“Sod the wine, I want to suck on the writing. This man White is an instinctive writer, bloody rare to find one who actually pulls it off, as in still gets a meaning across with concision. Sharp arbitrage of speed and risk, closest thing I can think of to Cicero’s ‘motus continuum animi.’

Probably takes a drink or two to connect like that: he literally paints his senses on the page.”

DBC Pierre (Vernon God Little, Ludmila’s Broken English, Lights Out In Wonderland ... Winner: Booker prize; Whitbread prize; Bollinger Wodehouse Everyman prize; James Joyce Award from the Literary & Historical Society of University College Dublin)





01 February 2009


Matters Of Youth And the Lack Of It: Shortening Tendons; Lengthening Teeth

Sorry to go on so much about the Frogs, but they’ve let me down again.

When they threatened Australia with court actions and trade sanctions over our use of their words, like Champagne and Burgundy, they should have outlawed all Australian sommeliers.

If I get one more smarmy little spike-haired ponce sommelier - in a restaurant in which he/she/it could not afford to eat without selling drugs – telling me I’ve got a wine wrong, or that so-and-so makes the best this or that, or that this is so-and-so’s best wine by far, and not the one I want, I shall begin to write about them.

Sommelier is an old French word that comes from sompter, or someter, which is the driver of a pack horse, camel, mule or ox. That beast, the quadruped one, was called a sauma or somier. A sompter hors drove a pack horse. These mouthsful of air fell down from the old Greek sattein, which means to pack, or stuff.

I do believe that some our new breed of sompters are well-trained and actually pretty good at tipping a drink into a glass without first appraising it by jamming the bottle up their snotty, well-powdered noses right at your elbow, but fewer of them fail to knowingly snort the cork then nod sagely after they’ve poured your glass, and bugger all of them manage to serve a bloke without some form of abysmally presumptuous condescension.

Which is a bit of a stretch of the old elastic for a delivery kid with a mule.

Cocaine is not the drug for servants. Nor, in fact, is speed. Then comes the eccy gen, who are lasciviously over-intimate and presumptuous when they have absolutely no right to be.

Sattein them!

Rather than waste ten minutes continuing this diatribe, I shall reflect upon a letter I sent, four years ago, to that glimmering tower of vanity publishing, WBM, which in my case is an acronym for Won’t Bullshit Me.

It went a bit like this:

“… the Australian wine press has a decidedly Dad’s Army look about it, which is a bit of a worry considering taste buds don’t last forever, and when the industry is always looking for ways to better connect with young people … few could argue the average age of our wine scribes is a little on the high side.”

So wrote Anthony Madigan in WBM (“Rising Stock – an hour with Nick Stock”) in the June 2005 issue.

Before such ageism – terrible word – disappears from the shrinking list of acceptable behaviours, this matter of the lengthening of wine critic’s teeth deserves discussion.

At the ripe and juicy age of fifty-three, I finally feel sufficiently experienced in the arcane world of wine to suspect that my respect for Nick Stock is well founded.

But think: he claims the best wine he has tasted is the 1978 La Tache Domaine de la Romanee Conti, which he has had “a couple of times”.

Provided Nick first drank it legally at eighteen, the wine was already twelve years old. While nobody should begrudge his awe, he had missed its first transformation from the stiff awkwardness of its youth to the supple, voluminous majesty of its middle age. I have no doubt he would enjoy it now, as it reaches its peak, but how could he reflect on its infant structure when he missed it?

Which is not to say a younger critic cannot write in an opinionated entertaining way about wine; or a young sommelier cannot reliably recommend and properly present good wines or reasonably judge their condition before presenting them to customers in the correct manner. It’s just that their opinion cannot be trusted as deeply as the opinion of critics who have the advantage of some years of immediate experience on their side. How many years? In the event of great Burgundy, thirty years? Forty?

Middle age, in other words, is where a wine critic can FIRST begin to reliably reflect on the quality of wines.

Until you’ve watched several great wines, from several great regions, vintages and varieties, develop from the flowering of their vines, through their ferments and delinquent juvenility, to their prime, and on into the nether regions of the twilight zone, then that person cannot possibly speak with genuine authority about such wines.

Sure, we’ve gotta start somewhere; there’s as much room for kiddy lit as there’s need for kiddy likker.

I’m a writer. I want more people to learn to read. And I’m a drinker, who needs more people to sit and drink with. And I’m growing older, so I need more younger people to excite me and fang me and show me the stuff I missed or forgot.

But consider: while my favourite wine varies as much as my mood or location, probably the one I quote most is the Paul Jaboulet La Chappelle Hermitage 1961. I’ve been extraordinarily lucky to have drunk this on four occasions, from six bottles, two of which were magnums. While I haven’t had my kisser in a glass of it for seven years now, I could still dictate the tasting notes with ease. I was thirty when I first had it (with Gerard Jaboulet), and it was 21. So while I’d missed its youth, like Nick’s La Tache, I knew - before it went from my eager young hooter to my lips - that this was a thing of utter beauty.

Precisely what made it great has taken me another 23 years to appreciate, including pilgrimages, in good years and bad, to the vineyard to sniff its air and taste its dirt and discuss it and its siblings with its makers and their neighbouring rivals. I trust I have at least another 23 years in me to watch it fade.

The La Chappelle 1978 is another matter. I have nuzzled it numerous times since its birth, which I almost attended.

In Jancis Robinson's Vintage Timecharts, Gerard predicted that wine would cruise right on past now and well into the future. To convince me, he autographed the book and sent it to me. He was right: that '78 just sings on and on and on. It may well outlast me, but it's too expensive for these battered pockets.

If I had the money, we could go down together, that '78 and me. Right on through to be with dear Gerard.

But this obsession with age alone takes our attention from other aspects of my argument which are more important to both writers and readers. My criticism of others in this business is more concerned with their writing ability than their age. Who talks of any wine critic’s ability to write in a way which is as engaging and inspiring as it is authoritative and educational?

Before becoming a wine critic, I wrote about various other subjects in a wide range of media. A decade reviewing rock music was most valuable in my crossover to wine. But it’s one thing to create or report stars of one’s own age for readers of the same ilk, and another to write to a broader, less-informed, and certainly less confident and opinionated audience in a way that wins their trust and regular attention. I habitually read the music press to compare my style to writers that much younger people read and respect, and try, as best I can, to keep some street cred in my crit without talking like a chipmunk.

And that, after all, is the primary responsibility of the hired pen. We’re not there to sell wine, but papers. If we can’t sell newspapers for their owners, what are we doing hogging space in their pages? We’re certainly not there working for the wine industry. We’re there to examine it, consider it and discuss it intelligently in an entertaining and reliably honest manner. Once we attract and hold readers by deft manipulation of those complex and hard-won skills, and we're selling lots of newspapers, then we might earn sufficient respect for our readers to buy some of the wine we recommend.

That’s always secondary to selling newspapers, but once the readers who buy the newspapers to read your work begin to trust your recommendations and buy more of them because they find they agree with you and talk about all this with their mates more newspapers get sold and only then more wine.

In a town like Adelaide, you must presume that nearly all of your readers already know more about wine than your editor does. You try recommending bullshit booze to Adelaideans, and not only do they immediately cease buying newspapers, but they'll take your editor to lunch and tell him to sack you.

Which he'll relish.

So you never talk down, you write the truth, and you only ever recommend wines that you know you'd like to drink more of. If the readers take your advice, the winemaker makes some money, and you're already on ahead looking for the next discovery.

Funny thing is, not many editors I’ve worked for have ever understood this. Dumb fucks.

One called me his squirt writer. He called my column the Squirt column. We never even met. Then he was moved along.

Sommeliers are there to sell the restaurant by pleasing customers, not push wines for a rake-off. Not to humiliate and condescend or be sickeningly over-familiar flogging something whose makers paper the flogger's pocket, or powder its nose.

This leads to another key problem that few address. Partly due to the dearth of good writing and reliable criticism, the time when every newspaper and most magazines had an experienced wine writer with a certain amount of skill and space is nearly gone. All over the world, wine columns are shrinking, while more space goes to novices.

And why should a publication with no bread column, or no fruit column, have a wine column? Because there’s less advertising in bread and fruit. And who advertises wine? The monopolist liquor chains who sell mainly wines that no serious critic could write honestly about and still be published without litigation.

There is little light in this tunnel. That’s where those editors imagine their wine writer should be: recommending Two Buck Chuck.

Then, when I read the glossy reams of gastroporn that seem to have made food something to photograph rather than devour, I spew.

People cannot seem to be recognised for their immense gastronomic skill unless they get on friggin television. Enough fat cooks eating with their mouths full on television!

If those endless volumes of psuedo-gastronomic published pap were seriously examined by, say, the judges of the Booker Prize, would any of us win a gong? No way. Could any of us write a piece that Q or Wallpaper or New Yorker would publish? I doubt it.

How could we? By going beyond the simple cant of recommending hundreds of products which barely have a point of difference. How many wine writers mention the intense social and health problems booze causes?

How many mention the massive environmental destruction caused by the wine industry’s monocultural fixations and abuse of our limited water resources?

How many have bothered to seriously research the geology below that gives the earth and its fruit its flavour?

Fascinating yarns be here.

Things to read.

This may even take some pressure off those wine writers who aren’t millionaires. There’s always an intrinsic conflict of interest in a relationship where we critics can only learn our stuff by guzzling free samples of many thousands of wines. How much did my palate cost me to train? Twenty-eight years of extremely low wages, for a start. But, in replacement prices, it cost the business which I critique three or four million bucks worth of wine.

So who owes who?

Doesn’t make sense. Maybe my grandmother was right. We shared a birthday party; she was 100, I was forty. “And how old are you?” she asked, in her Norse Shetland lilt.

“Forty, Sarah”, I said.

“Och”, she retorted, “Ye’re not to be trusted!”

“Why not?”

“Too frae removed from the mysteries o’ berrith and death to be terrustworthy”, she said.

She spent the next three and a half years becoming a baby again.

I’m still lost in the middle, and I know I must struggle to be in the company of the very young and the very old, lest I cloy.

I don’t want my youth back. When they say that youth is wasted on the young, I snigger, disbelieving. It’s horrible, and confusing, and deeply scarring, and I reckon the little bastards deserve every minute of it.

There’s a story about the ninety-something years old Groucho Marx complaining to his Doctor.

“But Mr. Marx”, pled the Doc, “I can’t possibly give you your youth back!”

“I don’t want my youth back”, Marx said... “your job is to make me older and older and older!”

I’m with Groucho.

And whatter we gonna call these punks when the French take sommelier back?

Smellers'll do.

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