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Is wine writing a “dodge”?

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Dodge: to use tricks, deceits, or evasions; be shifty; to evade a question, charge, etc. by trickery, cleverness [Webster’s New World Dictionary]

Dodge, synonyms [Roget’s Thesaurus]: elude, evade, escape, swerve, turn aside, duck

At first my reaction to Dan Berger describing wine writing as a “dodge” was one of curiosity. Why would Dan (an old friend) call it that? A funny word to use for an occupation that he, I and many others of us have practiced honorably for a long time.

But Dan is one of the senior members of our profession, a respected veteran who was making a living as a wine writer when I was still drinking Bob Red, so I decided to mull his remark over for a while to discern his true meaning.

I re-read the exact context in which “dodge” appeared:

“It was an event staged by a winery for a small group of media people, all of whom have been in the wine writing dodge for decades…

Let us deconstruct this statement and see if we can get to its bottom. First of all, Dan is at an event staged… This is vital information. He is not relaxing with friends at home or a bar. He is at an event, a word that is to be interpreted with some alarm by those in the know. An “event” is not a natural occurrence in the world. It is a fabrication, an artificial social gathering to which people are invited who can further the agenda of the people who host it, by writing about it, creating buzz about it, and whose aim is to make more money for the host than the host has spent on it. Yes, an event is staged, and any media invited to an event must be aware that they are simply being called upon to be players in someone else’s drama.

Dan certainly is so aware, and this consciousness on his part must be taken into account when we move onto the next deconstruction concerning his use of the word “dodge.”

All of whom have been… This is vital information too. Dan is not alone. He is with a group of his peers (not including me. I was not there.) When wine writers who have known each other for a long time find ourselves at events, there is a certain communication between us of which outsiders may be unaware. I won’t call it “jaded” or “blasé,” for that would suggest a corruptness that isn’t so. It’s more like, “Here we are at the old cattle call again.” Someone blew a whistle and we, the wine media, moo obediently and shuffle through the corral to the place where the feed has been dumped for us to chew on. This doesn’t prevent us from enjoying ourselves, or doing our jobs to the best of our ability. But it does bring up that McCartney line from Penny Lane: “Though she feels she’s in a play, she is anyway.” So this, too, has to be taken into account in considering Dan’s remark.

Now we get to the money phrase: the wine writing dodge for decades. Not just “the wine writing dodge” but “for decades.” See the previous paragraph. There is a hint of ennui here, of déja vu, of Groundhog Day. But why the word “dodge”? Is wine writing a trick, a deceit, an evasion? Are we shifty? Do we use trickery or cleverness to duck certain charges? I’m not sure what Dan means. Certainly, one implication of “dodge” may simply have been that wine writing–of the kind Dan and I practice– isn’t the most difficult way to earn a living. No heavy lifting, very little sweating (except for deadlines), no rush hour commute if you work from home, as Dan and I do. We’re not pounding steel in factories or descending into coal mines to hack away at rocks, we’re not bus drivers or janitors or people who pour asphalt onto roads. We’re rather soft-handed members of the intelligentsia, and it’s likely that we work hours of our own choosing and can make time available for long lunches, or naps, or even to take entire days off if we feel like it, without having to ask a boss’s permission. So maybe that’s what Dan meant by “dodge”: we’ve made a good living for a long time by doing something pretty easy, and we’ve gotten a lot of perks along the way (such as a great wine and food that invariably is given to us at events).

Here’s what I hope Dan didn’t mean by “dodge”: that there’s something inherently dishonest about wine writing. A lot of people think there is. They think we make up our reviews out of nowhere, that we’re freeloaders just scrounging for swag. Maybe they think we really are evading making an honest living by doing something so, well, effete. There may well be working men and women who see wine writers as members of the liberal media who “just don’t get it.” Certainly, there’s a lot of class resentment floating around the U.S. lately, and if members of the media are the recipients of it (and they are), then a wine writer in particular must be the object of loathing and scorn, particularly for those people who don’t drink alcohol.

The aspect of cleverness comes in here. People don’t like clever people. The snake in the Garden of Eden was clever. Clever people trick normal people into doing things that are harmful to them, and to society. Yet wine writers are clever almost by definition: all writers are clever. We have to be. “Clever” traces its roots to the Middle English “cliver,” referring to a claw or hand, meaning “adroit with the hand.” Cavemen who were adroit with their hands developed skills others did not possess. Perhaps they were better at chipping flint into arrowheads, or creating spears that could kill a wild animal at 30 paces. So we see that the root of “clever” was not some aesthetically pointless sharpness of wit, the way Oscar Wilde was clever with a quip. No, the earliest form of cleverness furthered the survival of the clan. Writing may not be as central to survival as the killing of animals for food (and to prevent them from eating us), but writing certainly is central to a society’s ability to understand itself and to pass its wisdom on. The framers of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence were clever writers.

Finally, there is the meaning of dodge ”to evade a question.” This may once upon a time have been an accurate charge against wine writers. We lived in ivory towers, made our pronouncements from on high, and provided little if any transparency as to how we actually ran our businesses. We expected the public to believe us because we were experts and they weren’t. If they asked us questions, we felt no need to answer them.

Well, obviously, blogging and social media have changed all that. There may still be some wine writers around who won’t let anybody know how they really operate, but most of us–me included–aren’t that way. You can’t be secretive anymore. Discerning readers won’t let you. I don’t think there’s a question I’ve evaded in my blog, except, perhaps, that of my sanity, which isn’t really something I could speak objectively about anyway.

So while I’m still not sure exactly what Dan meant by “dodge,” I’d like to thank him, because I got a blog post out of it that was fun to write!

  1. Bill Smart says:

    Steve – I know Dan pretty well too and I think he meant what you said above in terms of a dodge referring to doing something for a living that is pretty easy.

  2. Well, Steve, at least you didn’t dodge commenting on his comments.

  3. Doesn’t Dan drive a ’78 Winewriting Dodge?

  4. Way to much analysis!

  5. Winedoofus says:

    “that we’re freeloaders just scrounging for swag.” Or a free lunch. Or free wine. That’s what he means, more or less. We all know “wine writers” who are on the wine gravy train, out for whatever they can get for themselves.

  6. Wine writers need something to write about and there are many staged events by wineries that are intended to provide them with a story. Perhaps Dan’s “wine writing dodge” is knowingly succumbing to the temptation to take the easy road and become a player in that game. Maybe Dan has reached the stage in life where he takes himself and writing about a beverage with a bit of humor.

  7. Used the word the way Edgar Allan Poe used words. With tongue in cheek and humor on the tongue.

  8. Mary Burnham says:

    Hi Steve – What occurred to me when I read Dan’s sentence was that he was using “dodge” as the Aussies do – as shorthand for “dodge and shirk”, which is Aussie/Cockney rhyming slang for “work”. If that was the case, then no scurrilous or deceitful allusions would have been implied!

    Fun post, thanks for the amusing read.

    Cheers,
    Mary

  9. I know Dan personally , as well, and can say he uses “dodge” as a colloquialism synonymous with “gig” or “job”, “trade” or “profession”.

    Agree with Roger King: you are over-analyzing.

    But, if you want to engage in this dissection of semantics, it should be pointed out that if we use the definitions of “dodge” as you laid out at the beginning of this post, then wine writers (all calibers and media) do dodge some hard facts of science underlying wine, its production, perception and evaluation because doing so allows them to rest their writing (and understanding and philosophy) of those facets on populist notions.
    Yes, they do point to “scientific” “studies” – but only hose that support their notions and ideas.
    It seems to me, most of those writing about wine have a liberal arts background. That is all fine and dandy if you want to engage in creative writing. However, in the physical sciences and in wine (unlike in the liberal arts) there are correct answers and absolute truths.
    But you can’t appeal to the common man and build a paying readishi telling people that……

  10. errrr… that should read: “…readership telling people that….”

  11. I’d say, Steve, that this column is a dodge. You used it to dodge real work. My wife thinks wine writing is a dodge in that sense as well. She thinks I have been retired for years. After all, my day is consumed with visiting wine country and tasting wine. You call that work?

    But, the most likely meaning of Dan’s words was “racket”, as in “the wine writing racket”, which as several people have pointed out is nothing more than the a Damon Runyonism.

    You do remember Damon Runyon, don’t you? He was in the fiction-writing racket.

    And, on the whole, aren’t you glad that we don’t have to work for a living? :-}

  12. It’s more like a Buik Lucerne…

  13. Vinogirl says:

    Cockney rhyming slang? A Scouse lyric (Penny Lane)?…All too cryptic from one whose writing is usually pretty transparent.

  14. Even though we’re all engaged in it, what makes winewriting, particularly internet writing, fundamentally dodgy is that one cannot experience wine on the net in the way one could, say, listen to music. The senses of smell, taste and touch just aren’t digital.

    True, great prose such as, say, Ray Bradbury’s “Dandelion Wine,” is high art that does a decent job of taking us there. But it does concern me that more and more, yacking about wine is substituting for actually drinking it.

    We are beginning to forget that the the painting of the pipe ‘n’est pas une pipe.’ In wine, talk is cheap and experience is expensive. But being there sure beats reading about it.

  15. As Londoners, can we just stifle any suggestion that “dodge” is Cockney rhyming slang?

  16. For the past three days I have spend many hours unpacking dozens of wine boxes, sorting and storing them in larger boxes, each full of as many as 30 or 40 bottles, moving said boxes from locker to auto, auto to home, cellar to locker, etc. etc., opening dozens upon dozens of bottles of (mostly unsolicited) samples consisting almost entirely of vapid corporate plonk, breaking down piles of cardboard, styrofoam shippers, etc., sifting through stacks of paperwork (a lot of it mindless flackery) and basically sweating like a pig in pursuit of my “dodge.” So don’t tell me there is no sweat involved in wine writing!

  17. Spoken like a true Philosophy major…. love the analytics. logic rules!

  18. So glad I get to “dodge” wine writers and pour for those who actually count… My paying clients. The only thing most wine writers dodge is them “dodging” the actual growing and winemaking and going straight to the drinking. If the wine writers in CA wanted to really work, they’d work to seek out the tiny wineries doing very unique styles with a-typical varieties. But that would be too easy.

  19. Randy, you’re too hard on wine writers. Everybody I know–almost–does seek out tiny wineries, and most of us have labored in the vineyards and winery, getting sweaty and dirty. So we don’t go “straight to the drinking,” although tasting and reviewing is obviously at the heart of our job.

  20. Fred Reed says:

    My thought is that Berger was, in a round about way, saying that he gets paid to do what he loves to do. That he would still enjoy wine, even if he were not paid to give his opinion.
    I think you’re being a little over defensive about your vocation.
    I manage a winery tasting room and I frequently am asked if I have a “real” job at or outside the winery.

  21. I suggest the “decades” may also involve those who no longer write but still the get invites. Good for them, bad for the PR unless a long invite list is more lucrative than the results.

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