Monday, February 27, 2017

Wine Critics in Hell Act 7


Things are getting messy in Hell. The Bartender has just shot Suckling, who was threatening to stab Matt Kramer with a broken piece of Riedel (“Riedel—The Official Stemware of Eternal Damnation”®)—broken pieces of which are about as hard to find as insect parts in your breakfast cereal. This begs the question, can you kill someone who is already confined to Hell? Antonio Galloni tried to exit the Hell that is a Natural Wine bar in Lodi only to find that there is no escape—there never is from our own private Hell, is there? Laube hasn’t moved from his stool at the bar much. Alice Feiring seems either repulsed, or slightly aroused, by the senseless shooting of Suckling. OK, by the shooting of Suckling. Matt Kramer seems to be in a state of shock, while Parker seems bemused. The Stranger is looking at the Tarot Cards on the table in front of him and nodding in affirmation.

Galloni: (to the Bartender) Shoot me next! I want out of here.

(The Bartender casually replaces the gun beneath the bar and goes back to washing wine glasses. Suckling hasn’t moved. There is little concern.)

Laube: (wearily, and angrily, he rises from his bar stool and begins to speak, suddenly articulate) That sucking Fuckling tried to kill Kramer. What the hell? What’s the point of trying to kill Kramer, except that everyone hates him? We write about wine. All of us here. We just write about wine. We don’t do anything important. Nothing we write is important. We’re among the least important people in the universe. Not one of us has any real talent. We deal in adjectives. We sell myths. We put countless wines in our mouths and assign them arbitrary numbers. There’s no talent there. A good waiter in a good restaurant has more importance to wine than we do. We each chased our selfish little fixation on wine, our fascination with the romance of wine, our devotion to overindulgence in wine, and we stumbled into careers handing out recycled advice and completely worthless numbers. We think we’re important. Now we’re in this wine writers’ Hell. Trying to be the most important of the inarguably unimportant. We’re small people.

(Laube pauses. He takes a deep breath and gazes down at the motionless Suckling. The other writers are silent, dumbstruck at the suddenly loquacious Laube.)

We sell bullshit! We write countless articles and stacks of books that talk about the importance of wine, the beauty of wine, the almighty wonder of wine… And it’s all bullshit. In the next breath we lump all those wonders into lovely little bunches of scores. Ten thousand wines that are all 89s. Another ten thousand that are 90s. We take all that is beautiful and wondrous about wine and we reduce it to two digits. But it’s not the scores that are bullshit. No. The scores are right. Everybody thinks the 100 point scale is a joke, that the 100 point scale is the problem. The 100 point scale isn’t the joke. Most of what you need to know about 99% of the wines in the world is a number. 85. 88. 93. That’s all anyone needs to know. The joke is that we make a living saying the same old bullshit about wine that has been said for two hundred years. The joke is that we go from region to region, variety to variety, winemaker to winemaker, and, like yeast excrete alcohol, we excrete bullshit. Utter, complete, unmitigated, relentless, tireless, certified bullshit!

Every new wine we discover, every new region we discover, every new variety we discover, we write about in the same breathless, authoritative, and completely disingenuous double-talk. Terroir, biodynamics, natural wine, minimal intervention, authentic wine—it’s just crap. It’s shit we’re making up, shit we’ve agreed to promote, a sort of vinous mysticism that intends to befuddle, and intends to make ourselves seem wise. We can’t prove any of it. We can’t explain with any degree of accuracy what the fuck we’re talking about. But we have to say something. The numbers, which are what really express the value of the wine, aren’t enough. Not enough to justify our prestige and presence, our salaries, the fancy letters after our names, anyway. We’re wine writers, goddamit, not wine statisticians, we need to write.

Only, maybe we are wine statisticians. We crunch our imaginary numbers and try to make sense of them. The problem is, when you crunch numbers that have no actual relationship to wine, you get results that have no relationship to wine. So we make up stories, we sell marketing untruths, we spend our time selling ourselves in the guise of educating the public. Or we spread history on top of our work as a kind of horse manure, as though history is what makes wine great, or that history will make us seem more intelligent. But what we’re doing is selling bullshit. We’re bullshit salesmen. And now we’re all here in Hell because, finally, we got caught with our foot in the door.

(From the floor, Suckling does a sarcastic slow clap. Laube walks back to the bar and unceremoniously tosses back a full glass of the house red wine in Hell—Lodi Zin.)

Suckling: Hell is a place where Laube holds forth. God knows, he’s never been anywhere near first.

(Alice rushes over to Suckling.)

Alice: James! You’re alive! We thought you were dead. Which gave us great hope.

Stranger: Alive? Dead? What’s the difference, Alice? There’s no difference here. There’s no difference anywhere. Life and Death are just two sides of the same coin, like natural wine and every other wine. Grapes no longer have life after you make them into wine, Alice. And yet you ascribe “life” to the wines they produce. You ascribe “energy,” and “authenticity” to them. So where’s the line? Is it just your line? Are you the one who decides what “alive” means? If a woman who practices a healthy lifestyle gives birth to a child, is that child better, more valuable, more important than a child of a woman who isn’t completely natural? Is her son fake, less interesting, less authentic? Is nature that simple? Is wine that simple?

Alice: (under her breath) I hate this fucking place.

Stranger: Oh, Miss Feiring, the fun is only starting. (He looks down at his Tarot cards.) Here, look at the cards. (Alice gazes over the Stranger’s shoulders). More visitors are coming. Wait, are they visitors or permanent customers? Hard to tell from the cards. Are you a visitor? Or have you found your eternal residence? (He laughs.) And, look. Here, these cards. Do you know what these mean?

Alice: No

Stranger: 2017 is going to be the vintage of the century in Bordeaux.


Unknown said...

Ah Ron, I love the Wine Critics in Hell series. Some of your best work. It always brightens my week to see this on a Monday. If I were still teaching wine business/economics at Davis, your blog would be required reading. Lapsley at davis.

Anonymous said...


Ron Washam, HMW said...

Invisible Common Taters,
I see I've left everyone either speechless or bored, or both. Mission accomplished!

I often leave a comment in order to remind myself what I was thinking when I wrote a piece so that if I ever revisit it (unlikely) I'll know. My future self appreciates it.

This Act was written after I'd watched the great film satire, "Network." "Network" stands at the pinnacle of film satire, in my opinion, alongside films like "Dr. Strangelove" and "The Loved One." So I decided to give Laube a bit of a Howard Beale speech in honor of the great Paddy Chayefsky, who once said, "Television is democracy at its ugliest."

As I reread Laube's long monologue, I heard Peter Finch's voice in my head. His crazed cadence as Beale, his feverish anger, his wrestling with his truths. Of course, I'm no Paddy Chayefsky. I'm more Paddy Duke. But this was the rare time I was having fun writing satire.

If you haven't seen "Network" lately, do yourself a favor and watch it--it is frighteningly prescient. There are nothing but raving lunatics on TV now--Beale was the first. Many on the air now deserve Beale's fate...

David said...


I'm not bored at all! But a Laube talking no bullshit has indeed left me speechless. He might even be truthful? What do I know, I just drink the damn stuff and try to forget the numbers...
Thank you for yet another hilarious piece on the elephants of wine criticism.


Unknown said...

In 1990 I wrote a newsletter about Laube and the concept of scoring everything in life with a number...'my first wife, originally a 99 but on second tasting a 57....'
and I think he was pissed off at me for about five years and then found somebody else to be pissed off at...

How many critics are there with thin skins?? They can criticize you but if you pick on them they are unhappy campers.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

If you remember "Network," Howard Beale is a serious drinker who is slowly losing his mind, and he begins to speak the truth about television. That was what drove me to choose Laube, who in the play is the guy at the bar, to deliver the monologue.

Monologues, in the theater, are hard to write. I'm not sure I succeeded, but I would read it out loud, in my best Peter Finch impersonation, and see how it went. It's not full of punchlines, it's just hard satire. And the kind of challenge for a writer that I very much enjoy.

I've never met Laube. My hunch is he doesn't read what I do at all, or if he does, he doesn't care. I'd be flattering myself if I thought he was pissed off at me.

I would think it would be your first wife mad at you, not Laube. Oh, wait, was Laube your first wife?

I think everyone who gets a measure of fame and authority thinks he should then simply be admired and not lampooned. He begins to have his butt endlessly kissed, and he starts to believe he deserves it. Imagine how Laube must get treated in Napa. Then a clown like me begins to hurl turds at him with some degree of accuracy, and it's no surprise they don't like it. Nobody really likes it. The smart ones know it's appropriate, deserved and part of the gig. The ones who get angry, you know for a fact they believe their own press. Which ends up being punishment enough.

Tim McNally said...

Funny you would bring up Howard Beale. That's whom I heard during the assigning numbers rant. Should we start referring to you as Paddy Hosemaster from now on?

Ron Washam, HMW said...

I wouldn't mind, and Chayefsky is dead so what can he do? I have great admiration for Paddy Chayefsky's work. Would that he were alive today...or I weren't.

Andrea said...

Sorry I'm late to the party Ron, but love this, and proud that I thought of Network whilst reading it...I love to tell consumers that wine writers/critics say the stuff they say to justify their existance. It's like giving them the keys to the frees them up to believe in their own sense of taste. Quite liberating, really. You can see the tension leaving their shoulders, as the smile spreads over their face. I can teach consumers how to taste wine in 15 minutes. I consider it my life's work to set them free from the likes of the number crunchers. Oh, and I tell them to read your column too! Come see me in Seattle if you get up this way! Andrea Fulton-Higgins

Ron Washam, HMW said...

I don't mind latecomers to the party, Love. Thanks for being a common tater, Andrea. You class up the dump. I haven't been to Seattle in a long time. You never know, I just might get up that way soon.

I'm glad so many folks picked up my lousy Howard Beale "Network" impersonation. That's sort of been the point of Wine Critics in Hell--for me to lampoon famous playwrights. Don't have anyone picked out for Act 8 yet, but I'm sure inspiration will strike soon.

And thank you, Andrea, for spreading the word about my stupid blog to your students. I appreciate it.

Unknown said...

First time posting a comment on your blog (I've been a lurker for a while). This whole wine critics in hell series is brilliant. Suckling with a slow sarcastic clap from the floor... hahahahah.

It's too bad more of the general public don't know these critics because they would find this writing hilarious. I guess you sum it up during the punch line in Act 8 though...

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Hi Matthew,

Sorry your comment wasn't published right away. I have my comments section set so that anyone commenting on a post more than two weeks old has that comment put in limbo. Most of the spammers, as you may know, hit on older posts.

Thanks for finally coming out of the lurker closet to be a common tater. And thanks for the kind words. I miss writing "Wine Critics in Hell." It's one of the rare concepts that I genuinely like. I keep thinking I'll go back to it, starting at Act 9, but I haven't found the motivation yet. Maybe your comment will get me going again...