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.
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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.