Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Loss of Romance - and Emotion

Detail of Lazzarito Vineyard, Serralunga d'Alba with snow-capped peaks of the Alps in the distance (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

"Fewer things are as unromatic or as unpoetic as wine ratings." - Richard Elia,

At, Richard Elia has written an essay entitled "Wine's Decline" that is certain to stimulate a great deal of conversation (read here), given that he is critical of the way wine is being viewed in today's society. It's a no-nonsense, highly opinionated piece of writing that will anger some people, but it contains a lot of things that need to be said.

A few introductory words about Elia and Elia was the publisher of Quarterly Review of Wines, a magazine aimed at savvy wine consumers; it was published for 35 years and featured articles by several Masters of Wine from various places around the globe as well as some of the leading wine journalists of the past few decades (full disclosure - I wrote for the magazine for 13 years). Elia and his editor Randy Sheahan maintained a sophisticated magazine, one that dealt with the leading personalities of wine. You could read an article about a winemaker in California, Italy or France (or many other places) and learn what made him or her tick. This was a magazine that wanted to go beyond technical information - although there was a good amount of that when necessary for any particular article - and get straight to the human side of wine. 

Perhaps best of all about QRW was that while there were wine reviews - there would have to be in any wine publication - these were judgments such as "outstanding," "excellent" or "very good" or something similar, depending on how the author of a piece wanted to let the readers know how special a wine was. Elia never went down the points path; his quote that kicks off this post gives you an idea of how he felt about such things. This was Elia being consistent with a philosophy of dealing with wine as an extension of a particular place and/or individual. For Elia, wine was - and is - the result of many things, some of them technical, but many of them emotional or even ethereal and how do you score that? More simply put, as wine is a sensory experience, my experience is going to be different from yours, so how can a point value sum up what that experience was about?

I mentioned that Quarterly Review of Wines was in business for thirty-five years; the final issue was that of Autumn 2011. In this online essay, Elia briefly deals with the reasons why he ceased publication - advertising revenues weren't what they used to be and of course, more people today are eschewing magazines for online sites. "With the web, anybody can be a wine writer, regardless of expertise," Elia writes in this essay. 

Elia tackles several subjects in his piece, ranging from wine bloggers to the way large corporations market wine, treating it as a commodity. But his main theme is about how the romance of wine has been lost in today's world. Technology has a lot to do with that as do ratings, of course. Wine can be a wonderful experience for us - think about a bottle of wine you enjoyed during a visit to Napa Valley or to a small producer in Burgundy, Champagne, Piedmont or Tuscany. That wine was something special because of a number of reasons, not the least of which is that you were tasting it close to where it was made; indeed you may have tasted it with the person that made it.

Early morning, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

But you can enjoy a special experience without traveling to a wine region. We've all tasted some pretty remarkable wines at restaurants and of course, the wine was notable not only for what was in the bottle, but for several other reasons, be it the food that accompanied the wine or simply, the people we enjoyed it with. In his essay, Elia tells the story of how he saw a couple at a restaurant ask the wine steward about a particular wine. The sommelier, instead of telling the diners a story about where the wine came from or the flavors it displayed, merely took out his cel phone and showed them the points the wine had received in a recent print review.

Now certainly most wine stewards do not act in this fashion; most are very personable individuals who are eager and willing to share their knowledge about wine and help make a diner's experience a more valuable one. But the mere fact that this happened is a clear sign of the times.

This technical approach to wine in the digital age is what has Elia upset. Certainly he is not surprised by this new way of informing the public about wine, but for the ease of technology, we lose out on the romance of wine. Think about the work of writers such as Steinbeck, Faulkner, Hemingway and Fitzgerald; they were not considered great writers because they used proper grammar. Rather these four are remembered as the most celebrated American authors of the 20th century because they wrote from the heart about their life's experiences. They told stories that we treasure. That same approach needs to return to wine is what Elia is saying in his piece.

But in this day of rating wines by points and in today's market where wine is too often treated as a sales unit, will the notion of romance return? I'd like to think so and I'm certain Elia does as well, but the reality is that you can't put a numerical value on emotion. As we all hear far too often in our everyday lives, everyone's busy, everybody's pressed for time. Thus a quick check on the smartphone is a hell of a lot quicker than listening to someone teach us a few things about wine. That takes time and who's got enough of that?

In the end, Elia seems to be saying, we lose out on any notion of wine speaking directly to us. And that's a shame. 

P.S. I wrote that Elia's essay is certain to stimulate a great deal of conversation. But of course, that can only happen if enough people read it! I mention this because when Elia decided to cease publication of QRW in print form, the news was met with very little publicity. Another unfortunate sign of these digital times, sad to say.

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