Monday, July 15, 2013

Matt Kramer on Bull, and Other Literary Endeavors

Our nation’s dullest form of writing is the writing of wine descriptions. Unless you count USA Today. (I love USA Today’s motto, “We sell it in airports cuz it’s terminally dull.”) Do you actually read wine descriptions, or do you just skim over them like everyone else? Here’s a real wine review lifted from Wine Spectator:

GIANFRANCO FINO Primitivo di Manduria Es 2010 (91 points, $75)
A toasty version, with ample notes of baking spices and mesquite to the rich plum reduction and macerated blackberry fruit. Mouthcoating, featuring a long aftertaste of fruit, spice and tarry mineral. Better than previously reviewed. Drink now through 2015. 1,250 cases made. —Nathan Wesley

And here’s how a normal wine consumer reads it:

GIANFRANCO FINO Primitivo di Mandiblahblah 2010 (91 points, for $75 fucking dollars!)
A toasty version, with ample something or other spices, damn I’m horny, mesquitoes and plum reduction, whatever, macerated blackberry fruit, oh who doesn’t macerate blackberry fruit…mouthcoating, oh man I need a new mouthcoat…long fruit, spice and tarry mineral…wait, did I read that right, tarry mineral?...yup, that’s what it says…what the fuck is a tarry mineral?…I used to own Atari video games… a tarry mineral must be like when James Cagney says, “You dirty copper…”…Better than previously reviewed…man, must have gotten a nasty letter from Advertising. Drink now through…my balls itch.

I read that original description and I have no idea how that Primitivo tastes, though it did make me want to invest in tarry minerals. But it takes a special gift to be able to write hundreds and hundreds of wine descriptions every year. It’s not a gift I want any more than I want to be able to fart “Stars and Stripes Forever.” OK, I actually would like that gift. But then I started thinking (ah, here comes the premise, I knew it was here somewhere), what if wine critics famous for their wine descriptions wrote actual literature? What would that look like? I have a couple of ideas…

ROBERT M. PARKER writing as Mystery Writer ROBERT B. PARKER

In my experience, absolutely the greatest private detective is Spenser. In 2010, generally a cool year, though there was a heat wave the second week of August that made the whole city of Boston smell like a fat guy in a wool suit with hints of marzipan, Spenser was already the greatest private detective in my experience, and every genuine crime fan should get to know this awesome Juicy Fruit gumshoe, with that distinctive note of leather sole.

When his phone rang, a high note tone reminiscent of a tuning fork clanged on the metal plate in James Laube’s head, Spenser answered it in his usual sophisticated and unctuous manner, “Hello.”

Regular readers will know that at this point I introduce a femme fatale, and only one that’s 96+. Long and supple, she is redolent of sandalwood, Asian spices, and lingonberry, with a distinct perfume of Elizabeth Taylor’s newest fragrance, “Rigor Mortis,” the perfume designed to make him stiff. I’d lay her down for 3-5 years.


It was a hot and dusty day in the arena and the bullfight was about to begin. Robert was alone and he was thinking about what he would tell his friend Marvin about bullfighting. Marvin didn’t understand bullfighting. He was new to bullfighting, and Robert felt Marvin needed his insight.

It’s fine to like what you like, Robert would begin. Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. If you like it for the gore, that’s fine, gore is a good place to start. Once you understand gore, how it affects the soil and how it affects your sense of smell, you can move on. If you like the pageantry, I get that. Once I only came for the pageantry, but the pageantry isn’t really the essence of the bullfight and one day you will come to see past it. Only then will you be a real connoisseur of bull. I am proud to say that I am a highly respected connoisseur of bull. Hear me, and one day you will be, too. Maybe you just like little Spanish boys in tight pants. I can see that, but you must also begin to see that there are some fine French boys in tight pants too. We are living in a golden age of boys in tight pants from all over the world.

The bullfight, Robert continued to lecture Marvin in his thoughts, is more than just man against beast. It represents respect and reverence for death. Many times the bull dies, but a matador risks his life as well. But throughout the battle, he champions the bull. As do I. We, the matador and I, pretend to attack the bull, pretend to cut through the bull, but, in truth, we are glorifying bull. Remember, there is no business here without the bull. Therefore, I am the bull.

The corrida was about to begin. Robert was in his usual poor seat. Right behind his stupid column.


Daniel said...

I actually work for the importer of that wine...and I have no idea what that description means. If they hadn't given a good number score, you would have thought they hated the wine and wanted you to know just exactly how much they can't stand it in detail.

it's all about the bull!


Ron Washam, HMW said...

Well, that's a nice irony. When I had the idea for this piece, I went to the WS website and that was the first, the very first, review I came across. It was wine of the day, or some kind of featured crap like that, and "tarry minerality" had to be the stupidest descriptor I'd seen in a long time. I thought I might have to search a while to find a lame wine description, but, nope, nothing to it.

Lynn said...

I really enjoy your clever writing style, but that revised wine description is definitely one of your better ones. Love it!

Thomas said...

From a medical dictionary:

Bloody stools often are a sign of an injury or disorder in the digestive tract. Your doctor may use the term "melena" to describe black, tarry, and foul-smelling stools...

91 points indeed.

PaulG said...

More Robert (BM) Parker!

Marcia Macomber said...

Love the Hemingway! Dead on! (...which is why I don't read Hemingway.)

I rarely read wine descriptors unless it's a wine I already know well and want to see if the reviewer has similar responses to it.

A review in the Spectator of a client's wine basically lifted the winemaker's tasting notes almost verbatim. Sheesh! (I assume no one opened the bottle to form his/her own opinion. ;-P)

For future literary endeavor ideas: Dickens, Bronte (pick one), Homer! (not Simpson), Agatha Christie, Jack Higgins, Eugene O'Neill... Tom Stoppard. (A good place to stop!)

Steve Lay said...

I once went to Total Wines and purused their 8,000 wines (OK, I lied like a politician...maybe it was 15-20 bottles). I wrote down the word descriptions of the wines and found there are a set of words to describe reds and whites. Reds generally are-tobacco, barnyards/i.e. straw, earthy, cherries, blackberries. Whites are: pears, green apples, petunias.
To be more definitive-name a variety: Fuji Apple (just kidding).
In the final analysis what is the penalty for these diatribes pumped out? Writing wine descriptions must be the wine publication's equivalent of writing Obits. for newspapers.
Great Blog. But now I am pissed off again for being such a slave to wine descriptions. What do the reviews for Night Train or Boone Farm or Thunderbird look like?

Charlie Olken said...

I wish Steve Lay were not so close to the truth. The writing of objective tasting notes may rise above the level of obit writing, but when we sit down to write 100 descriptions of any variety, the descriptors are going to get a repetitive and the notes themselves, if read as some kind of novel, are going to boring as bad Hemingway.

At least we know onething when the subject is the bull. There is going to be a lot of excrement around--and none of it is going to smell like mesquite infused baking spices (just what I want in my cupcakes).

Unknown said...

loved the hemmingway. when we write our wine descriptors, we always try to make up at least one word. some of my favorites include flavors of mackinaw peach and aromas of tiger lillies. we are still trying to figure out how to sneak the word "tomacco" into a tasting note. Maybe the 2012 pinot noir...

Dean Tudor said...

Ron, you are an excellent revisionist. The words just drip off the page into my glass..

Normally, I salivate at the wine descriptions but then I just forget them, concentrating all my brain power on the number: was it 89 or 98? or worse? The older I get the more illiterate I am -- BUT not the more innumerate. I've moved from crosswords to sudoku.

A good number would beat a word anytime. Currently, I'm looking at wine locker combination, among other things.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Thank you. I do think there's a lot of truth in it--that it does reflect how our minds wander, or are stunned, when we read these kinds of wine descriptions, which are, in fact, ubiquitous.

So he meant "tarry melena" not "tarry minerality?" Just how I think of Primitivo--a classic descriptor. I apologize. As for foul-smelling stools, sounds like a bar I used to work in.

I think I've had enough of Parker as Parker. Maybe next, Jay Miller as Henry Miller.

Marcia Love,
I sat down to write another edition of wine notes written by famous writers, but then I had an inspiration. What if famous wine writers wrote as famous authors? A mix of stilted and silly wine prose and literature. Robert M. as Robert B. was just to easy to pass up. And Kramer as Hemingway came out of nowhere and led, perhaps inevitably, to the bull ring. The joys of writing never know where your twisted mind will lead you.

Wine descriptions, for the most part, are written to cover for the fact that folks only care about the numbers. The kind of 30-word description I mock here doesn't so much describe wine as it makes you scratch your head and wonder, "Who writes this crap?"

The flavors in wine aren't infinite. Reds have more in common with each other than they have different, as do whites. The real context of wine is experience, not adjectives.

I'll give a nod to Charlie (and Stephen) here to say that of all the major wine publications, their descriptions are the most useful and best written. I still skim them, but I've been around a long time. Their notes reflect their incomparable experience and read as though they were thoughtfully considered. No small accomplishment.

What's amazing to me is that I didn't even have to search for a silly wine description. There's not one thing about that review that makes any sense to me. But, there it is, prominently featured. No one, NO ONE, would buy a wine that exactly fit that stupid description. Except it got 91 points--a bargain for $75!

I'd go for "it has a tomacco minerality." Always works.

Your comment reminds me that one should never drink wine from the cellar of a guy with dyslexia. Man, that 97 point wine tastes crappy.

Unknown said...

Not as a defense, because I certainly didn't understand what the wine tasted like after the description, but I think that it's tar-ry as in of and pertaining to recently paved roads or repaired roofs. Not my favorite wine accent, each his own.

Thomas said...

Oh, that explains it Bill: tar-ry miner-ality.

Sounds like the name of a stripper working the pits.

KidP said...

I'm still trying to figure out how $75 Primitivo happens, to anyone.

Related: Ron, I am still waiting for the day when your pen alights on Garagiste.

Please don't ever stop. Thank you.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Hi Bill,
Thanks for the comment. Don't mind Thomas. He's always that way.

Tarry is often used as a descriptor, but not usually in conjunction with minerality. Who smells tar and gets minerality? That was what made me do a doubletake. Just lousy reviewing. Which one could spend a lifetime satirizing.

Yup, the price is certainly amibitious and probably unwarranted. But, hey, it does have mesquite, which costs more in charcoal!

I know of Garagiste, but don't subscribe or pay attention. Marketed to dweebs, run by dweebs, it costs money to be in that gang of idiots. But I like the general idea. Take advantage of wine wannabes with overhyped, "cult" wines, and then roll in the cash. I may use that idea...

Thanks. Don't be a stranger...

Unknown said...

I looked up the wine on the Winebow website and learned so much. The grapes are allowed to dry out a bit on the vine before harvest and the result would appear to be a kind of amarone...16,5% alc and 4 grams of rs (or was it 6?)..Was this conveyed in the review??

The title of the wine means Id in italian and the wine is an homage to Sigmund freud. Perhaps the Wine Spectator thinks Siggie belong in the Cigar department so they left this out.

The wine is an expression of primal instinct. It's all about pure pleasure. Just like the id.

Of course, sometimes while you drink this your superego says, $75??

I am waiting for somebody to make a wine in homage to BF Skinner.

Charlie Olken said...


I thought that was your specialty. Container for things put away in dark places. You call them barrels.

The rest of the world knows them as dresser drawers.

Thomas said...

"I am waiting for somebody to make a wine in homage to BF Skinner."

That would be wine in a box, no?

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Hey Mel,
Thanks for doing the leg work on that particular wine. You'd think that descriptions would be meant to either sell wine, discourage someone from buying a wine, or be accurate. As usual, this one failed on all three counts.

I found myself wondering what the "average" (whatever that is) wine drinker/reader of WS would make of a review like that, and the hundreds of others published in each issue. That lead to my revised note. There are lots of other notes I could have chosen, but it seems the Primitivo was fortuitous. Thanks!

Beat me to it... Way to go!

Unknown said...

tarry tomacco minerality, or just tomacco minerality?

Ron Washam, HMW said...

OK, now you're being ridiculous.

Unknown said...

Ron: Glad to do your long as I get a laugh out of it. The comments on the Winebow website kind of amazed me...not too many wines are a pure expression of the id and the pleasure principle...I am waiting for somebody to make wine for the Jung at Heart...maybe a Red Book Red

Thomas: Glad to be your straight man.

The Sommeliere said...

How about this one?
From the Expectorator 2005:
Henri Bonneau Châteauneuf-du-Pape Réserve des Célestins 1998 WS 98 $270 Bonneau’s Réserve des Célestins is a ridiculously late-released and expensive rarity that rabid collectors will grab all of before most consumers ever see it offered. The ’98 Célestins is monstrous, overflowing with roasted chestnut, beef bouillon, bittersweet cocoa, prune, brick dust, espresso bean and hoisin sauce flavors. This broad shouldered and immensely concentrated throwback offers accessibility now and for the next 30 years. Drink now through 2035. 100 cases imported.

And the updated post in 2007:
Still a monster of a wine, with beefy-textured chestnut, roasted fig, bittersweet cocoa, incense and blood sausage flavors that run through the massive finish, which is racy yet densely structured and lets notes of hoisin sauce and charcoal linger. This could stay just like this for quite some time.--1998 Châteauneuf-du-Pape retrospective. Drink now through 2032. 100 cases imported. –JM