Thursday, November 5, 2015
EPHEMERA: Acid Freaks and MacBeth
I guess I’m easily annoyed. Because I’m so frequently annoyed. Lately, I’m fed up with how many wine pundits are proclaiming themselves “acid freaks.” Aside from the stupid and misleading reference to the Timothy Leary generation, it’s a way of claiming superior wine knowledge and a more subtle and interesting palate. People always “confess” that when it comes to wine they’re an acid freak, though exactly nobody asked them.
It doesn’t take much leg work to discover that these “acid freaks” also trumpet the importance of balance in a great wine. Wines are, indeed, all about balance. But try making the claim that you’re an “alcohol freak,” or a “tannin freak,” and see how that goes. Or, God forbid, you like a little bit of residual sugar! The wines you like are, gasp, out of balance. Whereas the “acid freak” likes wines that are more “terroir driven,” “better with food,” and “subtle.” You can have too little acid, they’d tell you, but never too little oak or tannin or sugar. Though, truthfully, nothing is manipulated more often in wine than the acidity. And you’d swear “acid freaks” prefer more “natural” wines. But as far as I’m concerned, the "acid freak" puts the bite in Bite Me.
If you say that you like wines with plenty of oak, or wines that are big and voluptuous, perhaps with a bit of residual sugar, or wines that are huge and musclebound, you attract a lot of scorn these days. Yet declare that you’re an “acid freak,” as countless wine writers and sommeliers have done in my hearing, and you’re a person of great wine integrity. You have a deeper understanding of wine. I’m not sure which acid they’re talking about. Lactic? Tartaric? Tannic? Citric? Sulfuric? Though it really doesn’t matter. They’re “acid freaks.” They know wine. Jerks.
I think a lot more often about writing than I think about wine. Wine, as challenging and vast a subject as it is, is simple compared to writing. Nobody has ever suffered from Wino’s Block. Maybe the difference is that wine is a source of inspiration whereas writing requires constant inspiration. Writing produces something, often something worthless, but something. Wine is easy. Every bottle has a story (now I sound like a marketing jackass). Every grape variety is interesting in its own way. I know quite a bit about wine, I’m very comfortable with my wine knowledge, but every time I sit down to write it always feels as though I don’t know what I’m doing, that I’m a complete fool with nothing to say. Yet I say it so eloquently.
I really only think about wine when I’m deciding what to drink, or when I’m wine tasting. There was a time when I was obsessed with wine, when I spent countless hours reading about it, spent too much time driving around to various wine shops searching for wines I wanted to try, attended countless wine tastings, took notes on every wine I tasted, opened bottle after bottle with likeminded wine fanatics, and spent all of my discretionary income, and then some, on wine. I was stupid.
When I first became successful in the wine biz, I allowed wine to define me. Wine has this mysterious and unwarranted prestige in the world, and my insecurity loved the prestige. I can’t explain wine’s prestige. In the end, wine is simply another alcohol delivery system. Its hold over mankind emanates from its alcohol content, not terroir or points or history or romance. We spend endless amounts of money farming vineyards so that we can convert the fruit to alcohol. If it converted to soup, no one would care. Though I hear the 2007 Harlan Estate minestrone is spectacular. When I wrote comedy, no one knew who I was, or cared much. Tell people you’re a comedy writer and the response is almost always, “Say something funny.” Become a sommelier, a job far easier than writing jokes, and people ask you hundreds of different questions, and often express their admiration. When I worked the floor as a sommelier, at least once a week a customer would say to me, “Man, I wish I had your job.” No one ever said that to me when I was a writer.
I think about writing all the time. When I’m driving, I’m usually trying to capture ideas to write about. (So, here’s an idea—write about thinking about writing. Pure genius!) I almost never listen to music or the radio when I drive. A baseball game, maybe, but not that often. I ride in silence and think about what to write about, and how to write about it. I talk to myself. I talk about satire, I talk about how satire works, I talk about things that I’ve seen or read that might make good subject matter for HoseMaster of Wine™. What’s cool is that nowadays people think you’re talking on your smartphone when they see your lips moving and there’s no one else present. When my father drove around talking to himself, people thought he was nuts.
I’m very confident in my knowledge of wine. I know more than most people, and I know there are also many people more knowledgeable than I. I don’t feel the need to learn that much more about wine at this point in my life. But I do wish I were better at writing. I may even wish I’d pursued my writing career instead of stumbling into wine. No matter, that’s been decided.
Wine is for many people, as it was for me, a way of being somebody. Making it and putting your name on the bottle with a giant price tag next to it. Having letters after your name and the strange admiration of those who love wine but don’t know much about it. People passing you the wine list when you’re out to dinner. Wine is a way to conceal your self, or perhaps hide from your self, maybe inflate your self (which takes some serious flexibility). Writing, on the other hand, is a way to discover your self, in the quiet of your own head, your own room. I’ve always loved wine. I love wine far more than almost anyone I know. But, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, there is no there there. Perhaps spending the past five years here with you writing about wine in a condescending satiric way has finally taught me that. I can still love wine, and I do, but I no longer ascribe it any great meaning. It’s only wine. And, interestingly, that has made me enjoy wine even more. Take away the jibber jabber of scores and adjectives and unicorns, and, you know what, the damned stuff is actually fun to drink. Toss aside its manmade clothing, and it’s a lot easier to enjoy it for the fabulous fuck it is.
When I think about writing I think about all that it has brought me the past several years. I made a living from wine. But writing HoseMaster of Wine™ has brought me so much more. Gifts that are very personal. Reconnecting with the spirit of my late mother, who always wanted me to be a writer, has given me great satisfaction. Achieving the begrudging admiration of people I admire in the wine business with my scabrous and raucous work here has been a complete surprise, and very rewarding. Meeting many of my readers has been life-changing, though that happenstance may be due as much to the existence of the internet as it is to my work. I’ve made beautiful and remarkable friends because people were drawn to my brand of comedy, comedy they would never have found but for the previously unimaginable existence of the internet. The rewards of writing have been far greater than the rewards of working in the wine business.
Lastly, and this has been rather a convoluted and empty sort of essay, in other words, my specialty, it seems to me that there are two sorts of wine writers working. Those who are gifted writers who choose wine as a subject—and they are few. And those who are wine experts who decide to write about it. This latter group seems to dominate serious wine writing. Wine, for them, is grounded in meaning and mystery. So they write columns and books that have little or nothing of either. I can’t read them. They’re joyless. I pick up and read an issue of World of Fine Wine (to pick on but one example, but perhaps the most egregious) and I am reminded of Shakespeare, of the words of MacBeth, “…[wine] is a tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury/ signifying nothing.”
Which is why I lampoon as much of it as I can.