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

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

Postby Lyle Fass » Thu Jul 02, 2009 11:02 am

abreaks wrote: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?

Great point on the love/hate and I'll add jealousy thing to Franco/American relations.

It is a function of time as well as seemingly unrelated events that lead to a paradigm of a "wine culture."

How do we know with time a series of events will transpire that lead us into a wine culture like France, Germany etc? How do we know if we will ever get a "mature" wine culture or approach to wine?
Lyle Fass
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Re: Lyle Fass – Word on the Street - 7-1-09; Wine Mystification

Postby Lyle Fass » Thu Jul 02, 2009 11:04 am

artn wrote: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:

Read his post on 31 days of natural wine and loved it. I'll def check the book out. Thanks for the link.
Lyle Fass
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Re: Lyle Fass – Word on the Street - 7-1-09; Wine Mystification

Postby Lyle Fass » Thu Jul 02, 2009 11:10 am

barnaby33 wrote: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.

On a point by point response.

I am not blaming Parker because if it was not him it would be someone else. And yes the fat whities needed a tit to suck on.

I am using Wine Spectator and Parker as en example of what was created. If you see that as blaming that is fine. I see it as using an example. An example that everyone knows about too so it is one often used. I think we agree here but semantics seems to be an issue.

It is a complicated topic and I do not give it its proper due. There are many hot-button topics that I could have touched on but I did not want to write a short novel. :D But maybe a future article can explore these more.

I love your last statement. Parker and Spectator are easy to blame and maybe by blaming them I am falling victim to my own self-fulfilling prophecy as stated in the article by dumbing down my argument.
Lyle Fass
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Re: Lyle Fass – Word on the Street - 7-1-09; Wine Mystification

Postby Lyle Fass » Thu Jul 02, 2009 11:15 am

mmm3bbb wrote: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?

Thank you for your post. I do sometimes have a dour, negative view of the world and have struggled with people's attitude towards wine and wanted to verbalize it.

There is good happening in the world of wine but that is not what this piece about. I can write pieced like that if I want but I chose not to with this one.

I do agree the Milennials are an exciting group of the wine demographic.

Your last point on more Rimmerman-like operations I think is a bit too hopeful as I don't think the way this culture is designed will enable Rimmerman-like operations to be anything except a small niche of the mostly industrial plonk-like wine market we have out there.

Time does have something to do with it but as a previously stated it is impossible for the same set of conditions to occur as when Europe was forming its wine culture. We are catching up, but I believe, at least in my lifetime, wine will remain a fetishistic folly for most in the US of A.
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Re: Lyle Fass – Word on the Street - 7-1-09; Wine Mystification

Postby Ned Hoey » Thu Jul 02, 2009 3:10 pm

I don't know quite where to start, a lot touched on here. I'll offer my take on this rather than try to engage in a point by point response.

America doesn't have a functional mature wine culture because we were founded primarily by puritanical religious sects. That deep streak inhibited development, finally culminating in Prohibition. It's been our dysfunctional relationship with alcohol in general that stunted development of a culture that you would think should have existed, considering the european dominance of immigration. We're still saddled with it, "sin" taxes, blue laws, dry counties, the 21 year old drinking age, etc. Add to that, this is a geographically large country, wine grapes weren't native, and we're a young country. There have existed numerous impediments to cultural advancement.

Where we stand today has really developed since WWII. Wine has been an acquired taste in America. The Depression/WW!! generation didn't see it as an essential part of the dinner table, that generation preferred the mixed drink. When wine started to gain some traction in our culture in the 60s and 70s, the marketing took a typically American direction. Aspirational. What was the goal? To make Bordeaux and White Burgundy. With what was essentially a clean slate to build on, we chose what were considered the world's finest wines to try and make. That immediately created a barrier to wine being an every day beverage.
Even now vast oceans of cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay are produced and marketed in that spirit.
Trader Joe's and Costco move millions of cases of sub $10 "Bordeaux" and "barrel fermented" chardonnay.
The message? Wine is culture, wine is success, Bordeaux is the world's greatest and we've got a $6 great example right here? Mystery solved!

That's been and continues to be the dominant "culture" of wine in America. It extends to higher levels too.
Just what is the Napa cab culture these days, with all the $50 and $100 examples out there but more of the same.

I would say that one could define several types of wine mystification. The two most common are the basic one already mentioned but the next most widespread one hits more closely to home. This is the level of mystification that exists at the higher end, among those that are "of the faith". This is the one perpetrated and nurtured not just here but in Europe too. This is the one that reminds me very much of what goes on in high end audio. The one exploited by the trade to foment business. This starts with creating distinctions,
many arbitrary, magnifying those distinctions and attaching great importance to them. This has been elevated to an art that rivals anything done by religion. It's this canon, erected and protected by those with
a financial stake that nurtures exclusivity, trades on scarcity, exploits mystification. This edifice was
built by the size and power of the American market for fine wines. It has defined and dominated the
cultural landscape. It may be showing some cracks and vulnerability with the Great Recession, the passing on of the Boomers and emergence of Millennials. A wine culture that sees wine not as a status symbol, not as a fetish cult, but as part of the enjoyment of food, life, the diversity of our world and doesn't require training to enjoy, is possible and developing slowly. I think trends are moving that way, I hope they continue.
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Re: Lyle Fass – Word on the Street - 7-1-09; Wine Mystification

Postby Lyle Fass » Thu Jul 02, 2009 7:07 pm


Great post as usual.

The last part is what fascinates me the most in your post. Can you give a specific example so we can explore this further? I think I know what you are getting at but want to see an example.
Lyle Fass
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Re: Lyle Fass – Word on the Street - 7-1-09; Wine Mystification

Postby Ned Hoey » Thu Jul 02, 2009 10:46 pm

Lyle ,
I'll certainly try. What i'm getting at is something I've seen and experienced in audio and wine. It kind of goes like this. When it comes down to it, the sweep of meaningful difference is smaller than the "experts" would allow you to believe. The mystification consists of creating aura around certain producers and sites. It comes down to what the best experts say they discern and what the rest of us can meaningfully discern. The theme is exemplified by the Emperors news clothes story (fable?), in that when a critic expounds upon the "extraordinary" difference between wine X and wine Y people nod in accession whether they really see it or not. Even better for the expert is that he's reporting on a wine of great stature that only he is tasting.
In audio, it's somewhat different. It high end audio, EXTREME subtleties are allegedly perceived and debated on esoterica such as the difference in sound between two power cables or digital cables. The hair splitting can reach levels that leave an average music lover questioning all he thought he knew which is exactly what the people selling the gear want. This is a trade interacting with their customer base. "Don't waste 10K on that amp, it's crap, this 20k one is waaay better". These amps test very similarly in a lab but this perception of "huge" difference needs to be fostered to get customer to make the leap. I see the same thing in high end wine.
Now, spend some time with professional audio sound guys. The guys that set up and run the sound reinforcement at major concerts. These guys work long hours and under every conceivable set of conditions
with their gear and they shake their heads and can't believe the stuff high end audio marketers get away with. This isn't to say that there isn't differences in brands, but just that mostly they are modest and stuff holds up or it doesn't. They don't have time for all that hairsplitting, granted it's somewhat of an industrial
perspective but they do care that concerts sound as good as possible. Real differences matter, esoteric ones,
not so much. The mystification part of high end audio was for them, bullshit.

When I spoke of arbitrary distinctions I spoke mainly about rankings, especially scores. The subjective
assignment of scores has been the master stroke of mystification. Wines are a moving target, wines in barrel even more so. Yet they endure as gospel. As far as rankings go, now contemplate how Burgundy is marketed. Especially with regard to producers, and to a certain extent with sites. The legacy of the past 60 years or so has created a hierarchy of top names. All things considered, that was reasonable based on what was happening through the 60s, 70s and into the 80s. Of course what ended up happening incrementally over time was that modest, but noticeable differences got magnified. In America, where the culture of "excess is not enough" was invented, these modest quality differences created absurd valuations. Did the people buying into these valuations, did they really KNOW they were real or did they just believe they were? IMO mystification thru marketing made the difference. In a complex society where aspirations and dreams are exploited for marketing purposes, creating and cultivating an orthodoxy based on mystification works beautifully to not only get people to hand over their money, but to fight to hand it over.

It really boils down to more honest real wine being made and being available affordably. Competition for sales and scoring work against that though. Mystification keeps people uncertain and wary. A steep learning curve and marketing of scarcity and exclusivity aren't going to put wine on every table. Plus without local regional production available like fruits and veggies at the farmers market, only certain parts of the country are likely to develop a "wine as food" culture. I might even buy local wine (here in Santa Cruz CA) if I could bring a jug or two to the farmers market and fill up with an unpretentious tasty wine for 5 or 10 bucks a liter.

Did that work as clarification. It's topic with many facets.
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Re: Lyle Fass – Word on the Street - 7-1-09; Wine Mystification

Postby Andrew Hall » Fri Jul 03, 2009 6:50 am

The premise is part of the problem or, more correctly, creates the illusion of a problem.

You are putting wine on a special pedestal from the get-go. The fact is that the majority of the planet doesn't drink wine. You are assuming that wine is some objective good and cherry-picking a subset of cultures with whom you identify to prove it. I can't call it Euro-centric because it is even a minority in Europe! Why should anyone or any country emulate Spain or France? Why not tea? There is a robust and equally stratified tea culture. I paid 90$ for a pot last night of a pu-erh from 1949. Auction markets on tea can make Burgundy look like church bingo.

You see the 'mystification' because you are in that demi-monde and so people engage you on it. They don't on the tea world, for example, which is just as nutso.

I think American wine culture is pretty healthy and getting better all the time. All the stuff - Parker,etc - is just a tiny tempest in the teapot of our little obsession corner.

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

Postby Lyle Fass » Fri Jul 03, 2009 4:32 pm


High end audio is a scam. I was into it for a bit in my teenage years. I used to always go to high end audio stores and listen to Krell, Conrad-Johnson, Cary, Wilson and could not believe the prices and it made me feel bad having my NAD/Adcom/Polk Audio system at home even though I really could not tell a difference. Great insight there.

So in wine Krell = DRC La Tache and Wilson = DRC RC :D ?

The quality differences in Burgundy can be great but today much less so than say in the 60's, 70's and 80's. With all the care that goes into farming and cellar work Burgs are better today than ever and the quality from the top stuff to the bottom stuff is not that great a divide and certainly not worth the insane valuation certain people have given it.

Thanks for clarifying. If you ever get to NYC we should have a drink together.


I was not saying anybody should emulate France or Spain, I was just using them for comparison sake as countries that have a wine culture that spans centuries.

Post a tasting note on that 1949 tea. Sounds cool.
Lyle Fass
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Re: Lyle Fass – Word on the Street - 7-1-09; Wine Mystification

Postby passetoutgrains33 » Sun Jul 05, 2009 9:18 pm

You have made some good points, though I think the topic is a tremendously difficult one to tackle adequately, least of all codify. With your knack for making points, I would suggest that you try your hand at a more convention piece of journalism in order to better relate the problem that you see regarding american wine culture. Perhaps a story that follows two or three consumers of varying social or economic status, with their own struggle/immersion in wine culture.
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