A New Wine Sheriff

There’s a new wine sheriff in town and his name is Blair Campbell.

Blair is the newish wine writer for the East Bay Express. I’m not sure how I missed what can only be labeled a most audacious rant in which he takes to task those phonies who read the Wine Spectator or make any time for wines that cost more than $10. It’s pretty impressive.

To be fair, this original article of Campbell’s, "Ashamed of That Cheap Wine You’re Buying?
Maybe that’s ’cause wine writers don’t take either of you remotely seriously"
, is really an introduction to his column which will focus on wines under $10 that are only available in the East Bay Area. Fair enough. One needs to establish their shtick before they get to the business of shticking.

You’re going to like Campbell’s style of writing no matter if you like or don’t like his style of thought. It’s pithy prose that gets to the point with a slightly light hearted demeanor.

That said, there is a dismissive element in his writing. Dismissive of those who might be willing to pay $15, $20, $30 or $50 for a bottle of wine. For example, in considering the character of those who he affectionately calls a "wineaux", Campbell writes:

"Just who is this new consumer whom retailers and restaurants are so
eager to please? Maybe it’s you. You’re an antisnob with a lust for
life and a desire to save both time and money when you shop…Whatever your tastes are, I’ll call you and your kind Wineaux. It seems an apt moniker, capturing both your sophisticated palate and your lack of pretension."

Here’s my point: There’s nothing pretentious or snobbish about 1) spending $50 on a bottle of wine or 2) recognizing that the vast majority of sub $10 wines are generally quite inferior to that $50 bottle of wine. Recognizing this is called discernment and it’s what enthusiasts engage in. Let’s face it, you don’t need a BMW to get you from home to the store, but the ride sure is more comfortable than making the trip in a Yugo. Nor do you need a $25/lb, small production, Italian blue cheese to offer a cheese course with dinner. But it sure will satisfy more than that waxy orange stuff wrapped in thick plastic you find next to the bacon at the local Piggly Wiggly.

For as long as I’ve been involved in the wine business there has been a contingent of folks out there that dismiss the sort of, oh, let’s call it "hyper-appreciation of wine" as nothing more than snob appeal. While there are those people who use their knowledge of wine as a club, there are also those out there who use their dismissal of wine enthusiasts for the same purpose.

I’m not sure Blair Campbell is the latter…yet.

9 Responses

  1. jeff - October 4, 2006

    I was going to go off on a rant about “Sizzler” steaks and white bread… but the fact is that it’s currently “hip” to be snotty and dismissive in an attempt to be entertaining and attention grabbing. This too shall pass.
    At the risk of being snotty and dismissive myself, I can’t help but notice that it will be fun to watch when he can’t take it anymore and is tempted by the dark side of wines over $10. If you run a pool I’ll take 13 months. – j

  2. tom - October 4, 2006

    You make a good point. It isn’t easy always talking about under $10 wines before all the columns start to look the same. First you run through the varietals. Then you talk about regions, then individual winemakers or properties. Then what?
    He’s a good writer so he might be able to pull it off. It will be fun to read.

  3. Joe - October 4, 2006

    My response I just made on the website:
    In reference to Blair Campbell’s article of 8/23/06 entitled, “Ashamed of that Cheap Wine You’re Buying” who does he think he’s writing for? Does he have any idea of the demographics of the community in which he (presumambly) resides? Being an Ex-East Bay-er myself (Pleasant Hill) I can say with certainty that he does not. C’mon, Walnut Creek, Danville, Orinda? These are some of the more affluent communities in No. Cal. Mr. Campbell is guilty of what I call “championing the low end in the name of value”. It’s one thing to say (quite correctly) that you don’t have to spend $150 on a bottle of wine to get something good, but it’s quite another to dismiss an entire category of wine, and demographic of wine lovers as “snobs”.
    And I gotta say, even with all of it’s faults, I’m tired of the Wine Spectator bashing and the claim that they favorably and/or unjustifiably rate their advertiser’s wine offerings. Has Mr. Campbell ever actually looked at the advertisements in W.S.? In my examiniation of the current issue (ironically covering “Great Wine Values”)I do find some wine ads touting their high W.S. scores, but not from wineries producing wines that cost $150/bottle as Mr. Campbell would suggest. Instead they are from large producers producing wines in the range of $10 – $25/bottle (Lindemans, Freixenet, Montes Alpha, Ruffino, etc.). In fact, the bulk of “high-end” advertisements come from the likes of Cadillac, Cartier and Jaeger-Le Coultre.
    Drinking, buying/collecting wine that cost more than $10 has nothing to do with being a snob, and everything to do with recognizing and appreciating the art and craft that goes into making wine. Sure – I’ve had my share of wines that cost $10 that were very good, but I’ve had many more experiences with wines that cost $35 or more that were mind blowingly good. Let the masses keep buying Two Buck Chuck – if that’s what they like, good for them. But Mr. Campbell needs to recognize that those consumers don’t care about varietal, brand names, terrior, or any other such notion. They simply want a cheap alternative to beer. Is it really this audience that Mr. Cambell wishes to enlighten and educate with his erudite prose about what a great Merlot he found in the bargain bin at Albertsons? If so, his witty banter will fall on deaf ears as his target audience couldn’t care less about his “recommendations”.

  4. tom merle - October 5, 2006

    I seem to have read a different article than the one outraging those above me. Mr. Blair is doing what all good journalists should do: writing for his readership.
    The Mainstream Press and enthusiast publications are targetted at those sophisticates with high five figure incomes and above who can more frequently purchase “Ultra premium” vino. These are the hill people and those who reside on the other side of the tunnel.
    Blair’s readership consists of students and younger households living in the flatlands of Berkeley and Oakland. These readers want to know how to choose among the many “fighting varietals” battling for the 70+% of the wine market that we see every year in the MFK pie charts: the vintage and non vintage imports and mass produced wines that don’t have PR mavens promoting their merits…
    Shouldn’t there be one channel in the Alternative Press that offers advice, via a more diverse tasting panel, on that portion of ~vin ordinaire~ that manages to rise above the ordinary?
    Napa Tom

  5. David - October 5, 2006

    Interesting post.
    I drink wines across all price ranges. While many are able to understand the difference between a 10 and 25 $ wine, few are able to appreciate the difference between 25-50. Above 50$ the subtleties are such that requires even more experience. I do not have an opinion about wine spectator other than their evaluation is not part of my decision process. This is because the wine is always a function of the food, while the wine experts are looking for characteristics that are not as important to me. Other than a Proscecco or cool Pinot Grigio, rarely would I just drink a glass of wine.
    The author does well to write to his readers, whenever one is learning more about wine it is “all good”.
    I agree, strangely with most comments above,

  6. Fredric Koeppel - October 5, 2006

    It’s true that good journalists, especially columnists and critics, write to their audiences, but why, in doing so, does Blair feel compelled to position himself as not only a champion of the Little Guy but (as he goes to great trouble to assert) as an enemy of all those pretentious, foolish charlatans and wastrals who throw away their money on a $25 bottle of wine? Since it’s so clear that his audience (or the audience he wants) is not the WS’s audience, just let that issue go and write about good cheap wine. There’s not much worse than a populist demagogue, which is what Blair sounds like.

  7. tom merle - October 5, 2006

    So Blair positions himself as “an enemy of all those pretentious, foolish charlatans and wastrals who throw away their money on a $25 bottle of wine?” Methinks you are suffering from some sort of Wine Guilt. Your dismissal is overly harsh. Sure he is trying–rather successfully I think–to set his tribe apart from those who are into more expensive activities like the enjoyment of fine wine.
    As with all free Alternative Press weeklies the Berkeley Express is a rag for the “people”, not the managers, owners of the capitalist system and their legion of consultants. Sure he’ll chide and poke fun which brings out his cleverness, but has he created a bunch of straw men? I don’t think so. He just didn’t bother extolling the sincerity and good will of those of us with more discretionary dollars.

  8. Joe - October 5, 2006

    Napa Tom,
    While I don’t completely disagree with your asessment of Mr. Campbell’s demographic, I really don’t think these readers are even seeking out advice on which $6 bottle of wine to have with their take out from Outback. Sure, they might peruse the paper, stumble upon Mr. Campbell’s article, get a chuckle, and think to themselves; “I gotta remember that $6 bottle of Cabernet/Merlot he recommended next time I go grocery shopping”. Chances are, they won’t remember and end up picking up something entirely different. Again – these shoppers are casual wine drinkers, at best, and will buy whatever is on sale, or whichever wine label amuses them the most – typically “Critter Wines”. Why do you think Yellow Tail is the No. 1 imported brand in the US? I live in a college town, sort of a east coast version of Berkeley (but not as hip) and I see it all the time. At wine shops (we can’t buy wine at grocery stores)BYOB restaurants, etc. The “younger set” isn’t seeking out better wine brands, but rather large format bottles of Yellow Tail, Four Emus, Woodbridge, etc. They feel sophisticated enough drinking wine as it is – they don’t need or even care to buy the greatest cab they possibly can for under $10 bucks.
    As a merketing and PR guy myself, I’d like to believe that a column such as Mr. Campbell’s is going to affect the masses in such a way that the grocery stores and specialty wine shops will be filled with eager new wine drinkers seeking his latest recommendation; but I know better. For every one reader he does inspire, there are 50 or more that will pick up whatever is on sale that week – Bronco Wine Co. and others can take that fact to the bank – literally.

  9. Stephen Buel - October 9, 2006

    As Blair Campbell’s editor, please allow me to correct a couple of misapprehensions about her column. First, the obvious; your new sheriff is a woman. Secondly, she didn’t take to task people who read Wine Spectator or buy the wines it recommends; on the contrary, she pointed out that the magazine is quite good at what it does. She’s just writing for a different type of reader and wine buyer. Thanks for noticing.
    — Stephen Buel

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