Sunday, June 6, 2010

Of ideas, events and people

There is a certain famous quote attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt that reads as follows:
Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people.
It's a bit reductionist in some sense since there's no reason why a Nobel Laureate wouldn't also follow the news or chat about colleagues with his or her spouse. But there's a certain truth to it as well as the greats in their fields don't spend their days gossiping and watching reality TV, but understanding history, science, philosophy or any number of fields in great detail.

It's interesting, however, to apply this statement to fine wine, which many would argue is the most profound of alcoholic beverages. If one were to make analogy to ideas, events and people in terms of wine, the equivalents would be quite interesting. Ideas would correspond to stylistic approaches, scientific descriptions, varietal expression, and regional characteristics at the very least. Events would most certainly be vintages as well as the birth, growth and death of producers. People would be specific producers, owners, winemakers and other personalities. The interesting phenomena is that the upper classes of the wine world focus their conversation almost exclusively on the wine analogs of people and events.

The most common posts in internet wine forums, for example, are tasting notes on wines from various well-known producers in famous regions. Of course one cannot discuss regions and styles without including important producers, but clearly stand alone tasting notes are meant to discuss just a wine from a certain person and a certain year. These wines, meanwhile, are often purchased based on a cult of personality. Sometimes that cult of personality revolves around a critic such as Robert Parker. If he likes it, then people rush out to buy it. But there are also winemakers and consultants that transcend a single brand such as Michel Rolland or Helen Turley. If a given person was involved, then people rush out to buy it.

This begs the question, why is the wine world so paradoxically shallow, and especially so when it comes to the most potentially profound wine expressions? For me, the answer is rather direct. There are great minds who drink wine. There are also wine drinkers with great palates. But there is nothing that selects for these traits in wine drinkers other than an interest in wine and the economic capacity to purchase it. While you'd be hard pressed to find a truly stupid millionaire, if there's one social class prone to superficiality and snobbery, it would be the most financially secure group. The obsession over names and events is a crutch as most people with the financial freedom to collect fine wines don't have the time, interest or technical facilities to synthesize ideas. As a result, there is a certain feedback effect where specific producers, winemakers and vintages are amplified to drown out the big picture.

It is sad, but it is true. The (perhaps) most profound beverage receives the most superficial treatment in many ways. The only answer is for consumers to think with an independent mind. Respect history and the thoughts of the experts. But don't follow blindly. Taste broadly and form your own opinions. Collect data points and find for yourself the unique styles and expressions that make the wine world tick. The answer to endemic shallowness is thought and necessarily the promotion of ideas to the forefront of discourse.


DreamT said...

Gorgeous post. Thanks for the thoughts.

Jeff said...

Great post. Just to follow up on not being able to think by yourself if you're rich...the guy that owns the company I work for texted me the other day from Argentina. Guess what he was asking? What score a Paul Hobbs wine got in the Wine Advocate. My inclination was to tell him that he shouldn't waste his 200$ on that 97 point bottle of oak flavored grape juice...but of course, just like you said, he doesn't think for himself in regards to these things. He's really just interested in getting the biggest "bang" for his buck, and in this case, it has to be a 97 or 100 point wine from Parker. He's shallow in this regard. I'm sure that then he can brag to his friends about how exclusive it is then. I don't know...maybe the wine is good? I've never had it. It's kind of ironic that I would rip on it too, because I don't have the ability to make up my mind about this particular wine other than by looking at the record of my experience with Wine Advocate wines or highly pointed wines...which is doing the same thing that I don't really care for with points. Meaning that I'm basically being shallow about what may or may not be a good wine.

CabFrancoPhile said...

We all need some kind of reference point--we can't taste every wine we buy. And when it comes down to it, many wines are too expensive to buy blindly. But maybe that's the crux of the problem. Wines like the Hobbs Malbec need to have some kind of extrinsic meaning attached to them--like Hobbs' name or Jay Miller's point score--to justify the price. The hard part is not to get caught up in that mode of thought. Keeping an open mind is vital because that's when one finds the most pleasant surprises.

Matt Mauldin said...

Great thoughts and well written- cheers!

Tim said...

One point I'll disagree with, just for the sake of the interesting topic, is that I don't think the present situation is sad. If there was a perfect market for wine then you would, without fail, have to pay for what you get. And all of the best made wine would be payed for and consumed by those with the means to purchase it, leaving nothing but modest wines for those of us with modest means. Thankfully that's not the case. Those with more $ than sense are free to chase names and points. Meanwhile, those of us with more passion than $ are free to dig for diamonds in the rough.

CabFrancoPhile said...

Tim, I like the way you think! There are definitely inefficiencies in the wine market that bargain hunters help iron out. These indeed are good for the drinker. But I don't want things to get too far out of hand--we want the producers that offer good values to stay in business.