Wednesday, December 16, 2009

My Ten Days of Christmas for Wine Writers: Ten Things They Should Know

Read any wine publication or blog these days, and you’re bound to see writing mistakes. While this may seem difficult to believe, many people writing about wine are using incorrect terminology and capitalization, thereby passing the error of their ways to other writers who blindly follow by example.

The mistakes are more common than one would expect given the reputation of the journalists, editors, authors, bloggers, radio and television hosts, publicists, copywriters, and even winemakers. During my more naïve lapses, I have actually contemplated bringing this to the attention of the transgressors (i.e. “a Boo Boo Alert”), but reality sets in, and I realize my suggestions would not be welcomed. (See my earlier story about “Wine Industry Arrogance”.)

Here is my top-ten list of the most common mistakes; I’m sure there are others.

(1) A “variety” is a grape; (2) a “varietal” is a wine. They are not synonyms.

This is pretty simple stuff, but many writers apparently don’t know the difference. Note: one can follow this rule and stay out of trouble most of the time. However, when both terms are used in the same sentence or paragraph, the writer should be aware the reader might be confused or perceive the distinction as a typo. Rewriting may help.

(3) The terms “terroir” and (4) “growing conditions” are not synonyms.

Terroir is widely considered to be the expression of climate, soil and topography in the aroma, flavor, structure and tactile components of wine. Some experts broaden the horizon to include the human influences of cultural practices, winemaking, and the selection of grape variety, clone and rootstock, but that makes zero sense since the theory is based on the “land” rather than the “hand”.

More briefly, one could say that terroir is the expression of a vineyard’s or region’s growing conditions in the aroma, flavor, structure and sensorial components of wine. The operative word here is “expression”. It’s amazing how many winemakers say they have “great terroir” while describing their “growing conditions”.

(5) The terms “aroma” and (6) “bouquet” are not synonyms.

Most experts (at least the ones in the know) consider aroma to be the fragrances resulting from pre-fermentation sources (mostly grape characteristics) while bouquet relates to post-fermentation effects (yeast, barrels, bottle aging, etc).

Wine regions that are (7) TTB-approved label designations (i.e. political demarcations) are not always synonymous with (8) American Viticultural Areas. For example, “Sonoma County” is an approved label designation, but it is not an AVA.

(9) Grape varieties are set in lowercase unless the name is linked to a person. (e.g. The North Fork of Long Island provides excellent growing conditions for cultivating merlot. Or: Virginia is a great place to plant Norton.) Note: this application of caps is controversial. Most practitioners get comfortable with an approach, then find ways to justify it. I follow botanical nomenclature and the Chicago Manual of Style.

10: Capitalization of generic wine vs. branded wine. The correct rule is lowercase for generic references, and uppercase for proper names (i.e. “merlot” vs. “Oregon Pinot Noir” or “Chateau St. Rude Chardonnay”).

Notes for (9) and (10): Like the caveat from 1 and 2, sometimes the best approach is to rewrite or simply use a full “up style” if a paragraph has a mixture of grape varieties, generic varietals, and branded varietals.

Have yourself a merry little Christmas!

Monday, September 28, 2009

The Fruit Game

Several years ago, I asked a client to submit characteristics I could translate into tasting notes for his wine’s product information sheet. He wrote: “Our judicious infusion of new oak allows our fruit forward style to shine while softening the wine and not masking the taste”.

His description was very solid by anyone’s standards, but I requested greater detail about the nose and flavor components because that is what I believed the trade needed and wanted at the time. He laughed and said: “Oh, you want to play The Fruit Game.” He graciously obliged, so the final version contained his words verbatim with the addition of “strawberry, mint and an ultra-clean finish of berry and spice”.

The client was Winemaker Bruce Snyder of Camellia Cellars, and I think of his witty response every time I read farfetched tasting notes or hear impromptu, purported wine reviews at events. I do not challenge rational documentation, but I question the wisdom of trying to impress others with an inordinate amount of detail about how many different scents and flavors one can perceive.

Who has time to read this stuff, do the respective publics even care, and why are some wine professionals so hell-bent on speaking in code? Whether it is PR hacks generating marketing collateral or critics writing for the public, many insiders are overly analytical in their quest to describe wine with originality, and the wine industry is ill served by such faux sophistication.

I also believe some enophiles play The Fruit Game to project their superiority over inexperienced tasters with hints of contempt on the lingering finish: “My palate is so damned refined I can perceive complexity beyond the realm of impotent taste buds.” If one has to wear a “good wine palate” on their sleeve to establish a sense of self, then they need help beyond the scope of this forum.

The wine industry is suffering from an identity crisis because its most prominent voices are trying to keep the masses in check with a hegemony of hocus-pocus wine speak. That is certainly not the best plan for making friends and influencing people. This may come as a surprise to the wine elite, but customers alienated by pomp are going to seek a niche where they feel welcome. If unpretentious social networking is the modern wine marketers' answer to reaching new customers, then it seems counterproductive to have some insiders still positioning wine as being highbrow.

I know there are wine critics out there saying, “Don’t read it if you don’t like it”. Touché. That would be fine if we had an endless supply of humanoids becoming instantaneous wine consumers on their 21st birthday, but we don’t, and that is why I question the practice of dissecting wine down to the finer elements of a CSI report. Neither the king of beers or the Rocky Mountain legend do this, so why are we? It’s no small coincidence that enophiles are the butt of television commercials where beer is sarcastically paired with foods a la The Fruit Game as if to say, “Up yours, wine snobs”.

Bruce Snyder may have been on to something — perhaps twenty-five words is more than enough to describe a wine. By chance, it’s about the correct length for Twitter, but more importantly, maybe our penchant for cranking out cryptic wine notes is turning off potential wine drinkers by the millions. It’s something to think about when we’re not playing The Fruit Game.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Media Ethics: Facebook Style

Whether we use it for personal communications, business or both, Facebook puts us at the helm of a virtual multi-media corporation that can publish words, images or sounds in a nanosecond. This capability offers unparalleled expression, but it demands some basic responsibilities with none being more pertinent that media ethics.

Media ethics: it’s a junior-level core requirement in many university communications curricula, and most traditional media outlets have some form of ethics code for their newsroom staff.

In the old days, ethical challenges were pretty simple — albeit not always easy — “do we go to press with the story and/or photos or not?”

Graphics were either drawings or photos, and the latter could only be manipulated in the dark room by a handful of processors with tools and chemicals. Things are quite different today.

Access to information and public figures has never been greater; reporters can post web stories and digital photos via cell phone from remote locations; and image-editing software can test the limits of our perception. Social networking alone has hundreds of mobile applications, and that number increases by the day.

What hasn’t changed, however, is the need for ethical behavior to guide us through our assumed role as virtual publishers. We have become “paramedia”, and consequently, much of the media’s code of ethics has direct application to adult Facebook members with even greater responsibility required of public relations professionals using it for business.

One of the best codes that I’ve seen belongs to the Society of Professional Journalists with their version being an evolution of a document that was first published in 1926. Two entries under the Act Independently section have direct transference to PR pros: “Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived” and “Disclose unavoidable conflicts”.

In the realm of Facebook’s casual nature, PR pros are without question free to post anything legal on personal pages that is not a conflict of interest, and they are simply doing their job when advocating for clients on clients’ pages.

When it comes to plugging clients on personal pages, however, the public has a “right to know” that the endorsements have a hidden agenda even if it is a pro bono arrangement. That is the unwritten code of ethics we are obliged to follow, and despite my soul searching, I truly can’t think of one mitigating circumstance.

This will not be very popular with some of my colleagues, but let me go on record by stating that “plugging clients sans disclosure via personal pages” violates our inherent code of ethics, and consequently, I encourage all PR pros to begin declaring such involvement.

Note: A day after putting the finishing touches to the story, I received a link to a related story showing that others are thinking along these same lines:

Friday, August 14, 2009

Wine Industry Arrogance Alienates the Masses

A few months ago, I stumbled across a web posting by a woman who was apparently acquainted with people working in the wine industry. Her main complaint was that “wine business people think they are better than everyone else”. I started thinking about this by inventorying the various segments of the wine trade, and had to admit there was some truth in her statement.

We are certainly privileged to work in a lifestyles industry as well as living in or around “wine country”. However, that sense of exclusivity doesn’t justify a single over-inflated ego.

My second observation was that people with the greatest wine knowledge — those in wine production — are the least arrogant. Whether they are winemakers, vineyard managers or cellar rats, most of the people getting their hands dirty have the attitude of a worker bee. There must be something humbling about processing tons of sticky grapes or silos of fermenting juice.

I’ve also noticed how certain groups within the industry think they are part of the chosen few who know all there is to know about wine, as in: “I’m a hotshot distributor salesperson from Manhattan, and I have the inside track on the wine biz because I tasted DRC at a staff meeting.” But I digress.

Two of the most pompous segments include wine media and those annoying tasting room know-it-alls that rear their ugly heads at the least opportune times. Such ill-mannered behavior is especially harmful because most consumers have little contact with the industry beyond wine publications and tasting rooms. (I’ve also encountered a handful of sommeliers that need to get their nose out of their … gl-ass.)

While I know plenty of warm and fuzzy wine writers, others have an inflated sense of self-importance for sure. It’s evident in their writing, and they wear it on their public shoulder. Puh-uh-lees. Wine publication is not neurosurgery — it does not save lives or souls. However, it can single-handedly drive a product like no other, so therein lies the power and delusion.

Over the years, I’ve witnessed the good, the bad and the ugly in tasting rooms. Most tasting room workers are genuinely kind and approachable, but I’ve encountered far too many with a chip on their shoulder.

Recently, I visited a pious Kenwood winery with some out-of-towners. Within seconds of our arrival, an attendant sternly confronted a friend with the words “define dry” after she politely said she didn’t like dry wine. Hmmm. So let’s bully the tourists visiting wine country — the antithesis of where we should be. (I immediately steered our quartet out the door, and email the marketing office the next day because I thought someone might care, but no one ever responded. See any pattern?)

Wine business arrogance only exacerbates the perpetual challenge of trying to sell a beverage that already demands special understanding, special vernacular and special stemware. The industry will never command a larger share of the adult drinks market with contemptuous treatment of the masses, and it would be better served if the “front of the house” carried itself a little closer to the ground.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Take Your Gloves Off: Merlot vs. Pinot Noir

Latent Response to the Anti-Merlot Movement

When I first saw Sideways, I empathized with Miles as he felt the sting of having his novel rejected, then pitied the hapless Jack as he sowed his wild oats, but never once did I contemplate dropping an old love, merlot, for a more fashionable belle, pinot noir.

Like Miles, some winemakers and wine aficionados have tossed merlot aside like a worn-out toy. What’s up with that? Sorry, but I’m not buying in.

Sure, there were wimpy merlots made in the wake of its over-planting in the 1990s, but the same can be said of pinot noir after the influx of “mare-low”. The anti-merlot movement has, in effect, written off one of history’s great varietals because a cult film brought notoriety to the improper handling of merlot by a few.

To be clear, I enjoy pinot as much or more than merlot; I’m just not ready to throw the latter under the bus without good cause.

Despite the bad press, merlot continues to be worthy of the finest hour. Try convincing people buying Château Pétrus, a Pomerol made from 100% merlot and one of the most expensive wines in the world, that they are investing in second-rate juice.

Furthermore, modern-day merlot has descended from the ranks of nobility. Do you want to let one cult movie dictate which wine to enjoy? “Well, do ya, punk?” *** Didn’t think so.

About six months ago, I opened a bottle of 1995 Michel-Schlumberger Dry Creek Valley Merlot. The wine had plenty of gusto left on its 14-year-old bones (that’s 90 in dog and merlot years). The nose showed dark ripe fruit, vanilla and anise; the flavors were broad and concentrated; the tannin-acid structure was holding steady. If it were any bigger, the wine would have to shop at a big and tall shop. Dip a paintbrush in a glass and spread it on some canvas.

*** from the movie Dirty Harry

Notes: (1) In all probability, this post should have been made right after Sideways was released, but I didn’t blog back then; (2) I worked at Michel-Schlumberger in the 90s, but have no affiliation today.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Are You Passionate About Wine?

I’m passionate about pinot noir. … No I’m not. … I just said that to get your attention.

Call me the curmudgeon of wine related op-ed pieces, but I’m just not passionate about any wine no matter how erotic the experience. Nope: not silky sexy pinots, not racy viogniers fermented in stainless steel tanks, not lusty Barolos, not newly disgorged Champagnes, nor heavenly St. Josephs that are as purple as the Pope’s robe.

Over the years, I’ve heard people say they are passionate about making wine, or are passionate about selling, promoting or writing about wine. Perhaps they mean to say they really, really enjoy wine, but are not literally passionate about wine or the business of wine after all. Perhaps, like me, they save their passionate feelings for subjects with a higher purpose.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy wine or enjoy working in the wine industry — because I truly do — it’s just that I reserve the word “passionate” for more important things: like the love of my life, equal rights for everyone, humane treatment of animals, the environment, or the reality of world peace. Sorry, but feeling passionate about wine is way too dramatic for me.

I just Googled “feel the passion” because I wanted to comment on what I remembered to be a television commercial targeted at people who are passionate about baseball. I saw no such link, but I did scroll down to one titled “Feel the Passion of Nephrology Nursing”. Kidneys aren’t very passionate either, but I can see how someone might be passionate about a healthcare career.

Everyone is entitled to feel passionate about wine or even obsess over it, but I can’t imagine why anyone would admit it. Perhaps such public displays of emotion are code for “Listen to me talk about wine; I really know my stuff”. That maybe so, but I remain committed to saving my passionate feelings for life forms that can reciprocate such sentiment, or about the social responsibility needed to foster meaningful relationships with them.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Wine Color and Clarity: The First Myth About Wine Appreciation

Summary: teaching new wine drinkers about color and clarity is pointless. If you’ve ever seen an expert present a three-minute crash course in “how to taste wine” on the morning news, you know that their very first nugget of shared wisdom covers the examination of color and clarity. I maintain that color and clarity are non-factors for most wine drinkers and in reality, most wines.

Color and clarity do have a home in formal wine tasting where they help establish a score in conjunction with smell, taste, structure, texture, viscosity and more. They can also be used to corroborate the age of an older vintage since many of them show tawny discoloration around the edges in a tilted glass. This comes in handy when you’re bidding on $900 bottles at live auctions in Manhattan.

Notwithstanding, color and clarity bring little to the table, even for those making and marketing wine. Certain young varietals do reveal telltale hues around the edges (e.g. syrah is very purple), but does that factoid make them taste better? While some may relish being “inside baseball”, I view such emphasis as more pomp on the proverbial heap.

Furthermore, wine color in particular can be very misleading. One of the most revered wine types in the world, red Burgundy aka pinot noir, often hides behind a veil of enigmatic color. Thinly colored pinots may have enormous aroma and flavor while their darker and deeper counterparts might not deliver the goods. Go figure.

I taste wine professionally for clients because some winemakers like a second opinion when generating tasting notes. In that context, we rarely discuss color or clarity unless they are extraordinary.

Wine-speak in general, and all of the associated rituals, can be very intimidating to the novice. Consequently, I encourage all wine professionals to consider the fallout before expounding on the characteristics of color and flavor. The wine industry would be better served by omitting this practice so it doesn’t lose the very segment needed to attain a larger share of the adult beverage market.