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The wine writer as hermit-monk

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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.

monk

  1. Steve,

    Another fine and thoughtful post. Good for those of us who do wine PR to be reminded that just because a wine writer says “no” to our pitch to meet with a winemaker doesn’t mean the wine writer isn’t working! That said, I must say that I read Jancis’ “hermit” line quite differently than you did. Here’s the passage:

    “I cannot think of a single wine writer who has managed the sort of hermit-like existence that would be required of them if they were to ensure that they had no real human contact with anyone in the wine trade. Such a person would be decidedly strange. ”

    Now, to be sure, this is a bear of a sentence, a departure from the norm for Jancis, whose prose is typically quite elegant. But by my study, Jancis is saying that requiring wine writers to avoid contact with those in the wine trade would force upon them a “hermit-like existence.” Rather than saying this is or should be the fate of wine writers, she is saying that wine writers — in order not to be “decidedly strange” — should feel free to be out and about with the wine trade. In fact, she goes on to write that the key is not to avoid people, rather, “The important thing is to adhere firmly to the need for the wine writer to maintain their independence in what they write, no matter how they interact personally with members of the wine trade.”

  2. There’s a documentary called “The Legend of Ron Jeremy” that makes a seemingly-fabulous job look lonely, risky, and difficult to maintain…

  3. Doctor, right. Ron and I have lots in common. Particularly the money we get paid. : >

  4. Pete, I am SO glad you picked up on this. I thought about it before writing, and secretly hoped somebody would bring this up. You’re right. I don’t mean to imply I’ve taken a vow of silence. We do need friends, including in the wine industry. And when I travel I do have a lot of fun. I just wanted to emphasize that being in a job like mine requires solitude and independence, and too much fraternizing with the industry can compromise independence. Thank you for letting me expound on this.

  5. This is a great post, Steve. Not that wine writing isn’t a great vocation, but it takes work just like any other job.

  6. This may help explain why many /techno/news/reporter types also nurse along, and often write themselves into, a perpetually evolving novel.
    Perhaps to seek relevance and keep themselves company?
    Have you read Doug Meador’s new book, “The New Viticulture” yet?
    It’s well worth a look, as is his blog. Yes, he is also working on a novel.
    On the obverse, I am awaiting J.K Rowling’s writing a book on wine.

  7. “A writer writes” no doubt. Written work is the product from which a writer draws their income. There needs to be a balance, especially in this field since traveling to wineries and events provides the interaction that serves as fodder for further writing.
    Serendipitously enough, I came across this piece about “weisure” on CNN.com today: http://www.cnn.com/2009/LIVING/worklife/05/11/weisure/index.html

  8. Steve:

    Terrific work. Your word “devotional” was perfect. Though I am tasting out of barrel most days, on Fridays, the cellar crew is gone, and it is just me in a room 40 feet high with hundreds of barrels, tasting and thinking and shaping. My “cathedral” is one of my favorite places in the world; a place of meditation and of pleasure, and a place where past and present meet the future.

    Steven Mirassou
    Steven Kent Winery

  9. Hi Steve,

    Good post. I tend to disagree, generally, that one has to be monastically committed to wine writing to be successful.

    From 2006 to early 2008 I did a tour of duty in the wine industry with a technology company in Napa.

    I personally found it to be draining and being around wine 24/7/365 dampened my wine enthusiasm and took away the air of discovery.

    To use Dr. Horowitz’s allusion, which I have used before, it was like being a porn star and then having to service your wife at night. It took all of the punch out of it.

    I think a diversity of experience can be a significant contributor to creating fresh voices in wine writing, preventing a succession chain of insular thinking in approach and style.

    Just one man’s opinion, though.

  10. Good Grape: Thanks. It’s probably some twisted aspect of my personality that makes me so obsessive.

  11. I’m not a wine reviewer, so I cannot relate directly. But, I am a writer and I believe there’s a balance. In order to write we need our solace, it’s a place for our mind to wander and wade through the subconscious of all the things it has collected. However, we can’t remain in that solace for too long, even if we want to. That’s a point where you need to recharge, as Steve said, going out to observe the world, chatting people up–you can return with a renewed sense of things. While I value the adamant dedication to a craft, it’s important not to become consumed in the process. After all we’re all trying to be master of our own craft, not the other way around.

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