Sunday, November 17, 2019

[For what it’s worth] Who do you think you are?

There's something happening here, what it is ain't exactly clear

It really seems, to this fool on the hill, that the routes that wine follow, there’s a groove that has become very, very important. I’m going to break it down into the different articulations, from the source to the terminus, and offer my observations. And yes, we’re talking about wine, and how it’s intersection within our culture has changed how we see it, how we place ourselves within that context and how everything that was taken for granted 30 years ago, have pretty much been assailed in these here times. Change is constant and inevitable. And to quote, once again, a distant cousin, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” It’s not all bad news.

Once upon a time, it was just good enough to make wine. And not even that good. But good enough to be enjoyed and remembered. Wine was a thing not like today’s wine is a thing. It was sustenance. It was often safer than water. It was cheap. And it was a vehicle for alcohol which, when one read a little history, was one of the great discoveries of homo sapiens. It offered transcendence, albeit maybe just for an evening. But it made getting up on Monday, and trudging back to work, not as hopeless as it could have been.

It's time we stop, hey, what's that sound

Now, wine is luxury, it’s a measure of status, of affluence, and of standing within one’s tribe. It’s also gotten expensive. So much that wines people grew up on 30 years ago have become untouchable to many of them. I don’t remember the last time I had a DRC wine, but it wasn’t in this century. Whereas, in the last millennia, it was a little more of an expected occurrence. Same with Biondi-Santi, Gaja, or Opus One.

And with that change, there are many who follow that path. Wine as the ultimate aphrodisiac. Being a member of the wine cognoscenti is something one can get without much of a stretch. All you have to do is have the money. Or an Instagram feed. But wine itself, does it know what it has become? I think about the vines at DRC, and what if they knew what they had become, and who had become their collectors, sitting away in cellars like so much art, waiting for the moment when it would become so valuable that it would be impossible to open and enjoy? So, we stare into the collector’s covey and admire, while the owner of the cellar says, “These aren’t for drinking. They’re for looking.”

Everybody look what's going down

And what about those who move the invisible strings: the high-wire performers - restaurateurs, fine wine retailers, sommeliers and other idols? How have they chiseled new grooves into the soul of wine?

In many ways it’s a good thing for wine and the business of wine. More people involved, caring, taking a stand against inertia and “the way we used to do it.” In actuality, the wine trade has acted more like an annual than a perennial, pulling out the dead and used up and replanting, rather than just waiting for another crop to surface and flower. Funny also, because grapes and vines are perennials with annual output. It’s the human hand (and heart) that treats it, once it becomes wine, into this fashionable creature from the latest catwalks of France, Italy and beyond. And said restaurateurs, fine wine retailers, sommeliers (the ones actually sommeliering on the floor) and other innamorati ply their trade, do their magic, performing daily miracles. Water into wine is a simple (and decidedly olde-school) parlor trick compared to the legerdemain of today’s wizards.

The problem is the noise. There’s so much clamoring for attention (“pay attention to #ME”) that the ones who are plying their trade get drowned out by le provocateur du moment with an iPhone and the façade of influence.

So, for instance, if an Italian wine list 40 years ago might have paid homage to French wines, apologetic for only having wines of “humble Italian origin,” today a wine list might proudly assert having “only Italian wines.” Or further, only having wines “Italian, but only from Rome and further south.” What was once a rarity if not an anomaly, now is commonplace. But not to be eclipsed by a simple laundry list of “only Italian wines,” now tony Italian restaurant wine lists proudly display full sections to Beaujolais, Champagne (or more commonly, the proletarian epithet, “Bubbles”). Not to forget Greece (we must #NeverForget to assert our God-given right to Assyrtiko). And of course, #NewCalifornia. It is a complete 180⁰ turned inside out, which, in my opinion makes for a greater choice and multifariousness. While smart phones get smaller, wine lists get bigger. And our attention spans get shorter.

What a field day for the heat

“1,100 labels and all they ask for is the spritz!” my friend Roberto Paris laments. Well, no one said “if you build it, they will come” about wine lists. Someone still needs to peddle the goods. It’s not as if our idols will all deign to come down from Olympus on a Saturday night to pull a shift. There are some brave souls who see service as the means, and the end. And then there are those who are content to provide content from the warmth of their tablet, while chilling at home with their Roku® Stick® and a bottle of Beaujolais vieilles vignes.

Look, what I learned early on in this business, is that it’s much easier (and more glamorous) to buy than to sell. Putting together a wine lists gets you invites to lunches, dinners, private tastings, even junkets. I know one ‘wine buyer’ who was putting together a 150-page wine list for near on a year. This person was invited everywhere. Saw much of the European wine producing countryside with meals at the top restaurants in the cities to boot. And then? The restaurant was open six weeks when said person bolted. And then the bill collectors  appeared and the landlord bolted the front door. So, a bunch of really cool wine sat in the dark, and the dust (without air conditioning), and yes, the orange wine turned brown, along with the white wine and the red wine.

Singing songs and carrying signs

I’m all for wonderful wines lists and I’m equally happy for really good BYOB restaurants, which have been surfacing in my town with comforting alacrity. Now we have a seriously good Thai restaurant where I can take my Feldmarschall von Fenner Müller-Thurgau from Alto Adige. As well, down the street a heretofore filling station, then a short-lived barbecue shack, is now nominated as one of the best new restaurants in America. And it too is BYOB. And yes, I can drag out my ancient Nebbiolo and Hermitage bottles and schlep them down the road to have with some seriously good charcuterie, pasta and proteins. So, part of the backlash to those 150-page tomes are these establishments popping up that rely upon you, the diner, to bring your own wine list. And even though, as I said, earlier, it is easier to buy than to sell, it is a horse of a different color to buy for yourself and put the damn things away for a distant date in the future. Pray you play the long game well.

Mostly say, hooray for our side

Which brings us to wine reviewers, bloggers, commenters, and their ilk. Circling back to the subject of this post, and that is how things have changed in the last 30 or so years. Sure, this group has a little or a lot of influence in the wine world. Probably more like “a little” for most of us. But now “small is beautiful” is back. Which makes a lot of sense in regards to the kind of contrails I’ve been watching from my treehouse.

I go back to something Doug Cook told me. Doug created Able Grape, a wine search engine, and was VP Engineering at both Yahoo and Inktomi. A smart guy. And a wine lover. And a humanist. He said that in the Twitterverse anything over 1,500 followers (he has 200K+) was of no essential consequence.

If that is the case, and I have no reason to doubt Doug, it means that quality can really be more important than quantity. Size doesn’t matter. Well, size matters, but amplitude takes on a different perspective and metrics need not be judged not by “who has the loudest voice” in the room. Micro-influencers, it seems, are now all the rage.

This has compelling implications. For one, a large following doesn’t matter that much anymore. Que sera sera for any perceived state of one’s influence. And now, quality has leverage over volume. Sayonara, 100-point wines. Ciao, unreachable wine Valhalla (as bedaubed about Instagram). And hasta la vista baby to all that useless running after the hottest story, the latest scandal, the must-read “insiders” tale, whether it be about Pinot Grigio DOC, or the travails of the descendants of Clemente Santi or any number of hot-off-the-press accounts that the aggregators foist upon us, bending and shaping the daily wine narrative. You want the world? You want it now? You got it, babe.

But know this – if you go down this road - it will be quiet, and might be lonely. For you will be chasing a story that scores of other folks aren’t. And you might be seen as a storyteller at best, and démodé at not-so-best. Let it go, the world will keep turning, everyone to their own way.

But, oh, the yarns you can spin. Who do you think you are? Tell us, all who will listen.

Step out of line, the men come and take you away

wine blog +  Italian wine blog + Italy W

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