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For those about to rock – what wine critics could learn from their music counterparts

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“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.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Interesting article – thanks!

    Not wishing to hark back to the cost of SA wine issue – but you raise an interesting and virtually unreported on issue that as an avid but priced out local wine fan, I feel strongly about – especially when reading your mouth watering reviews. I think the issue of local consumption is important in creating value and sustainability in the industry Very few people in SA can afford to pay R150 for a bottle of wine on a regular basis. This is a problem when local consumption is half of the market.

  2. The answer for weekday drinking of good wine at a very good price is Checkers Oddbins. Some of it is so good and drinkable that we end up getting through two in an evening, although that rather defeats the cost saving effort…

  3. This makes for good reading Christian, and perhaps more importantly touches on some interesting questions that merit discussion.

    Firstly, as i can’t resist, on “critic one-upmanship”. The existence of which is undeniable, and suggests there might be a few fragile egos out there. Also that many of them are more interested in serving themselves first and the industry second. Perhaps that’s just a product of the complex environment in which they operate?

    To the topic at hand, I liked the Bangs analogy, but would argue that there’s one important difference between him and today’s wine writer. Or at least, there should be. And this speaks to Joe Weissmann’s point:

    Bangs was evaluating art that came at a uniform price. Here’s an album. It costs the same as the next album. Now let’s examine it’s contents. How does it make you feel?

    With wine, there’s another variable: price. And it’s something that informs the purchases of the overwhelming majority of wine lovers. Admittedly not the inner-circle themselves, who as you point out have unlimited access to the good stuff.

    In 1979, Bangs wrote a retrospective review of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks. It’s probably his most famous piece. Enlightening, personal, honest, gonzo expressionism at its best. He explains the music in the context of his own life. I can’t recommend it enough: https://personal.cis.strath.ac.uk/murray.wood/astral.html

    The difference is, if you had the equivalent of $3.00 when this was written, the album could be yours. And for hundreds of thousands who read it, that’s how it played out.
    Write what you want about it’s vinous equivalent – perhaps a 1990 DRC – but very few people will ever be able to truly identify. So you’re just distancing yourself from your audience.

    I think we’d be in a better place if more wine writers recognised that they are not Lester Bangs, and that there’s a wine buyer on the other end who has a budget. Then go ahead and write like him.

    Finally, I’d also argue, after becoming acquainted with some of Tom Lubbe’s wines recently, that our winemakers should be encouraged to keep banging this drum. When done properly, they have the ability to be more Astral Weeks and less MC5.

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