Potent Potables

April 5, 2015

Manfred Krankl likes to paint pretty pictures for the labels of the California Rhône blends he makes for his exclusive mailing-list winery, Sine Qua Non, which helps make them sought-after collector’s items, like when Marvel Comics used to release the same title with six variant covers and if you were a twelve-year-old with OCD you had to buy them all, plus another copy to read while the original six remained in mint condition in their limited-edition sealed mylar bags. Krankl, who is at least as talented a graphic artist as the guys who inked those covers, recently offered his mailing-list customers the opportunity to purchase a hardbound book containing the definitive archival collection of his label art, at least until the next vintage makes it obsolete and requires Krankl to offer pocket parts like the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations. For $1,500, a lucky few were even allowed to buy a limited-edition package of the book with a magnum of petite sirah, which gave the winery’s diehard fans an opportunity to do what they do best—speculate about how much more it could be flipped for in the aftermarket, the ultimate confirmation of their good taste. It is unclear whether the person who immediately listed his bottle for $15,000 on Wine-Searcher obtained his asking price. If he didn’t, someone else will.

I spoke my peace on the Sine Qua Non phenomenon in a recent issue of Noble Rot. (Get your print subscription here, or buy a digital subscription and back issues on iTunes.) My commentary on some of the wines was less than laudatory. I might have said something to the effect that they were rending the very fabric of Western Civilization. My main objection, though, was not so much to the wines themselves as to the cult of fandom that surrounds them and to the consequent uniformity of critical opinion about them. Gather a group of passionate wine drinkers around a table and it is likely to include a few people who would trade their firstborn sons for a spot on the Sine Qua Non mailing list and a few people who consider the wines a vile witches’ brew functionally indistinguishable from any number of Australian concoctions with kangaroos on the label. That same range of opinions does not exist among the population of “professionals” who rate wines for a living, whose assessment of the Sine Qua Non oeuvre recalls Dorothy Parker’s remark about the thespian who “delivered a striking performance that ran the gamut of emotions from A to B.” I did not want to have to be the one to publish the dissenting opinion, but nobody else was willing to do it. I did predict that a legion of Sine Qua Non fans would strike out at midnight, leaving their womenfolk at home to guard their places on the mailing list, and gather around my house with pitchforks. In fact, however, the mailbag turned out to brim with positive feedback and a general feeling of gratitude that someone was finally willing to say in print what so many were thinking. I was looking forward to a comfortable retirement from slaughtering sacred cows and a return to writing fun think-pieces on wines to pair with Wordsworth poems and Grateful Dead bootlegs.

But Mike Steinberger picked up on my Noble Rot article and reignited the controversy in a recent column for Wine-Searcher, “Taking Sides Over Sine Qua Non.” Like me, he was also struck by the uncanny resemblance of Krankl’s $500 blends to Aussie shiraz cartoons from the likes of Mollydooker and quipped, “I’d think twice about dumping the wines in my sink for fear of damaging the pipes.” (Gosh, I wish I’d written that.) The Steinberger take is ultimately more optimistic than mine, though. He sees the Sine Qua Non cult as a net positive for those of us who don’t drink the Kool-Aid because it gives tacky people with more money than taste a Veblen good to chase other than something like Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Richebourg, which costs more these days than a Krankl petite sirah but which Mike or I would happily drink any time the opportunity arose. My take is that the Rudy Kurniawan affair conclusively established that DRC has its own share of fanboys and BSD personalities whose appreciation for the stuff extends no further than the label, and that the gushing praise of Sine Qua Non from people who style themselves professional critics is the first step towards the inauguration of President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho.

Steinberger has a theory why none of the reviewers in the spit-and-score community are willing to give Sine Qua Non anything less than rapturous reviews. “I’d say that any critic who gives whopping scores to SQN and then turns around and does the same with DRC is not really a critic,” he writes. “[H]e’s a shill or—worse—a cynic, deliberately not coming down on one side or the other for fear of offending his audience or costing himself potential readers/subscribers.” I took a similar view a few years ago on this site on the occasion of Antonio Galloni’s first California report for the Wine Advocate, in which the man who made his name championing wines like Bartolo Mascarello Barolo decided that his standards for excellence in California wine were… exactly the same as Robert Parker’s. It struck me then that this phenomenon makes perfect sense once you understand that many of the subscribers to these journals are not shopping for criticism; indeed, they’re barely even interested in recommendations anymore. None of Sine Qua Non’s votaries needs to consult the latest slate of 96+ ratings to make the decision to max out their allocation and lovingly place each bottle in the shrine-like zone of their custom-made cellar where the redwood racks are slanted to put each label on display and an unseen halogen light bathes them in a warm glow beneath a faux mural of a bucolic vineyard scene. But they’ll gladly pay anyway for a critic to issue the numerological equivalent of a sommelier’s “Excellent choice, sir.” Calling out a popular wine as the equivalent of junk food is bad for business and probably not the best way to keep the free samples flowing, either.

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When I say that a wine is trash, there are really only two species of counterarguments. The first is that I’m wrong. The second is that there is no such thing as right and wrong, that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. The relativism of the latter position is easily dispensed with, at least when it’s perpetrated by people who rate wines for a living or pay attention to those who do. Anyone who stipulates that it’s possible to place wines in a hierarchy in which one rates 90 and another rates 95 is in no position to maintain that it’s impossible to place wines in a hierarchy in which one rates 90 and another rates 50. Instead, they say that even if the critic himself deems a wine a failure, he should rate it as an outstanding wine so long as it meets other people’s criteria for excellence, which is like saying that a painting of Dogs Playing Poker is just as fine a work of art as the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel so long as it satisfies all the criteria for being a good version of Dogs Playing Poker.

For those to whom that proposition is not self-evident and need it proven empirically, permit me to recommend Charles Murray’s Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950. He begins with three premises: that “people vary in their knowledge of any given field,” that “the nature of a person’s appreciation of a thing or event varies with the level of knowledge that a person brings to it,” and “the relationship of expertise to judgment forms a basis for treating excellence in the arts as a measurable trait.” In other words, art historians find the Sistine Chapel more compelling than Dogs Playing Poker because it satisfies more of their criteria for excellence in the arts, and the criteria applied by art historians are intrinsic to the very nature of excellence in the arts in a way that’s not true of the criteria applied by laymen who say, “I don’t know anything about art, but I know what I like.” In the same fashion, one can discern objective criteria for excellence in wine by mining the opinions that have been formed over generations by people who know about wine and think critically about it.

Note well that everybody believes this, even people who pretend not to. The person who insists that I am obliged to call Sine Qua Non an outstanding wine because it is an outstanding example of its style will not concede that Robert Parker is obliged to call a cool-climate pineau d’aunis an outstanding wine because it is an outstanding example of its style. Parker’s refusal to do so reflects his judgment that certain genres of wine are more profound than certain other genres, so examples of the latter can never rate as highly as examples of the former no matter how perfectly they satisfy the criteria for excellence within their own genre. And Parker is entirely correct to operate under that assumption. What he’s wrong about is the hierarchy of styles itself, not the fact that a hierarchy exists.

But wait a minute, the objection arises. Didn’t you just say that you can discern objective criteria for excellence by paying attention to what experts have to say? And isn’t Parker the Grand Pooh-bah expert here? Yes, let’s go there, because now we’re moving away from the claim that there’s no such thing as right and wrong in matters of taste, and the only question left is which one of us is wrong. Charles Murray anticipated that sort of objection, too. As he demonstrates (with highly granular data), if you consult what experts have said about art through the ages, there is broad agreement that Michelangelo is the greatest. But the last few decades have been infected by art scholars liable to dismiss Michelangelo’s esteem as Dead White European Cisgendered Male privilege and to insist that great art is about escaping the shackles of the past (shackles like, “knowing how to draw”) and creating works, like, say, an installation of the artist’s own unmade bed complete with actual urine, semen, and menstrual stains, which sold at at a Christie’s auction last year for over £2.5 million. Surely the market for this stuff must have been created by people who actually know what they’re talking about, right? Or, as Murray poses the question,

If you think that we should take the word of experts about what’s good and bad, are you prepared to accept that John Cage and Andy Warhol belong up there with Brahms and Titian? That melody and harmony are boring and outdated? That representational art is boring and outdated? That the concept of beauty is meaningless? That’s what one school of experts is saying these days.

“The direct answer to that objection,” he writes, “is that I am choosing one type of expertise and rejecting another, allying myself with the classic aesthetic tradition and rejecting the alternative tradition that sprang up in 20C.” It’s not that the postmodernists are necessarily wrong. It’s just too soon to tell. Maybe their view will become the new consensus. Or maybe it’s just a fleeting fashion. When it comes to the modern view of wine that formed only in the last two decades, I am inclined to figure the latter, because we already see signs of the fashion starting to pass, and it was never on a strong foundation in the first place—just the idiosyncratic tastes of one man with a powerful megaphone whose pronouncements on wine are starting to sound to more and more people like the musings of a contestant on the Saturday Night Live parody of Celebrity Jeopardy.

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