Thursday, October 27, 2016

EPHEMERA: The Malcolm Gladwell Paradox

A number of people sent me a link to a podcast by Malcolm Gladwell called, “The Satire Paradox.” Richard Hemming MW also mentions the same podcast in a piece he wrote for Jancis Robinson MW, a piece where I also receive a brief mention. So, of course, I listened to Gladwell’s podcast.

There isn’t a duller subject to write about than satire. E.B. White famously, and accurately, said, “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.” Gladwell’s podcast is forty minutes long but seemed to last several generations of drosophila. Only the examples of satire broke the dullness. I can hear you saying what goes around comes around. Yeah, I get that.

Gladwell’s point, and the point of the experts he quotes, the “paradox” of satire in the title, is that satire is essentially toothless, that it speaks truth to power, but doesn’t actually influence anyone, change minds. So, exactly like podcasts. I happen to agree with all of that. Gladwell also says that we live in a Golden Age of Satire. Are you as amazed as I am at how many Golden Ages we’re currently living in? It’s the Golden Age of Wine Writing, too, I hear. And the Golden Age of Wine as well. Every time I hear the phrase “Golden Age,” I automatically assume the writer knows nothing about the subject. I live in the Golden Age of Skepticism.

Listening to Gladwell’s podcast (and I know nothing about Gladwell, have never read any of his books or listened to any of his podcasts before this), I began to realize that Gladwell knows absolutely nothing about satire, except what he’s read about it. Yet I agree with his conclusions. Satire is toothless, and does not change minds. But Gladwell misses the point.

I’ve been writing HoseMaster of Wine™ for five years, in this incarnation, and another three before that. I write satire. Or, as W. Blake Gray once said when writing about my disagreement with Riedel (and this is my favorite quote about me that I’ve ever read), “Washam, who claims to be a satirist…” That always makes me laugh. Anyhow, in all the years I’ve been writing wine satire, it was never my intention to influence anyone, to change anyone’s mind about the wine business or a wine critic. I don’t care about that. And I don’t think anyone who writes satire actually believes he can alter the course of human events. We do address the coarse of human events, but that’s slightly different.

Satire is often, and predictably, said to be a way of speaking truth to power. Perhaps. I’m slightly uncomfortable with that definition. Satire is more often a way of speaking truth to the ignorant. Perhaps that’s the same thing; I might concede that. But “truth” is a slippery concept in satire. Every reader brings their own truth to a piece. And they find funny in the piece only where they agree with it, almost never where they don’t. No one reads satire to discover truth, they read satire to laugh, and to laugh at other people they think are stupider, or more arrogant, or more powerful, or more important than they are.

Power, unfortunately, is unable to hear truth very well. So only an idiot would spend his life trying to speak truth to power. That’s like debating Donald Trump. A yuge waste of time. Sometimes the glass is half-empty, and sometimes the glass is half-empty. Satire depends upon viewing the world from a skewed perspective. It tries to show truth by glancing at hypocrisy and hubris and evil out of the corner of the eye, or by exaggerating its victim’s weaknesses and/or foibles to make them laughable. The aim isn’t to change a reader’s mind, but to make him laugh at the absurdity of the human condition. There’s no paradox in that.

This is not to say that satire isn’t a powerful weapon. It can be. Except that it’s a weapon rendered harmless when the object of the attack plays along. Smart and powerful people play along. It’s safe to say I’ve insulted just about everyone in reach in the wine business, lampooned them mercilessly, but, while fun, it doesn’t succeed unless the “victim,” reacts in a negative way. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Georg Riedel. Smart people understand satire’s ultimate impotence. Others do not, and feel the need to respond. Which, of course, plays into the satirist’s very weak hand. If Riedel doesn’t threaten to sue me (and Tim Atkin MW), I have far fewer readers, far less influence (which ain’t much anyway), and I probably never get invited to speak at the Napa Valley Professional Wine Writers Symposium, never meet Lisa Perrotti-Brown MW, never get asked to write for the Wine Advocate’s new website, and more than likely never win a Roederer Wine Writing Award. So maybe it was Riedel’s reaction to the HoseMaster of Wine™ that changed minds and influenced people, in a way satire cannot. And doesn’t intend to.

Gladwell’s podcast is harmless. But it’s certainly not insightful (which, I hear, is how people think of Gladwell, that he’s a perceptive thinker). The premise is false, and so the conclusions become rather useless. Satire is written not to influence people or create change, but to make people laugh, occasionally make them think, and often make them uncomfortable. It may speak truth to power, but that’s simply a starting point, a way in to a place where it can make people laugh at the world, at the constant foolishness of men, at the hypocrisy and lies that take up too much of our time and consciousness. As a weapon of mass destruction, it’s as toothless as a guppy. Satirists don’t want power, Malcolm, satirists despise power. We reap the benefits of powerlessness. Laughter and courage.

There’s great joy in writing satire and making people laugh, making them squirm. Satire intends to be raucous, often tasteless, it intends to be outrageous and fearless. You cannot pull punches and be good at it. It requires a mean-spiritedness that is tempered with truth and laughter. It’s an outlet for the outlier, a way of trying to make sense of a world gone irredeemably mad. That’s enough of a burden to hang on satire. To see its goal as changing the world, influencing people, is simply, well, laughable.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan on Wine

While it may have come as something of a shock to many people when Bob Dylan was awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature, it certainly wasn’t a surprise to those of us who have followed Dylan’s brilliant wine writing over the years. At least it wasn’t as much of a surprise as the announcement that Pete Rose had won the Nobel Peace Prize, or that Julian Assange won Miss Teen USA. Won her in a Trump for President raffle.

I'm not one of those people who thinks Bob Dylan is a great American poet. Now, Smokey Robinson, there's our generation's Emily Dickinson. But I do admire Dylan's wine writing, which, it seems to me, has been shamefully neglected. So I've collected a few of Dylan's best pieces of wine writing and posted them over at the Wine Advocate's Wine Journal. Wander over there and see what you think. I can hardly wait for Dylan's thoughts on 2016 Bordeaux. Though more than likely it will be his usual assessment, "Don't think twice, it's all right."


Monday, October 17, 2016

The Godfather Parker and Pretty Boy: The Movie

Here's a piece I'm quite fond of, written in March of 2013. Parker had just sold the majority shares of Wine Advocate to Singapore investors, and Galloni announced he was leaving the publication. I'm not sure what triggered me to write this as a "The Godfather" parody, but it seemed to work. I rarely revisit a piece and laugh, but I liked a lot about this piece. It just seems to work. I'm enjoying my little October vacation, and this Best of HoseMaster, I think, actually qualifies for that title. Of course, by definition, that's a low bar to get over.

The Story So Far: Don Parker has increasingly been feeling the ravages of time. His back hurts, his gout is acting up and his prostate is the size of Mary Lou Retton, and performing better backflips. He checks it constantly with his thumb. Don Parker’s power is waning, his once indomitable empire is challenged on every front, his influence is still powerful yet he wields it clumsily now, bestowing gifts of 100 points willy-nilly where once he bestowed fear and envy. Don Parker is used to being feared and revered, but now the talk is only of his age and weakness—he feels the wolves nipping at his heels, trying to separate him from the rest of his pack of critics because he is one of the old and infirm; and though they are all old and infirm, it’s more fun to take down the one who was always the most powerful. Plus, he’s the only one with any meat on his bones.

Don Parker has recently told his Family that he is selling his empire to an Asian Family. The Family is in an uproar. Things are made worse when he hands the reins over to the only woman in the Family, Donna Lisa “The Blowfish” Peretti-Brown. This is no business for a woman. The Parker Family fortune is based on the 100-Point Scale; most women don’t like scales. The Family sees it as a mistake. On top of that, a year earlier, Don Parker had been forced to make one of the Family, Jay “The Walrus” Miller, disappear. “The Walrus” got caught with his hand in someone else’s till, and Don Parker didn’t like it. “The Walrus” begged, he even blubbered (blubber is how he got his nickname), but Don Parker had no choice. In a powerful and poignant scene, Don Parker kisses “The Walrus” on the lips. “86,” he whispers to “The Walrus,” whose face shows he recognizes it’s not a score.

But now Don Parker’s favorite son, Antonio “Pretty Boy” Galloni, wants out of the Family. Don Parker had personally groomed “Pretty Boy” Tony to be his ultimate replacement, the new Don of the Parker Empire. But the impeccably mannered, yet headstrong and temperamental, Galloni doesn’t want to work for “The Blowfish” and her shady Asian overlords. He intends to leave, and take the Family secrets with him. As the scene opens, we are in Don Parker’s office in Monkton. Don Parker sits behind his desk, the head of “The Walrus” is beautifully stuffed and mounted on the wall behind him, with what appear to be the testicles of an M.W. dangling from his mouth. A plaque beneath says, “Miller Teabagging Campo.” Next to Miller’s head is a crucifix. It’s “The Walrus” and the Carpenter. Antonio “Pretty Boy” Galloni enters. Don Parker stays seated.

Don Parker:  Come in, Pretty Boy, come in. It’s nice to see you. How’s your wife? I’d stand up to greet you, Tony, but my back hurts from carrying Bordeaux all these years.

“Pretty Boy”:  My wife is good, Don Parker. She asks for you. She wants to know when  you’ll grace us with a visit.

DP:  Soon, I hope, Tony, soon. (He pauses.) Does she know about your decision to leave the Family?

PB (Tony is clearly shocked Don Parker knows of his plans to leave.) No, I… I haven’t told anyone. I wanted to speak to you first, Godfather. How did you know?

DP:  I know you like I would know my own son, my own flesh and blood. I gave you life, Tony, I made you somebody. I gave you money and power and the knowledge to abuse it. And this is how you thank me? (He glances over his shoulder at “The Walrus.”) You take everything and just walk away? Is this how you show your gratitude to me, and to the Family?

PB(humbly) Godfather, I always told you that I wouldn’t do contracts. Didn’t I? Didn’t I always say, “I don’t do contracts?”

DP(quietly) You come to me, how many years ago now, Tony, three? And you’re tired of being nobody, your little publication, you’ll excuse me, it’s shit. Twelve guys and a chimp read it, and the chimp wants a discount because he’s a blogger. So I give you a real job, I hand you my name and my reputation, I teach you how to use the 100 Point Scale the way a man uses the 100 Point Scale—like you use your salami on a woman, Tony. It’s the tip that matters. 95 to 100, the tip, that’s what gets you in. In return for all that I’ve given you, Tony, you won’t do a contract? I’m the Don of this Family. If I say contract, you do a contract.

PB(deliberately) I cannot work for “The Blowfish.” This was never a part of our Family, Godfather. (now angrily) You sold the Family! You sold it and took all the money. And then you ask me to work for some Asians and a woman? Like I’m some miserable Napa Valley winemaker? No, Godfather, I have my pride. Why couldn’t you have made one of the other family members Don?

DP:  Who, Tony, I ask you, who? David “The Windbag” Schildknecht? Mark “The Pretender” Squires? Neal “Buttkiss” Martin? Come on, Tony, it was supposed to be you. Don Antonio. But you couldn’t wait, you couldn’t just sign a contract and wait until I die. No, you had to try and kill your Father, betray me, betray the entire family. For what? Another of your shit publications? I know you, Tony, I knew you would try to leave. So I gave my title to “The Blowfish.” To teach you.

PB(A long pause, Tony trying to stare down Don Parker.)  I’m leaving, Godfather. I ask you for your blessings.

DP(he is thoughtful) If you go, Tony, you must not take anything of the Family with you. You must not betray any of our secrets, our codes—the Family business stays here. This you must swear to me on your life, on your wife’s life.

PB:  But I must use the 100 Point Scale. That is no secret, Godfather. Everyone uses the Scale, it is not yours.

DP:  I will not have you abuse it!

PB:  Abuse it?! You’re the one who abuses it, Don Parker! Everyone, all the other families, the Strums, the Shankens, they’re all talking about your abuse of the Scale. They want to destroy you, Godfather. But, no, you’re smarter than they are. You’re destroying yourself first. Handing out 100 point scores like they’re Cuban cigars to celebrate that you’ve screwed another wine region.

DP:  It was you, Pretty Boy, who didn’t hand them out often enough. You disappointed me, Tony. In front of everyone, you insulted me. Lowered my scores, MY SCORES!, on wineries I made rich and famous. You made me a laughingstock. Made me look like a tired, bloated old man. And now this. You leave me, my lifetime of work paving a path for you, my money lining your pockets, my fame the only light your name has, and you leave me. Go, Tony, never darken my door again. I’ll have your head up there with The Walrus if you do.

PB:  I take my work with me, Don Parker. It was always mine. It was never yours. If you try to take it from me, I’ll give it away, and with it, all your secrets.

DP(wearily) Fine, Tony. No one gives a crap about Sonoma, or your scores for Sonoma. Even I barely showed my face there. Farmers, they’re just ignorant farmers. It’s Burgundy all over again. (He sits up straighter. There’s a long pause.) I want you to know I wish you the best of luck, Antonio. Come here.

(Tony walks over behind the desk. Don Parker slowly rises. He looks at him squarely in the eyes. Tony lowers his, and Don Parker gently kisses him on the lips.) 

DP:  Goodbye, Antonio.

(The music swells, Pretty Boy leaves, a look of satisfaction on his face. And as the next scene opens, we see Pretty Boy in bed, the sheets covered in blood. Tony awakens, feels and smells the blood. He begins to panic, his breathing accelerates, and when he throws the sheets aside we see the bloody head of James Suckling, his mouth wide open and his eyes bulging, as in real life.

Antonio screams.)