Is pinot noir the world champion of wine varieties? In a way, yes.
Thursday night, April 7, at 11 PM, Eastern Time, the results were in. Pinot noir reigned supreme. It had just defeated riesling by 176 to 136, taking a growing lead in the final hour of the match, after a virtual tie around 9 PM. Riesling fans watched in agony, trying to generate support, as the game became out of reach, like Butler fans watching UConn. take control of their championship match. (Although riesling was shooting way better than Butler).
Pinot noir was the champion of Marc Madness – or #marcmad, as it was known to most through its Twitter hashtag – a month long competition between grape varieties organized by Niagara sommelier and blogger Joel Wilcox (from the Writersblanc blog) and his Halifax counterpart Jonathan Wilson (who writes on Labeled.ca). Each day started with a defense of the two varieties by the two Canadian bloggers (each picked one), published alternately on the two blogs.
As you can see in this bracket, starting with 16 red grapes and 16 white grapes (32 seeds – get it?), the whole event was loosely modeled after NCAA basketball’s March Madness – but since grapes can’t exactly get on a court and duke it out by themselves, the winner of each matchup was picked through popular vote of anybody willing to jump in an join the Twitter… well, madness. All day long, regular pleas for one grape or the other popped up, with the tweeting growing more feverish as the end of the voting process neared, at 11 PM, every night.
The idea came forth on a sort of whim, as Joel Wilcox recounts: “Last September he asked me if I’d be interested in being a guest blogger on Labeled.ca. We didn’t have a plan, necessarily — nor did I end up writing anything. Flash forward to the end of the NFL season, and I kept reading about team ‘Power Rankings;’ which teams were most likely to advance to the Super Bowl. So I started thinking what my ‘top ranked’ grapes might be and why. I then e-mailed him during a lunch break, saying I had an idea that could be a ‘lot of work, but a lot of fun.’ Didn’t get into details at all. I asked if he was in or out; thankfully he said “I’m in.” I asked him, “Red or white?” He said “White, because you want red.” Then I left him hanging for the rest of the day. Jonathan’s very kind to credit me with the idea, but he was critical to its success.”
Silliness and intensity
Marcmad turned incredibly intense at times, with a few matches – including the controversial win by nebbiolo over syrah in the second round– being decided by sudden death overtime, as the grapes were tied at 11 PM. Debates about the merits of one grape over the other raged, with the back and forth even turning to smack talk worthy of the football postseason. Videos were made (see here, here and here, for example), alliances came together as teams formed and recruited friends from all over the place.
“We wanted to find a way to engage both the Twitter wine community, and newbies as well, says co-organizer Jonathan Wilson. “We wanted to do something different. We both love to write, and love to engage people.” You could say that objective was successfully attained: overall, more than 640 different people got into the game, over its full month of daily duels. Winemakers from California, British Columbia, Italy and the Niagara, writers and bloggers from all over Quebec, Canada, the United States and even Europe, New York sommeliers and restaurant owners, etc. Votes came in from as far as Australia and Sweden.
Lots of wine lovers who just drink for fun also joined in, and even people who casually have a glass jumped in, first wondering what #marcmad was, then asking about grapes they had never tasted (nebbiolo, chenin blanc certainly got new fans), and even getting bottle recommendations from other participants. Interactions developed in a variety of ways.
Every day, someone new was pulled into the game, tweeting “What’s #marcmad?” and being briefed by one fo the more active participants. Occasional wine drinkers asked about varieties they had never tried, professionals engaged with wine lovers, new followers were found, great conversations took place. Full disclosure: I was probably one of the most active participants, nagging people like Eric Asimov of the New York Times (who respectfully declined to join the competition) and tweeting people from Piemonte to California to jump in and defend nebbiolo, as it made a great run to the red semi-finals, beating higher-seeded syrah and cabernet sauvignon in the process.
Pinot noir instead of Charlie Sheen
I loved the idea and the process, in its beautiful mix of seriousness and silliness. Picking the best grape in the world is a ridiculous idea, in real terms: diversity is what makes wine great. But seeing people argue so passionately about why chenin blanc should triumph over sauvignon blanc or sangiovese over malbec – and vice versa. It worked because it was silly, in a way, far removed from the stuffy ceremonial that still presides over so much (supposedly) serious wine learning. “The best part is that people will try new things, guaranteed”, says Jonathan Wilson. “After seeing someone defend nebbiolo so passionately, or sing chenin blanc’s endless praises, how could you not run out and get one? (…) People were talking a lot more about wine, that’s for sure. If nothing else, we got people talking about pinot noir instead of Charlie Sheen.”
“It brought me so much joy to see the range of emotion it evoked”, recounts Joel Wilcox, who counted votes almost every night for the event, dutifully staying up until close to midnight to manage the process with Jonathan Wilson. “People unifying in their love for certain grapes… the razzing and smack talk between friends over certain decisions… and the campaigning exhibited was a neat twist too. How many people would evangelize Nebbiolo on a random Wednesday, otherwise? There seem to be wine conversations on Twitter, but often unfocused. Plus, people are out there who are too shy to give their two cents if an expert’s giving two dollars. Marc Madness gave our extended community focus, the chance to vocalize at an equal level, and brought new faces together. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”
Lots of people would say yes to that. Some are talking about regional brackets for next year, or even a B-League or Wine Geek edition with obscure grapes like ploussard and furmint. One thing is for sure: whatever happens, it’ll be fun. For everyone. And there should be more of that kind of crazy, silly, yet informative and passionate fun in the wine world.
Rémy Charest is a Quebec City based journalist, writer, and translator. He has been writing about wine and food for over 12 years in various magazines and newspapers. He writes two wine blogs (The Wine Case, in English, and À chacun sa bouteille, in French) and, as if he didn’t have enough things to do, he also started a food blog in English, The Food Case, and one in French, À chacun sa fourchette.