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Let’s talk about journalistic principles and wine writing

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Lunch yesterday (at Ozumo) with Clarissa Nagy, from Riverbench and Nagy, her own label. Clarissa is on my panel for the Chardonnay Symposium, where the topic is clones, so naturally we talked about that a lot.

I’ve thought about clones for many years. I recognize that they’re vital to the winemaker – but that consumers don’t care much about them one way or the other, as long as the wine tastes good — and that the wine writer is stuck in the middle. We don’t need to know anything near as much about clones as do winemakers, but we do need to understand them enough to be able to let the consumer know what we think they need to know. I don’t think that’s necessarily a great deal, because at a certain point, things get bogged down in technical detail to the point of MEGO.

I asked Clarissa what she thinks about clone. She more or less said she thinks clones are more important for Pinot Noir than for Chardonnay. I agree; Pinot is such a transparent wine that it displays the slightest perturbations to its nervous system, whereas Chardonnay is a rather neutral wine much of whose character is imparted to it by winemaker interventions, such as sur lie aging, malolactic fermentation and barrel fermentation and aging. So clones aren’t that important. (I expect to learn more about this through the symposium.) Clarissa said that, in general, older Pinot Noir clones–more properly, selections–such as Pommard and Swan have more “floral” characteristics that the newer clones. I replied that the newer clones seem fruitier than the old selections, which is the criticism some people (including, occasionally, me) have had about these new wave Pinots: that they’re jammy. Clarissa replied she thinks the newer clones aren’t that fruity.

Herein lies the dilemma. These topics become impenetrably complex, with even experts disagreeing over the fundamentals. As a panel moderator, I don’t want my audience to be completely confused. On the other hand, I don’t want to dumb things down and feed them simple aphoristic clichés that break down under scrutiny. A greater and greater part of my journalistic philosophy (which includes wine reviewing) is to break down the conventional wisdom that arises about so many things–alcohol level, crop yields, vine age, clones, terroir–through lazy writing. By lazy writing, I mean that someone writes something that is verifiably arguable on its face. Then another writer repeats it as “fact,” and another, and another, until finally it’s all over the Internet. Along comes the latest lazy writer, who does a Google search, comes across repeated citations that such-and-such is a fact, and then states it herself, thus perpetuating the half-truth. This is bad wine writing. Wine writers, like all journalists, should be the most skeptical people in the world. Their attitude should be, “Just because everyone says it’s so doesn’t make it so. You have to prove it to me.”

What a different world we would live in if wine writers all went by that rule. Instead, afraid of making fools of themselves, anxious to prove themselves as experts, too many of them are content to repeat the same old stereotypes. If there was one thing I’d make every wine writer do if I were King of the World, it would be to take a class in Journalism 101. As the Pew Center for Excellence in Journalism states, the principles of journalism are

Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth

Its first loyalty is to citizens

Its essence is a discipline of verification

Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover

It must serve as an independent monitor of power

It must provide a forum for public criticism and compromise

It must strive to make the significant interesting and relevant

It must keep the news comprehensive and proportional

Its practitioners must be allowed to exercise their personal conscience

The first 3 are the most important. My advice to people reading wine journalism, whether through a print magazine, a blog or whatever, is to ask does the writer seem to honor these principles. If not–read someone who does.

 

  1. Steve,

    Thank you so much for writing this. With the explosion of wine blogs, I have long worried that a relaxation of journalistic principles will accompany them. Let me give you one recent example (that is a perfect illustration of your example of misinformation getting reprinted throughout the internet).

    A wine blog recently printed an article about the (now resolved) lawsuit filed by Robert Parker against Antonio Galloni. It quoted Robert Parker saying that he “blamed his meds” for filing the lawsuit in the first place. That blog post was Tweeted out by another Wine Blogger: https://twitter.com/drvino/status/344827210554806272

    and that post was re-Tweeted by other wine bloggers.

    It all sounded rather fishy to me, so I did a quick Google search (less than a minute) and discovered that the Robert Parker quote came from an April Fool’s Blog! The blog mentioning the quote was removed: http://www.winelawonreserve.com/2013/06/12/apologies-reserve/#comments

    but, nonetheless, it shows how misinformation can quickly spread and how important skepticism and verification are to good journalism (online or otherwise).

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  2. Adam, this is a big problem and it’s only going to get worse. The best advice I can give is caveat emptor!

  3. It’s important for folks, when taking something from a blog (such as the April Fools Post I wrote) to read the whole blog, down to the end and make sure it is (or isn’t) a spoof, which on April 1, it was sure to be.

    I think journalistic principles are most important, but it is also important that people read the whole piece before making a conclusion. Scanning an article is not good enough. So yes, it is the obligation of the writer to state their point clearly, but it is also incumbent upon the reader to do their job – read the whole piece.

  4. Now – about those Chardonnay clones. They do matter a great deal in Oregon, for example. The introduction of Dijon clones about 20 years ago completely changed the face of Oregon Chardonnay, and much for the better most winemakers would agree. Maybe in California it’s largely a neutral grape subject to winemaker interventions in order to capture flavor, but that’s not the case up here in the wild and woolly Northwest. Y’oughtta come up and taste for yourself.

  5. Bob Henry says:

    Steve,

    Carl Sagan observed:

    “Extraordinary claims requires extraordinary evidence.”

    See this Los Angeles Times “op-ed” piece on blogs and accuracy.

    ~~ Bob

    Excerpt from the Los Angeles Times “Op-Ed” Section
    (February 10, 2012, Page A19):

    “Syntax? Logic? Why?”

    [Alternate link: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-02-10/on-web-no-one-cares-if-you-write-like-a-dog-commentary-by-michael-kinsley.html

    By Michael Kinsley

    [Founding editor of the online journal Slate, is a Bloomberg View columnist]

    It’s been going on now for too long, right before our eyes. . . .

    . . . blog item this week about the quality of writing on the Internet. . . . his basic point is that on the Web, sheer quantity trumps quality. . . .

    . . . all aspects of good writing — accuracy, logic, spelling, graceful turns of phrase, wisdom and insight, puns (only good ones), punctuation, proper grammar and syntax (and what is the difference between those two again) — are all overrated.

    . . . Now one of our nation’s leading bloggers has confessed what we all suspected: that bad writing is inherent to the online world.

  6. Leave it to Kinsley to tell it like it is.

  7. Ron Clayman says:

    The fortune magazine experiment; They started with businesmen writing articles. they werent good at it. then they took writers and taught them busines, and that worked better.

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