Tuesday, May 30, 2017
The Way I Love Wine
I didn’t choose wine as a career. Wine chose me. How many of you feel the same? I woke up one day and I was beginning a job as sommelier in a prestigious old steakhouse in Los Angeles. How did that happen? I haven’t any idea. It’s not something I set out to do. It wasn’t a lifelong goal. I wanted to be the next Neil Simon, Carl Reiner, or Mel Tolkin, not the next, well, pretentious wine dude in a bad suit.
In much the same fashion, I don’t feel that I chose to be a wine satirist, either. When I sat down five years ago to begin writing the blog you’re reading, satire was just what seemed the most appropriate. When it began to catch on, when I began to gain some notoriety, I knew what I was in for. Plenty of adulation and an equal amount of hatred. Frankly, I’m not fond of either. But if you have any success as a satirist, if you manage to do your job and make people laugh at uncomfortable truths, as well as make people angry at the way in which you do that, that’s what happens. I learned a long time ago, in a previous life as a comedy writer, to never take the admiration or the anger to heart. If I use them as any sort of measure, and I am loathe to, I think about which people love what I do (or profess to), and which people actively hate me. For the most part, I’m very comfortable and proud to say that I’m happy with the folks that are in each camp. I love my fans, and, perversely, I treasure those that despise me. They all make the job worthwhile.
I agree wholeheartedly with the Garry Trudeau quote at the top of the page. “It’s not personal. It’s a job.” Wherever I go, I am constantly reminded by wine folks that it’s an important job. Though I am not an important writer.
I want to write about wine from a skewed perspective. So much wine writing on the internet focuses on tasting notes. Nothing is more worthless to wine writing than tasting notes. Taking notes for yourself is very worthwhile, and forces you to actually think about the wine you’ve just consumed. I have 30 years of tasting notes. Believe me, my tasting notes make “The Fountainhead” seem brilliant. My notes have no value to anyone but me. Yes, if you’re a wine critic, tasting notes are your preferred medium, and I feel sorry for you. Assigning scores is easy, writing coherent tasting notes is hard. And tasting notes never capture why we love wine any more than a list of qualities can capture why we love another person. “Honest, compassionate, kind, beautiful, with just a hint of trashy” might be an adequate description of a person’s character, but it doesn’t explain why we love that person. Not at all. Tasting notes are a clinical approach to what is, at heart, an emotional connection. I can describe my favorite wines, but that will not explain why I love them. Yet that’s what matters.
It’s a wine business cliché that stories sell wine. Scores also sell wine. No one claims that tasting notes sell wine. Are tasting notes necessary? At all? I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t miss them. I used to think pay phones were necessary, but I don’t miss them now. And too often, tasting notes make me feel ignorant. For example, I’m not sure I know what cardamom is. I thought it was what bartenders do to get better tips. I described Gewürztraminer as tasting of lychee for fifteen years before I ever tasted a lychee. Turns out that’s an accurate description much of the time. But I was faking it. I’ve still never had a gooseberry, but I swear Sancerre can smell of them.
To a great degree, we learn to talk about wine by imitating tasting notes, much as we learned language by imitating adults. Slowly, the more we practice, we begin to understand what we’re saying, and we begin to understand wine. And then, it seems to me, it’s time to move on to greater forms of expression. Tasting notes will always be a part of wine writing, but it’s the least important part. We learn simple language so that eventually we can begin to express ourselves in a meaningful way, not just parrot others. Tasting notes teach us the language of wine, but eventually there has to be more. Stories. We make up stories. We’re human, it’s what we do.
The stories we tell about wine are so often false. More often false than true. The wine business is always selling you romance. Which makes sense. For most of us, wine is about our love for wine, and our love of how alcohol makes us feel, why wouldn’t we fall for romance? Apart from the wine business, on a personal level, wine, for us self-proclaimed wine experts, also becomes part of our identity. A part we cherish and brag about. And what is the internet if not a place to create a new, completely fabricated, identity. The place is littered with people who want to be recognized as authorities on something or other. Wine attracts its share. Eventually, we begin to believe our own stories. We believe we’re right. We believe we're talented. We believe we're fascinating. We must be. We’re experts. Hell, we have our own blog! What we say must be true, it must be right. We have a President like that. He’s as much an Internet creation as the HoseMaster of Wine™, only a bit more dangerous. Yeah, but I’m more delusional!
Satirists go after the stories that have come to be seen as truth. Everyone knows that Bordeaux en primeur is a fraud. The critics know the wines are doctored, the wineries know the wines are doctored, the scores that are published are aimed at self-promotion for both the wineries and the critics, but no one says anything. Except the satirist. Truth is hard for everyone to swallow. The dull don’t like to be called dull. The hypocrites don’t like to be pointed out. The talentless don’t like to be told so. They often react with indignation. But it’s the job. I must like the job, I’ve been at it for a while.
I started out to write a piece about how tasting notes are inadequate and nearly useless by definition. That every great wine writer worth a nickel has to move on from tasting notes to something better, something different, in order to adequately express what she loves about wine. The wine writers who engage me express their love for wine in many ways. With stories of how wine has changed their lives, with insights earned through years of tasting and paying attention, with honesty about the wines they love and the wines they hate, and with truth, not marketing stories. They are few and far between these days, but well worth seeking.
I express my love for wine through satire. Satire, without exception, relies on outrageousness, profanity, raucousness, venom, anger, and, one hopes, wit and laughter. I’ll admit that I often miss my target. Which can be embarrassing. I often make people angry. That’s pretty much the point. Angry people unfailingly betray who they really are. SNL helped show the world Trump’s character. But as much as anger drives comedy, it’s love for wine that drives me to lampoon the stories we tell ourselves about wine and the wine business. When I do hit my target, I’m proud and I’m energized. That makes it worth it. I guess I could have published a little blog filled with tasting notes and podcasts, but that would mean nothing to me, that would have been entirely unsatisfying. Satire makes me happy.
Satire isn’t about telling truths. It’s about examining truths, and seeing the absurdity underneath. It doesn’t take courage, it takes fearlessness. It isn’t about hate or prejudice, it’s about love. If it weren’t, it wouldn’t make you laugh.