Join us for the second annual CIA Sommelier Summit!
Randall Grahm will be presenting at the Tuesday, April 25th (10-11:15 a.m.)
Natural Wines: WTF? (What’s the fuss?)
DOMAINE DES BLOGGEURS1
I find it more or less ironic to be standing in front of you, talking about anything pertaining to the business side of the wine business, because, in spite of my notoriety as a clever marketer (or marketeer as my detractors would have it),2 I feel that these days I hardly understand anything at all about the biz; I am a stranger in a strange land, in the words of my former neighbor in Bonny Doon, Robert Heinlein. I am acutely aware of the great, possibly infinite disparity between what you might call the “wine speech act” and what might be called the “wine sales act,” i.e. a flesh-and-blood customer actually purchasing wine from you as a result (efficient or proximal cause, or whatever the Scholastics would have called it) of something that you have either recently written or said. For I am, for all purposes, a wine blogger manqué, at least one who has not been able to successfully monetize his wine blog qua blog in the service of his business. I’m not a particularly successful poster boy for the mission of communicating the unique value proposition of the product I am flogging. But presumably, that is not necessarily all, or even primarily, what a blog is for.
For the record, I don’t think that a blog is really for anything. It is just something that we do, and there are as many motivations for writing a wine blog as there are bloggers. Very, very few of us have figured out how to monetize our efforts; there are clearly much easier ways to make a buck, like flipping burgers or even selling “orange” wines. We blog because in some sense we must, like the salmon around here, returning to spawn. Maybe the desire to blog stems from coming from a slightly dysfunctional family of origin, where we were never properly heard as children (at least, that’s my motivation).
So, it seems appropriate to talk a bit about my own history as a wine blogger, about wine bloggery in general, perhaps also proffer some gratuitous remarks about the bizarre state of the wine industry, then share some thoughts about where I imagine wine journalism might go, and lastly, offer a sincere cri de Coeur to encourage you all to support originality and strangeness, two features that the wine business, especially in the New World, desperately needs.
I got into the wine blogging business, as it were, as an outgrowth of the printed winery newsletters I used to write and mail out. At some point, someone in my organization pointed out the shocking dollar amount we were spending on postage and, as a cost-cutting measure, we abruptly stopped sending the newsletters out by post. As wasteful as the newsletters were of natural resources, as carbon footprint positive as they were, and as expensive as they were to send, I’m virtually certain that we have never quite connected with our customers as completely as we did back in the day. Our Doon subscribers got sixteen or twenty four pages of faux Dante in faux terza rima, or sincere renditions of faux Kafka or Joyce or Pynchon, along with obligatory purple wine prose, gobs of ripe fruity metaphors, with hints of hilarity, subtle suggestions of sarcasm, tinged with verdant notes of envy.
Please don’t think of me as a spy in the house of digital wine love, a turn-CÃ´tes-du-RhÃ´ne, a Benedict Arnot-Roberts, if I say that it was the palpable presence of the newsletters in people’s mailboxes that was the important meta-statement, the improbable extravagance of something like a precious gift. (I run into customers all the time who have told me that they held on to the newsletters forever.) I’m not sure precisely what lesson is here to be learned. Maybe it is (or was) that, despite the fact that my wines then were largely vins d’effort, confections, if you will, perhaps the extravagance of the prose, coupled with the extravagance of the weighty tome in the customers’ mailbox communicated the message that I was, on the page at least, giving my all and then some.
I should also mention that at the time we produced a minimum of twelve new and distinctive wines and labels every year for our wine club members – utterly crazy and impractical – which communicated the message that we were trying harder than anyone out there. This cannot count for nothing. I think of Salinger’s character, Seymour Glass, who admonishes his younger brother, Zooey, to “shine his shoes for the Fat Lady.” To show up with all of one’s running lights on.
So, if there is perhaps an incidental take-away in my somewhat frothy remarks, it may be this: We are living in a time of shattered attention spans, trivial to non-existent bandwidths, and communication with one another generally limited to a sound-bite or a brief text message (often sent just before the stoplight turns green). Customer loyalty, as such, indeed any kind of loyalty these days, can best be charitably described as Commitment Lite. But, the person who, somehow through all of this, can express an allegiance to his customers or, in your instance, to your readers, with a certain generosity of spirit, must gain our attention and, maybe, even respect and fidelity.
In truth, it’s been a tough one for me and for my company. We conditioned our customers to expect the world from us, and now, when we’re only delivering really good wine at a fair price, along with a modest dose of piety, it’s not quite enough. Lessons learned? Rebranding, as they say, is a bitch. Be careful how you present yourself, especially if you are a joker, as you may, eventually, not be laughing quite as hard. The initial constellation of memes that surrounds your brand and public persona, especially in the day of digital immortality, will persist to the end of your days, which, of course, brings up the old joke about the peril of having carnal relations “with just one goat.”
Myself, I’m hoping to someday become less of a cartoon, but perhaps this may be to my own detriment. I sometimes wonder if cartoons are the only things that are noticed anymore. But I don’t want to go back to being a cartoon, nor am I particularly in favor of decimating forests so people can read my deathless prose. The lesson? I scratch my head every day, trying to work out just what it might be. Maybe in the branded universe, you can’t change things up too much. People liked the wacky labels and the putative madcap winemaker image. I was a Rorschach inkblot; people saw in me the person they wanted to see.
As a parenthetical aside, I will tell you something very odd that used to happen to me on a fairly regular basis. I do my share of winemaker dinners, and at the end of these dinners, customers would often approach me – usually to tell me about their personal history with the wine – but often on a slightly different mission. Either they would lay a joint on me, dead certain that the gesture would be appreciated – after all, I’m a long-haired person from Rasta Cruz, sorry, that’s Santa Cruz – or alternatively, they would give me the Secret Libertarian Handshake, dead certain that I, breaker of rules, non-accepter of authority, dedicated colorer outside the lines, was undisputedly One of Them. In some sense, I was the Peter Sellers character, Chance, in the excellent film and novel, “Being There.” Maybe this is one depressing secret for success – allow your audience to imagine you or your product to represent what they most want it to be. My customers, many of my older ones at least, however, are just not yet ready for the latest incarnation of thoughtful and measured. Thoughtful and measured doesn’t go Boom Boom!, like some wines and winemakers do.3
So, what are the lessons that I’ve learned? Well, this is not exactly a lesson, but more of an observation, and maybe not even an observation so much as a generalized kvetch. I don’t like the wine business as much as I used to. It’s not just the crazy amount of competition we now have and the exclusionary and lowest common denomination practices of large distributors. The wine business was, at least for me and for my colleagues when we started, about possibility and discovery. We were all learning, and wine drinkers and wine writers were learning along with us. You could make mistakes and be forgiven; there was, like the World Series, always next year. There was an enormous diversity of wine styles, at least domestically, none obviously “superior” to another. The wine business and wine culture thirty five to forty years ago was a sort of Garden of Eden, relatively unspoiled.4
Wine critics existed, of course, and their praise was useful, but no one really understood then how to game the system for high point scores. It was an age of innocence (relatively speaking), where a winemaker made wine to please him or herself. Winemakers, and not merely the Walter Brennan-like old coots, would say things like: “I make wine to please myself. If people don’t like my wine, &#@!% ‘em, I’ll drink ‘em myself.” These days, nobody says that because nobody can afford to drink his own wine all by himself; it’s too damn expensive. Modern winemakers live in an era of tragic self-consciousness about the economic consequences of their winemaking decisions, utterly aware of the peril of somehow falling outside of the stylistic parameters of accepted wine styles. The principle consequence of the great “success” of our industry is that it now seems to be just about business; it’s all business.
Great wine was not so expensive then, and anyone who entered the business – as a retailer, wine writer or wine maker – did not harbor the illusion that the wine business was going to make him or her rich. We did it because it was something that we loved. But some “visionary” individuals and companies perceived the possibility of unlimited sustained growth and began to build wine brands and wine empires.5 This, coupled with the consolidation and tumescent growth of a few wine wholesale companies and mega-retailers, has led to a sort of seamless virtual vertical integration of the wine business, with relatively few players controlling essentially the lion’s share of the game – a pretty good mirror of what has happened in the rest of the world economy.
Parenthetically, it is alternately amusing and horrifying to observe how large wine companies attempt to engage with social media; they understand well its power to influence large populations and, at the same time, understand that their message cannot be entirely controlled, which just freaks them out. The inherently random, slightly anarchic aspect of social media, which somehow recapitulates the anarchic quality of nature itself, I find incredibly appealing (and sometimes horrifying); the germ of an idea, a good one or bad one, can take root and like kudzu, take over. The key is to keep planting useful seeds and hope that some of the more interesting and viable ones will take root.
But to return to the thought: these days it seems to be all about the money. When resources become scarce or threaten to imminently become scarce, we all tend to follow the money. The few wine bloggers who are making a profitable go of it are the ones who are, with a few exceptions, in some sense following the money, i.e. acting as trusted advisors to the wealthy individuals who don’t wish to be caught not Napa-ing and can’t decide between this vintage’s Screaming Harlan, Screaming Colgin or Screaming Eagle. Forgive me, but I almost see wine bloggers (myself included, to be sure) as Gene Hackman figures in The French Connection, with our noses pressed up against the restaurant window in the rain, looking in at the shady characters inside, who are eating and drinking and having the times of their lives.
But I didn’t come here merely to kvetch. We’ve established that none of us is going to get rich doing what we do. No use crying over spilled Merlot; what’s doon is doon. If we can’t find monetary gain in this work, then certainly what we must do is find more meaning for ourselves, and possibly even try to make something like a contribution to the larger world.6 So, what can I possibly say to any of you about wine or wine writing that has not already been said a thousand times over?
First of all, since we’ve established that, at least for us, it’s not about money, let’s then talk about beauty. What voice might we lend to illuminate wine’s strange beauty? Allow me to very gently suggest, my friends, that the compilation of sensory descriptors, the shopping list of scents and schlugs, the catalogue raisiné (sic) of sundry roots and berries, enumerated by the urban hunter-gatherer/wine writer, while amusing to read, at the end of the day, is not particularly edifying. It just presents us with the outer garment of the wine, and doesn’t speaking to its essence, that which is cloaked beneath. Whether the nose is more loganberries than boysenberries, it just doesn’t really matter. In fact, I would suggest that it’s not even a question of the critic finding le descriptive mot juste for the wine; it’s really about something else.
I’m thinking now of J.D. Salinger again, who in his, “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters,” retold the Zen story of a simple hawker of fuel and vegetables, held by those truly in the know about these things to be the very greatest judge of horses in the land. One bit of evidence of this Master’s great gift for the appraisal of horseflesh was that the he often seemed to be a bit confused about things. In fact, he was utterly indifferent as to the more obvious outer trappings of the horse’s appearance and qualities, paying scarce notice to whether the equine was a sorrel mare or a bay filly. He was, instead, looking deeply at the horse at the level of its essence. Somehow, I would suggest, dear friends, that it is the quality of deep attention paid to the wine, looking beyond the fleeting epiphenomena, that truly matters. It is believed (falsely) that wine is but an inert object. How empathic of this very strange, alchemical liquid can we become?
The real dirty secret of wine criticism is that we are incredibly fallible tasters, fooled just about all of the time, and that our own subjective states, a function of more factors than we can imagine – time of day, air and wine temperature, fluctuation of atmospheric pressure, influence of lunar/solar phenomena, our physiological and emotional states, degree of turbidity of the wine, and degree of turbidity of our own consciousnesses – play an enormous role in how a given wine presents itself to us. Instead of ignoring this inconvenient truth, I’d like to see us look at it squarely in the face and then meditate deeply on what are the implications of that knowledge.
I would love to see wine criticism really turn into something more like wine phenomenology, as we look more at ourselves and what we bring to the experience, not only to the analytic skills we bring to understanding a given wine, but rather to the changes the wine is able to elicit in us. We, as writers, imagine that we are writing about the wines, but we are, in fact, always writing about ourselves; even the descriptors that we choose tell the reader far more about us, the taster, than they do about what has been tasted.
What I’m suggesting is that the real opportunity for us is to think about wine as an occasion for meta-discussion. What can the experience of a wine teach us about being human? What does it teach us about beauty? How does it help us connect to the natural world? Just as it is said that philosophy begins from the sense of awe and wonder, I would like to suggest that wine writing might also take its cue from the same source. Let me put it another way: it behooves us to show up for the wine. If the wine is indeed magical, let it work its magic on us, give us supernatural powers of descriptive speech, inspire us with synesthesia, with extravagant poetic tropes.
Robert Louis Stevenson wrote that “wine is bottled poetry,” and we should absolutely take him at his word. Right now, we tend to imagine that the greatest wine is the most powerful one. But I would like to see a wine that is incredibly powerful – not so much in tannin, alcohol, depth of hue and dry extract, but powerful in its ability to move human beings to poetic language, or just to move us to wordless wonder.
On the subject of wonder, let me share with you a rather odd experience I had not too long ago. I was in Hong Kong, invited to speak at a wine conference and sit on a panel with the dueling Michels: Bettane and Rolland (that was quite bizarre). Pancho Campo had organized the conference and it was taking place just as Pancho-gate was beginning to unfold, so that added another level of complexity to the proceedings. Mr. Parker was, of course, the real draw, the reason that everyone was there. He was to lead a tutored tasting of twenty of his top selections, “magical” Bordeaux from the great 2009 vintage. You can only imagine how utterly over the moon the assembled guests were.
So, I was imagining that hearing Robert talk about his favorite Bordeaux in Hong Kong to an adulating audience was going to be a little weird – but guess what?7 He was absolutely incredible. He spoke out for “elegance.” And he presented a number of wines that were absolutely, undeniably elegant just before the very end of the tasting, when the Big Guns like the 15% Cos d’Estournel came out. But what was most remarkable was that Parker himself, despite his jet lag, and possibly still recovering from his surgeries, was incredibly passionate and animated in his presentation. He spoke from a position of humble reverence, sincerely grateful to have been given an opportunity to taste these remarkable wines. In some sense, you could say that he was the least jaded palate in the room. He was really something; he allowed the wines to deeply nourish and inspire him. This is a lesson that we can all take away.
There is still a tremendous amount of work to be done. We have to recover our curiosity and recharge our passion (or find it in the first place) for the wines that rock our world and, most importantly, we have to discover or create a language that will translate beyond our own private, solipsistic sensorium and connect to the life experience of our readership, ideally a readership still in the process of discovery. (We, who are utterly wine-immersed, thoroughly macerated, you might say, tend to live in something like a fairly self-referential universe.) A thorny problem: how to allow the ripples to spread to a wider readership without diluting the message and rendering it banal? Here’s a crazy idea: pay more attention to the language. It’s language, after all, that we’re trading in. We can’t, as much as we might want to, taste the wine with another’s palate; we can, however, lovingly offer up our words for their delectation.
We need to speak up on behalf – this is maybe a little self-serving here, forgive me – of those who are innovating new styles, or preserving something precious: an old style, an old variety, respecting the authority of a great terroir. The reality is that with the consolidation of wholesale and gradual disappearance of fine wine retailers every day, great and maybe just very good producers are losing access to markets. We have to speak up for those wines that don’t have goofy, eye-catching labels, flavor profiles that are not squarely down the Middle of the Road, and will never be floor-stacked in Safeways.8
Most importantly, we must realize that despite the essential, almost Sisyphean absurdity of what we do, the format of the wine blog is perhaps the perfect form for wine writing. The act of opening a bottle of wine is typically something that is done with a certain degree of spontaneity. All you need is a corkscrew, or sometimes, if the winemaker has had the wit to seal his bottle with a screwcap, you don’t even need that. But you open this thing up in the privacy of your own home and, suddenly, you find yourself in the midst of a great, wild adventure , or maybe it’s just a pleasant walk in the park. But, wine, when it is great, is all about the long form, as a wine blog can be as well. It – the wine I’m talking about now – wanders, like a meandering river. It doesn’t have to make a point (or points(!), for that matter). It is just there to transport us to a slightly different reality, as I hope we can do with our words. Thank you very much.
(Presented as a keynote speech for the 2012 Wine Bloggers’ Conference, Portland, OR., August 17, 2012)
Join us for the second annual CIA Sommelier Summit!
Randall Grahm will be presenting at the Tuesday, April 25th (10-11:15 a.m.)
Natural Wines: WTF? (What’s the fuss?)