The wine writer as hermit-monk
In my post yesterday I provided a link to Jancis Robinson’s superb essay on the ethics of wine writing. I have now read it several times because it’s so cogent and timely, but one thing she wrote really sticks in my head. She described the wine writer as living a “sort of hermit-like existence.”
This may come as a surprise to people who think that wine writers are constantly dining out at fabulous restaurants, being wooed by famous winemakers, drinking Champagne in hot tubs at glamorous resorts, and in general rushing madly about from place to place, keeping up with the latest bar opening or celebrity wine auction. But nothing, absolutely nothing could be further from the truth, at least in my case.
The fact is, the wine writer who was always on the go would be a very poor wine writer indeed. She’d get nothing done! When I started out in this field, I did receive lots of invitations, and I eagerly accepted many of them. Dinners at San Francisco restaurants — distributor tastings — lunches at wineries — one-on-ones with winemakers — it was heady to go from a non-entity to suddenly being an in-demand “celebrity” (well, a middling-sized guppie in a small pond, anyway).
That period lasted only until I realized it was all very time-consuming and strenuous and not particularly productive. For the last 15 years, at least — ever since I’ve been with Wine Enthusiast — my life has been more like the hermit-monk I referred to in the headline than the jet-setter of the popular imagination.
Good wine writing, like good writing of all kinds, is hard, and takes time. It’s tedious. (Of course, if you love writing as much as I do, it’s not at all tedious.) Sitting in front of the computer screen, my dictionary and Thesaurus by my side, Google always available to help me find something — this is the stuff of my working hours. That, and the telephone and email. Add my wine book library, a substantive one to which I refer constantly for historical data, quotes, or just to light a fire in my mind over something André Simon or Professor Saintsbury said 50 or 80 years ago.
I‘ll write something, then proof it over and change something here or there. Then do it again. And again. I’ll take a shower, and suddenly a perfect sentence forms in my head, and I rush out, dripping all over the floor, to write it down. I’ll wake up in the middle of the night with a fresh insight, and stumble to the computer, eyes barely open, to record it before it fades away, like a forgotten dream. Sometimes the need to get outside and get a different perspective is overwhelming, so I’ll drive to some wine store somewhere and just hang out, observing peoples’ behavior, chatting up a floor clerk. Or I’ll go to Barnes & Noble and look at the wine books and wine and food magazines to see who’s writing what. Back at the computer, I have about 100 bookmarks I scan everyday, ranging from the Associated Press to to various business journals, blogs and other wine magazines, across several continents, looking for information, ideas, trends, inspiration. And then comes the actual tasting part of my job, which — with your nose in a glass and your thoughts in your head — is the most intensely solitary part of any wine writer’s existence.
It’s all rather lonely work. It has to be. Which is why Jancis calls it hermit-like. Why do I add the word “monk”? A hermit spends his time alone, but a monk spends his time alone for a devotional purpose. A monk takes vows. We wine writers have taken a vow of fealty to the religious order of wine writing. It’s a sacrifice, of a sort, but if you don’t eat, breathe and live wine 24/7/365, you’re not going to be the kind of wine writer that Jancis Robinson is, and that we all aspire to be.