Relationships sour. What can I say? First, there are so many things to love. Most imposing is the ridiculously oversized pretension of it. Some of the feature articles are genuinely spectacular. The pictures are decent, the reviews OK and the organization of it all is above par.
Of course you have to accept the whole air of WASP entitlement inherent in the enterprise; of those almost, at, or eventually going to place in the top one per cent being the core readership; of the verging on disdain manner they take when it comes to “value” or the unprecedented way they focus on wine as if it was a precious metal, in exceptionally limited supply, and as rare as beryllium. Reading the feature articles it’s hard not to think of the De Beer’s diamond monopoly, and their efforts to control stock and prices during the 20th century. I mean you get this narrow wine focus at the exclusion of reality over and over. And get this: Subscribers don’t get the free points app. I mean their point system is so esteemed and blessed and on high that they treat it like King Wenceslas crown, a bejeweled prize for the few. Talk about self-endowed self-importance.
The worst part of it for me is that the regulars write as if they called it in. Most of the columns are uninspired and dull. Every second week in the Sunday NYT The Haggler writes a column; his droll wit and mix of ego and self-deprecation bring a whole new slant to consumer advocate. What could be the dullest of “ombudsman style” columns is always light and often sardonic. The WS editors tend not to rethink things; there is a format, and the format is repeated; if you find a joke, trust me, it will be incidental.
But if you drink wine, and if you’re interested in wine, there are plenty of tidbits that tell you about the wine world, the vintners, craft, and so forth. To me it’s never as interesting as the old Hugh Johnson videos, but it’s decent. If you need to know more about Sting and his grapes (and his refreshingly shocking indifference to the prestige of wine) the WS is the place to go. Their chef issue, with Grant Achatz on the cover, was particularly good. And perhaps one for the archives was the cheese issue with recipes and matching wines.
The most depressing thing about the WS as a Canadian though is that their recommended wines are rarely available in Canada at about (to my diligent guess, by Googling for years to find bottles) 10 per cent tops and in BC, in particular, maybe five per cent tops. So you will get excited about wine and never drink that wine. Which puts a huge damper on all their voluminous tasting panels and points and so forth.
My favorite regular, though, is Matt Kramer, who always writes as though he enjoys wine. I know nothing of him, but he comes off on paper as the least possible wine snob imaginable. And yet, and yet, he is probably why I let the sub lapse. Here’s what happened.
Two totally discrete articles, which highlighted the absolute worst part of the WS and the best part of being a person interested in drinking wine. One, the NYT ran a glorious piece on natural wine in October 2016 called Bring on da Funk, by Jeff Gordinier. It was short, succinct, and particularly on the money. And Matt wrote an article in the WS (in the cheese issue, in fact) called Impeccable Radical Credentials, which basically debunked the natural wine movement as something faddish and maybe even tinged with fraud. So this is the crux of the problem with the WS; they can be as out-of-touch and irrelevant as career politicians who, around the world, seem somewhat surprised that people are bored and disgruntled with the status quo.
The NYT focused on the sensation of wine, the experience of wine; it juxtaposed what we’ve come to accept as wine, good wine, and pitted it against something extraordinarily different. It talked about how certain types of wine have come to dominate the shelves, and how wine is manipulated. It quoted a Master of Wine whose mission is to let the world know that when we drink wine we are not drinking fermented grape juice but grape juice “and a bunch of other stuff.” It noted that top restaurants (Noma, Amass, 108, Relae, etc.) pour almost exclusively natural wines. The bottom line with the NYT article was that people are passionate about wine and are interested in integrity.
Matt Kramer gave a nod to those of us who would like more transparency in the industry. [Hey WS: Why no editorial on ingredient labels? I mean if the WS wanted to really come out as relevant, they’d focus on something consumers really, really want…] But in the end he talked about craft (which is synonymous with manipulation, but is the industry way of, wink wink, noting that craft trumps the naturals) and that too many natural wines are unclean. He is sort of right: Last November I sat in a wine bar in Covent Garden and the bartender poured me over half a dozen natural wines, fresh wines, new wines. And I didn’t swoon over every taste; some were chillingly exciting and invigorating, but some were so funky as to be crude. Still, this was SO MUCH MORE INTERESTING THAN ANOTHER ROBERT PARKER 90 POINT 16% RED. Kramer also addressed the sulfur issue. Again, cause he’s a pragmatic guy in print, he noted that sulfur isn’t the enemy as long as it’s kept low. But here, again, why doesn’t the WS take a bold approach and demand sulfur levels end up on labels? Why don’t they boldly go where the establishment fears to tread? Is it pure fantasy to ask the wine industry to list how much sulfur in PPM there is? Christ, my water has a nutritional sheet, what’s with the wine industry?
I think the fact that a broad sweep, an unabashed rejection of natural wines as in the majority being unclean is simply incorrect and paternalistic. And, worse, it misses the true intent of the natural winesters (as I like to call the zealots because, trust me, some of them are): Honesty on the bottle would go a long way to acknowledging wine isn’t simply a WS investment/commodity. There are actual people who actually drink it and actually enjoy it.
Two final notes: Live in BC and want to try some sensational natural wines? You will unfortunately pay through the nose, but get on the Sedimentary Wine email list and chat with them. Also, a shout out to Ridge, the first US major player to voluntarily put ingredients on their labels.
What’s next? A rant about Decanter. The most incredible, informative, exciting and relevant wine publication on the planet.