Lyle Fass – Word on the Street - 7-1-09; Wine Mystification

Lyle Fass – Word on the Street - 7-1-09; Wine Mystification

Postby Lyle Fass » Wed Jul 01, 2009 10:48 am

The Mystification and Demystification of Wine

“Wow, you’re into wine. That is so cool. I know nothing about wine. It is too complicated for me. I leave that to the experts and rich people.”

Heard that one before? I am sure you have. We all have. This is definitely a uniquely American attitude towards wine. Deferrential and dismissive due to lack of knowledge with almost a cultural instinct to heighten wine to pedestal-like status is the trap at least every American has fallen into at least once. Wine lover or not. It is programmed into us and as a result of this, in order for Americans to embrace wine and accept it it has to be demystified first. It is a cultural trapping that I believe is damaging what little wine culture we have and has greatly damaged the wine world.

First, in Europe, the cultural paradigm regarding wine is that it is pervades most aspects and spheres of life. It has always been that way since Greek and Roman times. There was never a class system involving wine as there is in America where it is seen as a rich man’s sport or a special occasion for the middle class and not an option for the lower class or the poor.

In Italy, wine is seen as an integral part of the meal and was used as a calorie supplement for the poor for ages. Wine was and still is mostly drunk at home with the family and typically the drinking of wine starts at a very young age. That would be impossible in America as the drinking age here is 21. In the States, the drinking age is more of the sign for a person to drink as much as they can of whatever they can find for many years, as this is what they have been waiting for their whole life. In Spain, wine is also an everyday item, especially as it is used in many of the festivals that are common throughout the country. In Spain a meal is incomplete without wine. In America a meal is incomplete without a salt shaker.

In many other countries around Europe, there are variants of these examples as wine is just seen as a part of everyday life, just as hamburgers, lemonade and hot dogs are everyday parts of American life. Now before I go any further, I want to explain these are facts describing the differences between the two wine cultures, if you can call what we have over here, a wine culture. What I am getting at is that we do not have a wine culture. Because of the drinking age, the demonization of alcohol in this country due to Prohibition and organizations such as MADD, and the resultant attitudes we have no wine culture. That is why wine gets mystified in this country.

Wine is the other in the United States and always has been. Our earliest most famous drinker was Thomas Jefferson. Not a poor man or uneducated man by any means. He is seen as the nation’s first wine drinker and that has to be a big part of why wine is put on a pedestal in this country. There is no vinous icon like this in European countries. There were leaders and educated people who had great interest in wine but it was never a big deal as it was stateside because wine was a part of everybody’s lives so who cared if a leader or aristocrat liked wine. In the US there are many books on Jefferson’s love of wine and ironically one of the biggest alleged wine fraud cases in US History actually involves “signed Jefferson bottles.” This case against Hardy Rodenstock, filed by billionaire James Koch, is still pending. Talk about wine on a pedestal!

Wine in American culture developed to be the drink of the rich, famous and elite. Everybody had to have a wine cellar as they got rich. It was part of the deal along with the new car, big house and trophy wife. It was status. Since there was no culture here it was ripe for the picking and picked it was. This created a snowball effect that has affected almost every aspect of global wine culture. As America goes, the rest of the world eventually follows, no matter how bad or counter-intuitive the idea is.

When I was growing up, wine seemed so inaccessible and unreachable as a result of this thought paradigm that had gripped America in regards to wine. Beer and booze seemed so much more easy to understand as it was firmly in my mind that these were tools to get drunk with when I turned 18 and then 21 as it changed to 21 when I was like 15 or something, making wine all the more unreachable

So now that wine was firmly entrenched as the drink of the rich, educated and elite, the mystification had happened and from that point on whenever wine was explained, written about, taught or talked about in any way it had to be dumbed down to the lowest common denominator because it was inaccessible.

So now the environment was ripe for people to capitalize on this idea. There was the consumer advocate, Robert Parker, who made people feel good about their purchases buy assigning wines numerical ratings. Dumbing down wine to a number was easy enough. It made wine more “accessible.” Because wine was such an elitist pastime in America, it was perfectly natural that a Ralph Nader-like consumer advocate became popular.

We all know the negative effects of Robert Parker. Homogenization of wine due to winemakers making wine for his palate, the assigning of a numerical score that has become the be-all end-all of pricing structure for many of the world’s great wines and of course one man having an inordinate amount of power. First it was in America and then slowly over the rest of the wine world. He could make and break a winery by the keyboard stroke.

There was also the “lifestyle” magazine, Wine Spectator, that promoted that Michelin 3-Star lifestyle associated with wine, which is the best restaurants, nicest resorts, fanciest hotels, fastest cars etc. It also had the eponymous 100 point system which almost all critics in the USA have become a prisoner to. Even the wonderful David Schildknecht had to be converted from his star system when Parker recruited him to work for the Wine Advocate.

What is the most popular wine book in America anyway? Wine for Dummies of course. Could it be anything else? Of course not. The irony here is that this is actually a great and very informative book and I always do recommend it but many people shy away from it due to the title that makes them feel like an idiot. So one of the better books out there on wine is calling its readers idiots for the sake of selling books? Sounds counterintuitive? That is the wine culture in this country.

The Wine Advocate and The Wine Spectator played a major role in the demystification of wine due to the aforementioned class issues that surrounded wine due to there being no wine culture in the United States. Many burgeoning wine writers followed this format as an example and their editors were typically very strict with them which led to mostly moronic wine writing. Because wine was “inaccessible” wine had to be made “accessible” and the way to do that was to write like you were writing for a ten year old learning division for the first time. Constantly redefining terms was and is an incessant problem. Many editors assume that nobody knows anything about wine, no one will ever read more than one article on wine and no one will spend any money on wine. Combine those three thoughts that are almost universally accepted by magazine and book editors, it’s a tough market for the true wine writer.

All this a result of not having wine around since the beginning and in that context that Europe has. Wine was an opportunity for bettering yourself and going to the next level which usually meant more money in your life. Everyone was constantly learning about wine so writers had to adapt and assume any article they wrote was going to be written for newbies as no one ever read more than one article on wine. Look at the bridge column of a newspaper. I don’t know about Bridge. I don’t care about Bridge either. If I decided to learn about Bridge I sure as hell wouldn’t pick up a newspaper because I would have no idea what is going on there. The pictures of cards, the weird symbols, some text, it was all am jumble to me and I almost feared it. If I wanted to I would get a beginner’s Bridge book or just google it.

So where does this lead us? It is harsh, but many people are interested in wine and with the delusion of grandeur that the internet provides, we have a bunch of idiots that think they know something. It is a delusion of competency. These are the people who say “all wine is subjective” or “I know what I like.” Or the great one of “How can you be an expert in wine, something that is so subjective?” These are the real perpetuators of wine misinformation. Saying it is all so simple is bullshit and an easy cop-out and exactly what people want to hear.
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Re: Lyle Fass – Word on the Street - 7-1-09; Wine Mystification

Postby matcohen » Wed Jul 01, 2009 7:07 pm

Sad but true.
And really, the only way to fix the problem is to educate the world one palette at time.

The good news is that a ton of really great wine is pretty cheap because the uneducated masses can't appreciate it.
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Re: Lyle Fass – Word on the Street - 7-1-09; Wine Mystification

Postby barnaby33 » Wed Jul 01, 2009 10:43 pm

You accuse others of wanting/needing to dumb in down and yet you do so yourself. America is far more a beer culture and probably always will be. What is far less clear are the reasons for the relative explosion of interest in wine over the last several decades. Many people attribute it to Parker, but he's just a symptom. The real reason is an entire over entitled generation known as the baby boomers. Each time they have passed through an age they have redefined it. Later middle years consumption being no different. The credit bubble gave them the means, and they already had the illusions of grandeur, now all they needed was a venue. Wine, like real estate or fancy cars was that venue. Parker, Speculator and all the rest were just symptoms of that desire to consume.
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Re: Lyle Fass – Word on the Street - 7-1-09; Wine Mystification

Postby Lyle Fass » Thu Jul 02, 2009 5:07 am

Barnaby,

Interesting assessment of the baby boom generation and their need to redefine every age they get in. How do i dumb down wine myself? Where and when? In this piece? Just curious.

This is a beer culture no doubt but it's hard to call it a culture. German beer culture is a culture. Granted there are great micro-brews here but do we really have a culture yet regarding beer?
Last edited by Lyle Fass on Thu Jul 02, 2009 11:28 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Lyle Fass – Word on the Street - 7-1-09; Wine Mystification

Postby abreaks » Thu Jul 02, 2009 8:02 am

Lyle,

A couple of points... First, I generally agree with the premise of your posting. I can't tell you how tired I get of the same stupid little extended pinky gestures and nasally French "hunh-hunh-hunh"s every time I reveal a serious interest in wine. On top of that, I often find myself making a concerted effort to be actively un-snobbish, lest I fuel the stereotype.

I think that another factor that contributes to this phenomenon is the fascinating love/hate relationship that we have historically had with the French. While high-quality wine is obviously made in a number of countries, the most direct association in the mind of the average American is with France. On the one hand, we admire the French for many of their contributions to global cultural patrimony and seem to, on some level, long for a lifestyle that's closer to our stylized impression of theirs. On the other hand, we accuse them of rampant smugness, and who the hell are they to think they're better than us, goddammit. No surprise, then, that when we are at first intimidated by the vastness of all that is wine, many of us react by feigning indifference (why should I care about some stupid, overblown Frenchie thing?). Then, once we know just enough to be dangerous, we've cracked the nut completely (well, shoot, this ain't so hard!).

More than anything else, though, I would argue it's mostly a function of time. In Spain, France, Italy, and elsewhere, wine has been central to the culture of the table for centuries and has been present as those cultures have evolved to their present state. The same isn't true for us, obviously, but I would bet that over time things will eventually calm down and we'll arrive at a more... mature approach to wine.

Finally, I'm not quite sure what Barnaby had in mind, but in the interest of spirited discussion I have to say that there is a touch of inconsistency between this posting and the fact that your previous one was an attempt to list the 10 best producers in the world. I understand where you were coming from and maybe my gripe is purely semantic, but to the extent that we bristle at the oversimplification engendered by the 100-point scale, shouldn't a similar reaction be expected to a "10 best" list?
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Re: Lyle Fass – Word on the Street - 7-1-09; Wine Mystification

Postby artn » Thu Jul 02, 2009 8:42 am

I don't know if you've had a chance, Lyle, to read my friend's book that I recommended in another post, but he speaks to some of these topics directly and indirectly (and intelligently) in "Corkscrewed", in his blog, and on several other sites. Check it out: http://www.corkscrewed.info/
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Re: Lyle Fass – Word on the Street - 7-1-09; Wine Mystification

Postby barnaby33 » Thu Jul 02, 2009 8:56 am

Lyle to begin we don't know each other so take this with a grain of salt. Maybe Jon can sell you some gourmet salt to go with the mustard and olive oil.
So now the environment was ripe for people to capitalize on this idea. There was the consumer advocate, Robert Parker, who made people feel good about their purchases buy assigning wines numerical ratings.

Dumbing it down, because a guy like parker was just a release valve for the pent up frustration of balding fat middle aged white guys. Sure he makes it appear to be safe to buy wine, but those guys and yes its mostly guys, had to have the willingness to spend!

There was also the “lifestyle” magazine, Wine Spectator, that promoted that Michelin 3-Star lifestyle associated with wine, which is the best restaurants, nicest resorts, fanciest hotels, fastest cars etc.


Again this smacks of blaming the messenger. Why this generation and not the one before? The boomers weren't builders of wealth, that role is reserved for their parents.

All this a result of not having wine around since the beginning and in that context that Europe has.


I think you made a weak argument as to why we didn't have wine around. Its well known that Napa has been growing wine for grapes since at least the 1860's. Prohibition killed brewing at least as much as wine making. Some wineries got by making sacramental wine (albeit not many).

In short you are taking an extremely complicated topic and glossing over some very important trigger points (history culture money even religion). You actually sound like you have the knowledge to explore them. So why not do so?

Why put blame on all the usual suspects? They aren't that interesting. Parker and Speculator are easy to blame, but there is way more to it. To me wine is a lot like education. It ties together all of the fears misgivings and underlying attitudes in society that people are often loathe to voice. Tom Sawyer in public schools, or cheap Rioja at your favorite eatery.
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Re: Lyle Fass – Word on the Street - 7-1-09; Wine Mystification

Postby mmm3bbb » Thu Jul 02, 2009 9:46 am

I had to double check to see if this post was actually from 2009. The US wine industry has been growing at a massive 9% rate and is now over a $30 billion industry. Contrast this to the decline in great European wine cultures and I'm puzzled how you can beat up the US and its progress on building a wine culture. By nature, Americans are prone to more heavily explore, describe and rank everything. This isn't specific to wine... it's in our blood.

Clearly you can't be upset that wine is not as deeply embedded in our food culture as it is in Europe. We're several hundred years late to the game (and, IMHO, we're catching up at a pretty quick clip). Reading your post I get that Parker's creating a monopalate, Spectator is a travel magazine, Dummies books are demeaning (c'mon, there are Dummies books for everything and clearly consumers find the title non-intimidating - check out the Amazon salesrank for the book), people who post their thoughts on the internet are idiots. Yikes. Is there anything good happening?

I've got to say my perspective on wine is a bit less apocalyptic. I see twentysomethings in wine bars, the great unwashed masses buying < $5 wines at Trader Joe's without shedding a tear. With > 100,000 SKUs in the US, I have no problem with Spectator et al filtering down choices with a 100 point scale. Wine is probably the ultimate long tail industry in the US and frankly there just aren't any other scalable mechanisms out there right now to help people figure out what to buy. I think that will change when there is a platform that enables more John Rimmerman's to make a living out of their passion for wine.

But for now, what are you proposing?
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Re: Lyle Fass – Word on the Street - 7-1-09; Wine Mystification

Postby Lyle Fass » Thu Jul 02, 2009 9:57 am

abreaks wrote:Lyle,
Finally, I'm not quite sure what Barnaby had in mind, but in the interest of spirited discussion I have to say that there is a touch of inconsistency between this posting and the fact that your previous one was an attempt to list the 10 best producers in the world. I understand where you were coming from and maybe my gripe is purely semantic, but to the extent that we bristle at the oversimplification engendered by the 100-point scale, shouldn't a similar reaction be expected to a "10 best" list?


It was a 10 favorite list which is more than understandable and not at all what I was speaking out against but I can easily see how it can be construed that way.

Here is my quote from the beginning of the article.

That is how I look at my top ten producers in the world. Some are there for just being absolute top-notch quality, others because of quality mixed with memorable visits to the estates, some for absolutely amazing consistency year in year out, some for the cerebral qualities they can assume and as a result make me really think, some for amazing quality at an easy price and some for other reasons yet unknown. Yet I continually gravitate to all of these producers, well except one, due to price restrictions, but that would never stop me from adding a wine to the list. Many people say the devil is in the details but I say the beauty is in the details.

Will get back to everybody within an hour. Lots of great feedback and ideas.
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Re: Lyle Fass – Word on the Street - 7-1-09; Wine Mystification

Postby matcohen » Thu Jul 02, 2009 10:31 am

The point is not to rank it is not to oversimplify. I don't think that Lyle's top 10 was simplistic.
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