Thursday, September 10, 2015
EPHEMERA: Captain Points!
Jancis Robinson wrote a thoughtful and incisive piece about wine criticism recently. It’s perhaps a bit defensive, but that’s my interpretation. It seems all anyone writes about these days boils down to the uncertainty the universality of the internet brings to the wine business. Where, in other words, will Robert Parker’s power end up? Everyone wants a piece of it; most want all of it. There’s something tempting about possessing the ability to make or break a winery with your palate. It’s like being some sort of nerdy wine Marvel superhero—Captain Points! Making the world safe for hapless wine buyers! I have always been amazed at how many wine writers disparage Parker’s contributions, while at the same time clearly desiring his influence. There’s something wonderfully Oedipal about it.
After reading Robinson’s piece, typically well-written and articulately argued, I happened upon a post by Jamie Goode. In the piece, Goode advises new wine writers not to be too smart. Which is like advising suicide bombers not to plan for retirement. Goode writes, “Generally, in life, I reckon that less smart people are often happier.” A wonderful argument for reading more wine blogs to increase your happiness, I guess. Goode’s point is that he felt established wine writers were more helpful to him before they saw him as a competitor. Which, if I’m Jancis Robinson (only in my dreams), begs the question, “Competitor?”
Not long after reading Goode’s thoughtless piece, I read the news that there are now 19 more Masters of Wine (speaking of Marvel superheroes). It was like reading there are now 19 more zeppelin pilots, or 19 more Le Petomane impersonators. Impressive accomplishments, if a bit anachronistic these days. I know quite a few M.W.s, and most are very talented and very smart people. So they must not be very happy. But I’m sure even the Court of Masters of Wine must be astonished at how many applicants they have compared to, say, a generation ago. I wonder why that is.
Robinson writes about how she feels the need to constantly compete for attention now that there are so many ways for consumers to access the seemingly bottomless pit of wine reviews. And I think that’s the answer. A need for attention. In the past six weeks I have been around a gaggle of M.W.’s, a large pile of M.S.’s, and dozens of young people wanting to be one or the other. Some made a great impression on me, others not so much. Now, don’t get me wrong. Nobody sets out to impress the HoseMaster of Wine™. No one sane, anyway. But I realized that I didn’t care one teeny tiny bit whether a person had letters after his/her name, that it told me absolutely nothing about their wine IQ. Though they certainly make a point of telling you they have letters after their name. In the same way doctors always make a restaurant reservation with “Dr.” in front of their surname. You ask, “Last name on the reservation?” And they say, “Dr. Seuss.” Never just “Seuss.” And we are duly impressed.
More and more I find I judge wine experts on their simple passion for wine, not for their passion to be somebody. I don’t recall that I thought about it that way in the past. In Texas, I met, and listened to, some folks who were severely impressed with themselves when it came to wine. It was clear to me that they knew a lot about wine, but I’d never take advice from them. It was the strange prestige of wine they were after, not the passion for wine that drove them. A longing for respect that they think letters will grant them. Only, ultimately, they won’t. I can tell them, as a guy who spent a long time in the trade, that respect flows directly from the respect you show other people in the trade, down to the poor clown schlepping eight dollar Bordeaux.
The eager wine people I met who are chasing their passion for wine impressed me no end. I learned a lot listening to them. Their ages are irrelevant. The most passionate people I know in wine are ageless. Some had degrees, many did not. I don’t have a degree, unless you count my satiric HMW, but there was a time in my life when I might have tried to earn one. This Ephemera is not a putdown of wine degrees, for a change. I’m madly in love with an M.W. (you know who you are), and admire her greatly. Any wine she loves, I know I’ll love as well. I sat and listened at a Tuscan wine seminar at TexSom given by Alfonso Cevola and Shelley Lindgren, and I gained great respect for their insights and, above all, their passion. I left loving wine more than I had when I sat down—and that’s a rare gift. The only letters after their names are Shelley’s A16, though I think Alfonso will soon have a DOCG after his. Believe me, many of the seminars were about the people conducting those seminars, and only peripherally about the wines. I walked out of those like they were yet another Tom Cruise vanity project, another “Mission Grape: Impossible.” I recently met a young sommelier, Marissa Payne, who impressed me with her passion for wine. She radiated joy when she talked about wine. She was eager to learn more, and unimpressed with herself. She’ll go a long way. I’d listen to her, give her recommendations a chance, because she is chasing wine, not power or fame in the wine business.
I started writing about wine because I wanted to have some fun with it. My attitude offends a lot of people, for which I’m grateful. But you might notice that the folks I offend are usually the folks who desire wine’s power and prestige to rub off on them. They want Parker to die by their metaphorical hand, and then they want to be him. They want to be seen as wine superheroes. They’re tiresome drudges. They’re welcome to walk out on my blog.
The longer I'm around wine, the more I surrender to my vast ignorance of the subject. I'm going to keep saying this until it sinks in. Wine outclasses us. Humans do not possess the sensory equipment to grasp it adequately. We don't understand much of the actual chemistry of wine. Our language skills are tested daily when we write about wine, and we nearly always fail. No one, and I mean no one, is any better at this than anyone else. Some work harder, some are indefatigable, many exaggerate their sensory talents and influence. But being human is our downfall. The wonder of wine lies in its ability to make us feel more human by showing us our limitations, teaching us humility and a love for the earth we so foolishly take for granted, while rewarding us with beauty and a sense that life has purpose. Plus, drinking it fills us with a false courage to go on living.
So here’s my advice. Be smart as hell about wine. If you’re new to it, be fucking brilliant, passionate and humble. Talent comes in many forms. Some can write. Some are uncanny at discerning great wine. Some are great communicators. Very few are all three. Don’t compete for attention. Now you’re just the guy waving in the background during a live newscast—an asshole. Persist, have fun with your passion for wine, enjoy the great gift of being able to pursue a wine career, never believe your own press, and you’ll garner attention eventually--more than you may even want. Just make sure that it’s not the attention that you really desire.