What Does It Mean To Be A “Critic” In Wine And Food Writing?

the store Uncommon Objects, in Austin, TX

Most of the time, writing on this blog is like dancing alone in my living room; nobody sees me except, perhaps, a few dozen onlookers clustered in the apartment across the way, who casually glance over as I flail around clumsily, to some tune they can’t hear, or the proverbial beat of my own drum.

In other words, I write here for the small group of readers (for whom I’m extremely grateful) that are interested in my voice, my writing. I am not, by any means, the most authoritative perspective on wine and food in the world; my writing here is often diluted, or hastily composed due to the fact that I am far overworked, and it’s also probably a bit snarky from time to time, which might be derived from my overall neurotic composure thanks to almost nine years of living in New York City. This blog was never really meant to be a blog; I always saw myself as a journalist, and used this site as a portfolio for prospective editors. When an audience came, I was glad, but it wasn’t something I’d fished for, and I also wasn’t quite sure what to do with it.

Which is all to say: it’s very startling to, suddenly, have large numbers of people watching me dance. All my awkward moves are revealed, my lack of formal training and my imperfect sense of rhythm. An artist would have to navigate such an impromptu performance with only the highest level of confidence, or she would fail immediately; weakness would take over, she would be booed offstage.

When I wrote a response to Bianca Bosker’s piece last week, I was very emotionally moved, as if her article had somehow been affront to me personally. That said, my response wasn’t entirely impulsive; first, I let a few days go by after her article came out, and I read what other people had written and asked myself if I really wanted to chime in, as people were already posting rebuttals. But then what I wrote came out so quickly, and it just felt right. It was like those moments on the dance floor when you’re just in the flow and your body knows what direction to move in, you don’t need to guide it. 

It may have been impassioned in a good way, and people do seem to have appreciated my take on the Times article (and I do stand by what I said–I really, really do love natural wine and it’s important to me that people are at least aware of its presence, if they are in the slightest bit interested in such things) but I don’t feel like I gave the most elegant performance. I feel there could have been a slightly more . . . rehearsed way of doing it, perhaps?

Sweeping aside the dance analogy for now (although I’m having fun with it), I want to reflect on the role of criticism within wine and food writing. Typically, the idea is that we, the writers, are all out here critiquing the producers and the makers, the winemakers and the chefs, the restaurants, and so on. Criticism, in this vein, is sort of the highest form of service journalism; we’re directing people who already have some level of good taste (because they are reading food or wine writing in the first place) to the experiences and things they will probably appreciate. The same goes for art, music, film criticism.

But what about criticism amongst us writers? How best can we approach this?

Tonight, triggered unsuspectingly by a photo (above) that I took in a shop in Austin, Texas, where I was visiting for an assignment last week, I went rummaging through my old college and grad school books. God, it’s been a long time since I read some of this stuff. After poring through a few sections of James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and Baudrillard’s America, I found my dog-eared copy of All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, a canonical study of Marx by the late Marshall Berman, who taught at CUNY. As if by magic, I opened to a page where I had underlined this quote:

“Criticism, as [Marx] understood it, was part of an ongoing dialectical process. It was meant to be dynamic, to drive and inspire the person criticized to overcome both his critics and himself, to propel both parties toward a new synthesis. Thus, to unmask phony claims of transcendence is to demand and fight for real transcendence.”

I read this, and it sank in: my response to Bianca felt wrong because I hadn’t proposed any kind of synthesis. Instead, I’d been defensive and polarizing.

When Bianca’s article came out, a lot of people brought it into the current political context by calling out, “fake news!” And then the other day, someone commented on a blog post about my writing (ugh, yes, we’re all blogging about each other’s blog posts now), again: “fake news”–!! We’re pointing fingers at each other, rather than looking for transcendence. We’re of the misguided belief that to critique means to be “against” someone; and that the only other choice is to “like” someone (literally, to give them likes on Instagram, etc, to be a follower/supporter). In other words, we think we either have to be nice, on someone’s “team,” or we are against. I don’t want that, and I don’t think it’s productive if we as a group of writers, focused on food and wine, or any group of writers, are to achieve anything with our efforts. I’m not really happy with the way it came out that you had, on one side, the “natural wine defenders,” and on the other side, supposedly, Bianca and all the supposed “natural wine haters.” This doesn’t seem like the right configuration, and it makes the phrase “natural wine” (which I use all the goddamn time, lacking a better signifier for the genre of wines I enjoy and want others to know about) seem even hollower than it already is. (Thank you, Blake, for pointing out this pointless dichotomy.)

Criticism, more so now than ever, should serve to make us better at what we do. It’s not about pinpointing “fake news” and scapegoating the author of such prose. Antonio Gramsci famously spoke of “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” How can we better apply an effectively critical mindset when regarding other writers’ work?

I don’t know, quite yet. But I’m thinking about it. What I do know is, if my super left-wing grad school professor–who wore all black and knew Das Kapital the way some Master Somms know their vintage charts–knew that I was using Marx and Gramsci in this context, he would probably try to revoke my M.A. in anthropology. As long as I get my money back, I would be totally OK with that. Then again, I do still appreciate these books.

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Roter Veltliner, In The Right Hands And From The Right Vineyard

 

img_9229The wines of young couple Martin and Anna Arndorfer have a particularly vibrant energy, which I insist on believing has something to do with their life partnership. Yin and Yang, maybe? (And you thought that biodynamics was esoteric—now I’m judging wines based on the romance between people who made them!)

But it makes sense—two people from winemaking families who fall in love and decide to make fantastic wine in the Kamptal using a non-interventionist approach and working with unique parcels, and over time they become increasingly adept at their craft, and motivated by the natural wine movement; this is by all means a recipe for beautiful wines.

Which is why I’m really excited that New York City is now getting a vertical of one of the Arndorfers’ most unique wines, a Roter Veltliner from an extremely well-situated vineyard that was planted in 1979. (Sorry, rest of the country—this wine is super limited and only a few cases of the back vintages came to NYC, but you can drink all the other delicious Arndorfer wines, don’t worry!)

Roter Veltliner is not a “noble” grape variety—it’s generally considered something of a workhorse, which is why so many vineyards in choice locations were ripped up and replanted with Riesling in recent decades. I don’t have a lot of very specific information on that right now, but as you may know, when a grape becomes popular on the global market—as Riesling did increasingly in the Aughts—growers typically rush to plant it in place of whatever older varieties they have. I love discovering the older grapes, though, and generally speaking I find that they have a lot of character.

The Arndorfers’ Roter Veltliner is raised in small old french barriques as well as stainless steel barrels, with fairly extensive lees aging (around 10 months on most of the wines)—and I think this approach has a lot to do with the wine’s charm. Thanks to the lees contact and the large oak casks, the wines are unctuous, slightly nutty, richly textured; they sort of beg you to roll the liquid around in your mouth and savor its complexity. Martin and Anna have an appreciation for traditional approaches (like large oak casks, which they use on some of their other wines), and they go easy on the sulfites, resulting in very expressive wines across the board—but these Roter Veltliner wines are particularly interesting, as the grape doesn’t typically get much respect. They were knock-outs with the dim sum food we had while tasting.

img_9239The vineyard site, called Gaisberg, is about 300 meters up—about as high as vines go in that setting—and is surrounded by top Riesling vineyards (see the picture of a map with the site circled) and consists of primary rock. Martin purchased it from a grower who didn’t much care for it or consider it worthy of great wine. But clearly, in the hands of Martin and Anna, the Roter Veltliner grown at this site expresses nuanced flavors and develops well with age.

Four vintages are currently available: 2012 through 2015. The 2012 has 8.5 grams of residual sugar, and its really well situated within the entire wine—the nose is honeyed with caramel inflections and a touch of crème brulée; the rich and creamy mouthfeel is so inviting. The 2013 has a smokier character, and the same great texture; it’s a more mineral-driven wine, with a nice thread of acidity. The 2014 is from a difficult vintage (rain throughout August) but you really wouldn’t be able to tell; it’s perhaps a bit more one-note although still wonderfully textured and fresh. The 2015 is very mineral, with wet stones on the nose and palate, and it’s fresh and a touch nutty. These are nuanced wines that deserve to be cellared for a couple of years.

I definitely recommend grabbing one of these bottles if you see them in retail (I hear that Vintry currently carries some); but look out for the Arndorfer wines in general—they have a very good Gruner-Riesling blend that runs about $18-20 on the shelf, as well as a really nice Zweigelt rosé. In general, the Arndorfer wines are real gems and are likely to only get more and more interesting with each passing harvest.

The Zoo Biscuits: A Group Of Winemakers (Not Children’s Cookies) Defining The New South Africa

fullsizerender-1In the February issue of Wine & Spirits Magazine, I have a piece about a group of micro-négociants (meaning, they purchase fruit instead of owning vineyards, but not at a massive scale) calling themselves the “Zoo Biscuits,” which is what South Africans call animal crackers. South Africa’s wine industry goes back to the 16th century, but it’s only since the end of formal Apartheid that winemakers have been able to travel and do international business, so it’s an exciting time for that industry at this very moment. The Zoo Biscuits, who number about ten different winemakers who are also good friends–some even went to college together and were roommates there–are sourcing grapes from some of the country’s cooler vineyard sites, and they have a non-interventionist approach that results in deliciously drinkable wines. They are also making an effort to show younger generations of drinkers that wine can be cool, fun, approachable, and also really good. W&S is only in print, so grab an issue at your local bookseller, or at Whole Foods. Print’s not dead! Cheers!

Support French Vignerons At Racines NY + Chambers Street This Month

screen-shot-2016-10-24-at-4-00-34-pmIt’s not easy to be a small wine producer anywhere in the world, but it has been particularly hard in France these past few years, with each vintage suffering from devastating frosts, hailstorms, and drought. Some of the producers I visited in the Loire Valley over the summer were anticipating that about 70 percent, or more, of their harvest was lost because of spring frosts. The French government does provide some insurance compensation, but not much.

New York City wine lovers have an easy way to provide support to these growers, over the next two weeks: Racines NY and Chambers Street Wines are participating in Vendanges Solidaires, an initiative from the French wine community to aid vignerons affected by extreme weather. In a show of solidarity and support, Racines NY and Chambers Street Wine are joining a number of restaurants and wine shops in France to help raise money to aid the most vulnerable and affected winemakers.

Financial aid collected via Vendanges Solidaires will go to those most in need – winemakers who have been established for less than ten years and who suffered 75% losses or more. The restaurant Racines NY will donate $2 from every bottle of French wine sold from October 24th through November 5th. And down the street, retailer Chambers Street Wines will donate $1 from every bottle of French wine sold at the store on October 29th and 30th. As if you needed another good reason to go out and drink some excellent French wine, here you have it.

 

Who Is The Napa Valley Falcon Whisperer, And How Did She Help Make Your Cabernet?

Generally speaking, most wine coverage focuses on two kinds of people in the industry: winemakers themselves, and sommeliers. Logical, yes! But a whole slew of characters are involved in the production of wine, of course. 

rachel-and-falconA few months ago, I was in Napa Valley on a sustainability-themed media trip, and I met the woman whose job it is to use trained falcons to deter berry-eating birds. Stirred by the unconventional nature of her career, I took a deeper dive and profiled her for MUNCHIES. Read here. And next time you’re enjoying a wonderful glass of licorice-and-leather-inflected Smith-Madrone Cabernet from Napa’s Spring Mountain, well, first of all please call me because I would like a glass, too, but also perhaps consider the complexity of the ecosystem–humans, animals, and insects together–that allowed that wine to come into existence. 

Latest Writings: How To Get Into The Somm / Wine Sales Professions

Happy early fall! The best season of year, at least here in New York. I’m back from travels in Champagne and South Africa, and while the jet-lag is strong, I’m diving into my notes and getting to work on stories.

While I was away, my two-part series on wine industry jobs was published on VinePair: first, I wrote about how to become a sommelier, and next I profiled the wine sales profession. With the explosion of wine culture in our country, these jobs are only going to continue to grow, so hopefully the valuable advice that experienced somms + wine reps shared in these pieces will be helpful to aspirants.

You can read my story on what it takes to become a sommelier here, and about life as a wine sales rep here

Cheers!