Am I a chemical or a literary wine writer?
There’s an article in Issue 27, 2010 of the World of Fine Wine. It’s about wine writers and objectivity, and although I’ve now read it three times, I still can’t quite tell what the author, Barry C. Smith (described as “Director, Institute of Philosophy, University of London”), is trying to say. To call this article dense is like saying Lady Gaga has legs. (Unfortunately, I was unable to find an online link to the article; W.O.F.W. is pretty good at building a moat around its subscriber-only articles.)
If Prof. Smith has a point, it seems to be that wine writers should hew more closely to “the subject matter of wine itself,” rather than writing about “themselves as subjects writing about [wine].” It’s not exactly clear what he means by this, except that Smith also defines two forms of wine writing, one that is “chemical” while the other is “literary.” I can readily appreciate that distinction (if I understand it correctly). The wine writer can write about wine from a very technical point of view (assuming he is aware of its technical specifications, which isn’t always the case). He can write about acidity and pH and the chemistry of the soil in which the grapes were grown and the kind of oak in which the wine was raised and the specific textures and flavors he experiences and so on. This is a kind of wine writing appreciated by some (whom we commonly refer to as geeks). It is useful, but limited in its appeal; students of enology find this kind of writing in textbooks, not usually in expository wine writing (unless it’s in a journal with scholarly ambitions, such as the World of Fine Wine).
The second kind of wine writing, what Smith calls “literary,” is more along the lines of classic English language wine writing over the centuries. Smith makes it clear at the outset he loathes this approach. He accuses it of being “predominantly personal.” He says it is the kind of writing “dreamed up by humanities professors who show a touching faith in the power of the word and the pen.”
Having set up this dichotomy, Smith then attempts to resolve it, but this is where his article turns incoherent, as articles by philosophy professors often do. (Confession: my baccalaureate is in philosophy.) Smith, who badly needs to break down the straw man he has set up, turns to “sensory scientists” as the magic bullets who can break the impasse. Rather than depend merely on the “subjective” writing of the “literary” writers, or the atomistic approach taken by the “objective” “chemical” writers, we wine writers should instead take the time to discover this sensory work “from [which] we are learning more and more about the complexities of flavor perception.”
We’ve been over this ground before at steveheimoff.com, as for example in last month’s post on white Zinfandel. There may be a minor land rush of research into why and how people form taste preferences, and some of it may or may not be legitimate and stand the test of time; but I don’t see how a professional wine writer could have his art or craft improved by being a devotee of sensory science. It’s just another university major, replete with Ph.D papers and funded research, that keeps graduate students busy. Maybe I’m wrong; I’m sure people will write in and air their views. (By the way, this entire topic is just another variation of the “subjective” vs. “objective” conversation we’ve had on this blog on numerous occasions over the years, as for example here.)
I’ve tended to come down someplace in the middle–that is, that wine tasting is subjective, but with objective forces acting upon it. But that’s wine tasting. Wine writing should be graceful and stylish and personal and clear if it is to be intelligible, and if it’s not intelligible, then nobody will care about it even if it’s objectively true.
At any rate, Smith ends his article by challenging us wine writers to explain “what they are up to, why it matters, and why they are good at it.” I’ll try to address these three areas briefly.
1. What am I up to? Answer: Good writing, pure and simple, as I see things.
2. Why it matters? Answer: In the broad scheme of things, it doesn’t. If it matters to someone, I’m glad.
3. Why I’m good at it: Answer: Because I work hard at it. Very hard.