Wine’s Culture Wars are a Sign of Health

wine warsI’ve spent the month of June traveling while only occasionally taking a peek at the wine news. I arrived home today to discover I’ve missed three articles that have stirred controversy and attracted much attention in the wine world.  Jancis Robinson lamented the divisiveness of controversies surrounding natural wine. Cathy Huyghe interviewed Alice Feiring, the tireless natural wine advocate, who was a recent victim of a vicious, misogynistic parody by the Hosemaster of Wine. And New York Times’ wine columnist Eric Asimov launched a broadside against the tasting note and wishes for a new form of wine criticism that … well, It’s not clear what he wishes for but he doesn’t like tasting notes.

As Jeremy Parzen noted today on his blog, the subtext in all of these articles is the influence of Robert Parker, inventor of both the 100 pt. scale and the floridly written tasting note, all in service of promoting the high-alcohol, heavily oaked monsters that natural wine lovers abhor. Even in retirement, Parker haunts our consciousness; we can’t seem to let go of him. (As an aside, I wholly agree with Jeremy that Parker’s advocacy did not launch the international style of wine, which was already in the works well before Parker came on the scene.)

I wrote about Parker recently at Three Quarks Daily. I won’t rehearse the details here but to briefly summarize, I think Parker was a hero who helped provide a much needed spark to wine quality in the 1980’s. But he had passed his “sell-by” date by the end of the 90’s. What was genuinely revolutionary at its inception became staid and conventional. The fact that his influence continued long after he had lost the ability to say something new is testimony to the peculiar tendency of the wine community to act like herd animals, petrified of straying from a well worn path.

As to the divisiveness of this debate we’re having about natural wine, that is not something lamentable; it should be celebrated. It shows that people care about wine quality; we don’t debate what we don’t care about. The controversy is the sign of a healthy aesthetic community which is gaining maturity and discarding the fear  of deviating from a conventional path.

Jeremy has his own lament, however. He laments the fact that his wine students, largely European millennials, lack someone who speaks for them:

Every June when the term comes to an end, I can’t help but think to myself: they have no model for wine writing and they lack a wine critic hero with and to whom they can identify and aspire. Where are their Feirings, Asimovs, and Lawrence Osbornes? (The three writers who inspired my own career.) Where is their Parker, for that matter?

But I’m not sure that what’s lacking is a model for wine appreciation. Perhaps it’s time to get rid of models. There is after all no model for discovering genuine creativity. Aesthetics is about experimentation and you can’t know if something is good until you try it. What is exciting about young wine lovers today is that they’re willing to thumb their nose at conventional models of wine appreciation and take a chance on something unfamiliar. This is the spirit that will sustain the industry.

Which brings me to Asimov’s article. It’s a real head scratcher. He raises legitimate questions about wine critics who taste too many wines in a day and give each only a cursory tasting. He rightfully points out that tasting a wine out of context without knowing the producer and what she is trying to achieve may not be the best way to judge a wine. This “assembly line” practice of tasting is surely less than ideal.

But his concrete suggestion is this:

Perhaps a better way of making useful recommendations to consumers is to evaluate producers rather than particular bottles. Producers can be assessed for their styles of wine, their methods of production and farming, how they think about wine and so on.

First, I should point out that evaluating producers is what many wine bloggers do. They visit wineries, interview winemakers, and report on the whole line up of wines tasted in context. Wine magazines also have feature articles that focus on producers.  So I’m not sure Asimov is proposing anything new here. But more importantly, it isn’t obvious how you can assess a winemaker’s style without tasting and reporting on individual bottles.

He goes on:

Wine writers have so much to offer beyond the bottle reviews: introducing unfamiliar regions, grapes and producers while revisiting old ones; offering critical appraisals of styles; and assessing what’s new and what’s ripe for rediscovery.

That’s all well and good but how do you introduce unfamiliar regions or new producers without discussing particular bottles from those regions or producers you want people to know about? The suggestion seems to be analogous to discussing Picasso without discussing any of Picasso’s work. I came away from Asimov’s article unsure about whether there is a real proposal there rather than merely a complaint.

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