The 60 Second Taster

I’ve now been a wine professional for over thirty years. Before I got in the wine making side of the business I was a wine distributor for almost twenty years. The low point of that experience was more-often-than-not the presentations to retailers. You’d take samples of wines from small estates, where the producers sweated every day over their vines and wines passionately trying to make the best wines they could, and present them to the buyers. Often you were in some seedy back room and the resident wine expert would rapidly blow through the samples making instant pronouncements on the life’s work of others and then subject you to enduring their pontification on the qualities of each wine. Sometimes they would have cheap Libby glasses, but usually they would make their judgments out of plastic cups. You would often have to wait in line for the privilege presenting wines to these “connoisseurs”. Perhaps in their defense it should be noted that they worked brutally long hours for very little pay and this probably forced them into such foul moods and the need to exert whatever power and humiliation they could over sales people and the samples of their poor producers. The best account of this horror is the now famous The Three-Tier Schnook System by Joe Dressner.

Fortunately I have not had to be exposed to such a situation in years, but today something brought that feeling chillingly back to me. I finally saw my first episode of Wine Library TV. There before my eyes was that retailer of my past, only with a Riedel glass instead of a plastic cup. That, at least, is a little progress. I had tried to avoid watching his programs after first seeing him in a horribly embarrassing segment on the Conan O’ Brien Show, but I kept getting so many hits to this site from a link that someone had placed to one of my posts that I had to check it out. That was a mistake as I should have followed my instincts and stayed away, but like someone passing a car wreck I could not avert my eyes.

Under cover of supposedly witty banter, Gary Vaynerchuk with a minute or less thought tells you all you need to know about the wine he is tasting. Not only that, but he actually gives you points so you can have an exact reference to how a wine tastes and can rank it among other wine choices. Well actually he only gives you an accurate reference point if you only drink a wine for sixty seconds before moving on to the next bottle. Once again someone is gaining influence by rating wines in a situation that has nothing to do with how we actually drink them. Many writers over the years have complained that Robert Parker’s method of tasting sometimes hundreds of wines in very short periods, often giving wines scores after only seconds, did not allow for wines of elegance to show their true character, while big alcoholic wines that were not very good to drink full glasses of stood out under the onslaught he put his palate through. Lately we have all been hoping that the explosion of wine blogs would bring so many voices to the consumer that the monochromatic recommendations of someone like Robert Parker would never again dominate the market. The apparent popularity of Wine Library TV once again dashes our hopes as yet again we have someone pumping out casual opinions as calibrated pointy facts after only a few seconds of consideration. Anyone who has tasted a really memorable wine remembers how the wine evolved and developed as you drank it and how the symbiosis of wine and food expanded the experience to a new plane. An experience taking something more than a minute. The method of tasting on Wine Library TV ignores this most alluring facet of wine.

I’ll admit that my dislike of these programs is probably partially generational as I don’t find him funny, just hyper and trying too hard to be cool. However, what bothers me most of all is the lightness which people like Mr. Vaynerchuk take someone else’s’ life’s work. If you define a wine after only a few tastes you will make a lot of mistakes. It seems irresponsible to turn such shallow experience into recommendations that will impact what people will buy. It should be remembered that Wine Library TV is a product that Mr. Vaynerchuk is selling and that the attitudes that he takes are more about selling his product than accurately reviewing wines. Just as The Wine Spectator is not about selling wines, but about selling magazines, Wine Library TV is about getting hits, not about wine. Such advise should be taken with caution.

The Internet’s most passionate wine programming? How sad.