I owned a wine shop, once upon a time. In it was a lovely marble bar where I poured wine and beers for customers and gave some background on what they were tasting. One quiet afternoon, about April-May of 2007, I had a guy walk in wearing a nice wool suit, sans jacket and with tie skew, and sit down for a tasting. I was pouring a lovely Argentinian Viognier that day, a nicely-made, unoaked, whistle-clean wine worth far more than its $9.99 price tag. The fellow tasted the wine, paused, picked up the bottle, and said, “Huh…an Argentinian Condrieu.” Condrieu, for anyone who doesn’t know, is the tiny appellation in France in which Viognier is the dominant white grape. I started to say something when the guy continued on, “I have a few California Condrieus at home, cellaring them. I have one that dates back to 1988.”
According to most reputable wine experts – Jancis Robinson’s book was the one I had at hand, that day – Vioginier doesn’t age. It will maintain in the bottle for a couple of years but doesn’t improve substantially with lay-down time. It is also only referred to as “Condrieu” when it comes from that region of France.
I gently explained that Condrieus are only found in that one tiny, green-bean shaped area of the Northern Rhone and that it’s not intended for extended cellaring. He got irritated.
“Y’know,” he snapped, “I’ve visited France and I’ve now been to 28 different wineries since I started studying wine. That’s been eight solid years, now. I know wine. You obviously don’t. I don’t have to sit here and listen to this crap.” And he stormed out.
I had the Jancis Robinson book in my hand when he got up, my finger in the page in which she writes about Condrieu and Viognier. He wasn’t interested. He had, after all, visited 28 different wineries in his eight years of studying wine. In his mind, this was expert-level education.
The only problem is…that’s nonsense.
Being wrong about things and withstanding the momentary embarrassment of being corrected is called “learning”, a process which our society has attempted to civilize and codify by creating schools and self-help manuals but which is still, stubbornly, often most effective and lasting when done by trial and error, that process outlined in the scenario above. Here in the Pacific Northwest, where anything like telling somebody they’re wrong about their assumptions is seen as heinous confrontation and is to be avoided at all costs, a fella like that can go decades, saying what he said to me about Condrieu and cellaring. He fancies himself a wine expert and will, logically, gravitate to where actual wine fanciers gather, and will be thought of as a clueless dork and never corrected. His opportunity to learn will likely never come, unless he stumbles upon a Jancis Robinson book and actually bothers to read it. Not having been born a Northwestie, I often try to correct people like this…and am often thought of as a jerk for doing it. But I still try and have no plans to stop.
Here’s the thing: unless you’ve devoted HUGE portions of your time and energy and intellect to learning ALL about your subject, you will always have chances to benefit from episodes like that above. Open ears, Close Mouth: words to actually, literally Live By. Because – again, unless you’ve made a subject like wine (or beer or whiskey) your life’s work – you do NOT know as much about it as that person who’s writing that column – the Paul Gregutts and Sean Sullivans and Steven Tanzers and, yeah, Pour Fools of the world – and your best chance to learn is to read, discard anything you know to be gibberish, and retain what’s true. A very famous wine critic once told me, “You do a good, solid job of wine reviewing. Don’t worry about the trolls. When enough people start calling you an idiot, that’s when you know you’re doing this right.”
I don’t think I’m likely to get a vigorous argument from anybody – save a few disgruntled Luddites who are so caught up in repairs on their butter churns that they seldom comment, anyway – for the idea that the internet is one of mankind’s top two or three inventions. Beyond the exponentially-increasing opportunities for learning and communication, its greatest virtue is that it has demolished that ancient paradigm of our wisdom about nearly everything being held hostage to the egos and financial strategems of newspaper or magazine publishers or those who print books. Even television, which was the first to threaten the hegemony of print, was still a closely-held ivory tower, just like the publishers. Access to the Average Joe was either denied or limited to :23 sound bites, wholly at the whim of an editor or news director. With the internet, anybody who owns a computer can sign on, start a blog, and pontificate until they literally drop dead, if they like. And that’s also the internet’s greatest tragedy.
Before the internet, saying things like you read daily – inflammatory, irrational, insulting, aggressive nonsense – was written in long, inarticulate screeds, addressed to editors of newspapers or was spoken, usually in bars and usually after a bit of liquid social lubrication, and either form carried infallible safeguards against its spread or “reach”. Editors got two paragraphs into the screeds and tossed them into the trash and friends of the tavern orators either helped them stumble home or popped them squarely in the face. Feedback was not bound by (usually non-existent) rules of a reader response section. It was delivered at the end of a fist, unequivocally, in terms anybody can understand. BAM = “I disapprove of your rude observations and find little basic in fact.”
Or words to that effect.
It’s become an internet tradition to hide behind a screen name, so you can say things that would get you that Instant Karma if said in person. The internet’s public and seemingly-perpetual nature give people who should be popped on the beezer, daily, the conviction that their words actually matter and, even worse, that people should be swayed by them and do as they’re told. I suspect that most of the yoyos who post, over and over again, “You should_____” actually know that their demands for compliance are absurd, because the chances are very good that saying something like that to their father, mother, sibling, or wife would get them severely rebuked and wouldn’t have any effect at all. But they’ll do it online, to total strangers, and then get petulant when their “wisdom” gets no result.
I’m a magnet for these “trolls” and evoke BIG extremes of emotion with observations that wouldn’t even get me punched out in a bar. My FB buddy, Wine Enthusiast’s Paul Gregutt, gets this sort of thing from his own pack o’trolls:
“Paul Guttgutt announced his sudden retirement (for the third time) from his hollow palaver on wine leading pundits to wonder how he could live on the measly tip coins from his banjo slinging. Well, now we know as a scientist recently revealed his discovery of the evolution on how upright chimpanzees evolved to be able to metabolize alcohol through the eons….By studying a biopsy from the world’s oldest looking bullshit blogging senior wine writer, scientists were able to determine that at a point, some 10 million years ago, we became able to catabolize ethanol due to a DNA mutation that produced an enzyme that is able to effectively breakdown alcohol to a less harmful substrate. I guess there is some good in keeping the old goat around after all.”
For those who don’t know him, Paul is an example of what I find to be the most admirable kind of man: a gentleman. He doesn’t do vendettas or rant about wines he simply doesn’t like or take the bait when trolls like the author of that incoherent screed try to provoke him. I, on the other hand, am NOT a gentleman. I’m a fractious old Virginia hillbilly and get a chuckle out of this clown’s simian antics but understand full well – as he had better understand – that if he ever said those things to my face, he’d get that Instant Karmic Adjustment, in spades.
Here’s the Bottom Line: If you are one of those tedious people who screech at people who write for a living, you DO NOT know your subject as well as that writer, unless you happen to be a winemaker, brewer, distiller, or an older writer who’s put in the time and effort to amass serious, professional-grade knowledge. I doesn’t matter if you’ve been to 28 wineries or 58 breweries ot 44 distilleries. That writer has been to hundreds, tasted everything available, thought about what they tasted, placed it a broader, more comprehensive context of the sort that can ONLY be gained by living your subject. The clown who wrote the above quote about Gregutt reveals his insecurity and complete lack of maturity every time someone clicks over to his arrested-development cesspool of a bloglet, with its pictures of women’s asses and constant chest-thumping rhetoric and misuse of words he clearly doesn’t understand, in the hopes that, if he blusters and postures enough, you won’t notice that he’s a frightened little wuss-boy who wants desperately to have Stature in the wine world but doesn’t have clue as to how to earn it. He anoints himself as Washington’s only real wine blogger constantly but is seen by that same community as a mild irritant; an embarrassment, at best. That’s a strategy, of course. If you don’t have the chops and maturity to actually work for what you want, just claim it and shout down anyone who happens to notice that you’re a clueless little whiner.
The best current example of the backlash against writers is another FB acquaintance, Ashley Routson, who writes under the name “The Beer Wench” and recently authored the book, “The Beer Wench’s Guide to Beer“. Ashley is yet another one of us, like me, who is a tad too bright for her own good and has a large vocabulary that she’s not at all afraid to use. She wrote a very tongue-in-cheek piece for thrillist.com, called “Six Dirty Lies Men Spread About Women and Beer“. I’m a man (last time I checked) and I read the thing and immediately understood that A) Ashley was not talking about all men, just a troglodytic sub-stratum which absolutely does exist, and B) that she meant what she was saying but was softening the blow a bit by having fun with it. But, of course, the internet, being the relatively humorless place it is, produced comments like these:
“I can’t believe Ashley could only fit in two photos of herself in this article. We may argue about the content but there’s two clear messages. Ashley loves Ashley. Ashley has a vagina.”
“You can tell from her foul attitude, this woman is a nasty piece of work. Here is some advice for the guys out there. If you are feeling hard-up and your choices are: 1) the “Beer Wench” or 2) a mediocre porn flick, you would be wise to chose number 2. If you get involved with a man-hater like this she will wreck your life and that is before she robs you blind and steals your children.”
“As a college journalism and composition professor, I have to say that this article breaks every rule in the book. She shows a complete lack of support for her claims, she uses nearly every rhetorical fallacy that I can think of, and her logic is extremely skewed. I know plenty of feminists, and they would be embarrassed to know that this writer is representing their voice. It’s people like this writer who give feminists (and journalists) (and beer advocates) a bad name.”
As my own footnote to the “professor”:
– Only those willingly wearing the strait-jacket of academic assumptions about “proper composition” really give a damn about these alleged “rules”
– Your own assertion of “fallacy” was as unsupported as you claim her facts are
– There probably are feminists who would be embarrassed by what she wrote but we heard from several of them in the piece’s comments and that embarrassment is by no means universal
– And only someone as narrow and pompous as the sort who feels the need to preface his comments with “As a college journalism and composition professor” wouldn’t be able to understand that HE has an inherent responsibility to NOT let one writer’s opinions invalidate all of either feminism or beer blogging.
The ‘net has given millions of people who have traditionally had no voice and felt utterly at the mercy of the media an outlet, a place where their own views show up just as vividly and permanently on the computer screen as do those of James Carville, Anne Coulter, Robert Parker, Steven Tanzer, or Maureen Quinn. Finally, the Average Joe can be heard, with just ONE click of a mouse! It is, without question, the internet’s greatest virtue. Even (or maybe especially) when I was writing for newspapers and magazines, I hated that ivory tower aspect of “the press”; hated all those editors who constantly insisted that their writers not respond to criticism and stay “above the fray”. That establishment journalism was based on the social hierarchy of the media as the only dispensers of wisdom and then we get this marvelous invention that lets us all see, tangibly, daily, that our own opinions do matter, that we don’t actually require the anointing of a wine reviewer or beer expert or political writer or movie critic, whose tastes and agendae are so radically different from our own. We can find out what everyday, normal folks who look and act and think just like us think of that new restaurant, this new car, that wine, that beer, this book. But the sad downside of this is that we’re Americans: by that definition, running things into the ground is a cornerstone of our national character. Internet trolls are here to stay, sadly, and it’s up to each individual to comprehend what they’re actually dealing with when they take on an established writer. Yeah, it’s certainly possible to bedevil that writer for a while…but then you have to go back to your own life, pay bills, gas the car, take kids to school, vacation…live. If your writer/target doesn’t take the bait or maddeningly refuses to capitulate to your demands for retraction or an apology, unless you’re fully prepared to turn your umbrage into a career, that writer is going to go right on writing, views unchanged, retraction unwritten, and remain almost completely unaffected by the fact that you got hot.
Views have real effect on the internet based on the credentials of those who offer them. If Tomme Arthur or Sam Calagione writes me an email, saying I’m totally wrong, I’m going to read that and probably act on it, as long as it’s a factual objection and not simply a matter of opinion. Moving me or anybody – Paul Gregutt, Ashley Routson, Nora McGunnigle or anyone else who writes for a living – off an opinion we’ve hung out there for the inevitable consequences is going to be a real task. Why? Because we think before we write and understand that we have to own what we write.
In 46 years of writing for public consumption, it’s happened that I’ve been Persuaded Otherwise twice. Twice, out of maybe 10,000 – 15,000 articles, I’ve retracted or revised what I wrote. And that’s twice more than a LOT of writers.
Just venting when you’re hot under the collar is fine…as long as simply venting scratches that itch. Results are not guaranteed and about as rare as unicorns.