I hope you will read this as a cautionary tale, though apes have only vestigial tales. The wine business is fickle. One day you rule the wine world, and the next day you’re a laughing stock. You’re courted by the wealthiest and most talented people in the business, then they won’t return your hurled excrement. It’s a story as old as human civilization. But it holds a lesson rarely learned. This is the story of one wine critic, an unusual wine critic, I concede, but it echoes across the careers of every wine critic working, and should serve as fair warning to those who aspire to the position. Enjoy your influence while it lasts. But don’t expect it to last very long. It’s only a matter of time before you suffer the same fate as Hairy Vaynerchimp—masturbating in front of kids at your local zoo.
It all began as a joke, but, really, isn’t that how all wine reviewers start? Publishing hopelessly amateurish reviews of wines while sporting imaginatively embellished credentials? There are hundreds of these naked apes in the world, most of them talentless and hopelessly self-delusional. But all that ultimately matters is that consumers begin to believe you, have faith in your integrity and the indefatigability of your palate. Then marketing departments catch wind of you, shower you with free wine, ask you to travel on junkets with other wine writers to far away wine regions in exchange for your glowing recommendations, lavish money on you for speaking engagements—shit that any self-respecting chimpanzee would have nothing to do with. But wine writers and wine bloggers don’t have the integrity of chimpanzees. Many don’t have the grooming habits either. Hairy Vaynerchimp walked, with unopposable thumbs, into a large wine reviewing void. And became legend.
It took some time. Hairy’s is anything but an overnight success story. I raised Hairy from a tender age, shared great wine after great wine with the great ape. He was only a pet, at first. Then I realized he had a remarkable palate, better than most of the “experts” I’d judged with at prestigious wine competitions. Hairy had a more sensitive nose. Once I trained him to ignore wines that smelled like female chimp genitalia—mostly orange wines, and the occasional Vignoles—his judgments were flawless. Chimps aren’t capable of speech, though they can do wonderful impressions of Congressional filibusters, but I had trained Hairy to communicate using a Ouija Board. Over and over he’d point at the letters and spell words familiar to all wine reviewers, words he didn’t understand any more than those fools did when they used them—“minerality,” “terroir,” “authentic,” and “complex.” It wasn’t much of a jump to get a large board with the numbers 80 to 100 painted on it, and teach Hairy Vaynerchimp to point. To my surprise, it didn’t take the chimp long to point between two numbers. Hairy wanted me to record a score of 89+! (Interestingly, Hairy showed no interest in the 20-Point Davis scale—just like everyone else.) So I began to write down Hairy’s reviews. And one day, I started to publish them on a blog.
Hairy was tireless and incorruptible. He could taste and rate 300 wines in just a few hours—he was a hirsute Alder Yarrow! As fast as I could open bottles, Hairy could review them. I rigged an iPad so he could log his descriptions and numbers into the iPad’s memory. I quickly learned to glance at his new reviews before I published them after an embarrassing incident where Hairy described a bottle of 2009 Chateau Margaux as “Tickle me, tickle me.” Though he did give it 100 points, and Paul Pontallier sent him a lovely engraved vibrator (though, mysteriously, it was engraved, “You know where to put this, Molesworth.”). Hairy Vaynerchimp, unexpectedly and quickly, became the wine critic’s wine critic. He smelled bad, he was given to horrible temper tantrums, he would scratch his butt and sniff his finger, he had abominable table manners—he was born to the job.
Soon Hairy Vaynerchimp and I traveled the world tasting wines and publishing reviews. Regional wine associations set up tastings for Hairy. I would walk him into a room full of the best Burgundies, perhaps two hundred wines, and he would be done in an hour and a half. No need for the wines to be served blind. He couldn’t read. Most wine critics can’t write, but Hairy couldn’t read. This was his distinct advantage over them. Hairy Vaynerchimp could not be swayed by a label. I could take him to any winery, taste with the most famous winemakers, and he was absolutely objective. (Though he did once have a man crush on Angelo Gaja, and may have overrated his wines.) Hairy was never tired, never wavered, never became intoxicated. And he could spit into a bucket twenty feet away with an accuracy that would make Monica Lewinsky proud. His scores, his expertise, his objectivity were unassailable. He ruled the wine world, and he couldn’t be bribed--he worked for peanuts. The initials “HV” after a wine review might move several thousand cases. He was Top Banana.
And then it started. How we like to see the mighty fall. Jealous competitors began to chisel away at his reputation. Wine Spectator put Hairy on the cover (many subscribers mistakenly thought it was Marvin Shanken, a stupid mistake seeing as it’s easy to tell them apart—Hairy didn’t like cigars), and published a scandalous and misleading story entitled, “World’s Most Powerful Critic—Does He Pass the Sniff Test?” The British press relentlessly excoriated Hairy, even linking him romantically with J.K. Rowling. Several Burgundy producers filed a lawsuit against Hairy, claiming he’d defamed them when he wrote that he believed several had given him misleading samples—the famous Barrel Samples of Monkey Scandal. Everyone was out to get him. But it didn’t bother Hairy. He was oblivious. He was a chimp.
As quickly as he rose to fame and power, Hairy Vaynerchimp disappeared. He may have been our finest wine critic, combining the work ethic of Robert Parker and the mane of James Suckling. But, as will happen to every wine critic, eventually people tired of him. When he was tasting, everyone said nice things about him, carried him around as he clung to their necks, gave him small treats--in other words, treated him exactly like Steve Heimoff. But when he left the room, people began to badmouth him, impugn his skills, make fun of his porkpie hat, exactly like they did with…you get the picture.
Where is Hairy Vaynerchimp now? I’m happy to say, he’s better off than he’s ever been. He works a lot less, and lives very comfortably. Yes, he’s no longer the most powerful wine critic in the world, but I think he’s OK with that. It all sort of worked out.
I sold him to a bunch of Singapore investors.