“A warning to the crews out there who think they’re hot, if you’re not original rockers you will get shot
down by the kids neglectin’ your art, the stuff you did, eventually it get so bad puts you to bed
’cause when the lightning flashes sweet electricity, all the world then stands revealed with the clarity
of raw voltage, briefly we see and the hope is you’ll be able to tell just what dope is…”
– Come Original by 311
Earlier this month, I attended the 2014 Wine Bloggers Conference in Santa Barbara, CA, as a speaker on a panel titled “How The Pros Taste.” I was actually in town primarily to help a friend of mine, Wandering Wino, kick off a post-WBC tasting event (called “Authentic Press”) that focused on small SB-area producers (happy to report that was well-attended, and nary a drop of under-performing juice was to be found among the stellar lineup that he selected to pour at the event), so the timing all worked out splendidly.
I enjoyed WBC14 (well, ok, apart from the big dinner, which always seems to fall flat at WBC for some reason, excepting Alan Kropf’s entertaining WBA presentation), and thought this was one of the best incarnations yet, particularly for those new to wine blogging. The WBC keynote address by Corbett Barr seemed divisive based on the twitter chatter, but I also enjoyed that talk; and for anyone who doubts Barr’s assertion that character trumps everything else when it comes to building up your brand online, consider as some evidence that what I make for writing about wine puts me in the top 5-10% of all U.S. wine writers (and it’s a sad commentary that amount is only bonus-level money compared to my previous corporate gig).
I won’t comment on the Wine Blog Awards. No offense meant to the winners (there are some fine blogs in that group), and I’m always touched to be nominated and to be named a finalist, but I’m still pretty “fringe” and gonzo when it comes to wine writing (which, after all these years blogging, is also a kind of sad commentary, when you think about it), so the things I value and want to see recognized (in almost any genre, not just wine writing) are usually not what get rewarded. Just imagine how I feel about the Grammy’s!
A few hiccups involving LA road rage delays impacting fellow panelist Patrick Comiskey aside, I also had fun participating on my panel (for those of you who were thinking that I was stroking moderator Steve Heimoff’s crotch under the table on stage, I was actually petting Steve’s adorable pet dog Gus, who was sitting quietly in Steve’s lap the entire time; that’s my story, anyway), waxing philosophic about how I go about critically tasting vino (and getting totally fooled by the final “mystery wine” of the lineup). I’m good for at least one or two re-tweetable money quotes per panel, and the one that got the most attention during the panel seemed to be my comment on negative wine reviews (“some wines need to be kicked in the crotch”), so I thought I’d talk a bit more about that stance here.
My view on negative wine reviews is that they, like serving rare vintages of the world’s finest wines, ought to be reserved for special occasions. I say this because only a few wines are epically bad enough –and were created with sufficient malicious intent – that they deserve your finest writing work…
Bad reviews are often much more entertaining and original than favorable takes on something. There are only so many ways to praise, but lambasting opens up whole new levels of potential creativity. While lots of bad wine still gets made, it’s becoming harder to find, and even harder to locate one that the winemaker knows is flawed and is selling anyway. Those are the wines you need to pan, because they are, in fact, ripping off customers (the best way to confirm this is via a candid conversation with the winemaker directly). I’m all for experimentation, but when it fails you should not be trying to make a buck off of it from suckers.
The only thing I beg of the wine writing community is that you get original with your negative reviews. Insanely original, please. Most wine writing (blogs included – sorry, people, it’s true) commits the same sin as much of the wine it covers: it’s boring (for a deft take on that situation, see this excellent piece on originality in wine scribing (titled “Wine Media Relations”) by my friend Alan Goldfarb). A negative review cannot under any circumstances be boring, that is just as much an affront to the tastes of the wine buying public as a terrible wine. A hypothetical example will help here.
“This wine was terrible, and I hated it!”
If that’s the essence of your negative wine review, then you have failed the wine public miserably. Facebook status updates about cats tipping over lamps are more interesting that that; it tells you nothing useful or of consequence, and it’s boring.
“Roses are red, violets are blue, this Cahors smells like donkey ass, don’t buy it! The End.”
Better. Much better, methinks. At least it’s funny, in a deliberately goofy way, and actually gives you a clue as to why it sucks. I may use this one someday…
But I’d further suggest not wasting time on a negative review at all, unless the wine is an epic failure. If you’re gonna do it, go all in and use your powers on something that has the material to inspire your true creative ire. You need to be Iago to that vino’s Othello. Make your negative take on that juice your magnum opus, if you can. I mean, when you get really original and use a few hundred words to compare a bad wine to Godzilla ravaging an unsuspecting city, people might enjoy it enough that they remember your name (and pay to write stuff for them). Just sayin’.
Now that I’ve got that off my chest, let’s highlight the wines that Patrick, Steve and I chose for the WBC14 panel, which I am happy to say did not inspire ire but were in their own ways positively inspiring (in a “I’m inspired to suck an entire bottle of this tasty stuff down my gullet” kind of way):
My pick: 2012 Domaine Leccia Patrimonio Blanc (Corsica, $32)
As I mentioned in the panel, there are aspects of this French Vermentino that I find comforting (citric fruits, a ton of wet-stone-minerality) but also something nutty, toasty, and… darker. It’s refreshing, but also textural and demanding. I am not entirely sure that all of the main characters are going to live through the movie by the time we get to the end, and I find that tension (manifest as a give and take between the bright acidity and richer, demanding mouthfeel) compelling as hell. If you were there tasting this with us at WBC14, you’re welcome!
Patrick’s pick: 2013 Long Shadows Poet’s Leap Riesling (Columbia Valley, $22)
What a stellar pick. This is artisanal all the way in its presentation, with fantastic energy on the palate and, in Patrick’s view (one that I share) a sense of purity in its stone and citrus fruits. There’s jasmine and honey, too, and it all ends with the satisfying sense that you probably paid $20 less for this than you would have if it had a different appellation on the label.
Steve’s pick: 2011 Cambria Estate Clone 4 Pinot Noir (Santa Maria Valley, $52)
Put your big boy pants on for this. That Steve would have picked a Jackson Family wine (now his employer), and a big but excellent CA Pinot (one of his critical specialties during his Wine Enthusiast beat), should have come as a surprise to exactly no one. Rich and opulent, there’s so much going on here that you will probably need to reach for the notebook to capture it all. What stood out for me was the tartness of the red berry fruit, which was a great uppercut to compliment this wine’s big body blow, as well as the intense and complex spiciness on the nose. If you like your Pinot on the heftier side, this one will probably have you regretting $0.00 worth of the purchase price.