Monday, August 23, 2010

Why Mainstream Wine Criticism Will Soon Be Obsolete

I'm continuing to ponder why it is I despise most mainstream wine journalism so much. The scores, ratings and articles loaded with misinformation and manufactured controversy do a disservice to, well, pretty much everybody.

When I say "mainstream wine writing," I refer to the major national magazines (Wine Spectator, Wine Advocate, Wine Enthusiast, Decanter and Wine & Spirits) and, to a lesser extent, the wine writing in major national newspapers like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. I also get annoyed at the LA Times, but only because I have to read it regularly and it appears to be staffed by writers whose critical thinking skills are marginally better than a baby entranced by peekaboo but worse than a Tea Partier who knows Obama's a Muslim "just 'cause." I do not, however, consider the LA Times to be of particular national wine importance, not least because of their continued insistence on publishing writing by W. Blake Gray. I also group in major independent wine writers, however I view their influence as being largely insular (i.e. limited to professionals, collectors, and wine geeks) and even more on the wane than that of national media.

The San Francisco Chronicle does have the best food and wine section in the country and is, in my opinion, the only newspaper worth reading on that topic. They even stopped doing star ratings in their wine reviews. Progressive!

So why do I hate it? I like wine. I like reading. I like writing, but 90% of national wine writing is either duller than your mom in bed or so poorly conceived that it makes me want to gouge my eyes out with a Vinturi.

Most importantly, it fundamentally misunderstands the 21st century wine market.

I think it's because wine writing has remained largely unchanged for the last 30 years, back when Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator came on the scene and moved wine writing from the cerebral-abstract world of the British writers who dominated at the time toward the more visceral American style of criticism.

In 1980 the wine world was a very different place. Most American consumers of high-end (i.e. not jug) wine were a small, well-to-do elite. Wines on offer, both domestic and imported, were a fraction of what is available today and the sales of which were dependent almost entirely upon the reputation of the producer. The whole wine world was more easily navigable then and its audience largely homogeneous: upper middle class white professionals, drinking wine largely from California, France and Italy.

But in 2010 the wine world is an incredibly diverse place, with the number of wines and wine regions available in the United States having expanded exponentially. Premium wine is also consumed by a much more diverse cross-section of the population, including a sizable younger demographic that prefers to make its own decisions or make decisions based on personal recommendations rather than deferring to any institutional authority on matters of taste.

The idea that a national publication can attempt to effectively report on the real wine world is absurd. It reminds me of when my family first got AOL in 1996 and they actually sent an "internet yellow pages" with the software. It was a printed phone book listing several hundred URLs. I'm sure even at the time it was an absurdly quaint idea but now it looks absolutely ridiculous. A monolithic media entity for something as diverse as wine is equally ridiculous.

It's also incredibly limiting. An editor at one of the aforementioned magazines once told me that they generally don't write about wines if they aren't distributed in at least 30 states. The problem with that is that very few of the wines of true uniqueness or distinction are available in that many states. That's because unless it is one of a handful of ultra-rare expensive wines from wineries that only allocate a few dozen cases to each state, most wines, in order to be profitable in that big of a chunk of the country, needs to have a production run in the thousands of cases. There are many great wineries that produce fewer than 5,000 total cases, let alone of a single wine. They'll never make it onto the radar of the national wine media and therefore that wine will never be exposed to wine consumers who don't already know the winery locally. These magazines are akin to a food and restaurant magazine that only reviews restaurants with locations in multiple states. Those are the wines that these magazines review, the Morton's Steakhouses and Cheesecake Factories of wine.

(It's particularly troublesome given how easy it is to obtain wine now. Maybe twenty years ago it made sense to only review well-distributed wines because how else could the average reader get the wine if it wasn't reliably available in most of the country? But now, as long as the reader lives in one of the 35-odd states that allow for wine delivery, any wine that's written about can be obtained in a few mouse clicks.)

So what does that mean? It means the national wine media of 2010 is exactly the same as the national wine media of 1980 and it's still writing largely to that same audience: the casual, adventure-phobic wine connoisseur who wants to consume a score, not a wine. They want wines they can reliably find at their local big box wine shop and that they can open for their other wine-loving friends who will immediately know the brand, the reputation and the perceived quality: ironically the very behaviors in wine selection that the Wine Advocate originally helped dispel with its then-revolutionary 100-point rating scale.

Because this demographic, despite aging rapidly, still represents (for now) a significant chunk of the wine buying power they still have a massive economic effect on the wine industry. As the wine consumer has become more diverse, the wine critic remains largely middle-aged, male and white. Ipso facto, the mainstream wine media has ceased to be relevant to the vast majority of wine drinkers, while maintaining its relevance to the older minority who spend the most money. It makes perfect immediate economic sense but it's a recipe for obsolescence in a matter of, oh let's say five years or so.

I've grown up my entire wine-drinking life completely outside of the 100-point wine world. I worked at a wine shop that didn't give a flying fuck about scores (even if we did have a handful of perennial favorites on our shelves). When I worked as a wine shop clerk and as a waiter I never once had a guest who asked about wine scores. Did it help that I worked in Berkeley, perhaps the most progressive wine market in the country? Sure. But even in Los Angeles, with a few notable Westside exceptions, most reputable wine shops don't care about scores and don't use them to sell wine. These shops are quite successful. I mean sure they actually have to do their jobs and hand sell their wine to customers instead of relying on shelf-talkers and magazines to do their selling for them, but if you really love wine you wouldn't want it any other way. These are the places that will be in business for the next thirty years. The new consumer is adventurous, value-oriented and makes his purchasing decisions based upon personal recommendations, not from the authority of a distant group of stodgy white men--and yes, I consider Karen MacNeill a stodgy white man.

And so that's what it is: mainstream wine media is boring middle-aged white people writing for boring middle-aged white people and that's why it sucks. It's a holdover from an era when the WASP was the only American culture that mattered for selling high-end goods and they're still desperately clinging to that illusion.

As we move forward, the wine consumer who makes his decision based upon the recommendations of the wine media will continue to miss out on a majority of the world's unique wines and the wine shops that make the majority of their buying decisions based upon 90+ point scores will continue to lose market share and alienate the younger wine buyer.

Keep up the good work.

Monday, August 16, 2010


Many years ago when I ran a fancy little humor magazine, I wrote the following, in reference to "mythical places" that ought be explored by Leonard Nimoy and his "In Search Of..." crew:

Chick Fil-A: This chain of restaurants, referenced in Ben Folds songs, supposedly even sponsors a college bowl game, yet a thorough search of any Bay Area phone book is fruitless. Where are they? What do they serve? Why does it sound like the name of a South Indian porn star? Chana Masala and Chick Fil-A star in Dharma Does Delhi. But I digress....

Racism aside, I can happily say that this is one mystery that has been fully explored by myself without any assistance from Leonard Nimoy or his army of elf fetishists. I went to Chick-Fil-A, specifically its new location that opened up last weekend on Figueroa down by USC.

This was an unique opportunity to experience a cult fast food phenomenon as an outsider. California is home to most pilgrimage-worthy trashy cuisine, pizza and bagels aside, and my visit to Chick-Fil-A reminded me of my earliest pre-expansion visits to In-N-Out Burger, when they were still confined to Southern California and family trips down I-5 always meant several stops for burgers and fries.

Just like In-N-Out, Chick-Fil-A is a hyphenated, quirky family-oriented fast food restaurant (though not family-run, it's a franchise) with mildly off-putting but innocuous religious undertones offering a limited menu. Chicken breast, fried plain or spicy, or grilled.

It was pretty good. The chicken was very moist and had the texture of an honest, plump chicken breast as opposed to the airy chicken-flavored sponge quality that other sandwiches have. The breading is light and crisp. The bun is nondescript but not bad and the not-too-sweet pickles were a good addition.

The sandwiches are accompanied by cross-cut waffle fries, which had good texture and were clearly cut from whole, skin-on potatoes, and an array of dipping sauces. Honey mustard was good and the secret "Chick-Fil-A Sauce" was odd and intriguingly addicting. The buffalo sauce worked well to amp up the heat on the spicy chicken sandwich. Additional sides are available, including carrot and raisin salad, cole slaw, fruit cup and chicken soup, but I don't much see the point: the sandwich and fries make a pretty perfect combination.

Will I make Chick-Fil-A a habit? Nope, but I see the appeal.

Chick-Fil-A USC
3758 S. Figueroa St.
Los Angeles, Ca 90007

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Why I Don't Like Wine Writing

I'm going to be a little bit all over the place here, so bear with me.

I don't like most contemporary wine writing. I think that's been pretty clear. It's almost uniformly humorless and often reads like a self-important pissing contest of adjectives and a bragging match over trophy wines like they're college sexual conquests.

Wine is booze. Wine is fun. Wine can be beautiful and transcendent and wonderful and weird. Just like sex. If we described sex in the manner of wine writing, it'd be the most un-arousing prose on the planet.

And I think that's the issue. Wine writing is either cold and clinical or it's the flowery puff of romance novels and the trite sensuality of Bible Belt missionary sex. It fails to capture the nuance, intimacy and situational spontaneity that is inherent to wine tasting. Tasting and fucking are unique in that they are intensely personal while simultaneously requiring the willful participation of another, whether that be a winemaker or a leather-bound gimp tied up in your basement. Or something in between.

Wine writers are, generally, too indulgent in themselves to care that there is a wine or a reader involved. Most wine writing is the equivalent of mindless, violent masturbation where nobody is enriched but the actor. Your adjectival calisthenics do not impress me sir!

Strangely some people do care, but in the same way that people care about vanilla pornography featuring skinny bleached blondes with bolted on tits and muscular gentlemen with nothing to recommend them but one qualification, a sort of over-ripe high alcohol extraction of the penis. It's immediate, simple and easily accessible. Gender is obvious. Roles are clear. The viewer isn't muddled by questions like "Hey that short-haired girl is kinda cute, does that mean I'm gay?" or "What's that woman doing to that man in the harness? Isn't that against the Bible?" It's what we're "supposed" to find sexy. It's how we're "supposed" to write about wine.

When a writer pretends objectivity in wine writing and criticism, what he does is mask that this objective writing is writing for the lowest common denominator for mass consumption. It fails to actually stimulate or enlighten. It's the airport novel as opposed to literary fiction. It's comforting predictable prose and superficially titillating plot twists, not a challenging and provocative foray into history, culture, taste and odd personal perversions.

I get much more pleasure from reading the distinctive, idiosyncratic and eloquently personal ramblings of a passionate wine enthusiast than the rote critiques of the most organized, rational wine writers.

Perhaps this is cynical, but I think that mainstream wine writing is so poor because its ranks are filled largely by journalists who, writing ability aside, are little more than wine hobbyists. They are not wine professionals. Their connection to wine is that of an enthusiast and a tourist and they're writing for other tourists. They do not produce the product nor do they select products for import. There's a disconnect because they do not understand the passion required to be foolish enough to want to produce and sell something so weirdly personal and bizarre as wine.

Who are the major wine writers? Jancis Robinson? Travel writer. Robert Parker? Lawyer. Eric Asimov? National news journalist. Wine came later and wine came from a perspective of an elite consumer. Their first loyalty is to the writing and the idea of wine, not to the wine itself. They're out to sell themselves and their philosophy first.

The wine writers I like, people like Thierry Thiesse and Randall Grahm, are winemakers and importers. They're not writing about wine because they need to make deadline or want to sell some sort of safe Club Med package-tour idea of wine, they're writing because they are passionate about the business that has become their true vocation and, recent publishing success for Mr. Grahm aside, is the source of most of their income.

And as annoying and unwatchable as I might find him, most of the time Gary Vaynerchuk has done more to democratize wine since, well, Randall Grahm. And Gary Vee literally grew up in a wine shop. Wine is his life-long vocation and he wants to share all good wine with everybody, not some expensive wines with the initiated few.

So seek out those wine professionals who also write. Many restaurant sommeliers have wine blogs, as do wine shops. Sure these are going to be opinionated and biased, but that's what all writing is. It's just the wine critics who try to hide their bias by perpetuating the adjective-industrial complex where there is a "right" and a "wrong" way to describe wine; where wines can be quantitatively judged on its qualities and that the judgment of the Wine Critic, through some miraculous fiat, carries a declarative value somehow greater than one man's opinion.

In the immortal words of legendary wine enthusiast Thomas Jefferson: "That's some bullshit right there."

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

HFF Quickie: Tony's Darts Away

Good things beget good things. You open up a successful Korean BBQ taco truck, shitty frozen yogurt franchise or beer-slinging sausage kitchen and there will be competitors. Most of these competitors will be craven imitators or third-iteration Michael Keaton facsimiles, but the best will build upon the initial idea and make it its own. Such is the case at the old Burbank dive bar-cum-suds and sausage eatery Tony's Darts Away.

Sure the basic premise is nearly the same as Wurstkuche. There's a broad selection of both conventional and esoteric sausages with your choice of fancy or quotidian toppings and washed down with a broad array of craft draught brews. But Tony's distinguishes itself in a few ways. First, it specializes in American, specifically Californian, micro-brews. Second, the sausages tend a bit more toward the conventional chicken and pork based varieties and less toward the rattlesnake and rabbit end of things. Third, Tony's deliberately targets the vegan and vegetarian crowd with four different vegan sausages and numerous vegan-friendly toppings including veganaise and meat-less chili. Fourth, and most notably, Tony's doesn't do Belgian fries. They make up for this lack of frites with very nice house-made potato chips and the ubiquitous LA sweet potato fry.

The Tony's vibe is still 100% Valley dive bar, albeit cleaned up a bit as opposed to Wurstkuche's post-apocalyptic industrial chic. The friendly staff is well-versed in its beers and readily offers up tastes from the rotating cast of Golden State brews. The sausages were excellent and well-prepared. My pork andouille was plump and moist with pretty respectable heat. My two "small toppings" were Creole mustard and garlic paste, my "large toppings" were sauteed onions and sauteed peppers. I wanted to try the more atypical toppings but I couldn't imagine enduring the mental somersaults required to eat an andouille with mango-melon salsa. Ah well.

For lunch, Tony's packages a sausage with a side salad and potato chips for a very reasonable $8.75 (fully loaded sausages are regularly $6-$7) and the beers start at $4.50 for that rare, elusive LA beast: the proper pint.

It's unfortunate that Tony's is so damn far away from my usual grazing pastures, but it's a nice stop before or after a trip to the airport or if you find yourself stuck in Burbank after your pitch meeting at Nickelodeon.

Tony's Darts Away
1710 W. Magnolia Blvd
Burbank, CA 91506
(818) 253-1710