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Living la vida vino

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Wine isn’t something I blog about in my spare time. I don’t spend the majority of my waking hours in some office, working in some non-wine related industry. I don’t have to rush home after work, spend some time with the wife and kiddies, tuck them in, then stay up past midnight catching up on my wine education, or coming up with tomorrow’s blog. I don’t just taste the few odd bottles that somebody sent to me, then drone on about Tuscany and Champagne and Argentine Malbec. I don’t use Google to find out what I’m supposed to think. I can’t even imagine passing myself off as somebody whose word is worth reading if I were not relentlessly, unendingly and mercilessly submerged in wine. But I am, and that is why, when I write something, it usually rings true.

I dream about wine. I wake up every morning thinking about wine. Most days I have an article or two to write for Wine Enthusiast, or to clean up my reviews in the database. Deadlines concentrate the mind wonderfully. When I don’t have an actual deadline, I am perfectly aware my magazine wants me to come up with ideas, especially for the website, which has a relentless appetite for content. So I think about wine all the time. I think about it when I’m working out at the gym. I think about it walking the streets of Oakland. Ideas come to me at odd times–in the shower, while driving–and then I have to resort to mnemonic devices to remember them until I can write them down. I scour the Internet, looking for concepts, breaking news, interesting developments. When I interview a winemaker for a Wine Enthusiast article, I try to go beyond the scope of the interview to ask, “So what else is new?” You never know unless you ask. I read every press release I get–and I get a lot–to discern if there’s anything substantial beyond the hype and spin. When I review wines every day, I try to discern if there are trends–stories–impactful things that may be helpful to consumers.

Ninety nine percent of my digging results in nada. It’s like panning for gold: tons of rocks and gravel, very little glitter. I have hundreds of ideas every day, to blog about or suggest for the magazine and its website, but when all is said and done, most of them turn out to be banal drivel. I cannot write banal things. It’s just not in my nature. I don’t really care about some famous chef who just opened a new restaurant, or some new SKU from a winery, or somebody’s glittery new cave. I want to write about breakthrough stuff, things that matter, events that will change the way we think and behave about wine, and that we will remember years from now. This fussiness and particularity probably cost me income, but I don’t care. As a wine writer, you have to establish standards, and then stick to them.

I cannot imagine anyone writing seriously about wine unless they’re doing it exclusively and fulltime, or nearly so. When I was younger, I had the privilege of a budding career in standup comedy. This was in San Francisco, an awfully tough place to do standup. Fierce competition, a demanding audience, professional hecklers. I stayed at it for 1-1/2 years, and was making steady progress, occasionally getting a standing O. I eventually realized I’d reached an important milestone that could not be avoided: I could quit my day job and concentrate exclusively on comedy, or I could take the safe route and keep my day job, which enabled me to pay the bills. I took the latter approach, put comedy behind me, and became–ta da!–a wine writer. People sometimes ask me if I think I made the right decision, if I regret not having followed through on standup. My answer is, Nope. It’s all water under the bridge. No use second-guessing yourself.

The point is, I realized I couldn’t be a great standup comic unless I devoted myself 100% to it, and I simply couldn’t or wouldn’t do that. (My father’s cousin, Joan Rivers, in fact did stick it out, putting everything on the line through times of enormous difficulty, because she believed she could make it. At one point, her father, a physician, threatened to commit her to a mental institution if she didn’t quit comedy and become a good doctor’s wife, as Jewish girls at that time were meant to be.) I feel the same about wine writing. There are thousands of wine writers out there now, all hoping, I would think, to make it. I don’t think it takes all that much intelligence to be a great wine writer, nor does it take an unusually gifted palate. But it does take unusual dedication. Many are called, as they say, but few are chosen.

  1. Somehow, Steve, I strongly suspect that there’s an entire story in that “…and became–ta da!–a wine writer…”

    I think in a lot of ways you’re espousing the “nothing done half-assed” principle, to which I also subscribe. I am also, in a strange and wonderfully sick way, encouraged to hear that I am not the only one waking up thinking about wine and how I can best discuss it and get people fired up about it!

    I disagree that all who are fancying themselves wine writers want to make it – many just want to talk about it, I suspect. But for those who are serious, it’s good to be reminded that it’s no cake walk!

    Happy Holidays!

  2. There’s nothing like full immersion to bring a story right up to your neck right out of 99% nothing! I always think about the BarenakedLadies song “it’s all been done” when I think I am in a winemaking rut or existing too long in the 99% nothing space, yet it’s that full immersion thing that brings something new in a way that wasn’t expected and thus the creativity goes on…And I would say that’s my mantra for 2010!

    Steve my cousin tried Stand up comedy and was really good but didn’t survive 3 months in LA. The fact that you made it for 1 1/2 years is a really interesting part of your story. I want to see more comedy in your wine writing! After all, we in the wine industry tend to take ourselves a little seriously, don’t we?

  3. You’re a very lucky man Steve. I know a lot of wine writers who would love to be able to write full time, but couldn’t survive financially without their day job (a situation that has been made worse in recent years with the economy being what it is). As this is the season for counting our blessings… I would say that you are a very blessed man indeed.

  4. Joe, I was thinking about you as I wrote that. I know you’re risking a lot for your passion, and I wish you the best of good fortune in 2011!

  5. OK, Steve settle down,personally I do not mix wine and meds.(lol)

    Hey, how about some wine jokes, you gotta have a few!

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