Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Stop the Vino Vitriol

Create an organization in pursuit of a reasonable goal and you will have enthused participants go too far. Their actions or statements will then rile up people who feel threatened or wronged and the entire undertaking can devolve into a pointless exchange of unpleasantries that pretty much misses the point entirely. The gloves come off, civilized discourse devolves into name calling and most people tune out. This is the nature of politics but it shouldn't happen over wine.
Steve Heimoff reported yesterday that James Laube wrote an editorial in Wine Spectator that "comes out swinging against Pursuit of Balance." "The Empire Strikes Back: Laube Takes on IPOB" is the title of Mr. Heimoff's piece. During the summary paragraph Mr. Heimoff says, "Jim has presented his case cogently and respectfully." I disagree. You can sort of read the article from the picture Mr. Heimoff posted but you must subscribe to the Wine Spectator to read it more easily. However, anyone can see the title, "Dim Somms." There is nothing respectful about that.
I have no skin in this game. James Laube routinely bestows rave reviews on wines that I find to be over the top. Many of his favorites are too lush and too oaky for my palate but most of these are very popular. He and I do agree on some wines. Mr. Laube's status in the wine world as well as his predilections have set him up at the opposite end of the spectrum from IPOB.
In Pursuit of Balance focuses on California chardonnay and pinot noir and desires wines where terroir appears. I like the concept but they have gotten off base as well. The entire exercise feels like a clique of cool kids promoting indie bands you've never heard of and sneering at you if you mention a band that's played on mainstream radio. It all seems a bit like does drinking more than half a glass of some of Mr. Laube's choice wines.
IPOB's manifesto says nothing about alcohol levels but that has become the big point of contention. There are sommeliers who will not even taste wines above a certain level as there are people who sometimes buy because of that same elevated percentage. Mr. Laube makes a good point about alcohol levels not being absolute on wine labels. Producers in California have 1.5% to play with if the wine is actually below 14% or 1% if they tip the scales over 15%. (If you don't want to strain your eyes trying to decipher his piece on Steve Heimoff's site, read an earlier post from me that discusses this, here.)
Unfortunately, some zealots decry wines in sweeping generalizations that confuse, or anger, their customers. These fanatics are not all supporters of IPOB and this sort of vinous bullying has existed far longer than that organization. I remember a soon-to-be famous restaurant opening in New Orleans in the 1990s that refused to carry white zinfandel. The sommelier didn't consider white zin 'real wine' and planned to offer (force?) those customers to drink German riesling. Customers complained and eventually, as I recall, some white zin was available, if not actually on the wine list.
The fine balance of offering what people want and what you want them to experience is a challenging one for restaurants. I'm sure seeing a delicate dish being crushed under the ponderous weight of an over-oaked monster is frustrating to sommeliers but my 20+ years in the wine business has taught me you don't win converts by forcing them to drink the wine you want. Let them drink what they want and offer a taste of something you recommend. If/when that clicks, you will have an ambassador of you and your employer. If it never does you will still have an appreciative customer because you are offering something extra, allowing them to explore.
The wine world is large and varied and far from absolute. There is no reason to denigrate wine styles that are not your favorite, they are not foes to be vanquished. Palates change and tastes evolve. Nurture your passion, share it when appropriate, but don't try to browbeat others into joining your cult of wine.
In the meantime, wine "professionals" yelling at one another and uttering wild generalizations will not serve to enlighten anyone. I thought the idea of wine writing and education was to share insight and offer options so people could make the best choices for their palates. If no one else likes the wines I like, that's okay. I don't need confirmation of approval, in fact, it might mean more for me...and at better prices.

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