Friday, July 27, 2012

Wine writing: blogs with legs

Whatever happened to legs? They never lose popularity in the flesh, continually evolving in women's fashion magazines, but they haven’t been seen in wine criticism for a generation, even in the pages of what are the vinous equivalents of W.
Once upon a time you could look around a restaurant and see someone holding a wine glass up to the light, appraising the little rivulets running down the inside after the wine had been swirled. Good legs were sturdy droplets that made their way slowly. But this became a sign of cluelessness, replaced by instant apprehension of fruit on nose and palate, a sign of what I think of as compote explosion syndrome: Bordeauxs moved from cherries and cigar boxes to more exotic descriptors, chardonnay filled up on the page with figurative peaches and pears, pinot noir with strawberries and even kiwi.
The fruitiness of the enterprise of wine evaluation lent itself beautifully to the numbers game and the famous and now increasingly dubious 100-point system. If a rating between 90 and 100 meant "outstanding, a wine of superior character," and a 80 to 89 meant "very good, a wine with special qualities," and a 70 to 79 "good, a fine example of its type, may have minor flaws," and a 60 to 69 "average, drinkable wine of acceptable quality," anything below that – presumably two-thirds of the world’s wines – not worth swirling or drinking.
But how can a wine be truly assigned an absolute numerical equivalent? It can’t, and in trying to finesse that basic fact other subjective and often syntactically silly descriptors are added, like masculine and feminine, big-shouldered, febrile, and plush (an overly soft throw-pillow?). And how can anyone justify relegating that terrain south of 60 a wasteland? Many such table wines are not "flawed" but merely simple, pleasant, and merriment- but not necessarily hangover-inducing.
The fact is that a wine ranking is highly subjective, sometimes specious, and often used for little more than promotion. It’s one thing to rate a wine according to a regimen - assigning points for color, clarity, bouquet, body and finish - and another entirely to swirl, sniff, taste, and then to toss off a digital bouquet without telling us what the numbers are based on.
Wines are often much closer in quality than the ratings make them appear. But numbers sell wine - and occasionally wine publications. A woman told me she gave a party and served only wines that ranked 95 or higher in either The Wine Advocate or The Wine Spectator. “It was a wonderful party," she added, but couldn’t remember the names of the wines or what they tasted like.
Clearly numbers drinking contributes to snobbery and ignorance, and it creates a false sense of contention. Wine producers may be in competition, but wine is not, gets along very well with itself and with people who trust their perceptions and don't insist upon a rating by Moody's (another discredited entity in our on-going disillusionment with most things financial) for everything that crosses their palates.
Legs, fruit compote, and numbers were all trends of wine analysis, as was the now-hoary tradition of wine writing with attitude. That once meant flowery prose, mostly from Brits. Nowadays it often means spirited – as in lively and opinionated – writing from wine bloggers, an independent and inherently anti-establishment troupe that has re-invigorated wine criticism and wine musing and is the latest development in the universe of wine appreciation.
There are hundreds if not thousands of these men and women, a welcome phenomenon in the ever-changing relationship between human beings and what they drink. And wine bloggers are gathering for their annual convention in August, this year in Portland, Oregon. I’m looking forward to joining them.

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