Monday, November 26, 2012

In Wine Writing, Not Much To Laugh About

In a speech he delivered to a congregation of wine bloggers in Turkey recently, the British magazine editor, wine writer and poet Andrew Jefford declared that the wine writer is dead. "The old wine-writing world has disappeared. The creature which we used to call a 'wine writer' has died," Jefford lamented.

In his obituary, Jefford didn't substantially back up this view, other than to suggest that the reason for the death of wine writing is twofold: For one, the traditional vehicles for wine writing - newspapers, magazines, book publishers - aren't much interested in the topic nowadays. Secondly, too many practitioners of the craft are too lazy or too unaware as to what they should do to make their writing compelling.

Jefford says that wine writing for print publication now accounts for less than 40 percent of his income. From this he concludes that anyone who wants to write of wine in the future best had plan to capitalize on his or her interest by also lecturing, consulting, guiding, judging and otherwise being invested commercially in the business and culture of wine. That, however, is how wine writing has been pursued for decades. Very few wine writers ever have made a living with their wine writing alone. For every Robert M. Parker Jr., Jancis Robinson and Eric Asimov, who look to be supporting themselves through their wine writing alone, dozens of other practitioners of the craft, many of them highly influential and every bit as insightful as Parker, Robinson and Asimov, supplement their writing with other gigs, sometimes related to wine, sometimes not. Jefford might better have said, "This is the way it is, kids, so get used to it."

At heart, Jefford is more optimist than pessimist, however reluctant he may be to admit it. He doesn't really believe the wine writer is dead. If he did, he wouldn't have devoted most of his talk to cogent advice about how his audience of aspiring writers could develop both livelihood and following. Be an eager listener, be fresh in your approach, dig deep for information, check your facts, take a position, "struggle to find the narrative frame," he advised.

Coincidentally, Jefford's talk took place just as thick packets of feature articles, wine columns, video scripts and blog posts began to be squeezed through the mail slot in the front door of our house. These were wine writings submitted by candidates hoping for a fellowship to the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers at Napa Valley's Meadowwood Resort in February. The symposium coming up is the 9th annual, and for most of those years I've been one of three judges who get to grade the work and recommend who should receive a fellowship, each of which covers the $1,715 registration fee and lodging for the nearly week-long session. Each candidate submitted two pieces, coded so we wouldn't know their identities. Each year some 40 or 50 persons apply for a fellowship, of which 15 are awarded. Another 50 persons customarily sign up for the week-long gathering. Clearly, they haven't heard that wine writing is dead.

To judge by the diversity and quality of the 80 works I've just read, I'd say that wine writing has a future. Over the past few years, entries have gotten more knowledgeable and sophisticated. Sure, some still are shallow and rough, but a growing proportion reflects earnest, original and at times compelling work. A year ago, the overall quality and range of the work took a substantial leap, and I gushed to symposium director Jim Gordon about the number of works that showed more personality, timeliness, details and color than in the past. I could say the same thing this year. Indeed, topics generally were fresher and more daring; terrific explanatory pieces were turned in on the impetus behind new-wave wine lists, chocolate-infused wines and even veraison. There's always going to be a couple of predictable features about Napa Valley and Sonoma County, but a greater range of regions drew the attention of writers than ever, with the wine scenes of Humboldt County, Minnesota, Arizona, Georgia and Kentucky explored intelligently. There were fewer cliches, less of a gee-whiz attitude, and far fewer tasting notes. A few pieces displayed the hand of seasoned science and travel writers, helping bring a fresh and knowing perspective to the genre. For the second straight year, the entries showed a passion and a reach that wasn't nearly as apparent in the early years of the symposium. Here, for example, is what I had to say of entries two years ago: "Too many pieces lack focus and a theme; the reader doesn't know where it 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."

This year, there's much less reason to categorize the entries like that, with one exception. Humor still is lacking in wine writing as exercised by fellowship candidates. They are a serious bunch, sternly focused on their mission to understand and to communicate. In his speech, Jefford also urged his listeners to develop a "humorous, witty or caustic" style of writing of wine. He yearned for a "gonzo irreverence" about wine matters, and concluded, "There's a future in levity." I agree totally, and if I get to review entries from next year's fellowship candidates I hope to find more material to elicit chuckles and grins.


  1. Hey Mike,

    When I applied for that scholarship a couple of years ago, my humorous approach to wine writing was thoroughly dismissed. Jim Gordon very politely told me that what I do doesn't fit what they had in mind for the symposium. Very open-minded, I thought.

    I never expected to be accepted, most people see humor as more like "Family Circle" comic strips when it comes to wine rather than my more raucous and profane approach. But, still, I thought it was interesting.

  2. Surprised and sorry to hear that, Ron. Can't speak for the other judges, but I wouldn't have been shocked if your entries had won you a fellowship. Then you could have been introduced at the symposium as "Ron Washam - 98 points!"

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