Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Advice To Wine Writers: Sip Less, Read More

If these articles, essays and posts I'm reading were wine, none would rate 90 or more points, I'm sorry to say. Because I believe wine writing needs fresh perspective and voices, I look forward each year to judging the works submitted by applicants for fellowships to the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers, to convene in February at the Napa Valley resort Meadowood.

Each candidate anonymously submits two pieces, which then are reviewed indpendently by three judges. Some of the writing is raw manuscript, some published or posted work. Midway through this year's review, I'm puzzled by a slip in overall quality compared with batchs from earlier years. On my 100-point scale, none has scored higher than 85, and most are in the 70s and 60s.

Too many pieces lack focus and a theme; the reader doesn't know where he is going at the outset and feels lost when he gets to the end. Broad conclusions aren't substantiated with facts. A lot of material sounds familiar, as if lifted from winery press release or website. Personality and color too often are missing. Too many are humorless. Quotes are rare. Mostly, many of the pieces are painfully self-absorbed, as if the writer already has seen it all, experienced it all, knows it all, and doesn't have to learn from anyone who ever walked through the vineyard before he or she got there.

But I'm keeping two things in mind. One, that I'm just midway through the papers and that the second half may show dramatic improvement. And barring that, I'm remembering something that the director of the symposium, Jim Gordon, urged on the judges at the start: "We want to find the writers with the most talent or potential, and help them take their work to a higher level by learning more at the symposium." So I'm looking for potential more than polish, and in that regard have been encouraged by some original ideas, some nicely turned phrases and even the occasional flash of humor.

I just wish more of the candidates would be more grounded in the subject. They don't need to hold a degree in viticulture or enology from UC Davis, but I sense that much of their writing would be more informative and entertaining if they'd been better briefed in the history and traditions of the trade. A small library of wine reference books would be a good place to start. Here's 10 that over the years I've found myself turning to most often as I prepare to interview grower or vintner, or to double-check something a grower or vintner has said (keep in mind that most of my wine writing is on California):

"The New Frank Schoonmaker Encyclopedia of Wine" by Alexis Bespaloff (William Morrow and Company): Regardless of topic, this is the starting point, providing an introduction reliable, concise and smart to all sorts of wine topics, from grape variety to wine region.

"The Oxford Companion to Wine" by Jancis Robinson (Oxford): If the Schoonmaker doesn't provide me with all I need, the more cerebral and deeper Oxford will.

"A Companion to California Wine" by Charles L. Sullivan (University of California Press): No one provides a more detailed and knowledgeable view of the California wine trade from its distant past right up to today than Charles Sullivan.

"The Wine Atlas of California and the Pacific Northwest" by Bob Thompson (Simon & Schuster): Thompson has written or edited many books on the California wine scene over the decades, including the monumental "Book of California Wine" and "California Wine," an early Sunset publication, but in this atlas he is at once his most detailed and pithy, and the maps are invaluable in providing a quick grasp of local growing conditions.

"Wine Grape Varieties in California" by several contributors, many of them with UC Davis (University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources): In large part a field manual to help growers and vintners decide what they should plant where, this book nevertheless provides the layman with a quick study about the history, appearance, disease problems, winery use and several other aspects for all the major and many of the minor grape varieties cultivated in California.

"The Wine Bible" by Karen MacNeil (Workman): Like a nicely balanced zinfandel, "The Wine Bible" is big, thick and heavy, but also congenial and fresh. MacNeil addresses virtually any wine subject you can think of with wit and smarts.

"Making Sense of California Wine" by Matt Kramer (William Morrow and Company): Kramer long ago got sold on the crucial link between place and wine, and for nearly 400 pages he shows how that association works in California, breaking down the state into its various wine regions and surveying many of its wineries.

"Vines, Grapes and Wines" by Jancis Robinson (Mitchell Beazley): Not an easy book to find - my weathered copy had to be shipped from South Africa - but it's Jancis Robinson at her most authoritative, breezing through the world's principal wine regions, defining the significance of their grape varieties in exquisite detail.

"The Science of Wine" by Jamie Goode (University of California Press): Whenever I'm stumped about a technical issue involving winemaking, something that happens so often I'm surprised the binding still holds this book together, Goode provides a readily accessible explanation.

"Wine" by Maynard A. Amerine and Vernon L. Singleton (University of California Press): First published in 1965, this may be the first wine book I ever read, and I've kept it all these years because it is so level-headed and basic. Even after all this time, it still provides a relevant grounding to understanding the craft of making wine.

One final note: Though most of these books are relatively old, most should be fairly easy to find. However, if you are looking for a new book to give an aspiring wine writer this holiday season - or any wine enthusiast, for that matter - 2010 is the vintage of the century for wine publishing; a remarkable number of original, entertaining and provocative books are available:

"Reading Between the Wines" by Terry Theise (University of California Press): Theise, a wine importer specializing in small estates and unheralded varietals like gruner veltliner, long has been recognized for his brisk and blunt assessments of the wine trade as well as wines. Here, he finally offers his entertaining views in something other than one of his catalogs.

"Matt Kramer on Wine: A Matchless Collection of Columns, Essays, and Observations by America's Most Original and Lucid Wine Writer" (Sterling Epicure): All that, and modest, too? Maybe not. But why should he be, as certainly Kramer is the country's most opinionated wine writer, provoking readers into looking at wine and the wine culture with a fresh perspective every time his column appears in The Wine Spectator, and doing it without awarding points.

"The New Connoiseurs' Guidebook to California Wine and Wineries" by Charles E. Olken and Joseph Furstenthal (University of California Press): You probably can get an app for everything that's in this book, but then your screen would be cluttered with a whole bunch of apps. Why not get all that they offer in one handy manual? And by "all that" we're talking maps, acreage, winemaking styles, critical reviews and more on nearly 500 California wineries and 130 growing areas.

"Opus Vino," edited by Jim Gordon, with contributions from 38 writers (DK): OK, so I was one of the 38 contributors, but I was paid up front, so I see no conflict of interest in now endorsing what is a strikingly handsome addition to any wine library. The scope is global, the format fetching, the content helpful. Most remarkably, for a book that is this encompassing and hefty - 7 pounds - it is right up to date, hitting that rare sweet spot where it not only is relevant now but will continue to be a valuable addition to the wine literature for years to come.

"Gold and Wine: A History of Winemaking in El Dorado County" by Eric J. Costa (El Dorado Winery Association): As he did earlier with "Old Vines: A History of Winegrowing in Amador County," foothill historian Eric Costa has picked a fine-wine region of the Mother Lode and dug deep into its viticultural and enological history to produce a scholarly yet easily readable survey. The handsome book is a rich vein of surprises, not the least of which is the introduction by Sacramento grocer Darrell Corti.

Now, if we can just get those aspiring writers to read a bit more before sitting down to their keyboard.


  1. Hi Mike,

    As a fellowship candidate, I sure hope my submissions are either in 85% or in the "to be read" bucket.

    I think your analysis is spot-on, though. With an influx of candidates from the realm of wine blogs, you're likely seeing work that is reflective of people's professional writing skill ... i.e. it's not professional.

    Charitably, I would hope to be considered a Nuke Laloosh-like candidate: Potential, with a wild streak that needs to be harnessed.

    And, thanks for the good list of book recco's. Some of the older titles are good ones to sleuth out.


  2. Excellent curriculum, Mike!

    I wonder whether your well-justified observations and criticisms stem from the simple fact that so few bloggers (or similarly self-published writers) ever reap the benefits of working with editors, proofreaders, or publishers.

    Ease of publishing via online channels gives us breadth, not depth, of content. We're in the early stages of adopting a fairly new medium now, and the wheat has yet to be separated from the chaff.

    I encourage you and your fellow judges to apply the same criteria that many of us learned in newsrooms and lecture halls to a new batch of writers who bypassed editors, fellow writers, professors, and the school of hard knocks before entering the public arena.

    Maybe I sound harsh or old fashioned, but the public humiliation or potential libel/slander lawsuits that can stem from bad writing is much more harsh than this old fart could ever be.

  3. Mike - I posted a video on a nearly identical topic a few weeks ago, and concur with your view that writers need to read a heck of a lot more than most of them do right now.

    For some reason (probably the pedigree of excellent writers in the world of wine, which seems to attract talented people) the bar is set much higher in the wine writing world than it is in other fields...