Wednesday, December 9

Baby. Bathwater. Please Dispose Of Separately.

REGG Easterbrook, whose ESPN football column now contains 40% less football and 250% more shilling his latest book, tips us to Robert "The Emperor Has No Nose" Parker, the man who Americanized wine appreciation the way Dow Chemical Americanized Vietnamese pruning methods, supposedly tripping all over himself at a blind tasting of 2005 Bordeaux. This was followed by my unfortunate failure to resist the temptation to 1) click a Wonkette link despite the fact that it took me to the New York Post, which, just to begin with, is like checking someone else's clothes hamper for telltale washday stains, and then clicking on the entire unrelated story about half-pint "gourmets" (a word which, by the way, most emphatically does not mean what you, Mr. Headline Writer, or you, Ms Spokeswoman for a Chef, and why th' fuck does a chef have a spokeswoman, let alone one who uses "gourmet" incorrectly? seem to imagine it does), the the parents who are willing to let them be used as props in the tabloid trash wrap, and the people who sell those people cookbooks.

Upon further reflection I realized I'd clicked that link solely as a substitute for slapping that kid and his trendy sweater-and-tie set hard enough to make the photo-proffered oyster land atop some other trendoid's bouillabaisse three booths down. I'm a monster, you say? Look at that picture again, and search your heart. You wanna do worse, right?

Serendipity, as it turns out, because the woman who put that cokehead-in-training next to him in pearls is someone called Karine Bakhoum, who, among other atrocities, helps perpetrate Iron Chef America, and who, we are told, has insured her palate with Lloyd's of London for a million dollars over its assessed value.

Let's deal with Parker (and Easterbrook) first, as this will buttress our later argument for capital punishment for first degree pretension of expertise. Parker is a wine writer who, almost single-handedly, made the world safe for yuppie-scum "connoisseurship" by giving wines--hands down the most complex agricultural product on earth--big, public-school-grammar-test-type grades on a hundred-point scale. This practice, also adopted by the glossy specialty-rag The Wine Spectator, is, simply put, a joke. There is no such thing as the expertise required to reduce such a demonstrably subjective experience with such precision, and, if there were, it would only serve to record the impressions of an individual whose palate is markedly different physiologically from wide swaths of his audience. (The Spectator ratings are panel averages, if memory serves. So was the Iraq war.) Not to mention the fact that the historical record, and that of these gray eminences, is chock-a-block with reconsiderations and backtracks as different vintages mature in different, sometimes unexpected ways.

This is not to say that Parker is an unperceptive wine writer (he does have a marked taste for power over finesse and overripe, high alcohol wines I personally find both unfortunate and boring, but, hey, tastes differ). But confronted for thirty years now over those essay-question numerical grades, he's made a lukewarm defense, blamed the public and the corrupt wine-production and distribution system, and gone on happily milking consumer gullibility in the name of consumer education. (I once stood in a wine-store aisle opposite a woman who was asking for a clerk's recommendation for California cabernet. Upon receiving it she said, "But that only got an 88! I want something 92 or above!")

And it's no coincidence that this takes root smack dab in Reagan's America, where buying labels became a helluva lot more important than knowing what th' fuck you were talking about.

So last October Parker goes to a public blind tasting and fails, roundly, to live up to the laughably grandiose powers of perception he'd claimed all these years. This is an important lesson about buying into hype, or buying anything from natural-born self-promoters. Easterbrook, fittingly, I suppose, over-eggs the custard:
"I Liked This Wine, But Not That Wine" Doesn't Sound Impressive Enough: "Redolent of cherry, pears, apples, cinnamon, vanilla, oranges and oak, with a finish of raspberries, almond, honeysuckle, Earth notes and chocolate." Have you ever thought wine descriptions are total nonsense? This Wall Street Journal story provides the evidence that wine critics are simply making things up, or claiming abilities the palate does not possess. Research shows the human tongue can detect no more than four flavors at a time.

1) People who pile on descriptors like that don't know what they're doing. 2) The tongue is largely immaterial (and I thought it could detect only four flavors in toto?); tasting is primarily olfactory, and practiced tasters learn to distinguish at least as much from the nose as from the mouth, not to mention that they're not limited by that "one" time.

But, mostly, 3) stop for a minute a think about it, willya? Describe the taste of a fucking hamburger, for chrissakes, without saying it tastes like beef. The language of tasting is of necessity poetic, evocative, and part of getting involved in wine appreciation--if one chooses to do so; there's nothing "wrong" about a purely hedonistic approach--is learning to recognize what the language means. "Saddle", "cigar", "cat's piss", and "barnyard" are recognized parts of the lexicon. In his monograph on Burgundy Anthony Hanson writes "Great Burgundy smells of shit. It is most surprising, but something the French recognized long ago, Ça sent la merde and Ça sent le purin being common expressions on the Côte." This is hardly the same thing as saying, "This tastes like liquified cow dung."
Wine critics want to mystify themselves by making us think they have astonishing incredible prowess.

The good ones don't. Most of the great wine writers--Hugh Johnson, Michael Broadbent, Hanson, Jancis Robinson, to name four of my favorites--are remarkably humble. (Consider that, like classical musicians, they spend their lives surrounded by works of genius.) It's the goddam libertarians who put successful marketing, including self-marketing, above all else, Mr. Easterbrook. As you know.
Plus, how would any wine critic know what oak tastes like? I doubt they have shaved bark off a tree and chewed it.

Why not? If you want to start on your own journey you can pick up kits that allow you to add concentrated amounts of a couple dozen basic elements to a glass of wine, or water, and train yourself to recognize them.

Which is somewhat beside the point, since this is pure bullshit, and not the good, Burgundy rouge kind. Wines intended for keeping have traditionally--at the winemaker's discretion--been aged in new oak barrels, the most famous being the French limousin oak. This adds tannins to the wine; tannin acts as a preservative. It's expensive--you cannot reuse barrels and get the same effect--and since 98% of all wine produced is meant to be drunk once it reaches the grocer's shelves--at least, 98% will not improve beyond that--oak was traditionally one mark of a quality wine. Tannin is about the easiest element for the novice to detect (and therein hangs a tale); brew a cup of tea and hold your tongue in it for a minute. That's tannic acid. And since wines aged in oak make up a high percentage of the wines a serious taster would be interested in, it doesn't take long before one is familiar with the effects of oak aging from bottling through to mellow maturity.

The tale: during the Reagan Conspicuous Consumption years, oak--easily identified, often prevalent in young wines of high caliber and/or cost--became a sought-after characteristic in and of itself, despite the fact that wine is not supposed to taste like oak, and its presence means you're drinking the wine when it is too young (which ought to be recognized as the nadir of connoisseurship), and while its finest elements are buried underneath. Some winemakers--like Republicans, no level so low has yet been discovered that some member of the breed cannot crawl under with room to spare--took to adding wood chips to cheap white wines to appease the fashion, and god knows how many forests were denuded so that wines with no bottle-aging potential could be "oaked".

Reverse snobbery is no more justified than snobbery itself. It feeds the endless appetite for self-aggrandizement and profit above all by denying there's anything of real value one is obligated to shut up long enough to learn about. Just dress your nine-year-old up like Alistair Cooke and he, too, can pontificate on matters of taste and aesthetics, despite the fact that no one in his right mind would ask his opinion of anything. Why not give him a pocket protector and a hardhat and have him design bridges? And somehow it doesn't occur to these people that they're giving their own game away.


R. Porrofatto said...

I get all the wine snobbery I need from Posh Nosh, a show made with these children's parents in mind.

Doug said...

Wine reviews are way beyond my limited facilities. It's taken this long to simply take the time to try to remember the names of the type (and, if I'm ambitious, the maker) of wines where I find myself enjoying the taste.

I used to devote my brain power to remembering the quantities of cheap beer I'd processed the night before. That probably explains a lot.

(Oddly, the captcha I've drawn is "wines")

Blotz said...

"Reverse snobbery is no more justified than snobbery itself."

Domo Arigato sir, well said, well said.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed this post very much, Doghouse. It has body and character, and the finish (i.e. last para) is most satisfying.

Still, I'm unwilling to hold those 2 little kids responsible for what their repulsively silly mother is making of them. Also, the article rightfully faulted the notion that kids will only eat chicken mcnuggets etc. (an idea that probably also got its start during the Reagan Administration). This business of fixing 2 dinners - one for adults and one of kid-slop - was AFAIK nonexistent in the 50s and 60s. Sure, we ate a lot of slop, but everybody ate the same slop.

Li'l Innocent

Poicephalus said...

"hands down the most complex agricultural product on earth"

I will not dispute this. I would listen intently to someone Japanese (or Scotch or German if you get my drift) do so.

Me, I am just a country boy from the coastal plains of Texas with the grand hope that one day genus Cannabis can inspire such waxing.

I am also jealous, Jimbo. Every piece seems more performance art than writing. More Melete than Aoide, if you please.


JB said...

Amusing, and a nice whiff of grape shot at Parker.

But the whole Reagan/Republican thing is a crock of shit and diminishes your post. If anything, the 1990s were even more rife with consumerism and greed. Though I will agree that the 1980s are should be notable for the children of the '60s selling-out. But that's on them, not Reagan.

Anonymous said...

I once had a '76 Cote Roti with a meal. The wine surprisingly tasted like horses, the way they smell, but in a good way. I later discovered a "taste wheel," like a color wheel, and one of the flavors was "horsey."

Mixing flavors can have amazing results. Store brand grapefruit soda and a red wine we didn't like produced a delicious sangria one time.


-dg said...

Fixing separate meals for kids? Hmmf!

Around our house we have a rule, you can't reject something new without trying it. Which is how, one evening out a few years ago, my seven year old introduced me to escargot.

Bondon Culé said...

Well, this is all a bit récherché, this food and wine criticism, but no harm done and glad to see it.

If you want a good French wine, try Pisse-Dru, which is as self-proclaimed a good thick wine, as thick as a donkey pisses or at least as thick as the vintner can piss on a good morning. Quite rare at the Piggly Wiggly.

Although reverse snobbery is no more justified than snobbery itself, a good bottle or two of Pisse-Dru can make it all seem less than noticeable.

What is noticeable recently on the food internets is that the child-gourmet Ezra links to some guy who explains how to pour oil and vinegar and a little mustard, maybe a shallot slice or two, on lettuce, and the expert disses balsamic vinegar.

This is the first time in thirty years that anyone has printed an empirical observation about balsamic vinegar, which any kindergartener could tell you is a mixture of real vinegar, turpentine, and sugar.

Can you offer your perspective on what the balsamic vinegar thing was all about? They were serving it in cheap restaurants in Bologne last spring, so maybe it has a tradition behind it, but I've otherwise never seen it on a civilized table.

If a food expert like Ezra links to a negative review, are we entering an era when internauts can again use vinegar out of the gallon jug without shame?

The thing about Alistair Cooke... after thirty or forty years living in America, and after legally signing on as a US citizen, Alistair still pretended on NPR that he thought television was called "the telly."

A guy like that shouldn't be associated with our ancient and exquisite art of reverse snobbery. Cooke was just conning rubes, and snobbery, reverse or head on, never got up into it.

Pisse-Dru. After four or five bottles of a good Pisse-Dru you won't have to worry about what is the reverse of that oak fungus and strawberry stuff. It's stout and thick like a good morning piss off the deck-boards, exactly the way your stout French wine-maker likes it.