Thursday, October 1, 2015
EPHEMERA: The Insignificance of Wine
I don’t think there’s a more accurate, or predictive, verb to describe how I got into the wine business than “stumbled.” Believe it or not, the first time I drank any alcoholic beverage was the day I turned 21. Well, that’s essentially true. My older, mischievous cousin Allen once gave me a sip of his beer when I was about 13, I think it was a Miller High Life, the “Champagne of bottled beer,” which is like being the foie gras of pigs-in-a-blanket, but I hated it. It smelled like the laundry hamper after my sleepwalking brother had peed in it. I had no interest in drinking when I was in college. I had little interest in anything other than self-pity and comedy. Drinking made one better, but ruined the other. But once I tasted a few interesting wines, I was smitten. I don’t think I’ve ever liked the fact that wines make me drunk, but I am in favor of wines making other people drunk.
I never wanted to become a sommelier. It just wasn’t on my radar. Or anybody else’s, back in the day. But when a friend of mine turned down a sommelier job, I decided I’d apply. I would never have heard about the job I worked for 19 years if my friend’s father-in-law hadn’t been a regular customer at the restaurant. When I started as a sommelier, in 1987, in all of Los Angeles and Orange County combined, that’s about 10 million people, I think there were six of us—there may have been a few more, but it wasn’t more than ten. In retrospect, it was a very strange turn of events. I’ve often wondered where my life would have taken me if I hadn’t eventually taken that sommelier position. I sure as hell wouldn’t be writing this stupid blog. And I wouldn’t know much about wine. Nor would I have met my wife, or all the amazing folks I’ve met because of this stupid blog. I’d be drinking Miller High Life and chowing down on pigs-in-a-blanket.
In my dreams.
I know that I didn’t take the sommelier job because I wanted prestige, that became an unforeseen consequence, one I still don’t understand. I needed a new career. And that’s what I’ve been thinking about lately. Why people get into the wine business. What do they want out of it? Why wine as a career? And that’s tied into how I think about new people I meet who want to be in the biz, who decide to get an MS or MW, who write about wine, who pursue wine as a lifestyle. And the more I think about it, the more I’m struck by the insignificance of it all. Which is not a great way to reflect on your life or career. Truth is so damned inconvenient to how we view ourselves, and so widely ignored in the wine racket.
In many ways, the culture of wine trains us in the insignificant. The ubiquity of scores is the obvious example. Scores are now widely heralded as a “necessary evil.” Why is the adjective more important than the noun in that description? Also, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the vast majority of what is written about wine is tedious, meaningless, and too often regurgitated marketing (if that’s not redundant). There’s little truth in it, I know that. And, also, little joy. But it’s the current culture of wine. Why? I’m not sure. Maybe it’s how overwhelming the wine market is now, how many wines are available. That leads to far more competition, and, thus, far more noise, far more hype, in order to be heard, to be tasted, to be purchased. Doesn’t matter, it’s the world we live in. If we choose to.
Wine is endlessly fascinating to me. I think I’m as transfixed by my own profound ignorance on the subject as anything else. But why does wine captivate me? I can get all poetic on you, but that would just be blowing the usual kind of smoke that Kermit Lynch is so good at, and Terry Theise, guys who sell wine for a living, the sort of smoke that passes for profundity in the pages of World of Fine Wine. The sort of writing that impresses me with its erudition, but leaves me feeling like I just finished a very expensive meal yet I’m still famished.
Truthfully, I’m rather embarrassed that wine is so important to me. It reflects poorly on my life’s priorities. It’s moderately shameful how much money I’ve spent on wine. Yes, it was my money, but it’s still something I try hard to ignore. Does anyone seriously engaged in wine want to actually see how much money they’ve spent on wine in their life? I don’t want to know. But, again, this is rather shameful, I’m glad I did. But why does wine have such a powerful hold on me? It’s not love, any more than being obsessed with a woman to the exclusion of your self is love. It may appear to be love to the casual observer, but it’s a distortion of love. And much as you might be defined by your obsessive love, you can be defined by your obsession with wine. Both situations are unhealthy.
Why is there so much competition to be thought of as an authority on wine? Wine! Really? At this stage of my life, I hope folks remember me as someone who made eight people laugh once a week, not as any sort of authority on wine. Yet I certainly spent countless hours reading about wine, tasting wines, thinking about wines, touring wine countries… What the hell was I searching for? The prestige that comes with being a sommelier? That’s illusory. I like to think I always knew that. Was I looking to define myself in terms of my extensive wine knowledge? I think so, I think there was a lot of that. And I regret that, now that I’m out of the game for the most part. Because it didn’t work. I think, if anything, wine helped me stay lost to myself. And I think that’s true of a lot of people I meet in the biz.
I wonder if the recently anointed MWs won’t regret their decision to spend all that money and effort to join that exclusive little club. That’s not sour grapes, as they say in verjus, that’s just a thought. I read Rebecca Gibb’s statement about becoming an MW, and she remarks that she did it partly so wine people would take her, as a young woman in the trade, seriously. Wow. There’s an indictment of the wine business. Women still aren’t taken as seriously as men. We all know this is true, but no one talks about it much. That’s how insignificant a world it is, how self-congratulatory and smug. Focused on initials and numbers and descriptors, not equality and fairness. But that’s a subject for another day.
Why become an MW? Because it’s the Everest of wine diplomas? Sort of a typical privileged attitude. Forget the Sherpas, it’s the white folks who conquer Everest. But how is an MW different than an MS to regular folks? And why do we care? Once, I’m sure, it was a ticket to a decent salary in the wine business, a real career. Is it now? I can’t say as I’m qualified to express an opinion on the matter. But it’s a much larger investment than it once was, and the return is unlikely to be its equivalent. So why do it? Because it sounds like fun? Or because you want to be defined as a wine authority? OK. But remember to acknowledge the ultimate insignificance of it. Don’t get lost in it. Lead a real life, too.
The wine world is awash in petty arguments. I participate, to be sure, on a comedic level (or so I tell myself). And what’s more useful at winning a petty argument than credentials? But they’re still insignificant, petty, hollow arguments. Why is there so much at stake on being right about wine. It’s comic, really. From the blowhards all over chat rooms, to the pretend heroes who comment anonymously on wine blogs (anonymous because they’re so damned important, they cannot use their names!), to the judges at wine competitions who are convinced the world needs to hear their opinions, their monumental, Thurgood Marshallesque dissents on why a wine doesn’t deserve a medal. There are a lot of people lost in wine. One could argue I’m the wine poster boy for the guy without a clue, a compass or a map.
All of us take wine too seriously. Which, I think, is at the expense of the things that really matter. More and more, I’ve tried to make HoseMaster of Wine™ about seeing behind the curtain, when I'm not just being silly. But it’s a gigantic curtain. And there are thousands invested in keeping wine behind that curtain, in making us think that what goes on in front of the curtain, in the spotlight, is reality. They write columns in wine publications that are self-promotion, pure and simple. They write online puff pieces that obfuscate but pretend to inform. They're really just infomercials, cranked out in a journalistically sloppy manner, and repulsively rank. They go on countless junkets and try to make every wine seem fascinating, every region special, every winemaker a genius. I use the word “they,” but you know who “they” are because I make fun of them as often as I can. Not that I think anyone is listening to me. But because it’s satisfying for me, makes me feel a little better for having led such an insignificant life in wine.
I’d ask you to ask yourself what you want out of the wine business, if that’s your chosen field. I think I thought I was following my passion, in the now jejune parlance of Joseph Campbell. I don’t think now that I was. Wine’s been good to me. It has never lost its charm. The wine business? I don’t know. It’s something of a trap. I wish I’d spent more time chasing character and integrity and humility instead. Ah, hindsight.
And now that we’re done here, I’m guessing you’re famished.