If you imagine that the following response to a recent Matt Kramer column in Wine Spectator is less about Matt muddlement and more about some lingering humiliation over WS’s refusal to publish a piece I wrote about Swiss wine, you couldn’t be more wrong.
That was Decanter. And yeah, I’m still pissed.
Anyway, Kramer, who is sometimes spectacular as a Spectator speculator, was once described by Mike Steinberger (Slate) as, ‘the most un-American of all America’s wine writers;’ the left-handiest compliment that I—or The House Committee on Un-American Activities—have ever heard.
Furthermore, Hugh Johnson calls him, ‘an intellectual guerrilla among wine writers,’ while I, in turn, call Hugh Johnson ‘a guy whose name sounds like he should have been a porn star’.
Wikipedia panegyrics aside, in his recent article ‘Wine’s Three Biggest Lies’, aspiring to ‘debunk a few of the great wine lies you’ve heard before,’ Kramer couldn’t be wronger. Of his three wine ‘lies’, two are about as far from being lies as is the statement “More than four people on the entire planet even noticed M.I.A.’s un-American middle finger until some Born-Again dangalang brought it up,” and the third statement is one that I’ve never heard used at all, even by aliens—who incidentally, also missed the hand gesture.
Now, since Kramer has been a wine critic since I was in high school, (which may explain why he’s running out of ideas) let me tread lightly in sincere deference to his credentials. Like Mom used to say about that pesky Jehovah’s Witness in the Target suit that kept knocking on our door: “He means well.”
Is This A Kramer Disclaimer?
Not at all—ergo, my shot at debunking some of the clunkier funk in his debunkery.
1) You’re Not Happy, You Just Think You Are. Okay, so the actual ‘lie’ he mentioned was, ‘If You Like It, It Is Good’. In fact, I have never heard this said specifically, but what I’ve heard is ‘Drink what you like,’ as a means to take the intimidation factor out of pairing ‘perfect’ wines with given courses—apparently, Mr. Kramer would prefer the phrase as, ‘Drink what you like, even though what you like sucks and you’re probably better off with beer anyway.’
People like Matt want to be the arbiter of what’s ‘good’ and ‘not good’, what’s ‘hot’ and ‘not hot’, because that’s precisely how they justify their paychecks. And indeed, as a long-time reviewer of wine, beer and other perks of civilization, I would (with my dying breath) like to further along the concept that I am smart enough to save you from yourself—but since this is a column about ‘honesty’, I cannot. You see, as someone who has studied wine for his entire adult life, I may well ‘like’ a given wine for different reasons than a casual wine-drinker ‘likes’ her after-work glass of merlot, and what I think is ‘good’ may be based on my understanding of an archetype for what that region, varietal or style is supposed to represent than any ultimate sensual enjoyment of the product.
Kramer makes my point by opining: ‘Believe me, if you like the soft, round lushness characteristic of La Morra you’re going to mark down the more austere, harder-edged Barolos of the Castiglione Falletto zone.’
In other words, if you prefer a soft and lush wine over an austere and hard-edged wine, you’re wrong.
Interesting, considering that Wine Spectator described Rocche Costamagna di La Morra, 1990 as ‘Crisp in texture, featuring a rich layer of black cherry and berry flavor, beautifully defined and spicy around the edges.’
That’s not good?
The nature of ‘good’, of course, has been a mosh pit for philosophers since man first devised the word; there’s relative good, whereby something is good because people say it is good (La Morra Barolo) and there’s economic good, a.k.a. ‘value’, for which people will give up money (La Morra Barolo, $60). And then there’s absolute good—something that is good in and of itself, regardless of opinion. Apparently, Matt Kramer considers austere, hard-edged 2000 Bruno Giacosa Barolo Rocche de Falletto Castiglione to be absolute good, even though WS’s 100-point opinion of the wine has helped drive the price up to $225.
There’s a philosophical paradox dating from the time of Euclid in the 4th Century BCE and arising from ‘vague predicates’. Called sorites, or ‘the paradox of the heap’, it argues that if a heap of sand is composed of one million grains, you could begin to remove them one and a time, and if there was a point where you could specify that the heap was no longer a heap, you’d have to qualify specifically when that happened. If not, you’d continue to remove grains until there was only one left and it would still be a heap. And even if you removed that final grain—and on into negative numbers—it must still be referred to as ‘a heap’.
This paradox can be reconstructed using a variety of predicates, but since this is a column about wine, let’s use that one: If Barolos of the Castiglione Falletto are good regardless of whether or not you like them, you should therefore be able to remove specific qualities of goodness, one by one, until the wine becomes ‘not good’. I challenge Mr. Kramer to state specifically when a Barolo passes over that murky threshold, and if he cannot, he’s embroiled himself in the Italian Paradox—a paradox even more paradoxical than the French one.
I suppose I need not wonder what Kramer’s opinion is regarding the absolute goodness of Gallo Hearty Burgundy; correct, Matt? And yet, by the most basic and classical philosophical definition, something is good if it important or valuable.
In between dealing with Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mom and me used to sit in the kitchen and yakkety yak over a jug of this sweetish, simple swill, which she happened to like—far be it from me to suggest that there was something essentially wrong with her palate. She’s been gone more than two decades, but every time I get so much as a whiff of this wine, I can exhume more memories and images than all of Proust’s silly teacakes combined.
If Kramer wants to tell me that this wine is anything but but important and valuable, I have a ‘good’ for him: Good fucking riddance.
2) Price Tells You About Quality. Right. Since no one on this end has been smoking belyando spruce, we understand that price doesn’t guarantee quality, but the suggestion that price doesn’t ‘tell you about’ quality is absurd, and Kramer knows it. Why? Because he writes for a publication whose ‘perfect’100-point wines rarely costs less than a hundred dollars per bottle, as this random sampling confirms: Avignonesi Vin Santo, 1990, about $130; Bryant Family Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley, 1996, around $500; Chateau Doisy Daene Sauternes L’Extravagant, 2001, about $250.
Plus, you can bet your sweet glass that any wine-rating wine writer worth his vault carefully follows fluctuations in wine prices following a particularly high Robert Parker Jr. score, because prices for wines he scores above 94 points tend to skyrocket.
3) Vintages Don’t Matter Anymore. Seriously, I’m poleaxed. Who says that? Nobody that I know and certainly not Wine Spectator, whose highly popular Annual Vintage Chart scores the harvest season in each of 54 wine regions, using the same point scale they use to rate individual wines. The print version comes with handy instructions like ‘fold on dotted line’ and ‘cut on solid line’ so that you can carry it in your wallet as a wine-buying, wine-drinking, know-it-all reference chart.
For even quicker access, there’s now a WS iTunes Vintage Chart App to flash in the face of anyone, anywhere, who at any time dares to claim: ‘Vintages don’t matter anymore.’
The ability to smugly bark back, ‘Fine, so you take the 87-point 1998 Médocs and Pessac Léognans and leave the hundred-point 2005s to me’ should be well worth a $50 WS subscription, don’t you think?
A fun side-note to this vintage chart is that it also pretends to proffer sage recommendations on whether or not each one of your cellared age-worthy gems are yet ready to be consumed—yet, of 47 French chart entries, from Burgundy to Loire to Sauternes, 66% read ‘Drink Or Hold’—the kind of quality advice which I’m willing to offer you for free.
An undeniable truism, of course, is that in the world of improved technology, wine regions once thought too dry to grow vinifera grapes (though otherwise perfectly suitable), are now able to produce great seas of grape, many of which remain pretty consistent regardless of vintage due to the particular climate where they’re grown; parts of Washington, Australia and Eastern Europe come to mind. In most of the classical wine producing regions of Western Europe, however—Burgundy, Bordeaux, the Rhein and Northern Italy for example, vintages are ballyhooed today as much as they were in Thomas Jefferson’s time.
As for Matt Kramer, a quick web search brings up dozens of columns he’s written favoring one vintage over another, so he must assume that within his perceived world of vintage value scoffers, lying liars either haven’t heard of him, don’t read him or really don’t give an ish what he writes.
The category into which I fit is ‘none of the above’. I read and enjoy Matt Kramer’s column, especially on those occasions when it actually makes sense.
In fact, next month I’m hoping for something on Swiss wine.