The wine writer as rebel
[I wrote this last Saturday at the Wine Writers Symposium. Some stuff had popped up, and I was thinking along these lines.]
Outcast. Outlaw. Non-conformist. Punk. Exile. That’s the wine writer. We don’t quite fit in, we [anachronism alert!] ink-stained wretches of the Fourth Estate.
We’ve always been the outsiders, the gadflies and goads who pin-prick the powerful and bring them down to earth, if necessary, with a healthy dose of truth. Next time you’re in a conclave of movers and shakers, with their Armani suits, shiny Tag Heuers and perfectly coiffed hair, look around. That slightly unkempt fellow lurking uneasily at the edge of the room, there physically but not quite included, in his worn old corduroy sports coat, shirt worn for the second day in a row, and in need of a shave, is probably a reporter.
We don’t play the game their way. We play it ours. Even as we break their rules, we ask them — politely, respectfully, and with as much good humor as we can muster — to abide by ours. We are rebels, but we are not rednecks.
The reporter always has had this role, which is why the powerful loathed them. “If one morning I walked on top of the water across the Potomac River,” complained Lyndon Johnson, “the headline that afternoon would read: ‘President Can’t Swim.’” “Four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets,” Napoleon concluded. Left unchecked and unaccountable, the powerful will be corrupted, sometimes without even knowing it. Wittingly or unwittingly, they cut a corner here, overlook a detail there, allow things to slide. Winemakers and winery owners are the power elite in this industry, our Kings and Generals, god-like but not omniscient. They make mistakes, have blind spots, play games. They will tell us how great their wine is and dare you to contradict them, and if you are diffident, they will have got you. It is the role of the wine journalist to tap the errant winemaker’s shoulder and say, “Ahem, excuse me, I hate to tell you this, but…”.
Reminding a winemaker that he has produced something mediocre is a needed task, but never a pleasant one. Telling truth to power should be done with the utmost humility, as well as strength. There are constant temptations to be co-opted by the very system you are sworn to cover. Satan will take you to the mountaintop, show you the power and glory, and whisper, “It’s all yours, my child. Just give me your soul.”
Which the wine writer must never allow. He holds back when traveling in the inner sanctums of the industry. Keeps something in reserve, never allowing himself to become too assimilated. Yet he is only human, and craves companionship. Where does the wine writer fit in? In the fraternity of other wine writers, who alone can understand. We inhabit the writer’s Zeitgeist. With them our weltanschauung is cooperative. At the wine writers symposium, alone among ourselves, without the distracting presence of winemakers or P.R. agents, we were able to see the untruth of Thomas Jefferson’s dictum
Advertisements contain the only truths to be relied on in a newspaper
as we struggled intellectually and morally to figure out how to tell the truth through words in the fairest possible way. We may not have come up with the answer, but our very struggle testified to our sincerity.
I sometimes try, though, to see us through the eyes of winemakers and winery owners. They view us, I think, as exotic beasts. Deep down inside, they’re a little afraid of us. We can, after all, with a keyboard stroke help their bottom line, or hurt it. We wine writers keep winemakers on edge.
I quoted Napoleon above. Here is the rest of his quote: “A journalist is a grumbler, a censurer, a giver of advice, a regent of sovereigns, a tutor of nations.” He meant this as reproval. It was, in fact, praise.