This past week, I happened to come across a copy of the Wine Spectator. I’m an online subscriber, so I don’t often see the print version. But this was the 40th anniversary issue. And it got me to thinking about the last 40 years, and all the things that have transpired, in my world and in the wine world, in that time.
Let’s go back to the beginning of my entrée into the wine business. I’d gotten my degree in art, the economy was miserable, and I was living in Altadena, California, with a soon-to-be son on the way. We didn’t know it would be a boy, the test for that hadn’t been invented yet.
Nonetheless, he took the ride in his mamma’s belly up Highway 29 during the summer of ’76. And it was then that I first made my way through the various tasting rooms, writing notes about the wines I was tasting, not spitting enough, and heading to the next one. Little did I know that it was the beginning of a long and winding journey for me.
The 40th anniversary of the Wine Spectator has any number of remembrances by some of their writing staff, about their induction into the wine industry; Thomas Matthews’ resonated with me. Titled, “A Prophetic Harvest,” Matthews chronicled the arc of his life in wine in a way that seemed to parallel what many of us were going through as we came up in wine. I highly recommend you get a copy of the magazine and go to page 155 to read it in full.
Going through the stories in the magazine was like opening up a time capsule. I know now that it isn’t fashionable, or “cool” to talk about things like this. The enoblogosphere craves controversy. It’s the new meth. But rational minds seek moments of reflection as well. Having access to some of the great influencers, many who are in the Wine Spectator pages, has been, as Matthews says, “rich and fulfilling.” One doesn’t often think about it, as we are in the present moving forward, always moving forward. But, once in a while, a glance over the shoulder isn’t so bad. It gives one a perspective that no selfie will never achieve.
Today, it’s fashionable and “cool” to denigrate the power and success of magazines like the Wine Spectator and Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate. We live in a world of revisionist history being recast all the time. All one needs to do is ponder the current political and social climate. Facts don’t matter. It has all landed in the lap of interpretation. You want the truth? Find yourselves a way-back machine. Today the truth matters less than what each and every one of us feels about it. If it isn’t comfortable, just invent your own convenient truth and put it out there. Someone will be sure to agree with you and make you feel better about yourself. But eventually the chickens will come home to roost.
What publications like the Wine Spectator (and the Wine Advocate) did that had never been done before – this is the historical truth – was to provide a forum for the wine world to talk about where it was going. Momentum was picking up. Wines from all over the world were showing up on our shores, and it was the beginning of a Golden Age in Wine. Only, we didn’t know it then.
In the selling game, it gave those of us involved in building the wine business a third party endorsement. We weren’t just taking up the cudgels for whatever was in our warehouses. There were experts, external to our cause and motivations, who would act as agents of endorsement, when we were trying to interest the retailer or restaurateur in buying whatever we had in our bag.
Dunn, Silver Oak, Rombauer. Gaja, Giacosa, Antinori. Dujac, Clair Dau, Robert Carillon. None of these were household names. None of them were “brands.” Most of them were small family operations, looking for their place on the shelf, and on the occasional wine list.
Now some of them are brands. Huge brands. Revered and hated, depending on who you are talking to. No matter. They did the heavy lifting, made the sacrifices, and succeeded or failed, in whichever way their path led them. But not without the help of people like those who worked for the Wine Spectator, which told the stories and found a way to rate which Puligny we should check out, which Nebbiolo we might want to cellar, which Napa Valley Cabernet might have the right amount of sex appeal for our next steak cook-out. Yeah, it all sounds a bit silly and naïve now. It lacked the essential cynicism which fuels so much of what drives people today. It was a simpler time. And not so charged with the polarity of the present, where one must take sides, even if one doesn’t know anything about the subject. Yeah, 1976 is looking a lot better now than it did then.
Nonetheless, we are here, now. The little embryo inside his mamma’s belly just turned 40. And I’m going into my 36th O-N-D holiday selling season. Yeah, I know, most of the folks sitting in that sales room last Friday weren’t around 40 years ago, and that era isn’t as meaningful as the arc of their lives. Understood. But something was built, an ark of sorts, which held a lot of wine and people and information, that got us to this point. And to ignore that is to lose out on the reasons why we can do what we do, in the present.
Every generation has those markers which define their lives. And in these times, the explosion of information dominates our existence. Ferreting out the information, digesting and assimilating it, in our work life and our private lives, is an all-encompassing obsession. That is, if you want to face and embrace the fundamental truths of your life. It does come down to what you can digest and how much you can take in. And what is beneficial for you, and what is toxic.
As far as the wine game goes, we have a lot more taps at the bar to draw from. And it can be overwhelming. Yeah, it was a naïver time, when all we had was the Wine Spectator and Robert Parker to lead us. And yet, they still have great influence; do not fool yourself into revising the truth to fit your opinions. But they have been joined at the bar by more, and other voices, tapping into your consciousness, influencing all of us. And along the way, we have entered into Phase 2 of the Golden Age in Wine, its contours revealed when the new generation, looking back over their 40-year arc, can see more clearly the truth of this new era.