Can A Wine Really Be Bad for Your Soul?

SoulThe latest article at “Bigger Than Your Head”, a blog maintained by long-time wine writer Frederic Koeppel, is evidence of many things, not the least of which is Frederic’s talent to compose an excellent essay. It demonstrates why, after having won two Wine Blog Awards for “Best Wine Reviews”, his blog also ought to be considered for “Best Writing” on a Wine Blog.

But this latest article, “Wine & Vulgarity”, also demonstrates the extent to which judgement of the most serious kind is often an instrumental, fundamental and fascinating part of wine appreciation. And the article begs, once again, the question: what is quality?

Koeppel’s primary point is that wine can be “vulgar”; vulgar as in “Kim Kardashian” – “Jersey Shore” vulgar. Frederic explains how vulgarity can make it into a wine this way:

“a wine whose treatment sensationalizes a grape’s aspects instead of allowing them a natural and authentic expression; a wine whose inherent character is obliterated by the ego of its winemaker and manipulator; a wine whose making bends it out of proportion to its…logical necessity, range and delivery.”


“A zinfandel or cabernet sauvignon or syrah/shiraz wine whose super-ripe grapes and high alcohol content, say, 15.5 or 16 percent, manifest themselves as cloying, jammy sweetness and a hot, unbalanced finish?”

Throughout the article, Frederic offers a number of other examples of “vulgarity” in wine and I recommend its reading as it is among the more succinct renditions of a line of wine criticism that has arisen in response to a certain style of wines over the past few years.

However, what’s really fascinating about his criticism and use of the term “vulgar” to underscore his contempt for certain styles of wine is the way it highlights the essence of a critics primary objective:

To explain what is good and bad for your intellectual and spiritual well-being.

There is nothing inherently good or bad, nothing inherently offensive or inoffensive, nothing qualitatively moral or immoral about a red wine that is sweet, alcoholic, soft and extracted. In fact, many people will enjoy a wine that is alcoholic, soft, extracted and sweet.

Yet Frederic imposes a moral judgement upon these wines. It’s not just a qualitative judgement or a judgement of the wine’s character. It’s that, in Frederic’s mind, these wines are offensive to his sensibilities; they fail to meet his standard of what is “good” and “right” by being, in his mind, unauthentic, a product of ego and not nature, and ultimately, unnatural as, in his view, the wines step outside the logical limits the fruit is supposed to exhibit.

These wines are vulgar because they do not conform to Frederic’s idea of what ought to be. Of course, the beauty of criticism, be it in the realm of television, film, dance, fine arts, architecture, literature or any other artistic pursuit, is that there is no objective warrant for what “ought” to be; there is not one way to definitively say what is beautiful and what is not. There is only opinion.

Koeppel’s throwing down of the critical gauntlet is in no way unusual. However, it is among the purest examples I’ve ever seen of a professional and experienced wine critic making a value judgment wine styles. It’s a unique judgement however because Koeppel isn’t simply saying he thinks a wine is out of balance or a bit too astringent or a tad heavy-handed on the oak. He’s saying it’s bad (vulgar). More importantly Koeppel is declaring that in its vulgarity, the wine is bad for your soul and for your spiritual and intellectual well-being because it is offensive to nature? That’s his argument.

It’s a pretty well-rendered argument too—if you are inclined to buy it. The atheist listening to the apostle declare that his soul will be made wretched by indulging in pornographic images or in liquor or in casual sex because God condemns these things rolls his eyes and moves on because he sees this judgement being based on an unwarranted claim to what is good and bad, what is moral and immoral, what is right and what is wrong. And the atheist’s judgement of these claims are equally valid as the original claims because we are dealing here in value judgement that are based on no facts, but rather on the ultimate subjectivity: personal preference.

A case can be made, though probably not as eloquently as Frederic does it, that a fat, soft, alcoholic, extracted Cabernet Sauvignon demonstrates the quality heights to which a wine grape can be brought. It’s not a hard case to make. All I have to do is say I like it, then explain why I like the way a fat, soft wine sits easily on and caresses my palate; how the the 16.5% alcohol delivers a slight buy invigorating prick to my palate; how the richly extracted fruit in the Cabernet delivers a beautiful raisiny quality and speaks of deep and delicious pruny flavors that I love so much.

“Vulgarity” is in the eye of the beholder. And one thing is perfectly clear: within the world of wine lovers, there are innumerable definitions of vulgarity. None are definitive.

25 Responses

  1. John Kelly - May 29, 2012

    Tom I’m surprised that you equate “vulgar” with “bad.” I do not. The way I have always understood the term (outside it’s use to refer to gross bodily functions) it is synonymous with “common” and “unsophisticated.” Sort of like hot dogs with mustard; delicious, despite being common and unsophisticated.

  2. Scott - May 29, 2012

    Hey, the more Kardashians the better, I say. I like them, so that makes them good. You have to admit, Tom Wark, that despite whatever beauty may lie in the eye of the “beholder”, some things are over the top only for the sake of over-the-top-ness. Maybe Lady Gaga is better than Chopin if you like it more. But she’s not. And anybody with a mildly discerning ear can easily hear tell. I think that’s what Fredric was getting at. In our current Idiocracy, it seems things that are louder or more extreme or more wildly unusual are seen as more desirable. They usually aren’t.
    Hopefully FK will weigh in with a response.

  3. Charlie Olken - May 30, 2012

    There is an inherent anti-ripeness bias in Koeppel’s argument that renders it useless. The existence of alcohol in the 15+ range is casually but unmistakenly conflated with soft and gooey, raisiny, baked wines. It reminds me of the same “guilt by association” that is suffered by Lodi.
    Wines are not judged individually but by class. It is a nonsense.
    And one does not have to look very carefully to also understand that this criticism is rendered against CA wines uniquely. The argument itself is vulgar. It does not need references to the Kardashians or the Donald Trump.
    Vulgarity the way Koeppel uses the term is not like pornography. The wines he dislikes may well be disliked by most of us, including me, but they are legitimate styles that do not bend anything beyond the bounds of expectation.
    If there is one thing that we have learned about wine over the years, decades, centuries, it is that wine has more potential to move in ways that are new than we can even imagine.
    The moralists, the absolutists, the holier than thou in the wine community are entitled to their opinions. I grant them that absolutely. And I grant myself the right to ignore them absolutely.

  4. Tom Wark - May 30, 2012

    Frederic is making a case for standards, objective ones at that. It’s a very old, and in many cases a compelling, argument. And I think Frederic makes it well. I’m fascinated by this argument be in made in the service of wine, arts or literature. Deep down, most of us believe there is a “better”, “best”, bad. But there is another angel on our shoulder telling us that it’s all subjective when it comes to art and religion.

  5. Charlie Olken - May 30, 2012

    I would respectfully disagree. Rather than objective standards, he is making an argument for subjective standards that are based on his unique model. And then he brands as “vulgar” those wines that go beyond his model.
    His model is certainly very close to my model, but my model has, I hope, no absolutist parts to it. I don’t brand wines or alcohol levels as vulgar. I freely admit to not being a fan of soft, pruney wines. That’s fine. I also don’t like spaghetti westerns and most situation comedies on TV. But, they are not vulgar. They are simply not to my taste.
    That is one of the differences, and to me, it is a big difference.
    A second point of difference is the “class distinction” for the use of the term. We all know that wines of 15%+ ABV can be over the top. We also know that many wines at that level are not–and some of them like Le Montrachet and 47 Cheval Blanc, just to name two, are wines of great sophistication.
    Mr, Koeppel, and all of us, should like what we like. When we start branding our dislikes, and the likes of others in the bargain, as vulgar, we have gone too far.
    Respectfully submitted,

  6. Virginia winemaker - May 30, 2012

    Would Koeppel describe the California reds of the 90s, with their 13.5% alcohol vulgar as well? After all, the classic Bordeaux they emulated were 12.5%.
    Quality, it seems, is a moving target.

  7. Tom Wark - May 30, 2012

    Interesting points. I’m not sure I disagree. But I need to understand something. What, in any category but particularly the arts, would you consider to be “vulgar”?

  8. tomasso - May 30, 2012

    People who might describe a wine as vulgar are the same people who would use terms like voluptuous, vivacious, honest, well bred, suave, masculine, gutsy, clumsy, nervous, or overbearing. Meaningless terms used by people desperate to say something that sounds intelligent about a wine when all they have to say is they liked it or they didn’t like it.

  9. Cody Rasmussen - May 30, 2012

    Tomasso, what words do you use to describe a wine that you like? I see no problem with many of the words you have listed. Voluptuous seems perfectly straight-forward to me, for one. FK doesn’t strike me as desperate, pretentious, or unintelligent.

  10. Fredric Koeppel - May 30, 2012

    Tom, thanks for a reading of my “Wine & Vulgarity” post that’s both sympathetic and objective. I don’t think that I can fault any of the points you make. Yes, I’m making a judgment call about the types of wine that I call vulgar and sensationalized; and yes, I make that judgment one that goes beyond personal taste to the ethical sphere. A grape possesses an inherent nature and character and tends to be made into the best wine under a range of certain climatic, geographical and geological conditions. I say “a range” because obviously (and of necessity) grapes aren’t grown just in one region; pinot noir made from grapes grown in the Cote de Nuits will not be the same as pinot noir made from grapes grown in Santa Lucia Highlands or Marlborough. Still those wines should share a cousinage of characteristics that define them as pinot noir. Why bother to make a wine from pinot noir grapes if it ends up smelling and tasting like syrah? To me, that’s making wine in bad faith, because it’s the producers’ or winemakers’ utmost responsibility to be faithful to the character of the grapes they grow (or purchase). When you taste a jammy, sweetish high-alcohol, over-oaked red wine and it might as well be cabernet as syrah or zinfandel, that’s a shame and a waste of resources. The wines I write about in the post in question I call vulgar because they substitute flashiness for character, bells and whistles for integrity. I’m not biased against ripeness, Charles; I’m biased against the over-ripeness whose sweetness masks a wine’s true nature, just as I’m biased against the use of heavily toasted oak barrels that detract from a wine’s purity and intensity. I don’t believe that I’m being too critical. In fact, it troubles me sometimes to see how often wine writers and reviewers will criticize, occasionally to the point of snarkiness, trends in the wine industry, federal regulations, notions of terroir, “natural” wine, and even each other but rarely make a critical judgment about individual wines.
    Thanks, Cody, my first wife would have disagreed with you, so I appreciate the confirmation as to my own character.

  11. Charlie Olken - May 30, 2012

    I am hardpressed to see how wine can be vulgar. I suppose that vulgar applies to things that are incredibly distasteful, but in thirty five years of reviewing wine, I have never called a wine vulgar.
    And plenty of wines not to my taste are clean, well-made and recommendable to folks who like those styles. A wine that is pruney to the point of losing any semblance of character derived from fruit instead of raisins is very unlikely to win my praise, but an otherwise balanced wine that has fixed sulfur or raging volatile acicity (and is not Sauternes) are far worse wines in my view because they are flawed in the winemaking sense.
    Wines that are clean and are consistent with the winemaker’s intent may be over the top in my view but they are not dirty and they are not dismissable as a class.
    Mr. Koeppel, thank you for responding. Your bias, your preferences are your own business. Like me, you have a long history in evaluating wine, and, while it is irrelevant that our preferences sound more similar than different, we do differ very dramtically in how we would characterize wines we do not favor in general.
    The ripe wines of Carlisle or Turley or Edmeades or Wilson or M + D Phillips are certainly exaggerated expressions when compared to the norm, but they are, in my view, very far from vulgar and thus do not deserve to be damned because they are part of a class that goes beyond normative expectations.
    Compared to the Clarets of the 1870s, with their 9% ABV and ultra high TA and VA, todays Bordeaux are vulgar in the way you have defined the term. Things change and potential gets extended. We can agree that wines with technical flaws are often unacceptable, but wines that are different are not vulgar. Sorry to beat on this topic, but there is too much summary judgment in what I understand to be your position and not enough judgment based on taste of individual bottlings.

  12. Tom Wark - May 31, 2012

    Philosophically, I’m with you on this as the post makes clear. However, you have to admit, here and on “Bigger than Your Head” Frederic makes an excellent case where I think it is difficult to make a good case. In fact that’s what really attracted me to Frederic’s post.
    Frederic, I think the primary chink in your argument’s armor is the notion of a grape having a “nature”. I don’t think that case can be made unless it’s outside the context of winemaking. The fact is that the Pinot Noir grape could make significantly different wines based on where the grape is grown and how it is rendered into wine. Imagine Pinot grown near the equator. In the Western Hemisphere it would ripen tremendously quickly and most likely attract significant rot. Still, it could be made into wine, just as the same grape could be made into wine in the far west Sonoma Coast. The two wines would be red or reddish hued. But they would have little else in common.
    Both would be authentic, however. Both would be “Pinot Noir”. Who is to say which is a wine truer to the nature of “Pinot Noir”?
    Now, I think you’d be closer to making your case if you looked a wine labeled “Corton”, for which one should have very specific expectations. And by putting the “Corton” name on the label, you are appealing to a history, culture and set of expectations associated with that wine. If you make the “Corton”, however, in a way that in no way resembles “Corton” you may be able to call it a “vulgar” Corton.
    However, the winemaker might say, “why ought “Corton” taste that way? Clearly it can also taste this way”. And he’d be right.
    I love this subject.

  13. Fredric Koeppel - May 31, 2012

    I’m extremely happy that two writers I admire tremendously — Tom and Charles — responded so enthusiastically and personally to this post on “Wine & Vulgarity.” I did not think about and compose the essay with an eye to creating controversy, though perhaps it’s inevitable, since I take an extreme position, that it did. The twain (or trio) will not meet in agreement over the issues I raise, but I heartily endorse and enjoy the exchange of ideas. I will mention that my entire training and experience has been in the discernment of qualities and the rendering of considered judgment. My years in graduate school (studying 19th & 20th century British and American literature) aimed toward that end, and when I taught English at various colleges and universities for 17 years, my task, as I saw it, was to challenge students to make judgments based on their thinking about what they had read, so that they could decide with confidence why one poem was better than another poem or why one passage in a play worked better than another. That same impulse leads wine writers and reviewers to evaluate and rate wines, using whatever systems they employ, and while such judgments aren’t exactly aesthetic, they certainly call for a structure of values; such a structure, collective yet highly individualized, guides us through a lifetime of choices. There is, of course, no accounting for or disputing notions of taste; perhaps I tiptoe out to the fragile, but I think not specious, end of the limb (of “good taste”) in this post. I suppose that I’m a values freak, and I think that people who come to BTYH understand my nature.

  14. Thomas Pellechia - May 31, 2012

    Good to see that Fredric has taken Charlie’s and Tom’s points.
    While I strongly believe that aesthetic criticism is rather value-ness activity, except for the critic and his or her employer, I agree 100% with Charlie’s view regarding how fruitless (excuse me) it is to make value judgments based on one’s preferences.
    Yes indeed, Pinot Noir wine (and any other variety) will vary when produced under varying circumstances, which is why with Old World winemaking, many of us old-timers respond to a region or a house style of wine, and it is also the reason that most of those wines are not single-variety products.
    I understand Fred completely when he talks about needing to taste the variety in a wine that is labeled by the name of that variety, but I also wonder where and when it has been established that wine must taste like the grape from which it is produced?
    To me, and this is my preference, I’d rather that a wine’s taste remind me of the place from which it was produced. The reason I feel that way is that if you were to take the varietal route to its “nth” degree, wouldn’t most wines taste really close to being the same?; which, unfortunately, the ones Fredric rails over often do.

  15. Thomas Pellechia - May 31, 2012

    make that value-less…

  16. Tom Wark - May 31, 2012

    Taste of place is indeed one value that can be used to evaluate a wine. But can’t one legitimately use another value? For example, why isn’t judging a wine on the uniqueness of its taste equally valuable. There is no objective warrant for taste of place being the primary value marker in a wine.
    Also, even if varietal, rather than taste, were aimpoint for a wine, that wine might easily be different based on the winemaker’s decisions.
    I like Fredric’s argument, despite the fact that that I don’t agree with its basis. And I’d also note that “criticism” does not only serve the critic and his employer. Just like some people prefer biography or poetry, many a reader interested in a subject very much enjoy a well rendered critique of an art piece for which only subjectivity and prevailing standards of quality can be brought to bear on its evaluation. I’d argue that criticism can be an art (or craft) just as poetry or the short story genre or personal essay can be art.

  17. Thomas Pellechia - May 31, 2012

    You have made my point about criticism. You have done exactly what others do and have given my preferences a greater value than they deserve as they relate to your preferences and/or experiences. That’s what I have against aesthetic criticism.
    In any case, it is my subjective opinion that while criticism can and may be an art, that doesn’t necessarily make it a valuable art, but if it is a valuable art, that is likely because of the writing an not of the criticism itself.
    As for the idea that place (as well as individual style) are more important to me than varietal purity, that desire does concentrate on uniqueness of taste.
    By concentrating on varietal characteristics are you automatically concentrating on uniqueness of taste? If so, how?

  18. Patrick - May 31, 2012

    The term “vulgar” is condescending rather than descriptive. It’s better to judge without condescension.

  19. Charlie Olken - May 31, 2012

    Note to Tom Wark–
    I wish the blogosphere were this good more often. Even though we are mostly talking to ourselves, the fact is that we are listening to each other and communicating thoughtfully.

  20. Fredric Koeppel - May 31, 2012

    Excellent point, Charles, and thanks for making it. This has been fun and informative. And Thomas P., I did mention in one of my responses further up that it’s obvious that different geographies (or terroir) will affect the character of grapes.

  21. Thomas Pellechia - May 31, 2012

    Hello Fredric,
    I know that you mentioned it, but I am questioning the idea that varietal characteristics seem more important than place and producer style.
    If winemaking is the art that many claim it is, then it seems to me the expression of the artist is the important point–how the artists uses the material and not so much how the material makes its statement.
    Having said that, I agree with your subjective impressions re, bombastic wines, but, like Charlie, I don’t agree that it is necessarily a flaw in the “art” of winemaking; just one of many choices.

  22. Allen Shoup - June 2, 2012

    That sad note here is that some very inteligent and influential wine folks are reinforcing a dogma unique to the American wine industry … a dogma that has perversly prevented many potential consumers from discovering the great joys of food and wine.. A dogma that states there are rules of right and wrong in wine and that only the sophisicated wine geru is qualified to plumb those rules. I’m reminded of the history of religion in this regard; when only the priests were allowed to own and read books and education was baned from the “vulgar” unwashed mass least they begin to think they’re qualified to form thier own opinions. I have been in the business long enough to remenber “sophicated” wine drinkers confortably berating all Rieslings because they were too sweet and unsophisicated and rose was simply its vulger cousin. Americans didn’t drink wine 40 years ago and it was the Boones Farms and Ripples, and later Sangrias and Lambruscas folowed by White Zinfindel and coolers that led them to where they are today. They did this by averting thier eyes from the wine guru’s judgemental glare … thank god for thier courage to continue to expore as it built the industry that we have today. But it is the underlying agreement that all but a few like Charlie Olken (thank you Charles) implicitely subscribe to that is most desturbing…that self-rightous conviction that all high alcohol wine is bad (although some are willing to agree that calling it vulgar is a step to far). High alcohol reds top the list of who’s who in wine writing for points and scores and have the fastest growing sales, higest prices and are listed in all the finest restaurant. Why… because they drink better young. We only in recent years have develoed the viticulture skills and harvest techniques which coupled with very expensive low yeilds make these wines feasible in the premiun growing regions. Until recently you had to buy a “vulgar?” port or sherry to get deep prune and ripe cherry flavors in a young wine. Will the consumers continue to select these wines as thier favorite… who knows. But as America gets more conforable with wine they will laugh at the arrogance of calling a wine vulgar the same way today they would laugh at the person who condemns then for the way they like thier eggs prepared or steak grilled. Is it a New York quirk ,Fredrick?… they are my only friends who beleive that west coast pizza’s are disgusting with all thier strange vegetables and weird cheese toppings and further feel confortable in telling that to the host who is serving one. Would love to see you in a religious arguement with a “born again” (assuming your not one)while they explain to you the “inherent nature and value” of thier opinions. It is not that you “tiptoe out to the too fragle end of the limb” but that you saw it from the wrong side.

  23. Thomas Pellechia - June 3, 2012

    Allen, Fredric resides in the South.
    While I agree with you regarding the nature of wine criticism, as a Brooklyn native, I abhor the stereotyping you put forth regarding New Yorkers. Having said that, and considering my Italian ancestry, my opinion is that West Coast pizza is an, at best, an oxymoron, and I dislike the Pacific Northwestern penchant for ruining coffee. 😉

  24. Charlie Olken - June 3, 2012

    Oh my goodness, a discussion of pizza has broken out.
    I confess that I am a fan of this crust pizza that conforms to the rule of the Naples Pizza Association–namely, that the crust may be no thicker than 1/8 of an inch and must be handmade and topped with tomato or tomato and cheese.
    The difficulty that this now presents to me is that pizza in Italy does not conform to this old-fashioned standard either.
    Witness the latest addition to my list of favorites–gorgonzola and pear.
    Now, the question does arise: How do I square my reaction to pineapple and ham pizza as vulgar with my stance that there are not vulgar wines if they are well-made.
    And I have come up with an answer that satisfies me. I am a wine professional but a pizza amateur. Mr. Koeppel, do you want a slice of this further debate.

  25. Essay Service - June 20, 2012

    Awesome essay:) writing long essays is an creative art and the people who compares wine are the one addicted to it. Its nice article:)

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