The wine media world has been tripping over itself to cover the recently-announced ceasing of operations by In Pursuit of Balance (IPOB), an organization of producers that held tastings of wines that fit what the organizers and their tasting panel deemed to be New World wines of particularly elegant expression. In other words, wines that were generally less fruit-bomb, and more high-acid/low-booze.
So much is being said about IPOB’s closure and what that means for the cold culture war of U.S. wine styles that, for me, we’ve lost sight of the most profound implication of that battle: its complete uselessness draws an ugly, unforgiving, damn-that’s-bright-’cause-it’s-last-call-at-the-bar illumination on just how very fucked up the wine business is right now.
For some of us who have been watching and covering IPOB since its inception, their organized tastings were a bit of fresh air; after all, why not expose wine consumers and media-types to a style of wine that is impeccably made, but offers an alternative to the high-octane, fruit-at-all-costs style of U.S. wine that has, by any reasonable account, dominated vinous press coverage for nearly three decades?
Apparently, the wine business is, in fact, so fucked up that, despite the fact that over thirty-five billion bottles of wine are released into the market every year, any style that doesn’t match up to that which has been primarily lauded in mainstream wine press is viewed as “wrong…”
Think about that for a minute.
We’re at a point where wine writers are compelled to write nearly 1600 words about the implications of IPOB’s closure on the California wine style war, and yet the idea that such a war is the equivalent of a frivolously embarrassing territorial pissing contest between entrenched media personalities hardly gets even a passing mention.
This is, in no way, the fault of the IPOB organizers. They’re not wrong in their manifesto and desire to have these wine styles see their fair share of media coverage and recognition. And what’s more, they recognize how dumb it is that such a conversation is even necessary. To wit, here’s what one of the organizers, Raj Parr, had to say about that topic (quoted from the articles linked above):
“We want everyone to have a voice in the winemaking world, regardless of their style or palate preferences… Not that I’m afraid of controversy and afraid of argument, but no one needs it. We don’t need this constant bickering.”
And there it is. That, right there, encapsulates what’s so odd about the fine wine biz. Largely speaking, there is enough room for everyone, and yet position-jockeying and ego in the wine media is apparently so entrenched that tiny portions of the fine wine marketplace are seen as threats that must be mocked, debated, or ignored out of existence.
It has long been my experience that wine producers, generally, would rather relinquish their own power of connecting with wine consumers to the media, watch as that media makes the epic, consumer-detrimental mistake of confusing personal style preference with intrinsic quality imperative, and then hypocritically bitch and moan about the fact that the media got it all wrong.
The entire need for the media conversation around IPOB, and the timbre of the details of that conversation, in my opinion points to a systemic problem with the importance attributed to media in the fine wine sphere.
Parr is right; we don’t need the bickering.
Not only that, the quasi-religious debates that surround hot-button fine wine topics such as natural wines, Biodynamic farming, and winemaking styles does nothing – I cannot emphasize this enough, NOTHING – for fine wine consumers except to further alienate them (much to the delight, I am sure, of producers of coffee, tea, beer, and spirits, who are all more than happy to steal those wine consumers away).
I love the U.S. wine business; in fact, I love it so much that I am sickeningly embarrassed by its behavior, which is now reflective of the worst of our country’s political landscape.
I’m calling bullshit. Please, wine world peeps, learn how to debate. You can start by actually putting your consumers – rather than yourselves – first.
28 thoughts on “In Other Words, The Wine Biz Is Pretty F*cked Up (Thoughts On The Closure Of IPOB)”
Consumers first? Sir, have you ever observed the modern wine business? From the sniff of haughty sommeliers to the moral pronouncements of self-serving critics, to distribution models that reduce choice and promote scarcity, the consumer is relegated to either an burdensome necessity to the process or a downright annoyance that must be suppressed, strawmanned or condescended towards.
Let a consumer choose a wine they like and they might start thinking on their own! Crivens!
Tim, gawd help us all!!! ;-)
I agree it’s all a bit tiresome. There’s plenty of the holier than thou tediousness in all camps. Lobbing grenades at the ‘hipsters’ or old white dudes drinking 1er cru. We should be focusing on introducing people to wine in all styles/price points/methods of production. Booze/Beer is the competitor not IPOB wines, natural wines or Parkerized wines……you don’t like’em then don’t f’ng drink them. But don’t tell me I’m a dip shit because I like wine X or style Y. If your’re a tool promoting the intellectual superiority of any wine style…..you’re part of the problem.
“We should be focusing on introducing people to wine in all styles/price points/methods of production” Agreed! Actually, I agree with your entire comment, sir! I am totally, 100% OK with advocates; and advocates don’t need to campaign negatively.
Sure, I’ll chime in….
First of all, IPOB through the first bomb. “In pursuit of balance”? As though there were no balanced wines prior to the organization enlightening us about what balance is. Yes, that was an act of bomb throwing that I’m seeing decried.
The same can be said for “natural wine”. As though the rest is unnatural. Again, another bomb thrown without provocation.
And as for educating the consumers, the vast majority of wine consumers have so much good educational material in front of them it’s not a matter of not serving the consumer, it’s a matter of getting the consumer interested in wine. The overwhelming number of consumers have little more interest in wine that assuring that it is cheap, wet, sweet and alcoholic. And lo and behold, the majority of wine is in fact cheap, wet, sweet and alcoholic.
The fact is consumers are choosing the wines they drink all on their own. They aren’t being dictated to other than the fact that there is only a certain amount of space on the shelves of 7-11, drug stores and the piggly wiggly.
Ryan said this: ” If your’re a tool promoting the intellectual superiority of any wine style…..you’re part of the problem.”
This sounds to me exactly what many people in the IPOB and natural wine movements do on a regular basis.
Tom – Reread the post; I am saying that both IPOB (or, at least, much of the media coverage of it) is part of the problem, as are the Wine Spectators of the world for how they reacted to IPOB and its coverage, as is a good percentage of your comment (who threw the first bomb, etc.). The point is that the wine world is far better served with a cease-fire, which would require everyone being braver than they are acting now, specifically by growing the f*ck up.
Joe….I re-read the post. You’ have to point me to where you say that IPOB is part of the problem. I don’t see it. I see praise for their manifesto and no mention of the fact that the very name of the organization was supposed to be swipe at the industry. Why would anyone expect the industry to not react to having its wines called “unbalanced”? When Parr says “we don’t need this bickering” he doesn’t take something important into account: 1) he started the bickering. But when those who are implicated by he and his supporters of making unbalanced wines bicker back at him the refrain becomes, “who needs it?”
Finally Joe, anyone who suggests that low alcohol, higher acid wines where mocked out of existence or never appreciated by critics simply isn’t taking into account reality or history. There have long been low acid, high alcohol wines….even in Napa Valley and Sonoma County and Anderson Valley and Monterey and etc, etc, etc. These wines have been around since I got into the business in the late 80s/early 90s. Raj and others thought it a good idea to start an organization that would bring more attention to their wines. Not a revolutionary idea. They could have found a way to do so without falsely and maliciously implying the rest of the industry was out of balance.
I don’t blame the IPOB organizers in the way that you’re describing, because they’ve gone out of there way in every interaction they’ve had with me to explain that they are trying to showcase a different style of wine, and one in which they perceive the wines to have balance WITHIN THAT STYLE. The media coverage, such as Jon Bonne’s linked article, I do blame.
In other words, people are reading too much into their poorly-chosen namesake.
But then, even if they meant it as a salvo, that doesn’t absolve the other side of the fence from engaging in the pissing contest. Why would anyone expect the industry to not react to having its wines called “unbalanced”? Gee, because they’re adults, maybe?
I don’t think people are reading too much into the name or the message behind the name. Jasmine Hirsch isn’t a winemaker. She’s a marketer and sales person. And a good one. Do you really think she didn’t see the implications of the name when she and Raj came up with it?
The correct description of this interesting episode in California wine history is this: “In another reaction to the persuasiveness of Robert Parker’s palate, a group of CA winemakers choose to lob a bomb into the conversation of wine styles. Those bombs were picked up and lobbed back in a way that should have been completely expected. An interesting conversation ensued among the wine geeks and geeky partisans.”
Joe, if someone pisses on you, you really only have two choices, both of which are rational: 1) move the side and let the stream go by hoping you don’t get any on your shoes or 2) Piss back letting Pisser #1 know that you heard them loud and clear.
Tom – So you’re happy with the pissing contest standard? I’m not.
Joe, you’ve known and read me long enough to understand my own particular vice and tendency: I like a good pissing match a little more than I should.
Here’s the thing though about this particularly pissing match. It didn’t increase or decrease the size of the wine marketplace. However, it spurred a very interesting conversation that got heated and fun from time to time (witness Adam from Siduri turning the tables on Raj at World of Pinot). These pissing matches are good for the industry in the end because they make the people who should be thinking about these issues think more deeply about them.
…while in the not-so-flattering cases, potentially making us all look more like douchebags to wine consumers.
Tom, you nailed it: “Raj and others thought it a good idea to start an organization that would bring more attention to their wines.”
They already got the bulk of the benefit of self-promotion and when the ROI was gone, they shut it down. I’m surprised that people confuse manifestos with very transparent, self-interested marketing.
And everything else you point out is spot-on. Thanks for a bit of sanity.
Thanks, Michael. I do not doubt the marketing angle, believe me. And I am ok with it, frankly. I see no issue with trying to promote their own wines and the style in which those are made. But I certainly bemoan the reactions (on both sides) of this (and other hot-button fine wine topics) in the ensuing quasi-religious debates.
This debate is not necessary. If you like higher acid, more balanced wines there are wines from Europe, or there are boutique producers like Williams Selyem, Wind Gap, Au Bon Climat, Hirsch, Kutch, etc. that make really exceptional wines. The fact that the industry as a whole wants to dumb wines down to cater to the palates of people who grew up on sweet soft drinks like Yellowtail or any of the plethora of wines out there, is one of the least screwed up facets of this industry (they are catering to the tastes of consumers). The discrepancy in wine laws from state to state, the sheer number of people in the industry that break the law and throw money around to get away with it, is mind boggling. Anyone who is unaware that integrity is dead in this country just has to look at our political system to realize how fractured and out of control things are. Why would the wine business be any different?
Robert – yeah, it’s sad.
I hear what you’re saying, unfortunately I think you’re preaching to the choir. Anyone clever enough to follow you on stuff like this is already making their own decisions about what they like and what to try. You bring us new ideas (as did IPOB) which we like, but it’s up to us to actually buy and drink.
Honestly, I almost always go with the wine I’ve never heard of when given the choice, at least I know they’re spending their money on making wine not advertising. Doesn’t always work, but it works enough. (Unless you suggest it of course, then I’m all in :-)
I get it, believe me, but I’d rather have it out there, in the hopes that it makes *some* bit of difference, even if a small one.
your rant is 8000 words to long: what the hell is your point? Bottom line that for me, and…If I understood what the hell I read, I think I’ll agree with you. Think: Bottom Line? what the hell is your point?
Alex – bottom line is that the tone of debate in the fine wine world on topics such as IPOB incites negativity that isn’t good for the wine business. Kind of like your comment. ;-)
The post had 691 words. Paraphrased thesis: “There’s no winning a pissing contest because all are covered in piss.” Context: wine business.
MG – yeah, I think we established back in 2009 that I need an editor…
Don’t worry, dude. You’re fine. I was showing that you weren’t even 1/10th of 8000 words, and summarising the point for those too, erm…impatient…to read more than 140 characters.
Dude, I agree with your post, generally. Moaning about wine styles other than one’s own preferred style is just going to drive people away from taking an interest in wine as a whole. While there certainly is snobbery in other drinks (even including water), and also in food, wine does have its own level and reputation of snobbery that really isn’t helping anything.
Part of the issue, I think, is trying to define what makes a wine “good”, overall. It’s like trying to determine what makes music good. Personally, I like a lot of things musically, from “Lakeside Park” by Rush, to “Yeah-Yeah” by the Brian Jonestown Massacre, to “Ouroboros Is Broken” by Earth, to “Gin and Juice” by Snoop Dogg, to “One Piece at a Time” by Johnny Cash, to “Boom Boom” by John Lee Hooker, to the “New World Symphony” by Antonin Dvorak, among many other things, but I hate “Seven Nation Army” by the White Stripes. That doesn’t mean that “Seven Nation Army” is objectively a bad song–it’s just one I don’t like at all. Trying to objectively classify “Seven Nation Army” as a bad song would also be futile–there are many good songs (and even songs I like) with similar tempos, chord structures, et cetera.
The only accurate way I can think of for people to know for certain whether they think a wine is good is to have them try them. While implementing this globally would be fantastic for people selling wine, I think it’s impractical because of financial costs, distribution, and how annoyed sober people would be at the rest of us for being constantly sloshed.
On the politics of the United States, I think New Zealand has the potential for a great ad campaign. “New Zealand: Because Canada’s not far enough away.”
I like the comparison to music; as someone who has played and studied music, I have an educated opinion and can tell you when I think that the writing is uninspired, the performance is weak, etc. I could come close to making a judgment on a song or a wine as being intrinsically of higher or lower quality, but it’s definitely an imperfect endeavor.
IPOB was implying you can make Burgundy in California. Well guess what? You can’t.. C’est la vie numbskulls!
Raymond – that isn’t the sense I got from the tastings at all.
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