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Thinking about wine writing


I read this blog, which had some things to say about me, and liked it. Beyond that, it made me think about wine writing.

One of my earliest, most distinct memories is of pretending to write. I would sit at my mother’s vanity table, pencil in hand, and fill the blank pages at the front and back of my mother’s bound volumes of classic literature with broad, looping scribbles. I could not have been more than three.

I can’t understand why my mother didn’t object to my defacing her books. These were expensive collections of classic authors: Balzac, Tolstoy, Shakespeare. Not that I believe either of my parents ever bothered to read so much as a page of them; they were the kinds of household ornaments aspirational middle class Jews of that period liked to adorn their apartments, to show that they had good taste. (A next door neighbor had lamps with pedestals based on Michaelangelo’s David.) Still, defacing her books I was. Maybe my mother was proud that her youngest child was intent on learning how to write. Still, she could have given me notebook paper.

I don’t know or remember what I thought I was writing, but it was cursive, not print. It’s difficult to explain why a three-year old would be so desperate to learn how to write, much less in books, but I was. If you believe in karma, maybe I’d been an author in a previous life, working on a novel, when I’d died an early death, and couldn’t wait to be reborn so that I could resume it.

However you explain it, it’s fair to say that I was born to write. To read, also. I always had a profound delight in the written word and respect for books. To this day, I need to read. On the toilet (you’ll excuse me for saying so), I need a good book. If there is no book around, I’ll read the back of a box of soap powder. In many respects, I’m more comfortable with a book than I am with people. I must have got that from my mother who, at the end of the day, when her housework was done, would curl up in her favorite green stuffed chair in the livingroom room with a novel, while the rest of us watched television. My mother wasn’t a T.V. person, unless Judy Garland was on.

So writing and reading have been spotlights, goal posts, prime movers of my life for as long as I can remember. There’s been a lot of talk lately, in the blogs and elsewhere, about what makes for a wine writer: who is able to be a good wine writer, what the criteria are, is wine writing elitist or a pure democracy? My hunch is that a wine writer has to be insanely in love with the act of writing and all it involves: editing oneself, deleting, finding better metaphors and similes, more elegant constructions, greater balance, sweating over the details. What is balance in writing? It consists of two elements: clarity and complexity (the parallels with wine are not coincidental). “Clarity” means that the reader should not have to struggle to get the point. “Complexity” means that the point must expressed with reference to prior knowledge. Maybe there’s only a single parameter, and that is elegance.

I also think a good wine writer needs to develop a voice. A young man I know recently sent me a wine article he wrote and asked me to criticize it. I told him it was well-written, from a technical point of view, but that it was boring, because it was written like a press release, that is, devoid of point of view, personality, irony, anger, humor, self-awareness, contradiction, attitude, cynicism, passion, spirituality and all the other human elements that make writing interesting. He asked me how to develop a voice. I thought about it, and suggested that he first identify writers whom he likes, and then try to write in their style. There’s a Hemingway style, a Woody Allen style, a Garrison Keillor style, a Hunter S. Thompson style, a Churchill style that is really exquisite (check him out) and, in wine, a Gerald Asher style. (Leonard Bernstein used to delight people at parties by playing the same piece in the styles of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms and even Copland.) Once you study someone else’s style, you learn that there actually is such a thing as style. You learn how the words and the construction of sentences are only the written manifestation of that style–that it really comes from the person’s soul. And once you understand that, you can, with some effort, look into your own soul and learn how to express it in words.

It doesn’t always work. Not everyone is fit to be a good wine writer, because not everyone has an expressive soul. And you don’t necessarily have to be a good wine writer to “make it” as a “wine writer.” I mean, nobody thinks of Gary Vaynerchuk as a wine writer. A wine personality, maybe, but no Gerald Asher. There is a generation coming up that takes wine writing seriously–Jordan Mackey here in San Francisco is a good example–but I suspect the species is increasingly endangered. Then there’s someone like Joe Roberts, who epitomizes with dramatic clarity the challenge younger wine writers face: does he focus on real wine writing, a la Gerald Asher, which is a lonely, difficult task, or does he build a digital brand, a la Vaynerchuk’s personality-driven one? It’s hard, and maybe impossible, to do both.

In this age of twitter and instant messaging, I hope that some three year old kid is scribbling in his mom’s books, pretending to write and longing for the day he can. There are probably millions of kids who can’t wait to have a cell phone and start texting, but I’m pinning my hopes on that little girl or boy who wants to actually write long, interesting constructions of words. If that goes away, the human race will have devolved, no matter how glorious our technology becomes, IMHO.

Toast of the Town

If it’s Spring, it’s time for Wine Enthusiast’s Toast of the Towns. I’ll be at TOTT San Francisco this April 7, which is a Thursday. Hope to see you there.

  1. Steve – thanks for getting me thinking :).

    I am, in fact, dealing with exactly the challenge you describe in this post when you mentioned me. In terms of writing like Gerald Asher, I’m not holding out too much hope for myself but I may someday have his hair. 🙂

    My hope is to provide both, if possible, but I cannot ignore the fact that the longer, more journalistic pieces that I aspire to write feel increasingly self-indulgent to me – because the audience for them is dwindling. It feels great, some people tell me they are touched by those pieces, and the goal (not sure if I hit it but I try) is to give people, once in a while, something that is theoretically as good as something in, say, Wine & Spirits Mag but is openly free on Internet for anyone to read; selfishly, arrogantly, I’m occasionally throwing my hat into that same ring, just to see if it can be done (and probably suffering greatly from lack of a true editor!). It can all be viewed as supremely self-possessed by some, and I understand that viewpoint, but that’s not the intention.

    But fewer people want to read those and comment on them, even when they do understand that I’m not trying to be self-indulgent, that I’m trying to help introduce a small bit of change in how wine articles are written. But because I’m one of those people who enjoy reading that kind of piece, I cannot really be true to myself and build my own “brand” authentically on-line without authoring those pieces from time to time.

    I’m not that close to sorting it out, but I do believe temporary balances can be achieved, and they will fluctuate, and anyone writing seriously about wine will need to move with those fluctuations, be inspired by them, and also try to influence the type of articles that people read by adding new twists to the “traditional: styles where possible.

  2. Writing about thinking about wine writing…

    Steve, this makes me think about the kid who was having nightmares
    about flying a Corsair during WW2, and later named the Aircraft carrier that he flew from during that time in his previous life.

    It is quite often difficult to explain the talents and proclivities and passions of some people unless one considers the possibility of reincarnation. Perhaps in your case you were in a previous life an avid reader/writer/enophile, but stifled due to a lack of technology.

    Personally, I do not believe in reincarnation, but in my last lifetime I did.

  3. Great piece, Steve. Your idea of “finding your voice” rang very true to me… understand who you are, not what you want to be, is the most essential thing in the world. For Gary, he understands that the printed word isn’t the best way for getting his message across. (In fact, very few people seem to have a knack for both print and video, though Joe seems to be among that select group).

    Attention spans are shorter than ever, that’s for sure, making the demand for 1,500+ word coverage of a specific wine topic dwindle. But, I do think that guys like Jordan and others will be able to carve out a niche audience who will embrace their work! In essence, it might be a good thing… quality content will rise to the top.

  4. gdfo: lol!

  5. I for one, am very grateful that there are those of you that have both the talent and tenacity to craft quality pieces about interesting topics. No doubt that attention spans have been drawn very thin, and in this environment, the great 1500 word article by a true professional might not garner the same eyeballs, as the 140 character tweet of some hollywood celebrity.
    That said, the volume of folks that read “OMG!-IMHO XYZwine iz da bomb, r u going to try some??!!” might have short term have market impact, but does not match the knowledge impact of a well researched and lucid piece of writing on even a single individual…that kind of writing helps build market longevity and consumer legacy.
    Media has changed the transmission lines and the gatekeepers, and so like cheap wine, many forms of opinion and perception of wine are flooding the marketplace ( including what I produce for a local market). It may be time to think about talking about “wine communicators” as a whole, with actual “writers” being an advanced subset of that group. Something to aspire to, both for those who create, and those who consume…just as fine wines are discerned from the plonk…and some proprietors are capable of producing both.
    Cheers! and please keep “writing”, at least in this life…

  6. Carlos Toledo says:

    Steve, you know how high i rate your skills as a wine writer. Honest question: Could you be as much read/heard/admired/thought of as you are today if not for a somewhat big (not important where i live) magazine or publication where your fame first comes from?

    Can a Joe Blow like me be a force to be reckoned with without “that” business card along? Every blogger i follow was “someone” before the blog, i.e. worked for some wine-related corporation and had a name before the damn blog.

    I tend to think that just the talent and all the traits you mention won’t cut it when it comes down to being a future wine blogger wonder. Jus’ sayin’

  7. Carlos, I”m not sure I can answer your question.

  8. Re Gerald Asher: I still have his “On Wine” book, and he is/was quite a writer. But rather than pumping out 25 to 30 articles per month, he really had the opportunity to “find his voice” and edit the monthly article to perfection. I wonder what form your blog would be in if you were in the same time demand.

  9. Gerald Asher’s comments at the recent Wine Writers Symposium, as incredibly fully transcribed and described by Alder Yarrow on his blog, Vinography, are well worth a read. They are instructions in how to write. Sadly, few of us have the time to reach for the perfection for which Mr. Asher searched and found.

  10. Steve,

    I wholeheartedly echo your hope that there are still a few young, future writers out there. I’m all for technological advances (except robots becoming self-aware… that scares the hell out of me), but there exists a few things that can’t succumb to the trend of efficiency. Like Sunday gravy slowly simmering all day (made with tomatoes patiently coaxed to ripe perfection in a home garden), or a wine designed to age and finally consumed after years of cellaring (as opposed to a micro-oxygenated, mega-purpled number), a well-conceived piece of writing can express so much more soul than 140 characters. Let’s hope there’s more of that out there, admist the fun-but-frivilous deluge of micro-blogging.

    Here’s to great writers and their work (at least until the barbarians burn all the books again).

  11. Joe Herrig, how do you know that we humans are not self-aware robots?

  12. Steve, I don’t need that brand of paranoia right now 🙂

  13. Rick Kushman says:

    Long time reader, first time commenter. Steve, you are so right about how incredibly important – and hard — it is for writers to find their voice, and I love that you brought it up. Voice, as you said, is not just copping an attitude, it’s about showing genuine humanity, and a bit of vulnerability. As a guy who’s written for newspapers for almost three decades and who teaches writing and culinary journalism, I’ve watched smart, young writers struggle with the concept, just as we more-experienced, not-so-smart writers struggle every day.

    And that’s the real answer, as you and Charlie and a few others said, for everyone blogging or trying to write for a living or trying to do something in between. Good writing is always hard. It’s supposed to be. (Having written something is way more fun. Doing the actual writing is always a haul, even when you’re humming along.) But that’s how you resonate with readers and with an industry. Work at it. Be really good at it. For better or worse, the “old school” writers do have an advantage of having editors and a history with readers who force them to stay on their games. It doesn’t mean writers without an organization can’t be great or important, but everyone needs intelligent, well-intentioned critiques. We all need to be forced to tear something apart and to re-write now and then.

    And as an aside, WineDue Joe, those longer stories aren’t self-indulgent (unless they’re about you; guessing here that’s not the case). They are important and make for good reading, even if they get fewer readers. Think of them as a limited release syrah. But working on those will make all your writing better, and the people who read them will like it all the more.

  14. Hey Kush, thanks for weighing in! Yes, editors…where would we be without ’em?

  15. Hey Rick – GREAT way of putting it on comparing those longer articles to a limited release! Thanks for that!

  16. Steve,

    I’m glad my blog post got you thinking about writing, because it was yours that provoked my own ruminations. Thinking about writing is a superb luxury for me. I mostly have to write under deadline, getting the words in a row and going on to the next project. Thanks for the stimulation.

    A quick aside: when I saw that you had read the blog I panicked and went back to double-check for scurrilous comments. Thank goodness I was no more than my usual caustic self.

    A couple of things you said really struck me. One does have to be insanely in love with writing to pursue it, even if following the credo of Dr. Johnson (only a fool writes for anything other than money). It’s simply far too much work, with precious little reward to develop a voice and enough skill to string together a coherent paragraph, much less an entire article, story or column.

    But at least you can do it sitting down, inside a warm room, unlike most of the other jobs I’ve ever held.

    I could have written your passage on a love of reading. I taught myself to read shortly after my fourth birthday, and got my first grown-up library card by eight. I too read everywhere and everything–too much, perhaps, and not wisely, but it’s better than other addictions.

    A small thing: the page you linked to is a reprint of my blog. There were several very good commenters on the original site, including Todd, Joe Herrig and one from Ron Washam, to my amazement and delight). If your readers are interested, the original entry can be found here:,-im-a-wine-writer

  17. Tim, thanks for being a writer. We’re all always on deadlines–the writer’s hell.

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