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THE DAVE DOC

There was recently a “debate” (it was more than a kerfuffle and less than a dialectical symposium) in social media about whether the wine-accreditation exams were euro-centric, specifically whether the aroma and flavor associations they used to denote signatures for place and/or grape variety used cognates obscure or unknown to non-Europeans. This goes beyond whatever language wine people might use in our private lives, where we can say whatever we like. There is, I fervently hope, no debate there. The problem arises when we seek to communicate with other people.


I call this the “gooseberry” effect. Most North Americans never tasted gooseberries, yet their flavor is a perfect association for Sauvignon Blanc in relatively cool climates. It is thus correct, strictly speaking, but is it useful to a reader who won’t know what you mean? As a writer I seek to elide this question by insisting we should use the most accurate possible terms, because there are few if any that would be universally understood. That being the case, write your truth.


The online discussion was (I believe) engendered most recently by Meg Maker and it wasn’t long before Washington Post wine writer Dave McIntyre weighed in. I was delighted to see my old friend Dave adding his sensible voice to the discussion, and it made me consider what he is achieving with his Post column.


I mean, how many of them are left? That is, wine columnists writing every week in general-interest daily newspapers? I suspect we can count them on a single hand. Up here in Boston – which most people would tell you is a “good wine town,” we only see Ellen Bhang’s (excellent) columns every four weeks. What’s Dave’s secret?



I added such sagacity as I could muster to the online hoo-ha, and I back-channeled Dave to reestablish contact and to see if I might interview him. He was happy to oblige.


A quick word about method. I can do a simple Q&A but I don’t like to. It’s too constricting. I try instead to encourage a conversation to which I also contribute. One might argue that “the interview is about the subject, not about you,” but I’d reply that we obtain a richer view of the subject with a robust give and take. (One of my standard questions is whether the interviewee has any questions for me.) If you like, you needn’t consider this an interview as much as an in-conversation-with, and I promise I’ll try not to be too intrusive.



TERRY: How many of you are there, that is, people who write weekly wine columns for big city daily newspapers?


DAVE: I guess there are just a handful of weekly wine columnists left. Eric Asimov in the NYT, of course. Lettie Teague in the WSJ. Esther Mobley and Jess Lander do a fantastic job of covering wine for the SF Chronicle — which of course, used to have a stand-alone Wine section back in the glory days of the ‘aughts. Patrick Comiskey writes for the LAT, though I don’t know how often. Some are hanging on in smaller regional papers — Dan Berger and Mike Dunne come to mind. Again, I’m not sure how often they write these days.


TT: Your longevity is noteworthy. To what do you ascribe it?


DM: It’ll be 15 years this October. That is pretty impressive, even to me.


Is this where I’m supposed to say “My undying passion for wine and its stories”? That’s part of it, but really I would attribute my longevity to having a good relationship with my editor and his team; the longevity and stability of said editor and team; their support; and giving them quality product that doesn’t require a whole lot of editing on their part. In those 14.5 years, I’ve only had to tell them once on deadline that I wasn’t going to be able to submit a column. I’m rather proud of that.


 

Now, if I may digress for a moment back to that debate you mentioned at the top. I think it reflects how we as a society have re-evaluated lots of things that are much more serious than wine – systemic misogyny and systemic racism, for example. It also echoes the “woke” battles society is waging today, which you can see in the comments to my piece. Some were unnecessarily bitter and personal.


But I agree with you that in wine, the problem is really limited to the accreditation system, which is very Western. British, actually. CMS, MW, WSET are all British. Someone not of that culture may have difficulty because their own references won’t resonate with the gatekeepers.


We as individuals can only describe wine with language and concepts we know. I think Meg might argue that maxim should hold for everyone.


I have tried gooseberries, by the way. They taste like New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.

 

TT: Has it been hard to wriggle free of the “Best Merlots for under $25” syndrome?


For the past six years or so, I’ve done an end-of-year roundup of my “Greatest Values under $20.” This is a dozen wines I recommended through the year that I select because they offer extra bang for the buck. I “curate” (cue eyeroll) the selection to ensure a variety of styles, grapes, countries, etc. It has been pretty popular.


I took over the column just as the “Great Recession” of 2008 was starting. I pivoted, to use a more modern term, to focus on “Recession Busters.” Initially I defined these as quality wines $10 and under. After several months, [my wife] begged me to raise the level to $15. Once the economy recovered, I quietly ended that theme but have always concentrated on affordable wines that punch above their price tag. And no, I don’t define affordable, as that is very subjective.


One thing I decided right off the bat when I took over the column was to avoid writing weekly themes, like “I tasted 125 merlots, and these are the X best that you should look for.” This is a traditional format, but it has drawbacks. If I’m writing “the best”, the list is going to end while it’s still pretty darn expensive, and that’s not going to help the newspaper reader. (Wine geeks can subscribe to Spectator or Enthusiast, or a host of other independent online pubs now.) Second, I couldn’t stand the thought of tasting a bunch of merlots one week, then chardonnays the next, etc. I have a restless palate. Third, as soon as I write that column, a winemaker / publicist / distributor is going to email me and say “You should try THIS merlot!” What am I to say to that? “Sorry, I’m not writing about merlot again until next year.” So most weeks I don’t have a theme. This is liberating for me, and I think helps readers who just want a suggestion of something new to buy (and may not like the theme of the week). I suspect the headline writers don’t appreciate it much.


(TT: I’d only add this; while the column draws the casual attention of readers of the food section, it also acts as a locus for the wine community, if of no other reason than to show them what “civilians” are interested in reading. I respect that, and only admonish that one keeps in mind the thin line between staying realistic about the thing’s function versus lapsing into an anti-intellectual populism – which you don’t do, but which is a clear and present danger.)



DM: Oh my goodness, yes! I hate those “gotcha” articles that purport to prove the guy on the street who “doesn’t know wine but knows what he likes” is just as good as a so-called “wine expert.” Two straw men in a boxing ring.


TT: What do you wish more people would talk about when talking about wine?


DM: To be honest, I wish we wouldn’t talk about wine so much. I’d rather it fuel broader conversation about a variety of topics.


But since you asked: Sustainability and climate change. I still see people dismissing claims of organic, sustainable or biodynamic, or certifications such as B Corp or 1% for the Planet, or even the new

Regenerative Organic Certification as so much “greenwashing” or “virtue signaling.” Sure, maybe there is some of that, but certifications also come with accountability. I like seeing wineries taking steps to reduce their environmental imprint and boost social impacts by treating workers and their community right. These wineries also tend to make really good wine.


Also, bottle weight. Many winemakers still feel consumers — especially US consumers — demand heavy bottles. I wish we could change that.


TT: Oh, amen. Every time I encounter one of them among the samples I’m sent, I fuss and fume. They are a scourge.


DM: Don’t get me started! I’m predisposed against wines in those glass behemoths that can weigh more than 2 pounds empty. I don’t want to pay for the winery owner’s ego. Use lighter bottles, put the money you save into improving your vineyard practices. Your wine will be better and the planet will be better off. My wrist will thank you, too. Jason Haas of Tablas Creek Vineyard in Paso Robles wrote on his blog recently that the winery has saved $2.2 million since they switched to lighter glass bottles in 2010. That should change some minds.


TT: Have you experienced the palate-change that seems to come with time and “aging?”


DM: No, I’m timeless.


Just kidding, of course. Aging? Experience? Is there a difference? Is my palate changing because I’m getting older or are my preferences evolving as my experience with wine broadens? Is that distinction meaningful? I do find myself gravitating toward elegant, expressive wines rather than showy ones.


If you want specifics, in recent years my love for pinot noir has increased exponentially. When I’m feeling down, I tend to reach for pinot, preferably from the Willamette Valley.


I do look at alcohol levels on labels and make snap judgments — maybe not as rigidly as Dan Berger, who announced a few years ago that he didn’t even want to taste, much less review, wines over a certain abv. High alcohol is a high risk factor.(By my definition, and I’m just decreeing that definition now, that would be above 14.5% in reds. It’s less of an issue with whites, at least for me.) .) Mind you, some of these wines are well made, and the style has a following. I just tend to notice the burn as it overtakes the fruit.


TT: Do you feel you’ve experienced a palate evolution because of writing the wine columns?


DM: Interesting question. Perhaps my comments about alcohol levels and bottle weight belong here.


In a sense, I might answer in the negative. If I were not writing the column, I would likely be increasingly indulging in more esoteric and expensive wines. But since I recommend wines for a broad newspaper audience, I have to keep in mind that the average reader doesn’t drink those wines. I believe it was only in the last couple of years that the average price of 750 ml of wine sold in the US broke $10. My goal has been to point readers to wines just above that level that offer tremendous quality for the price. So I’ve been exploring first the $10-15 range, then $12-20. Now I’d put the window at $15-30. So I might posit that writing the column has stunted my palate evolution by keeping me focused on the value end.


There’s plenty to explore there, of course, so it isn’t boring. And I have no fondness for those “100-point dinners” I see people bragging about on social media, so I don’t lose any sleep by not owning or drinking those wines.



TT: What were among the biggest surprises you encountered in the course of producing the column? This could entail your reactions to the wines you tasted, your reaction to the conclusions you drew, your reaction to reader-reactions.


DM: Against the advice of several friends, I’ve been reading the comments lately. I’d rather not discuss them. We’d need an entire case of Oregon pinot. Suffice to say, people can be really nasty.



TT: To what (if any) degree is there a crevasse between what you “judge” professionally and what you drink for pleasure/recreation?



DM: See my comments above. To expand on that, last year we changed my format. For nearly 14 years, I had been writing a weekly column of about 800-900 words plus a separate piece recommending five wines. We changed that to a biweekly column, with weekly recommendations of three wines. This has given me a chance to relax a bit and enjoy more wines that are not candidates for the column.


Another part of the format change: We no longer list stores where readers can find the wines. This was a major time suck on my work, and dropping the store lists has improved my mental health tremendously. It also means I can recommend more wines that are not available in DC, MD or VA, though I haven’t fully explored that possibility yet. (We do still list importers and local distributors.)


So when I’m choosing wine just for enjoyment … hmm, pinot noir, of course. France, especially Burgundy if someone else is buying and the Loire. I need to explore Rhônes again, though they are creeping up in price. Beaujolais Cru are vastly underrated, even with the full-throated sponsorships from various celebrity sommeliers. I’m also very fond of Portugal’s wines, though I’ll probably offend a few people by politely letting them enjoy their Vinho Verde. Austria seems to enjoy a direct line to the Earth’s core with some of its Grüners and Rieslings. In summer I revel in Italy’s amazingly diverse white wines, I can spend some happy time sitting sipping a Vermentino or Grechetto or Fiano, imagining our swimming pool is the Mediterranean. I’m also inordinately fond of Italy’s fizzy reds, such as Lambrusco. They’re as fun as they are delicious, and delightful with salumi, pizza or barbecue.


I do enjoy wine from the US, of course. I love exploring new areas and grapes. Virginia may not be considered new anymore, but there is still a lot of innovation there. Maryland, New Jersey, Michigan, Texas. When I took over the column in 2008, I co-founded a group called Drink Local Wine. We held annual conferences for bloggers in Texas, Virginia, Missouri, Colorado and Maryland before it petered out. But I believe we had a significant impact in raising awareness of wines from “The Other 47.” It used to be all but impossible to find a Virginia wine on wine lists in DC, but today many restaurants offer at least a few, and a new wine bar opened up with a majority Virginia list. I don’t claim credit for that, but I think those of us who have championed local wines helped.


I can’t have a hyper-local focus, of course. [My wife]Lily and I started our love of wine on a trip to Napa Valley in the late ‘80s, so Napa still has a special meaning for me, even if I can’t afford its wines. I have a few favorites, particularly the old school: Smith-Madrone, Chateau Montelena and Frog’s Leap, for example. I love what Dan Petrofsky is doing with Italian white varieties under his Massican label.


I’ve already mentioned my love for pinot, especially from Oregon. But of course I won’t count out the West Sonoma Coast, the Santa Cruz Mountains, Santa Lucia Highlands and Santa Barbara County’s Sta. Rita Hills and Santa Maria Valley. The new San Luis Obispo Coast AVA has some excitement in pinot and chardonnay.


And I love the work Morgan Twain-Peterson, Tegan Passalacqua, Mike Officer and others are doing to nurture and sustain California’s oldest surviving vineyards. We may not be able to call the wines Zinfandel, thanks to DNA research revealing which varieties are actually there. But the wines are soulful connections to California’s wine history, as well as a diminishing resource. I wrote about this group nine years ago; maybe it’s time I revisit them for an update.


That’s a pretty long answer, and as I look over it I realize I never strayed far from discussion of column topics. So maybe there isn’t much of a crevasse after all.



TT: Is the “fine-wine” industry in mortal peril, given the younger generation’s evident preference for cocktails, craft beers, sake….basically anything but wine?


DM: No. Fine wine has always been a niche market. There may be a shakedown or evolution as the Boomers die off and our successors diversify their tastes. The smaller, boutique wineries might suffer, I suppose. But I think the most affluent of any generation are likely to appreciate wine at some point. This is very speculative, and we could fuel a long, fascinating and ultimately unresolved discussion of this question with a nice bottle of Champagne.



TT: I hereby accept. So you don’t worry the wine industry makes itself unattractive? Or is it just one of those generation swings of preference?


DM: I’d lean toward the latter. “Kids These Days” have a different relationship with money, and they’re less into material possessions. Once their Boomer parents actually die off and they inherit, maybe their attitudes will change.


 

Another thought: The NYT recently wrote about the rebellion against “ESG” – environment, sustainability and governance – as a model of corporate behavior. Younger consumers were driving the ESG trend, so maybe the growth of B Corp, Regenerative Organic and other certifications will help appeal to this audience.

 

TT: Along those lines, please comment on an opinion I hold, which is that the lack of access to the truly Great Wines of the world is a huge lost opportunity to inspire potential wine lovers. Back in my fledgling days, it’s not like I was sloshing first growths and grand cru Burgundies, but I could drink them often enough to have them as a vision of what wine could be, and it became a holy grail. (What’s the equivalent today? Maggoty “natural wine” that smells like sweaty bog shrimp?)


DM: Do shrimp SWEAT?? I need a drink just to contemplate that.


Again, this could be a couple of lengthy discussions. Yes, the Great Wines are rare and increasingly expensive. A wine school seminar featuring the five Bordeaux First Growths may be the only chance many people have to taste any of them, and of course trying them all at once might have some value. But it’s also like checking a box. But are the Great Wines still even relevant?


As for natural wines, we may need two bottles of Champagne. Just no pét-nat, thank you.


TT: Any questions for me, or anything you wish I’d asked you?


DM: "Sense of place" and "terroir" are two concepts central to our modern view of wine. (Similar, to be sure, especially as one is an attempt to translate the other.) If we really want to taste the place in the wine, we should visit the place. Your intimate knowledge of the vineyards that produced the wines you brought to thousands of thirsty American wine lovers is an essential ingredient in your tasting notes that we have enjoyed all these years through your annual catalogs and now your website. For your customers and readers who haven't been there, you bring us that much closer. You give us a key of sorts to unlock that "sense of place" when we taste the wine.

TT: Aw, shucks….


DM: Now, your travel and professional dedication to meet with your producers is not the only reason your tasting notes are so wonderful. Your personal perspective, your sense of whimsy and romance also shine through.


TT: My wife will admonish you that it’s never smart to be too nice to me…I get spoiled.


DM: This could be another discussion: People say the winemaker should be considered part of a wine's terroir -- perhaps the reviewer or importer should be too. You certainly get your reader salivating for that wine. Or am I getting too close to arguing that terroir is just marketing hooey? As I writer, I'm always conscious of the need to make a wine relatable to my readers. {So}

my question [would be]: For someone to experience this sense of place, this essence that for many defines fine wine, is it necessary to have been there corporeally? As in, having visited at least the region, if not the specific vineyard? How important is travel to wine appreciation?


TT: So, to answer the question you posed….The crux-word is “necessary.” It seems fair to say that one can’t fully experience a sense of place without a limbic connection to it, that is, without having been there. That compels the next question, which is; how crucial is that phenomenon to wine appreciation? And the answer to that one is, it depends on what one wishes to derive from wine appreciation. For someone like me, travel was crucial; it wasn’t a duty or a box I needed to check to establish my bona fides, but rather something I was deeply driven to do. It deepens the “sense” of wine in every way. You could say it provides the umami to the experience of wine fascination.

Regarding the possibility that “terroir” risks being just so much marketing hooey, my definition or terroir is narrow, and therefore (in my view) defensible. It is this: Terroir describes a cause and effect relationship between soil components and wine flavors for which no other explanation seems possible.


It is a basis for the concept of spirit-of-place but only that – a basis.


DM: That’s a rather Holmesian reference. It reminds me of the Great Detective’s advice to Dr. Watson: “When you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” I hope I’m quoting that correctly, lest the Baker Street Irregulars start haunting the comments.


TT: I always liked that statement. I also tend to think that when we have a weight of empirical date that seems to lead to a particular conclusion, until it is disproven it might as well be true. But if ever it is disproven, then we shouldn’t cling to it. My problem with expanding the definition to human influence, weather, ones own responses or anything else, is that once you throw all these things into the definition, you’re saying that everything that has an impact on wine is part of terroir, and that is a conceptual chaos, in my view. Obviously all those things are part of the mix, but what comes first?


Yes, the concept has been misapplied in service of “marketing hooey” and it’s annoying as hell, and does harm. Just because some wine-romance is bogus doesn’t mean that all of it is. But that’s where you and I come in. How are our innocent readers supposed to tell the authentic from the bogus?


The experiences you describe would be thought ephemeral by certain people, but they aren’t. They’re part of one’s response to all the things behind a wine’s aesthetic attractions, they show that we can respond to wine from depths of our natures, and the wider the emotional/spiritual contexts, the richer our accord with wine can be. But naturally, it begins with the desire to bring that about, or at least to bring something about, which takes us back to your first question: must one travel to wine regions? My answer is no, but that’s because of the word “must.” In fact I think we self-select, that is, people who grow curious about wine, or who read about it or see pretty pictures in wine books, can easily think “It looks like fun to go there.”


To sum up, I think a concrete definition of terroir is easily possible, whereas the idea of sense-of-place is bound to be ethereal. But ether is real, after all! It’s fine to stop at “Something is happening to me that I don’t have words for, but I like it.” And you’re right, if you’ve been to Tuscany you’ll never drink Chianti the same way again. Must you go? Of course not. Will you benefit from going? Of course!





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