Jancis got it wrong
I’m not in agreement with the point Jancis Robinson is trying to make in her latest column, which I read in yesterday’s San Francisco Chronicle. Something about getting wine professors to “explain wine to us.” Jancis argues, in her usual clear-worded way, that, since enologists know so much more about wine than the rest of us, they should “share more of their knowledge with us.” She lists such topics as “grape varieties and their relationships, terroir and its influence, grape physiology and how it affects the taste of wine, yeasts and their effects, extraction and tannin management techiques, the role of oxygen, aspects of elevage such as various oak types and other materials, how wine ages, different stoppers” as examples of the kinds of things the scientists should be communicating to the public, in a way that “does not have to be dull.”
Maybe I’m missing something, but wine books and magazines, written by non-scientists but very good researchers and journalists, have for many decades been explaining these things every chance they get. Wine Enthusiast for 25 years has published articles on them. The bookstores are crammed with popular wine books that explain all these issues to a greater or lesser degree, depending on your appetite for detail. And nowadays, hundreds of wine blogs wade into this territory. Google “grape varieties” and you’ll get at 819,000 hits. “Terroir and its influence” gives 60,000 hits, “tannin management” 263,000, “grape physiology” 2,630,000, and “yeasts and their effects” 8,900,000.
I mean, there’s enough information out there on these technical issues to keep a wine-loving man or woman busy reading for the rest of his or her life. So do we really need the wine scientists adding to the information overload?
It’s not that I don’t believe some wine scientists have something to add to the conversation. Jancis mentions Emile Peynaud as an example of the sort of person she’s referring to, a really smart enologist who can explain things in a more technical way than most amateur writers can. Prof. Peynaud, who died in 2004, certainly is a wonderful writer, and I have several times in this blog praised and recommended his book, The Taste of Wine. But he was an exception. In general, academics are not the best writers for a non-technical public. They don’t typically see things through the eyes of consumers, they see things through the (fairly constricted) lens of their own specialty: vines and water uptake, soil structure, fermentation chemistry, grape genetics, metabolite regulation, ecology, rootstocks and the like. The books they write are called “textbooks,” not wine books. Nor is it remotely clear that most wine scientists wish to write popular books, aside from the income they might produce (not much, in most cases).
The University of California at Davis has produced dozens of wine books over the years, and I have plenty of them in my wine library; but for the most part they don’t make for accessible reading. If you’re a total geek, as I and most other professional wine writers are, they’re useful for technical information. But I’d much rather read Hugh Johnson or Harry Waugh or Karen MacNeil or Jancis herself or a good blogger, for that matter, than a U.C. Davis professor, and I wrote my own books (published, by the way, by University of California Press) in a way I have reason to believe is both educational and easy to read.
Consumers have plenty of technical sources of information on grapes and wine. A dearth of it isn’t the problem. In fact, I daresay there is no problem with wine writing, which exists in every way, shape and form, in every language, on every level; we’ve never had anywhere close to the quantity of wine writing that we have now, and there’s only going to be more of it. So I’m thinking, maybe Jancis had a deadline for her column and couldn’t come up with anything meatier than “encouraging professional academics to explain wine to us.” Let’s let the academics stick to their labs and experimental vineyards. Wine writing should come from professional wine writers who know how to do it well.