Monday, April 10, 2017

Scork Dork: Another Wine-Fueled Adventure Among the Pestilential Wine Critics, Score Whores, and Fake Scientists Who Taught Me to Live for Crappy Wine


The first thing that happens when you’re thirty years old, you write a landmark book about wine that lands on “The New York Times” bestseller list just below Bill O’Reilly (and what’s creepier than being thirty, gorgeous and trapped under Bill O’Reilly?), and you tell people you’re going to walk away from your book tour and the unprecedented adulation, the near universal praise for your precocious genius, to become a professional wine critic is that your phone begins to ring.

Phones don’t really ring now, do they? Not like they did in our parents’ homes. Let’s say a person, or a machine, (I met many who review wines who are both, but I’ll get to that) dials your smartphone. Whereas once all telephones sounded virtually identical, now each person has a ring tone that, in some personal way, speaks to the smartphone owner’s view of herself. Recent studies done at places of higher learning have shown that you can discern a great deal about a person’s self-image by the ring tone of their phone. I’m pretty sure you didn’t know that. It’s the kind of insight you’re going to have to expect as I tell you about how I became an important wine critic. Have I mentioned yet that I’m a journalist? And a fine one, at that. I worked for the “Huffington Post,” which is to “The New York Times” what roadkill is to the Westminster National Dog Show. Barely recognizable as the same thing.

My phone never stopped playing, “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better.” I’m not sure what that says about me. Except I should stop giving out my phone number. The people telling me I was nuts to want to be a wine critic were the same ones who told me I was crazy to try to become a sommelier. Idiots. I had to become a sommelier. I had a book proposal, and the blurbs for the book had already been written. I had to write the book to go with them.

Now that I was a recognized wine expert after twelve months of study, the equivalent, I was told, of learning fluent Klingon in two weeks, only less useful, I had noticed when I was shopping at my favorite local wine merchant that many wines had been assigned numbers by men and women known as wine critics. I became fascinated by them. I wanted to become a wine critic for a prestigious wine publication, though I couldn’t think of any. I knew that wine critics didn’t have any prestige. Sommeliers have prestige; wine critics have gum disease. It’s their own specific type of gum disease—gingivitis vinifera.

I carpet-bombed all the wine critics I could find with emails, much like one does when your house is infested with fleas and ticks. The sommeliers I’d met, and easily surpassed, had often referred to wine critics as a form of pest, most closely related to leeches. “You don’t really think,” one told me, “that the name ‘Suckling’ is coincidental, do you?” Pests or not, wineries had to cater to the most powerful wine critics, and I liked the idea of that. I gave myself a month to become a regular wine critic for a national publication. I didn’t need to be the critic for Bordeaux, or Brunello di Montalcino, or Champagne, I was willing to settle for being the lead critic for a far lesser region, maybe Australia. You always get Australia when you’re a new wine critic, I discovered, the best critics avoid it and leave it to the newcomers. It’s essentially hazing. I was willing to endure Australian wines for a while, then I’d walk away from the job (it’s what journalists do—did I mention I’m a journalist by trade?) with a witty, “You’re not the Barossa me.”

Almost every important wine critic (an oxymoron, according to Tim Hanni MW, who calls me way too often) ignored my letters. While I waited for a break, I studied wine criticism. I knew how to write wine descriptions, I’m a journalist after all. (I’ve been published in the online “New Yorker.” Which is just like the print “New Yorker,” only desperate for content.) I felt pretty comfortable using the 100 Point Scale. It’s not that hard to assign numbers to wine. And it turns out that humans are not the only animals who assign numbers. Scientists in Italy (I didn’t know Italy had any scientists, that surprised me) demonstrated in a series of carefully designed experiments that dogs assign numbers to trees. Usually number one, and occasionally number two. So, apparently, assigning numbers is a part of natural brain function. I might write a chapter about that. I want to get my brain scanned again. I think I might need a bigger head. If that were possible.

One evening my husband and I were practicing with my 100 Point Scale flash cards (I have a mental block on 89) when I heard “Anything You Can Do” coming from the bedroom. A voice on the other end said, “Hello, Bianca? This is Tim Fish with ‘Wine Spectator.’ I got your email. I’d be happy to show you what it’s like to be a wine critic.”

I hung up. I’d attended Princeton. I’d studied journalism. I had standards. Fish just didn’t measure up. I threw him back.

I had set my sights pretty high. I wanted to learn to be a wine critic from Robert Parker, the man who had imposed the 100 Point Scale on wine. With that master stroke, Parker had done for wine what Garanimals had done for fashion—made it accessible for the clueless. “You don’t need to know shit about wine to use the 100 Point Scale,” Jay McInerney had told me while staring at my cleavage, “you just put a stupid tag on it and people buy it.” Sort of like one of his novels at the remainder table at Barnes and Noble.

Robert Parker never responded to any of my emails. This made no sense to me. He employs a lot of amateurs as critics, and I was willing to do it for free. I was on the verge of giving up when I heard a fateful version of “Anything You Can Do.” I answered the phone and a rather sultry, smoky voice said, “Hello, Bianca? This is Jancis Robinson. I think you and I should chat.”

A month later, I was reviewing wines for her site. She’ll hire anybody!


Cover Blurbs for Scork Dork:

“I loved this book. It’s the last one I’ll ever read.”—David Foster Wallace

“The Cat in the Hat of wine.”—Madeline Puckette

“Written in English, and plenty of it.”—Walter Isaacson

“The best book about wine since Cork Dork, Scork Dork is Bosker’s Bright Lights, Big City but without the drugs and rave reviews. Bosker is the voice of her generation, so sort of high and squeaky.”—Jay McInerney


For my serious review of Cork Dork, go HERE

10 comments:

Dean Tudor said...

Absolutely brilliant...Let me know if you need someone to turn up in litigation court to support you (physically, not financially)..best of luck!!!

Creatures said...

Now I don't have to read the book.....thanks for saving me time, I AM a journalist and spend to much time on stuff like this........

John Lahart said...

Way back when, a really sharp wine critic (actually his name is Andrew Sharp) wrote a pretty good basic guide-"Wine Taster's Secrets" in which he noted that wines described as having "minerality" tended to be low alcohol, high acid whites from cool climates. Was the late critic on to something? Should that somm who advises Bosker to "lick rocks..." maybe rethink his old vs new world theory. I know I did.

I hate to pick on them but there's that wine economist who remarks that people will continue to drink wines that get lot's of points from the gurus even after they have determined they don't like the wine. Say what? (well he has the study--they all got a study).
Of course, the scientists have data that debunks those wine medals given out at country fairs etc. and use computers to parse the reviews of critics to determine what kind of wines they "like." We all know the Gallo brothers are developing a 100 point wine using only mega purple (which if Im not mistaken is a natural and organic product) and grain alcohol. There's an area 51 in the heart of the Central Valley!

Even the brain scan stuff--well wouldn't the better "control" be Bianca's brain before she became a wine expert? Rather than some anonymous group of pink zinfandel lovers? (by the way isn't pink Zin really rose?). And the brain scans I'd love to see would be Schildknechts and Theise's. David would probably blow up the machine and Terry would short it out.

In the end though, it may be too late. From what I hear all this confusing stuff is driving the young uns to craft beers and cocktails. There's even an ultra hip band of imbibers who have made Pabst Blue Ribbon "tops on tap!"

clay h. said...

"Cork sniffer" has been in need of some backup. Perhaps "rock licker" will make the cut.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Dean,
Thanks. I couldn't resist a bit of parody. I haven't done it much lately, and I think I need more practice. But there are a few laughs here. And not enough for a lawsuit.

Creatures,
Oh, a journalist! What the hell are you doing here? Slumming?

John,
I'd love to have my brain scanned. I always envision it as exactly like a PacMan game. And I'm scoring very few points.

I'd actually be interested in a Bosker book on wine critics. I'd write one, but I burned those bridges a long time ago. I think folks would be amazed and shocked to read about wine critics and how they score wines. Make those Cork Dork sommeliers seem downright sane.

Clay,
When it comes to sommeliers and Parker wannabes, "boot licker" probably works best.

Dean Tudor said...

Ron, David Shaw, who died in 2005, did some fine writing on wine "critics" for the LA Times in the 1990s....

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Dean,
I knew David Shaw when I was a sommelier in Los Angeles. He quoted me a few times. Very smart guy. His expose of Nate Chroman got Nate fired from the LA Times. Payola was so much a part of the wine biz back then, and it's not much different now. Only the payola, in the form of junkets and dinners and free stuff, is given to bloggers and other truth-adjacent journalists. Shaw would have been embarrassed and angry at what goes on routinely these days. He was a very smart guy. And died far too young.

David Pierson said...

I don't know why everyone has got their knickers in a twist over Borker's book, in the excerpts I read so far it seems she worked her ass off for two years to learn about wine.. in a previous post someone mentioned David Shaw and I went back and read his stuff and related articles and read that when Parker started out paid for his review bottles... and you got to admire that... as you say in this era of junkets, dinners and free stuff..

Ron Washam, HMW said...

David,
Controversy is great for book sales. I'm sure Penguin, the publisher not the Batman villain, is thrilled with all the knickers going up butt cracks over Bosker's book. Whatever reservations I had about the book, it's easily the best read in wine books I've come across in a decade. She's a very talented writer, and I'm not someone who throws writing praise around lightly.

Shaw was not just an interesting man, he was an old-school journalist. He became the wine critic for the LA Times after those exposes were published (I think he succeeded Dan Berger, but I could be wrong), and he was always a better writer than wine guy. When it comes to journalism, wine is much like the music biz and show biz and the car biz--lots of payola, very little truth. It's fine. It's only wine. And it gives me endless material.

Tim Hanni said...

I call, I write, I text, I sent a pigeon with a note. Hell, I would even 'like' you on Facebook if I had the chance. Seems like you don't love me no more so I moved to Bend. Now I am surrounded by nice people who are all healthy and crap and all own dogs. Sheesh.