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.

*     *     *

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.

13 Responses to “Potent Potables”

  1. Marcus umreth said

    Last I heard Manfred Krankl had met with a dreadful accident and was in a coma. Unless the situation has been dramatically reversed this post is in poor taste.

    I thank you for your suggestion of subscribing to the Journal of Fine Wine. I did click over to the website of Noble Rot. In the About section there is brief reference to the Sex Pistols, a band of some kind. i have decided not to subscribe despite your endorsement.

    This post seems far away from your previous posts.

  2. bags said

    Everything in my bones tells me you’re right about aesthetic standards. But also, to my mind, it goes to the question of utility: why drink wine in the first place? Wine, as Kermit Lynch is fond of saying, is living food, and was always designed to compliment and complement solid food (and at times to substitute for unsafe drinking water). As such, traditionally made wines work far better than do modern monsters. Generally, more acidic, lower alcoholic wines stimulate desire for food and rinse the mouth more effectively. That, too, is partly aesthetics, and therefore a value judgment, of course. But it is a physical probability that combines with the more abstract aesthetic probability.

    Missing in the WB’s discussion is the apposite and current article of Matt Kramer’s, “Wine of pleasure vs. wines of experience” (though the final quotation should, I believe, be attributed to Plato rather than Voltaire):
    http://www.winespectator.com/webfeature/show/id/51338

  3. Tooch said

    Marcus, Elaine Krankl posted on the eBob board on 2/9/2015 that Manfred had returned home from the hospital in January.

  4. Gilberto said

    As for being the first to heavily criticize the wines, here is a strong criticism in a blog post now about three years old:

    http://www.wineanorak.com/wineblog/california/sine-qua-non-shot-in-the-dark-100-points-or-86

    Also, very much in the same spirit (my assumption, as I haven’t tasted, nor do I intend to, either the wines of SQN, or the ones of Marcassin), Marcassin’s wines have been harshly criticized both by Allen Meadows and John Gilman.

  5. marcus umreth said

    Thanks Tooch for the update. I am wondering though why the screed against SQN? Harlan is far more expensive and the few times I have been able to sample it they appear grossly over extracted.

  6. mister8888 said

    A pleasure to read! I sometimes think that there are a bunch of wine drinkers who are wandering around trying to make sense of all the hype, when in fact they may well be right. I attended a detailed tasting of SQN and came away singularly unimpressed when everyone else was claiming it the evening of their wine drinking lives. How often do I read verticals done by serious amateurs (in the French sense I should say!) where these stars from the firmament just don’t show as class acts. There is clearly a disjunct out there between the professional writer who has to balance what pays his living and the objectivity the reader expects. Thanks god for people like you and John Gilman who have the courage to mark a wine below seventy points and be brutally honest about some great names that are generally all Rollanded out.

  7. drglevine said

    I don’t subscribe to a single critics and do love many SQN wines. My SQN koan was a tasting with one of their EBA Syrahs among a non-themed line-up including aged PLL, Vall Llach Prioriat, Leflaive BBM and Chapoutier Ermitage. You want to know something – the SQN didn’t step on any of those wines, not even a little. It took some time to wrap my notions around that great lunch but now I have, and I rest easier.

    And please don’t use the word ‘take’ instead of opinion; allow Jim Rome’s 15 minutes to end. Please.

  8. Marcus Stanley said

    “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.”

    I think this is ahistorical in the extreme. Sweet, rich, and reinforced wines have a long, long, long history and tradition, almost certainly longer than the subtle bottle-aged lower-alcohol wines that the cognoscenti prize today. The technology to age a lower-alcohol wine in bottle for decades did not really exist until the late 18th century as I understand it. Port was a rich, sweet, reinforced wine. So was Madeira. The Falernian wines prized by the Romans were late-harvested wines high in alcohol. Sauternes was one of the most prized wines of the 19th century.

  9. Marcus Stanley said

    To be clear, one could argue that rich/sweet wines like Port have their own forms of balance and grace that are lacking in a wine like SQN. Not taking a position on that (as someone who has never had SQN and actually doesn’t particularly like port). But it’s not true that rich, powerful, high-alcohol, sweetish wines are just some new modern fad.

  10. Bill Klapp said

    You know, Levenberg, after the Noble Rot article and the one above, I feel like the little kid standing in the middle of the woods at midnight, holding the bag in a snipe hunt, while you and Steinberger are sleeping soundly in your beds! (For the younger generation here, a snipe hunt is a 20th-century “game” used by older and/or wiser kids to torture younger and/or more naive kids. Surely Wikipedia must offer an explanation. As I am older, wiser and more worldly than either Levenberg or Steinberger, I must conclude that I did it to myself, but I am holding the bag, nevertheless.)

    Since I enjoy throwing wine board frogs into boiling water, and since, as some SQN fans have claimed, you and Steinberger are nothing more than a couple of shameless click-seekers, I posted the link to Mike’s article, which in some sense incorporated your Noble Rot article by reference, on the wine board, Wine Berserkers. For a time, things went along swimmingly. Indeed, the thread had its desired effect of stimulating a rousing pro- and con-discussion of SQN wines, their maker and the handful of folks who spend the equivalent of the GNP of a good-sized Balkan country each year on collecting rare (and shot) bottles of the stuff. In fact, for its entire 18-day life so far, the thread has reigned as the most popular and most vigorous on Wine Berserkers (an admittedly low bar to clear, I know), now closing in on 1,000 posts and 33,000 hits. (Note: in the interest of full disclosure, I have omitted from the popularity rankings the years-old, mindless, selfie-opp threads like “what did you buy today?” and “what did you drink tonight?”, as well as the recently exhumed Rudy Kurniawan thread (now making another Cher-like farewell tour) and the smoldering air crash of a thread on the malfeasance and nonfeasance of Ray Walker at Maison Ilan (for which I served as pilot, co-pilot and flight attendant at various times while the thread was still airborne).) This on a board where getting a thread into double-digit posts is no mean feat, and clearing 100 posts is “epic” and “iconic”, as Antonio Galloni might say.

    So what was my reward for trying to keep my favorite among the dying wine boards alive, other than completing my collection of posts by the most notorious SQN collectors? Why, banishment, of course!

    Now, in fairness, my wine board persona pulls no punches and takes no shit, which inevitably pisses off the Kalifornia Kumbaya mentality that infects wine boards in particular, and America in general. There are simply too many people out there who have no appetite for discussion, debate, or democracy, for that matter. I am decidedly NOT a fan of the “declare no winners, just give every kid a medal for showing up” way of thinking. (Read your Darwin. The world does not work that way. Especially when Gordon Gekko is in charge.) However, I am firmly in control of my words and thoughts at all times, and I do tend to e-bitch-slap the terminally and persistently ignorant, as well as the trolls whose sole purpose in appearing on threads in which I participate is to disrupt them. As a former university professor and partner in a major law firm, I have taught hundreds of bright, motivated people in my time, and even a few slackers as well; however, wine boards often present the unique challenge of trying to educate the belligerently ignorant who have been brainwashed (rinse-and-hold cycle only) by one wine reviewer or another, and who seek only validation of their own ignorance, rather than increasing their wine knowledge and understanding. So, in some sense, maybe I got what I deserve for refusing to join my fellow members at the campfire, making s’mores and singing “Kumbaya”.

    The thing is, however, the WAY that I was purged. I have been thrown off of better wine boards than Wine Berserkers. (Curiously, so has Todd French, the founder and factotum of Wine Berserkers; indeed, he founded the board in direct reaction to the censorship and Stalinist purging of which Mark Squires was too often guilty on his eponymous board, which board was, believe it or not, once the greatest wine board of all time.) My suspension caused some board members to liken French to Squires, but that is not apt. French managed to go Squires one better. Rather than censorship and Stalinism, French went full Nazi SS, or, perhaps more appropriately, full Vichy government in this case, installing himself as the Marshal Petain figure (the Nazi puppet who managed his corrupt, collaborationist French government by encouraging the citizenry to secretly denounce each other). Several annoying trolls, Eric Le Vine and Jonathan Loesberg prime among them (the latter famous only for the occasional contrarian opinion on Chateauneuf-du-Pape and the former, as the founder of Cellar Tracker, offering only his Cellar Tracker-driven agenda and the occasional moralizing, sermonizing “Why can’t we all get along”? Why do we have to have all of these strong opinions that give me a headache when I read them? Why doesn’t everyone agree with Bob Parker?”), showed up, and offered ad hominem objection to my posts, if not to my very existence. I retaliated in kind, and French responded by locking me out, apparently with his panties in such a wad that he did so BEFORE sending my suspension notice, leaving me to learn of it from a post of his in my thread.

    His reason? There had been some unspecified number of secret “reports” complaining of my behavior, and that was that. Were the trolls doing the complaining, or was it some of the more than 80% of Wine Berserker members who have NEVER posted or participated? No way to know. Denouncing your fellows does not work if their handiwork is not concealed from public view. (Note to self: in the unlikely event that you start your own wine board, secretly denounce the trolls, rather than publicly pointing out what shitheads they are.) As Charlie Fu, French’s right-hand man and a gifted stater of the obvious, if nothing else, pointed out, “Klapp makes a lot of posts, so he gets reported a lot.” It appears that neither of them bothered to consider the sources or the quality of the complaints. French even lied to board members (since recanted, after he was called on it), claiming that I had been suspended on a previous occasion. He then actively discouraged thread participants from posting in my support, and even deleted posts which complained bitterly of my suspension and pointed out that Le Vine was the disruptive influence and the one in need of suspension. (Le Vine even copped to what he had done, albeit with the barest modicum of intellectual honesty, and nothing was done by French. I guess that a failing wine board owner cannot afford to piss off the owner of Cellar Tracker. Not sure why, but there it is.) French made a lame and embarrassing attempt to get things back on topic, but without any real leadership on the thread, his effort failed. The last time that I checked, the thread had devolved into a locker-room discussion of names that were humorous due to the inclusion in them of a common, offensive slang term for “vagina”. French’s hall monitor, Fu, was smack in the middle of it, participating rather than suggesting that it was a really bad idea on a co-ed wine board. All is well. Todd French has the wine board that he deserves, whether he succeeds in attracting any intelligent discussion of wine or not. He can count upon me never to attempt that again. Todd, don’t let the surfboard hit you on the head (again) on my way out…

    And Keith and Mike, that is my trademark long-winded way of thanking you both for three fine, provocative articles between you, and even more importantly, inadvertently being the procuring cause of my banishment from Wine Berserkers. The pearls are back in the vault. I will cast them more selectively next time that I take them out, and never on wine boards, eh?

  11. jason carey said

    I don’t give a damn if anybody likes these kinds of wine or super lean wines. What does bother me is that we live in a culture so selfish and greedy that someone would spend 40 grand on a bottle of wine when people literally can’t afford to eat. I know all you so called free market capitalists will lay into me for this, but I don’t care. It makes me sick how selfish people are and 40 grand on a bottle of rose makes me sick.

    • Sarah Lowell said

      To the commentor above, please go skewer the Fashion industry, art industry, the luxury property industry, the tech industry, oil and gas industry while you’re at it. The tech industry generates billions of dollars, way more than the wine industry, and the bulk of it goes into social media and social networking, which, can neither be eaten nor is it essential for our survival. They look like a more guilty party for you to troll on. Have fun.

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