Qui Custodiet Ipsos Scriptors?

Here's to you, Mrs. Robinson. Jancis at the 2011 Wine Bloggers Conference

I’ve had a month now to digest the wine bloggers conference, and to try to figure out what it really meant, after all the tasting, the schmoozing with suppliers, fawning over famous writers, observing authorities, and cocking a snook at critics. I’ve been struggling to find some sort of over-arching theme to what’s happening in a field where I’m supposed to have something cogent to say about wine, and a meta-commentary about what everybody else is saying about wine and how they’re saying it.

Previous conferences have had their share of controversy, which I worked very hard to encourage. The two most prominent tempests in a blogspot have been 1) the difference between the corrupt and co-opted old-order of wine critics versus the wet-behind-the-ears, no-credentialed jerk-off-the-street-and-easily-swayed blogging newbies, and 2) Whether or not the current international style of high-alcohol fruit bomb wines are delicious, or a sign that the world is about to end in fiery torment.

No, really, every Pinot Noir Burns like this

I wish it was simple enough to say that these contentious issues have blown over, and everybody is satisfied with the state of wine writing and the alcohol content of wine. They haven’t and they’re not. The truth is that neither of the issues got much air time. It seems that some kind of attention deficit has simply rubbed them off the agenda, with proponents for either side content to consider the lack of rancour as a sign that they’ve won or at least that the other side has finally quit talking nonsense.

You may wonder why I’m so concerned about this. On the question of who has the most (or least) integrity between the old and new my stake is low: I’m not a journalist, nor an ethicist, and I’ve rarely reviewed wine, in a blog about wine. On whether or not modern high-intervention/over-hung grapes winemaking stinks like a rotten trout in a sauna, I’ve made my opinion pretty clear in the past. However, for my own part I have a lot of influence over the style of the wine we make at Winexpert (not that I’m the winemaker—heaven forfend, I’m not qualified. It’s Susan and Nancy and their team that do the hard work, and do a great job of it).† For more than a decade I’ve steadfastly maintained my position that our our regular table wines need to be in the sub-14% alcohol range, so that’s 25 or 30 million bottles a year that conform to my vision for wines fit for human consumption.

Perhaps my desire to see a greater conflict rage or at least some kind of ongoing controversy about issues for wine consumers comes from a naÔve vision of journalism, and the heroic place it can and should occupy in our world. Somewhere deep in my heart I want Upton Sinclair to rake some muck about wine, or Woodward and Bernstein to contact Deep Crush, or maybe best of all, Howard Beale to go crazy on camera and to shout, "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!”

Instead, I see old-school publications that seem increasingly less relevant to normal people who drink wine, kowtowing to ridiculously expensive bottles and mailing in lukewarm PR bumf right out of the press package, and bloggers who think that their opinion is some kind of sacred pact between them and Bacchus, when really they couldn’t taste their way out of a paper bag with a rented tongue, showing off laughable writing and puerile opinions.

Worst are some of the newer publications that claim to be promoting wine to a more youthful segment. Never has there been a more cynical attempt to manipulate opinion—it’s a marketer’s feverish, shameful dream to reach the 18 to 34 market with a message about products, and in the wine business, hooking the kids early is seen as the path to success and riches. Worst are the self-consciously hip magazines which seem to mistake frenetic pacing, hipsterism, and general erratic writing (and behaviour) for coolness and relevance. Ninkasi save me from self-involved liberal arts majors writing about wine!

What I really want, is a Hunter S Thompson for wine writing.

Spellcheck this!

Full disclosure: Thompson is my hero. To be sure, he’s not an uncontroversial choice. But what Thompson did was create a kind of journalistic integrity, wrapped up in an intensely personal, introspective milieu. Like Joseph Conrad, he went straight into the heart of darkness. Like Conrad’s protagonists, he sometimes went mad or went native, or simply went off the rails. But his madness was never gratuitous, however horrifying or transgressive his behaviour. He was mad because it was the only way to make sense of the world he was immersed in. ‘When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro’, was the motto of perhaps the most professional weirdo going.

And Thompson never flinched. Staring corruption in the face, he bet on football with it. Confronting bad faith and evil motives, he sat in a bar and drank Singapore slings with them. He baited the most powerful man in the free world, questioned the integrity, motives and abilities of the holders of the highest office in the land, and the wisdom of some of the most beloved traditions and events in American history.

And all the while he kept his typewriter firmly planted on the main nerve, telling a compelling story about what was really going on.

I’m not a Thompson scholar. Heck, I’ve only read a couple of the biographies out there, and the volumes of his letters and papers, so I’m not speaking ex-cathedra on the man. I’m speaking about how his writing affected me, and how aware I was at all times that he was trying to tell me something important, something relevant, something nobody else would cover, or talk about—or even understand if they did cover it.

Is there an equal to Thompson out there? Nearly every writer who’s ever put ink to paper can tell you, it’s jolly good fun to write a Gonzo pastiche, and some people have even taken a piece of his technique and done him one better, by immersing themselves inside their reporting while maintaining greater levels of focus on the subject (I’m thinking of David Foster Wallace: A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again is pure Thompson, burned clean of any dross by the refiner’s fire of Wallace‘s intellect.) But none of these folks are writing a column or blogging about wine.

But somebody should do it. Somebody should be turning over rocks, pointing to the blind, wriggling things underneath and shouting to the world about what they see, good, bad or simply weird.

It’s not going to be me. First, I’ll never be that good a writer. I’m a purblind hack, muttering over his inkwell, using too many commas and straining metaphors like a fork in an underwear drawer. Second, this is not that kind of blog. As a representative of a responsible corporate citizen, it’s not the done thing, let me tell you.

But, I can do my little part. I have rarely reviewed wine on this blog. Once in a while I round up the empties under the sink and shuffle my tasting notes into a ‘Weekly Wined Up’, but I have made it a policy to never review wines I didn’t like. When they were bad, I poured ‘em out and never spoke their names.

I ain't swallowing that

From now on, I’m going to show a little more spine. I taste plenty of terrible wine. In fact, one of the most frequent pieces of advice I give in tasting seminars is to go ahead and taste wines you don’t think you’ll like. You don’t have to drink them, but tasting them, and quantifying exactly why you don’t like them, is a tremendous aid to developing your palate and finding out what really blows your skirt up in good wine. I have been disingenuous in not sharing my opinions on bad wine I’ve tasted alongside good, and that makes me as culpable and worthless as any wine blogger or critic I could name. So I have to change, or I don't have the right to complain any longer.

In the spirit of integrity and full disclosure, I have to say upfront that I’m probably never going to review any wines made by my parent corporation here. First, how could you trust me? My paycheque, very important to me, comes from head office, and even though we produce a fine range of excellent wines, winners of awards and medals in international competitions, served in the finest restaurants around the world, in styles and price ranges to suit all palates and pocketbooks, available at fine beverage stores everywhere (be sure to pick some up today), it wouldn’t be appropriate to tout them in this blog.

There’s the chance that some of the wines I’ll review will be in direct competition with ours in the commercial marketplace. I’ll try to avoid those—the Canadian market is pretty cosy and we all know each other, and eviscerating a competitor would be as wrong as talking up the excellent quality and great pricing of our wines (go buy some). If there's a conflict, I'll mention it. But that leaves an enormous number of lousy wines made with bad motives for me to comment on.

This could be kind of fun. Now, where’s my rotten attorney? It's time to go to the liquor store and straight into frantic oblivion . . .

Oh, I almost forget: high-alcohol wines still suck.

Posted by Hunter S Timson AT 10:30AM 1†Comment Comments Post†A†Comment Post A Comment Email Email

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