Monday, April 6, 2015

The Five Essential Wine Words

Most people are uncomfortable talking about wine. They think they lack the vocabulary to speak about wine and, therefore, they sound stupid. They are correct. There is no subject that has people sounding so incredibly ignorant as often as wine, unless you count poetry. So much stupid has been said about wine you’d think it was climate change, or something even more complicated, like the 100 Point Scale (neither of which is real). But it doesn’t have to be that way...

My shortcut guide to being able to speak authoritatively about any wine is available now at Tim Atkin's site. Those of you versed in wine, well, maybe marinated might be a better word, will already know and have used these magical five words. For the rest of you, read and learn. You can sound exactly like an MS in no time. Well, you'll need to learn fake humility, too, but we'll get to that another time. Jump on over to Tim's, and feel free to leave your brilliant commentary there, or drop it like a blind drone strike here, and hope no innocent civilians are injured.


I’ve been writing this idiotic blog for about six years now, not including the many hiatuses (hiati?) I’ve taken, and I cannot remember a larger response to a piece than the one I received for “California’s Dear Jon Letter.” I once received a huge response to a piece I wrote parodying Alice Feiring many years ago (called, if I recall, “Mis(s) Feiring”). A lot of people then felt that it had crossed a line, though I have no idea what that line might have been. Another post insulting the Canadian blogger Natalie MacLean who writes the blog “Nat Decants,” entitled “Nat Defrauds,” created a lot of feedback, most of it supportive. And then there was the original, 3-Part exploration of the Jay Miller scandal, “Parkenstein.” I heard from all over the world about that particular parody (and it marked my return, after a long break, to writing HoseMaster of Wine™ again). Other posts have generated a lot of response, but none like the response I received to my Dear Jon letter.

Much of that response came by way of my personal email, as well as comments from friends and strangers at the recent Rhône Rangers tasting in Richmond. All of that stuff is off the record, and will stay that way, but I can say that, honestly, I was surprised by the vitriolic and angry edge to people’s comments about Jon. It’s a funny business, the wine business. It is perhaps a testament to the power of the press that there’s not a single winemaker or wine marketing professional who would have dared to express their opinions about Jon publicly, even though it was often discussed off the record. Even a few whose wines Jon praised in print were not especially kind in their opinions of how he operated. Don’t get me wrong, no one accused him of being unethical. That was never the subject of the conversations. Rather, most felt that he brought an agenda to California and to his critical thinking. As one correspondent put it, I thought quite eloquently, “He didn’t want to report on key influencers and tastes makers.  He wanted to be the key influencer and taste maker.”

I wrote the piece because the conceit was irresistible to me, not because I bear Jon any ill will. It struck a nerve, which is what satire does best. There’s a lot fascinating about the whole episode, about the interesting chemistry between winemakers and the press, a chemistry unique to wine, and a complete mystery to the people who read the reviews and buy wines based on them. Most winemakers I know are not that bothered by lousy reviews as long as they feel the critic was open-minded, educated and gave them a fair shake. Jon is nothing if not educated.

Of course, if a critic leaves the building and his subjects are universally sad to see him go, that speaks poorly of him. His job isn’t to win friends. It’s also interesting that the two most disliked wine journalists in California wine country that I know of both worked for the Chronicle. Seems I should apply for the job.

John Cesano, who runs the tasting room and seems to be a John-of-all-Trades at McFadden Vineyards in Mendocino, recently shipped me six bottles of wine. Unsolicited. They just showed up at my door. Many wine bloggers receive countless wines from wineries and marketing people and distributors, some solicited, some not. I do not. Brian Loring once sent me 20 different bottles of wine, a bit of overkill, but much appreciated. When I sent John a thank you, I mentioned that I certainly couldn’t promise I would write about the wines. He didn’t care. He wrote, “…the wines are like my subscriber’s dues…” What a lovely sentiment.

There was a time I was also sent a lot of wine books from UC Press. Not any more. I guess my Blind Reviews scared them off. Instead, they send the books to people who write specious reviews of them, bloggers who claim to have actually read the books, but don’t seem to have a clue about how to write book reviews. Wine bloggers writing book reviews is like blind people reviewing movies. They sort of get the gist of it, but lack the proper sense. The book business is as screwed up as the wine business.

I’m not looking for free stuff, not at all. Not wine, not books, not junkets. I have many friends at prestigious wineries in Northern California who get countless emails from bloggers asking for samples, and, for the most part, anyone who has to ask for samples is unlikely to deserve them. I used to work at a winery where I would see the list of bloggers who were being sent samples and I would laugh. You may as well send the wines to chimpanzees. The chimps, seated at typewriters, would be able to write the same reviews, randomly, in about a week. I think those sorts of samples are drying up for bloggers, except the top ones, whoever they are. But people get paid to send samples, and wineries get a report from their marketing company about where the wines were sent, and everyone feels like it’s Mission Accomplished. It’s the George Bush in Iraq syndrome.

OK, I got sidetracked. Thank you, John, for the thoughtful gesture. I like McFadden’s wines—their sparkling wine seems to me vastly underrated. I’ll write about the wines if I’m moved to. Meanwhile, wineries, want to waste wine? I’m as good a place as any.


Unknown said...

Hi Ron,

Thanks again for your kind words about me, and McFadden. I'm pretty fond of our bubblies, as well.


John 'infrequent common tater' Cesano

Charlie Olken said...

Jon Bonne must have scared a lot of people, because the disdain for him, and the utter disgust at his methods, was rarely stated publicly in wine country.

I would put some of it down to the "if you don't have something nice to say about somebody, don't say anything at all".

Not my style, mind you, but I can respect those who had only negative thoughts about Jon but did not feel that it was appropriate to voice them publicly.

Still, what you are finding is that his methods and his biases made him an object of ridicule at best and of utter disrepect for many.

It is true that we critics are not cheerleaders. It is our job to have opinions and to voice them--fairly, objectively and with more than a little humility.

When a critic crosses those lines, the reactions can only be negative. And lest you think that the unkind feelings about Jon were limited to wine country, I have a batch of letters from ordinary punters who also had very little nice to say about Jon.

In the end, it is coming out, albeit a fair amount in private correspondence to folks like you. But it has been there for some time, and it was earned by the total disrespect the man showed folks who did such absurd things as dare to like Chardonnay.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

There's a lot of pleasure in the McFadden sparkling wine. Quite lovely, and competes with the "big boys" (Gloria Ferrer, Mumm, Chandon) on every level. Can't wait to try the newly disgorged version you sent me. But I say that to everyone.

You've been outspoken in your disdain for Jon, but you have the credibility, and nothing to lose. I don't have anything to lose either, but I wrote the piece simply because it appealed to my sense of humor, and the absurd.

I think Jon had far less "clout" than he imagined. Which makes it harder to understand his foolish sort of power trip. Off the record, I heard some amazing things about shit that happened at the SF Chronicle, shit that would make me absolutely refuse to send them samples. While Jon is still going to write a monthly report about wine for the newspaper, I would think that his praise now might well be seen as a Pyrrhic victory for a winery. His leaving is very much a strange turn of events.

Amazing you hear from so many punters when football season is over.

It's always quiet around here when I write for Tim. My common taters think they have the week off. The good news is, then so do I.

Charlie Olken said...

"Off the record, I heard some amazing things about shit that happened at the SF Chronicle, shit that would make me absolutely refuse to send them samples."

Some of those stories have been in circulation but very quietly. I am sure that you have heard others because there is no reason to believe that the bad behavior ends with one or two incidents.

I am assuming that there will be a tell-all some day, or more likely, a compilation of things that people know. I think those stories would make interesting reading and I hope someone will come out and tell them. And it is not just that folks should not send samples but that the readers should also be informed about what went on.

Charlie Olken said...

"Amazing you hear from so many punters now that the season is over."

I guess I heard from a lot of those punters all along, including some who post here, because I have been outspoken about bias and disrespect. It seems now that there are insider stories as well.

It was not hard for me to criticize Jon because I had his own words to work with. Jon was not just pushing his own opinions. He was intentionally and knowingly denigrating large masses of wine enthusiasts for their own tastes.

If there is one thing I know above all else in this business, it is that my preferences are my preferences and that your preferences are yours. We may not agree; we may not even be close; but I do not have the right to denigrate your palate just because we disagree. That is not the role of the critic. It is what a bully does. That is why I have been so outspoken. I can't wait to hear more about the hidden truths.

WineKnurd said...

Ron, is there any truth to the myth that noir wines have greater length than blanc wines?


Ron Washam, HMW said...

There's always been a variation of "Ignore that man behind the curtain!" in the wine business, and I suspect it will continue with the SF Chronicle and Jon's tenure there. I doubt we'll see a tell-all. As for me, I'm dubious about publishing third-hand information (I'm no "Rolling Stone," for God's sake), and I gave my word not to. In the scheme of things, it's only wine--hard to think of a subject less important, except maybe Bruce Jenner.

You always seem angry about Jon, where I see him as part of the great human comedy. Maybe I got into wine because the business has a tendency to take itself far too seriously, and that makes me laugh. I hear nasty things about other people in our business, some of them relatively successful, and that also makes me rub my hands together thinking about writing about them. Trust me, the bad guys in the wine business are mere pikers compared to the bad guys in Hollywood.

If you're an actor and you hate a movie critic, you have a large audience and a stage from which to broadcast your dislike. If you're a playwright and you hate a theater critic, you have a platform, and the words, to speak against that critic. Wine is different, I think. Famous winemakers with a grudge tend to stay silent. Maybe because they don't have a way to express their feelings publicly. They sure as hell express them privately. Though, to some degree, they're also doing what I do to my critics--ignore them.

Yes. Though it's all about how quickly they finish.

Charlie Olken said...

Maybe no tell-all. Maybe yes.

Bad actions have a way of getting exposed at some point.

I am happy to be fight back against his public bullying and arrogant dismissal of anything outside of his world. Those are in the public domain. If there are other shoes to drop, then so be it.

I think Jon is responsible for Bengazi, for erasing Hillary's hard drive, for making Jon Boner cry and for dissing Splooge Estate.

Unknown said...

I like your suggestion about balance, I'm gonna use that. Usually when I taste a wine I don't like, I describe it as "interesting". At this point, my wife is a dead giveaway. I gotta switch it up.

And I liked your comment about "famous winemakers". Is that like a liberal farmer? Or a well dressed radio host?

William Hughes said...

If you wrote such a satirical piece about me, then I would sends ten plagues upon you and your house.

That's not true. Only god himself, Robert Parker, could do such a thing.


Ron Washam, HMW said...

"Balance" is one of those vague words we love to pursue in the wine game. It provides us with something nice to say about wines that otherwise leave us confused. "Nice balance," is hardly praise.

I'm reminded of a question I would often pose to a wine rep when I tasted a particularly weird wine he poured me, "Is it supposed to taste like this?"

And yet, I have wine folks who ask me to write such a piece about them. Jon, however, didn't ask.

Oh, plagues. I got a million of 'em.

David said...

Hi Ron. Great piece - and spot on both with authenticity, balance and terroir.

Saw this article on decanter - they actually use you as a reference on grape varieties.
I'm not sure if that is good for you or for Decanter - but it proves that even an idiot can become a cited member of wine blogging!

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Hi David,
That Decanter piece was written by Stephen Brook, who recently contributed a guest column on HoseMaster, and seems to like my particular brand of idiocy. Thanks for pointing it out. Now I can put on my blog resume that I've been published in Decanter.

Marcia Macomber said...

Better 4 days late than never?! I remember when I first began reading wine reviews and Tom Wark's blog many years ago. All I heard was "authentic" this 'n' that. And for marketers the importance of BEING authentic. And the dialogue running in my head was, "What the f*ck does that mean?!?!" And "That's the dumbest damn thing I've ever heard b/c is soooooo vague and intangible!"

Would still love to read the Washam wine reviews. They actually stick in my long-term memory. Many others' are so generalized they never stick. (Charlie's and Eliot's are lovely in their succinctness!)

Would love to hear/read the SFChronicle chronicles someday. Perhaps you'll find a way to weave them into a post or two someday.

Long live the HoseMeister!

Bob Henry said...

"If there is one thing I know above all else in this business, it is that my preferences are my preferences and that your preferences are yours. We may not agree; we may not even be close; but I do not have the right to denigrate your palate just because we disagree. That is not the role of the critic. It is what a bully does."

That's what the Latin maxim "de gustibus non est disputandum" is all about.


"In matters of taste, there can be no disputes"

Bob Henry said...

"Trust me, the bad guys in the wine business are mere pikers compared to the bad guys in Hollywood."

Ron underplays the depth of the depravity in "Tinseltown."

Proffered by Monsieur Missing Link:

"For Hollywood Execs, Getting Fired Is Easy as Reading the Paper"

("Fool" disclosure: I worked at Sony Pictures Entertainment during the Guber-Peters administration multi-billion dollar operating loss debacle.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Marcia Love,
Everyone with any sense knows "authentic" is a red herring when it comes to wine. I'm not sure why I would even care if a wine is authentic or not, unless I'm at an auction and bidding on old Burgundy or Bordeaux, where authentic would mean not a fake. I know that most knowledgeable people start to get glassy-eyed the minute they read or hear the word authentic. The word indicates only the paucity of the speaker's vocabulary, not anything of any value.

Writing the occasional wine "reviews," I have come to appreciate how hard it is to do. And time-consuming. Resorting to numbers to make your point makes it a whole lot easier. I think reviewers love numbers even more than consumers. It's a crutch. And a popular one, like Tiny Tim's.

As I write, I'm trying to kill the HoseMaster off.

Links and Latin. How suave.

Wines for the People said...

Regarding the power of the press, a few years ago a wine made by a good friend received very high praise from Mr. Bonne in print. I called a few days laterto congratulate my friend, and of course I could not resist asking about the Bonne bump. He reported that his phone had rung exactly no times since the review had been published. There was no bump at all.

Admittedly, his was and is a small brand that most readers had never heard of, but don't most readers read critics like Bonne to make such finds?

Ron Washam, HMW said...

I think there's a point where consumers are review weary, and I think that point is now. I don't mean points weary, I mean review weary. It's too much trouble to seek out some obscure wine because the SF Chronicle critic liked it. Especially if it's not Pinot Noir or Cabernet. All the talk of "Authentic" is eventually regarded as hooey, as is all the "story." A winery's only hope is to capture a sommelier's interest, and those are pretty long odds.

Readers want to be entertained. Maybe enlightened. Other than that, they want to feel smart and hip. Jon always wanted to be the smart and hip one. Where did that leave his audience?

Bob Henry said...

Since grocery stores and "big box retailers" like Walmart and Target and Costco don't display "shelf talkers" reprinting reviews (due to space constraints and aesthetic clutter), and very few wine bottles carry "neck hangers" reprinting reviews, how do reviews "move the needle" on bottle sales?

The mainstream wine buying public -- not being subscribers of wine magazines, and seeing little if any wine editorial in their local newspapers -- won't know Robert Parker from James Laube from Stephen Tanzer from Antonio Galloni.

As for wine bloggers? Gary Vaynerchuk and others are even more anonymous to mainstream America.

Getting a "good value" thumbs up from Consumer Reports moves more inventory.

Two years ago (June 6, 2013), Charlie Olken got it right when he opined . . .

"Wine Bloggers Are Talking To Themselves"


(And by extension, wine blog commenters are talking to themselves.)

Citing a 2010 research study:

"According to the data presented by [David] Francke [now former managing director of California’s Folio Fine Wine Partners founded by Michael Mondavi], U.S. wine drinking is compressed into a small segment of the population.

"SIXTEEN PERCENT OF CORE WINE DRINKERS consume wine once a week or more frequently, which ACCOUNTS FOR AROUND 96 PERCENT OF CONSUMPTION. Thirty-five million adults drink virtually all of the wine sold in America, Francke said."


[Bob's aside: Corresponds with the "80-20 Rule of Marketing" -- 80% of your sales revenue and unit volume comes from 20% of your customer base.]

And only a subset of that SIXTEEN PERCENT read and care about wine reviews.

(As I recall, Wine Spectator has around 325,000 paid subscribers. And The Wine Advocate has somewhere between 40,000 and 50,000 subscribers.)

We are talking to ourselves.

Bob Henry said...

"Thirty-five million adults drink virtually all of the wine sold in America, Francke said."

Wine Spectator has around 325,000 paid subscribers.

Welcome to the "One Percenters."