Back in the 1980’s and ’90’s, the wine world was obsessed with cult wines. Cult wines were almost strictly from California (there were outliers like Leonetti and Quilceda Creek—remember Quilceda’s original shit-brown label? Wow, maybe an alltime ugly label), and were created by Parker ratings. Wine folks my age can remember them with great ease and nostalgia, like naming your favorite baseball players when you were a kid—Marcassin, Bryant Family, Colgin, Harlan, Sine Qua Non, Kistler, Aubert, Screaming Eagle, Scarecrow, Clemente, Koufax… Ah, those were the days.
I had every one of those cult wines on my wine list, and more (Araujo probably belongs on there, and Dalle Valle). Some I liked very much, others I didn’t. But it didn’t matter. I didn’t have to work hard to sell them. A lot of wine lovers wanted to try all of them, like birders who want to finally add an Ivory-billed Woodpecker to their life list. Wine geeks even tried to anticipate what the new Parker-created cult wine would be (oh, man, have you heard about Blankiet?!), try to get on the mailing lists before the scores were published. Chat rooms were always ablaze with sad little men announcing “The Sine Qua Non (or some other cult wine) mailing list just arrived!—what are you buying?” Knowing, of course, very few were in their exalted company.
It seems to me that we’ve gone now from a wine culture of cult wines to a culture of wine cults. The impulse is the same, but it’s an interesting shift.
Maybe it’s that 100 Point wines are no longer rare. I’m more interested in a wine that received 99 points—I want to taste what near-perfection tastes like. Perfection is so overrated. When you think about it, a 99 point wine is better than a 100 point wine. It can improve; perfection can only go downhill, like Marilyn Monroe or Whitney Houston. But as 100 point wines have become almost commonplace, cult wines have less of a grip on the imagination of wine geeks, or at least it seems that way to me. Now all the fuss is about wine cults—Natural wines, orange wines, wines from obscure grapes grown in obscure regions, wines in pursuit of balance…
When I was a sommelier, I was paid to participate in a discussion, put together by a marketing company, about how to become a cult wine. Wineries wanted to be the next Kistler, or the next Harlan Estate. At that discussion, the other wine professionals and I agreed that it revolved around Robert Parker—though that wasn’t the answer the marketing folks wanted. As marketing folks tend to do, they believed there must be a formula, a path to being a cult wine. There wasn’t a path, of course, except through Parker’s bladder. So, of course, wineries began to engineer wines they believed he would like and rate 100 points. Which was stupid to begin with, and completely backfired, as marketing ideas often do. Now wineries no longer proclaim they’re a cult wine. Now they proclaim that they’re natural, that they’re honest wine, that they’re authentic. This is what Scientologists and Charles Manson would tell you, “I’m honest, I’m real, I’m authentic.” We’re in the new era of wine cults.
There are lots of messiahs of these cults—Alice Feiring, Raj Parr, Nicolas Joly, Isabelle Legeron MW, to name a few. And if you read their propaganda you read of people whose very lives have changed because they “discovered” natural wines. They’ve seen the Light. And with the fervor of the newly converted, they preach their Gospel of Truth. I think it’s sort of sweet. It reminds me of being in high school and all the born-again Christians would have prayer meetings and sing, “Get Together” by the Youngbloods. I admired how they seemed genuinely connected, even though I had little interest in their mindless message. I feel that way now about the Natural Wine zealots. They seem so committed, and so at peace with being right. It seems to have a way of curing their loneliness, and what better purpose can wine serve? I think the same way about the In Pursuit of Balance folks, although their cult is much more blatantly commercial, a kind of Scientology without the blackmail of homosexual celebrities. Yet they seem like a happy little bunch, such a tight little club, choosing members in the same way as kids we picked the nerds and the fat kids last at softball.
Wine is a big enough tent, of course, to contain all kinds. I’m content to explore wine on my own, without any labels or cults, interested strictly in what each wine has to say to me. I often don’t like what a wine has to say to me, wines can be completely dishonest or fake or insincere. But I think I learn a lot from that. A lot of Natural Wines I’ve tasted strike me as complete fakes, as natural as Mount Rushmore, whereas there are many wines In Pursuit of Balance I find wacky but incredibly interesting, like Amy Sedaris or the guy talking to himself on the park bench who doesn’t even know I exist. I don’t need cults and their rigid sets of rules in any aspect of my life, and I rather pity the folks who do. And I’d gladly trade my Colgin for a Coulée de Serrant, depending on what I’m feeling that day. There’s a reason we taste wines blind. Humans live by labels. Humans love labels. I try not to.
The featured speaker for the 2015 Wine Bloggers’ Conference is Karen MacNeil, author of The Wine Bible. Many of us believe that The Wine Bible is the literal truth, and not just crazy superstitious stuff most people believe it to be. Especially the Book of Tchelistcheff wherein God reveals Himself to a winemaker as a burning bushy eyebrow. I, for one, truly believe that Parker created the wine world in six days, blind when possible, and on the seventh day He rated.
It should be interesting to hear MacNeil preach the Word to America’s wine bloggers, most of whom still await their blogs being translated into English. Luckily, I was provided with a transcript of Ms. MacNeil’s speech. I swear on a stack of Wine Bibles this will be her actual presentation. (Q: What do you call a stack of The Wine Bible? A: The remainder table.)
Good Evening, Fellow Wine Writers. Yeah, I do love to start a speech with a joke.
We’re here in the Finger Lakes, home of our best domestic Rieslings. Even the Germans are jealous of the Rieslings produced in this region. In the United States, you can use the Finger Lakes to pick your Riesling. In Germany, you use the Finger Lakes to pick your Nahes. Just don’t eat it.
But enough levity. I’m here to speak to you wine bloggers about the noble craft of wine writing, and why you’re ruining it. My latest book, The New Wine Bible, is about to be published, and it’s safe to say that there really isn’t much left for you to write about. I’ve covered just about everything, and in my own irrepressible and captivating style. And I wrote it by myself, not like Jancis Robinson and her stable of writers for The Oxford Companion to Wine. I’m my own team of experts. Jancis is just a franchise, the Brookstone of wine writers, each book filled with useless crap invented by loners and crackpots that you buy and then leave on your shelf forever wondering what the hell you were thinking. The New Wine Bible, or as I like to call it, “It’s Me, God Again,” makes all future wine writing unnecessary, like your tonsils, or Mutineer Magazine, which is to writing what explosive diarrhea is to art.
I know, you didn’t come to the Finger Lakes to hear me say wine writing as a profession is dead. You came here to pretend your voices matter. And they do. Just not to anyone else. Ask yourself, who would miss your little wine blog if you decided to quit tomorrow? You don’t even have as many unique hits as an NFL lineman’s wife. I’m not saying that you should quit writing. You can’t quit something you’re not actually doing. I’m saying you should quit typing.
You all look a bit thunderstruck. But, truly, I am doing you a favor. No one makes any money as a wine writer. You know what kind of advance I got for The New Wine Bible? The publisher put his hand down my pants, that’s what my advance was. Speaking of Finger Lakes. It’s not glamorous being a wine writer; it’s relentlessly dull. It’s the Prosecco of occupations, cheap and full of fake effervescence. You never get to tell the truth. Not if you want to be successful, not if you want to be welcome in the world’s great wine regions, not if you want to keep on getting free samples to sell to the neighborhood kids. You dispense romance, the very mother’s milk of the wine business. You’re just an engorged pair of tits leaking winery stories. Is that what you want to be? You want Marvin Shanken to be your breast pump? When his cup size is larger?
Even if it is what you want to be, I’ve read most of the nominated and award-winning wine blogs, and you don’t have the chops to make it as a wine writer. Your prose is like box wine—a collapsing plastic sack of crap. Reading your wine descriptions is like trimming your nostrils with needlenose pliers—excruciatingly stupid, and a waste of perfectly good tools. I usually wonder if you even tasted the wine, or if you just reworded the back label. I have news for you, back labels are NOT Cliff Notes for wine bloggers. That got you through the JC, but it won’t work as a wine writer. By the way, there are no Cliff Notes for The Wine Bible. You cannot summarize genius.
Wine bloggers have made a mockery of wine writing. Fools say we should treat you as peers. That’s stupid. Just because you have .docx doesn’t mean you’re peers. I’ve won every major wine writing award in English. Can Robert Parker say that? Can Eric Asimov say that? Can Terry Theise say that—well, OK, he doesn’t write in English, but you get my point. You’re all competing for a Wine Blog Award. Ooh, isn’t that special? They give that to a “Citizen Blogger.” What the hell is a “Citizen Blogger?” A rejected Orson Welles movie? A Wine Blog Award isn’t a major wine writing award. It’s a front for a travel company. You just got your ass time-shared—which, come to think of it, might qualify you to write for Wine Spectator. A Wine Blog Award…There is no such thing. You think I’m kidding? Show me one! They’re like natural wines, imaginary things you think will change your life only to find out the only ones making money are the people who made them up. And, hey, if it were a major wine writing award, Karen MacNeil would have several. Did you see my clever videos where I was dressed as a nun? I put the superior in Mother Superior. I looked hot. Elvis hot.
Wine writing in the age of the Internet has become self-parody. It’s a lot like wine itself. In one camp is the overblown and preposterous, think Napa Valley Cabernet and any issue of World of Fine Wine. Both slick and stylish but ultimately just a lot of posturing with very little of interest. Every issue, of both the wines and the magazine, is the damned near the same. And in the other camp, there’s underdevelopment and fake humility. Think low alcohol, self-proclaimed natural wines and the columnists for Wine Spectator. Both feature an awful lot of chit-chat, a parade of puffery, but deliver virtually nothing. We talk about energy in wine, but where is the energy in wine writing? You know it when you taste it, but when’s the last time you tasted it? Not in the pages of a wine magazine, and not on a wine blog. Wine writing is running out of energy. So I guess it’s resorted to fracking, and you, my friends, are the originals, the mother frackers.
I don’t know about you, but this seems a little harsh…
I was just thinking the other day about how much different it would be to be a working sommelier now. I haven’t walked a restaurant floor as a sommelier in almost nine years. A lot has changed. Just as a lot changed from the generation before I started as a sommelier. Well, in the United States, there just weren’t many sommeliers in the generation before me, and what few sommeliers were employed were more often called wine stewards. I still hate the word “sommelier.” It’s difficult for people to pronounce—like “nuclear,” it’s just a word that ordinary folk mangle on a regular basis. This is not a problem carpenters have (one had anorexia, but that’s a different story). And because it’s French, and hard to pronounce, it intimidates people. A restaurant patron once said to me, when I offered him my wine list, “Oh, you must be the Semillon!” I rather prefer that. In a strange way, I think that if we rid the English-speaking world of the word “sommelier” a lot of the pretentiousness and pettiness would simply evaporate from the wine business. There wouldn’t be any Master Sommeliers, for example. They’d be Master Wine Stewards. Who gives a crap about that? That asinine movie about wine geeks would have been called “STEW,” which is far more appropriate. After all, wine geeks are slowly cooked in a liquid, and what is that but a stew? A sommelier is a glorified wine waiter, nothing more, the pastry chef of the restaurant floor. I’d rid the world of the “sommelier.” In my day, I usually insisted patrons call me the Wine Guy, or, well, Ron. And my business card said Wine Steward. But that, as I mentioned, was a different time.
If I were a wine steward now, my wine list would be far different than the one I cobbled together in my day. It would have to be. This is a different world. This is not Harry Waugh’s world, when a fine wine list was dominated by Bordeaux and Burgundy and Port. And it’s not my world, when a fine wine list was dominated by Bordeaux and Burgundy and California Cabernet and Chardonny and Oregon Pinot Noir and maybe an Italian appellation or two (Chianti and Barolo, maybe). I think those wines are now seen as the wines old fucks drink. And there’s some truth in that. If you just look at the stalwarts of wine lists from my era (I’m thinking of the late ’80’s, when I started, through the mid-’90’s), it’s hard to imagine anyone wanting them on their wine lists now. Why in the world would you have Veuve Clicquot on your wine list now if you were a sommelier? That crap won’t fly any more. Now you have hundreds of Grower Champagnes, far superior wines, and at the same relative price point. Or you’d have something sparkling and hip and Italian. Who carries First Growth Bordeaux on their wine lists now? I had all five on mine, but now they’re stupidly expensive. Stupidly. Plus, they’re from Bordeaux! Is there a less hip appellation in the world than Bordeaux? Bordeaux is about as hip as VCR’s.
It can be frustrating to go to a restaurant and read through a wine list that seems to absolutely require the presence of the sommelier. I’ve been to several where I recognize maybe 80% of the wines on the list, and I know a lot about wine. What about people who just want to quietly order a nice bottle of wine and don’t want to play, “Oh, this is really interesting wine from an underrated appellation” with the wine steward? They wouldn’t know even two of the wines on those lists. Now they have to talk with the wine steward. It’s worse than needing advice in the sex boutique—“I need something big and black, and under $25.” Maybe sommeliers these days are lonely and insecure and covet the undivided attention of total strangers who will admire their vast knowledge of wine. Sure seems like it.
Yet I get it. It is a different wine world now, and I’m an old fuck. Were I starting out now, I would be deeply immersed in Grower Champagne (which, by the way, feels really good on your testicles). I’d be proselytizing for Mencia. I’d be pushing people to South African wines—oh, man, South African Syrahs are breathtaking. Why wouldn’t I list three or four Godellos? And there wouldn’t be a Rombauer, a Jordan, a Silver Oak, a Lafite, a Duckhorn or a damned Veuve Clicquot to be found. Or a Grüner Veltliner (which is German for “Green Trash Can Liner”).
And in twenty years, wine stewards (there won’t be any goddam sommeliers) will have a different set of wines to taste and buy, and it will again be a different world. Climate change is certainly going to change the face of wine, and the next generations of stews (did I say I hate the word “somm?”) will be dealing with wines that Harry Waugh wouldn’t even recognize as wine. And so it will go. Yet the complaints aimed at wine stewards will remain just about the same, and old fucks will criticize them, and everyone, as always, will remain convinced that they know what belongs on wine lists, on what will sell, and on what the next hot new region will be.
A great bottle of wine evolves slowly, over decades. The wine business is slower. Old fucks hate that it changes, that we are constantly falling behind. There was a time I tasted thousands of wines a year. Now it’s a few hundred. I certainly know good wine when I put it in my mouth. I understand wine on a level that only, and I mean only, long experience can provide. But I cannot any longer rattle off the trendy producers, or speak knowledgeably about the latest vintage in the most talked about new wine regions. I’m a has-been. Though not a never-was.
Enjoy it while it lasts, my fellow sommeliers. You are but a few years away from being old fucks, has-beens, and yesterday’s gatekeepers. A word of advice—don’t start a blog.
After 19 years as a Sommelier in Los Angeles, twice named Sommelier of the Year by the Southern California Restaurant Writers' Association, I moved to Sonoma County to explore the other aspects of the wine business. I've spent, OK wasted, 35 years learning about and teaching about and swallowing wine. I am also a judge at the Sonoma Harvest Fair, San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition and the San Francisco International Wine Competition--so I can spit like a rabid llama. I know more about wine than David Sedaris and I'm funnier than James Laube. Stay tuned for an informed but jaded view of everything wine and everything else.
I'm living proof that alcohol kills brain cells.
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