Jon Bonné has been justly praised for his courageous article that appeared in Punch last week, but I must say the article in the end left me a bit puzzled and conflicted. Using the recently and dearly departed Anthony Bourdain as an example, Bonné takes wine writers to task for writing what he calls “fanboy literature”.
Bourdain was known for his willingness to poke at the dark underlining of putatively shiny things—including the food world he loved. I’m not talking about not ordering the fish on Mondays. I mean his willingness to remind us that immigrants make our restaurant and agriculture industries run, and his questioning of our fetishism for exotic foods and places while overlooking their realities. He tore into the safe space that food is supposed to occupy, and found grubby politics and exploitation and abuses of power.
This I think is beyond reproach. We pay too little attention to the immigrant labor that makes the wine world run. The reality of life for farmworkers in the U.S. is a deep moral failing and becoming deeper every day.
And so he wonders why there is no Bourdain among wine writers and hits the nail firmly on the head:
It is an industry that, because it’s viewed by outsiders as a nice little escapist haven from the real world, has a nearly pathological aversion to its less-than-perfect side. Perhaps that’s why wine people are, astonishingly often, adherents to the provincial philosophy of “fuck the critic”—the view that if you can’t say something nice, you shouldn’t say anything; or perhaps why the industry prefers to be written about by its own insiders; or why there’s a tendency, these days, to gloss over flawed and fucked-up wines as abstractions, or personal expressions of style, rather than them being sacrifices of peoples’ time and money.
The romance of wine is the industry’s main selling point and is diligently protected right down to the lies you find on the back of the bottle. The populist notion that everyone is their own expert when it comes to taste is one of the sillier notions promoted by the wine industry. The fact that you seldom find negative reviews of wine is a demonstration of the immaturity of the wine industry. So again kudos for Bonné for pointing out the naked emperor.
Bonné goes on to get specific about the issues he wants to see raised:
There is little awareness, for instance, of the wide economic disparity that has been created in the past quarter-century between the middle class who actually make many of the best wines and the upper class who, today, are the only ones that can afford them. There’s little acknowledgment of the ranks of everyday workers who make the industry run—and who are often forgotten when crisis comes. For that matter, we manage to ignore that it’s a world still guided by powerful white men, stark in its lack of diversity. Wine also continues to have an even harder time than food acknowledging its gender gap and sexism, its pay gaps, its problematic labor issues or the homophobia that simmers in a lot of winemaking communities. (Quick: Name the last gay winemaker you read about.)
Those of us who serve as guides and savants to this world are rarely rewarded for piercing the bubble.
Again these are the right issues to raise but as to being rewarded for “piercing the bubble”, ain’t gonna happen. Whistleblowers seldom get rewards unless there is an interest group to do the rewarding. In this matter, the industry and their customer’s interests are probably aligned. As to whom is to blame, Bonné writes:
I think Bourdain might look at the situation and point a blaming finger at many of us for failing to explain why one wine is worth more than another, or why certain wines are culturally suspect because they’ve been made with cynical motives. (Big wine companies love when we abandon context for the blind pursuit of deliciousness.)
I’m not sure this is quite true. Most of the major web magazines have done features on why some wines are more expensive than others, and The Wine Economist, Mike Veseth, has written several books on it. As to the cynical motives of some wine companies, if he’s referring to “Big Wine” the problem is most wine writers avoid discussing most of the product “big wine” produces. These wines just aren’t that interesting even when they’re not overpriced swill. But this goes back to the issue raised earlier that there is a norm among writers that negative reviews should be avoided. In part, this is because it’s not much fun to write about bad wine and likely not very interesting to read about it. Unlike movies, books, and music there is not much to be learned from bad wine unless you’re a winemaker. The situation is exacerbated by the financial structure of wine writing which depends on gaining free samples from the industry.
Then Bonné makes a claim that I think is problematic:
But a lot of wine people have willfully chosen to forsake that deeper learning in favor of an education that consistently maintains itself as value-neutral—a realm flooded with pedantic details about places and grapes and vintages. But a million flashcards won’t tell you anything about a winemaker’s moral condition.
A winemaker’s moral condition? How would I know? I spend a good deal of time talking to winemakers about their work. I doubt that I find out much about their “moral condition” in these conversations. The problem is, with the exception of the blatantly evil, it’s very hard to know someone’s moral condition without knowing them well or observing them when challenged. And speculating about such matters on flimsy evidence would do more harm than good.
Bonné seems disturbed by the fact there was a debate a while back about whether we should drink wine made by an overt racist. I probably wouldn’t since there is more good wine around than I can possibly drink; I don’t need his wine. But if it was a remarkable, distinctive, irreplaceable wine I would have second thoughts. If we read only literature from virtuous writers or listen to only music by musicians of character, the stock of worthy literature and music would be greatly diminished. This is an age old philosophical debate that began with Plato—should we use moral criteria when judging art? There are good arguments on both sides of the debate but the answer is anything but obvious.
Finally, I worry about the conservative implications of some of Bonné’s comments about taste.
Even in wine, we seem to have succumbed to the current American idea that we are entitled not only to our own opinions, but to our own facts. Is a wine flawed, or does it just fit an alternate interpretation of “character”?
As noted above, I’m all in favor of calling out bad wine when we encounter it. But the issue of wine flaws is not straightforward. Bonné surely knows that some wines have character because of a bit of brett, volatile acidity or oxidation. Some highly qualified critics like wines that are squeaky clean. Others prefer a bit of “character”. If we are going to exclude every wine that tastes different or takes a risk, the range of interesting wines will surely be diminished. It isn’t always obvious what should count as a flaw until we see where that style of winemaking leads. Some of the great wine styles in the world were the result of accidents that would have been considered flaws. We should not be afraid to judge, but we should not be too quick to judge either.
I suppose one way to summarize Bonne’s article is that he would like to see more substantive, investigative journalism in the wine world. Only an investigative journalist could get behind the scenes, talk to employees and business associates and discover something about a winemakers “moral condition”. That would surely be welcome from my point of view. The problem is most wine writers are amateurs or semi-professional and lack the resources to do real investigative journalism. Thus, it would have to be done by the large magazines.
Good luck with that. The large magazines are too cozy with the industry to do any real investigation of the industry they cover. But perhaps they are the real target here.
Despite my misgivings this is an important and courageous article and I hope it has some impact. An essay that didn’t provoke controversy would not be worth reading.