Sure, life at the top has its perks, but life near the top isn’t so bad either.
By Louis Marmon
The Wine Report August/September 2005
Not being Robert Parker has its benefits. That’s pretty rarified air, up there on the first-tier of wine writing. People like Oz Clarke, Karen MacNeil and Jancis Robinson must thrive under stress. There’s a lot of pressure when your comments can make the next cult wine or destroy an entire region’s economy. Everything the first-tier folks write is widely scrutinized, and some of their readers invariably get upset, either because their wines weren’t mentioned, or perhaps because they were. And can a first-tier writer just once go to a dinner without having some lout try to stump them in a spontaneous blind tasting?
Working on the second-tier is much easier. No one really expects much from you. My editors do require articles to be submitted by deadline, and my wife does insist that I have a decent bottle of wine with dinner, but no one looks for me to discover the latest wine trend or next hot varietal. My readers are more interested in good, reasonably priced wines, and my goal is to get them to expand their wine drinking horizons.
It is true that being a first-tier wine writer has major benefits. People – and sometimes entire countries – who don’t like them, will still treat them well. Samples of famous wines arrive at their doors like manna. They get invitations to Michelin-starred restaurants and opportunities to travel around the world. It is a pretty nice gig to be able to do verticals of DRC, d’Yquem and Screaming Eagle. Bottles of Kistler and Le Montrachet lie scattered at their feet while the ghost of Emile Peynaud hovers sagely overhead. And kings and philosophers quote first-tier writer’s pronouncements from atop monuments while the sun itself shines blissfully upon their shoulders whenever they walk among the masses. Well, maybe I exaggerated that last part, but you get the idea.
My wines are stored in a small room in the basement, but I have heard that every first-tier writer has a massive, custom-built, temperature- and humidity-controlled cellar, carved from the bedrock under their homes and protected by a high-tech security system. And that each of them has a private, noise-proof sanctum for tastings, with an automated spit-bucket removal system. But these stories are undoubtedly lies started by wannabes and frustrated retailers.
The View From Below
Things are much simpler on the second-tier. My tastings are conducted in our kitchen, and the spills and spit bucket are my responsibility. I am also the guy making sure the bottles get into the recycling bin. My family will often try the wines with me and they are developing quite sophisticated tastes. (My wife is afraid she is becoming a terrible snob, and my middle daughter is very fond of Turley). Working from home also gives me the opportunity to discuss responsible drinking with my teenagers and their friends who may come by to visit while there are 10 bottles of Zinfandel on the counter. I often invite a few of my friends to my tastings, because I hate the idea of pouring good wine down the sink.
While no one is sending me cases of Grange, I do receive enough samples of other wines to be on a first-name basis with the UPS guy. A couple times a week it’s like holiday season around here when a box arrives and everyone crowds around to see what’s inside. The bottles are often from unfamiliar regions and wineries, so we get to taste a lot of interesting wines – and some not-so-interesting stuff as well, which usually elicits comparisons to unlaundered undergarments. This means we do a lot of laughing at my tastings.
I recently did participate in a sponsored wine writer’s trip featuring first-class food and accommodations. My fellow second-tier writers were wonderful travel companions, sharing their wine knowledge and experience as well as their abilities to recall Monty Python routines. A visit to a winery is more fun with a group because you benefit from hearing another perspective and you have someone to hand your camera to when you want a shot of you with the cute PR person. And yet, while traveling on the bus between wineries, we did wonder if the first-tier guys were in one of the limos that passed us on the highway.
“Waiter, There’s a Parasite In My Wine!”
Another second-tier writer claims that the wine trade perceives all writers as parasites. That is not something I have noticed, because everyone from winemakers to distributors to retailers has been unfailingly pleasant and many are actually a lot of fun. In fact, the only miserable person in the wine business that I know is a wine writer (not second-tier). And while one would think there is a lot of competition, several of the local, big-time wine writers have blessed me with their advice and support. But not the cranky guy, who is a cross between the nerd from Sideways and a hobbit.
A major advantage of being on the second-tier is that I don’t feel compelled to serve Super Tuscans or first-growth Bordeaux to my dinner guests. I would if I had any, but serving wine to friends is more about the images and memories it evokes rather than the producer on the label. At my house, wine is a complement to the evening, not the focal point of it. On Friday nights we say the blessings over the purple, sweet wine from the square bottle rather than the hottest kosher wine from Israel because it reminds my wife of dinners at her grandparents. That’s a pleasant image we enjoy as a family.
The view from the second-tier is rather nice and has been very educational. Since I don’t write for a national publication, I have learned to build my own Web site. And I have a new appreciation for the nuances of German Rieslings as well as FedEx delivery regulations. Do I aspire to something greater? Sure, but only if the demands remain manageable and the perks improve as well. Until that time, if you see any bottles of Petrus lying around, please send them my way.