Tag Archives: Maureen Downey

Wine & Politics — Strange Bedfellows or Drinking Buddies?

A few days after Christmas, the South African Twitter account @WineMag decided to resurrect the ghost of controversies past by revisiting Jon Bonné’s provocative article Why Is the Wine World So Un-Woke?.

By Neeta Lind - IMG_0416, CC BY 2.0,

Written in the aftermath of Anthony Bourdain’s suicide last summer, Bonné wondered why we didn’t have more writers who embraced Bourdain’s willingness to “tear down the false romanticism” around wine. Instead, wine writers seem to actively avoid covering sensitive topics or the industry’s unsavory elements.

Food, and food writing, may be guilty of its share of glossing-over, of preening and celebrity and the lionizing of malcontent, egoist chefs—not even at the Batali-Friedman-Besh level, but more subtly. It’s no different with tech, where Steve Jobs’ iconic status could overshadow the fact he wasn’t a terribly nice person. But when it comes to whistling past its problems, wine asks those other industries to hold its beer. Jon Bonné, PUNCH magazine, July 18th, 2018

Bonné certainly garnered a lot of attention (and interesting comments) when his post was originally published. But then, like many things in our ADD-driven culture, it faded from the conversation. At least it did until the December 27th tweet from @WineMag. That piqued the interest of Master of Wine Tim Atkins who retweeted it on his feed.

Then Whoa Nelly!

While I’ll comment on a few things below, I can’t possibly do justice summarizing all the many excellent points and divergent opinions in the thread, as well as the many side threads, that sprung up from Atkins tweet. Instead, I’ll encourage you to take a trip down the rabbit hole to read the insightful comments from Atkins, Artisan Swiss, Felicity Carter (the Editor-in-Chief of Meininger’s Wine Business International), Master of Wines John Atkinson and Elizabeth Gabay, Petri Pellinen as well as Bonné himself.

While Bonné’s original post wasn’t explicitly about wine & politics, several of the threads converged on the question about how “political” should we expect wine writers to be. Things took a particularly charged turn when Maureen Downey, probably the wine world’s foremost expert on wine fraud, shared her stark disagreement that politics and wine should ever mix.

This set off another cascade of replies and threads–including one where I finally poked my head. My tweet came in response to Felicity Carter’s comment that wondered if American and European folks were looking at Bonné’s article from different angles.

Why Go Red or Blue When You Can Go Rosé?

As I learned later, through a series of tweets by Jon Bonné, my political views and Maureen Downey’s are very different. I’m a moderate who disdains tribalism that puts people into red/blue, liberal/conservative camps. I personally don’t believe that any ideology has a monopoly on good ideas (or bad ones) which is why we should listen to each other and compromise.

While the vitriol of Downey’s political posts disheartened me, they still don’t sway my overall respect for her work. I feel it would be foolish to shun her expertize or boycott her company just because our beliefs outside of wine are so different.

But I fear that such a public outing of personal politics (even if they’re made in a public forum) would cause others to rethink their esteem of Downey. And that disheartens me just as much as Downey’s politics.

Simply put, I don’t want to lose the “safe space” of a wine community. I love that people from diverse backgrounds and beliefs can set aside their differences and share a common joy. Losing this sense of community is exactly what we’re risking when wine writers dive too much into politics.

Exceptions not Expectations

However, I don’t believe that the world of wine needs to avoid politics completely. I do somewhat agree with Bonné yearning for a Bourdain-type figure in wine. We do need writers who aren’t afraid of poking sacred cows or exposing the ugly side of the industry.

But I think those people, like Bourdain, are rare breeds. I shared this sentiment in a further reply on Carter’s thread.

It would benefit no one if wine writers were judged by how “woke” they were and how actively they covered political topics. Not everyone has the skills set (or tact) to tackle those issues in ways that move the conversation forward instead of disintegrating into pontification and invectives.

Those that have those skills should be valued and encouraged to write when they’re inspired. But for the vast many who don’t, their dabbling into political tussles is more apt to produce a landscape of replacing facts with opinions and emotionally charged slurs of SJW, liberals, right-wingers or conservatives slung about.

And where does that help? It certainly doesn’t help enhance the appreciation of wine. Nor would it edify anyone’s understanding of sensitive political issues.

Maybe We Need More Esther Mobleys Rather Than Anthony Bourdains?

If you want an example of a wine writer that has the skills and tact to write effectively about politically charged issues go check out Esther Mobley of the San Francisco Chronicle. Over the years, she has tackled some thorny subjects like the role of immigrant labor in sustaining the California wine industry and gender issues.

While you might be able to infer Mobley’s politics by her topic choices, you would be hard-pressed to peg her exact personal views down. That is because her work rarely speaks to her opinion. Instead, the scalpel she uses to cut deep into her topics speaks loudly enough for her. Sure, she’s not as blunt as Bourdain was in calling out perceived ills. But her thoughtful approach moves these delicate conversations forward.

That makes her far more effective as a wine writer than a wannabe Bourdain being a bull in the china shop.

If there were more Esther Mobleys writing about wine, I wouldn’t feel as cringey about the thought of wine writers being political. But just like Anthony Bourdain, Esther Mobley is a rare breed as well.

Not many can fill those shoes. I know I can’t. Which is why I’ll continue to keep my two Twitter accounts separate.

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Geek Notes 7/30/18 — New Wine Books to Geek Out With in August

Photo is from DEM of the New Zealand from GLOBE (topography) and ETOPO2 (bathymetry) datasets, precessed with Arcgis9.1 by jide. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Elevations of New Zealand

A look at some of the some of new releases in the world of wine books.

The Wines of New Zealand by Master of Wine Rebecca Gibb (released July 30th, 2018)

While there has been a few other books written to cover the wines of New Zealand such as Michael Cooper and John McDermott’s Wine Atlas of New Zealand (2002) and Warren Moran’s New Zealand Wine: The Land, The Vines, The People (2017), as far as I can tell this 356 page book is the first in-depth and exclusive look into the wines of New Zealand that has been written by a Master of Wine.

While previous books were written by New Zealand insiders, I’m intrigued at the perspective that UK-based Gibb may add to the story–especially in light of the global worldview of wine that is required to attain MW certification.

This intrigues me because it seems like in many ways that the NZ wine industry has been suffocating under the weight of success for their Sauvignon blancs with the grape still representing a staggering 72% of New Zealand wine production (2016).

Now with producers in other regions of the world breaking down the science of thiols and their precursors as well as the role of methoxypyrazines to tweak their own approach to Sauvignon blanc, wine shelves are awashed in pink grapefruit and gooseberries.

Suddenly New Zealand’s “distinctive style” doesn’t seem so distinctive anymore.

Photo by B.muirhead. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-3.0

View towards the Southern Alps but it honestly wouldn’t be out of place in the Malbec country of Mendoza, Argentina.

Yet for a country that spans over 10 degrees of latitude from the Northland region of the North Island down to Dunedin south of the Central Otago district on the South Island (more than the latitude difference between Champagne, France and Naples, Italy), it feels like there has to be more to the New Zealand wine story that just their ubiquitous Sauvignon blanc.

I mean, come on, this is a land that was able to bring to life on screen the diverse terrains Tolkien’s imagination in the Lord of the Rings series. Certainly there has to be a treasure trove of unique terroir that can be married to different varieties in magical ways.

As a wine geek and consumer, I would love to learn more about some of the 50+ other grape varieties grown in New Zealand.

What about Albariño in Gisborne? Syrah from Hawke’s Bay? Pinot blanc from Central Otago? Petit Verdot from Waiheke Island?

I know those varieties probably won’t excite the patio pounders and cafe sippers who guzzle down Kim Crawford, Oyster Bay and Nobilo by the caseful but it is certainly an answer for the legions of drinkers who’ve grown fatigued of Sauvignon blanc as is the inevitable fate for every fashionable variety.

Perhaps Gibb’s book would not only answer that fatigue but maybe also give a reason to give New Zealand’s old standby of Sauvignon blanc a fresh look with new eyes?

How to Import Wine: An Insider’s Guide (2nd Edition) by Deborah M. Gray. (To be released August 13th, 2018)

Gray’s first edition of How to Import Wine from 2011 was an extremely valuable resource for me in studying for the business unit of the WSET diploma.

It laid out clearly a lot of the complexities behind finding clients, building brands as well as the licensing, regulations and expenses that go into importing wine and finding distribution for those wines. It’s a far less romantic reality than you would imagine after reading Kermit Lynch’s Adventures on the Wine Route.

And then there is the reality of a rapidly changing market–driven particularly by Millennials and our wanderlust tastes. The second edition of Gray’s book looks to tackle some of those changes along with new laws and regulation that have emerged since the previous edition.

In Vino Duplicitas: The Rise and Fall of a Wine Forger Extraordinaire (paperback) by Peter Hellman. (To be released August 21st, 2018)

Seems like folks love reading (and writing) about rich folks getting snookered on wine.

Similar to how Benjamin Wallace’s The Billionaire’s Vinegar chronicled Hardy Rodenstock’s forgeries and scandals, Hellman takes a look at the build up and fall out of Rudy Kurniawan’s nearly 10 year con of infiltrating the big spenders clubs of the wine world and then blending his own fake bottles of legendary wines to sell to his buddies.

Hellman’s book was originally released in hardcover and audio book back in July 2017 and is a great read for folks who like historical non-fiction along with a peak into the gaudy wine drinking lifestyles of people who pop Petrus and DRC like a Sunday brunch wine.

Photo by Camw. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Why have mimosas when you can have La Tache? Assuming it’s real of course.

I also recommend checking out the 2016 documentary Sour Grapes which covers the Rudy Kurniawan from the perspective of those who knew Rudy as well as his victims and the people who brought him down.

That film also introduced me to the awesome work of Maureen Downey (aka ‘The Sherlock Holmes of Wine’) who was at the forefront in exposing Kurniawan. The day she releases a book on wine forgery, you better believe I will be snapping that sucker up on preorder.

The Wines of Eastern Europe by John Hudelson PhD. (To be released August 1st, 2018)

Photo by David Boyle. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Seriously, Pošip is a fantastic white wine! Kind of like a less green and pungent New Zealand Sauvignon blanc.

Admittedly the wines of Bulgaria, Slovenia, Hungary, Romania, Georgia, Croatia and the like are a bit of a blind spot for me. Sure I’ve had Tokaji before (including a huge jackpot score with The Somm Game on my last trip to Vegas) and my mind was blown away on my trip to Croatia with how incredibly delicious their whites made from Pošip, Grk and Maraština were.

I’ve also had an oddball Bulgarian, Georgian and Romanian wine but outside of flashcard WSET knowledge about Bull’s Blood, Fetească Regală, Saperavi and the like I don’t really have much in-depth knowledge about the wines and culture of this part of the world. And I doubt that I’m alone in sharing this blind spot.

But exciting things are happening in the wine industries of Central and Eastern Europe with new winemakers taking fresh approaches to their bevy of unique indigenous varieties–to say nothing of the Natural Wine Movement that seems to have its spiritual home here.

With 386 pages written by John Hudelson, the author of Wine Faults: Causes, Effects, Cures (which was super valuable to me during my winemaking studies), I can see The Wines of Eastern Europe going a long way towards filling in that gaping blind spot.

Though giving Hudelson’s previous work on wine faults, I’ll be really curious to see how he approaches the topic of sulfite use and natural wines.

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Wine Geek Notes 3/6/18 — Reverse French Paradox, Damaged Wines and Washington Vineyards

Photo by Alec Vuijlsteke. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0
Here is what I’m reading today in the world of wine.

Interesting Tweets and Weblinks

In France, is wine still a national treasure? Or is it a health risk? by James McAuley at The Washington Post. Brought to my dash via Eric Orange of LocalWineEvents.com (@worldwineevents)

Apparently the health minister of the country that gave us the French Paradox is railing against the consumption of any type of alcohol, including wine, touting the bold statement that “’In moderation’ shouldn’t be used anymore”. Yikes! Needless to say French vignerons (and the French President) aren’t pleased.

Personally, I think that while we shouldn’t sugarcoat the negative impacts of alcohol consumption, I firmly believe that “In Moderation” is a vital outlook for all things in life–including wine.

Damaged Wines to Hit the Market by W. Blake Gray (@wblakegray) for WineSearcher.com (@WineSearcher). Brought to my dash via Rabbit Ridge Winery (@RabbitRidgeWine).

Kind of like with used cars, wine buyers should be mindful of the possibility of hurricane, flood and fire damage wines hitting the market. Gray gives a lot of great tips from expert Maureen Downey (@moevino) on what to keep an eye out for. I found this quote from Gray the most helpful.

Photo by Mario Fornasari from Ferrara, Italy. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

I would probably give wines that survive an earthquake a few weeks to recover from the “bottle shock” as well.

It’s important to note that heat-damaged wine is not immediately ruined. Heat affects the tannin structure of wine in unpredictable ways.

Some wines might even taste better shortly after being exposed to heat, but they will not last long in the cellar. Downey said when she knows she has a heat-damaged wine, sometimes she shrugs her shoulders, drinks it and wonders what it might have been if properly stored.

— W. Blake Gray, March 6th, 2018

This is a takeaway you can use even if you have the unfortunate incident of “wine trapped in a hot trunk” during the summer. Accept that you probably lost some positive attributes. Give it at least a week to settle from the shock and plan to drink it soon. While miracles do exist and potentially the wine could still age and give pleasure, it’s better to err on the side of caution and enjoy it sooner rather than later.

Taste Washington Wine Month

While doing some research for my 60 Second Review of the Gifford Hirlinger Malbec, I stumbled across the very cool website Everyvine.com! I haven’t fully explored the site yet but I totally geeked out on their vineyard search feature.

Here is a detailed Google Map image of 102.55 acres of Ciel du Cheval Vineyard on Red Mountain.

Here’s Owen Roe’s Outlook Vineyard.

Here’s Pepper Bridge Vineyard.

You can zoom in on particular blocks and see where the different varieties are planted, get details about climate, topography and soils. Lots of fun stuff!

Washington wine grape 2017 harvest down by 16 percent by Andy Perdue (@GreatNWWine) for Great Northwest Wine. Brought to my dash via WinesNorthwest (@WinesNorthwest).

The headline sounds more jarring than it really is. Yes, the 2017 harvest was down but it was down compared to the record setting 2016 harvest that was the largest in Washington State history. Even Perdue notes in the 2nd paragraph that 2017 still tied 2014 for the second largest harvest in state history.

In a tweet reply, Lagana Cellars from Walla Walla (@LaganaCellars) highlights this and also gives some great insight about the vintage.

BTW, if you are not following Lagana Cellars on Twitter, you should. Like Rabbit Ridge Winery that I linked to above, I find lots of great content and behind-the-scene perspective from these winery accounts. They have great social media people running them. If you are in Washington, definitely check out Lagana’s wines as well. They were one of the stand-outs at my recent Walla Walla tasting. Haven’t had Rabbit Ridge yet but I’m sure I’ll rectify that in April when I’m down in Paso Robles.

But, headline and tweets aside, the big reason I linked to the Perdue article above was this fascinating little nugget about Riesling.

Riesling fell to 33,000 tons from 41,300. This is widely viewed as a market correction by Chateau Ste. Michelle, the world’s largest Riesling producer.

Whoa! When Chateau Ste. Michelle is pulling up Riesling vines, something is going on. I kind of get the idea of “market correction” but it doesn’t feel like we’re at a market saturation point for Riesling. If anything, I would think we’re getting close to being over saturated with Cabernet Sauvignon but Cab is Still King and still being planted like crazy.

This thing with Riesling is something worth exploring a little more. This year’s Riesling Rendezvous is in Australia with the event coming back to Chateau Ste. Michelle in 2019. I wonder if we’ll have more clarity about this “market correction” by then.

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