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Drinking Out Loud

Fighting the Necessary Fight

Does the wine world have malevolent spirits?
Photo by: Jon Moe
Matt Kramer tells wine lovers to ignore the haters, er, phibob

Matt Kramer
Posted: April 4, 2017

One of the most entertaining, and original, mystery book series is that created by Colin Cotterill. Set in the People's Democratic Republic of Laos, the protagonist, Dr. Siri Paiboun, is in his 70s and is the only coroner in the country. He also is, much against his wishes and scientific convictions, the corporeal repository of a thousand-year-old shaman named Yeh Ming.

Laotian (and Thai) folk religion incorporates a strongly held belief in a parallel spirit world composed of departed ancestors. Collectively, they are called phi, or spirits.

Various sorts of phi exist, the nastiest of which are the phibob, which are the spirits or ghosts of people who were evil or bad in past lives or who had died tragic deaths. They are an unhappy, malevolent lot who would like nothing more than to wreck the lives of the living if they can somehow "break through.”

Anyway, Dr. Siri, thanks to his shamanistic alter ego, is uncomfortably aware of the constant presence of the phibob hammering to get in and loose their malevolency upon the world.

Now, whether you or I subscribe to this belief system is irrelevant. If nothing else, the notion of the phibob is a wonderfully apt metaphor for our time. Can anyone really doubt today that phibob—metaphorically speaking—exist?

You wouldn't think that wine, of all subjects, could have its own phibob. But it does. For all the obvious reasons why, we are now aware of them in ways never previously seen. Collectively they are growing—if not in number, certainly in the amplitude of their vitriol. And they come from all sides.

You don't believe me? I can convince you by invoking just two words: "natural wine." Feel the phibob now? Sure you do. The malice and spite are omnipresent. Supporters of so-called natural wines are venomous in their disdain for those who do not subscribe. And, of course, those in opposition—or even just in doubt—are equally derisive. All this over, what? How wine should be made?

But it hardly ends with factional differences. The wine phibob make their presence felt. Believe in terroir? You're a fool, or worse. Like Napa Valley Cabernet? You're a chump. Enamored of France and its wines and culture? You're a fossil and a dupe. Think that biodynamics might have some sort of positive attribute? You're an idiot.

Increasingly, denigration and derision are voiced with glee. One of the giveaways is an almost incantatory use of obscenities. The phibob think it makes them appear hip, satiric, contemporary, real. What it really reveals is their malice. Their rage can only be expressed using, over and over again, the language and tone of vulgarity.

For the wine phibob, everything and almost everybody is suspect. You said something flattering or approving about one or another wine producer? You must have been paid off, or somehow suckered. You like or admire this or that famous winemaker? It's all public relations. They know better.

More than ever before, the wine phibob seek to poison the discussion and, yes, the very enjoyment of fine wine. For them, everything is a fraud, or at minimum somehow sullied. Success itself is suspect, proof in the phibob realm of compromise and sellout. Wines or books or people that you or I might admire or respect are fair game for denigration.

The wine phibob like and admire only other wine phibob. (That's another giveaway to spotting them.) Only those who vocally doubt or deride anything seen as "conventional" or "establishment" are acceptable. And if something costs more than the phibob can personally afford—a wine, a restaurant—then it's inherently offensive and heaped with derision.

Need I say that, like Dr. Siri, we have to fight against the wine phibob? They would have us believe that we live in a morally suspect or even venal wine era. Yet nothing could be further from the truth.

The fact is—and it is a fact—we currently are living in the greatest, most exciting, most honest and pure wine era the world has ever known. You don't like this or that special wineglass? ("It's all a lie and a commercial conspiracy," say the phibob.) Fine. Feel free to go back to those awful glasses we all were subjected to in restaurants not that long ago. Look at that change alone.

You don't like conventionally made commercial wines? Fair enough. Plenty of alternatives exist—and are made widely available by many distributors, retailers and restaurateurs.

You think that wines and wineries are publicized, celebrated and validated solely by a handful of publications? Hah! Everyone knows the vehicles for publicity and celebration are more abundant today than ever before.

You don't want to credit this or that authority? Or accept even the notion that someone might actually know more than you? OK. Never before has the world been so welcoming and companionable to you and others like you.

It's all here today for the asking. High. Low. Commercial. Artisanal. Weird. Wonderful. And everything imaginable in between.

Don't let the phibob make you think otherwise. Or prevent you from speaking your own mind. Take it from Dr. Siri: "That's how real spirits work, by taking over the mind. And of all the … demons that did mischief on a daily basis, none were as spiteful as the phibob."

Heidi Benaman
West Linn, Oregon —  April 11, 2017 3:15am ET
Essay entitled "Great Expectations" made for fun reading and brought back many wonderful memories having experienced numerous "Aha" moments in my many years of enjoying wine. It's worth reminding to do an easy and important step anytime such epiphanies are experience: make a note of the winery, vintage and other particulars as specific vineyard. Why? For at least two reasons, if not more, 1. Assist in searching out where to purchase a bottle or case, if one experienced the truly "Aha" moments described in the essay, and 2. Years later when one wishes to remember the experience or simply retell the story to friends and take them down that "great-wine-memory-lane" and tries to remember "what was that fantastic, unbelievably great wine we had at such and such restaurant...?" one can at least enjoy saying what it was as well describe its heavenly taste!

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