Critics of wine critics aren’t living La Vina Vida
I’m always surprised by how negative the reaction of some people is to the field of wine writing/journalism/reviewing. If you read through the “Comments” section from yesterday’s blog, you’ll see what I mean. Why do these people get so upset to the point of almost losing their minds?
I wrote “wine writing/journalism/reviewing” on purpose, because a “wine writer” does all three. There’s a difference, you know, although the critics of wine reviewing tend to conveniently overlook it, preferring instead to focus on the 100-point system and what they perceive as the critic’s “elitism.” So let me explain to these people, most of whom are not legitimate wine writers as far as I can tell, just what the job entails.
Wine writing: I define this is the artistic or esthetic side. It’s what I tried to do in my first book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River, and, to some extent, what I try to do here on the blog. It’s literature, nicely defined in my Webster’s as “writings considered as having permanent value [and] excellence.” When you do “literature” you really exercise the art of writing. It borrows from literature you’ve loved in the past (my writing is heavily indebted to Churchill but also will dip its toe into whatever book I fancy at the moment. I went through a Hemingway phase of short, snappy sentences). But you also develop your own style.
Wine journalism: This is good, old-fashioned reporting. You interview somebody, or do research on something, then you write it up, answering all those “w” questions: who, what, when, why, where (and, in wine, “how” and “how much?”). Journalism is not literature: it’s too truncated, too formulaic, which is why so many journalists like to stretch their wings and try actual literature.
Wine reviewing: Well, we all know what that is. It’s one of the things I do and in fact pays most of my bills.
I’ve never met an actual, employed wine reviewer who was upset by wine reviewers, or who thought that the act of wine reviewing somehow is elitist or evil or arrogant or condescending or any of the other epithetical terms anti-reviewers toss around. Oh, before you object that there are people in the blogosphere and in the social media who review wine but who criticize wine reviewers (there are), I’ll add that, as wine reviewers, they’re not particularly influential. I mean, anyone can scratch out some wine reviews and put them up on a blog, but it’s the proverbial tree falling in a forest with no one around: Does anyone know or care? There is some jealousy out there, on the part of the have-nots for the haves.
Ambitious wine writers who haven’t yet made it in their chosen career would do well to put aside reviewing and take up wine writing and wine journalism, in the sense I described above. I ask them: When’s the last time you wrote something that glowed, that you were proud of? When’s the last time you really had to dig for a story, chase down the facts, get people to say things they didn’t want to, go through archives, search through the indexes of old books, spend an hour on Google to find a specific quote, make a scientist explain something in plain English, walk through the woods to hear what walking through the woods sounds like, lie on your stomach on the forest floor and bury your face in the dead leaves and dirt to smell what it smells like, transcribe a long tape, look through an almanac, use a calculator to figure out the rate of increase or decline of a particular grape variety in a particular region…I could go on all day. I do all of those things, too, not just rate wines, and all of those things make me a better wine reviewer, in the mysterious alchemy of that task. Antonio Galloni expressed it well when I talked with him the other week: We live surrounded by wine, by the lore of wine, by its traditions, by the business of wine, in the culture of wine. It fills our brains as it fills our bellies. When we’re not tasting it–not reviewing–we’re thinking about it, about the people who make and sell and write about it, about the next story we’re working on, the deadline, about the question we forgot to ask during that interview, about what time to leave for tomorrow’s appointment to avoid rush hour, and what time to try to get home so we can do a flight. And inbetween everything else, we’re going back and re-reading that draft, refining it, throwing out a clunky phrasing for a more pleasing one, replacing a misleading adjective with the correct one, and maybe even buying a Meyer lemon to see how it smells and tastes different from an ordinary lemon. Yes, all of those things. And reviewing, too.