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The End Of A Superfluous Struggle
  • Author Joshua Elias

Sommeliers v Journalists. It’s the fight no-one paid tickets for. Ringing the final bell, Joshua Elias explains why the whole thing would be better viewed as a comedy than as a soap opera.

I’m thinking of a scene towards the end of Blade Runner. Writhing on the floor in spasm, Pris (Daryl Hannah), clings on to her quickly fading life. Her body bounces in a fit, up and around the ground with tension and fear. After the robot’s screaming and acrobatics subside, Pris’s death bestows her with a beautiful mercy. A calm befitting the end of a long struggle.

Wine personalities, of all guises, have been throwing a lot at each other over the last month. Journalists and sommeliers have taken turns to slight one another whilst wine producers chuckle from the sidelines. Perhaps the most important stakeholder in all of this, the consumer, continues un-phased, drinking as they were, care-free of the kerfuffle.

The current controversy was lit by the sniff of gunpowder and the hot air of desperation. In the case of Australian wine journalists, it should come as no secret that traditional forms of media are in a state of decline. Employed writers are now often looking for new channels for their established voice. Likewise, sommeliers continue to fight for relevance and employment, the omnipresent task of a commonly misunderstood vocation.

I’ve stayed a foot in each camp for a short while. I’ve been a sommelier and now I’m involved with a wine publication. Please understand, these are my bias, not my expertise. I hold no panacea. Nevertheless, indulge me for a couple more minutes and I’ll explain why this whole fight is a comedy of biblical proportions.

Many of the personalities involved are acclaimed and awarded in Australia. The Australian wine industry is painfully small and most of these people have met each other. That is also to say, the spit need not travel far before it lands on someone’s face. For this reason, we remain conservative. We don’t take well to loose opinions or a challenge to hierarchy. The niceties and cliques are tight and the unwritten laws of communication, even tighter. For fear of irrelevance sommeliers and journalists are identifying turf and staking out for a battle. Yet somehow, it all feels very ‘make-believe’.

The current debate is one that started on a footing of wines for wine-lists. A kind of ‘what the people need’ bugle-call to be heeded by consumers, for consumers. Huon Hooke’s position, his subsequent statement and tertiary self-approval are completely valid. He has every right to proffer his opinion. Good on him for doing it. Likewise, Tom Hogan, Banjo Harris-Plane, David Lawler and similar rebuttals are welcome and candid. For an excellent summary and perspective, see Max Allen’s piece here.

As stimulating and entertaining as the conversation may be, does it actually benefit anyone? Did Mr Hooke curate his piece believing his work will actually challenge sommeliers to rethink their lists? Or, was the wording of his piece positioned to nuzzle into the bosom of his followers? Does it matter?

No. It is just doesn’t. There lies the comedy.

Shine your dinner shoes or wear flip-flops. Cellar Penfolds or skull Lucy Margaux. It’s when we are fooled into dogma that we start to loose our humour. In a country that champions drinks such as Wolf Blass’s ‘Leg Opener’ and Patrick Sullivan’s jumping juice, surely we’d be fastening our own straight-jacket to start pretending there is only ‘one way’ to do things. 

The strangest thing about the past month is that all of the conversation is about the middlemen & women. Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking as journalists or sommeliers, that our ‘own product’ is better than the juice. Nor should we start to believe our opinions are representative of those of the public. We have our own opinions and through those, we predict and attempt to appease our clientele. We repose skills, not objective truths.

There is no doubt that consumers heed good advice. As such, the world is a better place for journalists and sommeliers. To this end, we should work in concert to ensure that consumers are happy. Lashing out at each other is like running head first into the mirror; it can only result in pain and a lesser result for both parties. It brings to mind a snap moment of A.A. Gill’s review of L’Ami Louis in Vanity Fair—a waiter should not be one to commiserate with a guest about the lack of service.

In the throws of our daily jobs, we sometimes forget what we do. Human consciousness is great at imposing an inflated sense of worth and meaning. We live in a society obsessed with the cult of personality and this current debate has been swollen and inflated by that Kool-Aid. Here is to hoping that this debate has been put to rest, a welcome relief from the struggle. A 

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