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Tuesday Tributes
Bad Wine Gives You A Bellyache

By Charles Olken

Conversely, if a wine does not give you a bellyache, it must not be bad.

It is now well over three decades ago that this little bit of wisdom was imparted at one of our tastings. And the man doing the imparting was Alfred Baxter, founder of Veedercrest, one of the pioneers of the small winery movement of the early seventies. Mr. Baxter was explaining why Connoisseurs' Guide should not give a negative review to a wine of less than stellar character. He had a point, of course. This wine was someone's creation-and probably a proud creation. Why should it get slammed for not being La Tache or Latour or even Georges de Latour Private Reserve?

Why indeed? I have always thought that the best answer to Mr. Baxter, who was clearly having a spot of fun at the expense of a couple of fledgling critics who had just stepped out of the shadows and into print, would have been, "Because somebody has to do it". Somebody has to tell the truth about wine as he or she sees it. It is the essence of criticism, and it is the raison d'etre of Connoisseurs' Guide.

Recently, two of the best writers I know, Alder Yarrow who writes the blog, Vinography, and Tom Wark, who writes the blog, Fermentation, have commented on ethics in the wine biz and the search for truth. Mr. Yarrow's blog of yesterday examined a bit of a spitting contest that is being waged back east between a blogger and a writer of the Wall Street Journal. The Journal writer stands accused of saying nice things about a wine made by a close personal friend. To the blogger, a certain Dr. Vino, that behavior was inappropriate. Mr. Yarrow, in his blog, chose to chide them both. On the one hand, Lettie Teague of the Journal has certainly been less than transparent about her friendship with the winemaker. On the other, Dr. Vino had been extremely judgmental.

Mr. Wark, and is there a nicer man in all of the wine biz with a name that sounds like something out of Star Trek, chose to say that the problem is not with the critics but with some winery public relations efforts. He was referring directly to some of the claims made by proponents of biodynamic winemaking. Whether those folks are right or wrong is less the issue for Mr. Wark than the fact that they are so convinced of their own wisdom that they wind up insulting those who do not follow their practices.

All of which brings me back to Al Baxter. Mr. Baxter's words have stayed with me across the three-plus decades of Connoisseurs' Guide. I choose not to follow them to the letter because the Guide was started for the express purpose of separating the wheat from the chaff in California winemaking. Yet, over the years, Connoisseurs' Guide, and lots of other writers who follow rigorous tasting methodologies and transparent information policies, operate with one part of our brain locked into the search for truth while another equally important part is reminding us that the wine is more important than we are.

That is the message that caused Dr. Vino to go off on Lettie Teague of the Journal and Tom Wark to label unsubstantiated claims of moral and vinous superiority emanating from a few overly zealous followers of biodynamic farming practices as fraud. It may not be the wine that gives us the bellyache. Sometimes it is the inflated rhetoric.


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