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Review: A Life Uncorked

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I am just getting around to reading Hugh Johnson’s 2006 memoir, A Life Uncorked, which was published by my publisher, The University of California Press. It’s a good read and I recommend it especially to younger bloggers who are considering careers in wine writing and criticism.

Johnson is of course one of the most famous living wine writers and has been for a long time. One of the topics that fascinates me personally concerns longevity, or, more precisely, how is it that somebody can make a good living, over many years and even decades, from writing about wine. It’s something I’m sure a good many wine bloggers wonder about. It must seem daunting at the outset: so many would-be wine writers, so few spots available for actually getting paid for it.

When Johnson started writing, the field was considerably more open. He experienced what he calls his “Damascus moment” in college (Cambridge University), where he was able to drink (because colleges back then had their own cellars for undergraduates) such wines as Lynch Bages ‘53 and Lafite ‘49 (which Penning-Rowsell described as “delicate, distinguished but perhaps over-light”). That persuaded him to join the University Wine & Food Society. His first job, after graduating with what he calls “a gentleman’s degree” [i.e., more or less useless, like a B.A. in humanities] was as a staff writer for Condé Nast, at Vogue. One of his earliest assignments was to write an article about turkey, and what wines to pair it with.

“I knew, of course, very little about turkey or what wine to drink with it,” Johnson writes, adding, “but ignorance is the safest starting point for a journalist. I identified authorities. I rang them up. I wrote down their answers, and my name appeared at the bottom of the article.”

From there, Johnson was off to the races, so to speak. “Once a writer has been identified,” he writes, “…you can imagine what happens. ‘This Hugh Johnson, who is he? Never mind, he writes about wine in Vogue.’ Could I have lunch? Would I like to visit Champagne? It didn’t take long.”

There are several elements of Johnson’s story that are relevant today for wine writers. Even though the times are very different, the fundamentals still apply. For one, Johnson as a young ambitious writer recognized authority. He understood that his knowledge of wine was necessarily limited by his youth and inexperience — not a bad thing, as his remark about “ignorance” suggests, because that realization allowed him to open the empty vessel of his mind to every source of information that could possibly fill it, beginning with established experts. (Johnson testifies to learning from the “handful of regular wine writers” then working in Britain, including André Simon, Cyril Ray and Elizabeth David.)

Johnson not only turned to established writers to inspire and teach him, he began forming relationships which were to last a lifetime, and would later help him in his own career. Part of the secret of longevity at any job, but especially one so evanescent and creative as wine writing, is for people to like you and want to help you. But that’s only part of it, and maybe not even the greater part. What’s central to longevity is excellence in your writing, and that in itself is the product of several components. One is a thorough knowledge of your field. Johnson specialized in the wines of France (although, as a talented writer, he could make sorties through other countries and not be embarrassed). I specialize in the wines of California. Once the wine writer becomes well-versed in his or her field, she must develop a lucid, friendly writing style that people find accessible and enjoyable. It can be tricky to take as complex a subject as wine (which involves organic chemistry, farming, technology, history, geology, politics, psychology, economics, business and fashion) and then translate it into written words that are simple to comprehend. It’s not exactly turning a sow’s ear into silk, but something along those lines. Here, too, Johnson benefited from being heir to a long line of British writers who took the written word as seriously as they took their Monarchy. From Elizabeth David, for instance, Johnson writes: “[S]he taught me how to stickle; there was never a more pinpoint stickler for accuracy and honesty. It slowed her writing down to a crawl, all the checking and delving.” For the writer, to stickle (from Middle English, to rule, order, dispose; to raise objections, haggle, or make difficulties, esp. in a stubborn, narrow manner and usually about trifles) is as necessary as oxygen is for breathing. The writer stickles, not others, but himself.

Good wine writing, like good writing of any kind, is hard. Getting and keeping a job in this industry can be challenging. Keeping it for many years, as Hugh Johnson has done, requires a kind of miraculous ability to juggle many plates at the same time. Among the hundreds and hundreds of wine bloggers working today, a very limited number actually will graduate into the front ranks and still be getting paid to write about wine twenty years from now. I have my own ideas who they will be; probably you do, too. I’m going to be talking about this later this month at the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers at Meadowood. It should be interesting.

  1. I’ll be dead in twenty years.

    Just didn’t want you to mention me and then be wrong.

  2. Thank you for the helpful article, Steve. Hugh Johnson should be on the short list of role models for every prospective wine writer. Showing how his success came in part by his following the same essential, common-sense advice that we often hear but less frequently heed serves as an excellent reminder to those who’ve been blogging for a while and a solid starting point for those just beginning.

    I, too, am late in breaking open my copy of A Life Uncorked. I’ll be moving it toward the top of the stack now.

  3. Hosemaster, you may or may not be dead in 20 years but your legend will live forever.

  4. Steve,
    I get to follow you in the afternoon at the Writers Symposium. I will be exploring the question of the newsletter form as a way for writers to find long-term happiness in the wine writing arena.

    But, I worry. All this talk of money as if guys like you and me were financial consultants. I will give away this one nugget–one which I am sure you will also be telling people.

    Writing about wine is fun. Making money at anything in life is work. It takes knowledge, dedication, creativity, willingness to be both an artist and a busniess person. In short, there are no three-step easy solutions in wine writing any more than there are for any other profession.

    And, Hugh Johnson is very special because his writings have opened up wine knowledge to the world in so many ways. That is why he has succeeded like no other writer of our generation.

  5. Hose, I always knew you could write but I never knew you could read. Regardless of your shortcomings I’m a big fan.

  6. Hugh J. = GOD.

    But not sure I’d agree that Wine Writing = Sublime Convergence of Art, Science, Experience & Craftwork.

    What I mean is, good wine writing is no different than good writing about any complex subject. If the writing skills are there, the rest can be learned (apart from the passion for the topic, that is)…

  7. Charlie-

    I enjoyed your nugget. So often it seems people in their search for recognition (or fame and fortune) forget to pack their passion as well. Sure, it takes talent, and lots of it, along with some of that good old antediluvian tenacity and determination.

    Thanks!

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