Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Cautionary Tale of Hairy Vaynerchimp

Hairy Vaynerchimp
He was the most powerful wine critic in the world for a time. The numbers he assigned made winery reputations that exist to this day. His lousy scores destroyed wineries, drove winemakers to despair, nearly obliterated entire wine regions. Everyone hated him, though most had never met him. But even with all of his undisputed clout, he never changed. His tasting regimen when he began was the same as his tasting regimen when his world came crashing down around him. He never tasted blind (he didn’t have to), he never wore pants, and he never spit into a bucket, preferring to spit at his handlers instead. He was the epitome of a professional wine critic. So why would he change his routine? And how could he change his routine? He was a chimpanzee.

I hope you will read this as a cautionary tale, though apes have only vestigial tales. The wine business is fickle. One day you rule the wine world, and the next day you’re a laughing stock. You’re courted by the wealthiest and most talented people in the business, then they won’t return your hurled excrement. It’s a story as old as human civilization. But it holds a lesson rarely learned. This is the story of one wine critic, an unusual wine critic, I concede, but it echoes across the careers of every wine critic working, and should serve as fair warning to those who aspire to the position. Enjoy your influence while it lasts. But don’t expect it to last very long. It’s only a matter of time before you suffer the same fate as Hairy Vaynerchimp—masturbating in front of kids at your local zoo.

It all began as a joke, but, really, isn’t that how all wine reviewers start? Publishing hopelessly amateurish reviews of wines while sporting imaginatively embellished credentials? There are hundreds of these naked apes in the world, most of them talentless and hopelessly self-delusional. But all that ultimately matters is that consumers begin to believe you, have faith in your integrity and the indefatigability of your palate. Then marketing departments catch wind of you, shower you with free wine, ask you to travel on junkets with other wine writers to far away wine regions in exchange for your glowing recommendations, lavish money on you for speaking engagements—shit that any self-respecting chimpanzee would have nothing to do with. But wine writers and wine bloggers don’t have the integrity of chimpanzees. Many don’t have the grooming habits either. Hairy Vaynerchimp walked, with unopposable thumbs, into a large wine reviewing void. And became legend.

It took some time. Hairy’s is anything but an overnight success story. I raised Hairy from a tender age, shared great wine after great wine with the great ape. He was only a pet, at first. Then I realized he had a remarkable palate, better than most of the “experts” I’d judged with at prestigious wine competitions. Hairy had a more sensitive nose. Once I trained him to ignore wines that smelled like female chimp genitalia—mostly orange wines, and the occasional Vignoles—his judgments were flawless. Chimps aren’t capable of speech, though they can do wonderful impressions of Congressional filibusters, but I had trained Hairy to communicate using a Ouija Board. Over and over he’d point at the letters and spell words familiar to all wine reviewers, words he didn’t understand any more than those fools did when they used them—“minerality,” “terroir,” “authentic,” and “complex.” It wasn’t much of a jump to get a large board with the numbers 80 to 100 painted on it, and teach Hairy Vaynerchimp to point. To my surprise, it didn’t take the chimp long to point between two numbers. Hairy wanted me to record a score of 89+! (Interestingly, Hairy showed no interest in the 20-Point Davis scale—just like everyone else.) So I began to write down Hairy’s reviews. And one day, I started to publish them on a blog.

Hairy was tireless and incorruptible. He could taste and rate 300 wines in just a few hours—he was a hirsute Alder Yarrow! As fast as I could open bottles, Hairy could review them. I rigged an iPad so he could log his descriptions and numbers into the iPad’s memory. I quickly learned to glance at his new reviews before I published them after an embarrassing incident where Hairy described a bottle of 2009 Chateau Margaux as “Tickle me, tickle me.” Though he did give it 100 points, and Paul Pontallier sent him a lovely engraved vibrator (though, mysteriously, it was engraved, “You know where to put this, Molesworth.”). Hairy Vaynerchimp, unexpectedly and quickly, became the wine critic’s wine critic. He smelled bad, he was given to horrible temper tantrums, he would scratch his butt and sniff his finger, he had abominable table manners—he was born to the job.

Soon Hairy Vaynerchimp and I traveled the world tasting wines and publishing reviews. Regional wine associations set up tastings for Hairy. I would walk him into a room full of the best Burgundies, perhaps two hundred wines, and he would be done in an hour and a half. No need for the wines to be served blind. He couldn’t read. Most wine critics can’t write, but Hairy couldn’t read. This was his distinct advantage over them. Hairy Vaynerchimp could not be swayed by a label. I could take him to any winery, taste with the most famous winemakers, and he was absolutely objective. (Though he did once have a man crush on Angelo Gaja, and may have overrated his wines.) Hairy was never tired, never wavered, never became intoxicated. And he could spit into a bucket twenty feet away with an accuracy that would make Monica Lewinsky proud. His scores, his expertise, his objectivity were unassailable. He ruled the wine world, and he couldn’t be bribed--he worked for peanuts. The initials “HV” after a wine review might move several thousand cases. He was Top Banana.

And then it started. How we like to see the mighty fall. Jealous competitors began to chisel away at his reputation. Wine Spectator put Hairy on the cover (many subscribers mistakenly thought it was Marvin Shanken, a stupid mistake seeing as it’s easy to tell them apart—Hairy didn’t like cigars), and published a scandalous and misleading story entitled, “World’s Most Powerful Critic—Does He Pass the Sniff Test?” The British press relentlessly excoriated Hairy, even linking him romantically with J.K. Rowling. Several Burgundy producers filed a lawsuit against Hairy, claiming he’d defamed them when he wrote that he believed several had given him misleading samples—the famous Barrel Samples of Monkey Scandal. Everyone was out to get him. But it didn’t bother Hairy. He was oblivious. He was a chimp.

As quickly as he rose to fame and power, Hairy Vaynerchimp disappeared. He may have been our finest wine critic, combining the work ethic of Robert Parker and the mane of James Suckling. But, as will happen to every wine critic, eventually people tired of him. When he was tasting, everyone said nice things about him, carried him around as he clung to their necks, gave him small treats--in other words, treated him exactly like Steve Heimoff. But when he left the room, people began to badmouth him, impugn his skills, make fun of his porkpie hat, exactly like they did with…you get the picture.

Where is Hairy Vaynerchimp now? I’m happy to say, he’s better off than he’s ever been. He works a lot less, and lives very comfortably. Yes, he’s no longer the most powerful wine critic in the world, but I think he’s OK with that. It all sort of worked out.

I sold him to a bunch of Singapore investors.


Steve Lay said...

It appears some in the Mainstream Wine Media were out to undermine Hairy's valued and respected Tasting Notes. Hairy's demise may be attributed to his lacking a publication to tout his premier tasting skills. Now we have a 3 monkey skill set-see no evil, speak no evil, and hear no evil...unless well plied with trinkets/wines/travel.

Marcia Macomber said...

Magnificent! I can only hope Hairy is enjoying his banana days in Singapore.

renzo said...

Maybe Hairy could rebrand with an internet venture?
Something like "Vine Lie-Berry T.V." Forget expertise, all he would need is a huckster's pitch and a willing bunch of suckers. He already has a million plus Facebook "friends". The next step would be a piece of berry pie ;)

voice of reason said...

another "keeper"!

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Hello Tiny Gang,
This little piece wasn't meant as a dig at Gary V., though I guess it could be read that way. The original idea was simply to imagine a chimpanzee as a wine critic. I was reading a wonderful and moving novel by Karen Joy Fowler called "We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves." The novel focuses on a woman who, as a child, was raised with a chimp for a sister (her Dad is a psychology professor). Halfway through the book, I awoke one morning feeling the need to write about a chimp wine critic. In searching for a "clever" name, I arrived at Hairy Vaynerchimp. Kinda catchy.

Anyhow, I like to think of it as another HoseMaster Tall Tale. To go with Parr Bunyan and Jimmy Steward, Child M.S.

Charlie Olken said...

Are old critics like old golfers?

For years now, I have been talkiing about critics turning sixty. Look out, they are about to turn seventy.

Some of them have been sold to Singapore. Who will buy the rest of us?

Ron Washam, HMW said...

I think that one day the wine world will miss Parker and Laube and Olken and Steiman and Heimoff. Will it be a world of Roberts, Yarrow and Bonne? Ah, well, the Millennials will have to make do.

Meanwhile, it seems we all can't wait to be missing Parker and Laube, et al. The old, "be careful what you wish for."

Who will buy the rest of the old critics? Hell, I thought you guys were already paid for on the winery installment plan.

Vermont Wine Media said...

Finally, someone explains why Vignoles smells like it does...