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The Golden Age of Wine Writing

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Feeling nostalgic, I have been re-reading the Wine Diaries of the late Harry Waugh that I have in my library. Harry, a Londoner and a very great wine man, greatly influenced my own writing style, and I was fortunate enough to accompany him on a tour of Washington State (around 1996) when he was already in his 90s, so I consider him sort of a mentor.

I was lucky to become a wine writer and critic at a time in the history of this country when it was possible for a young person, starting out with no experience or even connections, to succeed at such a career. The field was dominated by a relatively small number of individuals, but perseverance and (I hope, in my case, some talent) allowed me to penetrate their little club.

Today, there are so many people weighing in on wine that nobody needs a few ivory-tower critics anymore to tell them what’s good. With the rise of the Internet and social media, people have endless opinions available to them, to help them make buying decisions. There also are endless opportunities to learn about wines, grapes, regions and techniques: at the click of a Google search, you have entire libraries available to you.

But when I started, in the 1980s, there was obviously no Internet. There were only a very few people with national reputations who could influence great numbers of consumers, through the publication of articles and reviews in a tiny clutch of wine magazines, newsletters and newspaper columns. Americans needed such critics, to help guide them through the growing welter of wines in the wine aisle of the market; otherwise their senses would have been overwhelmed. It was also a time when the Baby Boomers—my generation—were finally getting wealthy enough to be able to afford the discretionary purchase of premium table wines on a regular basis. They wanted help; where demand is on the rise, supply responds appropriately, and the result was the creation of an industry and class: the professional wine writer and critic. I became a member of this restricted aristocracy.

I have made a distinction between wine “writers” and wine “critics” for a reason, for they are two different beasts. I used to know a lovely man, Rod Smith (who sadly died recently). He was a local guy, from the Russian River Valley, and a fine writer, who wrote for prestigious magazines and also penned some books. We were once at a tasting of Cabernet Sauvignons made from grapes grown in the various Beckstoffer vineyards of Napa Valley. At one point, I asked Rod how he was rating the wines (I certainly was), and he snapped, “I’m not a wine critic, I’m a wine writer!” His point was that the written word was important to him, not some snappy review, accompanied by a number.

But I chose to be both a critic and a writer. I exercised the critical part through my job at Wine Enthusiast Magazine, where my ratings, based on the 100-point system, were welcomed by consumers and trade alike (not to mention the winery owners who sent me their wines for review!). But I exercised the esthetic, writerly part of my passion through long articles in that magazine, and others, as well as books for the University of California Press and, after 2008, my wine blog. I took both parts of my job equally seriously, and like to think that I was successful at both.

How many members were there of the exclusive fraternity I was a part of? When I began, there were at most a dozen men and women in the entire country who had a national platform. (In my state of California, there were others who were important regionally, but who lacked that national exposure.) With such a small number, each of us was quite visible. We had clout, influence, reach: each word I wrote, each score would, I knew, be read with interest by large numbers of people. It was a heady feeling, but also underscored the grave responsibility that rested on my shoulders: to do a good job and be honest and scrupulous about it.

By the time I left the Wine Enthusiast, in 2012, there were literally thousands upon thousands of people reviewing wine and publishing articles in this country, not to mention the rest of the world. Some worked for a burgeoning number of wine, or wine-and-food, periodicals. Many more published online. There was even a Wine Bloggers Conference that attracted hundreds of ambitious, eager young (and not-so-young) people every summer. This meant that, although the number of wine consumers also was on the rise, each individual writer/critic’s influence was diluted, due to their sheer numbers. I used to say that, had I started my career in 2008 rather than 1988, I doubt that I would have achieved even one-tenth as much as I did: by 2008, the competition was just too intense. I was extremely lucky to have begun at a time when few young people gave any thought to being a wine writer and critic. In those Reagan years, most young people seemed to want to be MBAs!

So, today, a young person probably can’t “make it” anymore as wine writer or critic, that is, if they start from scratch. We do have a small number of individuals, such as Antonio Galloni and James Suckling, who apparently have achieved great success in the last ten years or so, but neither started from scratch: Galloni was launched to fame through Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, while Suckling arrived at his reputation through his years at Wine Spectator. I thus came of age during a Golden Age of wine writing, a time that no longer exists, and probably never will again, at least in America. Perhaps there are young men and women in places like China, Brazil or South Korea, where there is still an opportunity to forge a good career.

As for the 100-point system, I stoutly defended it all the years I used it. Now, I think it’s kind of passé. It will probably stick around for a while longer because it’s so entrenched. But, to be honest, in the last years of my career, it made less and less sense to me, and I would have abandoned it, had my paycheck not depended on it.

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