Will a Dollop of Gossip Help the Wine Industry?
After 30 years of work in a particular industry, one comes across some pretty interesting and titillating information. You witness and hear about a variety of incidents and circumstances that would provoke headshaking, surprise, shock and awe. The wine industry is no different. After years of working in this industry, I love I could relate the stories of:
-The Sonoma winery owner who remains a gay man but still hides it by employing a strategy of dating an array of women as a cover.
-The instance of a winery tasting room employee who has recorded audio of numerous conversations of winery visitors who are know-it-alls AND uninformed so that they can share these encounters with a circle of friends.
-The wine writer who twice with me and with others let the subject of an article actually write the article themselves—or allowed their PR person to write it.
-A very high up employee of an alcohol conglomerate that is a degenerate gambler.
-A Wine PR person who for a years regularly and liberally referred to his female client as “The C*nt”.
-A winemaker who occasionally made “additions” to fermenting wines while standing above them on the catwalk in the winery.
-The wholesaler rep in a metro area who would not take and fill important wine orders from restaurants and retailers for days unless they consented to buy cases of wines they didn’t want, but would help the rep get a bonus.
-The Bay Area news anchor who got so drunk at a winery event they had to be restrained lest they fulfill their promise to expose themselves to everyone in attendance.
-The Bay Area wine writer for a very small publication that would, predictably, crash sit-down press events to which they were not invited and threaten all sorts of things unless they were seated.
-The daughter of a winery owner who agreed to disguise herself when she attended Trump rallies.
But I won’t relate the substance of these stories to anyone but my closest friends and I certainly won’t relate them to the media. It’s all gossip. Plus, the people who would be the subject of the gossip would be forever harmed by the telling of these facts and events to a wider audience.
This was my thought upon reading James Lawrence’s recent article in Wine-Searcher in which he both laments the wine industry’s aversion to relating industry gossip to journalists as well as speculating that this aversion might be the source of wine’s inability to capture the imagination of the public in the same way food and gastronomy has done:
“It must be hard for winemakers, never quite knowing which bits of intrigue – if any – they can share with journalists. On our left is constant self-flagellation: typically about wine’s inability to emulate the food sector’s triumphant penetration of mass media. On our right is the industry’s bête noire: intense fear of any subject considered remotely controversial and, by extension, interesting. This is a business where any measure of openness is usually followed by suffocating regret. Could there be a link? The case for a dressing down of this pathological disinclination to news isn’t as daft as it sounds.”
Lawrence makes the case that wine’s aversion to controversy and seemingly strict adherence to talking about seemingly opaque subjects like “Terroir, tannins, clonal selection, calcareous soils” builds a wall between the industry and consumes that, if only allowed to be dismantled through a willingness to be more human or let our guard down or toss a bit of gossip around, would lead to more consumers feeling a more intimate connection to wine, which in turn would lead to more sales.
He’s not necessarily wrong about this. People’s interests and attention do gravitate more often toward things that seem relatable to our everyday lives. Who among us has not feared exposure of our secrets? Who among us could not relate to possessing such disdain for a person we are willing to call them the vilest of names? Who among us has not so overindulged we were tempted to expose ourselves in one way or another. These are things we can all relate to because they are things we have all experienced in ourselves from time to time.
But here is the thing about the “gossip”, “intrigue” and “tittle-tattle” that Lawrence thinks is too infrequently shared in the wine industry: It’s not news, and most often the subject of the tittle-tattle is harmed by its exposure while the reading public does not benefit by knowing of the intrigue. This alone is reason to not share this kind of gossip with a journalist.
Moreover, we live in a moment (that threatens to become an Age) when the exposure of even the smallest civil transgression or embarrassing moment could lead to ostracization, loss of career or worse. The winery where the daughter of its owners disguises herself in order to attend a Trump rally doesn’t deserve to be vilified and no one is made more usefully informed or better prepared to do anything by knowing this tidbit about the daughter. No one is made a better person when the PR person who privately refers to their awful client as the “C-Word” loses their position. And no sector of the wine-drinking public is better off when a gay man not willing to come out is exposed.
If James Lawrence is right, that the wine industry suffers a smaller consumer base due to its reluctance to gossip, then I think it best the wine industry must be willing to live with that burden brought on by propriety. It’s really the only way the industry can continue along with its head held high.