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LIVE! From #WBC2014, it’s the Wine Bloggers Conference

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It starts today. Although I’m not one of those FWCs (famous wine critics) anymore, the WBC people nonetheless invited me down to do a series of panels on wine writing, apparently because I’m still a wine writer! There are actually two related panels: One on the art of wine writing itself, and in the second, each of us panelists has been assigned to read 13 essays pre-submitted by WBC attendees, in order to critique them. I haven’t read my quota yet—will tomorrow (today, as you read this). Don’t know what to expect; heard from another panelist the submissions are pretty dreadful; hoping for the best.

I’m also moderating a panel sponsored by my employer, Jackson Family Wines, on “How the pros taste.” On that one, my co-panelists are Joe Roberts AKA 1WineDude and Patrick Comiskey, senior correspondent for Wine & Spirits Magazine. I’ve known Patrick for many years, mainly because he’s always at the same San Francisco tastings I am. I met Joe through this blogging gig, and I always thought, from the very beginning, that he was talented and weird enough to make it (yes, you have to be weird to be a successful wine writer). We’re going to explain to the audience how we taste. The particular wine I’m using is the Cambria 2012 Clone 4 Pinot Noir, an interesting wine that, in my opinion, shows off the qualities of Santa Maria Valley very nicely, and also illustrates the earthy, mushroomy quality of that clone, also called the Pommard clone, which so many people find “Burgundian.”

Well, you did ask. We’ll also be doing a blind tasting of a mystery wine.

My own feelings toward blind tasting are well known to readers of this blog over the years. At the magazine, I tasted single blind: I knew the general scope of the lineup (e.g. Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon) but not the individual wines. I believe in single-blind tasting. I want some context to the wines. It helps me frame, in my mind, what to expect. Also, because I’m tasting in flights of similar wines, single-blind tasting is a great way to compare and contrast the wines, which is how the scores are arrived at.

But there are many ways to taste.  I don’t believe in wine writing for its own sake. I believe in getting paid to write about wine, because getting paid makes you a better writer. But each job is different, and mandates a different approach to tasting as well as writing. MWs like to taste double-blind; they don’t know where they’re going to end up working, so they have to have a wide knowledge of all the wines in the world, and double-blind tasting is a good way to get that. Many of them will end up working the floor of a fine dining establishment that may offer everything from Mount Etna to South Africa to Greece to Napa Valley, so the MW has to have her pulse on everything.

Other wine careerists will gravitate to different jobs. My own brought me to be a specialist in the wines of California. I’ve tasted 100,000-plus California wines over the last quarter-century and not that many wines from elsewhere. I try to get to international trade tastings as often as possible, but every employed wine person has to recognize his or her limitations. I wish I were stronger on international wines, but it is what it is. Parker probably wishes he was stronger on the wines of Italy; Laube probably wishes he was stronger on the Loire. You can’t be all things to all people because there’s only 24 hours in the day. Such is life.

So like I said, I believe in getting paid to write about wine, and not every job entails a worldwide knowledge of wine. My first panel at the Bloggers Conference, after all, is about wine writing, not tasting. Not all of these bloggers are going to end up working the floor of a restaurant. MWs may be able to double-blind identify a Ribera del Duero, but they may suck when it comes to writing, and writing, to me, is the essence of wine communication, especially if you’re reaching out to a wide audience, and especially if you’re trying to do the kind of writing I’m trying to do, which is great writing, memorable writing, writing that people like to read, not just now but for generations. That was my driving ambition with A Wine Journey along the Russian River. Sorry to sound self-serving, but I want that book to be read 100 years from now, not just make Eric Asimov’s next Christmas list and then disappear forever. So that’s what I mean when I say how you taste depends on your job. My job is to be a great wine writer (and a credible California taster), not the guy in the room who gets the gold medal for Best Identifier.

Still, I acknowledge that the times are different from when I started. Today, anyone and everyone in the wine biz seems to need some kind of diploma so they can put some letters after their last name. There’s a clamor for a certain kind of academic expertise that’s a product of our current career-driven environment. My friend Ron Washam, the Hosemaster of Wine, is famous (infamous?) for signing himself H.M.W., a conscious act of parody (but not sarcasm: Ron, as do I, recognizes the tremendous amount of work that goes into acquiring an M.S. or an M.W.). But he likes to poke fun at what he perceives as the snobbery that sometimes goes along with those titles. And I pretty much agree with The Hosemaster.

If I have one lesson to teach to the #WBC2014 participants, whether they’re in the writing breakout or the tasting breakout, it’s this: Be yourself. Learn your chops, yes; memorize the rainfall patterns in Beaujolais in 2009, if you want to, and be able to explain how all that acidity got into Pommard, if you have to: but ultimately, that won’t differentiate you from the pack—and the pack is growing bigger every day.

Here’s what you have to do to make a living these days:  develop your own sense of style. The 21st century likes individuality. Develop your own way to describe wine. Be confident: you don’t have to slavishly adhere to anyone’s rules. You’d be amazed at the group-think mentality of the M.W. and M.S. communities., which gets boring even to them, believe me because I know what I’m talking about. Don’t be afraid to march to the beat of a different drummer. Extremely technical wine knowledge used to be the province of wine brokers only; it still is, but this time it’s brokers with many different sub-specialties. On the other hand are the poets, interpreters, chroniclers, historians, enthusiasts, balladeers, amateurs (in the Latin sense), dancers and diarists of wine; they know something above and beyond wine’s technical details . Who do we read, twenty, forty, sixty years after they wrote? The poets and romancers, not the lab technicians.  I hope today’s bloggers never lose sight of that essential truth.

  1. Sao Anash says:

    A special thanks should go to Morgen McLaughlin at the SBCVA for bringing #wbc14 to Santa Barbara County!!!!

  2. Bill Haydon says:

    Think you’re confusing your MWs and MSs, Steve. Few, if any, MWs end up on the floor of a restaurant (although to be fair, few MSs stay there once they’ve received their final pin).

    As for the writing part, you’ve completely gotten the two backwards. Most MWs are exceedingly well educated (whole lotta Oxbridge degrees in that crowd). Just running down the list of the American MWs, one finds that there are few, if any, who did not graduate from a highly rated, if not elite, university prior to pursuing the MW. Also, a very large number find employment primarily as wine writers, particularly in the pages of Decanter.

    The MW is a much more rigorous, analytical and academic pursuit than the MS, which is essentially a combination of rote memorization, blind tasting and service. The fact that a successful candidate must create, present and defend a 10K word piece of original research speaks to the fundamental difference between the two.

  3. Bill Haydon says:

    This is the second time that you’ve so ripped on MWs when you clearly are talking about MSs (working in fine dining, suck at writing, group-think). I find this rather curious. Clearly, you know the distinctions between the two programs, as well as what most of them do and don’t do within the industry.

    I’m going to go out on a hunch and postulate that this is a deliberate misidentification. You want to rip on the MSs, but you can’t do it directly because they are the true “gatekeepers” (along with, perhaps more importantly, the hundreds of aspiring MSs at some stage of the program) with whom you plan on sitting down, telling the story to and pouring the wines for in your quest to win them over to Jackson Family Wines. The last thing you (and your employer) want is for the MS club to identify you as somebody slamming them in print. Consequently, you misdirect your criticisms at the MWs who really can’t do you any harm. They’re a (in America) tiny group who are rarely if ever in the “gatekeeping” end of the business. Just a hunch.

  4. Bob Henry says:

    Steve,

    In Blake Gray’s recent blog about Master Sommeliers . . .

    http://blog.wblakegray.com/2014/05/most-master-sommeliers-are-somms-in.html

    . . . he observed that few M.S.-es actually perform “tableside service” on the floor of restaurants.

    Your comment . . .

    “MWs like to taste double-blind; they don’t know where they’re going to end up working, so they have to have a wide knowledge of all the wines in the world, and double-blind tasting is a good way to get that. Many of them will end up working the floor of a fine dining establishment . . .”

    . . . strikes me as unsupported by the evidence, as I have yet to meet or read about a M.W. who actually works in a restaurant and performs “tableside service.”

    I assume this is a transcription error, where the job title “Master Sommelier” or “M.S.” was intended?

    ~~ Bob

  5. Steve, it was a pleasure meeting you at WBC! Thank you for all your insight, and for all the encouraging words!

  6. Thanks Anatoli, looking forward to seeing you again.

  7. Steve, thanks for lending your expertise to the Wine Blogger’s Conference this year and for helping to keep standards high (in grammar as well as content)for all wine writers.

  8. I’ll skip out on the ms/mw bit, but will say it was a pleasure seeing you again (and seeing Gus also), and fun sharing the stage with you again. Here’s hoping we get to repeat both sooner rather than later. And yes, I can confirm my weirdness! :-)

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