Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Difference Between Beer People and Wine Poeple...especially here on the East Coast

My dog is beautiful!

Is this a cat people vs. dog people kind of thing? Well, yes, actually it turns out to be just that. So who is the dog in this scenario? Well...both sides. You see, I see wine people as being trapped, wherein I see beer people as explorers.

This analogy came to me while having afternoon espressos with publishing executive J. P. Leventhal, of Black Dog & Leventhal, one of the most urbane (and hilariously funny) people I know. He has a very dry sense of humor, and you can easily imagine him having a wonderful conversion with A.J. Liebling (with JP easily holding his own).

JP said he wasn't a beer person, and wrinkled his nose. He just didn't get what all the excitement about beer was about. Wine, on the other hand, with his eyes lighting up, was something he COULD get excited about. It was then that I told him about my theory.

You see this is it in a nutshell - wine people are like the folks that show their dogs at the Westminster Kennel Club dog show. Westminster is one of my favorite events in the calendar I am not bashing here. I am merely pointing out that in a dog show the competitors are not being judged one against the other, in as much as they are being judged against the ideal of that particular breed. Whatever the agreed upon standard is, the winning dog, it is argued, showed closest to the idealized standard.

On the other hand, the beer people are more like folks who love designer dogs, mutts, and good old fashioned strays. The weirder the cross - a Dalmatian with a Chinese Crested - would serve as an amazing experiment. In the world of beer, the resulting beverage these days, isn't half as fun, as the process by which you arrived at it.

And this is the essential difference between wine people and beer people - especially on the east coast.

East coast winemakers are constantly comparing their wines to ideal wines - classic wines. 'This is like a Burgundy', 'this is like a Bordeaux', 'this is like a Sancerre.' They (We) appear desperate to measure up. And the judges who write about wine think the exact same way. Your wine isn't quite a Corton or a Montrachet. It doesn't measure up to Graves or doesn't have the finesse of a fine Chablis. Wine people (winemakers and wine writers) are wound up so tight, that their values are sometimes too high to be achieved. It seems sometimes a fool's errand in fact. Let's face it - wine people are just a little uptight. The value judgments of the entire industry, from all sides, including the consumer, is about chasing the other guy, or some unachievable ending.

Let's play this out. It is unachievable, because I, and many others, believe in something called terroir, or as Matt Kramer says, a sense of somewhereness. Nothing grown in California, or Chile, or Australia, is going to taste like anything in France, or Italy, or Spain, etc. And it shouldn't. It should reflect is own sense of style, grace, flavor, complexity and balance that is the result of is own sun, soil, climate, region, and microclimate. The concept that a Hudson Valley, or a Virginia Piedmont, or a North Fork wine should somehow eventually taste like some other region is an unfulfillable goal. A fool's errand.

So there it is. East coast wine people always seem to have to apologize for it not being Californian, or French, or Italian, or Spanish, etc. It's like we're apologizing that our dog doesn't look like the ideal.....who's ideal? Should I apologize for not looking like Brad Pitt? Hell, I'm not even as good looking as John Goodman....

Now, let's switch to the craft beer people. I've had the immense pleasure of working with several top beer people who have certainly educated me on the cutting edge of what is happening in the beer industry. Cutting edge craft brewers are breaking new barriers every day. They are making Imperial Stouts in Bourbon barrels and making 16% alcohol beers that smell of bourbon and taste of chocolate and licorice. And they are applauded for it. They are barrel aging in old Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon barrels. They make beer in barrels infected with brettanomyces. Even cidermakers are crossing boundaries making cider using Belgian beer yeasts and making Beglian Ale styled ciders complete with sediment on the bottoms of their cider bottles like Trappist ales.

The dog analogy applies. The resulting beer is always cool. There is no right or wrong. Flavor is all that matters. The process by which the beer or even cider was made is the story. Craft beer people are mutt people. They are designer dog people. Mix and shake and blend and throw the switch! It's fun! And their writers applaud these experiments. The weirder and cooler and more extreme it is, the better! They salute their brewers for their bravery and ingenuity - for their cleverness.

Few ever ask the beer people - are your hops local? your barley? do you make your own malt? what do you mean you don't grow your own ingredients? Beer people, consumers and writers, seem to just want to celebrate the new style, and call it a success. Sure, sure, I know, not all the brews on are not positive. But few reviews say, well its not a Samuel Smith Imperial Stout, or a young's Chocolate Stout, or a Chimay. Beer drinkers seem to live more in a meritocracy.

At one point or another, we need to say, this east coast has a style - tasty, well balanced light-to-medium-bodied reds (great food wines), and good clean refreshing zesty whites (also great with foods).

We don't make anything like they do in California. And we don't make anything like they do in France or Italy. We make what we make. Is there room for improvement in the taste, quality and production? Sure. There is in any region. But I am tired of apologizing for my dog.

My dog is beautiful!

p.s. the dog featured at the top of this post is Buck. I strongly urge you to visit the Buck Needs Bucks facebook page