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Image vs. talent: wine writing’s tipping point

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After my post yesterday on the Anthony Bourdain-Paula Deen smackdown I decided to watch the Food Network’s reality TV show, Food Star. Starring such on-air chef personalities as Bobby Flay, Alton Brown and Giada De Laurentiis, it’s the center of the celebrity chef universe these days.

Modeled after Project Runway, Food Star pits wanna chefs against each other: the prize is their own program on the Food Network. Heady stuff. On the episode I watched, they were down to the final three contestants. Each of them made some food and then the judges had “a l’il talk” (as Heidi Klum might put it). What they said kind of shocked me. It was, basically, “Everybody’s food is really good, so our selection isn’t going to be based on culinary talent. Instead, it’s on personality–on air appeal–likeability–shtick–star power.”

I say it shocked me, because I would have thought that such a decision would be based on talent alone. Granted that all three of the final contestants produced good food: surely, somebody’s had to be better than the others’. And they all had a corpus of work the judges were aware of and could base a decision on. But instead of really analyzing the chefs’ cooking talent, the judges based their decision on whom they presumed Food Network’s viewers would want to watch on TV.

Isn’t that bizarre? But it gets to something I’ve touched on in this blog on various occasions. For example, I wrote about waitstaff in restaurants, who seem to be hired mostly for their looks and sex appeal than for their serving talent, especially in San Francisco, where looks count for so much. Ditto for bartenders, or mixologists (is there a difference?). They all look like Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean. Maybe they’re talented, but can’t ordinary looking people be talented?

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate a pretty face as much as the next guy or gal. But here’s my question, and it relates to what Anthony Bourdain was criticizing the Food Network for. Why are these people hired in the first place? It’s not because they’re great cooks. It’s because they’re entertainers. “Star power” is exactly what they have, even if their food isn’t any better than, well, yours or mine.

There’s an analogy to be made here with news reporting. It used to be that TV news anchors were hired for their intelligence and ability to deliver the news clearly and authoritatively. Think of Walter Cronkite or Jim Lehrer. Now, we have news deliverers hired solely on the basis of their ability to rile viewers up: Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, Keith Olbermann (see, I’m trying to be nonpartisan). On local television, it seems like news people are hired for their looks. The blow dried, square jawed male anchor, with his Barbie Doll long blond-haired sidechick, are clichés we all rightfully make fun of. But what’s the difference between that, and the Food Network looking for sex appeal in their stars? (Yes, I’m talking to you, Ms. De Laurentiis, and you, Mr. Flay, and you, Mr. Tyler “Diesel Jeans” Florence, and even you, dear Paula Deen. You’re no longer young, but you’re still hot!).

Thank goodness the wine media has largely avoided resorting to using people based on their looks instead of talent. To tell you the truth, most wine writers are pretty ordinary looking. If it were a matter of good looks, we’d be out of jobs. (I exempt, of course, 1WineDude). But seriously, Hollywoodization is taking everything over. Even presidential candidates have to be hot. (Calling Ms. Bachmann, Ms. Palin and Gov. Perry, and please, Rick, wear your Stetson.) We seem to have such low self-esteem that we need to ogle beautiful people in order to make life bearable. That’s a pretty sad state of affairs.

Does any of this matter for wine writing? Yes, because content is king. If content actually contains content, we’re fine. If content is content-less, delivered by some pretty airhead wannabe cyberface who claims to know everything but is clueless and whose only plus is a groovy personality, we’re in trouble.

  1. Well hang on there!

    Surely the difference is that few wine writers actually display their looks? You’re comparing TV personalities and others whose looks are actually seen, with wine writers who, largely, simply present their words. (Some of us are even anonymous…)

    If wine pundits started appearing on television, looks would surely play their part – and Jancis Robinson would probably dominate the airwaves.

    In the meantime, even those of us who are, in fact, devastatingly handsome (hem, hem) will still be forced by the nature of wine writing to rely upon words alone…

  2. Totally agree – personality is important, but content is exponentially more important, and we have years of print and on-line subscriber evidence to bear that out at this point.

    Well, I agree totally except for the part about me possessing good looks… you know, Tom Wark said the same thing… do you guys get your glasses from the same shop/manufacturer? If so, I’d say you might need to switch! :-)

  3. Steve,

    Not sure I am on the same page completely. After an amazing meal (actually, best meal of my life) at Alinea in Chicago I purchased the Alinea cookbook. Obviously his talent in unparalled….and yet I have never used the cookbook. I don’t have the utensils, not the mention the skill. — If the goal of a cooking show is to demonstrate something that can be replicated then content has a point at which it ceases being useful to a few. If the goal isn’t to create something that can be replicated then entertainment becomes the goal, and what you want from entertainers is something different, and includes looks, etc.

    With wine writing, the goal is not replication (at least I don’t think so) but it isn’t entertainment completely either. It is information that makes the experience of partaking more compelling. And there content is mostly everything.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  4. Are you knocking Evan Dawson for being good looking as both a TV pesonality AND a wine writer? Also, how do you explain James Suckling appearing on video so often then…

  5. I think looks and “appeal” have worked into some of the wine publications as well Particularly with Spectator. I had the good fortune to recently meet two “big boys” of Spectator in the same week and both were utterly captivating and compelled you to like them. I had this strange desire to do and say things that would make them like me (Monica and Clinton, but more tame, way more tame). They have allure and it sells magazines when they are in them.

    The same week I met another winemaker, insanely talented, and while he gets good press, he does not like the limelight, avoids it actually, and as a result he gets skipped over a bit more.

    I also see in non-professional wine writing (blogs) a large emphasis being put on wit and charm at the expense of solid writing (some times it is just plain bad). My exceptions being this blog, Mr. Grahm’s, and perhaps Mr. Washam, who is hilarious and smart.

  6. “Also, how do you explain James Suckling appearing on video so often then…” Ego.

  7. Colorado, I never heard of Evan Dawson until just now, but I Googled him and, yes, he’s a handsome guy. I’m not knocking him.

  8. Steve, I know you’re not…

    Wayne, Yes. As much as I dislike people knocking him for his hair, I was knocking him for his hair…

  9. Wine bloggers may not be popular based on their looks, but in this case pandering to populist misconceptions of wine as well as more mainstream preferences takes the place of eye candy. The less you rattle your readers’ cages, the more they will like (and read) you.

  10. “As much as I dislike people knocking him for his hair, I was knocking him for his hair…” Ha! I like the cut of your jib!

  11. “And perhaps Ron Washam who is, hilarious and smart” and lets not forget he’s got an ass you could bounce quarters off of…

    I stopped watching the Food Network years ago, right about when they started making Rachel Ray their queen. Just not into that brand of “Big grin and not too threatening with the smarts” kind of information. When it comes to wine writing I tend to get all gushy for a style that is not mainstream, more Gerald Asher, Kermit Lynch and Alfonso Cevola. That wine as part of life kind of deal that sadly, there isn’t that much of. Suckling is too reptilian, Gary V is like a cheese grater in my undies and looking at a wine blog with a list of wines and a number affixed to them, sans tasting notes or context is useless, least to me. I crave and seek out a writer that can make me feel something and I don’t give a shit how white their smile is….

  12. Its better than the cut of someone’s hair…

  13. The winewriter is to the wine world wine as the producer or writer is to the food show. They convey the story, but they aren’t the star. Their success depends on what they produce not their image. The winery owner or the winemaker is the star of the show,and age and appearance definitely come into play. (other sideline things like wealth and extravagance that make for a good story.)

  14. I am usually never happy for long with any personal image I select for my website. My favorite actually is the one my mom took of me when I was 9 years old eating an ice cream cone. It probably not appropriate for the launch of a wine publication. I am so thankful my groupies follow me for my writing about wine rather than an on air personality (not my strength). Steve, do you think it would help to get tatted?

  15. I love Adam Lee’s take on this :)

  16. 1WineDude:

    Don’t get too excited. Steve and I grade on a curve…and have you seen the contents of the curve among male wine writers????

  17. Steve
    Your reach for the zeitgeist is getting a touch obvious. What’s next- dating Angelina or Brad? No one sees the man behind the curtain? Wine (and now food) geeks- putty in your hands. Bunt

  18. “Suckling reptilian”! Love it. Thanks Samantha.

  19. Thank god for “personality–on air appeal–likeability–shtick–star power,” because my writing is crap! However, my education and training in the field of wine is better than most and even if I’m not the best “writer,” I hope to appeal to all audiences. People want to be entertained, myself included. And that’s whether I’m watching a program on television or reading about wine. Some wine writers, although well versed, make my eyes start to roll back in my head from boredom. Luckily, I think there is room for all of us and we should all give credit where credit is due.

    So for all the well spoken, highly educated and serious wine writers out there, salud! And for all those that just love the beverage and keep me entertained with creative content, cheers to you too!

  20. Paula Deen, right. She is hot!

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