The longer I’m in the wine business, the more fascinated I become with the marketing of wine. Not that it’s any different than, say, the marketing of movies. In fact, it seems like all marketing makes me think the same thing over and over, “Who the hell falls for that?” Now your question to me might be, “Who falls for what?” And you’ve answered my question.
Let’s first define wine marketing. It’s prevaricating. If you can’t put your hand on a Bible, swear in open court that what you’ve said is true, and not go to jail for perjury, it’s lying. Oh, it’s sophisticated lying, it’s lying by implication and dishonest associations, but it’s still lying. For example, “Our vineyard is right next to Harlan Estate,” which may, in fact, be true, but is meant to imply that therefore the wine is of the same quality. Which is like saying, “That’s my husband, the guy standing next to Brad Pitt,” as proof that Angelina Jolie wants to fuck him and bear his adopted children. (I think Edgar Allan Poe wrote a story about that very situation--“The Pitt and the Pudendum.”) Only, unlike wine, anyone can tell he’s not Brad Pitt without having to put him in her mouth and taste him. Wine marketing relies on the consumer’s ultimate ignorance about wine, and their insecurity about their wine knowledge. Which is why it’s so much fun to be a wine marketer! Playing folks for fools is endlessly entertaining.
I’ve assembled a few rules to remember when reading winery marketing material. This is not a complete list, but it should help you navigate some of the garbage that surrounds the marketing of wine.
It’s Important to Tell a Wine’s Story
Every damned winery has a story. Let’s not forget that a story only has to be good, only has to be interesting, it certainly doesn’t have to be true. I love a good story as much as the next guy, the one standing next to Brad Pitt, but every time I read a puff piece in Wine Spectator (about a winery that, only coincidentally, is owned by one of their major advertisers), or yet another asinine winery review on a wine blog (Alderpated on Vornography passing off winery marketing propraganda as journalism), I cringe. Wine marketing sells you romance when it wants to screw you, just like your ex-boyfriend. Winery stories are the business’ Lifetime movies—they’re “based on a true story.” You see, you always have to qualify “story” with “true,” otherwise it’s not. You don’t have to qualify “true.”
Please, God, can we put an end to telling every winery’s story? The stuff that was made up in marketing meetings? Meetings where they discuss whether to use the word “natural,” or whether it should be “authentic.” I know, I know, let’s use “sustainable.” That doesn’t mean anything legally, and it sounds like we care. Splooge Estate is sustainable! The only question is, is my straight face sustainable?
In Wine Marketing, Two Half-Truths Equal a Truth
“Our winemaker worked in Burgundy. Our vineyards are on the exact same latitude as the Côtes d’Or. So our wine is very Burgundian.” Beware of the word “Burgundian.” It is a word that is only used for the worst Pinot Noirs and the dreariest Chardonnays. It’s marketing shorthand for, “I don’t know shit about Burgundy, but I’m also sure you don’t know shit about Burgundy.” It’s also lazy wine marketing. It takes no imagination or thought, but it flatters the client no end. “Oh, honey, tonight’s dinner was absolutely French Laundrian.” As it turns out, what may sound like praise is basically sarcasm. Remember that the next time a winery claims its wine is Burgundian. They’re probably just being sarcastic. Laugh like you're in on it.
I’m the Expert on Expert Opinions
There’s a reason wine marketing folks praise wine bloggers. They desperately need their opinions to have meaning. There’s no difference between wine writing and wine blogging, they’ll have you know. Just like there’s no difference between your high school production of “Death of a Salesman” and one on Broadway. Teenagers can be actors, too, and they understand the context just as well as the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Only an idiot would think otherwise. You just have to memorize some lines, after all, and you, too, can be Willy Loman. Hey, what’s an MS made of but memorization? See? There you go. (See section above.)
Points, medals, blurbs from bloggers, it’s all the same. Make them all seem meaningful. But it’s something of a descending order of preference for wine marketing. No Parker score worth touting? Talk about the one Gold Medal you received out of the ten competitions you entered. No Gold Medals? Well, you got a nice little mention on the blog that won “Best Reviews on a Wine Blog,” an award given by marketing folks. In fact, any blogger that mentions your wine is an expert! He’s a wine writer. Which implies he’s a wine expert (see paragraph two). Hell, we’re all wine writers! I know, let’s put on “Death of a Salesman” and we can all be actors, too! I got dibs on Biff.
Words Have No Meaning
Marketing people love language the way troubled teenagers love razor blades. It’s a sick and destructive relationship. There are countless words that have been deprived of all meaning in wine marketing. Words that are tossed around like so many dwarves in a bowling alley. Here are just a few.
Terroir—Once a word that was used by winemakers of an appellation to say that a particular wine possessed telling characteristics of its origins, much as a person might reflect his culture. “Terroir” has now come to mean whatever the person uses it thinks it means—sort of like the word “truth” on the Internet.
Old Vines—How many 35-year-olds think they’re old? Humans and grapevines have similar lifespans, if anything, grapevines can outlive us. So how is 35 old? Or 50? What are we, still in the fucking Middle Ages? Are the best wines in the world made from old vines? I always thought the best wines came from the best vineyards. Old vines are just a novelty in the United States, I guess. Like watching Harrison Ford or Woody Allen get the young girl in a movie. I guess it’s because their balls have had longer hang times that the girls want them.
Balance—We pursue it. Every other winemaker else ignores it. We now own it. Want to have balance? Submit a sample. We’ll tell you if you do. Otherwise, fuck off.
OK, I made a deal with Mr. Koch to tell everything I know about wine
fraud. You know, I think it’s going to feel good to get all this off my
chest, to finally tell the truth. I’ve been thinking about it a lot in
my prison cell, and I’m actually excited. I think it will be cathartic.
OK, so here it goes, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
Finally, in his words, Rudy tells all, or does he? Continue reading at Tim Atkin MW! And don't forget to leave authentic comments there, and save the fakes for here.
The endless and tiresome debates about natural wine that are raging around the wine world finally convinced me that I should make it a point to not read Isabelle Legeron’s “Natural Wine,” and to review it blind. Reviewing a book without having read it is the only way to objectively analyze its content. It is no different than reviewing a wine blind. Actually reading “Natural Wine” would only bring my knowledge and experience into play, qualities that have no place at the reviewing stand. As in wine reviews, ignorance is surely the reviewer’s most specialized and valuable tool. One has only to scan Wine Spectator scores for this to be self-evident.
First, allow me to note that I have a fondness for natural wine. I also like Renaissance Faires, and think Amish people are just so damned cute. Critics who don’t like proponents of Natural Wine, like Isabelle Legeron, MW, need to remember just how adorable they are, all anti-progress and anti-science. So sweet! Come on, who needs sulfites when you have Luddites? Come to think of it, I also like cookie dough, or as I like to call it, Natural Cookies. Cookies baked in newfangled ovens are just so fake. Some flour, some raw eggs, some yeast--cookies make themselves! And here’s a tip: Nothing goes with Natural Wine Pinot Noir better than some juicy Salmonella you contracted from Natural Cookies.
Isabelle Legeron is one of only 312 Masters of Wine in the world. She achieved this distinction by learning about, writing about, and learning to identify blind all those second-rate, obviously poorly-made wines not produced in the natural way. Crap like d'Yquem, Vega Sicilia, and all of those stupid First Growths. This must have been murder on such a delicate, sophisticated, discriminating palate. Her accomplishment of earning an MW is, for her, akin to going undercover and passing as a sex trafficker. As a society, we owe her an enormous debt of gratitude for uncovering firsthand the nightmare that is modern wine, and can only imagine the suffering and indignities she witnessed and endured. I mean, come on, Clive Coates was always hanging around. What must that have done to her?
For those of you who have been living in a cave, and are, therefore, the target audience for Natural Wines, it would probably be useful to define “natural wine.” Yup, sure would be. The book is filled with hints, but an actual definition is elusive. It seems to start in the vineyard. Natural wines can only come from vineyards that are farmed organically or biodynamically. OK, this is starting to make sense. I like that Natural Wines give diseases a fighting chance. I think we all agree that vaccines are bad things, too, causing problems like autism, overpopulation, and unattractive scabs. Diseases are natural, and deserve a chance to impact the wine. So I’m in complete agreement on this count.
Also, according to “Natural Wine,” which I have not had the pleasure of reading (amazingly, English is Legeron’s third language, after French and Elvish), natural wines are made with as little intervention as humanly possible, sort of like Mexican cures for cancer. Frankly, I agree with Legeron on this point as well. I’ve long said that the best way to improve wines is to reduce the number of winemakers, though I advocated automatic weapons and anthrax. Grapes evolved for tens of thousands of years without human interference, and, honestly, made the finest wines in history. Bill Koch has some in his cellar he bought from a very reputable auction house. Amazing the vines were able to bottle.
If the ordinary wine buyer of today actually knew how wineries manipulate wine, knew all the tricks and additives they employ, they would be outraged. And for what? To make them taste good? That’s hardly justification. As Legeron points out, we constantly worry about where our food comes from and how it’s handled, why shouldn’t we apply the same criteria to wine? (Legeron is our Michael Pollan of wine. Yet the laugh is on her—grapes are self-Pollanating.) I think she’s right. When I dine at a fine restaurant that uses only sustainably grown produce and responsibly raised meats, I sure as hell don’t want a chef screwing it up. And wine is exactly the same as food, when you think about it—a luxury item. Not everyone in the world needs it. Oh, sure, people will complain, but someone has to draw the line and tell them, No, natural is the only way and if there isn’t enough, if it’s unavailable, you’ll just have to do without. The best food available, just like the best wine, is all that matters. Well, when you’re at the top of the food and wine chain anyway.
As I neared the end of the book, having not turned a single page, I found myself in agreement with almost everything Legeron writes about Natural Wine. Of course, this isn’t surprising given that she is a Master of Wine, and their opinions are oenological Apostolic Exhortations, no matter how oeno-illogical they might seem. Legeron also declaims the overuse of sulfur (a certain sign of the presence of Satan) in winemaking, as well as sulfites at bottling. I think she’s right. Nearsighted critics of her work complain that the natural winemaking methods she outlines will almost always lead to faulty wines. As though this were a bad thing.
First of all, faults are in the eye of the beholder. It’s no different than falling in love. Are we going to let chemistry get in the way of recreational sex? Hell, no. Chemistry is just as detrimental in wine evaluation. It robs you in its relentlessly logical and unforgiving way of the pleasure of just holding your nose and getting drunk. And getting drunk on a beverage that was made the right way, has all its wet spots in the right place, to further my analogy. Chemistry has no place in winemaking.
Secondly, with time, those “faults” go away. How do we know this? Legeron tells us so, and if there is one thing you learn from reading “Natural Wine” it’s that what separates Natural Wine from all other lesser wine is Faith. And, truly, the wine business needs Faith. Faith is what separates man from lowly, filthy beasts. Faith is what separates Natural Wine from Stupid Wine. Faith that manure from a lactating cow buried for six months, blended with fermented flowers and specific herbs, mixed with untold gallons of water will restore micro-organisms to the soil. Faith that a winery is so clean you can ferment wine in it without fear of contamination. Faith that your senses are lying to you when you stick your nose in and then taste a “faulty” wine, not the salesman serving it. Faith that your purity of intention and love for the Earth will guide you to select the bottle of Natural Wine from the displayed case of Natural Wine that is the bottle variation that is drinkable and delicious. Faith that wine is meant to be sackcloth, a lesson in humility, and not hedonistic pleasure.
I very much enjoyed Isabelle Legeron’s “Natural Wine.” I just wish they’d printed it with natural ink.
After 19 years as a Sommelier in Los Angeles, twice named Sommelier of the Year by the Southern California Restaurant Writers' Association, I moved to Sonoma County to explore the other aspects of the wine business. I've spent, OK wasted, 35 years learning about and teaching about and swallowing wine. I am also a judge at the Sonoma Harvest Fair, San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition and the San Francisco International Wine Competition--so I can spit like a rabid llama. I know more about wine than David Sedaris and I'm funnier than James Laube. Stay tuned for an informed but jaded view of everything wine and everything else.
I'm living proof that alcohol kills brain cells.
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