Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Pitchman's Paradise (Death of a Salesman)

In the recent swirl of news coverage and subsequent furor over Michael Jackson's death the contemporaneous event of the passing of famous pitch-man Billy Mays was largely eclipsed. Mays was, even to the most casual observer, a true American original, a huckster, part con-man part show-man part self made entrepreneur in the mold of P.T. Barnum. He was a marketer extraordinaire.

Marketing, though widely despised among college graduates (and particularly feared by English majors), is in fact the grease with which the wheels of progress of the American dream proceed, it is also, when one comes down to it, largely a social interaction which is at root heartless and hollow, one which puts the practitioner in the role of observer, removed somewhere above the fray, calculating, making minute adjustments to his 'patter', the fuel for the engine of sales. What made Mays so distinctive and unique was that by sheer energy he lifted himself above that paradigm, he transcended the transcendence, he would have none of that, he was not just an inflated ego looking with a jaundiced eye for the next mark in the crowd, he was what most marketing experts will confess they dread and despise most; a sincere salesman. It is difficult to dissociate one's own ego from the process of sales. We are all marketing ourselves along with the product at least part of the time, Mays on the other hand wasn't selling anything but the product. That is what made him unique.

As you may have guessed, I have been thinking about wine marketing a lot in this season of farmer's markets, festivals and wine shows. There is in fact a certain skill one acquires wherein one can accentuate certain features of the wine and de-accentuate others depending on the buyer. However, when it comes down to it, the wine is either good or bad, it is either sick or healthy, only after that is it a wine you either like or don't like. You can, I have found, sell someone a bottle of wine that fundamentally they do not like. The question is, --why bother

I could write more here about the Bounty of the Hudson festival (my first real exposure to my fellow HV winemakers en-masse), my stint at Union Square Market, (the culmination of a lifelong dream), the Cold Spring farmer's market (stranger in paradise) or the upcoming Catskill event however, my feeling would be that I was merely telling tales out of school. The various and sundry shenanigans that go on to cast these different venues as mini green Peyton Places are the stuff of good story but in the end, unless they are transmuted into art by some means, it remains basically forgettable gossip which interests the participants more than anyone else. Thus I don't find them a suitable topic for a venue such as this, blogs, which are by definition a rather rawer form of communication.

Instead, let me talk about a subject that was close to the heart of pitchman Billy Mays, in his case as found in that (I have since determined somewhat overrated) product called Oxiclean and in wine in a process known and dreaded by all wine makers; oxidation. The fact is, unlike Oxiclean, the results of oxidation in wine are difficult to predict or quantify. The reasons for this are several;

1. there is always going to be a certain amount of oxidation occurring in wine
(unless it is pressed and bottled in outer space)
2. the oxidative processes have different outcomes depending on the compounds
in the wine which are oxidated (like the expression of genes in offspring some
characteristics become evident and some remain hidden) and,
3. the perception of oxidation is to a large degree related not to the mere presence
of oxidated compounds but to their volatility ('Seniors on Hondas' and 'Hells
Angels' are both motorcycle clubs).

Consequently, the term oxidized may refer to a variety of phenomena that occur in the wine and therefore the term is generally thrown around rather loosely to characterize almost any fault in the wine. The two most easily identifiable undesirable characteristics of oxidation are known to wine drinkers as either browning or production of acetylaldehyde. Browning is always evident to the eye, though moreso in white wines (but it can be seen in red wines with some effort) and acetylaldehide production is immediately always apparent as an overpowering nail polish smell. Both these are produced by oxidation but the former is generally a result of the oxidation of metallic compounds in the wine, while the second is a result of the oxidation of ethanols. It is to prevent the oxidation of ethanol from proceeding to volatilized acetylaldehyde that winemakers introduce SO2 which interrupts, but does not entirely prevent this process from occurring. The link in the chain just before the production of acetylaldehyde is the creation of Hydrogen Peroxide. The blondes in the reading audience may know that this compound tends to bleach out color and also reduce fruitiness. Just to complicate matters there are a whole 'nother set of compounds in wine which may oxidize. These are called phenolics and when these oxidize they produce something called quinones. (Armando Quinones also happens to be my neighbor. He works for UPS and plays in the college orchestra with me and the other bass players.)

So, (to sum up--I was told by someone very knowledgeable to keep these things short), as you can see, the effects of oxidation in wine can be varied and pernicious and can lead to anything from a loss of fruitiness in blondes to the presence of bass players in the finished wine. All I can tell you is that I am as confused as you at this point. Perhaps we need someone like Billy Mays to clear all this up! Perhaps we can come out with a product called OxiCab, or OxiMerlot, something which both stains and cleans your clothes at the same time. Just send in $19.95 and we'll add this second set of handy lint reducing wine glasses.

P.S. After an autopsy, the coroner announced that there had been cocaine in Billy Mays' blood. Another hero with clay feet.

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