“Are wine writers losing touch with the people that actually buy wine by spending too much time navel gazing?” was one suggestion put forward when I recently requested a topic for a column via Twitter. Well, it would be disingenuous to pretend that senior wine writers don’t have it good. Kanonkop Paul Sauer 2015, rated 100 points by Tim Atkin MW in his recent South Africa Special Report, has an approximate retail price of R600 a bottle. And the likes of Alheit Huilkrans Chenin Blanc 2017, Lismore Reserve Syrah 2017 and Vin de Constance 2014, all rated highly on this site, don’t come cheap and yet if you’re in with the in-crowd, these flow pretty freely. These might not be “cheap” in a global sense (we’ve heard the mantra that “SA fine wine is too cheap” quite a lot recently) but they’re expensive if you’re earning rand and stocking your own cellar.
Let’s say you’re a proper wine enthusiast who’s happy to open a bottle in the vicinity of R150 to share with your sweetheart on week nights (Flotsam & Jetsam Chenin Blanc, effectively Alheit’s second label, is around that price) and then two bottles of really special stuff at the weekend at R300 a bottle (Rocking Horse from Thorne & Daughters will set you back some R250 while Aristargos from David & Nadia more like R340). That equates to a weekly wine bill of R1 350 and a monthly wine bill of R5 400. Which means you have to be earning quite a lot of money before tax to afford such a habit.
But I think it’s not just that wine is an expensive pursuit but rather that it is a field of interest that doesn’t really encourage irreverence. When I started out in wine writing, I wanted to be the next Lester Bangs (the rock critic who was at the height of his powers in the 1970s) rather than the next Robert Parker or Janics Robinson. As with rock, the wine scene (or at least the part I was interested in) seemed to be populated by the anti-establishment, non-conformist, off-beat. The then very much outspoken André van Rensburg had just joined Vergelegen and the revolutionary Eben Sadie was about to leave Spice Route to start his own label…
What happens with wine, however, is a lot of one-upmanship and I think most critics are guilty of this. They are constantly trying to outdo their colleagues and almost inevitably end up outdoing their readers. Knowledge is important if you’re going to pass judgement but the ability to engage seems absent all too often.
Lester Bangs’s first piece was a negative review of the influential hard rock band MC5 that appeared in Rolling Stone magazine in 1969. “Musically the group is intentionally crude and aggressively raw. Which can make for powerful music except when it is used to conceal a paucity of ideas, as it is here,” he writes, which is just such a terrific put-down.
It made me think about always controversial “orange” or skin-fermented wine and I wondered who at work in the world of wine has anywhere near the same turn of phrase. Where you to write something similar of a clouding bottling under some local hipster label today, you would most likely be met by the reaction: “Ah, but you haven’t drunk enough from the Jura to comment”. Sure, Bangs had an encyclopedic knowledge of music but he didn’t let it get in the way of a visceral reaction.