Good & Evil In The World Of Booze

So I'm sitting here alone in bed looking at my order history via the K&L website (my wife is out at West Side Story) trying to find the name of a bottle I bought a while ago and I get reminded about a wine book I bought some time back called The Battle For Love and Wine, which I actually wrote a review about when I regularly published on our wine blog.  This book was very influencial to me in my formative drinking years, but I was thinking that were I to read it again, I believe my attitude towards Alice Feiring would be very different today, mainly because I have done a complete 180 in most of my opinions as of late (I don't know why, but explaining it will get me off track, so let's stick to the point).  Searching for it on Amazon, I was curious as to how many people had actually read it and reviewed it, so I went right for the negative reviews.  Sure enough, there were a handful of people who believed that Feiring had a valid point in her fears of wine homoginization, but that she was far too black-and-white and solipsistic in her rantings about Parkerization - exactly what I was thinking in retrospect.  I remember reading the book as a naive, bright-eyed, young wine clerk who wanted desperately to understand what was cool in the wine world, so I was very much impressed and taken by such a brazen and passionate outrage against New World wine and its scientific approach to vinification.  I bought into the evils of Parker much like I bought into the evil of corporations as a college student (not to say that I now feel the opposite) because that's what happens to inexperienced people who can't wait to have an opinion.  Now that I'm a bit more grizzled, I have a different view on good and evil in the world of booze, and life for that matter, and it might do some good to lay it all out.

I'm usually kicking around the remnants of past conversations in my head, dwelling on points and contrasting them with similar experiences from various times in my life.  This morning, for example, my wife and I discussed the trend of enjoying authentic pizza in the Bay Area (i.e. Una Pizza Napoletana, Zero Zero, Tony's, A16, Delfina, etc.) and how it belongs to the majority of subcultures that eventually break out and become the trendy thing to do.  Combine that debate with another conversation I had after work concerning the loss of my political passion to change the world and you end up with the realization that sometimes people and their ideas can get out of control, so we just need to take a breath and focus on what's important in life.  In the end, pizza is nothing to be taken too seriously and the world is likely not as bad off as we think sometimes. However, reading the vitriolic comments on SFGate on trivial issues like the pet peeves of restaurant servers doesn't give me too much hope for the prevalence of common sense and understanding.  There is simply a need to be right and wrong, cool or uncool, for it or against, and the world of booze is no different.

Alice Feiring believes that science and technology are ruining the soul of wine.  If a winemaker uses new oak, reverse osmosis, micro-oxidation, or too much sulfur then they are stamping out the character of the grapes and the terroir of the wine.  While I agree with much of her argument, I don't believe that these winemakers are ruining the world - I simply believe that they want to make money by catering to the general palate and that they don't mean anyone harm.  Don't get a natural wine geek started on this subject however because they will tell you flat out that a wine that gets high marks from Parker is a sure sign of the devil, bringing an end to traditional winemaking as we know it and the destruction of all vino-diversity.  Feiring goes too far however in that she drives towards getting Parker alone in an inteview and telling him off, as if doing so would prove her right and forever vanquish her enemy (the same dillusion a motorist suffers from when he attempts to tailgate the guy who just cut in front of him - "Ha! That'll show him!"). The whiskey world has a similar snobbery that condescends to the drinkers of mass-produced blended malts and glorifies the small microdistillery using only small batch pot stills and 100% organically farmed grains.  Johnnie Walker = evil.  Old Potrero = good.  The mixology folks are just as guilty with their belief that vodka drinks are a bastardization of the genre, blending itself flavorlessly into sugary-sweet Lemon Drops in the name of easy alcohol delivery.  In their mind true lovers of the cocktail use only gin, brandy, or whiskey in their libations as they speak to the traditional pre-Prohibition craft of Jerry Thomas. 

These battles between opposing mindsets end up being all out wars, and are being fought in books, in blogs, on message boards, and in bars (in fact, if you go back to that link for the SFGate comment field you'll see a fierce battle between the avid Grey Goose defenders and some gin-loving pre-Prohibitionists!).  Getting a bit of understanding about booze (or anything of for that matter) usually leads people to a frustrating understanding about the habits of the uniformed, as they completely forget they also once knew nothing.  Those who still practice a casual interest get annoyed by the soapbox spouting arrogance of these so-called true afficianados and, in their defensiveness, they lash out in response.  If you don't believe me, you only need visit a message board to witness it.  "You losers eat at Round Table? Bleh, I only eat quality pizza at Beretta!"  "I'll stick to my vodka drinks at home and let all those trendy losers waste their time getting their overpriced, fancy cocktails."  These are real comments that I read on the internet everyday!  People are so upset with one another and their contrasting opinions! It is pure and utter hatred!  Where is all this anger coming from?

Of course I have my opinions and I tend to side with the snobby insider most of the time, however, I don't feel the need to argue vehemently or post outrageous comments somewhere.  The truth is: this is a world of tastes and taste is thankfully neither black nor white.  From what I've witnessed, it's never the most knowledgable people arguing about semantics, but rather the inexperienced with a chip on their shoulder.  That would at least help explain why I have mellowed over time.  It's a fine line that you walk between expert and asshole if you choose to explain to a customer why you would never drink California chardonnay or Chivas Regal and this attitude can really turn people off if you're not careful (I was very tired one day and unable to do this little tapdance - the result was one infuriated customer).  Not everyone cares about booze as much as I do, so I need to remember that and, as Jack says in Sideways, "If they want to drink Merlot, we're drinking Merlot!"  Once you realize how unattractive it is to start delving into to that sort of opinionated schtick, you really just want to avoid it from then on.

I understand how Parker points are leading more and more winemakers to change their style in search of that goldmine of a positive review, but I don't think that Alice has anything to worry about really.  There is room in this vast world for Parker's wines and for Feiring's as well.  Sure, Marcel Lapierre has recently passed on, but his son will continue to make unsulfured Beaujolais because we are here to drink it.  Whiskey lovers - no one is forcing you to drink anything blended.  Yes, that corporate umbrella Diageo is continuing to raise their prices, but Ardbeg and Laphroaig just lowered theirs so it balances out.  Let's mellow out a bit.  Cocktail afficionados - let people drink their vodka and enjoy themselves.  We don't need to point out what they're missing or why their drink isn't any good.  In fact, I just tasted a chocolate vodka that was so good I plan on buying it for the store (even though it is a bit embarrassing). 

 -David Driscoll

David Driscoll