Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The Wrath of Grapes: An Embarrassing Peek Behind The Curtain

Bruce Schoenfeld is a the author of the recent New York Times Magazine article titled, The Wrath of Grapes.  A seasoned reporter and an enthusiastic wine lover, Bruce's knowledge runs as deep as his curiosity, and his professionalism is evident in his lack of bias.  He's also a friend, so I felt really good for him when my wife told me the article hit #1 on NYTimes.com most emailed list this past weekend.  I hope you'll read it, too.

Op-eds, politics, and human interest stories typically occupy the top popularity slots.  So, why this piece?  Because dirty laundry and drama make for entertaining reading.  Threaded throughout the themes of the article is a palpable acrimony fueled by contrasting ideologies and a righteousness that seems out of proportion in a debate over what amounts to preferences in beverage styles.

Which makes me cringe.

In one corner is Rajat Parr, the famously outspoken sommelier, wine producer, and co-founder of In Pursuit of Balance (aka IPOB), an organization of anti-establishment California pinot noir and chardonnay producers.  In the other is Robert Parker, the influential wine critic and the opposition's punching bag.  Overly generalized, Parker favors hedonistic wines, whereas IPOB champions wines of nuance and subtlety that reflect the place they came from.  As you read Bruce's article, you may be struck, as I was, by how, if properly harnessed, the abundance of hot air expended by these opposing sides could significantly contribute to the planet's renewable energy sources.

As one who loves wine without preconditions, I find merit in both perspectives and, so, have no need or desire to take a side.  Hell, that there are sides to take at all is beyond silly.  The way the debate is being conducted - and the fervor it appears to incite among the cognoscenti - is embarrassing.  Moreover, when one ideologue attacks the approach of another, the collateral damage besmirches even those keeping a safe distance.  If a rising tide lifts all boats, then the opposite is also true: those fueling this debate are accomplishing little more than emptying buckets into everyones' hulls - not just their own.

Yes, diverging approaches to the production of almost anything expands the supply of options available to consumers.  Nothing wrong with that at all.  Nor is there any harm in debating the merits of each philosophy.  Some of us drive Hondas, some drive BMWs, and others Fords, yet none of us gets too wrapped up in nay-saying over what our neighbors drive.  Why here? 

At an academic level, one of the interesting things this debate illustrates is how fortunate the rarefied corners of the wine business have become.  That position of luxury affords an obliviousness to the consequences of how this debate is conducted.  If Parker and Parr shared in the pains and challenges experienced by many in this industry still struggling to attract new wine drinkers from the domains of beer and margaritas, they would see how ridiculously self-important they are being.

Bruce's article offers a peek behind the curtain of a small subculture where the players are struggling for relevance.  Not surprisingly - and not unlike the mockumentary Best In Show - it's not the prettiest picture.  Would any casual or non-wine drinker read this piece is this and think to themselves, "Boy, that's an experience I want to immerse myself in!"?

At the risk of sounding all kumbaya, can't we all just get along?

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