Notes from the Cellar: Snake oil

by Jeff Cox, Wine and Beer Merchandiser

This article was originally published in January 2009

Throckmorton calls ’em the way he sees ’em. A rose is a rose, a spade is a spade and snake oil is snake oil — even if conventional wisdom says it’s holy water.

Just the other day, as a few camrades were plotting a future bacchanal, the conversation drifted to Walla Walla and its allocated, anointed icons. As one copain lavished praise on the wines of L**** Cellar, “Throcky” unleashed an exposition of invective that’d do Mel Brooks proud.

“Ooohhh, absolutely! Mmmmm, new French oak, medium heavy toast — Yugoslavian oak inner staves! Toasted heads! Who needs fruit (except to boast that it was picked at 30 degrees brix and that it’s from the finest vineyards…)! Oooh! Aaahh! Silky tannins and gobs of ultra rich, hugely extracted berries … state of the art winery, blah, blah, blah … Oooooohhh!”

He’s right. L***** just happens to be among the most coveted of Washington’s titans, but all the heavyweights boast in similar fashion. Between “facilities” with sweeping views of Red Mountain, award-winning architecture and million-dollar-per-year budgets for new cooperage, there’s more chest beating than on Big Time Wrestling.

And yes, it is impressive, in the way that a chrome-plated Hummer® or a pile of diamonds or a Jacuzzi® filled with Dom Perignon® is impressive. But so what? Do you get better Wine Spectator ratings for burning more loot than Joe the Proletarian will ever earn?

Then there are wineries like B*****, making well-balanced wines with plenty of character and a base of terroir. No micro-oxygenation, no new oak, no fancy-pants edifice. But as a colleague pointed out, the guy is doing it on a shoestring. Who knows what sort of wines he’ll make if he gets the high-end, big boy toys that turn mere wine into luxury cuvées.

Most of us occasionally fantasize about what we would do if we were rich. And most of us profess a desire not to be spoiled by “success.” But for everyone with good intentions, there’s another who would blow the windfall on fast living. Cautionary tales abound.

We often confuse living lavishly with living well, and we think it’s somehow our birthright to have more than others. We’re arrivistes, the nouveau riche, the world’s spoiled children, and we equate the biggest toy box with the moral high ground.

Of course there’s a metaphor here — and a half-filled glass: the kids with all the toys usually are the most petulant and the least resourceful, while the kids who have to amuse themselves with imagination and ingenuity have more character and play well with others.

And in the long run, passion, soul and ingenuity make the best wine.

Life is short. Make every glass count.

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