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Wine writing as entertainment, winemaking as showmanship

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Got the following comment on my Facebook page concerning my recent post (“How will the 22nd century view wine critics?”):

Enjoyed your blog very much, I don’t read too many facebook links but I’m very glad I did. This may be a bit off the topic but it touched a little on something I’ve been mulling over for the past few months. Is the role of a wine writer heading more toward the service or entertainment industry, or is there room for both? I feel like at least since the sixties being a winemaker has involved more showmanship which of course leaves less time for other things. At first it really bothered me but now I feel as long as everyone is having fun and your not hurting anyone go ahead.

The writer, who apparently is a winemaker, raises several interesting issues. “Is the role of a wine writer heading more toward the service or entertainment industry, or is there room for both?” is a question I hadn’t thought of quite that way. Wine writing always has been a service, in the sense that it seeks to educate readers and consumers, but since it’s writing done professionally, for profit, it also has to have an element of entertainment. I mean, we read Hugh Johnson not only to get educated about wine but also because he’s such a good writer. The first edition (1984) of The University of California Book of California Wine is such a good read, I’ve read it cover to cover more than once. Same with Alexis Lichine’s 1981 New Encyclopedia of Wines & Spirits and, more recently, The Billionaire’s Vinegar and Tom Stevenson’s World Encyclopedia of Champagne and Sparkling Wine. So good wine writing always has had both educational and entertainment value.

What I think my questioner was aiming at, though, is contained in his use of the word “heading.” Is wine writing becoming more like infotainment and less like education with an entertainment twist? Here, I fear the answer is yes. Especially in the blogosphere, but also in the rash (I use the word deliberately) of bad wine books that show up dependably at Barnes and Noble, you’ll find tired old retreaded material, often packaged with silly pictures and graphics, that dumb wine down to the lowest common denominator. Fortunately, there’s still enough serious writing around that discerning readers can find and enjoy. But, like “journalism” in general (both print and broadcast), entertainment is trumping serious content, and that’s sad.

My questioner’s other point concerns the showmanship winemakers are expected to demonstrate. That’s certainly true. I’ve asked scores of winemakers, maybe hundreds, over the years (privately, off the record) if they enjoy being little dancing monkeys for legions of tourists tramping through the winery, or for guests at meet-the-winemaker dinners that could be in Omaha on Tuesday night, Cleveland on Wednesday, then it’s on to Charlotte and Atlanta. The reason I ask is because I myself would not like that kind of itinerant lifestyle where you’re schmoozing from breakfast until midnight with people asking the same old questions over and over again, like a bad episode of Groundhog Day. “What’s the pH of the grapes?” “What’s the toast level on your barrels?” “What’s the precise blend on your Cabernet?” The winemaker, no matter how bored she feels internally, must put on her game face, smile and be fascinating. Similarly, a winemaker conducting a group of tourists on a tour of the winery has to point out fascinating things about destemmers and tanks to people who may be almost as bored hearing about them as the winemaker is talking about them. Yet the winemaker must always keep that brio, that vital elan that’s the mark of the Vegas crooner or standup comic.

My questioner said this sort of thing used to bother him but no longer. I’m glad. It’s part of the winemaker’s job, so even if it does bother him, he’s got to do it anyway, and do it well. Even the most famous winemakers at the most famous wineries have to do the dancing monkey bit. Personally, when I’m with winemakers, I try to let them off the hook by letting them know they don’t have to feel they have to entertain me. Once you get the platitudes out of the way, you can have a real conversation, which is the only kind I like.

  1. As a winemaker I always found those technical questions from journalists to be tedious. Usually, it was the greenhorns who were most serious about technical details. My answers were always serious, but I tried to immediately change the subject. If male it was let’s talk about sports or women. If female maybe it was gossip or what we were reading.

    What always cracked me up…and I still see it… is the show put on by the winegrower who dons the bib overalls and the straw hat,rides in on the tractor, with the “just a farmer” demeanor when he is on, and the Armani and the Mercedes when he is off. Journalist’s lap that up.

  2. Morton, haha. I’ve seen those greenhorns asking the tedious questions. And I know a few of those winemakers who put on the overalls.

  3. interesting post. like most industries, the wine industry rewards shmoozers and slick talkers, and they might outnumber the true artists that are motivated to write thought provoking content, or make a truly beautiful wine, or just really love and undestand wine.

    but i couldn’t live the life i live if i didn’t believe that the people who are truly committed to creating a quality product – whether it is wine or food or writing or art or music or whatever – the people who are committed to making something truly great, those are the ones who will succeed in the long run.

    one last funny aside – i spoke with another assistant winemaker in the valley, and we joked about how we have the best job in the winery. while the winemaker is off shaking hands at some fancy dinner in New York or Boston or Chicago, we’re the ones that get to actually make wine. I won’t mention which winery, but his really funny comment was to say, “I love when [the winemaker] is traveling on business, I can finally get some work done!”

  4. Very, very close to the truth here, Steve. Tread lightly, lest you jeopardize your access. ;-)

  5. I’ve had the same thoughts, Steve, but I guess the reason we are writers is that we value solitude over social settings, at least much of the time. Another aspect to the traveling, schmoozing winemaker’s routine that I would personally find really tiring and potentially damaging is the endless round of wine lunches and dinners, usually long and loaded with rich food and of course a lot of wine. I always felt especially sorry for visiting winemakers from France, Spain and Italy, who were always subjected to the local versions of foods they knew well and had probably enjoyed hundreds of times in superior locations. Happily, that is changing, as restaurants in the U.S. are far, far better than 20 years ago.

  6. “Dancing monkeys” discussion really strikes a nerve having having, in my former life, to spend at least a month a year on the road promoting the product–not to mention all the on-site winery visits and events. There was always the question, what do people want to hear, when the enthusiastic restauranteur, banging glasses to interrupt the conversation at each course of a winemaker’s dinner (how poorly named, as if any winemaker would actually initiate this kind of thing)? They certainly didn’t want to hear about pH! The most common question seemed to be a request to engage in “winespeak” and string together adjectives describing the wine in front of them.

  7. Hi PaulG, you’re right about writers enjoying solitude!

  8. “Entertainment is trumping serious content, and that’s sad.”

    Well, as wine writers who focus primarily on entertainment, can we just say something about that?

    In any other field of communication, there are those who try to entertain, and those who try to inform, with many at points along that spectrum. From serious newsreaders to topical comedians; from documentary makers to sit-com writers; from those who impersonate our leaders to serious political commentators.

    When someone writes an entertainment like Veep, no-one complains that it’s not serious content like The West Wing. The two happily co-exist. Isn’t that possible in wine writing?

    People come here for serious information about wine; we hope they will come to The Sediment Blog to be entertained. Surely, we too can co-exist?

    What’s “sad” about that?

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