...And In Closing

The spirits blog is a funny thing—the more I write about new products, the more I hear from readers that there's not enough opinion. Yet the more opinion I offer, the more agitated my customers get because they really want to learn about new products. This past week has been a series of op-eds focused on snobbery, expertise, expectations, and what happens to a genre when its purpose becomes something other than enjoyment. I think about these topics almost every day, so I enjoy writing about them when I get the chance, and I particularly enjoy it when people send me an email with a response or counterpoint.

One reader sent me this article in response to yesterday's post: a report about the science of tasting, and how many experts cannot decipher the differences between wines when forced to do so blindly. I get a kick out of blind tastings because of the sheer anxiety it causes people; no one wants to be the person who completely bombs the assessment (and someone always will). However, as we've learned this week from the buzz surrounding the Daily Beast MGP article, many enthusiasts and aficionados are interested in more than just flavor. Flavor is just one part of what makes alcohol fun.

When I started the master's degree program for German back in 2005 my initial hope was to "master" the German language. What I soon learned, however, is that grammar and linguistics were only a teeny-tiny part of the master's degree program. It was mostly about literature and philosophy. I can tell you right now that my German is incredibly poor compared to many other second-language German speakers, despite the fact that I have a fancy piece of paper.

"How come you're not totally fluent? Don't you have a master's degree in German?" someone might ask me.

Good question. However, being a master of German isn't really about fluency. Just like being a master of wine isn't really about identifying a wine or its character while wearing a blindfold. I don't know nearly as much about the history of wine and the various French chateaux as many of my colleagues do. If you want to know what the best Bordeaux vintages are, or which are the most-beloved vineyard sites in Burgundy, I can spout off a few, but I'm no match for Gary Westby or Ralph Sands. However, I am very, very good—if you don't mind me saying—at helping customers find something they like. Someone might ask me, "Do you have any older Bordeaux that are drinking well now?" or "I need a gift for someone who likes Sancerre," and I'll nail those requests. And I can do it for any country in the world, and any type of wine.

So when someone says, "Wow, that guy David knows a lot about wine because he always finds me something I like," that's really just one type of wine knowledge—I understand how to match up a description with a product. But there are guys who work here who actually know about viticulture and the production of wine, which is something I know nothing about (Ryan Woodhouse used to work at Testarossa and Bonny Doon, and Mike Barber makes the Mr. Beast wines). There are historians who work here; Jeff Garneau can tell you about the evolution of Chateau Lafite over the last one hundred years, or why certain grapes are no longer grown in the Italian region of Alto Adige. And what about putting a cellar together? I have no idea how certain wines will taste in 10-20 years because I haven't drunk enough older wines, but Jim Barr has had every California vintage over the last three decades. He's the guy you want to ask.

I was thinking about the quote from yesterday's post concerning "demystifying wine," which is something I originally wanted to do for consumers. I wanted to take complicated subjects—concepts concerning wine and whiskey that intimidated people—and break them down into analogies that were easy to understand. As a former teacher, it's always been something I've enjoyed doing, whether it's math, literature, or booze. However, my point in doing so was never to expose the experts as naked emperors, or clueless pedants with a penchant for snobbery. It was to show people that a just a little bit of understanding could turn what was already a fun activity into something so much more interesting and rewarding. Alcohol appreciation isn't a bunch of baloney—it's just often presented that way.

It's that very viewpoint that I always lead with when I work with customers. This hobby is supposed to be a fun use of our time! No matter how passionate we are, the appreciation of wine and whiskey shouldn't be stressful or annoying. No matter how wrong someone is about their information, it's not always our job to set them straight. No matter how intimidated we feel, we shouldn't seek to knock others off of their perch. There will always be people who use their knowledge about a certain subject to feel secure or superior—and they will always give intellectualism a bad rap—but we can't let them get to us. There will always be producers or brands that seek to use a consumer's naivete against them, but we can't save everyone.

We can only help people who want to be helped—that goes for me, bloggers, writers, and those who work on behalf of consumers. And we should enjoy helping each other.

-David Driscoll


The Crime of Expertise

A friend forwarded me this article from the Connoisseur's Guide webpage today. You should read what Stephen Eliot had to say about wine expertise before moving forward with this post.

I was impressed with a number of points in this article because, as someone with a decent amount of readership who is in a relative position of authority, I get a lot of blowback. It's not something that surprises me, or even angers me at this point, because I was once one of these frustrated egoists. If I read an article about music that I disagreed with, I immediately wanted to tell my friends why the author didn't know anything. If there was a "top ten movies of the year" list in a magazine, I would scour the selections, secretly judging the critic's sense of taste by scoffing at what he or she thought "good" cinema was. But, of course, I was eighteen years old at the time. You'd hope most people would grow out of that phase as they got older—that desire to argue, point out mistakes, and be the real voice of authority—but many do not. The internet has only allowed that type of behavior to fester; especially since one can attack and remain anonymous while doing so.

Even though Eliot's article is about wine writing, you can easily replace the word "wine" with "whiskey" and the opinion would be just as accurate. I mean, this is just so utterly true about booze:

"there is a decidedly adversarial edge to so much wine writing these days. Somewhere along the line, an 'us versus them' mentality has insidiously worked its way into much of wine conversation, and generations seem to have been set against one and other."

There's an "adversarial edge" to alcohol appreciation, in my opinion, because we live in an age where no one wants to appear weak. No one wants to be the one asking a question. No one wants to be the guy who doesn't know about Bourbon. No one wants to admit that they're a novice—at anything! People want to talk, not listen. People want to tell, not be told. People want to educate, not be educated. Anyone who attempts to do otherwise will be called out or verbally abused. You think you know something? Well, you don't.

And, of course, wine appreciation is often seen as a very snooty thing. All that swirling, smelling, those ridiculous tasting notes, and the fancy food pairing. What a bunch of poseurs, right?

"David, I know what I like, and that's all I need to know!" someone emailed me randomly a while back.

That's great. For some people, knowing what they like is enough. But, as Eliot points out, knowing what you like and knowing about wine are two different things. Why serious wine or whiskey appreciation angers people is a multi-facted phenomenon. Some people get mad because they're insecure and they feel insignificant in the face of expertise. Other folks have a giant chip on their shoulder and are constantly looking to prove themselves. Whatever the reason, there is indeed a new tone in the modern era of alcohol appreciation and it's aggressively antagonistic.

My favorite line from Eliot was this one:

"I cannot feel but that the rush to 'demystify' wines and break down perceived snobbism has sadly tainted and unjustly devalued authentic expertise."

That's an interesting thought. When you taste wine and spirits every single day, year after year, you do indeed gain a certain level of insight. It would be sad if all that work didn't count for something.

-David Driscoll


A Special New Band

"Music seems crazy, bands start up each and every day; I saw another one just the other day—a special new band."

Stephen Malkmus, from the Pavement song "Cut Your Hair"

I do a lot of consulting for brands—most of it off-the-clock and unpaid—but I have a decent amount of insight into the hopes and ambitions of modern marketing. So many of these guys want to be the next Macallan, the next Jack Daniels, or the next Patron, but they don't understand that this level of status is a relic of the old world. No one can create a brand in this era that can captivate the attention of the entire globe. There are so many new brands, so many new distilleries, and so many new labels that it's impossible to keep up. With so much saturation and so little time to decipher what's what, consumers can no longer focus on just a few key products. However, it's exactly that missing focus that once allowed these iconic monarchs to become the king kong products they are today.

Don't understand what I mean? Let me give you an example:

There will never be another band as big as the Rolling Stones, or the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, or U2 while we are alive. Why? Because Ed Sullivan and MTV are dead. Those were outlets that had 100% of TV land's attention. Back then, if you wanted to watch music on television, we all had to suck from the same supple breast. Today, with YouTube, iTunes, Facebook, and ten million other outposts where music enthusiasts can discover new artists, there's no concentration of the world's attention. It was that concentration, however—that magnifying glass intensified by the sun—that created those legends, giants, myths, and long-standing heroes we now worship in their golden years. It's the reason why a front row ticket to The Who will cost you $5000 in today's market. It's fear that drives concert goers, just like it does whisky drinkers—this might be the last chance we have to see one of the great stalwarts of rock and roll. We need to do it one last time!! But do you think people are going to pay $5000 to see the Arcade Fire thirty years from now? No way.

Back in the day you only had a few liquor brands, so it was easy for successful labels to monopolize the attention of the marketplace. There wasn't anything near the selection we have today, forcing loyalties in a multitude of different directions. So Coors became Coors. Budweiser became Budweiser. Seagram's became Seagram's. And Johnnie Walker became the standard for high-end whisky. It's a prestige that has carried these brands into the new millennium, and it's a security that a number of our customers still hold tightly when searching for the best in spirits. Did any of you read that interview I did with my grandmother who was a bartender in the 1950s? "Back then we drank VO, nothing else," she told me once. "That was the extent of the demand." And this is from a woman who made her living by supplying booze. When you're dealing with decade upon decade of influence, legacy, and saturation of the marketplace, there's nothing you can do to counteract that level of dominance—it's like trying to undo years of bad habits. Old brands are as entrenched as the Republican and Democratic parties—so you can run as an independent, but in the end the best you can hope for is Vermont.

There are few monopolies on the world's collective attention these days, which is why people are still willing to pay $900 for Macallan 25, or $2000 for Paul McCartney tickets, or $4000 for a Chanel purse—because these things are experiences! They are the known quantities. They're nubs in our collective psyche. They are qualifiers for the value of what's important in life because they're desired by a greater proportion of the population, and desire is what determines value. There are only five first growth Bordeaux wines. There's only one DRC. Despite its terrible decline, Johnny Walker Blue still outsells anything we import directly. And Madonna will always trump Katy Perry.

There will never be another Rat Pack because there are too many young punks utterly trying—practically begging—to replace them. It's a desperation that turns people off. People strive for the mantel before they've accomplished anything worthy—like a craft distiller charging luxury prices—and it reeks of new money naiveté. And that's why society started to look elsewhere—to the "alternative" world of music, to the independent world of cinema, and to the microcosm of small distillers who we hope can provide us with that starpowered level of quality, without all that pomp.

However, in the end, we can't help but let these secrets loose into the general marketplace, because we ultimately need the acceptance of the general public to validate these experiences. There's the old line: If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?

To which I counter: If you drink a bottle of Pappy and no one's there to see it, is it worth drinking?

-David Driscoll


Lessons of the Wine Business

I was talking to one of my best whiskey customers about wine last night, and the fact that he does business with a number of other stores besides K&L.

"I'm starting to get annoyed with ________, however," he said to me. "I'm not going buy as much from them anymore."

"Why's that?" I asked.

"Because they've screwed me over on a number of purchases—certain pre-arrival wines never showed up, but I bought from them because they had better pricing than other guys. Things like that."

"Ahhhh.....I see."

This isn't uncommon in the Bordeaux futures business—to guarantee a hot price on forthcoming wines, but then not actually have the ability to obtain the product. Our pre-arrival process is what put K&L on the map in the wine world—we had good prices, good service, and our customers always got their bottles. We might not always have had the cheapest price, but we were competitive and you could depend on us. That's still the case today.

What's funny, though, is that we still get a number of people who call and want us to match pricing with some of these shadier operations. As one of my colleagues once put it: they want the Nordstrom service with the TJ Maxx prices. Unfortunately, you have to pay a little more for quality service—that's just the way it is. We can't afford to pay our knowledgeable staff and have the cheapest prices on everything. That's the trade off. We do our best to have both, however.

It's not just wine, though. I get people all the time who want me to match prices with the Whisky Exchange in the UK ("Uhhh....sir, you're looking at the price in pounds, not dollars"), or with some store in New Jersey that doesn't ship out of state and doesn't seem to have the product they're advertising (Sir, have you actually clicked on the link? They're out of stock.....and apparently out of business, too")

It's a crazy world out there; full with all different kinds of expectations.

-David Driscoll



I've never travelled to the fabled Tales of the Cocktail festival in New Orleans, so I decided to live vicariously through Camper English, who posted this article about last week's events. My favorite part is the line from the Barcardi guy who called booze the new music for eccentric enthusiasts. The quote is: "Now that there are no more record stores, (snobs) have moved on to coffee shops and cocktail bars." I about fell out of my chair laughing, having spent years working at Tower Records in the Castro (and being a big fan of High Fidelity).

It's not just booze, though. Eating, drinking, and travelling have long replaced music, film, and literature as the topic du jour of modern snobbery. People are now looking to brag about where they've been and what they've eaten, rather than what they know or understand. You know what's funny to me about travelling, though? The fact that there's a new American tourist caricature circulating around the world that has completely replaced the old stereotype we normally associate with National Lampoon's Griswold family. You know—the loud, fanny pack-wearing, doesn't-speak-the-language, and is-insensitive-to-local-customs type of person?

Modern Americans are so afraid of being cast as one of these clueless tourists that they've gone completely the other way, swinging far back to the other side of the spectrum. I see it all the time when David OG and I travel, but I was revisiting some old episodes of HBO's classic Mr. Show last night and I couldn't believe it when I saw that person here (it was like reading American Psycho and realizing it came out in the 1980s). Skip to the 1:00 mark if you don't feel like watching Bob's hilarious exchange with the donut girl.

Bob Odenkirk and David Cross did this sketch back in 1996, but I never really began to notice this behavior until I started working in the wine industry in 2007. You can see how ahead of their time these two were!

Today's stereotypical American tourist wants you to know that they are not one of those run-of-the-mill, touristy Americans who goes to all the obvious, touristy spots and wears a fanny pack and speaks loudly and doesn't even try to learn the local language. No, no, no. They are an educated American who is sensitive to culture, and who has studied abroad, and who doesn't go to the most obvious tourist locations when they travel. They've worked on a farm in rural France and even stayed with a local family in Cuernavaca, where they traded chores for language lessons.

It's the ultimate irony, isn't it? The attempt to escape what was once seen as typical, normal American behavior has become something quintessentially American! It's the new version of the American snob.

-David Driscoll