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08.20.2013

The Illogic of the Ancients

Ah, I remember a time when wine blogging was new on the face of the earth, full of enthusiasm and the heady rush of youth. A time when it bore the full brunt of disdain and contempt from the so called "traditional" wine writers and journalists who looked at the blogosphere from their lofty perches of experience and saw only drivel. Dangerous drivel at that, for these blatherings of bloggers were free for the taking and inexplicably appealing to so many young wine drinkers.

Luckily we've moved on from that era. Many of the most vocal opponents of the new wave of wine journalism were the first casualties of the underlying systemic shifts that gavebigstock-handsome-journalist-writing-wi-43410031.jpg rise to the era of the blog. The last ten years were not a good time to have your income depend solely upon editorial or journalistic wine writing.

Now, of course almost every professional wine writer left working in the English language has a blog, regardless of whether they are dyed-in-the-wool, old-school wine stringers, or part of the new guard born of the digital revolution.

All of which makes it so much stranger to hear the occasional strangled, solitary voice in the wilderness railing against "those wine bloggers." But wine writer Dan Berger seems proud to bear the standard for the confused and curmudgeonly among the "old school" of wine writing.

Those who know Berger would never be surprised to hear him voicing strong, perhaps even slightly belligerent opinions. He's never come up short in that department.

Still, you'd hope that a guy with that much writing experience under his belt could tease out a little subtlety from his prose rather than take the easy way out and throw the pronoun "bloggers" around like it actually meant something. In his recent column for the Napa Valley Register, Dan continues the grand tradition of tarring wine bloggers with a single color brush, flippantly suggesting that wine bloggers learned how to describe wine while watching Beverly Hills 90210. OMG, indeed.

It's not that Berger's throw-away line has no basis in reality. I'll be the first to admit there's a lot of crappy writing on blogs of any subject. But haven't we really moved past the point where journalists can use "blogger" as a pejorative? Apparently not. You'd think Berger had been reading Robert Parker's handbook for media relations.

Now if most journalists have by now realized the idiocy of speaking and thinking of "bloggers" as a categorical, monolithic group, so too have most serious wine bloggers gotten past the point of being truly sensitive to the occasional flagrant rant by a journalist about the ambiguous ethics, lousy writing, or lack of wine knowledge possessed by said wine bloggers.

Consequently, I'd have easily given Berger a pass for his recent comments, as I have the last two times he categorically impugned wine bloggers.

But this same column also contained two mind-bogglingly ridiculous statements that he immediately nominated himself for the subject of this rant (which I promise will be over soon).

Actually, one of these two things was an absence rather than a prominence. Though the column Berger wrote was ostensibly about wine language, he found a few paragraphs in the middle ripe with the opportunity to praise wine competitions and their noble judges. These august institutions, he goes on to suggest, cut through the noise and the hype to award those whose wines do not cost $150 or more with the attention they deserve, thereby turning consumers on to wines of true value.

Berger clinches his piece by proclaiming that to him, "the most important chatter about a wine is what the judges at a wine competition think about it."

And nowhere in this article is there anything remotely resembling a disclaimer that Berger makes a substantial portion (my speculation) of his wine-related income running two large wine competitions (the Riverside International Wine Competition and the Long Beach Grand Cru) and serving as a judge for several others.

I find that just the tiniest bit shocking, given Berger's principled stance on most issues.

But the real shocker in this article was the baldfaced declaration that Berger believes the sales volume of a wine directly correlates to its quality. To wit:

"Barefoot, part of the giant E&J Gallo organization, has gotten better and better over the decades. The company wouldn't be selling millions of cases of this stuff if it wasn't exceptionally fine."

If like me, you happened to spew wine out of your nose when you read that, now would be the time to clean it up. This statement, of course, is the oenological equivalent of suggesting that McDonald's sales numbers prove they serve exceptionally fine hamburgers.

Now I've got nothing against McDonald's or Barefoot in principle. They both serve a very important market need. People want cheap burgers and they want cheap wine, and our economy knows how to deliver in those departments.

But that doesn't mean their products are high quality. The idea that sales volume correlates to quality is laughable in most consumer arenas, but especially so in wine.

But let's get personal about this. For years, Barefoot has been sending me their current release wines. And while it's been a few months since I've gotten a box of them, I've been dutifully tasting them every time they have arrived.

Before you ask, no, I haven't tasted them blind against other wines in their categories, so be advised, what follows is my horribly suspect, subjective and highly unscientific personal opinion.

No single brand of wine is more statistically likely to earn my coveted DNPIM rating. That's right, not only are my scores for Barefoot wines among the lowest I record for any of the thousands of wines I taste each year, but many of the tasting notes I write for these wines include the phrase: Do Not Put In Mouth. They are so bad that I won't even give the opened bottles to my neighbors, which is what I often do with the wine samples I've opened on any given evening.

I don't normally go in for bashing wines for three reasons. They change every year, the wines can get better but nasty reviews live forever thanks to Google, and other than the snarky, most people don't want to read what not to drink, they want to know what they should drink.

But sometimes there's a point to be made. So there you have it.

But what is there to be done with Mr. Dan Berger? I've clearly succumbed to the temptation of being reactionary. But now that I've gotten it out of my system, perhaps the more appropriate tack would be to merely smile and nod, and help the poor guy carry the lunch tray back to his seat next to Mrs. Robinson.

Photo of "handsome journalist writing with typewriter" courtesy of Bigstock.

Comments (14)

Jeff L. wrote:
08.20.13 at 8:25 PM

well done restraint for not even mentioning his reference to the Blackberry -- which shreds any reasonable bit of credibility for being 'in the know.'

Tom Wark wrote:
08.21.13 at 8:18 AM

""Barefoot, part of the giant E&J Gallo organization, has gotten better and better over the decades. The company wouldn't be selling millions of cases of this stuff if it wasn't exceptionally fine."

If like me, you happened to spew wine out of your nose when you read that, now would be the time to clean it up. This statement, of course, is the oenological equivalent of suggesting that McDonald's sales numbers prove they serve exceptionally fine hamburgers."

This is where the vinious rubber hits the philosophical road, isn't it Alder. Clearly LOTS of people like Barefoot wines. More people like Barefoot wines, in fact than those who like nearly any other wine you can name. What does this mean?

It means for one that the wine isn't blatantly offensive. It also means that the wine appeals to the LOTS of people. This in turn means that to LOTS of people, Barefoot is a fine wine.

Now, we might dispute this, you and I, having tasted so many wines, honed our palates, explored the intricacies of wine from around the globe, sat quietly and contemplated the subtle differences between vintages. But here is fact: You and I have no basis whatsoever for saying that objectively, Barefoot isn't "exceptionally fine". We can boast this opinion. We can explain why we disagree. We can put up examples of other wines we think are more "exceptionally fine". But we can't make a truth statement about this.

Finally, I'm taking this opportunity to defend Dan Berger: His experience tasting wine, his knowledge of the wine industry, his contribution to the wine knowledge of others, his palate, and the philosophical underpinnings of his approach to wine appreciation are greater than any serious wine blogger I've ever met.

Bruce Schoenfeld wrote:
08.21.13 at 9:11 AM

Seriously, Tom? What makes something "fine" is that it sells a lot? VW Bugs are fine cars? Or are they just serviceable cars? If "fine" is a de facto synonym for "popular," why do even need "fine?"

Alder wrote:
08.21.13 at 9:36 AM

Tom,

In philosophical discussions of criticism one often gets to the point where the question comes down to "who is more right." There are those who claim that professional critics have no more authority than individuals to specify matters of taste. And then there are those who believe that even if you like Salieri more than Mozart, that doesn't mean that Salieri is a BETTER composer than Mozart. While I agree that we're jousting in the realm of subjective here, such a judgement is about as close to truth as you get. The critical establishment has set standards that are largely indisputable.

We can spend hours talking about what "exceptionally fine" really means, too, but in all my tastings of them, Barefoot wines have largely been in the completely lousy department.

You're correct, of course, that they can't be offensive to most people, or they wouldn't sell as much as they do, but that doesn't mean Barefoot is a fine wine. It may mean that it is "just fine" to most people, but that is very different than the critical judgement that the wine is "exceptionally fine." The four letters "fine" mean very different things in those contexts.

I happen to agree with you on Dan Berger's credentials, which is why this piece of his was so surprisingly bad.

Tom Wark wrote:
08.21.13 at 10:27 AM

Alder,
I love this subject of what makes a fine good, bad, fine, bad, etc. We (geeks and critics) know we fetishize wine to a degree that 99% of living adults do not. It sort of begs the question, is our perspective skewed to the point of being only minimally useful? It certainly suggests we may not be that close to the truth.

As for the "critical community setting standards that are largely indisputable" is is a GREAT statement that needs to be explored further and I'd urge you to do so. Off the top of my head I don't think these standards walk anywhere near the neighborhood of "truth". And, I think we need a different word than "truth" when discussing matters of aesthetics.

Finally, Bruce and Alder...Maybe it is time to do that blind, comparative tasting of different Barefoot varietals.

08.21.13 at 12:15 PM

How many competitions have Barefoot and Target Wine Cube entered and failed to earn a medal? Does that then mean they are exceptionally dreadful?

Richard wrote:
08.21.13 at 1:47 PM

I love your debate here! What is fine wine, what is not. I hasten to add that I make a bit of wine now and again - my "disclaimer" if you will - not that it makes me even a tiny bit qualified to comment, but I will anyway? why not? So, here goes:

- In defense of Mr. Berger - I think he just likes to argue - I had a long discussion with him on alcohol levels in wine - he was not only gracious, but a gentleman - but he didn't change his point of view, nor I mine.
- In defense (sort of) Mikey D's: Sadly, there are, at least, hundreds of thousands of folks (if not millions) who would argue with you that McDonald's is fine cuisine. I have friends who believe that a meal at Jack in the Box is very likely the best thing they will ever have on this earth. Are they wrong? Nope, not for them.
- this leads to my next point - which Mr. Wark (kind of - notice all the disclaimers?) made: Barefoot is a fine wine to many who have not taken up wine as a profession in one way or another; many also love "Yellow Tail" and or "Charles Shaw" - the sales numbers don't lie. And if you ask the people who buy it, they will tell you it is a fine wine.

So, there is some truth in the statement that the best sellers make it the best wine. In the same way a best selling book is "the best book" or best selling car is "the best car" or the most watched TV show is "the best show."

Where does this "truth" leave us? Sitting at home chug a lugging a bottle of Barefoot, watching "Under the Dome" or "The Bachlorette" while munching a bag of burgers and fries from Mickey D's...

And that is what we snooty wine folks never stop to consider - there is a huge wide world outside of California Wine Country and us wine cognoscenti who really don't give a doggone about the snooty wines we drink! They don't care that is has overtones of dark ripe fruit; and shows the terroir of "xyz" vineyard in a way that showcases both the soil and minerality; and gives off the aroma of bramble and eucalyptus.

Nope, they only care that they finished a hard day at work; have a cheap meal and drink; and can zone out before they have to go back to that miserable job they hate soo much but have to go back because "it's a living."

Alder wrote:
08.21.13 at 2:06 PM

Richard,

You've definitely locked square onto Tom's argument. But Bruce's statement still stands. If "fine" just means "popular" then it's a useless word.

Instead I might direct you again to the realms of "fine" art or "fine" classical music. Where there are traditions and canons, that through scholarship and the consensus of critics (NOT the public) over the years we have come to understand who the best artists, composers, etc. are and why their work is superior to those of others.

Many people look at Jackson Pollock and say "my kid could paint that" but simply because they don't understand it or appreciate it, doesn't mean that he isn't one of the greats of abstract expressionism and one of the defining figures of 20th Century modern art. Conversely, the fact that hundreds of thousands of people flocked to Thomas Kinkaid outlets in their local malls to buy visual treacle for their living rooms doesn't make him one of the greatest artists of the 20th century.

That is, unless you're a relativist and you believe fundamentally that the only truth that exists in the world is each of our individual opinions, but that's a slippery slide into moral relativism and the great atrocities of humankind.

Without a doubt, the vast majority of wine drinkers buy their bottles of wine for less than $10 at their local grocery store or liquor mart, or choose a bottle off a list at a chain restaurant like The Olive Garden.

But that's beside the point. The point here, is what a wine critic (with almost 40 YEARS of experience) means when he calls a wine "exceptionally fine," and whether sales volume is a proof of that assessment.

Richard wrote:
08.21.13 at 2:32 PM

Ah ha! Caught you up in my web of tongue in cheek prose Alder! Yes, I meant what I said and said what I meant, but my tongue was planted firmly in cheek... But it was more a comment on society and populism. It's like democracy - when polling indicates that "93% of Americans favor 'fill in the blank'." Not to get into a deep philosophical discourse/interchange, but our Founding Fathers founded a "Republic" not a "Democracy" - and they did so, because they realized that "what is popular is not always right..." and "what is right, is not always popular."

So, yes, there is fine art, fine automobiles, fine wine, philosophy, etc. that transcends popularity and enters the realm of the esoteric... and, on wine, I would be willing to bet if most folks who think Barefoot is a fine wine were given a "finer" wine and asked to compare, they would prefer the "finer" wine - but when they learned the price tag was $40 or $100? or even $15? would they buy it, or would they buy Barefoot again; I would give you odds that they would buy the Barefoot again. Thus, I defeat myself with my own argument almost - they buy it not because it's popular, but it's affordable!

Evan Dawson wrote:
08.22.13 at 6:18 AM

Thanks for pointing out the significant ethical breach regarding lack of disclosure of personal income from wine competitions, Alder. My complaints about wine competitions are well documented, so I won't dredge them up here. I will say, however, that Mr. Berger was happy to take a shot at me in his newsletter as a result. The competition industry is big business, and his lack of disclosure is only further obfuscation.

I had a lovely time chatting with Dan at a dinner last year. I have long enjoyed much of his work. But there are times when he seems to approach parody, and this article is a fine example. Perhaps I should say it's an exceptionally fine example, unless Tom Wark would object.

Bruce Schoenfeld wrote:
08.22.13 at 7:24 AM

I don't live in California or work in the wine industry. I'm a wine journalist -- but I also write magazine stories on sports, politics, business, and a whole bunch of other topics. I travel for a living, not just to Beaune and Barolo but (just over the past few weeks) to Waco, Indianapolis, Baltimore. I often drink elite wines, but I hardly think I'm living inside a wine bubble.

I'm well aware that the vast majority of Americans drink wine that Alder (and I) might rate DNPIM. But ... I believe those people, nearly all of them, would never call them fine wines. How often do you hear the disclaimer from even some exceptionally well-informed and culturally savvy people: "I don't know anything about wine," or "Good wine is lost on me. I can't tell the difference." I very much disagree that Barefoot drinkers would make the case that Barefoot is fine wine. They'd shrug their shoulders and tell you that they like it, it's good enough for them, and if that makes them Philistines, so be it. (I find the vast majority of casual wine drinkers to actually be unduly modest about how much they understand wine.)

Fine wine is something different than popular wine. I don't know if the etymology connects up to the word "refined," but it should. To call Barefoot fine wine is silly. And Dan Berger, whom I worked with in the early 1980s at the San Diego Union, well understands that.

Blake Gray wrote:
08.22.13 at 8:58 AM

How many people read the Napa Valley Register? Surely fewer than read today's leading wine blogs.

Not very long ago, people would consider a print column, any print column, more valuable than any blog. I remember sitting at a press dinner next to an insufferable guy who knew nothing about wine (Yeah, he probably thought the same thing). Turned out he had self-published a magazine, two issues, which looked like crap (he brought it to show everyone) and probably didn't sell at all. I introduced myself to a PR person there as a blogger, and she ignored me the rest of the night.

Different times today. I really wouldn't worry about what a print column in a paper that small says. If you want to start nitpicking those, you'll find that after the top 10 or so print wine journalists, there's an even larger dropoff in quality than there is among bloggers.

Norm wrote:
08.25.13 at 11:13 PM

Good job Alder. I have criticized some of your other posts including one regarding Parker, but this time I thought you brought a rational discourse to a close to heart topic. It's disappointing when accomplished writers do not logically think about their statements. You did a nice job of clearly explaining why his logic is flawed AND why we need "bloggers" like you.

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