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Miles and me


I’m about a third of my way through Rex Pickett’s new book, Vertical, the followup to Sideways. It’s a fun read, frolicksome, raucous and ribald, with Jack and Miles drinking their way once again across wine country, and getting into their usual predicaments.

Knowing Rex just a little, and having heard his personal story, I’m struck by the way his own life is reflected in the pages of Vertical. There are repeated references to things that happened to Miles in Sideways, but since Miles is Rex (in a manner of speaking), I also find myself wondering what in Vertical actually happened to Rex, as opposed to what fictitiously happened to Miles. This all puts Vertical on a meta level, which increases its complexity and enjoyment.

And then it hit me that nothing happens in a vacuum. We know we’re in an age where wine writing itself is changing–moving away from the dreary old academic top-down voice-of-God approach, and toward a more personal, confessional, intimate and humane kind of writing. People don’t want to hear Suckling asking some cult proprietor what cooper he bought his Tronçais oak barrels from. People want instead some glimpse into the writer’s life, which means the writer’s new task is opening up, not just preaching and declaring “I give this wine 92 points.” This is because people understand that the art and craft of wine writing and criticism isn’t as simple as was once thought. It occurs on, and arises from, every level a human being can experience, and so, if readers are to take the words of a wine writer seriously, they expect to know about all the levels that exist within him. They expect to see, in other words, inside the Black Box, to witness the wheels turning, the moving parts, what really makes the writer tick. The day of the anonymous wine critic, who seals himself off from the public like Greta (“I want to be let alone”) Garbo in her New York days, are over. The public wants wine writers who are transparent, whose lives intersect with theirs. And that means wine writers who are not afraid to reveal their fallibilities, imbecilities and insecurities.

Well, that pretty much describes Miles. Or is it Rex? Neither is a wine critic–yet–but I’m told that, by the end of Vertical, Miles does become a wine critic; and already, in the book’s early pages, he’s pronouncing verdicts on certain Pinot Noirs that might have leaped straight out from the Wine Enthusiast’s Buying Guide. Miles is, therefore, the very modern picture of a wine critic. When you read his words on wine, you are experiencing them on a higher level than merely their objective, definitional meaning. Because you know who Miles is, his words take on additional dimensions. They’re freighted with the knowledge we humans have of each other that cannot be put into words.

In my own writing, I find myself moving toward this new standard. Of course, it’s hard to achieve much in the way of personal writing in a 40 word review, but short reviews are in many respects just an adjunct to the wine writer’s more serious efforts–the way, say, sculpture was for Picasso. In my long-form writing, I find myself striving toward something infinitely more powerful, personal and particular than I used to. I have a story coming up in next February’s issue of Wine Enthusiast, on Winemaker Dives, that illustrates this new style. It was one of the more challenging assignments I ever had, filled with logistical and stylistic speedbumps, but I think the hard work paid off.

Which leads to a big question, one I constantly ask myself: in moving toward this new style, am I abandoning expertise? In tackling a more personal and muscular style, am I undermining my authority as an objective “expert”? Is wine writing, in short, a zero sum game, in which you’re either amusing, or serious, but never both? (As in Heisenbergian mechanics, where you can know the position or velocity of a particle, but not both.)

I don’t think so. At its highest form of expression, wine writing combines the intensely personal with the deeply knowledgeable. That’s what I aspire to. It’s what the age seems to want, as Rex Pickett intuited at least by the time he wrote Sideways. Miles, nor I, may be a hero; anti-hero is more to the point; but we are intensely human, get drunk, do and say stupid things, worry, take things personally, try our best, are idealistic, love great wine, work hard at understanding wine, and when we write, we take everything we’re thinking and feeling and remembering and put it into words, exposing it to all the world; and, in the end, all we can hope is that people like it.

* * *

It was 47 years ago today that President John F. Kennedy was murdered in Dallas. I cried for him and for the country then, and I will always wonder how things would have been different had that gifted and humane man been allowed to serve out his terms in office.

  1. Steve writes: “At its highest form of expression, wine writing combines the intensely personal with the deeply knowledgeable.”

    Bravo, sir. This is what we do. The naysayers, the prophets of gloom, the folks who call us dinosaurs. Maybe they will be right in the end, but, I doubt it. There will always be a call for highly personal, deeply knowledgeable writing about wine, and many other subjects from art to music to dance to restaurants.

    Let a thousand flowers bloom. It is good for the world when they do, but the world will always choose to hear the voices that have the most and the best to say.

  2. The amusing-serious dichotomy seems to be a recurring theme in the wine world. I think it’s a false dichotomy, but it plays itself out regularly. Suckling–assuming he is not engaged in some elaborate parody–seems to be aiming for a very wealthy, self-absorbed type of wine collector. He may seem aloof and histrionic, at best, to most people. But he probably only is looking to sell himself to a relative few who will pay heftily for his services. This is an interesting parallel to high end wine where the idea is to make very little of the special cuvee, but sell it at a very high price to the few that will pay for it.

    The flip side–either as wine or wine critic–is to aim for broad appeal. You won’t make as much per unit, but you move more units. I don’t think this is any less serious, but it is seen to be this way.

    I just watched the movie Unstoppable today and what really struck me is that it was a product of craft. I’m sure a lot of ‘serious’ movie people would bash it. But there’s a beauty to craft in its broad accessibility. It doesn’t have to be cynical or pander, though it rarely is profound. Craft in movies–if not wine–often is poo-pooed. Well, ‘amusing’ as craft is, often it’s better at being satisfying and enjoyable where ‘serious’ stuff gets bogged down in pretension.

  3. I can’t see that a literary style that draws from the author’s personality in any way is given to detract from expertise, though the objectivity aspect will be subject to how the personality manifests itself. Examples come to mind..

    I think obviously there are plenty of oldschool examples of wine writing not lacking personality while both amusing and serious, from for instance: Cyrus Redding, Saintsbury and André Simon to Hugh Johnson, Prial, Matt Kramer and quite a few more. Maybe not all intimate and full-soul-exposing, but personal voices. For all the ‘voice-of-God’ pointspeak that may be out there (I’m barely aware of a few) it may find an audience but can’t help but be disposable, as to a book that can be enjoyed several times over it is like a brochure one throws away. I for one can’t see the conflict in choosing to watch vids of how many points on whatever Suckling is, or read

  4. Steve,

    Perhaps the most insightful thing you’ve written on your blog … a blog filled with insights day after day.

    Great post.


  5. Jeff, thanks.

  6. Greg, good analysis. I see Suckling’s move exactly the same way as you.

  7. Holy crap, this post is amazing!

    Steve – I think you’ve nailed it in terms of understanding the change happening; I myself want to connect with someone’s thoughts/ideas and establish that level of trust (even if it’s a relatively superficial but still trustworthy level) before exploring their expertise.

    And you’re doing a great job of that here on these virtual pages!

  8. One of the things I’ve learned by working directly with the consumer for so many years is those personal stories sell so much more wine. I can talk about sun exposure, drainage and soil types until I’m blue in the face, the wine is still just a beverage but when I tell the story of a dinner at the estate or about a meeting with the winemaker who had his fly down for our entire visit there is a connection for them. And yes, I have had people come back and ask, “What was that wine you sold me? The one where the winemakers zipper was down?” so at least at our store personal far outsells technical.

    When I started my stupid blog I sat in front of my screen wondering not only what to write but to whom. I opted to try and reach out beyond the already wine obsessed, to try and reach more people…make them feel more connected to wine and the only thing I had to give them was me and my stupid stories. Took a little time but I know for a fact, (they come into the store, email or call to order) that people are responding. Trust is a big factor, I trust them with my heart, my stories, my passion and they trust me not to write up stupid shit that I receive free in the mail….well unless I’m writing how stupid it is.

    Rather long winded way of saying I agree with you huh?!

  9. One thing I’ve always enjoyed about Steve’s blog is that he ranges far and wide in his wine writing. Wine is only the hub from which he eloquently spokes out to a variegated array of subjects. What he reveals, time and time again, is how wine is a powerful metaphor for all things innate to us human beings. That’s the gift of his writing, and the greatness of his column.

  10. Rex, thank you. Coming from you, that’s a great compliment.

  11. Samantha, not long winded at all. Great points. Trust is central to everything.

  12. Steve,

    Sounds very similar to the exploration I’ve done into my own style. During this process, I stumbled upon a reference to the New Journalism (Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson, et al.) which you’ve likely heard of. It was a revelation to me, because it reflects my natural tendencies as a writer.

    Is this the type of writing style you’re talking about?

    Personally, I think this is perfectly acceptable, when done right. The facts must remain the facts, but why pretend that our interpretation of the facts are anything but subjective? This must be especially true when it comes to something like wine tasting. It’s almost more objective to infer (or even state) in the writing why we reached the conclusions we did.

    Besides, story adds to the writing – and to the wine, as Samantha pointed out. Nothing wrong with being entertaining.


    (P.S. – looking forward to reading Vertical myself…)

  13. The discerning reader will expect, nay require, that a wine writer have his technical “chops” in place, as well as the writing “chops.” How many exampleshave we slogged through where the technical details went on and one, lulling us into a sense of dormant complacency before nodding off? Or the much-heard complaint of some national wine magazines that have become lifestyle mags, and the wine has become secondary?

    Today’s best wine writers have the balance of technical wine writing and the broader perspective of the world of wine, with the touch of the personal that Steve talks about.

  14. Graham, yes, Hunter and Tom W. stand out. And so, as Tobias pointed out, do certain wine writers: Kramer and (in a more old-fashioned style), Hugh Johnson.

  15. Steve, an excellent post. I do think the point Tobias makes — that a lineage of muscular, personality-filled wine writing exists — is a good one. It seems to me what you’re really talking about is rejecting the form as promoted in the past century by Wine Spectator and Robert Parker (and, actually, to some degree Wine Enthusiast), harkening back to an earlier era, and then taking that and moving forward. In any case, it is certainly a welcome development!

  16. Steve, The example you set is truly inspiring.

  17. There might be hope for you yet, Steve. But dangerous thinking. Not only might you undermine your authority, but you would be setting a bad example for others. You would undercut those other wine mavens who gain authority and status from their unquestioned infallibility.

    If the public gets “wine writers who are transparent, whose lives intersect with theirs. And (snip) wine writers who are not afraid to reveal their fallibilities, imbecilities and insecurities”, there is a danger of the reader growing more secure in their own knowledge (or lack thereof), and feeling more comfortable deciding what wine they might buy and what and how much they really need to know about wine in the first place?

  18. Morton, I’ve always had a tendency to live dangerously. But thanks for the warning.

  19. There is wine writing and then there is wine scoring. The former needs room, like Frank Prial and to an even greater extent Gerald Asher had. To inject the personal and flesh out the context, the personalities, the sense of place, can’t be done properly in 40 words. It requires an essay. And besides wine scoring, which includes the small write up after the number, is strictly functional (especially since it is blind); no need for style. Cut to the chase: what’s the number and why. A good writer is just that; a good scorer is an oxymoron.

  20. Grumpo, I’ll agree that the 40 word review doesn’t leave much room for style! But it is a recognized format of writing, and those of us who are paid to do it have no choice but to try and master the form.

  21. They should be paying you for your excellent articles and introductory pieces. While I’ve heard some vintners wish for the Good Old Days of Beverage Testing Institute, I certainly wouldn’t want that to mean that WE honchos would shrink your pay.

  22. Great piece, Steve. Wine is living & fluid–writing about it should be, too. Otherwise, snoozeville. Love that you mentioned JFK.

  23. Steve,

    By itself, wine IS nothing. It is combined with the skills and sweat of the grower, the very different skills and similar sweat of the winemaker and their team and, finally, it is the skill of the storyteller in both critic and seller to connect the product to the buyer. This can be the cult member, the cook in search of an ingredient in a great meal – wine is food after all – or the person looking for a memorable exclamation point to a memorable meal experience.
    It all comes down to relationships and connections. Nothing else matters at the end of the day.

  24. Good and heartfelt writing there Mr Steve. Obviously you are a human being with a conscience.

  25. Steve:

    I think to live fully is to actively create as many experiences and memories as possible. The fact that wine is the instigator/facilitator of so many of these important and memorable exchanges between people makes it fascinating AND important. Any time I’ve had a great experience with wine it came along with a great experience with people. I don’t ever remember “experiencing” how many points the wine got at the time or in the remembering of it. The writer who conveys the “why” well will always have an advantage over the one who can only tell you the “what.”

    I think you’ve caught this well.

  26. Back in the day when Gourmet allowed Gerald Asher to devote 3,000 words to one wine or one producers’ context, which invariably included the producer as person, not just as winery owner, we all agreed that Mr. Asher’s writing was something special.

    That kind of writing was magical and whenever anyone gets close to it, we all applaud. But, with tens of thousands of wines to be tasted, it is simply not possible for us to have a 3,000 word experience with them all. We could not read it all, could not absorb it if we did, would not find enough differentiation over time to make the details stand out as unique and special.

    Steven Mirassou is onto something when he says that his greatest memories associated with wine are also some of his greatest memories associated with people. Context is important in the overall scheme of wine enjoyment. Still, a lousy wine does less to enhance context than a great wine. That is why we all want to drink great wine, not lousy wine. Storytelling is significant, but finding a great wine is also part of the equation.

    And it is why millions of people read wine reviews. Most do not read them to put Screaming Eagle into their cellars to one-up their neighbors or to trade it on the Internet. Most of those millions are looking for a few great wines to enhance those important contextual moments with people who are also important to them.

  27. I’m here in the Red Hills of Dundee in the Willamette Valley so have been waiting for the sequel to Sideways so just ordered. Loved all of the wine comments. I’m one of those”old” vintners who love that Pinot.

  28. Joan, “Vertical” has a lot of stuff that happens at IPNC.

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