If James Gandolfini were a wine…

A Look At Ourselves, And Our Industry

I’ve been struggling with this post for a couple of weeks.  I don’t want it to come off as trite, hence the delay in sending it out. 

James Gandolfini
James Gandolfini (Photo credit: gdcgraphicsissue.

The death of James Gandolfini was pretty shocking.  Here was a man who was highly respected, and by many, revered as a true artist. That he died at such an early age

made his life and his work more poignant. But the event of his death made me think: If James Gandolfini were a wine, how would he have been judged?  Would he have been successful? Would anyone even have considered him?  Here was a man who did not have beauty, was not fit, but he exuded such character, strength, sensitivity and nuance.  Aren’t those all attributes we desire in a wine?  Aren’t those the things that actually define a great wine?

It dawned on me that wines are judged the same way we consider models or a Miss America contestant. It’s a beauty contest, and wine critics with their score cards, are telling us this wine is better than that wine, when all it really does is confuse the issue of what a wine is really about.

Wines are like actors, or at least the characters they play, but the majority of our wine critics, and the wine buying public, for the most part, treat wines like models. And everybody knows, the supermodel is the best example of a person, right? (sarcasm is intended here.) 

“To combat the constant dumbing down of wine, we’ve got to tell the stories of wine.”

But if we want real soul, and real character to mean something, and to really shine through, what do we as wine professionals do? To combat the constant dumbing down of wine, we’ve got to tell the stories of wine. I was telling my boss, “We’ve got all these really cool wines, and it’s our job to tell people about them.”

I have a new job, doing marketing for a small importer of Bordeaux and Burgundy. Despite representing some of the greatest domaines in Burgundy, and an incredible selection of Bordeaux, we have a challenge to relate how wonderful these wines are in virtually every vintage.

Although collectors should, they don’t tend to stock their cellars with the 2006, 2007 or 2008 vintages, all of which produced wonderful wines. Wines from these vintages show remarkable character, strength, quality, and they will age beautifully too.   These are the vintages that the top sommeliers are purchasing for their restaurants.  It is the producer’s name that is important, not so much the vintage.

But for some reason we, as American wine enthusiasts, have a hard time getting past our thing about vintages.  Take 2007 vintage in Bordeaux for instance. With the exception of 1961, the 2007 vintage is better than any vintage between the years 1960 to 1981, yet most wine collectors have completely dismissed the vintage as not worthy.

But it’s really a more extreme problem than just of vintage. In my last position as a wine buyer, I was constantly amazed that if you offered two wines from the same producer, from the same year, and one got 97 points and another got 96 points, people would only want to purchase the 97 point wine – even if the 96 point wine was significantly less expensive.  I guarantee that there is no qualitative difference between a 97 point wine and a 96 point wine – or even a 94 point wine for that matter.  Additionally, if you blind taste 10 people on those two wines, it is a sure bet that half of the tasters will like the lesser, 96 point wine better.

What is this national mentality that makes people want only the best, and how could the best be determined when taste is so subjective, and the simple fact that wines can “show” wildly differently on separate occasions?

 “You could go really hungry trying to sell wine without resorting pimping wine out with scores.”

As wine professionals, I realize we talk out of both sides of our face.  On one hand, many of us have a remarkable fascination with  wine and are quite dedicated to telling the hundreds of stories associated with them. On the other hand we’re also trying to put bread on our table, and we feel that we have to resort to using the scores (that we really often detest) to sell wine. We do it because in the time it takes to get your customers to blindly trust you, you could go really hungry without resorting to pimping wines by using scores.

Over the past three years, I wrote email blasts for The Wine Club.  About a third of the wines I wrote about didn’t have any scores (or I didn’t include them.) I wrote them up with exaggerated enthusiasm, ala Robert Parker, in an attempt to build a following for our store, and the wines we championed.  I thought it was important to build a reputation for being authority of wine ourselves. Quoting a score doesn’t make you an authority, does it?imgres

So for three years I tirelessly wrote up wines – with no scores, just my enthusiasm.  I found I could sell wines quite well up to about $25-$30. Above that price point, fagetabout-it.

In today’s wine world, is it necessary to score a wine in order to build a reputation as a wine authority? Certainly, it appears as though scores are required; which kind-of-sucks. I’ve really wrestled with this.  

When I taste wine, I don’t taste points, I taste wine.  But since Gerald Asher retired, (by far my favorite wine-writer) I can’t think of a successful critic that hasn’t resorted to giving wine points.

At this point it is tempting to digress into the problems revolving around scoring wine, and the inequities involved in the process.  I hope we all understand those issues and frustrations well enough, to let it sit there stewing, without addressing them.

Scores or no scores:

I think the answer to my question in the opening paragraph is clear.  It was in a sense rhetorical. Suffice it to say, (with all due respect to the late Mr. Gandolfini) that if he were a wine, very few members of the wine-buying public would ever gotten to experience Gandolfini’s fabulous character, strength, and nuance he would have projected.  This happens every single day in the wine world, and it is the great shame of the wine industry.

 

Go out and tell the stories.

Dean

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Diary of a Winebuyer

About Me: Thirty years ago, I graduated with a degree in political science from the College of Letters and Science at the University of California at Berkeley. Having grown up at the height of the Cold War, I still have vivid remembrances of being instructed to hide under our elementary school desk, covering our heads. The young, white, female teacher, training us without explanation, to face away from the windows. I suppose it is not all that surprising that I had a particular interest in the realpolitik of international relations. My fascination grew with the discovery that certain conditions almost uniformly exist where all revolutions ferment. Did this mean that the revolutions which had occurred in the first half century were revolutions which had been usurped by Marxists who were in the right place at the right time? Probably. A favorite professor was A. J. Gregor. This was a man who, while rakishly wearing a Gestapo-styled black leather motorcycle jacket, exuded expertise on fascism (which he looked the part) and Marxism. Improbably, he did it with a significant swagger. Then in my last semester, I had the blind luck to take a class on Asian Marxist revolution, and the professor, who just happened to be visiting that year while he worked on some unnamed project, was Chalmers Johnson. In retrospect, I should have known his name, as he was a luminary in the political science community but at that time, I did not. It was a remarkable opportunity to experience the ivory tower, but I seem to remember being anxious to get on with life. After college, I drifted through a few of jobs that were of interest to me. One of my former high school teachers said to me. "If I were in your shoes, I'd get a job as a flight attendant." So in order to be young while I could still afford to, I accepted a job serving chicken or beef at Pan American. With that airline losing money faster than it could sell its routes, I got a job doing cellar work at David Bruce Winery. This was the beginning of my wine career. All during this period, I wrote a still unpublished novel about homegrown terrorists the U.C. Berkeley campus, attempting to use some of what I learned in school, weaving in the Vietnamese political and military strategies of Dau Tranh as professor Johnson had lectured years before. Since the early 1990's, I have been involved in the wine industry, selling fine wine in both the retail and wholesale arenas. I have approached learning about wine, by always challenging myself to question how I know what I think I know? And in an effort to try to find answers I've turned, with varying degrees of success to wine books. Overall, I've not been happy with the quality of most wine writing, finding the authors either to lack any deep knowledge, or unable to move much past what I consider to be superficial information. I recognize that wine writers have to monetize their work, but I believe this has dramatically held back our knowledge and understanding of wine. I have set out to add to our industry's base of knowledge where I can. My first series, 'The Terroir of Burgundy' (which I should probably re-edit and complete some kind of conclusion, but I got involved in this project), can be viewed here. I currently work as a sales and marketing manager for a Burgundy and Bordeaux importer based in Atherton, California.

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