Dr. Harry Oldman generously unwraps a spectacular interview for us on this Boxing Day.
Kyle, as an old white man with a beard, I felt that it was only appropriate that I give you and your readers a present this year, but I couldn't quite figure out what would be a good gift. Then it dawned on me! I'm friends with a moderately notorious wine critic and we talk fairly often about wine and life in general. He was kind enough to answer the kind of tough questions no one has ever had the balls to ask him. I felt like Katie Couric! He didn't know that I was going to publish the interview, and I don’t want to name names because I don’t have his permission, so I'll just refer to him as SHhh (as in I'll never tell!). You can guess, but I'll never reveal my source!
HARRY: Hey, buddy! Thanks for agreeing to answer some questions. I know how much you hate answering questions, so this really means a lot to me!
SHhh: No problem, anything for you Harry. I actually love to answer questions, almost as much as asking questions! I write for the consumer, first, foremost and always. So when my readers engage with me, I make it a point to always respond. I learn so much from my readers! Blogs and bulletin boards are supposed to be back-and-forths, right? I
mean, we live in this new age of participatory journalism. It is not uncommon for me to comment on other blogs, too!
HARRY: Speaking of other blogs, which other wine writers (digital and traditional) do you read and keep up with?
SHhh: I’ve read most of them again with a great appreciation for the press, for the media.
HARRY: But like which ones specifically? I’m curious that you—
SHhh: Um, all of 'em, any of 'em that, um, have, have been in front of me over all these years. Um, I have a va—
HARRY: Can you name a few?
SHhh: I have a vast variety of sources where I get my news, too. California isn't a foreign country, where, it's kind of suggested and it
seems like, 'Wow, how could you keep in touch with what the rest of the wine world may be thinking and doing when you live up there in California?' Believe me, California is like a microcosm of the broader wine industry.
HARRY: As a wine blogger and a somewhat of a self-proclaimed historian, you have a perspective on how the industry adapts with knew technologies. But you often question (rightfully) the usefulness of social media for wineries and these so-called social media experts that just want wineries' money. To finally shut all these social media-ists up, can you please provide one (more would be better) concrete example of
who said “that social media is the end-all and be-all of wine
marketing?” What exactly did they say? When did they say it?
SHhh: Here we go! One of the most common characterizations about me is that I’m a social media basher. Bash is derived from Old Norse, and means “to smash." Now, I do get smashed every once in a while (those are the days I forget to write on the blog). But I'm not smashing anything except my liver. As you point out, I definitely question the tool. But to get back to your point, on my blog I've said that other people have said that social media is the end-all and be-all of wine marketing. And this young blogger from Los Angeles, Lo Hai Qu, wrote about how all of us "gatekeepers" were dead because of things like social media. Others like James Suckling and Antonio Galloni have said that video and other interactive media are the new wave of wine marketing. Did you see how much play Suckling got on his "Searching for Perfection" video? But people were watching to see which wines James gave 100 points, not because we wine critics are videogenic. So, there are four examples. I rest my case.
HARRY: Speaking of points, if a critic insists on using points, that critic should pretend that a
wine that gets a higher score is a better wine. The higher scoring wine is supposed to be better, no? Otherwise, why bother? You've
written that wines that are elegant, wonderful, not as fat, more
ageworthy might get a lower score than the kind of high alcohol, ripe,
oaky wines that tend to get the highest scores. How do you justify that?
SHhh: In another incarnation I might knock the 100-pt system, but as I get paid to use it I think it is the best system we've got. Points are a useful shortcut for consumers to whittle down a sometimes dizzying array of options on the shelf. No one wants to read an entire tasting note when a score can tell them everything about a wine. Wine is just like school; students that earn the highest grades aren't necessarily the smartest. Sometimes they got lucky, sometimes they cheated and sometimes they slept with the teacher. Nevertheless, the end goal of school is to get good grades because one's grade point average matters when applying to university. The brightest students don't always get into the best schools, but the ones with the highest GPAs do. And just as students don't want to read teacher comments on a report card, they just scan for the grade to tell them how they're doing in class!
The same can be said about wine. The goal for a winemaker is to sell wine. The best wines don't always sell, but the highest scoring ones do! The wine industry is a complicated place full of back door advertising and other business deals that most people don't understand. But us professional critics understand! I mean, who is going to give the Lieutenant Governor's wine a low score?
As for the style of a wine and the points I assign, I like to drink lower scoring wines because they work better with food and I can afford them! We don't assign food points, so why waste the high scoring wines on dishes that might theoretically only get 85 points? When I'm trying to impress someone, or eating 100-pt meatballs at Scopa, I'll pull out the high scoring wines and knock them right off their feet! I find the 100-pt system fascinating and write about it quite frequently. Mostly when I can't think of anything else to write about and when I already wrote about social media once that week. However, I also find that other bloggers that write about the 100-pt system to be irrelevant.
HARRY: So, you are incapable of determining which wines YOU find best and just
give the top scores to the wines that the people before you said were
the best? What is the point of reviewing wines and assigning scores if
the outcome is predetermined by reputation and price?
SHhh: Well, the
answer is quite easy. I like to be unpredictable. It is well known that
wines like Classified Growth Bordeaux, top-ranked Burgundy, grand
Champagnes, Riojas, Barolos, cult Napa Cabernets and so on, are
automatically granted the top place and get the correspondingly high
scores. But when not reviewing wines that are supposed to get the best
scores, I like to mix things up. That's why I need to know which wines are in the flights that I taste blind! I don't want winemakers to always know
what score they'll get when their wine tastes dry, powerful and full of dark fruits. If Anderson Valley producers knew they'd get 98 points they'd stop sending me samples like all the Napa cult producers have done. I got to keep them on their toes. Keep them coming back for more. I guess you could say that I'm like a drug dealer except my drug is points! It's actually better than being a drug dealer because both my buyers and suppliers are addicts!
HARRY: Wow, that is actually quite profound! I think we'll just leave it right there on that note. Thanks so much for taking the time out of your schedule to share some of your expertise with me.
SHhh: Any time! If you have any more questions, ever, just post them on my blog and I'll get right back to you!