Having a Wine Cow

by blog on September 2, 2020

What is it about cattle? As my mentor Bart Simpson has said on many occasions: “Don’t have a cow, man!”. And we all have our pet beefs (or is it peeves –I always get confused!), little and large horned beastie things that annoy us about the industry we work. And let me get that one out of my system first. Calling it the wine industry really bugs me beyond reason. Yes, that is probably a fair-to-middling description of the multi-billion-dollar worldwide market and the way that wine has become a commercialised product qua product to fill supermarket shelves at one end of the spectrum and to feed the collector’s impulse at the other to have and to hold it over others. In between the utilitarian need and the luxury impulse, there is something more individual and authentic, a small world of people farming grapes and making wine without the need for it to be judged by tasting panels or critics. People in trade forums are habituated to discuss such fascinating industry subjects such as churn, numbers, trends and new marketing initiatives. Novelty? It’s as old as the world itself. We could be talking about any mass-produced product, not just wine.

Little and large horned beastie things that annoy us about the industry we work. And let me get that one out of my system first. Calling it the wine industry really bugs me beyond reason.

“Have you noticed that?” I am saying this a lot these days, like one of the observational stand-ups (whilst sitting down) comedians, constantly perplexed by the ways of the wine world, before launching into my latest peroration about something that aggravates. Our text wine list starts with the famous song quote about accentuating the positive and eliminating the negative. And we do try to be upbeat, if not in the Panglossian sense of all being for the best in the best of all possible worlds. When you talk about the wines you like, it is important not to have a plaintive pop at the wines you don’t like, as one UK wine merchant did, notably, on one occasion, in the introduction to their catalogue.

Natural wine opinionation is definitely becoming more opinionated. Or is it me? And on all sides of the argument. And frankly, that sucks. I know that people are paid to have and to hold righteous opinions for a living, however a great deal more humility and “serious levity” might be in order.

If there is one lesson that lockdown has taught me is to rein back on sweeping statements. There is plenty of time to think and craft a proportionate response to statements made on social media, for example. No-one is going anywhere at the moment. For others, however, being in limbo has so dammed up the desire to have one’s opinions broadcast, that the slightest provocation leads to histrionic rhetorical detonations. Facebook is a-frothing, a kind of virtual city of trolls. The heads, they bangeth every day.

Once upon a time, we might sit around a table in wine bar (a natural wine, natch) and settle our differences amicably over a bottle or three of fermented juice. Take a little wine for thy stomach, says the bible. And for the soul too, say we. The spirit of copinage always binds us to a good place. Now from laptops scattered through the globe, there is a relentless trollery and chafing argumentativeness. Even those on the same side of the natural wine debate are splintering into factions. I am tempted to say that this reflects human nature and the political desire to colonise areas of special interest, but I also think that it is very much to do with the whole idea of needing to define something which is made by individuals in the way they choose to make it, and consumed by other individuals who have their own sense of what they want to drink. The wine industry (that term) in all its glory, wants a piece of the action; in other words, they want natural wine to be politicised in the same way that certain natural winemakers want to create an exclusive definition – and therefore strict parameters – for how they work. For me, this is like wanting to institute an academy for correct English. Language is organic and mutable; it evolves by bending and breaking rules and conventions.

Natural wine opinionation is definitely becoming more opinionated. Or is it me? And on all sides of the argument. And frankly, that sucks.

Like whiskers on mittens and warm woollen kittens, these are a few of my least favourite things about the wine trade. At the moment. The list is forever expanding.

Total Carp

What’s the deal with…people whose tuppence-worth of wisdom vented on a Facebook thread is solely a sneer at natural wine? I sometimes wonder whether they receive media alerts when their hobbyhorses are released from the stables, so they can spring forth and parade their contrarian opinions. Get a life! Attend to your own affairs. Say something positive or say nothing at all.

Not Sharing is Caring

Stop sharing…articles published in national newspapers or style mags that infantilise wine. So, someone is calling their natural or pure or whatever when it patently isn’t. If you dignify this BS even by dissecting the article or examining their motives, you are tantamount to suggesting that any sort of thought went into it in the first place.

Very recently, a magazine article was bandied around FB and Twitter which contained the following fake pearls of wisdom:

I look for wines with vintage year on the label, she said. Natural wines will include the year it is harvested, grape variety, and the region it was grown on the label. Regular wine can’t claim a vintage, region or grape because they have been made with a medley of unnatural ingredients.

I have a feeling that this is a spoof designed to undermine the credibility of those making and selling natural wines. It is such pure and utter drivel that no-one who had a scintilla of knowledge about wine would make such statements. There are so many more important things to worry or talk about. But look at how much (vitriolic) response it has generated on both sides of the debate. It is now part of social wine media folklore. I salute its satirical genius!

If you dignify this BS even by dissecting the article or examining their motives, you are tantamount to suggesting that any sort of thought went into it in the first place.

I implore editors of magazines to talk to the acknowledged experts on the subject more often, and give credit that the subject (of natural wine) resists catchy headlines or naff soundbites.

Hello! Celebrity Whine

Not just the wines in themselves, but having to read about the wines, which in turn spurs other to leap into print to object to them. Of course, these are are usually vanity projects (with some exceptions), a branding of personality in wine, Trade magazines are complicit in marketing them to the point of fawning adulation. It is time to treat the wines on the merit of the wine, and not on the merit or otherwise of the celebrities.

J’accuse

People who take to social media and start calling out growers, winemakers, writers for their behaviour(s), their political and moral actions and views. Unless you have rock-solid prima-facie evidence what you are accusing someone of (and that involves more than quoting a skewed newspaper article), then please do more research or wait until there is some kind of due process before pronouncing a verdict or taking action that may have an adverse effect on that person’s livelihood.

Hypertrophy

Frenzied word piling and prolixity in tasting notes and wine reviews. Loquacity is not an indication of perspicacity. There is no way that wine can taste of so many different things, a basket of all the fruits of the hedgerows and the forest, and strange rare wild berries that only a deep jungle explorer might stumble on serendipitously, not to mention all the other diverse recondite smells and flavours that have little or nothing to do with grape juice and the way that it is transformed. Yes, of course, wine is associative and great wines do offer a complex aromatic palette, but tasters have been encouraged for too long to give literary license to their pornucopiac imaginations. Calm down, simplify and get to the heart of the matter. Lose the thesaurus.

Cliché-Palooza!

Avoid clichés like the plague, as the joke goes. The wine world is riddled with meaning-mangled jargon and commonplaces. This ranges from marketing techno-babble to the caricaturing of certain grape varieties. The worst thing is that it is so infectious. If you find yourself spewing out terms such as “premiumisation” or “channel management” then you need to go into a darkened room and drink some orange wine. It is even more tempting to adopt lazy wine shorthand to depict all wines from a particular region or a grape variety as tasting the same.

World Pinotage Day

Or World Dornfelder Day. Or whatever grape day it happens to be. There are 365 days (excluding leap years) to name. Invent your own celebration – if you’ve got the grapes. The arbitrariness of such concepts harks back to a time when the wine trade was in thrall to varietal labelling as a marketing tool. We’ve surely ascended to a higher plane of wine consciousness. Grape variety is less important than place and style. A Sauvignon is a Sauvignon is the same Sauvignon from wherever if it is cold-stabilised, fermented with flavoured yeast and sterile-filtered. For all that.

Respect My Authoritah

The pretence that once you’ve tasted a specific wine you can pronounce absolute judgement on it when others are tasting that wine or even any other wine from the particular grower. In perpetuity. One swallow does not a summation make. No-one tastes the wine at the moment I am tasting, with the food I am eating and the company I am with, and with the very special light and the feeling and all the unique circumstances of the whole damn occasion. So, if I love a natural wine and it gives me an epiphany, and I want to broadcast that, don’t rain on my (or anyone else’s) parade.

The Grey Market

Devalues the work that wine importers do in terms of sourcing and building up the reputation and the marketable value of wines. Undermines the relationship between the wine merchant and their customers and the exclusive agreement that the wine merchant has negotiated to distribute the wines. More than often inflates the price of the wines to way beyond what is sensible – or desirable. Especially with rare wines purchased through brokers). Fosters the idea that wine is as much as tradeable commodity as it is a beautiful liquid to drink and enjoy.

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