Thursday, December 13, 2012

How I almost sold out

I wrote a column this week for Wine Review Online that I had been wringing my hands over for three months.

I had an interview with a guy who really got under my skin. Longtime readers know that I'm a proud American. Don't let flag-waving Tea Party types tell you conservatives have a monopoly on patriotism. If you're not an American and you want to point out areas where the US is wrong, it's like some outsider pointing out my sister's flaws. When you're right, I'll acknowledge the point, but can we talk about something else now? And when you're not right, I can feel the anger building up in my spine.

Do you invite somebody to your home and then start insulting his sister? Not if you're a cultured French bon vivant and businessman. So I don't know why people think it's OK to insult a guest's country.

And you better be right. Yes, George Bush shouldn't have started the Iraq War. Stipulated. We have a lot of poor people we don't take care of. We don't care enough about other countries to learn their languages. Our inability to connect the dots between the number of guns we have and the number of murders we have is terrible. Stipulated.

But we do NOT mix Champagne and Coca-Cola on a regular basis. We don't. We may not have your sophisticated French palate, but we're not that wasteful.

I can't say it's never done anywhere because in college a friend of mine once decided to try putting Baco-Bits on a marshmallow and setting it on fire with a Bic lighter. (His excuse: "I was stoned.") So that was eaten in America.

With a population as large as ours and Champagne and Coca-Cola on the same dinner tables, I'm sure somebody, stoned or not, has poured them into a glass together. Who knows, maybe it's good. But even those of us who aren't horrified by the concept don't do it because there are cheaper, more effective ways to spike Coke.

So I have this Champagne producer telling me this about America, and a lot of other insulting things about my country -- and it's interesting. I mean, Champagne and Coke? He believes that? I think he's a pompous ass. But pompous asses make good copy; this is why baseball writers still love Pete Rose.

He can't claim he didn't know I was a reporter because this was a press visit. (I wasn't the only one to hear his rant but none of the other writers have used it.) I'm standing there with a notebook writing down what he's saying. An aggressive PR person would have grabbed his elbow and taken him away before he did more damage, but for whatever reason, he just ranted on and on, even after I started calling him on his bullshit.

If he was a politician, the rant would have been on Youtube by the end of the day. But people don't cover wine that way. The wine world is more genteel. Some of that is tradition, and some of that is self-interest. I got flown over to Champagne for free. I want to get invited back. If I run this interview and it makes this guy look bad, maybe he deserves it, but maybe I'll never go to Champagne again. And maybe people in Germany and Italy and Chile will quiver in fear of what I might write and my gravy train will derail. People think that, believe me; I know because I talked about this interview with other writers.

Here was my problem: I wanted to write about Champagne, and I couldn't do it. I kept thinking about that interview. I'd start writing some happy talk about how I love Champagne -- I do -- and that disdainful rant would pop back into my head. I didn't want to report it, but I didn't feel honest writing about his winery for sure, and to some extent all of Champagne, if I didn't report it. It was noteworthy; it was what an industry leader believes about American consumers.

And it does have something to do with the wines. The winery in question created a new wine, Nocturne, with a beautiful bottle and a sweeter taste specifically for US nightclubs. That's what they think we want. It's still Champagne: Nocturne isn't syrupy, and it's not as sweet as the sparkling Muscats that are actually selling rapidly all over the US. It's not at all like Champagne and Coca-Cola together. It's far less disdainful of us than the opinions of the guy who conceived it. But he did say it's what Americans want. By itself, that's not insulting, that's marketing. But it feels different in context of the rant.

Well, December rolled around and I want to write about Champagne. And I felt dishonest. I knew that this rant happened. If I ignored it and just wrote about the good wines I tasted, I really had sold out.

So I wrote up some of the rant and put it on Wine Review Online. Maybe I'll never be invited back to Champagne.

But it's like extracting a splinter: this interview has been bugging me since I had it and didn't immediately report it. I feel better now. I have another article about Champagne scheduled to run next week on Palate Press, and I don't feel conflicted about it at all. My conscience is finally clear. I think I'll celebrate with a nice Champagne cocktail.

Pass the Coca-Cola.

Read the rant, and how I handled it, here. Wine Review Online doesn't accept comments, so after reading it, please come back and tell me what you think. Did I do the right thing?

Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.


  1. Wow. Tattenger seems like a real simple minded, xenophobic tw@. A man who refuses to look at the subtlety of a culture; content in his anger to embrace caricatures as being the invariant truth. He would be a good fit in "tea party". He seems a right c*nt
    Good for you for clearing your conscience

  2. I don't know if you almost sold out, but the story behind the wine is almost always more interesting than the wine.

  3. I am glad you reported on the interview. The fact that you sat on it, worried about ever getting a future invitation, is kind of disappointing to me as a reader of your prose though. If you had just reported immediately and let the chips fall where they may, I would have respected you more.

  4. Very interesting article and very pleased to see that your "handlers" and publishers allowed anything remotely negative to be written. I have a little different take on this though. I'm sure that Monsieur Taittinger also feels conflicted, as you did. On the one hand, your business depends on the export market and you feel as though you must always smile and nod for the press tours and tasting junkets. Of course, I too think that he is completely wrong about the Champagne/wine culture here, but a man is entitled to his opinions, just as you are entitled to disprove his points. Very interesting and enlightening all the same.

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  6. You should have told the ass to his face that the swill they bottle NEEDS to be mixed with Coke. God knows, the swill I bottle does, and I'm not half the ass this guy is.

  7. John: I rarely literally laugh out loud, but I just did. Thanks for that.

  8. While I strongly disagree with your statements regarding Iraq, the poor, guns, and foreign languages (only a little), I share your reaction to Taittinger’s self-righteous and ignorant comments about the US. We Americans are certainly guilty of a lack of interest in other cultures, but Europeans have few rivals when it comes to the uninformed stereotyping of Americans.

    I fully understand your trepidation over reporting on the interview. It is difficult to be on the receiving end of someone’s hospitality without allowing your gratitude to prevent you from revealing an ugly side of your host’s character; particularly when you know that there could be repercussions which might adversely impact your future access to other important figures in the wine business.

    In the end, I think you did the right thing writing candidly about it. Perhaps now others in the wine trade who share Taittinger’s opinions about America and Americans will take the cue and be a little more circumspect when speaking to the press.

    Why is it that those who are the most vocal about others lacking charity are among the least charitable?

  9. Kent: You realize you could pick a better day to disagree with me about guns.

  10. No. The right to bear arms is no less valid or defensible today than any other day. Is the freedom to drink alcohol less valid on days when drunk drivers kill innocent people?

  11. Kent: Nice try at hitting me where I live, but I can drink wine until I can't see straight, but as long as I don't drive, I'm not hurting anyone but myself. Handguns are not hunting rifles; they exist only to kill other people.

  12. Blake, I think we should let Kent own all the hand guns and assault rifles he wants that were in existence when the Second Amendment was ratified...

  13. Blake, nice try ducking the point.In both cases, we’re talking about the misuse of a legal product. The point is someone’s misuse of a right does not justify the prohibition of that right. As to hunting, who said anything about hunting? The second amendment was not written because man has a right to hunt. Rather, man has a right to life and property and therefore, a right to defend his life and property, by deadly force, if necessary.

    ColoradoWinePress, by your logic, we shouldn’t ascribe free speech rights to any medium that didn’t exist during the time of the framing. So, no free speech rights for views expressed on TV, radio, or the internet. The right to bear arms is a principal of human rights, not a prescription for a specific type of weaponry.

  14. Kent: I disagree with your premise. Very often we prohibit items that people were previously able to use because of their misuse. You can say that about every banned prescription drug, for example.

    Why do we need the freedom to carry assault weapons?

  15. Kent, it is not a human right; it is necessary for "a well regulated militia." So I should also be able to possess a nuclear weapon, by your logic....

  16. ColoradoWine Press:

    As I understand it, we call it the Bill of Rights. If these rights are not for humans, for whom are they? While the importance of a well-regulated militia is emphasized as “necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people” not just members of a militia, “to keep and bear arms” is explicitly protected.

    There’s little doubt that the founders were primarily concerned about government prohibitions of arms, which would render the people defenseless against the tyranny of the State from within or invasion of the State from without. This is still a valid principal today, even with the advent of modern warfare. The existence of arms among the citizenry remains a significant deterrent against a tyrannical government.

    I would also argue that implicit in the necessity of a State to have a well-regulated militia for its security is the necessity of the people to have the right to bear arms for their security. Writings of the founders makes it abundantly clear that the use of arms for private self-defense was a given.

    Here’s just one example of the idea of the right to bear arms applying to the defense of oneself as well as the defense of the state:

    "The right of a citizen to bear arms, in lawful defense of himself or the State, is absolute. He does not derive it from the State government. It is one of the "high powers" delegated directly to the citizen, and `is excepted out of the general powers of government.' A law cannot be passed to infringe upon or impair it, because it is above the law, and independent of the lawmaking power." [Cockrum v. State, 24 Tex. 394, at 401-402 (1859)]

    As to your right to a nuclear weapon, that seems a bit more complicated to me. Certainly something unanticipated by the founders and therefore something we are obliged to address within the framework of the founders intent. Should you be allowed to have a nuclear weapon? Probably not. Where do we drawn the line? Surely, somewhere in between, not at the point of banning guns.

  17. Blake, I don’t quite follow your comment about prescription drugs. Please elaborate. Regardless, prescription drugs are not an explicit right in the Constitution; therefore, their possession may be infringed. The right to bear arms may not.

    To fully answer your question I need to know how you define assault weapons. Generally (Obviously, I would not take this to extremes), the better equipped the people are to defend themselves against the standing army of the state, the more secure is their liberty. For my own personal defense against other citizens, I would feel most secure with access to a semi-automatic weapon. If I were ever in the position of defending myself against the state army, I would surely want more.

  18. Kent, you really think automatic and semi-automatic assault rifles were something anticipated by the founders? We both agree a line needs to be drawn. That is the point of a debate. You think it is somewhere between automatic rifles and nuclear weapons. I think it is somewhere between hunting rifles/revolvers and semi-automatic high-capacity guns. But enough of a gun debate on Blake's post on Taittinger and Coke.

  19. I don’t recall suggesting that the framers anticipated automatic and semi-automatic assault rifles. What they did anticipate and fear was government tyranny. They certainly anticipated an improvement in firearm technology. It stands to reason that in order to best protect from or fight against tyranny, the people should retain arms capable of doing the job. Maintaining that capability requires a concomitant evolution of weaponry in the hands of the people.

    I’m glad to hear we are not that distant in our views. It only seems that I and the framers have a greater fear of government tyranny than you do. We seem to have some common ground when it comes to protecting oneself from other citizens. I agree, enough gun talk. By the way, you may find it ironic that I do not own a gun. Don’t let it get around, though.

  20. W Blake, I'm sure you know most French wine people don't carry on much beyond the standard, "you americans don't take care of your poor", before moving on to talk about what's for dinner, what's happening in Bugerach, or other timely subjects. Fourteen years of growing grapes and making wines in Languedoc and I have always been treated like a native (just as well or badly as the other growers ) when presenting wines to cavistes or sommeliers here. Being Kentucky bred and trying to sell French wine to americans has been much more challenging than selling to the French. Joe Dressner once famously told me, "I've NEVER bought wine from anyone who called me and I've NEVER bought wine from an american..." He didn't even want to taste the carignan. Fortunately, others have taken the risk !

    Don't worry about the champagne invites; plane tickets have never been so affordable. Or come to Languedoc instead ! John Bojanowski, Clos du Gravillas

  21. I have purposely not read the article yet because I just want to say I love this post.

    I've seen you in action questioning winemakers (re:Rioja and oak in SF) and I was uncomfortable for the winemakers sitting on the panel. But what you were saying was honest and true. The guy in Champagne asked for it. No one should generalize and put down another wine region. It's rude and ignorant. All you did is report what he said. That's Blake Gray, no one who knows you would be surprised. The fact that you agonized over posting it shows that you were thoughtful not bombastic.

    As far as not getting invited on press trips, that's honest too. However, we all know that vetting is all over the place and there's no way to be everything to everybody. Writers need to be true to ourselves. WYSIWYG.