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.


Eric V. Orange said...

Drivin' by Hose.


AmitiesJerome said...

A nice reflection on the "expertise" of people in wine. I always wonder if they actually enjoy wine as much as I do, or if their pleasure comes from dissection and deconstruction - but is that a pleasure coming from wine or from intellectual masturbation? Personally, I do not much care for "orange" or "natural" wines. I recognize this as a matter of personal taste and my ability (or lack thereof) to derive pleasure from those fermented beverages. But too many experts deem me to be ignorant or deficient in "wine knowledge" because I do not enjoy these types of wine. Knowledge, understanding, and the pleasure of enjoyment are completely different things - it is entirely possible to love something without knowing the "why" behind it. And perhaps not knowing the "why" makes that love all the more pleasurable. In the words of that immortal acid freak Jimi Hendrix, "'scuze me while I kiss the sky!"

VinoNovato said...

Do acid freaks have continuing flashback issues each time they taste?
Were they initially afflicted by placing 9 volt batteries on their tongues in science class?
Are acid freaks trying to woo too much tang?

Unknown said...

Let them slurp vinegar!

Charlie Olken said...

"You had me shakin' and you
Shook me all night long
Yeah you shook me
Well you took me

You really took me and you
Shook me all night long"

There it is in a nutshell. Wine took me. I became its servant and luckily made a living at it. But wine, for those who love it, is not simply a vocation. It is a way of life.

I get it that writing is actually your way of life. Writing for me is more about making a living at my avocation. Writing is my vocation. I feel sorry for those for whom wine is less than that because they are slaves to fashion, slaves to the crowd, slaves to their own egos and needs for recognition. Frankly, the only thing I ever wanted to do more than enjoy good wine was to pitch for the Boston Red Sox. And then I grew up and moved to California

And "Balance" is in the eye of the beholder even when the beholders have turned into lemmings chasing after the latest trend and direction.

Quizicat said...

With regard to flashbacks....You had previous noted your irritation with the concept of 'Authentic' wines. I have been noticing that the term is weaseling its way into mindless speech and commercials. It's pretty damn irritating. And it truly means nothing. My bile is authentic.

Unknown said...

After years of teaching people about wine, and becoming that person to whom the wine list is still passed at the restaurant because of my "expertise", I am so glad to be semi-retired. Yes, I am still thrilled by a glass of exceptional wine, and I still read a lot about wine (too much, my wife would say...), and I still have too many fading bottles in my wine cellar. But the pressure is off. And, "you know what, the damned stuff is actually fun to drink"!
Thanks again, Ron. Your writing tends to keep me sane.

Samantha Dugan said...

Ron My Love,
I've yet to see how you guys come to the conclusion, or assumption, that those of us that prefer, and talk about our preference for wines with higher acidity as believing anything more than that, it's simply what we prefer. I hear people all day, five days a week, tell me they like big, luscious, oaky wines with loads of fruit and I can assure you I think only two things, they know what they want, (which is more than so many I deal with. "I like dry wines, not the wet ones but I don't want it too bitey or sour") which makes my job so much easier, and we have different taste, nothing more. I'm starting to think that "scorn" business is being projected more than actually happening. Saying "I like this" does not automatically imply, "What you like is crap" ya know. I deal with both types all day and it is more often I hear snooty stuff coming from the ones that are uber defensive about liking richer wines. Craziness man. Drink what you love and let me love what I love....which of course includes you!

Samantha Dugan said...

Oh and Sir Charles, a wine critic pointing out lemmings in the world of wine?! C'mon man!

Aaron said...

@Samantha Dugan
I think what our illustrious HoseMaster is talking about is the people, and we all know them, who preach and explain and put their nose up in the air, and yell from the tops of the buildings. And tell you that what you are drinking isn't any good and isn't, as HoseMaster said in example, "any good with food", or that it's not "terroir driven" because it doesn't have high acid.

Also, which acid? Different acids in wine will lead towards different flavor profiles and such. I don't think he's saying "acid-driven wines are bad, people who like them are bad". It's the attitude that a particular fanatic gives off, and "acid freaks" happen to be who has annoyed him lately.

Charlie Olken said...

Sam, are you now damning anyone who reads a critic?

The lemmings are the folks who run from fat and ripe Chards to ABC (anything but) to authentic to "I love high acid" as the trends take them. I dare say that the critics are a lot more steady and know their palates a lot better than the lemmings.

And you, dear Samantha, are no lemming. Your palate is your palate and was ever thus. I doubt that Ron was criticizing you.

obillo said...

Proposed new rule:
No one is allowed to 'confess' to be9ng a wine freak until he is beaten with a rubber hose.

Unknown said...

Reading a soulful piece like this makes my day fuller. It's lovely to see it made Sir Charles poetic.

It doesn't mean I like HoseMaster less when I don't comment here. Many smooches.

Tim Fleming said...

My God! Who ever heard of people praising (and conjuring an obsession for) out-of-balance beverages?
So-called aficionados are running rampant with hideous IPAs, Sour and brettanomyces-infected beers everywhere now. I mean, what the heck is wrong with them? Is it me? Am I just so out of it I can't get it? (BTW, heck is you go if you don't believe in gosh)

Mike Dunne said...

If you like to look for the muse while driving I suspect that makes you a battery-acid freak. Be careful out there.

Samantha Dugan said...

Sir Charles,
Damning people that follow critics? Hells no. I damn no one, well aside from those fuckers that write articles pairing Halloween candy, ice cream sandwiches, girl scout cookies, breakfast cereal or like, baby food with wine, and those wanks deserve my damnation. Just thought it was a tasty piece of irony that I couldn't just let slip by. I never assumed my beloved Ron was pointing at me directly, although I tend to like wine with racing high acidity, (I also ate lemons with salt when I was a kid and to this day, the only way I really like fruit is when it is doused in lemon juice, salt and often thin shards of onion and cilantro) but I never call myself any kind of freak, (well..not with wine) I know the type he's referring to but as someone that falls between the us' and thems, always sounds like the rooftop/blogtop yelling comes from those that, for some reason, feel they have to defend what they like to drink, so I think there's a problem in the whole judgement of how, why, at what octane or whatever kind of acid level people are drinking. Well, again, unless they are pairing that shit with Twix cereal puffs, then we should just drown them in both flavors of Kool Aid.

Aaron said...

Hmmm...what about an article pairing flavors of pop rocks with different wines? Combine the two, instant sparkling wine! /s


Samantha Dugan said...

Then I suggest they just mix the Pop Rocks with sparkling wines, maybe their goofy little heads will explode.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Hey Common Taters,
Thanks for all the banter. I'll say this, I don't have any issues with folks who love lean, intense, what's the word?, oh, minerally, wines. Samantha, you and I almost always agree on the wines you love. Yeah, yeah, we know, everyone gets to love what you love when it comes to wine. There's a conversation stopper. But, I guess, one time too often, I've been in hearing range of some pompous wine prick who announces something like, "Oh, I love this Muscadet (or, Chablis or Riesling or...)--but, then, I'm an acid freak." I cannot recall having ever heard that designation before about three years ago. So I'm speaking only about that phrase. It's almost always used, again, to my ear, condescendingly. Most wine lovers just talk about the wine's balance, acidity, freshness, energy... No one says, "I love this Chablis, but, then, I'm a balance freak." Asswipe. In a sense, I'm arguing semantics, which is tiresome. But the way you use language says a lot about who you are. And while we're at it, why not buy the new Riedel Acid Freak stemware?

Writing is not my way of life. I haven't made any discernible income from writing in 35 years. Wine was my way of life. I love wine as much as anyone here. But now, at this stage of my life, by my own choice and inclination, I find that writing is far more rewarding and interesting. This is a surprise to me. I think now I'd give up wine before I'd give up writing. And I'm a shitty writer, by most measures. But if I couldn't write, if I could only taste and score and assemble wine lists, my personal life would be severely impoverished. I spent 40 years learning about wine so that I could use that to find my way back to being a comedy writer. Strange.

LeoFerrando said...

Ron, thanks for your unique writings!. A pleasure to read, tons of common sense where 'acid' humour is of the escence. Cheers !

Bob Henry said...


Maybe those mostly silent car drives are your version of a "table reading"; role playing characters in your head ultimately transformed into wine blog fodder.

As I have used the phrase before, an exercise in exorcising your "demons."

One thing conspicuously missing from your piece is the pleasure that playing the role of wine educator brings you.

I assume your work in a winery tasting room pays both a monetary income as well as a psychic income (that eclipses occasionally having to graciously suffer tourist fools)?

Speaking for myself, the joy of wine retailing is imparting what you know to store customers who genuinely hunger for wine knowledge. (A "pay it forward" way of discharging the debt of gratitude we all owe to our wine mentors.)

The psychic income reward and new friendships formed are priceless.

(And discovering a stand-out affordable wine that rejuvenates your passion ain't half bad either.)

~~ Bob

Ron Washam, HMW said...

I'm not sure I derive that much pleasure from playing the role of wine educator. I was always that, to some degree, and I've tried to repay my psychic debt to my mentors by helping younger wine enthusiasts find their way in the biz, not by educating the "public".

I find that speaking out loud in the car forces me to be clearer in my writing. Thoughts that just bang around in your head, are never vocalized, tend to disappear. Where thoughts that are half-formed can be made more interesting just by verbalizing. It's two parts of the brain cooperating, and, trust me, I need all my parts working to get anything right.

Bob Henry said...

I've found that younger wine enthusiasts who enter the biz burn-out and defect from careers prematurely.

Whereas the wine enthusiasts who are hobbyists/collectors form a near-life long passion.

Robert Balzer instilled in us wine appreciation course students ("children") a debt of gratitude . . . best discharged by "paying it forward" through teaching someone else what he taught us. Otherwise, the demographic pyramid of wine drinkers would invert and become top heavy, comprised of rapidly "aging out" Baby Boomers.

Where do the Millennials (discussed in Lettie Teague's Wall Street Journal wine column this weekend -- link: go to find their Robert Balzer and Kevin Zraly mentor?

Not to wine merchants. They have abdicated their role as wine educators.

Not to the Society of Wine Educators. They are too insular and infrequent in their member-centric activities.

Not to Les Amis du Vin wine society. They gave up the ghost decades ago.

Wine enthusiasts are compelled to become autodidacts if they wish to learn about wine on a more than cursory level.

'Tiz a puzzlement that "outreach programs" by The Wine Institute and the wine media are nonexistent, for whom the loss of wine drinkers is an existential threat.