Putnam Weekley, who could be simply described as a wine activist, sells wine and dispenses prodigious amounts of philosophy on wine as well as other subjects at Cloverleaf Fine Wines & Spirits (29673 Northwestern Hwy., Applegate Plaza, Southfield; 248-357-0400) and on his forums, at cloverleafwine.com/forums.
Metro Times: On your forum, you have plenty to say on food and drink.
Putnam Weekley: I indulge in forums. I only occasionally resort to panning brands and products when I feel like they're getting away with something. There's a bit of a shyster, corporate brand game that goes on with luxury goods that has sort of moved in and invaded the whole wine sphere. As the years go by, it becomes more obvious. I see people lining up and going crazy to spend oodles of money to buy stuff that's basically industrial product. I feel it would be wrong of me not to point that out, so I indulge in that once in a while. If I were strictly concerned about PR and making friends, I wouldn't bother doing that. I'll go on record as saying that stuff is phony. I may have lost a few customers that way because it's their favorite brand. I have this idealistic idea that wine should be a pastoral product. What it boils down to is that the luxury marketers are using pastoral ideals to package their industrial products. They're making up these phony stories about their wineries at the end of a dirt road and it's a lie. They are trading on the hard work that real artisans are doing. To me it seems unfair, and I won't stop bitching about it.
I resent people who start with a price point in the market and work backward to the product. I would rather talk about people who start with the product and fight for a home for it. Often they don't have enough money left over to compete with marketing and PR that the larger companies do. I'm here to celebrate the efforts of the little guy. It serves me as a merchant because those products are better, and if people are willing to give them a chance it will be obvious to them. I'm here to help them find it.
MT: For some, the jargon of wine is intimidating and confusing. To others it's pretentious bullshit. On a recent forum there was a discussion of the use of "lithe" and the use of "churlish" in wine descriptions. Do these terms illuminate some aspect of the wine to anyone who reads them?
Weekley: You probably would recognize the meanings of the words in describing the wines if you knew the definitions of the words and if you were comparing wines that held these qualities. The problem is that there are so many wines to try. The issue is confused by the elitist vocabularies being used in selling. It's a fraud. Let's use language that reflects actual differences in wines. I'd rather hear the word "drinkability" than "sumptuous."
MT: People have divergent palates. Doesn't the debate on your forum show the subjectivity of evaluating and describing wines?
Weekley: Yes. This is where you have to go to the next level and to say, "This wine was harvested by machine because it's cheaper and easier, and this wine was harvested by hand." There are differences that accrue from the method of producing it that you can taste. That's where studying and learning will pay off.
MT: How can we uninformed would-be wine drinkers enjoy wine without becoming wine scholars?
Weekley: It's a cultural process. You don't have to bring huge piles of cash. You just have to bring an open mind. It's word of mouth, informal networks of people and the standard line: Find a merchant you can trust.
MT: Naturally, price is a part of any wine discussion. I know that I have been influenced by knowledge of the price of a wine.
Weekley: For starters, the market demands a price for a bottle of wine. At some point, people notice that there is a lack of correlation between the price and whatever value they took from it. There are two ways to arrive at the price of, say, a $15 wine. One is from the cost of making it, adding the cost of distribution, and adding the cost of retailing it, which totals $15. The other way is a more marketing-oriented approach that identifies a need in the market for a $15 wine and tries to engineer a product to fit that spot. Where the critics come in, their numbers rating system is probably a better indicator of quality than price. In other words, is a $20 wine twice as good as a $10 bottle? The answer is no, not necessarily. Most commercial wines are inflated because of promotional expenses, advertising, free gifts for sommeliers that recommend them, trips for retailers that sell certain quotas. Working backward that way, you end up with something that has essentially doubled in price.
I can give people what they ask for or give them what they want. What they ask for isn't always what they want. Someone might come in here asking for Santa Margherita, a $30 Pinot Grigio. They make over a hundred thousand cases every year. Everyone inside this business knows that this is an $8 Pinot Grigio. Unfortunately some people will be insulted if I hand them an $8 bottle, thinking "I'm higher class than that." What I'm doing is giving them what they want while saving them about twenty dollars.Jeff Broder does this twice-monthly food interview for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]