A little coda to my earlier blog piece, in which I wondered whether the immediate access to universal information might be crippling to people who no longer can rely on gatekeepers or reliable guides to establish orders of salience. I opined that this might well be true in general, but I had reason to assume it was true of the wine world.
I got an email from an interested reader, who rejoices under the moniker “Dan O”, and who thought I
was too pessimistic. He set about performing an experiment with his three teenage children (and their exchange student from Italy), in order to see exactly how they navigated the unmapped online world. In effect he asked them to detail their relationships to information in the digital realm, and how they managed their ways through it without the maps we thought we needed in our “simpler” time.
He wrote that I’d be struck with “how cynical they are even though they’re teenagers. They take EVERYTHING with more than a grain of salt, and since they’ve seen so many scams, come-ons, and outright lies, it’s intriguing what they look for to signify gatekeeping.” He went on to share some detail: “they look at domains and whether its on a dot-gov, or dot-edu. They look at the credentials of the author. They search on the author and they look for a track record publishing in the field they’re writing about - [one of our daughters] mentioned one author she found when researching a topic who had no other posts on the topic, but many posts on conspiracy theories! In one of the most revealing comments they made (and riffed on), they look at the ads on a web page!! If they’re “sketchy”, they know to be wary of the content! They look to well known brands (e.g.: Washington Post, New York Times, which they mentioned by name), and said that if it’s made it through their editorial process, they consider it vetted (they distinguish between “news” and the opinion pages). This led Leo, our Italian exchange student, to say that he looks to the Italian government news portal, vs. a commercial news outlet.”
I remarked that these seemed like uncommonly intelligent, savvy young people. Cynicism is a by-product of intelligence, I think, but it’s reassuring to hear they have their own means of navigating the miasma of information coming at them (and all of us) to determine its usefulness on (even) an ad-hoc scale of validity. To put it another way, one possible takeaway could be, smart people will create their own means of assessing standards in the absence of the more mapped and codified ones we knew in our time.
But what must this be costing them? In return for astonishing access to information, the world withholds the organizing short-cuts we took for granted. On one hand it’s certainly a fire that tempers their mental steel, but it seems like a huge, huge ask.
How must it be for those who aren’t such smart cookies? I’m quite willing to admit that our gatekeepers and standards and hierarchies were often constricting – I myself rebelled against many of them – but how does someone proceed when there’s nothing to bounce off of? Just a glom of information from a thousand sources with little to no vetting? You need almost superhuman powers of discernment to navigate it. Selective blindness helps. A generalized cynicism does too. But while persons of the digital age have enormously more information than we (geezers) did, they have to do a huge amount of heavy lifting to sift through it for whatever nuggets of gold may lie within the dross.
On reading these words, DanO wrote me with more thoughts of his own. I include them here, and thank DanO for caring enough to engage.
DanO: “Say what you will about [Robert] Parker and the oversized impact he had on the wine industry, but back in the day, his monthly newsletter (we all remember that particular shade of yellowish-tan) was a go-to source for his opinion (score) and tasting notes. Over the years, I, probably like many people who went down the wine rabbit hole, learned that my own tastes were different from Parker’s, but, even so, by calibrating my likes and dislikes to his adjectives I was able to use Parker as a resource and yes, a Gatekeeper (don’t get me started on wines he flags with “New Oak” – gates can slam shut as well as open!).
TERRY: This is true, and it’s one of the reasons I appreciated Parker, regardless of whether I concurred with his judgments or with the metastasizing of the “100-point scale.” Parker wasn’t a moving target, as DanO clarifies, but rather a reliably fixed point against which one could compare ones own views. Moreover, he was indefatigable and incorruptible, and within his frame of reference, he was reliable. Of course he amassed too much power, but much of it was handed to him by wine merchants who made the devil’s bargain, having decided it was easier to let an ostensibly disinterested third party sell wine for them. Yes, we all remember Parker getting peevish and thin-skinned in his later years, and there is a decent case to be made that he did a lot of harm to the wine world. In my own opinion, he did more good than harm, and it’s been interesting to see the vacuum that followed his retirement; a lot of minimally influential floggers of tasting notes and point scores, and an industry that’s had to re-learn how to sell wine and gain loyal customers by virtue of their own integrity and reliability. In short, say what you will about Parker, but he was just about everything one could ask for as a gatekeeper.
DanO seems to agree. “As for today, I will freely admit I have different weights that I put upon the various reviewers on Vinous (with some more Gatekeeper than others), and I use Allen Meadows’ Burghound, but again filtered through my palate transposed onto his adjectives. But, like other old(er) folks who came of age in the pre-digital era, all of these “Gatekeepers” are folks I first encountered through the wine world and my other pre-digital Gatekeepers. I cannot imagine what it would be like to start from scratch with the firehose of info and opinion that comes at you when you merely touch the internet tap. I also recognize that I was and am willing to pay for these Gatekeepers, whereas if I were not, I wouldn’t have access to them, and what’s left (CellarTracker?) can work with a large enough sample, but lacks the consistent single person to calibrate off.
I also lament the loss of another type of Gatekeeper, your local wine shop employee who knows you and your palate. [He] is an endangered species. I moved to the Greater Bay Area in the spring of 1986. Armed with a modest but regular income as a graduate student, I walked into a wine shop in Redwood City and when a big dude with a big head of blonde hair walked up to me and asked if he could help me, I replied, “Yes….sell me a case of wine!” He said, “Anything in particular?” I said, “I dunno. Pick a grape variety. Pick a country or a part of the world. Sell me a case. I’ll write down what I think of each bottle, and when I bring them back, we’ll go over my notes, and repeat the experiment.” Ralph, who is still at [the store], became one of my primary “wine dudes.” I bought a case of wine as often as I could afford it, and, over the months and years, [we] continued the conversation, and gradually learned what I [did and didn’t] like . We have since gone through several younger staff, until last January our latest informed us that he just didn’t have time for us.”
TERRY: Wow. I wonder what he was doing that was more important than helping a loyal customer? The larger point, though, is that in the absence of persons who have become gatekeepers by consensus, we need to find our own. We almost need to create our own. The old Craig Clairborn quote that “The best restaurant is the one that knows you best” applies here. The most useful wine guide for you is the retailer who wants you to be happy so that you’ll return to buy more wine. But whom can you trust? I don’t have an answer, except the usual platitudes about word-of-mouth and trial and error.
But we are drifting.
If the takeaway is, “Really smart people will manage, albeit differently than we did,” I would indeed feel a little relieved. But for the rest of us who found it useful to have “authorities” we could trust, or challenge or refute, I can’t fathom finding ones way in a grey and unmapped world. It doesn’t seem to work with wine, and I can barely fathom that it works anyplace else.
But the action wasn’t over. I heard also from a Mr. Jason Lefler, who had this to say:
JASON: As for the battle for reality, my position is not a defeatist one; rather that the rules of engagement have changed and adaptation is essential. There are a lot of different mapmakers these days. The landscape can be rendered in a variety of ways - some people want to see hiking paths, others celebrity houses, others locations of historical import. I think we are finding out these days just how interested people are in maps of 'terroir refinement wines' now that there are other maps for sale.
TERRY: I think I know what you mean, but let me paraphrase. You seem to be saying that, faced with a lot of ways to approach wine (as opposed to the fewer but more “authoritative” ones we had before) people are spontaneously choosing what you’re calling “terroir refinement wines.” Am I right?
JASON: Even in my relatively young wine career, it was still possible to receive and synthesize knowledge from experts and produce a coherent, orthodox and incrementally personal understanding of the world of wine.
TERRY: Sure, but these people had paid the necessary dues to be regarded as guides or teachers or what have you. That seems to me to contrast hugely with our current state, where anyone with a laptop can be a blogger. I resemble that remark.
JASON: As I have seen many traditional expert voices transition into spokespeople, I have relaxed my fervor on maintaining orthodoxy for new entrants into wine. I realize that my beloved stories, er wines, now have to evangelize in a much more assertive way than before, or [they’ll] lose share. This troubles me, because the effects of losing terroir wine are [also to lose] culture and then the terroir itself.
Those are really important things to me, personally. But the threat doesn't come from an emergent minimalist, truth-seeking faction. It comes, as always, from the cold cynicism of the marketplace- not from people passionate about the product. Proponents of natural wine can be restlessly curious, ideological, earnest, naive, unskilled, rude, YOUNG, etc etc. Those attributes sound like a really welcome addition to a living culture of wine, even if I'm not a regular consumer of said wines.
TERRY: I’m deliberately trying not to get drawn into the rabbit-hole of the “natural wine” discussion. But to properly respond to you, let me lay these few things out.
Natural wine was a necessary and spontaneous spasm of repulsion from the spoofulated steroidal-bruiser wines that became the popular-kid wines for many years.
The impulses behind the “movement” were and are in large part humane, wholesome, spiritual and loving.
Most of the wines do full justice to those impulses.
Some do not. And those that do not, as Ms. Feiring herself has written, do damage to the entire community.
They are not merely unattractive wines, they are (or can often be) fundamentally flawed in ways that render them repugnant.
They are, however, defended with the same fervor with which the good wines are.
This makes me think that those people are operating without a commonly accepted set of standards, both technical and aesthetic. This is a crucially serious problem. Especially in our age of disdain for the very idea of Science, reality, and truth itself.
End of sermon.
JASON: [I’d say that] they are seeking revelation and a personal connection in their wine, in their own way, and it is important to recognize that their work is nascent. I'd say that if the orthodox world of wine won't embrace the natural wine movement just yet (as you can probably infer, I think this should be done sooner rather than later), it should support it as a parallel reality for the time being and focus its efforts elsewhere.
TERRY: Basically I agree. But we need to take care to say exactly what we mean by “support it as a parallel reality,” because I cannot accept that such support entails looking the other way when someone extols the virtues of sweaty-bog-shrimp wines as though these were proper and in some arcane way equal to the virtues of technically competent wines – explicitly including technically competent natural wines. Yes, it looks unseemly for us boomers to admonish younger drinkers whom, I agree, are improving the world. But I insist that if we fail to draw their attention to the (understandable!) mistakes of their youths, we are actually disrespecting them by implying that they’re not worth the effort to teach and correct.