My first thought after awakening to the news that the 6.0 earthquake in wine country was centered in Napa? Sounds like all those falling bricks will delay harvest…
Earthquakes are a reminder, if we really need one, that we’re rather insignificant beings on this colossal planet. If we see Earth as a berry, humans are a kind of botrytis, an Ignoble Mold. We’ve spent a couple of hundred years of our Industrial Revolution trying to destroy Earth. It only makes sense that Earth is going to fight back once in a while. It’s the movements of its tectonic plates, like the minor movement that dismantled downtown Napa early Sunday, that created the beauty and diverse soils of Napa and Sonoma, the soils that make them such wondrous winegrowing regions. An earthquake is like your father saying to you when you misbehaved as a child, “I brought you into this world, I can take you out.”
As a lifelong resident of earthquake country, I recognized the rolling movements of my bedroom in Healdsburg as a sign that I wasn’t near the epicenter of the quake. Near the epicenter, an earthquake is sudden and explosive, only, unlike an explosion, you don’t know which direction it’s coming from. When the Whittier Narrows earthquake struck Los Angeles in 1987, I was in the shower. I have never been more grateful for shatterproof glass. I had shampoo lathered in my hair and suddenly my apartment was trying to move in next door. I grabbed a towel, even in a crisis we cover our dicks, and ran down the stairs. In the distance I could see sparks from a transformer of some kind shorting out, and I remember the cacophony of the ubiquitous car alarms of the times was very annoying. My girlfriend was screaming. She knew what was behind the towel. And then, in the way of quakes, it just stopped. There is an amazing silence after an earthquake. Even the birds are holding their breath. Dogs are woofless. Had it not been for the fucking car alarms, it would have been like standing at the dawn of time.
I had just started as a sommelier. I was about a month into the job. I drove to work that night and found a dozen large trash cans filled with broken wine bottles. The busboys had piled the shards with labels still intact in a separate place, trying to create an inventory of what had been lost. Cristal, Yquem, Lafite, Gaja, Rayas, Jayer… They were just names then, the carcasses of dead wines, stacked up as if in a graveyard. And you know what? They didn’t matter. Wineries have stories, marketing folks spend hours and hours crafting those Authentic stories, but when real life happens, when we’re taken away from our silly eno-illogical passions by genuine tragedy and heartbreak, it’s not the spilled wines’ stories we care about, it’s the human stories. Wine is only wine.
I couldn’t help but reflect on how Natural Wine might be affected by a Natural Disaster. Or is an earthquake an Authentic Disaster? A Real Disaster? The terminology is so confusing. Someone call Alice Feiring. She'll know. When I think wine and disaster, I think of her.
When I was a freshman at Occidental College, the Sylmar quake struck. Funny how we feel the need to name Natural Disasters. We name hurricanes, we name earthquakes, we name big fires, we name wines from Cornellisen… The Sylmar quake was around six in the morning, and I was unceremoniously thrown from my cheap dormitory bed. I did the exact wrong thing—I ran to the window. Across the street from my dorm was a large grassy area. In the dawn’s early light, I could see the grass moving in two foot swells, a small ocean disturbance. Grass isn’t supposed to be doing the Wave.
An anchor on CNN was speaking to David Duncan, whose family owns Silver Oak, and she was calling the loss of so many bottles of his wine in the earthquake a “tragedy.” Moron. The poor woman who lost everything when her trailer park home burned to the ground? What about her? Who cares? What’s she ever done for every restaurant chain in the country?
I was wondering if earthquakes have anything to do with balance, or terroir. Wouldn’t an earthquake right before harvest change the terroir? Will you be able to taste the difference in Trefethen Cabernet’s terroir beginning with the 2014 vintage? I would think so. Some of the vines are several feet east of where they used to be. And wouldn’t a 6.0 earthquake change a wine’s balance? It changed mine. Though I’ve always been unbalanced. I wonder about these things. This is the minutiae that makes wine interesting. The shit we dwell on while the ground beneath our feet disappears. We are trivial beings so much of the time.
We live in constant denial of our insignificance and mortality. For a few minutes, earthquakes change that. In those remarkable and unforgettable handful of seconds that an earthquake lasts, we simply don’t know what to do. We run in circles, we scream, we pray for it to end. It’s like reading Palate Press. And when it does finally end, for a few days, at least, we’re a little less certain of our place in the world. The ground beneath our feet is no longer trustworthy. Our priorities are highlighted for their emptiness. I didn’t even check my wine cellar after the earthquake. I didn’t care a whit about the progress of the 2014 vintage. I wanted to hold my wife. I wanted to laugh with my friends. I wanted to remember what mattered in those frightening seconds the quake shook my little world.
The longer I’m in the wine business, the more fascinated I become with the marketing of wine. Not that it’s any different than, say, the marketing of movies. In fact, it seems like all marketing makes me think the same thing over and over, “Who the hell falls for that?” Now your question to me might be, “Who falls for what?” And you’ve answered my question.
Let’s first define wine marketing. It’s prevaricating. If you can’t put your hand on a Bible, swear in open court that what you’ve said is true, and not go to jail for perjury, it’s lying. Oh, it’s sophisticated lying, it’s lying by implication and dishonest associations, but it’s still lying. For example, “Our vineyard is right next to Harlan Estate,” which may, in fact, be true, but is meant to imply that therefore the wine is of the same quality. Which is like saying, “That’s my husband, the guy standing next to Brad Pitt,” as proof that Angelina Jolie wants to fuck him and bear his adopted children. (I think Edgar Allan Poe wrote a story about that very situation--“The Pitt and the Pudendum.”) Only, unlike wine, anyone can tell he’s not Brad Pitt without having to put him in her mouth and taste him. Wine marketing relies on the consumer’s ultimate ignorance about wine, and their insecurity about their wine knowledge. Which is why it’s so much fun to be a wine marketer! Playing folks for fools is endlessly entertaining.
I’ve assembled a few rules to remember when reading winery marketing material. This is not a complete list, but it should help you navigate some of the garbage that surrounds the marketing of wine.
It’s Important to Tell a Wine’s Story
Every damned winery has a story. Let’s not forget that a story only has to be good, only has to be interesting, it certainly doesn’t have to be true. I love a good story as much as the next guy, the one standing next to Brad Pitt, but every time I read a puff piece in Wine Spectator (about a winery that, only coincidentally, is owned by one of their major advertisers), or yet another asinine winery review on a wine blog (Alderpated on Vornography passing off winery marketing propraganda as journalism), I cringe. Wine marketing sells you romance when it wants to screw you, just like your ex-boyfriend. Winery stories are the business’ Lifetime movies—they’re “based on a true story.” You see, you always have to qualify “story” with “true,” otherwise it’s not. You don’t have to qualify “true.”
Please, God, can we put an end to telling every winery’s story? The stuff that was made up in marketing meetings? Meetings where they discuss whether to use the word “natural,” or whether it should be “authentic.” I know, I know, let’s use “sustainable.” That doesn’t mean anything legally, and it sounds like we care. Splooge Estate is sustainable! The only question is, is my straight face sustainable?
In Wine Marketing, Two Half-Truths Equal a Truth
“Our winemaker worked in Burgundy. Our vineyards are on the exact same latitude as the Côtes d’Or. So our wine is very Burgundian.” Beware of the word “Burgundian.” It is a word that is only used for the worst Pinot Noirs and the dreariest Chardonnays. It’s marketing shorthand for, “I don’t know shit about Burgundy, but I’m also sure you don’t know shit about Burgundy.” It’s also lazy wine marketing. It takes no imagination or thought, but it flatters the client no end. “Oh, honey, tonight’s dinner was absolutely French Laundrian.” As it turns out, what may sound like praise is basically sarcasm. Remember that the next time a winery claims its wine is Burgundian. They’re probably just being sarcastic. Laugh like you're in on it.
I’m the Expert on Expert Opinions
There’s a reason wine marketing folks praise wine bloggers. They desperately need their opinions to have meaning. There’s no difference between wine writing and wine blogging, they’ll have you know. Just like there’s no difference between your high school production of “Death of a Salesman” and one on Broadway. Teenagers can be actors, too, and they understand the context just as well as the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Only an idiot would think otherwise. You just have to memorize some lines, after all, and you, too, can be Willy Loman. Hey, what’s an MS made of but memorization? See? There you go. (See section above.)
Points, medals, blurbs from bloggers, it’s all the same. Make them all seem meaningful. But it’s something of a descending order of preference for wine marketing. No Parker score worth touting? Talk about the one Gold Medal you received out of the ten competitions you entered. No Gold Medals? Well, you got a nice little mention on the blog that won “Best Reviews on a Wine Blog,” an award given by marketing folks. In fact, any blogger that mentions your wine is an expert! He’s a wine writer. Which implies he’s a wine expert (see paragraph two). Hell, we’re all wine writers! I know, let’s put on “Death of a Salesman” and we can all be actors, too! I got dibs on Biff.
Words Have No Meaning
Marketing people love language the way troubled teenagers love razor blades. It’s a sick and destructive relationship. There are countless words that have been deprived of all meaning in wine marketing. Words that are tossed around like so many dwarves in a bowling alley. Here are just a few.
Terroir—Once a word that was used by winemakers of an appellation to say that a particular wine possessed telling characteristics of its origins, much as a person might reflect his culture. “Terroir” has now come to mean whatever the person uses it thinks it means—sort of like the word “truth” on the Internet.
Old Vines—How many 35-year-olds think they’re old? Humans and grapevines have similar lifespans, if anything, grapevines can outlive us. So how is 35 old? Or 50? What are we, still in the fucking Middle Ages? Are the best wines in the world made from old vines? I always thought the best wines came from the best vineyards. Old vines are just a novelty in the United States, I guess. Like watching Harrison Ford or Woody Allen get the young girl in a movie. I guess it’s because their balls have had longer hang times that the girls want them.
Balance—We pursue it. Every other winemaker ignores it. We now own it. Want to have balance? Submit a sample. We’ll tell you if you do. Otherwise, fuck off.
OK, I made a deal with Mr. Koch to tell everything I know about wine
fraud. You know, I think it’s going to feel good to get all this off my
chest, to finally tell the truth. I’ve been thinking about it a lot in
my prison cell, and I’m actually excited. I think it will be cathartic.
OK, so here it goes, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
Finally, in his words, Rudy tells all, or does he? Continue reading at Tim Atkin MW! And don't forget to leave authentic comments there, and save the fakes for here.
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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