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.


Anonymous said...

Cardamom- nearly spit out my coffee.

Aaron said...

Cardamom is also great to make hot spiced cider even better!

But I do thank you for helping take the absurd that we all know exists in the wine world and turn it to pointed comedy and satire. Perhaps while helping us see the truth in ourselves, and then promptly ignore and move on ;)

Like I just remembered to check your blog, and saw last weeks Wine Critics in Hell, LOVED the punchline. Just fantastic. So true. Sadly you'll need to add the Millennial "wine critics" (for lack of a better term). Hm, that might be an interesting bar kiddy pool fight. Except using grape must.

leviopenswine said...

You are an amazing hypocrite, and very quick to absolve yourself of any social responsibility.

Cris Carter said...

Levi, if you're searching blogs or podcasts for social responsibility you're likely to be disappointed. If, however, you are hoping to purge yourself of the burdensome task of righting the wrongs of the wine world, well... no one really gives a shit. I've yet to meet someone who isn't a hypocrite, though most aren't amazing. At least Ron's got that going for him. Which is good.

David said...

Dear Ron,

What I like about the HoseMaster is the variety of voices and topsy-turvy angles on wine as a subject of pretentiousness and bickering - as a magnet for the madmen and unhinged. The fact that you (Ron) at the same time are able to show your love for wine without meaningless notes or scores in (almost) every piece adds an extra layer to your talent for obscurity and humor.

I agree with Cris - social responsibility in the world of wine is a bit like talking about more golf courses for the sake of the poor and hungry. Rather off the mark in the first place. If Levi is referring to the insults, then there are lots of places for back-padding, head-nodding and thumbs-upping in the wine world, but only few where ideas, concepts and prominent people in the wine world are skewered. I think we all need a champagne-cork in our eye once in a while to keep some sort of perspective on how insignificant wine actually is to the survival of mankind...


jock said...

Gee David. Here I have been thinking that wine is the only reason for man to exist.

leviopenswine said...

A cynical nihilist who needs to abuse other people to feel better about himself draws syncophants, unfortunately. As demonstrated here.

Ziggy said...

Had to look up syncophants.
Merriam and Webster told me the word doesn't exist.

At least Hose is true to form - he found one human to piss off.

Jim Caudill said...



[ˈsikəˌfant, ˈsikəfənt]


sycophants (plural noun)

a person who acts obsequiously toward someone important in order to gain advantage.

synonyms: yes-man · bootlicker · brown-noser · toady · lickspittle · flatterer · flunky · lackey · spaniel · doormat · stooge · cringer · suck · suck-up

You've met this person, more than once I'd wager....

Aaron said...


Are you sure you don't actually mean Larry Anosmia, MS, the Prick Family Sommolier? That's the Prick Family of the Prick Family Vineyards, founded by Rich Prick himself!

Besides, the HMW doesn't abuse others, he mostly abuses himself and who he used to be to illustrate the inanity of so much of the wine industry. Well, maybe he does abuse some. Really just their self-important over-inflated egos. Like Riedel for example.

And if you can't laugh and make fun of yourself, you'll just go through life way too serious and not having any real fun at all!

Unknown said...

Hi Levi,

I am a fan of the Hosemaster, and also a fan of your podcast (I especially liked the one about whole cluster fermentation). I am surprised by your comment, because I feel like this blog is one of the few wine or food things I read with any type of social conscious (the blogs about the Napa Valley Wine train and Rudy K come to mind).

You mentioned that Ron absolves himself of social responsibility, so I am curious to hear what you think is the social responsibility of a wine writer, and how Ron doesn't measure up, and if you could give some examples of writers who do?

Don Clemens said...

"I’m not sure I know what cardamom is. I thought it was what bartenders do to get better tips." Others have already commented. I had to look at this twice, and then - once again - the "Brilliance of Ron" leapt from the computer screen. Thanks for the brain twist!

Justin H-S said...

"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." Spot on Ron. I'm convinced that we smell Sauvignon, and then say 'gooseberries' because when we do, people nod and smile.

And the educators tell us to smell a wine, and if we smell gooseberries, that will help identify the wine as Sauvignon.

Whereas what is actually happening is that we are recognising the wine as Sauvignon, and then searching in our learned Sauvignon vocabulary for terms that seem to fit.

Not a very satirical piece though - more heartfelt!

Charlie Olken said...

The language of wine is a lot like democracy--the best thing until something better comes along.

Or to quote Lewis Carroll: "'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.'

Tasting notes are like that. Imperfect but the best thing until some better way to describe a wine comes along. And when we say currants or red cherries or rose petals in context, we know what me mean because we have smelled wines to which those analogies apply and we have learned them. Just as a tree is tree because we say it is.

WV.AVAs said...

I find myself tempted to Follow Levi for the sole purpose of un-Following him.

BigWillyStyles said...

wow Levi Is mad. calling us all syncophants [sic] is just mean. and wrongly spelled too, but we get what he means I think. On another, interesting note, I have found that a few times a year, 20 minutes with a couple of wines, a notepad, and a collection of spice jars or fruits smashed-peeled-zested or grasses or whatever the hell are the most used descriptors of the wine you're about to taste starts to work wonders with connecting the vocabulary to the senses, but then you still have to think about the whole wine (not A-hole whine Levi). it'd be like describing a symphony by listing all the instruments - there's some great violin action here, really several layers of violin weaving in and out, some deeper cello (and double bass if I'm not mistaken) a light frothy flute and clarinet note, lots of clarinet notes in fact, and some really brassy brass that drives through the whole movement. you can almost hear it, right?

Don Clemens said...

I'm with Alden Skinner!

Samantha Dugan said...

I love it when I can actually hear your voice when I read a piece of yours.
I love you.

Unknown said...

"I express my love for wine through satire. . .Satire isn’t about telling truths. It’s about examining truths, and seeing the absurdity underneath." AMEN, Ron! And there is so much absurdity in the wine world that goes unexamined-- or usually actually promoted!-- your often self-deprecating blog is a breath of fresh air in a smog cloud of the same old bullshit penned or podcasted by so many who think they have some sort of fresh or new perspective that needs our attention. Like I once told a drunk bachelorette who demanded a comp tasting and VIP treatment on a busy holiday weekend because it was her "special day": give me five minutes and I will find 5 more bachelorettes having a "special day".
I'm sure most people who read the Hosemaster enjoy many other wine related sites, publications, etc and have their favorites that they respect because there is talent out there and exciting things to report/discuss/go in-depth on, but this is probably the only one I read every piece from because it fearlessly (and humorously)says what we're all thinking even if I don't agree 100% of the time. Other wine writing can be relevant, educational, and interesting, but wine is taken way too seriously not to poke some fun at it while also making a point. And clearly you have to love it to understand it enough to create the satire you do. Thanks for doing what you do and how you do it.