My kids thought it hilarious to see me reading Drops of God, the Japanese manga sensation that swept through Asia. Its alluring powers were even on display on the beach where my younger son wanted to me to read it to him though eventually he wandered off and resumed building sand castles. But if you are old enough to enjoy wine, the innovative, enthralling, soap opera for wine geeks will lure you in no matter if you’ve just cracked your first moscato or if you were weaned on Meursault. And it is perfect beach reading (as I can testify having selflessly read it in situ on your behalf).
The story’s protagonist, the young Shizuku Kanzaki, embarks on a quest laid out in his father’s will: to correctly identify twelve “apostles,” or heavenly wines that are the “drops of God” in title. Shizuku turned his back wine while his father was alive, rebuffing the beverage that made his father into a legend of the wine world as a critic as well as a fortune (he bought a lot en primeur and consulted to wineries, neither of which damaged his reputation as a critic, apparently). But his father always offered him things to smell and taste, which honed his sensory perception for his quest. Or contest, more aptly: Shizuku is pitted against Issei Tomine, just the sort of young, suave, arrogant, know-it-all who makes the perfect rival for Shizuku’s more passionate approach as he evolves swiftly from wine newbie to master. At stake, is the entire collection that the elder Kanzaki amassed over a lifetime, as well as the family’s grand house.
Along the way, wines are praised rapturously, both in two-page illustrated spreads as well as with lavish descriptions. Consider this one for the first of the “twelve apostles:”
I wander deep within a forest thick with pristine primeval growths,
As the humid scent of life wafts from the moss-covered trees,
I walk toward the heart of the forest in search of solace.
The bounteous blessing of nature suits a virgin forest unsullied by human hands
Ah, behold, a pair of violet butterflies, tangling in flight!
Perhaps this little spring is your Holy Land.
The two contestants parse the words and embark on a method of arriving at an answer to the riddle. Shizuku’s approach is more fun as he discusses it with friends, finagles ways to taste rarified wines, closing in on the region and village to ultimately make his pick. Along the way, he helps a woman with amnesia recover her past through a glass of wine, gets a tutorial from an eccentric wine expert who literally stores rarefied Burgundy in a hole in the ground, and squares off with a business rival in a blind tasting.
It’s easy to see how the books drove wine sales across Asia more than any wine critic who merely assigns anodyne point scores to wines. Drops of God succeeds at the highest level: not only does it inform and engage the reader through the narrative and illustrations, it makes you yearn to start your own quest, to research regions and producers while pulling some corks on fine bottles to share with friends.
Robert Parker and Antonio Galloni are organizing a lunch of 1982 Bordeaux from Parker’s cellar. Yes, the same passive cellar where he brought Charlie Rose and the 60 Minutes cameras in 2001.
For $12,000, attendees will be treated to a lunch at Restaurant Daniel and about 25 wines that Parker says he bought on release. Fully $6,000 per head will go to a charity, which is laudable. The other $6,000 per head, net of the restaurant’s, charges, will go to the self-proclaimed hedonist of wine and life. Since he told Charlie Rose he had 12,000 bottles in the cellar, it remains to be seen if this event will be the first of many. Full details on ’82 Bordeaux after the jump.
In other Wine Advocate news, Parker published a Napa Cabernet 2002 retrospective that included 17 wines that received 100 points. Read more…
Last week, Pancho Campo resigned from the Institute of Masters of Wine. An email from the Institute’s executive director said that “in light of his move into more sports and music events and away from wine, he has decided to resign his membership of the Institute of Masters of Wine, effective immediately.” The Institute had commissioned an independent investigation–the findings of that report were about to be released.
A couple of weeks ago, Robert Parker released his own investigation into the Campo/Miller tours of Spain (For a backgrounder, read “No Jay, no pay.”). The summary report stated that no actual impropriety occurred yet suggested revisions to the ethics statement to apply to all Wine Advocate contributors, not just Parker. The report prompted a lengthy thread on eRobertParker.com, including a stunning intervention that laid out a chronology of some of the events and said that the “decent and classy” thing to do would be to apologize to Jim Budd, who had reported on each development of the scandal on his blog and had documented cooperated with Parker’s lawyers despite Parker’s insistence to the contrary.
The conversation there shifted to the topic of whether Antonio Galloni should have attended an importer’s lavish dinner in the company of producers from Burgundy, California, and Italy whose wines he reviews as well as some big-time collectors, including a member of the Forbes billionaire list. After responding to some questions, Galloni accused his questioners of having an “agenda” and complained of how tiresome it is to attend dinners and constantly field questions about “wines, vintages, producers, the WA etc.”
Yesterday, Jay Miller posted a comment on eBob arguing that since 2006 (when he was hired) all Wine Advocate contributors should have been employees, not “independent contractors,” been banned from schmoozing with the trade, and have any outside activities pre-approved by Parker.
Robert Parker long ago laid down an admirable set of standards for wine writers. If those are no longer tenable for the Wine Advocate, they should be altered. If they are still tenable, they should be applied to all contributors at the publication.
With little fanfare, the FTC released updated guidelines for endorsement disclosure on blogs. Diannej.com has a good run-down. Wineries and wine blogs are both affected but the guidelines are a jumble and the FTC has said they have not been getting complaints, they will not fine bloggers (if anything, they would target advertisers), and they are not monitoring blogs.
The crux of the matter remains sponsored posts and paid reviews, which look like editorial but are really ads. Fortunately, we don’t see much of those in wine writing and magazines tend to flag advertorial as such. But given the high cost of wine and low rates of journalistic pay, virtually every wine writer from a magazine to a newsletter to a blog evaluates wines received for free. This constitutes an “arrangement” between the writer and the advertiser, according to the FTC. Yet the guidelines state that bloggers, not newspapers or magazines, should disclose that each and every time a wine is reviewed. While transparency is essential, it’s a double standard not applying this to all forms of wine writing and evaluation, no matter the medium. Further, wine blogs don’t hold lavish consumer events, as some magazines do, profiting from ticket sales while wineries whose wines could be featured in future editorial pour their wines for free. This seems a little higher stakes than some chump change from amazon affiliate revenue.
In the end, it’s probably people in the trade who will be most affected by these updated guidelines, particularly on social media. The FTC is insisting on enhanced disclosure, saying that commercial tweets should be identified as such, adding something like “#paid” or #ad” to tweets with a relationship to the product. In related news, the FTC is performing a review of how 14 alcohol brands engage their audience on Twitter.
In all, these relatively toothless revised guidelines will probably see those with nothing to hide adding more cumbersome disclosure language. Even if there’s little enforcement, it’s better for writers to err on the side of transparency, not for the FTC, but for credibility with readers.
Last week, NewYorker.com engaged its readers by asking which words should be eliminated from the English language. The surprising winner was “moist.”
Now that they’ve jettisoned moist, it’s time for us to have our fun. Wine tasting notes are all-to-often laden with obscure, sometimes overly precious, redundant or otherwise silly words or phrases. We started circulating a few on Twitter yesterday with the hashtag #sillywinetastingterms. A few that came up were: “dusty minerals,” “a hint of clean earth,” “vinous,” “melted asphalt,” “hedonistic” and…”liquid Viagra.”
So, have your say: which wine tasting term is officially the most useless and worthy of expulsion from our vernacular?
SAQ, the state-owned wine entity that has a monopoly on wine retail in Quebec, paid wine critic James Suckling $24,000 last year. Suckling and SAQ had both denied any financial relationship.
La Presse reports in their online edition that they obtained documents through freedom of information law. The documents reveal that the SAQ paid Suckling $18,000 directly and bought 119 subscriptions totaling $5,950 to his website, which offers wine reviews to members only.
Suckling, the former Wine Spectator critic and European bureau chief, went to Montreal in early 2011 to taste wines and produce tasting notes that would appear both on his website and on that of the SAQ, he wrote at the time. La Presse reports that when Suckling was in Montreal the SAQ had stated “Mr. Suckling was not compensated to do the tastings.” Suckling, for his part, had blogged, “There is no financial relationship. It’s a sharing of information and contacts.” The documents obtained by La Presse state that Suckling was paid for “the tasting and scoring of products, the production, the creation, and putting the brief videos live.”
The SAQ spokesman told contributor the story’s author, Karyne Duplessis Piché, that the purchase of subscriptions was not unusual for the organization. This year, they have spent $26,000 on subscriptions to wine newsletters, the spokesman said.
James Suckling did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Image: PR Web
Gawker ran a piece recently that rips into the idea that the “one percent” don’t have enough money to live on. What provoked it was a Canadian one percenter who wrote in Toronto Life about his plight, and details his living expenses and several others posed for the magazine and detailed their expenses. One line item that caught my eye–as well as those of numerous commenters at Gawker–was that a one percenter admitted to spending $800 a month on wine. Assuming a bottle every evening, that works out to $26 per bottle, or adding them all up, about $10,000 a year. Granted, this one percenter lives in Toronto so he has to buy his wine at the LCBO, which has higher prices than in the US.
Still, it does raise a question or two about wine writing: how often do wine columns recommend wines north of $26? Assuming the answer is pretty often, then are wine columnists writing for the one percent? (In fairness, Canada’s threshold for inclusion in the one percent is only about half what it is in the US and we’re extrapolating this all from one single guy’s spending on wine.)
Certainly some columns, such as the current Wall Street Journal’s, might be more openly trying to target the one percent than others. Still, a lot more than one percent of wine recommendations are north of $26 a bottle (and still a lot above $52, if we use that as the American one-percenter wine threshold) even wine writers aren’t consciously targeting the “one percent” reader. While it’s true that a reader can pick and choose from a list of recommendations, it’s still worth bearing in mind that if a reader were to have a $15 bottle of wine every other night, the total spend on wine a year would be $2,730, a significant figure for most household budgets. (Clearly, a $30 bottle every other night would be $5,460 and every night would be $10,920, etc.) While we wine writers often delight in wines from specific places, as opposed to “brands” that can source from multiple vineyards or even wine regions, we should strive to highlight those elusive wine picks, the singular bottles at reasonable prices. Then we would be doing our small part for decoupling “wine” from “snob” in America.
There’s something of a cottage industry that has emerged in trashing the reputation of wine experts. Richard Quandt of Princeton wrote an hilarious essay entitled “On Wine Bullshit.” Bob Hodgson had his two devastating papers about wine competitions. The Wine Trials books suggest high-volume, low-priced wines are all that you’ll ever need. The WSJ got in on the action too a while back.
So at some point, someone had to ride to the rescue of the experts, right? Well, now we have it: a new study suggests that “wine experts” can discern more flavors than regular Joes. Yay, experts, right? Well, not really, the authors say:
“What we found is that the fundamental taste ability of an expert is different,” said John Hayes, assistant professor, food science, and director of Penn State’s sensory evaluation center. “And, if an expert’s ability to taste is different from the rest of us, should we be listening to their recommendations?”
Oh noes! We’re back to the wine-experts-as-useless line! Granted, there’s a lot of pretension and bluster worth bashing but let’s not throw the Burgundy out with the bathwater.
Looking at the details of the study published in the American Journal of Enology and Viticulture, the authors had volunteers identify themselves as wine experts or not. Fully a third of them were classified as “experts,” which seems not quite a representative sample of America (or perhaps Canada, where the data collection occurred.) Moreover, these self-selected experts showed a higher rate of detected the bitter compound, PROP, thus possibly making them “super-tasters.” As Mike Steinberger pointed out in his lengthy (self-)exploration of the physiology of taste, having a sensitivity to PROP does not make one a supertaster and being a supertaster does not make more of a wine expert. (As we’ve seen, blind tasting can have more bitter outcomes than PROP.)
So, yes, there may be biological differences in tasting ability. But in this nature-versus-nurture discussion, I vote for nurture as being more influential: it’s the catalogue of knowledge and tasting references, the experiences with wines in the glass, that make most of the great tasters I know really good. Also, many wine experts are self-styled and have varying capabilities, so I am skeptical there’s a genetic explanation for superior wine tasting ability. And what about the disconnect Hayes suggests between the masses not picking up on tasting note descriptors? Well, for some notes, there may be more than a whiff of what Quandt was talking about.