B.C. Wine and the Ideology of Quality

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With my series on B.C. wines over the Olympics I’ve done something I have never really done before – I’ve reviewed free samples sent to me by wineries. My logic behind this practice was as follows:

1. Arg, the Olympics is coming, how will I get to work?

2. Well I guess a lot of people will be celebrating B.C. during the Olympics – that’s good.

3. Wait, why are all Olympic venues dominated by large multi-national corporations?

4. No one will be celebrating what is truly B.C. during the Olympics!!

5. What can I do?

6. Well, I don’t usually enjoy or drink that many B.C. wines, but perhaps it’s time to do a profile on B.C. wineries during the Olympics.

7. But, I can’t really afford to pay for wines that I wouldn’t normally drink. I have a limited budget and like to spend it on things I’m excited about.

8. Hm, well since I’m going to put a ton of effort into researching, reviewing and writing about these wines, maybe the wineries will just send me samples. It seems fair and reasonable.

9. Ok, I’ll do it – at least to give the small guys a voice during the Olympics.

During this process I’ve been reading a lot of opinions and criticism about wine writing in both the traditional media and blogging. Complaints about bias and lack of integrity abound in the world of wine lovers and industry types. What are some of these concerns?

• Wineries and wine associations pay for free trips of wine writers and those connected in the industry. How can these individuals offer fair and unbiased opinions?

• Corporate interests are dominating the public’s access to and appreciation of wine. There are no real venues in B.C. to market and share small artisanal and family producers that are kicking the SH*!()$* out of the big guys in terms of quality.

• Some wine bloggers never write negative reviews, and simply lap up samples of low quality wine and shill them on the public in puff pieces.

• Some wine publications do exactly the same thing.

No one likes to be unpopular. It’s tough to be truly and fairly critical – to strike the balance between accuracy, fairness, and honest opinion. It’s also tough, as an amateur and in a media environment where advertising dollars are flushing down the drain, to afford to taste and drink the 1000’s of wine it is necessary to drink to educate your palate. The more I think of it, the more I realize that it is costly and risky to have integrity as a writer and journalist – but it is just these sorts of people that we need to support.

My philosophy is simple – one should be independent (fiercely so) and one should not be writing about wine if one’s career depends on connections within the industry and if one can advance their career by being sycophantic. These are just principles of journalistic integrity, much of which is depleting as it is more and more difficult for news agencies to be independent from corporate interests.

There is also the sheer ridiculousness of writing about wine based on tasting through 100’s of wines at tastings and press events. Now, I appreciate these events for what they are for providing a means to educate my palate – but to be honest, I never really understand or appreciate wine unless I’m sitting down drinking it with a meal or just sipping it during good conversation. You know, like most people do when they actually drink the wine we write about.

Now, this leads me, somewhat as a digression I suppose, into the Ideology of Quality. When I received these samples for the B.C. wine tasting, I also received marketing materials. Here is a common theme in the marketing materials:

• This winery was founded on passion and love for the vine.
• We believe in putting the best efforts into our vines and wines.
• We believe these are some of the best wines of the type in the world!
• Look at all the awards we’ve won!

In addition to these common themes, some more specific brands of the Ideology of Quality are:

• We believe in minimal intervention.
• We let the fruit speak for itself.
• We use extremely low yields.
• We want the land to speak through in our wines.
• We use the most advanced techniques possible to produce authentic high quality wines.
• Look at all the awards we’ve won!

Here are a few things I know. “Minimal intervention” is a near meaningless phrase in itself. What is minimal? Wine making IS intervention in nature. Minimal is meaningless. What matters are the particular choices you make when you grow, harvest, and vinify grapes. It’s not a question of no interference and much interference, it is a question of your philosophy of production – of your approach to creation and the process of human interaction with nature. Ya, so that’s meaningless and yet it’s used on consumers all the time.

“We let the fruit speak for itself”. Wha? Ok, but you also crush it, and stick it in vats and use yeast to ferment the crushed grapes into an alcoholic beverage, and you probably add sulphur and oak, etc. And yet, these words are commonly spoken to the average wine buyer or winery visitor. Again, it doesn’t really mean anything.

Passion for the vine. Ok, that’s great. But, this phrase is now a cliché, which means it is devoid of particular meaning. If you want to use the word passion and wine together, you better tell me what you mean by passion.

I can’t even go on with this list because it is so frustrating. What happened to quiet confidence. Since when have marketers and marketing lingo infected the wine world to such an extent that everyone is afraid to be distinct from each other? We might stand out!? But, what if no one likes us? I just had a flash back of my first high school dance.

So, this ideology of quality seems to promote the ideal that “minimal intervention”, “passion”, “low-yields”, etc. are markers of quality. But there is very little discussion of philosophical and human motivations beyond “passion”. I begin to suspect the sincerity of these sorts of proclamations when I learn that recently no wineries in B.C. expressed an interest in learning from an expert on biodynamics from France who was willing to come into the province and share his knowledge – not a single winery.

I’m suspect of a winery that can’t express itself any more effectively than “we just try to make the best wine possible.” Since, in the end, what is possible and what is to be hoped for are intricately entwined – and the last time I checked hope is a fairly multivalent concept and one that, in any effective way, cannot arise from hubris. It is integrity and humility that produce the most effective hope, and the most diverse possibilities.

So how do all these ideas link together? One simple phrase: the Ideology of Quality. Whether via a wine writer, marketer, or winery itself, the wine world seems afraid to deviate from a standard vocabulary and semantics for expressing wine quality (points-based rating systems are another culprit here). Instead, true expression is captured by other interests, by biases, by marketing, by the desire to fit in and sell wine. Of course, underlying all this is a most fundamental human instinct: survival.

So much of the wine world seems to be caught up in its own survival. Unsuccessful writers dine on Kraft Dinner each night while the successful ones try to protect their interests (and massive cellars of free wine) and avoid that dilemma by folding their personality and expertise into a pre-formed model. Once you’ve breached that inner circle, it’s like a pack instinct to keep out all pretenders to the throne.

Wineries? Well, they’re scared shitless that they’ll never make back their initial investments. Others are doing very well and are simply trying to diversify and spread their brand. But, they seem afraid that if they go off-message they might jeopardize the basis for their success. I am no stranger to these feelings – that is what it is like to have a career and try to survive in the business world.

But, what gets lost in this giant race is distinct and particular expression: real thoughts about wine, effective criticism, small producers who either don’t understand the game or simply don’t want to join it. There must be a better environment within which one of the world’s most profound agricultural products can be explored, loved, and discovered. We are all far too concerned with our own survival and the ideology of quality to actually and humbly discover how to best entwine ourselves with the ‘natural’ world through wine. We are part of that ‘natural’ process – but we are vacating this meaning from ourselves with each puff piece, marketing blurb, and cliché.

So, while I plan on continuing writing profiles on B.C. wineries for the sake of the industry and the small guy, I have to come out and say that I still have tremendous difficulty saying that B.C. wine is at the same level as the great wines of the world, of all types from weekday meal wines to wines for 50th wedding anniversaries. B.C., with the exception of a very few producers, is still too caught up in the Ideology of Quality to actualize its potential. Right now it is just trying to “make the best wine possible” – but it has homogenized the hope that gives meaning to possibility. Until wineries take that next step and are bold enough both to have their own voice and beliefs, but also humble enough to listen and learn from others, we will languish where so much of the world’s wine languishes – in mediocrity.

Comments

  1. Weston
    March 4, 2010

    Interesting and well written, but from you I would expect that hah.

    I have no problem with reviews receiving free samples. All reviews should say on every wine they are reviewing, if they paid for it, or if its free. People will say because its free you will be Biased, but if you buy a wine you like and review then are you not biased that way too?
    And we know People love to complain at the end of the day

    Yeah its so true, wine does make itself it needs human intervention and some coddling, or else you get not wine, vinegar or whatever else faults occur.

    Can’t Believe no one was interested in the Biodynamic Guy [even tho I think some of the Biodynamic gets to hocky, but Quality! Come on people!]

    I must say I have no problem with a Number Scoring System, I mean a system to rate wines, in the end they do the same thing, if i know Such and Such reviews palate and we agree or disagree and gives a wine a certain score I will know if its my style or not. When I rate wines for myself I score it based on what I feel the quality is, a 90pt wine to me might be a 99 or a 70 to someone else, or a 80pt wine to me will be a 90pt to someone else. As long as i am consistent and they are then its all good.

  2. Shea
    March 4, 2010

    Weston,

    Thanks for the comment. I agree that bias happens in all sorts of ways. Free samples aren’t a big deal to me, but that’s mainly because I’m independent from the industry. However, accepting free stuff as a journalist can go too far. What is a winery pays for your visit to a country’s wine region. That’s a pretty big cause for concern re: bias.

    As for points – the problem is that they tell you nothing about the wine. NOTHING. I learn nothing from reading points. I see ratings as reading aids, not difinitive guides. They help give context to a review, but they aren’t the end point or purpose. I’ve considered nixing them myself, and may do so in the future. In the end, I find ratings stifle my expression and do little to help others learn and think about wine.

  3. Celia
    March 4, 2010

    I am glad that you reference the most basic of human needs in relation to the wine industry: survival. I don’t aspire to become a winemaker for the same reason that I don’t aspire to become a politician; inevitably the vast majority become more concerned with self preservation than with effecting change. That and I fear I would only make plonk!

    I have a great deal of respect for those that do attempt to effect change, but given a number of provincial factors (pun intended) they are understandably too few and far between.

  4. Shea
    March 5, 2010

    Celia,

    I like the analogy and I too have a tremendous amount of respect for those with integrity and the courage to follow it up. Perhaps this is a common theme for most areas of life – I could also have called this piece the Integrity Deficit.

  5. Weston
    March 7, 2010

    I agree in that a straight Point system with no written note does give you nothing, but the same as saying this has “Red Cherry, Earth, etc etc” doesnt tell me if its good or balanced, combined with a score it should tell ya if the wine is pretty darn good or bad or medicore, I mean as long as people explain the wine and if they like or dislike it and why im fine, but you need to say ie “This is terribly balanced, with red fruit, earth, leather etc etc”

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