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Robert Mondavi Day and the Evolution of Wine Criticism

There are two unequivocal truths in the world of wine – Robert Mondavi was a legend whose impact is unquestioned and the other shaping factor in wine over the last 30 years has been the indelible imprint of wine ratings.

Robert Mondavi Day on May 16th

In a little less than a month, we’ll mark the first anniversary of wine industry titan Robert Mondavi’s passing.  Few argue about his impact on the business from both an industry and a consumer perspective.  He was a giant who cast a shadow that may be equaled, but won’t be eclipsed.

I’ve been a fan of the man for as long as I’ve been a wine lover, it was Mondavi who greeted me and welcomed me into the world of wine – he was an unknowing ambassador for so many people’s entry into the world of the grape by virtue of his role as unofficial spokesperson for California wine.

In order to commemorate his passing in an unofficial capacity, I’ll be doing a couple of things – on Wednesday I will announce Wine Blogging Wednesday for May that will have a California theme with a loose Mondavi tie-in (in order to be inclusive, he would have wanted it that way.  In addition, I’m pondering creating a Facebook Fan Page for an unofficial declaration of May 16th as “Robert Mondavi Day,” and, finally, I’ve created an embeddable social object for others to use, marking Robert Mondavi Day. 

If you are inclined, please consider grabbing the HTML from my site and embedding the icon/social object on your site to commemorate the anniversary of his passing.

I intend to observe May 16th every year, and if you’re even tangentially a fan of US wine, I urge you to celebrate with me, honoring a man whose impact on our domestic wine life can’t be underscored or minimized.

Dullard Dogma in Wine

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I have been giving a lot of thought to wine criticism lately.  As people posit about the rise of Internet wine writing relative to print journalism, Spectator, Enthusiast, et al, one thing remains very clear to me – ultimately, Spectator and Enthusiast may morph into more of an Advocate style work, with less lifestyle editorial and more of an emphasis on ratings.

Clear, simple and to the point, no pun intended, wine ratings aren’t going anywhere. 

Therefore, our popular media and the cult of personality with critics aren’t going anywhere either.  So, even as our culture speeds out of an aspirational lifestyle focus, one constant will remain – wine consumers of all stripes will still look for arbiters of taste.

Laube and Spectator, Advocate and his team, and others, even emerging voices, borne out of the Internet, will continue with influence.

At this point, it’s cultural that we look to others for guidance or validation in opinion influence.

However, and this is a big however, the limitation, and the void that I think needs to be filled is more of a holistic approach to that arbitration of taste.

Simply, the mark of intelligence is the ability to argue both sides of an issue with equal vigor.  If you’re smart, you have an opinion, but you can address the issue of gun control from both a “liberal” and a “conservative” perspective. 

It’s only the dullard who argues vigorously with dogma.

Reasonably enlightened people, typically those who enjoy wine, understand that our world isn’t fraught with issues black and white, but rather subtle shades of gray.

Therefore, shouldn’t wine criticism follow this same line of thought?

Unfortunately, at least today, it’s not so:  this dullard dogma is a primary limitation to wine criticism:

It’s not a 360 degree perspective on a wine

What would be really helpful, for the development of wine criticism, since it’s not going anywhere, is instead of wine critics dividing up the world and one guy focusing on California, the other on France, etc. is to have two people focus on a country and give notes on the same wine like Siskel and Ebert. 

You get to see pros and cons this way.  The legacy movie critics would frequently disagree on a movie, but at least a consumer walked away understanding an opinion on the movie from two perspectives, more holistically.

I may be more art house than blockbuster in movie taste, but seeing both sides of the issue helped me decide whether a movie was worth seeing.

For example, nothing is as polarizing as oaked California Chardonnay.  It’s also a style that a good many consumers like.

It’s like that for most wine issues related to style – New World vs. Old World, natural wine vs. “normal” wine, oak vs. unoaked, big fruit vs. restraint, food wine vs. high alcohol, etc. 

If wine reviews were undertaken like movie reviews by the old Siskel and Ebert, then a review would present both sides of a wine in a manner that allows a reviewer to make up their own mind, not having to align with a historical understanding of a single critic’s palate.

Call me crazy, but the dullards dogma seems to be something that is easy to move beyond and a primary inhibitor.

Look for a new voice to emerge as the voice of reason in an otherwise unreasonable world, somebody who transcends the hegemony of points to holism, while fitting into a point driven culture.



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Posted in, The Week in Wine. Permalink | Comments (7) |


Comments

On 04/20, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) wrote:

The note and the score are in need of some innovation. An adversarial approach, while obviously not new, is not being done with wine. Although World of Fine Wine does publish
a three person “panel” note and score section that sometimes has sharp divergence.

On 04/20, Arthur wrote:

I have no problem remembering this date. I may not be 100% on the ball here so what HTML should I be grabbing?

Also, interesting analysis and proposal on the future of wine criticism.

On 04/20, Dylan wrote:

Here’s what I like about those dullards of dogma from either side of an issue—they always made me question why: Why would someone be so passionate about this issue without good reason, no one becomes defensive without reason. It’s that line of thinking that always made me interested in both sides of the argument. In that way you never attach to a side because you are told to do so, but you are equipped the reasoning to choose a side (or a compromise between the two). I welcome the idea of two wine critics with their similarities and differences because I welcome balance’s ability to help me decide.

On 04/21, 1WineDude wrote:

I *love* the idea of a Siskel & Ebert style review…

On 04/21, Erika wrote:

What a great post and a neat juxtaposition of two topics that I have a vested interest in. My experience at Robert Mondavi Winery, and a few meetings with him definitely helped catapult my interest in the wine industry. When someone leaks such tremendous passion in the way that Mondavi did, it’s impossible to not follow suit. Where is the badge that you mentioned? I would love to use it.

Secondly, I applaud you for commenting on the importance of wine ratings. This topic is so polarizing, especially in the blog world and I think the whole us vs. them/ratings are evil mentality is really poisonous. I do want people to trust their own palates but I think the voice of experts will always have its place.

Also, since I am in a unique position to comment on the future of Wine Enthusiast Magazine I have to say that I think lifestyle pieces, especially about enjoying wine with food, are here to stay too. Maybe they’re deemed as less aspirational and more about passion and fun, but I think the lifestyle of wine will always be an interesting subject.

The Siskel and Ebert style of ratings is a fantastic idea btw, and something to consider.

On 04/21, Tish wrote:

Nice idea with the RM Day in May. And a Siskel & Ebert type approach to wine sounds fertile for the right duo. Besides the well-informed and pasionate point-counterpoint apprach to criticism, I think the wine scene could take another tip from Siskel & Ebert, namely it is not necessary to review every film out there.

Part of the problem with magazine buying guides, beisdes the claustrophobic effect and disingenuous use of the ratings, is the mind-numbing sameness that results from so-called beat tasters having to write up every bottle of fermented juice under the sun. THis propensity is extra ironic in that the same mags that pile on the tasting notes are simultaneously spending virtually zero time and ink on the socio-political forees that keep people from accessing this seemingly available universe. But that’s a whole nother topic, as they say.

I would not expect the most genuine Siskel-Ebert type tete-a-tetes to come from within any of the glossies. As soon as they start encouraging debate and embracing diversity of opinoin, their faux authority of their immutable, single-critic rated reviews will be devalued.

On 04/21, Jeff wrote:

Thanks for all of the comments, guys (and gals).

Just one note—if you go to the front page of Good Grape at goodgrape.com and scroll down, you’ll see the Robert Mondavi badge and the HTML to grab and place on your site.  If problems, send me a note at jlefevere -at- gmail dotcom

Thanks all!

Jeff


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