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.