Monday, December 29, 2014

The Emperor in Winter


For more than thirty years I was the most powerful critic in the history of the world. I say that with complete humility. There were many critics in my chosen field, but they were to me as carbuncles are to my hairy butt—I never saw them, but they were forever riding my ass.  My words alone were enough to make fortunes, while their weak exhortations were the critical equivalent of Bitcoin—imaginary money, imaginary influence. I declared geniuses and goddesses in an occupation that otherwise generated only pretenders, robots and dinosaurs. I found no joy in being the most powerful critic in the history of the world. I’m glad to be done with it. I hope to miss it someday.

Now that it’s over, I can reflect on my accomplishments. With the clarity of hindsight, I can see the reach of my influence. Wine will never see my like again. The world has changed. I began in the print era, when reviews had the timeliness of messages in a bottle. Reviews had to be delivered by the Postal Service, which is like wiping your nose two weeks after you sneeze. Really doesn’t do anybody any good. Every review seemed to be published months too early, or weeks too late. There were only a few important regions to cover—Bordeaux, Burgundy, Napa Valley, Tuscany, and the Rhône Valley. No one bought German wine. They still don’t buy German wine. Who buys German wine? German Riesling is the greatest white wine in the world that nobody buys. It’s the Edsel of wine. It’s the Betamax of wine regions. It’s the Conan O’Brien. I drink it about as often as I read Decanter. Which is also too often cloying.

I was in the right place at the right time. Wine publications are in their death throes now. Many of them are magazine zombies, still stumbling around stiff-legged, eating the brains of their contributors, which are slim pickings, and not even aware they’re dead. They’re frightening consumers, all these wine critics walking around dead, still publishing scores when they should be resting in their Graves. And now the zombies are eating other zombies. Vinous devoured the brains of International Wine Cellar to create a super-zombie. Tanzalloni! Tanzalloni wants to become the most powerful critic in wine, but even a super-zombie is still the walking dead. Even a team of Tanzalloni zombies walking the wine regions of the Earth won’t have the power that I once possessed. Everywhere they go there is the smell of death on them, a smell that will not go unnoticed by winemakers. Marketing people won’t smell it, of course, they’re used to the smell of death, having killed truth a long time ago. But the wine world has begun to notice that there are nothing but magazine zombies among us, and that their days of walking the Earth, dead or undead, are numbered.

When I ruled the wine world, people knew what to expect. “Integrity” was my middle name. Even my severest critics at the end of my career acknowledged that. They always referred to me as “R.I.P” in tribute to it being my middle name. When I had all the power, the wine world was a simpler place. I made it that way. I introduced the 100 Point Scale to criticism. What’s simpler than that? I understood before anyone else the wine-buying public’s deep-seated need to be shallow, their passion for the easy answer, for shortcuts to expertise, their love for distilled wisdom, their willingness to pay for someone else to make them seem savvy to their friends. I wrote complex and florid tasting notes to go with the scores I awarded, but I knew that those notes were read about as often as Miranda rights in Missouri. It was the numbers that were magic. Wine doesn’t have to be complicated, the numbers said. No wine is unique, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. No matter what, they all have numbers, somewhere between 80 and 100. Only 21 different kinds of wine. Even you can understand that. This is my proudest accomplishment.

When I was at the peak of my power, wine knew it had to answer to me. When I awarded a wine 100 points, everyone knew how to make a great wine. Before I came along, the wines of the world were all over the place stylistically. This was stupid and confusing for the average consumer. Imagine that every time you read a James Patterson book it was different! How annoying would that be? You want it to be the same formula every single time. Same with Bordeaux, or Australian Shiraz, or Super Tuscans. Thanks to me, the average consumer can go to his local wine shop and buy a $150 Napa Valley Cabernet that will taste exactly like the last $150 Napa Valley Cabernet he purchased! Sure, there’s some variation, winemakers aren’t perfect, they don’t really know a 96 point wine like I do, but it will be pretty damned similar. Again, I’m proud of this. I standardized Bordeaux and California, Oregon and Washington, Spain and Italy.  There may be 5000 different grapes, but, dammit, there are only a handful of styles. Someone had to do it. It was chaos when I started. Someone had to set some standards. I was to wine what The New York Times Book Review is to literature. Its savior.

And now I’m through. I refuse to become a zombie. Let the damned Singapore mafia be the zombies, I’m finished. I’m the Emperor in Winter. I leave the wine criticism to the current tribe of zombies—Laube, Robinson, Olken, Meadows, Teague, McInerney, Bonné, Asimov… Be careful out there, wine lovers, they’re here to eat your brains. McInerney will probably go for your nuts, too. As for who will replace me, and the zombies still walking the Earth, I don’t know who that will be. Surely not the feckless and tiring voices of the Internet, that loud chorus of poodles barking into the darkness. If they ever move the needle, it’s just the irritating sound of it scratching along the surface of the LP. Their influence is that of a single Saccharomyces in a puncheon of hedonistic Syrah—not measurable or unique, and destined to die once all the sugar has gone. And the sugar is almost gone.

No, there will never again be a most powerful critic in the world. Oh, certainly wine will endure. People will still buy according to the 100 Point Scale—it is so stupid it is immortal. But wine will be adrift. Lost. Untethered. Wine drinkers will have to fend for themselves, try to understand wine on its own terms, find their own measure of its quality.

More’s the pity.


36 comments:

Sybaritewino said...

Great piece to end the year with wit and cheer!

WineKnurd said...

"Their influence is that of a single Saccharomyces in a puncheon of hedonistic Syrah—not measurable or unique, and destined to die once all the sugar has gone. And the sugar is almost gone."

Destined to die once they have released copious amounts of hot waste gas is more like it :)

-WineKnurd

jock said...

"only 21 different kinds of wine" - Among your many insightful writings this may be the most insightful ever. RIPRP

Robert Millman said...

You got it exactly right. In tone and content. Today's hipster somms and consumers have no interest in scores. Only in a new kind of pedigree--where the grape farmed bio, are the barrels at least 10 years old, was the sulfite content under 10 parts per billion, is the terroir pre-Jurrasic etc. Taste and aroma? Largely irrelevant. rdmill

Doug Frost said...

Word!

David Larsen said...

This post ranks in my top 10 by the Hosemaster. But maybe its just easier to make me laugh this early on a Monday morning? Regardless, reading it was a great way to start the week.

Tony Lombardi said...

Epic Ron! Happy New Year!

Karl Kelsey said...

Ron - Perfect end to an imperfect year. I have always felt that one of life's crucial lessons is to learn to tell the difference between a gasbag and a blowhard. You are skating on the edge, which I love; describing the gasbag phenotype with blowhard perseveration! Well done! May the wind continue to blow at your back.

Andy Perdue said...

I give this 97 points.

Tim Mcnally said...

Well, that certainly cheered me up. Thanks, Ron.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Hey Gang,
Thank you for all your kind words about this piece. I have a few problems with it, but that's what happens when you don't rewrite. I wish I had done more to imitate Mr. Parker's extravagant tasting note language--that could have provided some high comedy. But no matter.

Thanks, Sybaritewino, much appreciated. Wineknurd! Nice! Wish I'd phrased it closer to your way. And, Jock, I wouldn't say I've had many insightful writings--for the most part, I'm just a Fool.

Bob Millman,
You're not a common tater often enough, but thanks for chiming in here. There was always going to be a Parker backlash at some point, a veering away from his style of wine and indefatigable palate. What's amazing is that it took so long. And what's crazier is Tanzalloni wants to replicate it. Crazy business.

Doug Frost!
Ladies and gents, an MW and an MS in the house! A twofer. Thanks, Doug, for hanging out in my little corner of the Intergnats.

Tony, thank you, and Happy New Year to you.

Karl, the best way to lampoon gasbags and blowhards is as a gasbag and blowhard--the Archie Bunker effect. It is a tightrope walk, but, like wine, balance is everything. Happy New Year!

Andy, now even you are suffering from score inflation. Happy New Year, my friend.

Tim, I'm glad to hear it. But, man, you have a low threshold of cheering up. Happy New Year!

Charlie Olken said...

Well, dammit, you've done it again. Put my name in the same sentence as Lettie Teague's.

I have known for sometime now that I was a zombie. It makes no sense that people send money to me and Tanzalloni and listen to Laube and Steiman and Burghound et al.

After all, in this age of the Internet, one does not need to taste wine to choose one from tens of thousands. The truth is out there in the pack of poodles.

I rather like the comments of Robert Millman. They may be exaggerated but then all satire is--even when satire takes the form of sarcasm.

You are to be congratulated, of course, for being able to write this column without resorting the immortal words of John Maynard Keynes, "in the long run, we are all dead".

Even zombies have to die sometime.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Puff Daddy, Most Revered Common Tater,
Happy New Year!

I wrote this piece prior to last week's piece--your nearness to Teague is coincidental. Or is it?

The wine writer/zombie analogy just popped into my twisted brain as I was writing as the Emperor, but it struck me as perfect, especially in light of Galloni buying, and consuming with a nice Chianti, Tanzer's brain. And then, of course, I took it to an absurd level.

The entire piece began as I wondered what Parker must think about as his career begins to come to a close. I could have written several thousand more words, but I know about a thousand words is about all anyone can pay attention to on the Intergnats. It was a fun piece to write--and very few are fun to write. I'm glad it seems to be liked.

Don Clemens said...

Thanks, Ron. You never let me down. I feel as though I ought to ask, "What are you wearing?", you being Emperor and all. This column is a great way to end a year of great posts.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Don,
Thanks! It's not what I'm wearing, it's THAT I'm wearing.

Happy New Year!

Bob Henry (Los Angeles wine industry professional) said...

On the subject of gasbags and blowhards and having a wind at your back, Google "Joseph (Le Pétomane) Pujol."

Fans of the Dr. Demento radio show will be familiar with the "blow by blow" recording of the crepitation contest between Paul Boomer and Lord Windesmear.

(You can find it on YouTube.)

Misha (Misha's Vineyard) said...

Great stuff Ron. This one definitely made me laugh - very clever indeed. Thanks for brightening my day!

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Bob,
Happy New Year! And, for those who don't recall, I wrote a piece relevant to your remark:

http://hosemasterofwine.blogspot.com/2013/07/le-petomane-of-wine.html

PS--It's OK if I sneak in a link, Bob, just part of my power trip.

Misha,
Thanks, Love. And thanks for brightening mine! Happy New Year!

PaulG said...

To quote the Shirelles... "I read him on a Monday and my heart stood still - do do Ron Ron Ron do do Ron Ron..."

Great stuff. Happy New Year! Keep on truckin' my friend.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Paul,
I'm not so much truckin' as sloggin'. But thanks for the fabulous Shirelles reference. Of course, the question is, Will you love me tomorrow?

Happy New Year, Paul!

Samantha Dugan said...

Well I can answer that one Washam, I will love thee for evermore. This My Love, was a brilliant end to 2014...you never cease to amaze, and amuse me. Thanks for that.
I love you!

Bob Henry (Los Angeles wine industry professional) said...

"PS--It's OK if I sneak in a link, Bob, just part of my power trip."

Far be it from me to even suggest a different blast [petard] hoisting the HoseMaster.

Bob Henry (Los Angeles wine industry professional) said...

Just read the March 3, 2010 piece.

Was Pujol (LePetomaneofWine) the original wine blow-viator?

Two more blowhards:

https://m1.behance.net/rendition/modules/3989824/disp/c9d581edc5f19a926fd613ed3a0d855d.jpg

https://m1.behance.net/rendition/modules/3989815/disp/7d176e0494be6ac79032ce9f725c939c.jpg

Ron Washam, HMW said...

My Gorgeous Samantha,
I love you, too, Baby. Happy 2015, Gorgeous! You deserve it more than most. As for brilliant, well, I'm far from that, but at least I'm having fun.

I love you!

Marcia Macomber said...

"Tanzalloni!" Love it! Who'd of thunk?

German Riesling the "Edsel of wine" - (again), Who'd of thunk?

And who'd of thunk you could tie in tasting notes getting read as often as "Miranda rights [are read] in Missouri"? Amazing!

Thanks for a wonderful year in bloggery, Ron!

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Marcia Love,
You're welcome. A laugh a month, that's all I ask. And thank you for being a loyal common tater. I hope your 2015 is your best 2015 yet!

Smooch.

Thomas said...

Paul G. That was The Crystals, not The Shirelles.

I love it when someone brings out my music geek...

Nice piece, Ron. Don't think I haven't noticed you got your comment count up by writing about RP.

And, the Miranda in MO. did make me laugh--I think I spit my coffee, nah.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Thomas,
My original idea for this piece was simply to write as an about to retire wine critic looking back on the wine world, relieved to be done with the 100 Point charade and the constant parade of lousy wine. I almost used Charlie. You're welcome, Charlie. Instead, Parker just made the most compelling voice. I never care how many comments I get. Used to. Not any more.

Anyhow, Happy New Year, my friend! Have a splendid 2015--quite commenting on blogs at least twice next year. I'll threaten to quit at least twice, that's for sure.

gabriel jagle said...

If this blog post reminded me of a song, it would be "Street Life" by the Crusaders.

In any event, I really dig this piece. The best kind of comedy is so smart that you're not always sure that it's comedy. I'm not sure if you really believe what you said about wine critics & magazines being zombies, and I'm not sure if I agree with it, but it's a really interesting point, and I would be interested to hear some of your thoughts behind that statement. Also, I can't wait to read future Hosemaster pieces about Matt Kramer debunking myths about pairing wines with brains.

Thomas said...

Ron:

I've emailed with Mr. Cummins. Instead of reading blogs in 2015, I am going to become a professional voice over guy.

Happy New Year, friend. If all goes as usual, you won't run out of material in 2015.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Gabe,
Happy New Year, my friend, I was hoping you'd show up here at the end of the year.

Thanks for the thoughtful words. And I think your comments about satire are pretty much right on the money. Satire is a weapon that when used properly makes you laugh as its victim is badly beaten. But without that element of truth, it's more of a wet noodle than a baseball bat.

Remember that I'm writing the piece as the Emperor, and what comes out of his mouth are his thoughts, as I imagine them. The zombie analogy just jumped into my head as I wrote. Zombies are the cultural horror image of the day, and the Emperor resorting to that image just made comic sense to me. Is it apt? Yeah, I think it is. If those guys aren't the zombies of the wine biz, who is?

Thomas,
Well, I screwed up your remark by deleting Mr. Cummins' comment--I just hate having spam around. What is this, Hawaii?

I won't run out of material in 2015, that's certain. I just make it up whole cloth anyway.

gabriel jagle said...

Ron,

Some people might argue that wineries making overblown cabs for high price tags are the "zombies" of the wine industry. Other bloggers have been forecasting the downfall of the wine critic for years, but I have never heard you support that idea.

I liked the zombie analogy because it didn't forecast the downfall of the critic, but alluded to the dwindling energy behind scores. I imagine wineries and critics will keep working together, because they both benefit from the relationship (as long the critics don't publish low scores, and wineries continue to send free wine and buy ad space).

Considering that you are writing from the voice of the Emperor in Winter, I get why you wrote the zombie analogy. I guess I am more curious if you believe that. Because I can see a future ten years from now where the saturation of crowd-sourcing and unqualified bloggers (present company excluded) push the public back into a place where they do seek the opinion of "expert" critics.

Okay, I guess I've over-thought this way to much. I'll check in for a response, but I'll try not to keep this going forever. Thanks for the laughs and the food for thoughts. Happy new year, Ron.

Andy Perdue said...

I regularly see wineries and retailers post "RP" instead of "WA" for their scores - even though RP no longer owns WA and, for the most part never tasted the wines being scored by his minions.

Ron, perhaps you can cast RP in the protagonist role from "Despicable Me" and write it from the point of view of one of the minions.

(And now that I think about it for more than two seconds, this reference is likely lost on someone without young children.)

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Gabe,
I think the "dwindling energy" surrounding scores has more to do with how many scores are out there now. Between print, online, and scores from wine competitions (most of them want numbers now in addition to the bronze, silver, gold), a wine might have 30 different scores. It's like movies. You see an ad for a movie, and it screams, "Best Movie of the Year" and in very small print it's attributed to the Fargo Muleshit-Herald. For years, Wilfred Wong gave scores to wines he was peddling at BevMo! And people believed them! The proliferation of scores renders more and more of them useless as people eventually catch on to the game.

But, like movies, in the long run consumers may learn to be more selective again about which scores they follow. So I think wine critics will always have an important place, but only a few of them. Who? Every winery wants to know who. Won't be me. Scores sell wine. As I wrote in the piece, the 100 Point Scale is so stupid, it's immortal. That's what I really believe.

So I agree with you, Gabe. But that position isn't especially funny. Like this piece.

Andy,
Great idea, but then Thomas would think I'm just pandering for more common taters.

And I get the reference. I may not have children, but I'm plenty immature.

Batmang said...

Ron,

Thanks for giving us a well needed dose of perspective in 2014 peppered with wonderful metaphors ("the Edsel of wine regions" - brilliant!). Now that I realized the 100 point scale limited my choices, I am forced to find out for myself what wines I like. Too bad I discovered my love of wine so late in life...I'd better get to it!

Thanks for not giving up the ghost in 2014...here's to more in 2015.

Thanks,

-Nathan

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Nathan,
Thank you for taking the time to be a common tater. I came very close several times to giving up the ghost in 2014, but, somehow, maybe by cutting back to once a week, I plodded through.

We'll see about 2015. One Piece at a Time.

Happy New Year!