| There are plenty of women in the wine industry, but much fewer at the gatekeeper level.
One of the things about defending the old, white, male demographic is how routinely hard we make it for ourselves (although I’m not old, I keep telling myself).
Five days ago, halfway through reading “The problem with the old white men of wine” piece by French bloggeur Antonin Iommi-Amunategui, the critical faculties began to kick in. Doubtless, the French wine industry is ruled by a clique of paunchy, reactionary, harrumphing Caucasians, but to hang a bunch of hang-ups and generalizations on the back of one poor-taste drawing is a bit much, isn’t it?
Sure, these guys (including top French wine critic Michel Bettane) might have sent some pretty rude, colourful texts to women in the wine trade but we were missing context, weren’t we? And, just like that, I was defending institutional power.
But what if Iommi-Amunategui was right? How would we know? How do we make the powerful justify themselves? Well, with quite a lot of pain. But there comes a point where the onus shifts onto those in power to make their case. Because it’s not just France is it? Look at the Court of Master Sommeliers’ implosion, for instance.
Even if you don’t like a wine, how many times have you thought it was okay to attack someone’s choice of career, in person, via email? I’m reasonably confident I don’t need to explain how entitled this is.
The story made it to the national news, which called it a “critique”, which is nonsense (one even called it “a review”, which is just laughable). Emailing a wine producer to abuse them is no more a critique than forced emasculation is a “therapy”.The only sections of his message pertaining to the wine were “this is the worst Pinot Noir I’ve tried in years … the wine I tried was disgusting”. The rest can be summed up thus: “stop making wine; don’t you know who I am?”
“Critique”? One of the things Jim Harre will have noticed about his really negative critiques in wine competitions is that they don’t get published. We all make noises about the “vin de merde” case that came up about 20 years ago, but the truth is wine critics aren’t really that biting anymore. Go do it: go find an excoriating tasting note published by an international publication. Good luck.
And sure, there’s a lot to be said in support of impulsive, righteous anger, but I don’t think you get to use that defence when you are a self-professed international wine judge, someone who heads up an industry. Is this how Harre regularly judges wine?
Is it that this was just a soft, easy target? A natural wine, a small producer, a woman, etc. That really tells us a lot about established wine judges, doesn’t it? The minorities, the different, the new, the small, the underrepresented or the misunderstood: they’re fair game to give a playful kick in the guts to if you’re an international wine judge of some repute. You can’t claim to be a gruff, straight-shooter when you’re kicking the small guy. That really is some very small-dick energy.
What’s worse is that this is greeted by silence, either out of fear or acquiescence or even implicit support. Think of the Court of Master Sommeliers saga again or the sexual abuse scandals in Canada and France – how many people spoke out? How many people had to have known – even by rumor? How long did it go on? There’s no doubt it’s hard to speak out against the powerful, especially in such a small industry as ours – and even more so for the victims – but everyone else?
Well, let’s be honest: a lot of people are scared to speak out, scared simply to voice an opinion about those in positions of power for the very real fear that there will be repercussions. Powerful people are powerful because of institutions. They can leverage institutions, they can leverage whole sectors of the wine industry against you. Or they can threaten to do so, which is just as bad.
So what should have happened? Well Harre should have apologized. He hasn’t and, in New Zealand at least, New World supermarkets (for whom he is a chair of their wine awards) is standing by him. I don’t know what their policy on institutional bullying is, but given they are defending their man’s abusive screed, you’d be forgiven for wondering if they hadn’t concocted the whole episode together in a bid to get some publicity. After all, it’s unlikely small-scale natural winemakers are going to enter supermarket wine awards, so it would have been a relatively safe tactic. Sure, if any young, natural winemaker was tempted to have a shot at a gold medal, they’ll think twice now. So no, the status quo will do nicely, thanks.
Further to the notion of this being some hateful stunt is the wine in question. A 2018 Pinot Noir Nouveau. What was the expected flavor profile here? Something akin to a Volnay Santenots? A lesser Clos Saint-Jacques just getting over the initial bottle shock? Here’s a headline: “Nouveau-style wine doesn’t age well, according to international wine judge.” Well, there’s an earth-shattering insight. How many years on the international circuit do you have to have before you start pulling those bunnies out of hats?
And it is on these grounds that a winemaker should seek other employment? You can’t libel yourself, but what was said harmed the winemaker’s professional reputation and that, in a fair few countries, is libellous. You can have a “vin de merde”, you cannot have a “vigneron de merde”. Harre can say what he likes about the wine, but he can’t call into question the ability of the winemaker. If his puerile note had been published by anyone other than the recipient, I think it’s fair to say lawyers could have been invoked. Maybe some old white men can check this with their friends in the legal profession?
And now, you see, I slip into the stereotype of a certain old, white male. It’s not all old white men, says Iommi-Amunategui at the start of his piece. But how do we know?
So there is a danger that we might fall into a stereotype (if we haven’t already) of the old, white man in a position of power in the wine industry. A stereotype that comes close to being deserved. So I think it’s vital, now, to break up this demographic. It is a demographic I will soon join, and I have no desire to blamed for, or to allow, the sins of my fathers.
There are two avenues here. One is to ramp up the call to embrace more people of colour, more women, more minorities, more LGBTQI representation, and so on in areas of power. The other is to ask if these powerful institutions themselves are even necessary in their current iteration.
As it stands, getting to be an international wine judge is a privilege and a responsibility – it does not entitle anyone to demand someone’s head on a platter just on a whim.