Unmercifully and Honestly Ironic
One of Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s many great roles was his brilliant and intimate portrayal of the uncool Cream Magazine Editor and writer Lester Bangs in the Cameron Crowe film "Almost Famous". Hoffman portrays the perennially uncool Bangs who, in 1973, believes Rock n Roll is in its death throws due to the "swill merchants" that have taken over the business of rock n roll and only care about business.
There is a wonderful line in the film where Bangs is counseling a 15 year-old who must write a 3,000 word story for Rolling Stones about a band he’s been traveling with, but finds he’s having trouble with the assignment due to the friendships he’s formed with the band members. Bangs tells the budding writer:
"I know you think those guys are your friends. You wanna be a true friend to them? Be honest, and unmerciful."
Could there be better advice for anyone writing about any topic, including wine and the wine industry? I think not. It’s particularly good advice for folks considering or currently critiquing wine. No one should ever imagine theirs is the last word on any subject, including the quality of a wine. But this small fact shouldn’t stop anyone from being perfectly clear as to what they think about a wine and why they think it.
This is a controversial notion within the wine reviewing community. "Why should I take time to inform my readers of a bad or mediocre wine when there are so many good wines out there I can recommend to them?"
My best response to that legitimate idea is, are you a critic or not? The definition of critic, be it of wine, film, music or dance or architecture, is not "cheerleader." It is not sycophant. It is not Happymongering. It is explaining, in your view, what is good, what is not good, what is interesting, what is important and what is significant about the creative work under consideration and then, possibly, suggesting how the reader respond.
I hope that coming from me this sounds ironic to many of you who know that my profession is, in large part, publicist. As a publicist, I’m charged by my clients with not merely helping them communicating to media and critics the client’s place in the world, but in helping them explain their place in a way that leads critics and writers to be more likely to appreciate that place in the world. But, the good writers and good critics know this is my job. And there begins something of a dance long known as the "Journalist-Publicist Pirouette".
There is an agreement, largely unstated, that exists between the dance partners: The publicist will tell the the journalist the truth—always. Though the publicist may not say what they think. It is, after all, not the publicist’s story. It is the client’s story and that’s the story the publicist will tell. The journalists knows this—or at least should. On the other hand, the journalists promises to be accurate in their account of the publicist’s or client’s words, statements and comments. However, the publicist knows that the words and stories they offer the journalist won’t always comprise the whole story they tell their readers.
Lester Bang’s advice to the budding writer to always be honest and unmerciful is advice that wineries and others who court the press should assume is taken to heart by the media. It isn’t always taken to heart, particularly by wine critics, and for this wineries should praise Bacchus. But it shouldn’t be assumed this will always be the case and no one should be surprised or outraged when it’s not the case.