Here’s something that you don’t see every day.
I’m about to give props to Wine Spectator.
And I’m going to apologize to their Forum members.
I will wait a moment to let the air of collective “WTF?!???” clear the room.
Ok… also, please pick your jaws up from the floor.
First, let’s provide a bit of background: A recent post on Tyler Coleman’s blog (Dr. Vino) explored a controversy on the eRobertParker.com forums, and in a comment on Tyler’s post I chimed in with the following extremely unhelpful comment (reproduced here because the post has about 1 billion comments now and I don’t want you to have to page through them to find it… I hope Tyler doesn’t mind!):
On April 16th, 2009 at 5:59 am ,1WineDude wrote:
The Wine Spectator forum is far, *far* worse. I’ve watched their moderators join in on discussions that clearly violate the forum’s participation policies…
Afterward, I was contacted by Tom Matthews, the Executive Editor of Wine Spectator. He wanted more information on my criticism, and I advised him that the thread I was primarily referencing no longer existed on the forum (apparently having been removed sometime last year), but that there were other examples of what I considered overly-aggressive treatment of me and other bloggers on the WS forums.
In exchanging e-mails with Tom, I was impressed that he cared enough about this to follow it up seriously. I also realized during our echange that my comment on Tyler’s post just sounds like a nasty, snide, negative attack. It’s got no background or context, tells no story, doesn’t explain how it relates the eBob forum controversy… it’s just totally and completely unhelpful. It’s useless.
So, I apologized to Tom, and I offered an apology on the WS forum (that one is probably turning some heads), and I’ve apologized on Tyler’s post via a follow-up comment – though again it might be tough to find it in the thread of gazillion comments, so here it is below:
On April 19th, 2009 at 3:36 pm ,1WineDude wrote:
Hi all – I’ve been corresponding with Tom Matthews regarding my previous comment in this post about the Wine Spectator forums.
I’ve subsequently apologized in the forum and to Tom, because by not providing the background of *why* I think the WS forums are worse, my comment simply comes off as a snide attack.
I am sorry about that. If anyone wants to know why I don’t like the WS forums and called them a snake pit on my blog, you can check out the threads available here and see for yourself how I was treated:
I don’t respect the forums any more than I did previously, but thanks to Tom reaching out to me I can understand fully why my comment could be perceived as a snide attack, so I’m officially saying that I’m sorry for that. I may really dislike some of the WS forum members, but I still believe that everyone, including those that treated me badly, deserve more respect than what I showed here via my comment.
I’ve not changed my view of the Wine Spectator forums – I still think discussions there sometimes devolve into a snake-pit of acrimony, mostly due to the input of a few very rotten apples spoiling the bunch, and a lack of sufficient moderation.
But I also truly believe what I wrote above – everyone deserves a basic level of respect, not snide hit-and-run sideswipe comments without context. Even the folks who might not think that I deserve respect.
I’d happily debate any WS forum member on the relative value of blogs vs. wine mags, on how differently I think that they should treat new forum members, or on how different and positive discourse is on alternative sites like the Open Wine Consortium. But I shouldn’t have blasted the WS forum in a public setting without providing the proper context to back it up, and I’m deeply grateful to Tom for reaching out to me and with meaningful, civil discourse pointing out the un-helpfulness of my comment.
I should also add, for the benefit of my harshest critics on the WS forum: Tom mentioned to me that he’s a follower of the 1WineDude.com blog. I’ve got your chin band-aids here, folks – I’m sure many of you will be needing them after that.
Anyway – Mad props to Tom, and apologies to the WS forum members.
Now, if any WS forum members would like to apologize to me and my fellow wine bloggers for any past disrespectful transgressions from civil discourse on their part… I’m sure we’re all ears…!
Before I get into the topic of today’s post (which, I’ll tell you now for future reference is “why and how even preeminent wine authorities can be duped”), I first need to give you some background on the world of wine fraud.
A few years ago I was on a business trip to Russia (before the Caucasus conflict last year), and some of my co-workers were getting together one evening during my visit to share a meal at the rented house of one of the local IT managers, an expatriated British friend of mine. Being the only person in the group with a wine certification, my task was to obtain some wine for the meal.
I accompanied one of the local guys on our team to “downtown” Stupino, which is basically a town square with some shops strewn about, to seek out the wine. He acted as my translator since I spoke a paltry amount of Russian. Being relatively close to Georgia, I told him that I’d love to seek out some Georgian wine for our meal that evening.
That’s when he face took on a grim countenance and he was visibly torn between wanting to please the boss (me) and not wanting to embark on a torturous sideshow of navigating what was then a very ripe market of fake Georgian wine.
The issue was that each year far, far more “Georgian” wine made its way into the Russian market than could ever possibly be produced by Georgian winemakers. Most of these were faked – some could even be poisonous, according to my Russian co-workers. I was insistent, seriously underrating the amount of effort it was going to take to find a genuine Georgian bottling at the local market. I think we examined about a dozen bottles, during which I had no idea what I was looking for in terms of validating the provenance of the bottles in front of us, and a line of increasingly solemn and angry Russian shoppers began to form behind us at the shop counter. All the while, my co-worker was repeating “Нет, не это” (“no – not this one”) to the shopkeeper, while loosely explaining to me in English why we shouldn’t accept the last bottle as the shopkeeper reached for the next alternative.
“This can’t be Georgia wine,” he said, “the shape of bottle is all wrong.”
We did eventually succeed in purchasing a genuine bottle of actual Georgian wine, and enjoyed its ripe, peppery red fruit with dinner. I think we also succeeded in pissing off a good number of the local shoppers in Stupino (though they are Russian, so they should be used to standing in lines, right?).
The bottom line is that fake wine is very, very real and endemic problem in some markets, like Georgian wine and really, really old French bottlings from top Chateau. Most of you reading this aren’t ever likely to encounter a fake, but if you ever want to splurge on one of the big boys, you should at the very least inquire to the shopkeeper about the history of the bottle.
Even though we’re about 600 words into this post, I’ve only just gotten started – and we’re not going to talk about fakes. We’re going to talk about why smart, talented people get duped by fakes. Sort of like MTV’s Punk’d, but for wine, and on a massive, multi-millions dollar scale.
People like Robert Parker (the world’s most influential wine critic), Jancis Robinson (one of the wine world’s top writers), and Serena Sutcliffe and Michael Broadbent (who headed the international wine departments of auction houses Christie’s and Sotheby’s, respectively).
The names above constitute a large part of what could well be considered the High Priests of wine (more on the religious overtones – which are fundamental to the issue of being duped – in a moment or two). And all of them were duped by a man named Meinhard Görke, better known as Hardy Rodenstock, widely considered to be the perpetrator of the most expensive wine frauds in history – a story told with expert prose and excellent research in Benjamin Wallace’s The Billionaire’s Vinegar.
How were these people duped? I don’t think it was by Rodenstock. From where I’m standing, these wine gurus duped themselves – whether it was from hubris, greed, or simply being starstruck (more on all that in another moment or two).
I won’t spoil the details of The Billionaire’s Vinegar – you really need to read this cover-to-cover and detailing too much of it would dilute a good deal of the pleasure you’ll derive from it – but in summary, Rodenstock’s fake wines seem to have been expertly executed, culminating in an over-the-top, several-day-affair 1998 tasting of 125 vintages of Château d’Yquem.
The tasting notes and auction logs of Sutcliffe and Broadbent came to rely more and more on wines poured at Rodenstock’s opulent tasting events, which were also attended by Robinson and Parker, with Parker famously giving some of the likely fake wines 100 point (‘”Perfect”) scores.
One possible (but unlikely) explanation for why four of the most preeminent wine authorities came to be so duped by what were likely fraudulent wines constructed by one man (who never charged them directly for the ancient vintages of wines he poured them at his garish tasting events) is greed and hubris (or is that technically two explanations?). Even though it’s not a likely explanation given the body of work of those wine personalities, it’s worth exploring. Their livelihoods, at the time, all centered around the marketing of exceptional wines as rare and expensive commodities, and probably depended at least somewhat on that view. No one wanted to question the illusion, or even whether or not they should have been at the tasting events in the first place – too much was at stake for them:
- Parker’s reviews drove wine prices globally;
- Robinson’s reputation and book sales relied on the bedrock of her authority on all things wine-related, which could be questioned if she was suddenly tasting fewer rare vintages of famous French producers than rich collectors who weren’t officially in the wine business;
- Sutcliffe and Broadbent had made millions for their auction houses over the years selling wine, and both pawned off extremely expensive likely Rodenstock fakes.
- We can throw in famous Bordeaux Chateau like Y’quem, Mouton, and Lafite as well, who for years did little to nothing to combat fraud while they enjoyed skyrocketing prices for their wines brought on by the publicity of the tastings and the subsequent tasting notes of the wine elite, whose words the affluent wine-collecting public followed blindly in lemming-like droves.
In other words, even if they suspected something was amiss, they were all in too deep. Interestingly, their responses (especially those of Parker and Robinson), centered around the fact that they were duped, but duped by excellent wines. Robinson offered this in one of her on-line reactions to the “Rodenstock Affair”:
“As the auction and other secondary markets’ greed and status values continue to nurture conditions for forgery, which feeds on skyrocketing prices, in the future many more high- and-low rollers will depart salesrooms wondering if a not-rigorous-enough front office is taking them to the cleaners.”
This could be considered an exercise in ass-covering, because it’s kind of embarrassing that these wine High Priests should ever have been at the opulent Rodenstock tastings in the first place. Why do I say this? Because wines from Lafite, Mouton, Petrus, Y’qem – we could go on and on listing the most famous Bordeaux houses – are kind of like works of art. Yes, they are meant to be consumed, some several decades after release. But a wine that is hundreds of years old from these producers? That is a piece of history, not a prop for a select and affluent few. Like paintings from famous and loved artists, or the manuscripts of history-making political figures, don’t these items take on something more than just a collector’s fancy? Aren’t they artifacts that somehow belong to the collective history of wine?
In my view, attending a tasting of 125 vintages of Chateau Y’qem is almost obnoxious. You might as well pair the wines with braised cuts of meat from endangered species. Robinson, Parker, Sutcliffe, and Broadbent are amazing talents and great writers – but did they also, even if only subconsciously, “rape & plunder” wine history?
[ This begs the question of course, when and how should an historic or rare wine be consumed, if at all? I don’t know the answer, but I’d love to hear your thoughts on it. I’m pretty sure it’s not during an elitist affair held by possibly the biggest fraud in the history of wine. ]
Consumers tend to take the word of these High Priests on total faith, and like many religious-like followings those words can blindly guide the spending choices of millions and millions of dollars. Also not unlike many major religions, the power in this Religion of Wine sits in the hands of a few people who have access to a rare commodity and, in part, build their financial power and prestige based on talent, but also based on ensuring (whether consciously or not) that the commodity of some fine wine is available only to those who can afford their own tropical islands.
Which is all a very long-winded way of saying that maybe they had a vested interest in keeping those rare wines, well, rare.
Another explanation, and one that is probably much more plausible given the significant contributions that Parker, Robinson, Sutcliffe and Broadbent have made to the wine world, is that even talented and intelligent High Priests of wine can be starstruck at the idea of being included among the chosen few who would sample ultra-rare, ultra-expensive specimens of wine high art. Who wouldn’t be at least tempted and intrigued by the offer to sample wine from the 1700s and 1800s, to partake in an ephemeral bit of history?
Don’t act like you wouldn’t at least consider it.
Hell, I would, at least for a moment or two – and that’s even after my self-righteous diatribe about the raping and pillaging of wine’s history. Things probably look very different when you have the opportunity to see them from the viewpoint of the pillagers…
I suppose the moral of the story, if there is one, is that even the best in any field are only human. As a wine consumer, there is much you can learn from the likes of Robinson, Parker, Sutcliffe, ad Broadbent. But infallible gods they are not. The best thing you can do is to use there work as Parker himself recommends – as guideposts for your own journey into wine.
(images: amazon.com, stern.de, slideworld.com, crimogenic.blogspot.com)
“When our weary world was young
the Struggle of the Ancients
The Gods of Love and Reason
sought alone to rule the Fate of Man”
– Neil Peart, from Hemispheres
I am in the throes of TTL Aftermath.
Put another way, I’m extremely hungover from co-hosting the latest Twitter Taste Live event – the largest of its kind, ever – the kind of hungover that makes you mutter curse words aloud at the random air molecules that are causing you physical pain as they bounce off your head.
Actually, the air molecules aren’t so much bouncing as they are attacking, with extreme prejudice, using some sort of especially violent molecular kung-fu.
It’s the kind of pain that is somewhat abated by a) sleeping in until the hotel forces you to checkout, then b) spending a few hours walking the Wharf in Boston to take in the harbor air (and take advantage of Boston’s Spring, which is nearly an entire day-and-a-half in length). I wore my Pittsburgh Steelers Super Bowl XLIII Champions t-shirt, just in case anyone mistook me for a despondent Patriots fan.
By most accounts, the TTL event (which took place Friday across three time zones, and featured wines from Hospice du Rhone producers) was a big success. We had what seemed (to me, at least) to be a relatively small but passionate contingent participating in the East Coast portion of the event. On the Right Coast we had a sort-of battle between Aussie and California producers, but the clear winner was not terroir but the white Rhone varieties themselves – our participants enjoyed the white wines that bookended the on-line tasting: Rutherglen’s extremely well-balanced Marsanne / Viognier blend (“The Alliance”) and the honeysucke-sweet Le Vol Des Anges, a late-harvest Roussanne dessert wine from Bonny Doon. I think the East Coasters were able to try something new, and open up their wine worlds just a teeny-tiny bit.
The Second Glass (who were thoughtful – and probably over-busy – enough not to mention that I am long, long overdue on my writing assignment for them) really knows how to throw a top-notch event, and Wine Riot! was a great time. I’m finding myself a bit sad at the prospect of missing the second night of the Riot – my liver, however, is extremely pleased that I’m homeward bound).
While I thoroughly enjoyed myself, I was inwardly torn the entire night (I also struggled to behave myself on twitter as my tweets were being broadcast on projectors throughout the event location).
I’m a very social animal, and I’m a recovering chronic multi-tasker, so I try very hard to concentrate on the moment and not try to have too many things going on at once. Co-hosting a Twitter Taste Live event is the equivalent of me falling off of that wagon. The TTL events are frenetic, and it’s tough keeping up with the influx of information coming in from the stream twitterati comments (which are more often than not fantastic and energizing, so I don’t want to miss them). Throw in a near-constant stream of friendly and buzzed Bostonians who are coming to check out TTL, media types who are asking you and your posse for interviews (I did take part in one which was filmed, and will try to get a link out to that when/if I get one sent to me), hanging with the generous and excellent guys behind TTL (Craig and Chris) and trying to catch up with other bloggers (like uber-consumer Rob Dwyer and the uber-funny Dale Cruse)… well, it’s just a recipe for Dude Brain Meltdown.
My natural inclination is to engage with the people physically in front of me, and so the TTL stream likely suffered from lack of my full attention in co-hosting. As soon as the TTL event drew towards a logical close, I had to shut down the netbook and get my social-butterfly groove on (at the expense of my social networking groove).
My fear is that, during the time when both streams were full-on, my lack of ability to effectively balance them caused both the on-line and off-line events to suffer, in “Jack of all trades, master of none” fashion. This has potential negative impacts on both my on- and off-line lives, of course: in these situations, should we potentially piss-off the people who are right in front of us by appearing aloof and anti-social, or potentially piss-off the contingent of on-line participants who are expecting us to converse with them, hopefully uninterrupted, in a unique shared experience in real-time?
In my increasingly-inebriated state, I imagined the ancient Greek gods battling over topic of where my attentions (and intentions) should lie:
|Apollo – God of Reason, Logic, Lunar landing vehicles, & General Level-Headedness
|Dionysius – God of Love, Wine, & Aggressive Social Palm-Pressing
“Joe, this is not going well. Despite the fact that you want to talk to the people that are physically in front of you, you have a duty to co-host and interact with the on-line TTL participants.”
“Don’t listen to that guy. You’re here in Boston, you should enjoy yourself. Did you see all of those booth babes? There must be a thousand bottles of wine up in this joint. Here – take another sip…”
“Once again, Dionysius you show why he cannot be trusted to give Joe proper discourse. Joe, you must keep your countenance and abilities lest you drunk-tweet and damage your on-line brand image!”
“Countenance? Brand image? What planet is this dork from, anyway? Jeez, did you see how tight the shirt was on that girl who wanted to talk to you? Are you drunk yet?”
“I should come to expect such blinkered, juvenile and puerile attacks from you, Dionysius. And it’s clear that… wait a second, did you just give me the finger?!?? You a—hole!!!”
“You wanna piece of me, Logic Boy? Come an’ get it! Or should we just sit here and wait for us to all die while you prattle on with yer analysis-paralysis? Hey, let go of my tunic, d—khead!!!”
What does it take to make these guys just shut up already ?!??
Anyway, I’m really, really hoping that I did you all (both on- and off-line) better than that in how I handled things Friday evening.
And I’m also really, really hoping that I won’t need medication for hearing the voices of battling ancient Greek deities in my head when I’m drinking.
If you’ve got advice for a former chronic multi-tasker on how to handle these sort of conflicts, I’d love to hear it, because I’m not sure that I participated in either the on-line or the off-line as well as I would have liked. In fact, I’m am sure that I didn’t participate in either as well as I would’ve liked.
I’d love to blame the booze (and let’s face it, the TTL Grenache-based selections were whoppers and approached Port-like abv levels) but for me the struggle began long before the high-alcohol Rhone varietal buzz kicked in.
At the very least, I had a great time. And as Ricky Nelson once said, “you can’t please everyone, so you gotta please yourself…”
(images: 1WineDude, pantheon.org, mythencyclopedia.com)