Recently, I sat down with Brent Gushowaty (@BCPinotNoirInfo), avid Pinot Noir lover and respected colleague. We met briefly while I was doing a pouring at a local VQA liquor store, and once again at the wine bloggers conference in Santa Barbara, California. Early in the morning of July 24th, 2014, shortly following the conference, Brent and myself met up to have a little chit chat about what other than…wine!
A Little Background
Brent is, for lack of better words to describe it, a devoted assessor of British Columbia’s very own Pinot Noir offerings. Every three weeks, he gathers a set panel of tasters in order to evaluate and critique this province’s wines, all in a seriously standardized setting. Brent says the purpose for running his tastings (and website www.bcpinotnoir.com), is that he began tasting B.C. Pinot Noirs again a few years ago, and felt that the world simply didn’t know enough about how well the heartbreak grape variety was doing in the hands of local winemakers. His mission was to provide others with as much info on B.C. Pinot Noir as he could. And so he does.
As mentioned, Brent also attended the conference, and while we were there, we attempted to meet up to discuss some ideas that I had been entertaining. However, with both of us doing what we do, we had to set time aside once we were back in Canuckland.
The idea: as a blogger/wine writer/wine lover, how likely are you to be 100% honest about a wine? As “advertisers” of a product, negative criticism is not usually welcomed. What does “free speech” mean to you as someone who is writing about wine?
After I had provided the idea to Brent, he promptly wanted to clarify how blogging fits into his purpose. He spoke seriously when he said, “My approach hasn’t been about blogging; it’s been about enjoying wine. Blog posts are only one element in this.”
I agreed. The term “blogging” conjures many things. For some, blogging may mean simply stating your points of view or sharing stories. For others, blogging is merely a component to the entire experience of enjoying wine.
As we began to further penetrate the idea, Brent brought up a curiously challenging point. When he addressed the idea of “free speech” as someone who is writing about wine, Brent frankly said, “The winemakers are our audience.”
I admit that I was initially confused by his bold words, as I had personally never entertained the idea that winemakers were ‘listening to others’. Yet, upon further thought, I realized that Brent had brought up an interesting point – the point that those who are drinking the wine are the ones that have the biggest say in the world of wine. Think about it for a minute. Broken down into its very basic form, if a winery puts a wine on a shelf in a liquor store and people buy it but don’t like it, then eventually the winery is crap out of luck because people won’t consume what they don’t like. If winemaking is a capitalist-based model, then it is in the best interest of the wineries to listen to those who are not only buying their products, but also talking about those products.
Essentially, consumers have more power than they realize, and those writing about wine have a lot of power, too. This, once again, brought me back to the article I passionately wrote in August about how bloggers need more respect. If you are so inclined… http://demystifiedvine.com/2014/07/16/wineries-need-to-give-wine-bloggers-more-respect/
As such, Brent and his team of tasters publish their notes on B.C. Pinot Noir unedited. One of the reasons that they do this is because of the fine line between being objective and subjective. Brent explains his reasoning behind this:
“B.C. Pinot Noir should be considered as being in the first circle of pinot noir producing areas along with France, New Zealand, Oregon, Australia and California. As far as wine criticism/blogging is concerned, there is no gain for anyone in being harshly overcritical or bitchy when reviewing a wine. All you are doing is making it about you and not the wine. I think you have a duty to touch honestly on its shortcomings, and you can also opt to simply withhold or simplify praise for what you consider a lesser wine and lavish it on the ones you feel are better.
There is no point in being an uncritical cheerleader either. I like to think that everyone including consumers, winemakers and the wineries are genuinely interested in an honest, balanced assessment of a wine’s positive and negative attributes.”
My interpretation of this was that being publicly open about a varietal, through posting unedited tasting notes from professional tasters, creates an objective opportunity for others to learn about specific varietals, and well, possibly for winemakers to utilize to make better Pinot Noir. However, I returned with the idea that his approach to posting unedited tasting notes is uncharacteristic of the average blogger. The idea is that most wine bloggers, whether by choice or not, do not provide detailed positive or negative notes to begin with.
Brent replied quickly. “My impression is that they do this because they aren’t very articulate – for the most part – [and] it’s not their objective.”
I questioned: “So what is their objective?”
Brent returned with, “Their objective seems to be to convey an impression of a fun lifestyle. That’s just where they’re at; they’re celebrating wine.”
Nodding my head in agreement, I responded, “I think this is a good point. Essentially, the average wine bloggers’ objective is to be subjective. Personally, I always attempt to find what works with a wine and focus on that. This is because I know that liking a wine is a matter of personal taste.”
“You have to have confidence in your palate.” Brent replied. “It’s subjective and that’s good. There are variations in human physical palates, but you can’t let things slide into not being irrelevant.”
This reminded me of a quote I saw in Karen MacNeil’s The Wine Bible. I was reading the section discussing what makes a great wine great, and MacNeil stated,
“One of the most insidious myths in American wine culture is that a wine is good if you like it. Liking a wine has nothing to do with whether it is good. Liking a wine has to do with liking that wine, period.” [pp. 3]
The point that MacNeil is attempting to make, is that you can’t judge an entire varietal based on one experience of a single made brand/vintage/etc. It is ridiculous to assume that all, let’s say Pinot Noir, is good just because you like that particular bottle you bought at the corner liquor store. She continues with,
“Wine requires two assessments: one subjective, the other objective. In this it is like literature. You may not like reading Shakespeare but agree that Shakespeare was a great writer nonetheless. Getting to the point where you are knowledgeable enough to have both subjective and an objective opinion of a wine is one of the most rewarding stages in developing wine expertise.” [pp. 3]
I remember having this lightning bolt thought. “Where do you then draw the line between subjectivity and objectivity in wine?”
Brent grinned. “It’s always a snapshot, and that’s the lovely thing about wine. It is a complicated distinction to be sure, but I think it is more difficult if you don’t have a wide experience of the subject. How well can you objectively rate what is in front of you (or understand your own preferences and prejudices) unless you have experienced great examples of it? A local painter could seem wonderful… and then you set eyes on a great Picasso (or Braque or Titian or Pollock)!”
[sigh] I love talking wine philosophy.
For more information on B.C. Pinot Noir, head on over to Brent’s website. You can search on his website by entering in a winery or a vintage. www.bcpinotnoir.com.