once claimed to exalt (what limited measure of independence is actually possible or desirable, a conviction to tell the subjective truth no matter the consequence), they might even succeed as long as their fields of interest are sufficiently narrow. But the future is in narrative. In insight. In the deep rather than the broad.

In other words: writing, rather than pure criticism. (Or video, or whatever else; it’s not the medium that matters, it’s the message.) A personal relationship with a merchant. A trusted intermediary in the biz. And so forth. It’s no accident that what’s succeeding in the wine world right now, in a way that it didn’t during a long interregnum, is the micro-business. A tiny wine bar focused on just one category, with so few seats to fill that there will always be a demand. A B2C importer with a firm point of view and very little wine to sell. Direct winery sales, even where such things were very recently unknown (like Burgundy).

And the era of false claims of independence, which was never actually possible, and even more ludicrous claims of objectivity, is also drawing to a close. More and more consumers see through the marketing of this pernicious falsehood, and realize that depth of understanding comes on a continuum in which one can only pay for that understanding by relinquishing independence. The only actual independence is that of thought and action. And there is no objectivity, only fairness.

I don’t know if Parker could have changed enough to meet the new paradigm. I suspect he couldn’t; one does not abdicate the Emperor’s throne to develop a deep working knowledge of the vineyards of Elba without a fight, or at least a large measure of self-denial. Of which we’ve seen an awful lot from Parker in recent years.

I will not be sad to see him go, no matter how long or sullied the goodbye. It would be foolish to deny his success, and equally foolish to deny his influence on both the market and wine itself…the good and the bad. But his time has passed. Even if he still only sees it through a glass darkened by hyper-extracted syrah.

A real teat

romulusSo here’s the pitch. The name of the writer, included in a letter that its author has cast hither and yon into the wine trade sea, isn’t important, so I’ve left it out.

I would love to be added to your mailing list for sample bottles. I can GUARANTEE an online review of any bottle you send me. I realize that there are many wine bloggers out there and you must be inundated with requests, but I don’t know how many bloggers can guarantee a review (along with any descriptive info you send along). If a bottle is flawed or oxidized I will email you before I write anything about it. […] I can guarantee a review on a website that is almost always on the first page of natural search results on Google when someone searches for a particular wine.

I have to say, I admire the shine on those giant brass balls; this is like taking a full-page ad in Variety announcing that you intend to prostitute yourself and giving the exact dates and times at which you are available for whoring. It’s not just anyone who lacks sufficient shame to attempt something like this. And so, from that perspective: kudos.

Then again, the pearl-clutching horror with which this message has been received by some is awfully naïve. Years ago, when I started typing about wine, there were innumerable writers – even a fair number publications – for whom this was the entire business plan. Some of both are still around. And let’s be frank: it was, and is, one of the surest paths to (monetary) success. One of the absolute best at it back in those days, a local colleague who never once met a press release or one-off tasting that couldn’t be rewritten for publication, is now an editor for a venue for which I have repeatedly been asked to write…for free, of course. (And probably should anyway, in these dim-venued times.) The wheel turns, and Astroglide helps ease its passage. Nothing new under the sheets the sun.


So is this elephantiasic pitch actually problematic? In one sense, absolutely yes. It has nothing to do with brazenly soliciting samples. It’s not even really the promise of coverage, as long as the promise doesn’t pre-characterize the tone of that the coverage. It’s the explicit deal whereby the subject of the “review” can vet said review before publication.

The issue isn’t that such prior consideration is unethical by journalistic standards. The writer of this fantastical pitch isn’t (to my knowledge) claiming to be a journalist…one hopes…so those standards don’t apply. The issue is that if one is going to claim authorship of content (and he is), one must be its final arbiter. But in this case, he’s ceding a measure of control over both to the subject of commentary. That’s inherently untrustworthy…which is not, please note, the same thing as claiming that it doesn’t happen all the time. It does, but it’s called marketing or public relations. Anyway, the other side of this transaction – managing relationships with content providers to get the coverage a client wants – is exactly what many PR agents do, and if they didn’t succeed frequently enough to achieve their clients’ aims, they wouldn’t exist.

In any case, what he’s attempting to do will create inevitable limitations and restrictions. Good and/or small-production wineries are probably not going to be making their product available for his consideration unless he becomes spectacularly famous and powerful. Which seems unlikely, though it’s true there are some pretty blatant panderers and panhandlers who’ve done quite well for themselves. This, incidentally, is no different from how wineries usually parcel out their limited quantities of free product to “real” journalists: a judgment is made as to popularity, then filtered through a stylistic assessment (only the overcapitalized will send an oaked-up fruit bomb to someone who mostly writes about natural wine). Our pitchman will only acquire a certain type of wine with this approach – mass-market, industrial – and his audience will, in turn, be limited by the same stylistic restrictions.


On the other hand, I just can’t bring myself to care all that much, no matter how distasteful or naked the appeal to quid pro quo. I’ve written endless commentary on the difference between the appearance of ethics, actual ethics, and real trustworthiness, so I won’t revisit all of it here. The précis is this: it’s much better, from the perspective of a consumer of information, that a writer be right, good, or useful than to say high-minded things in the fine print yet produce incorrect, poor, or useless work.

A bit of amplification: not long ago, some folks on one wine forum wondered why (now former) Wine Advocate critic Jay Miller was being criticized for doing something that his colleague David Schildknecht did without public condemnation. Yes, from the standpoint of rigid universal ethics that’s patently unfair. But the actual answer is completely obvious: the people offering the criticism trust the content of Schildknecht’s work more than they trust Miller’s. Were Miller’s work beyond reproach to those critics, he could act with greater impunity. But it’s not, and so he can’t. (Well, couldn’t.)

Or look at it this way: wine is, among other things, a product. Whose product criticism is considered ethically pure and nearly beyond reproach? Consumer Reports, certainly. And they’ve actually done some wine criticism over the years. Does anyone respect it? Does anyone who knows anything about wine find it anything other than laughable? Not that I’ve noticed. And the reason is not that CR struggles with ill-considered ethical lapses, it’s because ethics are not only not the same as skill or utility, they don’t even function as a fair replacement, either.

So if ethics don’t make one a good critic, what does? How about being a good critic? You can replace “critic” with “writer” or “journalist” and the statement remains true. Being a good critic requires knowledge, it requires skill in both assessment and communication, and it can be argued that it requires an audience. Note: ethics were not on that list.

This isn’t to argue that ethics don’t matter. They do. The reason they matter, however, is not their self-referential importance, but in how they – or their lack – affect the quality of the work. If unethical behavior leads to untrustworthy or useless work, then ethics matter, and that’s why attention must always be paid. If the work is poor despite pristine ethics, however, then they didn’t matter at all. Again, what really matters is the work. The rest is worthy of consideration, but it’s a secondary consideration.

“Oh,” someone is now objecting, “but with far more wine commentators than anyone can actually follow, it’s necessary to judge ethics to help sort them out.” Really? If that’s the case – if we’re filtering critics by their ethical practices – then we’re back to a wine world in which Consumer Reports sits atop the pyramid of utility. Do they? Again, I know of no one who thinks so. We can (and should) talk about ethics, but in the end our primary consideration is always going to be the quality of the work. It’s similar to how one may have all the admiration in the world for a winemaker’s overwhelming swellness as a human being, but the decision to buy his or her wine is based primarily on its quality.


All that said, I can understand wariness on this point from consumers. With so many voices, most of them largely unknown, and limited money to spend on what is, after all, a liquid frivolity, doesn’t a precondition of apparent trustworthiness help? Sure, of course. Consumers are wise to at least wonder about ethics. Further, the existence of as-pure-as-possible commentators acts as a necessary check against those more compromised, because they can shine a light on the worst (or the best-hidden) practices.

But the thing is, a lot – probably the majority – of the carping about ethics these days isn’t coming from consumers. It’s coming from the trade. This would be laughable were it not so hypocritical.

vultureCan’t – in this age of the hyper-fragmented, many-to-many marketplace of information – wineries, importers, and retailers bypass what used to be the gate-keeping press filters and funnels, and just put their own message out there? Yes, absolutely. Many are in fact doing exactly this, and well.

After all, who knows more about a wine than its maker? Who knows more about a peer group – wines of a single region, wines of a certain ethos, and so forth – than importers with a point of view (of which there are now many)? Who knows more about what their customers actually want than retailers? No journalist, no matter how ethical or skilled, can hope to provide information of this granularity at better than second-hand, once-removed distance. Third-party commentators have other skills and freedoms, and there are ways they can contextualize and criticize that are not usually open to those in the trade, but what they offer is a view of the source material, not the material itself.

In other words, what makes a winemaker’s or importer’s words valuable has absolutely nothing to do with ethics (except in the case of an unalloyed charlatan). No, it has everything to do with their inextricable connection to the product. In fact, they cannot be “ethical” by journalistic standards because they cannot separate themselves from personal and financial interests in the subjects on which they are commenting.

It seems to me that someone in the trade who wishes their own voice to be heard, yet complains about the ethics of writers, is trying to have it both ways. If a writer is compromised by a lack of distance, certainly that writer is far less compromised than the person selling the product. Wouldn’t we, by that standard, be much better off ignoring anyone who makes or sells wine? Or if this very lack of separation is why we should listen to those who make and sell wine, why is a lesser version of same still unforgivable from a writer? One cannot have it both ways.

There are those in the writing cohort who beat a “the trade is inherently untrustworthy” drum, and have for many years. I’ve said before that I think this is ludicrous, because it stupidly ignores some of the greatest potential sources of knowledge and insight about wine. Moreover, most often this mantra is chanted by those who stand to gain, financially and in terms of reputation, from consumers turning their eyes and ears from the trade and towards the commentator doing the complaining. It’s mercenary at its heart, though no less so than a tradesperson leveling a similar charge against a commentator.

Or maybe, despite the hypocrisy, the trade thinks they have something to gain by shouting down the commentariat with charges of inethics. Let me suggest to them that they’re being dumbasses, if so. In case no one’s noticed, traditional media aren’t doing so well. A lot are already dead and buried. It’s not impossible that the rest are doomed. Which, if so, means that the old ways of getting one’s wines noticed are awfully thin on the ground. One does not have to view that which is replacing traditional journalism with love and respect to see that it is, at least for now, close to all there is.

So there are three paths the trade can follow. They can embrace the current state of affairs, and in fact it doesn’t much matter if they do it with arms wide open or while holding their collective noses. They can ignore the whole thing, and trust that the winds of fate, chance, and word-of-mouth will put food on their table…which, given a sufficiently small amount of wine to sell, can actually work under certain limited circumstances. Or they can whine, cry, and stamp their feet, demanding an ethical purity that they cannot actually produce themselves.

The funny thing is, they could actually have that last thing, if they really wanted it. So could we all. If…


if we were willing to pay for it. Not directly, as in the sort of wine-for-coverage deal in the nakedly avaristic pitch above But…well, an example. Allow me to quote an importer (one I like and respect) on this very subject:

There is a journalist I sometimes drink with who won’t take a single thing. He insists on paying for every little thing, even if you only offer him a taste. I doubt there is a single blogger out there who can claim the same thing.

I don’t know if that’s true, but it probably is. Let’s posit it’s so. It is, frankly, almost unique even among actual journalists operating under actual corporate-imposed ethical strictures. I’m pretty sure I know who this is, and while I’m going to mention neither his nor the importer’s name (because it’s not germane to my point), I do hope our unnamed importer helps pay our unnamed journalist’s salary by subscribing to his publication and going out of this way to patronize its advertisers. If he doesn’t, then he’s being a leech, and a self-entitled one at that.

Look, I know it’s a confusing time. A few somewhat compromised but familiar voices have given way to a hurricane of unknowably compromised voices, and it’s hard to know who to trust anymore. The average wine communicator is less informed and less experienced than ever, though there’s an inverse gain in niche expertise. We know there are paid shills working the commentary and social media circuit, but openly and in the shadows. And while all this has been going on, the contraction of the bulk of wine commerce into a few mega-corporations has produced the inevitable backlash: a luxuriant and largely unexplored jungle of personality-driven sources and outlets, who – in the face of the marketing power of the megaliths – need every bit of coverage they can get.

But some limitations are built into the system. To spread news about a wine, a person must taste said wine. One way or another, the wine has to get from the trade’s hands to a communicator’s glass. Someone is going to have to pay for that transaction. Either the trade does it directly, as used to be the norm, or they do it indirectly, as paying consumers of information; “free” all too often being worth what was paid for it. The alternative is that all communication is left, as it was long ago, to merchants. The most thoroughly compromised entity possible.

It’s an imperfect and probably imperfectible system, to be sure. But it’s not one that benefits from thoroughly self-serving hypocrisy any more than it benefits from undisclosed compromise. Flaws are a part of wine, but they’re also a part of those who make, sell, and write about them.

Noted, passing

fruit at la boqueriaLook, I get it. The pressure to publish makes us all write dumb things. But still…oh, Jamie

[I] was jolted by the realization that tasting notes generally do a spectacularly bad job of communicating about the nature of wine

Really? That was your moment of spiritual revelation? Your trans-hypnotic insight? An understanding of the essence of wine is not to be found via one writer’s grocery list nor via another’s arcane analogies about bunnies and Dadaism?

Just…no.

Jamie Goode is a sensible – often overly-sensible – writer who’s one of the best at deconstructing the molecular guts of wine, though at his worst when slathering praise over liquid mediocrities, but is not the go-to authority on tasting note quality. That’s not his fault, nor a criticism. The fact is that no one is.

What, exactly, is a bad tasting note? Well, what’s a good tasting note? Take a look at the comments to Jamie’s post. You’ll see accord, widespread agreement, a set of key principles on which any good note must rest, a…

No. Wait a minute. You’ll see nothing of the sort. Some people want standards. Some prefer writing. The fruit-and-veg genre is fairly unpopular, but there’s no clear alternative. Expanding this survey to comments elsewhere, it’s pretty clear that there’s absolutely no concurrence regarding the best possible form of a tasting note.

Huh. Funny, that.

One of the more tiresome assertions about notes is that their primary role is to be correct. Well, what does that mean? The most correct note of all would be a chemical breakdown of the wine, and one would need to be a chemist to utilize such a note. Once one strays from chemistry, one enters the realm of the subjective, and the mere possibility of correctness erodes at a rapid pace.

So how about “useful?” Can’t a note be that? Well, sure. Any note, no matter how good or bad by any individual standard, can be useful to someone. But what defines utility? Wouldn’t the obvious answer be the note that catalyzes the greatest commercial effect vs. its absence? Thus, a Robert Parker note on a Bordeaux would be the most effective note, thus the most useful note, and thus the best note.

I’ll wait while you find someone who thinks that. Still waiting. Oh, you found someone? Their tastes and Robert Parker’s tastes in Bordeaux appear to be in full alignment? What a shock!

OK, so now we might have discovered that the test of a great tasting note is not actually utility, but the extent of its confirmation bias and its epistemological closure. I, person X, have tastes in wine expressed as close to 100% as possible by critic Y. Thus, his or her notes are the best, by definition. Right? But if that’s true, why involve third parties at all? (I understand that the reason is because the critic can taste wines that (and when) the consumer can’t, but we’re discussing tasting notes here.) Because it’s inherently obvious that while critic Y and person X might exist in somewhat rampant agreement with each other, there’s only one note-writer with whom person X will never disagree. That’s right: person X. The “best” notes are one’s own.

In other words, we’ve just discovered the only truism about the utility and correctness of tasting notes: that they’re inherently individual and personal. Once one starts to disseminate notes, one has reduced their utility. One has made them less correct. One has subjected them to criticism not just regarding conclusion, but of form. On and on, until someone will be found who finds a note utterly unredeemable. Perhaps many someones.

To this I say: so what? If you’re writing tasting notes for other people, you’re writing for one of two reasons or you’re wasting your time. The first, and most important, reason to write them is that you wish to write them in the form in which you’ve written them. The second is that you’re being paid to do so. Pretty much any other reason is demonstrable self-delusion.

So why is Jamie’s post so incredibly silly? Because he’s asking for something that doesn’t exist, and he already knows this. There is zero agreement on the form of a good, correct, or useful tasting note. And because he’s now joined the dozens (perhaps hundreds) of tiresome broadsides against the gibberish of jargon as viewed from outside that jargon, which has a long and anti-intellectual history with regard to wine commentary. Except that Jamie’s not outside that jargon, and so he lacks this excuse.

But that’s not the silliest aspect. What really grates is that Jamie knows very well that understanding wine does not come from discerning and then describing which type of fig most represents 12.3% of its aroma. Understanding wine comes from tasting the wine, tasting its context, visiting its birthplace, discussing its origin and purpose, reading about it, wandering amongst its parents (the vineyard), having it with this food or that, and so forth. Are any one, or all, of those things required to understand a wine? No. But they all help. Each one of them illuminates. And it is the job of the writer, rather than the critic, to translate those illuminations.

More relevantly, for any writer it’s important to understand the difference between writing about one liquid in one glass at one moment and writing about everything that has led to that moment. They’re both worthwhile. But one is the path to sensation and temporal pleasure. The other is the path to understanding.

An inferno in the darkness

Concurrence and dissent. Identification and iconoclasm. On the one hand, but then again on the other. Is it true that, as Jeremy Parzen suggests, that “the English-language dialectic on Natural wine is misguided”?

No. And yes.

The natural wine conversation goes in cycles…for, against, for, against…and while I don’t expect this to change anytime soon, we’ve now moved into a more tiresome phase in which the subject is less natural wine and more how we talk about natural wine, or (worse) who talks about natural wine. On wine fora, we used to call this “talking about talking about wine.” It was considered the final stage of the entropic dissolution of any once-useful topic then, and it should be now.

(And yes, I’ve done my part to speed the decay.)

But when even the Solomon-like (Parzen’s characterization, which I think applicable) Eric Asimov is drawn into the debate, the heat-death of the natural wine universe is surely nigh. Must everyone now weigh in with an opinion on this issue? Scold and counter-scold?

Yet here I am doing just that. Again. I guess I can’t resist a good gathering, especially when there’s wine involved.

I must, with some regret, dissent with my friend Jeremy’s geographic characterization of the natural wine conversation. Ask Michel Bettane about natural wine. Get Pierre Trimbach and Jean-Pierre Frick in a room together (you might want to remove objects both blunt and sharp, first). Gather la famiglia Zanusso, Aleš Kristančič, and a regional industrialist of one’s choice at a lunch table, prime the conversation with a few bottles of friulano or rebula, and watch the radicchio fly in all directions. Or ask around in Germany, where you’ll likely be met by a formalized Teutonic variation on “why the hell would anyone want to do that?”

Nonetheless, there have been points scored on all sides. There actually is a fair bit of rhetorical nonsense flung from the catapults, the debris from which has damaged the entire conversation. To Asimov’s point that the relative scarcity of natural wine makes the volume and tenor of the response nonsensically hyperbolic…well, I’ve been saying that all along, so obviously I agree. In an ideal world, both the heat and quantity of argument regarding natural wine would instead be turned against the true industrialists, the chemical stews that litter supermarkets, and…if we must talk about talking about wine…the critics that unquestioningly support them.

Here’s where the pro-natural “side” (I dislike that term) has a point or two: the pushback against natural wine is, in the majority, commercially motivated. That the lawyerly (I adore Asimov’s term) need to pin naturalistas down to specific statements of practice so that they can then be battered into caricature is not born of a lifelong adoration for purity of principle. And if someone claims otherwise, and that person is in the wine business, I ask them to first offer fully-described and rigidly-bounded definitions of “ripe” and “balanced”…words I’m fairly certain they have not eschewed in their discourse. Then get back to me regarding the definitional haziness of “natural.”

(Crickets.)

No, it’s because natural wines aren’t cutting into Constellation Brands’ profits. They’re instead making a scalpel-sized incision – and really, no more than that – into the market share of wineries who sell not by capturing shelf space, but by capturing imagination. Their market is the person who might pick up a bottle of Inoculated Yeast Family Vineyards Syrah, but is instead talked into trying the Sans Soufre Père & Fils Saint-Joseph. Case-purchasers of animal-label shiraz are interested in neither.

But is this a legitimate fear? I doubt it. First of all, the actual supply of natural wines is miniscule at best, anecdotal at worst, and verging on mythical if one doesn’t live in a very small number of places with the market to support such oenological ephemerae. Second, just by their, uh, nature, natural wines aren’t going to appeal to everyone; the (over-hyped) accusations of biological and/or organoleptic eccentricity are not without merit. And third, natural wines aren’t, even at the extent of imagination, damaging the reputation or the commercial desirability of the most sought-after wines.

In other words, if you’re worried about sales, or worried about having to answer a few hard questions about how you make wine from a few interested consumers, there’s an easy solution: make better wine. Then you don’t need to care. Or, more charitably, you can let your wines speak for themselves.

On the other hand, there is an unpleasant level of religiosity to some of the pro-natural text. Finding winemakers who are so devout that they will spout scientific nonsense, call their neighbors’ wines “poison” not because of excess chemicals in the vineyard but because of minor differences of opinion in cellar practice…or worse…isn’t all that hard. (Nor is finding a neighbor that will call said high priest of naturalism an idiot, which I’m fairly sure doesn’t help smooth over the antagonism.)

Amongst the commentariat the failings are a little different, though the above issues are hardly unknown. One of the key skills any specialist writer has to develop – the earlier the better, but it takes all of us a while – is a healthy skepticism regarding cause and effect. There are many paths to quality wine, and none has unassailable historical or chemical legitimacy. Far too many writers on the subject of natural wine repeat and enhance the aforementioned scientific nonsense and religious doctrine, though whether it’s because they’re members of the sect or because they don’t know how to adjudicate the claims I don’t know. It doesn’t really matter, anyway, as the effect is the same. Writing “this is what winemaker X does” is an essential contribution to a conversation. Writing “this is what winemaker X does, and this is the best way to make wine and express terroir” is a matter of opinion on which people can disagree. On the other hand, writing “this is what winemaker X does, because what winemaker Y does has the following deleterious effects” requires that the writer have their facts straight regarding both the winemakers and the science. Which, unfortunately, is not the case as often as it should be. If one is going to be an advocate, one must secure the lectern to its foundation.

Another key skill for the writer is a healthy skepticism for the easy conflation of palate and practice. I am frequently dismayed at the narrow universe of consumption practiced by some of the most strident advocates for natural wine. (To be sure, a similarly-limited worldview is responsible for the major failings of nearly all wine writers…certainly including myself…but they’re not the subject of this essay.) One may certainly prefer natural wines for reasons ranging from philosophical to aesthetic. But when you’ve worked yourself into a position where you cannot understand, explain, or even acknowledge the affection for paradigmatic wines, when you must deride them for what they are or how they’re made without reference to how they actually taste, you have lost yourself in doctrine and have stopped thinking. Obviously, no one need like a given wine, or even restrain their criticism of a wine that they don’t like, no matter how acclaimed it is. But people with the most strongly-held and virulently-expressed opinions too often crawl inside their own worldviews, at which point they can no longer see outside them.

The rising volume of this wearying debate is why I have long advocated for a dissolution of divisions. There is a market for natural wines, and there is a market for everything else, and rarely do the twain meet. But why not? The context of natural wine is not other natural wines, it is wine. All wine. Natural, no matter how fuzzy the definition, means nothing without its counterpoint, and cannot be understood without a complete view of the spectrum on which it resides. And this is as true for the advocacy (or criticism) thereof as it is for the wines themselves.

More fundamentally, most people do not drink doctrine, they drink wine. As they should. One may be an enthusiastic advocate for natural wines as both a movement and a commercial product while still, in the majority, consuming wines that reside outside that movement. The failure to engage with this reality is an error endlessly repeated on all sides, though with more stridency from the natural wine commentariat, and it represents a lost opportunity. One cannot engage in a conversation about natural wines, especially the essential aesthetic one, if those wines will not leave the comforting embrace of their congregation, and that congregation will not leave the thick stone walls of its church.

But the ultimate failure, most certainly not restricted to the English contribution thereto, is that we talk far too much about right and wrong, about good and bad. We are strangely compelled to assign value, after which ranking and dismissal is all too easy. Instead, we should be talking about how, and we should be talking about why, and we should pause after each challenge to allow the universe of answers their space.

On the other hand, maybe the best solution of all is to stop talking. Because what advocate can make a better case for a wine than the wine itself? A wine, like all wines, of clarity and contradiction, but lacking the destructive human impulse to be right. That does not debate or criticize, but instead makes a simple claim: “here I am. Everything that I want to say is contained within in this bottle. The rest of the story is up to you.”

[pigtail]

Who are you writing for?

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.

“There’s an incredible amount of bullshit. For instance,” he pointed at his screen, “you spend two whole paragraphs avoiding saying that this technology sucks.”

“Well…” I paused to muster a defense. What followed was weak, and I knew it as I said it. I think I offered some mealy-mouthed sauce about not wanting to bite hands that fed and so forth. He cut me off.

“Who are you writing for? Them?” The way he said “them” carried decades of withering scorn. “Is this a job interview or a newspaper article?”

“Uh…”

“I don’t care if they’re your friends. You’re a journalist. You’re writing for the readers. No one else. If you can’t stop bullshitting and get right to the point, if you can’t say something’s crap, if you can’t tell the harsh truth, then you shouldn’t be writing.” I wanted to argue, but I couldn’t. He was right. “Your job is the truth. You don’t go out of your way to be an asshole, but you can’t be afraid of calling somebody one.”

We spent the next two hours going over the piece. I’d say nine out of every ten comments were more or less identical to the above. I went back to my desk, chastened. After which followed a lot of soul-searching, deleting, and rewriting.

When I sent the piece back to Clif, it was so much better. Not because it was tighter, crisper, or any of those buzzwordy things that garner editorial style points, but because I was finally in the words. What I thought, what I felt. What I really wanted to say, once I dropped the filters and the evasions.

I won an award for that piece. I should have given it to Clif. I still would, if I could.


Say what you mean often enough, and someone will get angry enough to call you a name. It’s part of the package, the free-gift-with-purchase of the opinion-mongering membership card. For every name that you’re called to your face (actual or virtual), you can be sure that dozens of unheard imprecations have been uttered your direction.

This is normal. It’s how it’s supposed to work, frankly. People who cannot handle the rebounds shouldn’t be in the game, or at least shouldn’t be taking shots. Should the sting of a rhetorical slapback be felt? Yes, and even more so when a critique of a critic is on-point. Any good counterpunch, any blow soundly-struck, needs to lead to betterment. And if the damage is no longer sufferable, it’s time to cede the field.

Some writers really can’t deal with this sort of thing, and practice various methods of avoidance. For example, saying nice things or nothing at all, per the motherly advice we’ve all received. That’s a worthy, and socially graceful, way to navigate one’s life. But it should not, except in an impossible Panglossian world, be confused for telling the truth.

I’m not suggesting that everyone should be mean, or even that anyone should say exactly what they think regardless of the consequences. That’s an ideologically fundamentalist position that would result in a lot of bloodshed, both metaphorical and actual. Most people should be nice, most of the time.

But critics aren’t most people. Critics are tasked with saying what they think. It’s their job, and more importantly it’s their mission. As such, while they may prefer to be nice, that preference must submit to the necessity of being honest. While honesty does not mean one must be willfully savage, it also means that one cannot avoid saying bad things if bad things are what need to be said.

How much concern has been expressed, over the years, about the dangers of compromised judgment among critics? What most people incorrectly call bias (as if bias is avoidable, which it isn’t), but is actually an problem of entanglement vs. independence? Whether it’s insisting that all tastings must be conducted blind, or that a critic must avoid social contact with those who make or sell what they critique, there is almost no subject capable of getting wine consumers more exercised than the possibility that their critics are not giving them the straight story.

What this really boils down to is honesty. Whatever standards to which one insists a critic must hold, the shared foundational concern is that a critic is telling the truth. I’ve written, many times, that I think people get wrongly hung up on the minutiae of process when what they’re actually interested in is integrity. Does a critic have the personal integrity to call things exactly as he or she sees them?

(Even though I keep using the word “critic,” this question applies in equal measure to the writer, because bias is unavoidable and information is no less malleable via external influence whether or not one is engaging in criticism without trappings.)

If this is all really so frightfully important – and though there’s much disagreement on standards and practices, I think most of us agree that honesty and integrity are crucial – then why should we trust a critic who allows honesty to be filtered, even if it’s through politesse? I doubt many would trust a critic who took the opposite tack and held back commentary that wasn’t venomous. But because we like politeness, because we think we should be nice (and again, in most cases we should), we forgive the everything’s-sunshine-and-roses approach. Let’s be honest with ourselves, though: if we apply such a filter, if we file away at our most negative expressions, we probably don’t exercise corollary pruning of our most positive thoughts.

In other words, we put our fingers on the scale.

Where’s the integrity in that? In the real world of weights and measures, there are punishments for doing this sort of thing. In many judged sports, the highest and lowest scores are thrown out before a final tally is reached. Would those results be improved if we only threw out the two lowest scores? Of course not. So why should critics be encouraged to do exactly that?

Posit a critic who, working with an alleged point rating scale that runs from 50 to 100, only publishes scores above 85, or 88, or some other arbitrary cutoff of superior quality. Do people appear to find this to be serving their interests? Or do they complain about the deliberate holding-back of information they feel they can use…knowing, for example, whether a product was judged inferior (and why) or was simply not encountered by that critic? People are up in arms, of course. They don’t like the imbalanced scale, the unrealistic skew towards smiley-faced positivity. They want the whole picture, blemishes and all. And if that’s what they want, critics are the ones who are supposed to give it to them.


So maybe negativity is not only defensible, but necessary. Maybe it’s the only truly honest way to approach commentary. Still – some will object – do critics have to be so negative about it? Can’t they at least be a little more genteel as they slip a stiletto into the already-bleeding guts of a critical victim? A little less mean?

Here’s an example. A little while ago, someone in the industry accused me of expressing myself in an “antagonistic” way.

There’s a certain truthiness in that. The accusation does not go unacknowledged. It also does not pass without some regret at its applicability, because only sociopaths really like being mean. Especially…and this finds great application in the genial wine world…to people one likes.

But there’s falsehood, as well. Mostly, because it’s untrue: there is never an intent to antagonize in what I write, so anyone who sees antagonism is in error. As I wrote earlier, someone willing to dish out commentary both constructive and un- must be willing to receive same with generous spirit. Thus, I could see this very accusation as antagonistic, but I don’t. Aggressive? Pointed? Sure. But I’m not antagonized, and since I can’t read the mind of the person who uttered the criticism, I can’t accuse him of being antagonistic either. Merely wrong.

Further, for something to be effectively antagonistic, it must be written with self-assurance that antagonism will result. Deliberate untruths will usually do it, but active dishonesty is so easy to spot that this is rarely attempted. Another is to critique motives or intent (especially imagined versions of either) rather than a work, which is at best a logical fallacy and, at worst, a sleazy way to spread insinuation in lieu of argument.

The latter is something I’m sure I’ve done, at some point. It’s wrong, and I shouldn’t have. I try, as one should, very hard to make the only important pronoun in a commentary the first-person singular. I almost certainly fail, at times. But the effort and intent are there.

Do I like saying unkind things? No. I doubt anyone does (and if they do, I have concerns for them that go well beyond the ethics or practice of criticism). Do I have special sadness for relationships damaged or lost as a result? Yes, absolutely. A few seemingly irreparable breakages are a source of ongoing regret; some now linger well over a decade or more, others glisten with fresh ink.

Still, I accept this as one of the costs of offering honest commentary. “Who are you writing for?” asked the most influential crafter of my motivations. Were I writing with no hope of dissemination and no interest in response, the answer might be “me,” and then I could legitimately trump the demands of integrity with a desire to be thought of with kindness by as many people as possible. But no published commentator can do this with their honesty and integrity fully intact, and this is true whatever the subject of commentary, and whatever the grandiosity and remuneration (or, more likely these days, the decided lack of either) of the dissemination.

And yet, despite this, I and most other commentators continue to have friendly relationships with many, sometimes even most, of the subjects of our commentary and criticism. Why?

Respect.


The opposite of love (goes the cliché) is not hate, but indifference. I wonder if the same might be true for respect…that its true antonym isn’t just oppositional disrespect, but the greater disrespect of apathy. The ultimate act of disrespect is thus to ignore, rather than to criticize.

This leads to another anti-negativity argument, though perhaps it could be more generally characterized as an anti-criticism argument, that hinges on the issue of respect. It claims that to be negative can demonstrate a lack of respect for a work. With this I could not disagree more strongly, and the major reason is contained within the previous paragraph: an actual lack of respect is demonstrated by deeming something unworthy of response. The very act of criticism is to, in some sense, accord respect.

To address this complaint properly, however, one must ask: respect for what? There are four entities that may be an object of potential respect: a work itself, a work’s creator, the effort behind a work, and a creator’s feelings about a work.

Respect for a work is inherent in bothering to craft a critical response to it, so that can’t be it. Conflating a work and its creator is a logical fallacy. Emotions? Well, what if the creator hates a work and I love it? Would I be disrespectful for me to say so? I doubt most would think so…in fact, I suspect many would think it an act of kindness. After all, we generally applaud the value of supportive words when a more honest assessment might be negative. Since this is the case, concern about feelings really boils down to the same old argument about whether or not we should say negative things, which has already been addressed (a few thousand paragraphs upward) and can be summed thusly: concern yes, dishonesty no.

So it’s the third entity that’s under examination, and the assertion is that it is disrespectful to criticize a work because of the effort that went into that work. Most often, the complaint is one about proportionality…that the duration or blood/sweat/tears that go into the crafting of a work are not met with a critical assessment reflecting similar effort. As, for example, criticizing a wine with a several-sentence tasting note.

It’s true that wine has a rather long temporal existence before it’s even available to be criticized, if one counts time from grape to glass. One might also consider vine age, a winemaker’s lifetime of experience, even generations of inherited knowledge to be creative factors. Viewed through a narrower lens, the production of a wine is considered “harder” than the production of critical responses to that wine, especially as most will come in the form of tasting notes.

To this there are several possible responses. One is that unless the producer of the note is a complete novice, both history and effort are no less involved. This may include decades of learning to use words in a competent and stylish fashion, a breadth and depth of tasting experience necessary to write better and more contextualized notes, actual training in the science and history of wine, and so forth. The notion that a tasting note is somehow effortless is demeaning to its author. No, tasting and typing isn’t anywhere near as “hard” as the often backbreaking work of making a wine. But do all winemakers write well? Are all wine professionals’ evaluations eagerly sought by consumers? Clearly not. Good criticism requires a different set of skills than winemaking or salesmanship, but it does require those skills. I don’t seek to elevate them above their value, but to dismiss them is offensive.

A second is to wonder if respect is really the right way to think about this. Posit an industrial wine, made with craven commercial intent from the cheapest possible materials. A critical response proportionate to the respect demanded by such a wine would be minimal, at best. (One could easily argue that to treat such a wine to a long, careful analysis would be disrespectful…not to the aforementioned industrial wine, but to other wines that are the result of greater effort, and especially to a reader who’s time is being wasted by serious consideration of a decidedly unserious effort.) By this standard, the respect due other wines would thus be proportional to the effort expended in their production.

But is this wine criticism? No, it’s not. It’s effort criticism. It’s not the letter grade on a report card wherein a student’s actual work is evaluated, it’s the secondary grade wherein the teacher rates effort, judging (by whatever purely subjective standard they choose to apply) the relationship between results and ability. Is little Johnny working up to his potential, or is Jane slacking off? And if they’re both getting an A in the class, which grade matters? Moreover, is effort vs. potential really what we want critics to be judging? “Well, Françoise, I liked your wine, but I think you could have done better if you’d just exerted a little more effort in the vineyard, whereas Michel is a complete incompetent who just made his best wine ever, so even though I like yours more I’m going to spend most of this article praising his.”

The thing is, that sort of effort- and intent-evaluation is exactly the sort of critical arrogance that drives winemakers and their commercial representatives nuts, especially because it’s oh-so-easy to say from the removed comfort of a tasting note, and far less easy to do when one’s ability to pay the utility bills is at stake. Also, it’s ultimately useless, because critics are never going to agree on what efforts should or shouldn’t have been expanded to improve a wine. More or less oak? A later or an earlier harvest? More acidity, or less? Is this climat red-fruited by definition, or is blackberry within the acceptable range? Should a Beaujolais-Villages be built to age for several decades or should it give its best at release?

This isn’t to say that commentary on intent and effort isn’t welcome. It certainly can be, if treated with the right balance of clearly-identified reportage and subjectivity. But as the object of criticism, rather than a context for it? The notion is as misguided as intuiting nefarious motivation in a critic just because one doesn’t like what that critic said.

A third response is to ask if longer-form criticism is actually more desirable. Is, for example, this an inherently superior form of criticism to this? Why? According to who? Opinions certainly vary, because people consume criticism for different reasons and in different ways.

Furthermore, how does one measure respect by length? There’s a wine book on my shelf, written by Jacqueline Friedrich, that treats noted Savennières producer and leading biodynamicist Nicolas Joly to several pages of detailed commentary, finally concluding that he’s lost in ideology and doesn’t actually like wine. Is that “respectful” at any length? Does Joly think so?

Personally, I’m much more interested in whether or not it’s right. For Friedrich it is, for others it might not be. (For what it’s worth, I agree with Friedrich on Joly & ideology, though I wouldn’t wish to comment on his regard for wine.) But she could have reduced her commentary to a single line, as I just did, and still been just as right or wrong. So how did the addition of so many more words make her conclusion more respectful? Maybe there exists some objective and measurable scale of proportional effort. If this is true, a critic must first assess (or divine) the amount of effort that went into a work, and then craft a proportional response. But in that case, an author’s conclusion that Nicolas Joly doesn’t care about wine nearly as much as he cares about ideology would result in a proportional criticism amounting to an indifferently-delivered one-liner; only criticism of his ideology would deserve the “respect” of length.

Note, too, that this assumes one has correctly assessed the effort involved in a work; if one has not (or cannot), a respectful criticism is impossible, except by luck. ESP seems like a high bar to set for any critic, and that doesn’t even begin to address what happens when people disagree about how much effort was actually involved.

And here’s yet another problem. Let’s say there is counter-criticism of the original critique. Who gets to judge the critic’s effort? Critics of critics? By what standard? And must their critiques also be proportional? One can see how this reduces to absurdity in short order. Everyone’s trying to judge effort and intent, usually based on woefully insufficient data and often on utter guesswork, when what they’ve been asked to judge are works.

Then again, the possibility is that this isn’t actually about proportional respect at all. Because I think a survey of the complaints regarding same will not yield a plethora of examples in which too much respect and positive commentary, verbose or otherwise, has been expended on unworthy efforts. No, it’s exclusively about negative criticism.

Now, does this seem probable? That if the true issues are proportionality or respect, that every single example of alleged failure in this regard should just happen to be negative commentary about something beloved of the complainant? If it does, I have a Mr. Ockham here that would like to sell you a bridge in Atlantis.

And so, we’re back to no one appreciating criticism of their work, or work they admire. Not artists, not artisans, not craftspeople, and certainly not critics. But unless we’re prepared to reject evaluation in its entirety – and it’s possible some would like exactly this, though they’re in for a rude awakening regarding human nature – we can’t live in that alleged utopia. So the complaint is really no more than it was before: that we shouldn’t say mean things. Which, again, may be both admirable and a way to accumulate friends, but requires an acceptance of dishonesty if one intends to be a critic.


The assertion that work deserves respect is an unassailable one. (It can be questioned, but there’s no standard by which to adjudicate the matter.) The assertion that any given criticism is disproportionate or disrespectful to the works being criticized is by no means unassailable without more knowledge of intent and effort than anyone non-deified possesses. But let’s assume for the sake of argument that it’s true. What, then, is the solution?

It’s not to be found by tinkering with the components of criticism. If the time span of agriculture, knowledge, culture, and effort that go into a wine can be measured in decades (which is quite reasonable), a proportional criticism of that wine might also take decades, or at least years. How is that even possible? Obviously, it’s not. And as I’ve already explained, we can’t avoid negativity without fudging numbers and suppressing honesty. So we’re going to have criticism, it’s going to be generated faster than much of what it evaluates, and some of it is going to be negative. You can fight these truisms, but you will not win. They’re fundamental to the act of criticism.

We can wish for, or even demand, certain words over certain other words. But isn’t this a just a cleverly reversed version of a critic telling a creator how they believe the latter should perform their job? It’s really no more admirable for someone to tell a critic which words they should and should not use than it is for a critic to tell a winemaker which tools they should and should not use. If winemakers object to the latter – and they have a legitimate claim to their agitation on this point – then critics should object to the former.

But this all misses the true answer, I’m afraid. The actual “solution” to the problem of critical negativity was provided by my much-missed mentor. Ask the following: who is it that’s complaining about negativity, proportionality, and lack of respect? Winemakers and the people who sell wine. The very people whose work is being critiqued, whose monetary oxen are being gored. And is it their judgment that we wish to triumph in this debate? Do we really want Universal Studios deciding which film critics can say what about their movies, Atlantic Records telling music critics that they need to be nicer, Todd English hectoring restaurant critics about respect?

If you are the creator of a work being critiqued, by all means speak up. Correct. Defend. Counter. You are as welcome to the marketplace of ideas as anyone…more so, in fact, since you have specific and relevant expertise. But understand the limits of your role. You have control over what you’ve created. You do not have, nor deserve, control over what the critic creates. They don’t work for you.

And if you’re a critic, ask yourself who you’re writing for. It’s a question that must ground every critic’s work, every word from their pen, every judgment from their mind. The answer must never be those who create or derive monetary benefit from the works being criticized, unless they actually sign your checks. The answer must always be the consumers of both the works and your commentary. If one is critiquing subject to the preferences of the targets of that critique, one has already sacrificed their integrity and their honesty.

Or just listen to Clif, who was always good at getting right to the key point: “You’re writing for the readers. No one else.”

No one else.

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.

Varietal is not the spice

It’s “variety.” It’s almost never “varietal.” Stop using “varietal” unless you’re absolutely certain you know what you’re doing, and even then consider reconsidering.

Evidence on this blog to the contrary, there aren’t all that many things in the wine world that drive me to tooth-grinding agony. I argue, yes, but I do so from a position of peace and goodwill towards all. It’s the Summer of Love, every day, on oenoLogic.

(Um, what’s that? I’m full of what?)

Anyway, the errant conflation of “variety” and “varietal” is the burr in my craw, the stick in my saddle, the hazelnut and pumpkin syrup in my charred coffee. Herein, a brief tutorial, the better to save the oenologician from the grammatical chafing caused by burr, stick, and venti latte. Pay attention, now.

(No, really. Brief. What’s that? I’m even more full of what?)

Variety – This is the word you want when you’re referring to a grape. Pinot noir is a grape variety, which you may shorten to variety. It is not interchangeable with the word “varietal.” And if you think it might be, start swapping the words in situations not related to grapes and see how far it takes you.

“Starbucks offers a varietal of dessert drinks that may, once, have been in the same room with coffee.”

“There hasn’t been a good varietal show on TV since Hee Haw.”

“I’ve eaten deep-fried whale spleen five nights in a row; it’s time to put a little varietal back in my diet.”

See? Doesn’t work. “Pinot noir is a grape varietal” doesn’t work either. Don’t say it. Don’t write it. Don’t think it. (The oenologician waves his hand.) These are not the droids you’re looking for…

Varietal – The adjectival form of “variety.” It is very nearly the case that the only times you will need to use it are to modify the words “composition” and “character.”

“Sauvignon blanc grown on fertile plains, harvested by machine a month before everyone else and at industrial crop levels, then chaptalized, yeasted, and enzymed, probably doesn’t retain much varietal character despite the desperate attempts of global beverage conglomerates to convince you otherwise by putting cute animal drawings on the labels.”

“The varietal composition of a super-Tuscan is irrelevant in comparison to the speed-to-overcompensation ratio of the modified sports coupe driven by its owner.”

There are other uses along these lines that can be correct, but if it’s not explicitly modifying a word, it is very likely that you’re using it incorrectly.

The trouble comes with the other acceptable use of “varietal,” which is to refer to a single-variety wine, and in which the word can transmogrify into a noun. That is to say: if it’s 100% saperavi, it’s a varietal wine, a varietal saperavi – note that, in both cases, “varietal” is happily nestled in its comforting and familiar position of modification – or, in shorthand, a varietal.

This is the only use of “varietal” in which a missing word-being-modified is acceptable. The only use. (Unless, of course, I’m forgetting one. Which I might be.) The Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio, for example, is a varietal wine, a/k/a a varietal pinot grigio, a/k/a a varietal, made up of the fermented pressings from P.T. Barnum’s soul. Châteauneuf-du-Pape, on the other hand, is only very rarely a varietal, but is instead almost always a blend. (Varietal Châteauneuf-du-Pape can be identified, in the absence of directly-sourced knowledge, by the mass of the bottle multiplied by the number of points the wine has received from critics who live in Maryland.)

It would, perhaps, help the ongoing confusion over these terms if even those who understand the differences would attempt to limit their use of the noun form of “varietal” and stick with alternative terms, like “single-variety” or “the first strike of a dumbed-down New World wine nomenclature that’s going to destroy centuries of European winemaking tradition unless we fight it tooth-and-bulldozer, and as long as we ignore that much of Europe has been using varietal designations on their wines for some time now with no deleterious effects for anyone.”

(See what I did there?)

An ether/or situation

[solitary man]No one needs a brief respite from the ongoing (and no-end-in-sight) assault of the living barberas more than me, so why not dive headfirst into the current cri de courriel * of the oenosphere? It’ll be a nice change of pace.

*I know email doesn’t have anything to do with blogs, but the multilingual wordplay was too enticing, and I’m very weak in this regard. Very, very weak.

…wait, hang on. I’m supposed to write about why no one reads wine blogs? A title that comes very, very close to begging it’s own implied question, but instead merely leads to one: for whom am I supposed to write a response, given that we’ve concluded that no one is reading this?

I suppose it’s worth dispensing with a little typically bloggish nitpicking right from the start, since some of the comments there and elsewhere are casting a jaundiced peeper at the data. Tom Johnson (whose autograph is on the cannon that fired this broadside) writes:

[…] the top 100 wine blogs combined would be the 280th most popular blog in the country. […] There are 40 million regular wine drinkers in the United States, and the aggregate audience for wine blogs is maybe a couple hundred thousand people. […] Assuming that people who visit wine blogs visit more than one, even within our self-declared niche, we’re reaching less than 0.5% of our target audience.

OK. So in a general interest newspaper (remember them?), one that might have a wine column (remember those?), what percentage of the total subscriber base is actually reading that column? I’ve been the byline on a fair assortment of same, and my recollection is that the numbers were always pretty discouraging…something that may have come up once or twice during negotiations over freelance rates. As bad as a mere half percent? No, maybe not. But not a whole lot better, either.

Without this keystone, the statistical foundation for Johnson’s argument is showing signs of substandard contracting. Presumably, more people read Andrew Sullivan than Cory Cartwright for the same reasons that more people read Maureen Dowd (shudder) than Eric Asimov…whatever those reasons might be.

But I call this a “nitpick” because, numerical justifications aside, I actually agree with the crux of Johnson’s column.

Let’s first move away from a dull milieu of twisty little tasting notes, all the same? (No one under 40 or who has ever had a girlfriend is going to get that reference.) Yes, indeed. There’s a reason I shuffle the reportage on my weekly glass recycling to another blog, after all. Tasting notes have a utility, and they can be an essential staging ground for insight, but they’re neither the most interesting thing to read nor a facet of wine communication at which blogs or their descendants are ever going to be particularly good, for reasons that Johnson identifies.

More linking to one another? Sure. I don’t think this is a very important problem, though. Wine is not the same sort of collaborative pursuit that the really popular blog topics – politics, parenting, semi-literate cats, sneezing fetishes – are, and while a conversation is more suited to an increasingly social media universe than an endless series of Riedel lecterns, the future isn’t mere linking. It’s actual collaboration, which is going to require all of us to come out of our mothers’ basements for a spell. Hopefully we’ll put on fresh pajamas. GrapeStories is one form that this necessary collaboration will take, but there are other possibilities.

More stories, more insight, more writing? Yes, please. But I’ve already been heard (though apparently by almost no one) on this point.

Significantly, this call n’allez pas aux barricades also happens to dovetail neatly with the other recent snittery of the wine bloggers, Stephen Tanzer’s allegedly inflammatory suggestion that some people have more expertise than others. Yes, Tanzer could have put that a good measure more elegantly, though if his purpose was rabble-rousing-as-free-publicity, I congratulate him on a hand well-played. But I just don’t see that what he said (rather than how he said it) is particularly controversial.

It stands to reason that fewer, but better, voices help focus attention in any field one would like to identify. It’s also completely obvious that enthusiasm is no substitute for experience. (Though: the reverse is both true and worth considering.) That said, I don’t think a proactive culling is necessary, nor is it likely to be effective. Darwin will, eventually, point his Beagle at the survivors, and this will require no help from bloggers or their external critics.

Also, there’s this. The greater percentage of consumers are not yet ready to listen to “us” (meaning blogs), because even the most obsessive cannot possibly keep up with the current torrent of information, and the non-obsessive would neither wish to try nor know where to begin. Until such time as natural selection works its winnowy magic, we are and almost inherently must be a niche talking to a niche. And that’s OK. That is, after all, what this whole public internet thing has been best at since long before there was a web, and the overstuffed toolbox with which the modern publisher must go to work has not changed this truism.

There will be a time when the apes – that’s us in this odd little primate analogy, you know – rise up and take over. Though hopefully with not quite so much violence or overwrought speechifying as Caesar employed in the just-linked movie:

Where there is fire, there is smoke. And in that smoke, from this day forward, my people will crouch, and conspire, and plot, and plan for the inevitable day of Man’s downfall. The day when he finally and self-destructively turns his weapons against his own kind. The day of the writing in the sky, when your cities lie buried under radioactive rubble! When the sea is a dead sea, and the land is a wasteland out of which I will lead my people from their captivity! And we will build our own cities, in which there will be no place for humans except to serve our ends! And we shall found our own armies, our own religion, our own dynasty! And that day is upon you NOW!

(Yeah, that reads like an enraged wine blogger, alright.)

But that day is probably not today. Wine blogs will find their audience, in their time. Or they won’t, and they’ll die out, and some post-Twitter content stream entitled “S%$# My Dad Drinks” will rise above the fields of the fallen. And maybe even get read by more than a half-dozen people.

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