Thursday, October 9, 2014

Matt Kramer got it wrong about bullies who put down wine

Without wine lore, and wine tasting, and wine talk, and wine labels, and, yes, wine writing and rating—the whole elaborate idea of wine—we would still get drunk, but we would be merely drunk. The language of wine appreciation is there not because wine is such a special subtle challenge to our discernment but because without the elaborate language—without the idea of wine, held up and regularly polished—it would all be about the same, or taste that way. —Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker

Two days ago, in Wine Spectator, Matt Kramer penned a polemic against nameless skeptics of the sensory value of wine. In Kramer's defense, he attempted to use an article by Adam Gopnik (yes, I misspelled his name (twice) in a comment over on the Jackson Family Wines blog, and for that I apologize) in the The New Yorker as evidence this anti-intellectualism bullying. The problems with him basing his condemnation on Gopnik's article are twofold. First, the article is more than ten years old. If you haven't read it, I strongly suggest that you do so. Yes, it reads as if it were written yesterday (or maybe tomorrow) and that is the sign of a good writer. But nevertheless it was written at a different point along the wine industry continuum and was actually an editorial on the 2004 state of wine prompted by William Echikson's book, Noble Rot. Second, and more important, Kramer completely missed the point of Gopnik's article. Kramer chose to quote Gopnik out of context. He should have started his article with the full quote that I've provided above. Gopnik actually accomplished what Kramer was attempting to do by making the case that wine talk and wine description are an integral "part of what lets the experience happen."

That Kramer's attack appears in the likes of the Wine Spectator is rich indeed. Gopnik argues that the 100-point system and the hierarchical categorization of wine devalues wine and are in essence a form of anti-intellectualism bullying. Don't get me wrong, I agree with Kramer's assertions that bullying in the wine world is bad, but his argument can be disregarded as he misunderstood the basic premise of his subject. He'd be better off posting a link to Gopnik's article and admitting that Gopnik said what he was thinking; only much more eloquently and ten years earlier.

Wine is getting ever more diverse and that should be celebrated. There are more kinds of wine from more places available to more people than at any time in history. And there are more people sharing their thoughts and opinions on wine, too. Different people enjoy different tastes just as I've found every Torbreck that I've tasted is loaded volatile acidity and made me want to design an automobile that runs simply off Torbreck, I've also enjoyed thoroughly every Sine Qua Non I've ever had. If someone enjoys Torbreck, who am I to suggest that they are wrong. I may not subscribe to their opinions, but they are nonetheless entitled to them. I don't push my wife to eat eggplant just as she did not push me to eat olives when we met (funny thing is that I now enjoy most kinds of olives).

As tastes evolve, so to must the discourse. And that is part of what Gopnik was advocating in his article. Our experiences are too complex and dynamic to be summed up by a number. Parker's numerical rating system was an ingenious method for introducing the average American consumer to Bordeaux. At the same time he was able be sympathetic to an anti-intellectual market as he was able to bully French producers into focusing on quality. Today, that system is the underlying mechanism used to bully consumers, producers and retailers to pay attention to the critic. Today, Jon Bonné and Eric Asimov (along with others) are the present day standard-bearers for a schema of vinous reasoning focused on "the ability to put a map inside your mind: to taste tastes and see places." Just because some people do not bow to the sacred cow of hedonism, does not mean that those hedonists who feel that they are infallible can declaim their opponents every time they feel threatened or have been Melvined.

The fact that in the wine world many in ivory towers are insistent on using points and drinking what is good because it was good in the past. Those that tell others to not drink something because they do not think it is worthwhile are a bane to the wine world. However those that celebrate something new, such as ribolla gialla from Napa Valley or petit verdot from Colorado, should be celebrated. Does enjoying 82-point wines or disliking 100-point wines devalue one's own emotions or opinions? I do not particularly enjoy lavender-infused wine, but if you think it is the tastiest thing you've ever put in your mouth, I will support your opinion. I will not ascribe a number to it that may suggest your tastes are inferior to mine, but if you want to go right ahead.

Wine Spectator says that points are just ancillary to the more important tasting note. If that were the case, why does its online database default to a list of wines ranked by score? Why does the reader have to either select an individual wine (where the score is still bigger and bold when compared to the more important tasting note) or struggle to find the "show all notes" link? Kramer at least gets it right that a wine's quality cannot be quantified, but he apparently missed the same conclusion made by Gopnik.

Putting down someone else's tastes is wrong and should not be accepted in the wine world. No wine or style should be ridiculed as godforsaken. No wine should be vilified because the winemaker utilized technology. No one's palate should be taunted because they prefer full-bodied wines or highly -acidic wines. Celebrating one's opinion, or even disagreeing with another's, is not the same thing as denigrating another's. Calling a group of people ignorant because they may not want to talk about wine the same way you do, or even at all, is the same form of bullying as telling others their tastes are wrong.

So, to sum up this somewhat sinuous post, I want to go back and read the quote at beginning of this post. Reading these lines as they were written makes me wonder if Kramer even finished Gopnik's article. I mean, he must have as that quote came from the last paragraph, but the whole thing smells like an interview with the actors from a movie that the reviewer hasn't even seen... but only less humorous.


  1. The Spectator calling someone else a bully? Takes one to know one.

  2. For those who are intrigued by Adam Gopnik’s tout of Stephen Potter’s “Winemanship” section of his “Lifemanship” books, let me proffer a link to an excerpt: