I‘ve been enjoying Benjamin Lewin’s new book, In Search of Pinot Noir [Vendange Press, 2011], which covers the Pinot grape and wine around the world. It’s really one of the best wine books of the year. Lewin, an M.W. who writes in an accessible style, is largely free of cant. He doesn’t repeat stale old chestnuts, the way so many wine writers do, if he doesn’t believe them for a fact, which makes his reportage credible, and he obviously knows his stuff.
In his section on California, Lewin makes a point that cannot be emphasized enough. Because California’s top Pinot Noirs are produced in such tiny quantities, “A system of managed scarcity” prevents most people from ever tasting them, “unless you are in the magic circle of aficionados…And if you can only taste the generic appellation wines because the best wines are never available… how can you appreciate their potential quality…? Does this [difficulty], Lewin asks, rhetorically, hold back recognition of the full potential of the [California] regions?”
My answer is a full-fledged Yes. We’ve all heard and read the critique that California Pinot Noir is flawed, compared to the best of Burgundy and Oregon. Too fruity. Too high in alcohol. Too oaky. But I would argue that a lot of the people who make these charges simply have not had the opportunity to taste California Pinot at its top levels, which is to say the single vineyard or best barrel bottlings from the best wineries. I would scarcely dare to pronounce on the quality of, say, the Portuguese red wines of Alentejano, Alentejo or Bairrada, which my Wine Enthusiast colleague, Roger Voss, recently gave high scores to, because I haven’t had enough of them. But I wonder how it is that a wine writer not actually living in California (or visiting here frequently), and who lacks full access to the top Pinot Noirs tasted on a consistent basis, can make sweeping generalizations and expect to be taken seriously.
I guess you can just fly into California once a year, arrange a whirlwind tasting, and render a verdict.
Lewin, on the other hand, has plenty of opportunity to taste California Pinot Noir, presumably through his duties writing for the World of Fine Wine and Decanter, and that’s why I say his writing is largely cant free. He displays an even-handedness concerning California, even though it’s pretty clear that he is, at heart, a Bugundian. He gives more four-star ratings to the likes of Chambertin than he does for anything in California; but his ratings for Williams Selyem, Sea Smoke and Au Bon Climat, to mention but a few, are quite similar to mine [albeit that I use numbers, not stars), which means that Lewin is right on the money, as far as I’m concerned!
If I only tasted the basic appellation Pinot Noirs from California–those available at supermarkets and distributor tastings–no doubt my opinion of Cali Pinot would be lower than it is. I too would probably criticize them. And in fact, I do criticize even some of the expensive, hard to get Pinot Noirs for obvious faults: over-extraction, too much oak, too much alcohol and (more rarely noted by critics, although it should be), bizarre acidity that has been added in a heavy-handed way.
But fortunately, I get to taste almost all the rare Pinot Noirs in California, and believe me, there are some spectacular wines out there, which is why I feel on firm ground stating how world class they are, and how ignorant the anti-California critics are–using “ignorant” in the sense of not possessing the necessary information to come to an informed judgment. Maybe the next time a critic bashes California Pinot, he or she should tell us precisely how many he’s tasted over, say, the last year, and exactly which ones. That at least would put some context into his remarks.
It was nine years ago — hard to believe — that I got the phone call. It was from Blake Edgar, at the University of California Press, in the People’s Republic of Berkeley, my neighboring city. He wanted to meet with me to discuss my writing a book.
Wow, I thought. It’s pretty rare for a publisher to ask someone to write a book. Usually, the would-be author has to find an agent and then write a proposal, often a very lengthy one, and the author has to pitch the proposal to the publisher.
I’d tried to write a book years earlier. Joel Butler, the well-known M.W., and I had one in mind in the 1990s. It was to have been a major work on grape varieties and wines. We worked hard on a sample chapter on Rhône wines. I focused on California; he focused on France. We got a pretty good chapter, but things stalled. We just couldn’t find an agent, and the project died.
After that, I gave up on the idea of writing a book. It was just too hard. I’d go down to Barnes and Noble and see all the shiny new wine books, most of them pretty awful in my opinion, and wonder how these bad books managed to get contracts, while Joel’s and mine, which would have been a very good book, couldn’t. It was just one of those things.
So Blake’s call came out of the blue. We met in downtown Berkeley at a Chinese restaurant (he paid), and he said, essentially, “You can write about anything you want.” I’d recently written a story for Wine Enthusiast, “Sonoma Sojourn,” in which I envisioned a four-day tour of the county. I broke it into four regions, one per day: Russian River Valley, Alexander Valley, Dry Creek Valley and Sonoma Valley. Readers liked it. I was remembering Coppola’s movie, Apocalypse Now, which was based on Joseph Conrad’s book, Heart of Darkness. Both had the structure of a journey up a river. As the plot moves forward, things get more and more complex, until it ends in a dramatic denouement. What if, I said to Blake, I wrote a story about traveling the length of the Russian River, from inland to the sea, having adventures all along and incidentally getting into plate tectonics, weather, history, culture and, of course, wines, vines, wineries and winemakers?
Thus “A Journey along the Russian River” was born (and don’t ask me why the scribes at U.C. Press decreed that the word “along” should not be capitalized). It was grand writing that book, but it was a lot of work. I spent a year traveling the river, getting up there from Oakland every chance I could, and I did work my way from the Mendocino County line all the way out to Jenner. (I ultimately decided not to include the Mendocino part of the river in the book.) I vividly recall my final visit. It was the first time I’d been to the exact spot where the river meets the Pacific. You have to hike in to get there. It’s literally a spit of sand, about a foot above the water. As you stand looking northwest, the river is to your right, the ocean to the left. Where the two commingle is a ferocious swirl of water, white-capped and filled with eddies; here, freshwater meets salt. The ecosystem is fantastically rich, and thousands of sea birds hunt there for food. I was exultant, thinking, “Here is not only the end of the Russian River, but the end of America, and the end of my book, as well.” It turned out to be nearly the end of me. A rogue wave suddenly came out of nowhere, easily my height, and washed over me, almost making me lose my footing and sweeping me out to sea. People along the North Coast get killed by these waves on a reguar basis. Scared witless and soaking wet, I hightailed it out of there.
The book finally was published in 2005. U.C. Press takes a lot of time editing their books in-house. They are determined that their publications be not only perfectly correct in terms of grammar and punctuation, but factually. The U.C. geology professors had to double-check my geology assertions, and they had lots of questions. My book was the first ever to posit a theory for the creation of the Russian River. I persuaded Karen MacNeil and Anthony Dias Blue to write puffy little things for the back cover. The book came out as my mom lay dying in the hospital. She’d been so proud that sonny boy had a book contract, and from a prestigious university press, at that. I showed it to her days before she passed. My cousin, Maxine, read her verses from it. I’m glad she got to see it.
I still love that book. I always describe it as “the terroir of Steve.” It’s pure me in style. U.C. Press recently republished it, with a new Intro I wrote. I hope you’ll check it out.
I’m about a third of my way through Rex Pickett’s new book, Vertical, the followup to Sideways. It’s a fun read, frolicksome, raucous and ribald, with Jack and Miles drinking their way once again across wine country, and getting into their usual predicaments.
Knowing Rex just a little, and having heard his personal story, I’m struck by the way his own life is reflected in the pages of Vertical. There are repeated references to things that happened to Miles in Sideways, but since Miles is Rex (in a manner of speaking), I also find myself wondering what in Vertical actually happened to Rex, as opposed to what fictitiously happened to Miles. This all puts Vertical on a meta level, which increases its complexity and enjoyment.
And then it hit me that nothing happens in a vacuum. We know we’re in an age where wine writing itself is changing–moving away from the dreary old academic top-down voice-of-God approach, and toward a more personal, confessional, intimate and humane kind of writing. People don’t want to hear Suckling asking some cult proprietor what cooper he bought his Tronçais oak barrels from. People want instead some glimpse into the writer’s life, which means the writer’s new task is opening up, not just preaching and declaring “I give this wine 92 points.” This is because people understand that the art and craft of wine writing and criticism isn’t as simple as was once thought. It occurs on, and arises from, every level a human being can experience, and so, if readers are to take the words of a wine writer seriously, they expect to know about all the levels that exist within him. They expect to see, in other words, inside the Black Box, to witness the wheels turning, the moving parts, what really makes the writer tick. The day of the anonymous wine critic, who seals himself off from the public like Greta (“I want to be let alone”) Garbo in her New York days, are over. The public wants wine writers who are transparent, whose lives intersect with theirs. And that means wine writers who are not afraid to reveal their fallibilities, imbecilities and insecurities.
Well, that pretty much describes Miles. Or is it Rex? Neither is a wine critic–yet–but I’m told that, by the end of Vertical, Miles does become a wine critic; and already, in the book’s early pages, he’s pronouncing verdicts on certain Pinot Noirs that might have leaped straight out from the Wine Enthusiast’s Buying Guide. Miles is, therefore, the very modern picture of a wine critic. When you read his words on wine, you are experiencing them on a higher level than merely their objective, definitional meaning. Because you know who Miles is, his words take on additional dimensions. They’re freighted with the knowledge we humans have of each other that cannot be put into words.
In my own writing, I find myself moving toward this new standard. Of course, it’s hard to achieve much in the way of personal writing in a 40 word review, but short reviews are in many respects just an adjunct to the wine writer’s more serious efforts–the way, say, sculpture was for Picasso. In my long-form writing, I find myself striving toward something infinitely more powerful, personal and particular than I used to. I have a story coming up in next February’s issue of Wine Enthusiast, on Winemaker Dives, that illustrates this new style. It was one of the more challenging assignments I ever had, filled with logistical and stylistic speedbumps, but I think the hard work paid off.
Which leads to a big question, one I constantly ask myself: in moving toward this new style, am I abandoning expertise? In tackling a more personal and muscular style, am I undermining my authority as an objective “expert”? Is wine writing, in short, a zero sum game, in which you’re either amusing, or serious, but never both? (As in Heisenbergian mechanics, where you can know the position or velocity of a particle, but not both.)
I don’t think so. At its highest form of expression, wine writing combines the intensely personal with the deeply knowledgeable. That’s what I aspire to. It’s what the age seems to want, as Rex Pickett intuited at least by the time he wrote Sideways. Miles, nor I, may be a hero; anti-hero is more to the point; but we are intensely human, get drunk, do and say stupid things, worry, take things personally, try our best, are idealistic, love great wine, work hard at understanding wine, and when we write, we take everything we’re thinking and feeling and remembering and put it into words, exposing it to all the world; and, in the end, all we can hope is that people like it.
* * *
It was 47 years ago today that President John F. Kennedy was murdered in Dallas. I cried for him and for the country then, and I will always wonder how things would have been different had that gifted and humane man been allowed to serve out his terms in office.
University of California Press asked me to write a new Intro to my 2005 book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River, which they’s reissuing. I reproduce the new Intro below. Afterwards, some fresh remarks.
* * *
I composed most of this book in 2004, which, although although it was less than six years ago (as I write), already seems as distantly past as Ancient Greece. So many shattering events have roiled the wine industry since then: the Great Recession, which knocked the wind out of it (let us hope temporarily), and the rise of social media, which threatens a great creative form — written and published wine writing — with obsolescence (certainly not a pleasant thought for a print guy like me, much less for a book publisher). Also since 2004, thanks again to the Internet, we have seen a near revolution in how wine is marketed and sold and, indeed, even in the definition of what constitutes a “winery,” with virtual producers and custom crush houses enabling Everyman to be his own winemaker. This is not even to mention the psychology of the Millennials, as independent-minded and antiauthoritarian a generation as my own Baby Boom clan (which itself revolutionized the modern wine industry). Indeed, rereading my original introduction to A Wine Journey along the Russian River, I am plunged into nostalgia for a time and a place so much simpler and gentler than today’s rambunctious realities.
And yet, Plus ça change… The Russian River still flows. The pebbles still pile up on the sandbars of the Middle Reach, and the redwoods still cast their millennial shadows on the slopes of the Coast Ranges. On a summer day the vines still wind in gentle contours along the rolling hills, their leaves susurrating in the breeze. Growers raise grapes, vintners crush them, and somebody still has to sell the resulting wine, in an ancient human endeavor we may hope will never end.
In my remarks, during the signings and other affairs connected with the publication of A Wine Journey along the Russian River, I often found myself calling this book “artisanal,” by which I meant, and mean, to draw parallels with the kind of wines that the vineyards along the Russian River produce at their best. Personal wines, you might call them: wines from particular places, expressing particular points of view at particular moments in time. This book expresses the terroir of Steve, he who works with words. It contains much objective and (I hope) useful information about the history, climate, plate tectonics, soil, culture, grapes, wines and people of Sonoma County’s wine regions. My hope was, and remains, that readers will find it good reading.
* * *
I always liked A Wine Journey along the Russian River, not only because it was my first book, but because of its personal nature. It reads like a blog, even though I wrote it four years before I ever thought of blogging. My use of the word “artisanal” was kind of prescient. I first began to hear about artisanal wines in the late 1990s or early 2000s. The adjective had been used earlier, mainly in terms of food, especially cheese, to describe consumables that were hand-made, in small quantities, often using sustainable or organic practices. Beyond that, “artisanal” wines conveyed a sense of quality. They usually came from individual vineyards, and the premise was that their growers and vintners could lavish intensely loving, hands-on care, without all kinds of high-tech interventions. The wines thus possessed a certain ineffable something that was the opposite of mass-produced wines. They were made by auteurs.
I felt that way about A Wine Journey along the Russian River. It was a joy to research and to write, and even the editing process, which was intense due to U.C. Press’s insistence that every comma and semi-colon (not to mention fact) be correct, was enjoyable, if not pure joy. It’s one thing for a wine writer to visit a region for two or three days, then jet off to Tuscany or the Alto Adige or some emerging wine country in Uzbekistan, and write like he or she has a thorough understanding of the region. It’s quite another thing to sink into a region for a year, more or less without a break, to live and breathe its every nuance, take it all in through the pores so to speak, and then have the luxury of writing about it without deadlines or interruption. That’s how A Wine Journey along the Russian River came to be born. It’s my soulful interpretation of this vitally important California wine region. The new edition will be out sometime this Fall. Here’s a link to the website.
Another celebration of stupid
So there’s this D.C.-based guy, Charlie Adler, a wine and food educator, who has a new book out called I Drink on the Job, that seems to be the latest expression of the “you can be stupid and still like wine” movement that is so reminiscent of the teabaggers. [Confession: I haven’t read the book and know its contents only from published material on the web, including the author’s website.] The book, according to this review, “is a series of vignettes illustrating why wine should be enjoyed organically, rather than studied and dissected.” On his book’s website, Adler writes: “’I Drink on the Job’ takes an anecdotal and often humorous look at wine from a slightly different perspective than your average wine book and draws an immediate conclusion – it’s better to ‘drink first and ask questions later’.”
This “wine is humorous” thing (you know who you are, bloggers) is really starting to get annoying. It’s like saying, “Hey, if you don’t feel like taking the time to understand something, just make fun of it, and tease people who do try to understand it.” It’s demeaning and insulting to suggest that wine drinkers aren’t intelligent enough to enjoy wine and study it at the same time. That’s like saying a person can’t like going to the movies unless he also is a film buff. I don’t know any wine writers who ever made that claim. If anything, America’s best wine writers have stressed exactly the opposite. It’s not Adler’s message, it’s the way he says it, by inferentially putting down knowledge in favor of some kind of blue-collar ignorance. “[H]e just wants Americans to consume wine with their meals – everyday!” Adler writes, third-person, on his website. Well, so do we all. But this anti-elitist stance (which is really a dumbed-down form of elitism) doesn’t help advance that goal.
Speaking of new books
We come now to The Wine Trials 2010, which was co-authored by Robin Goldstein, who many of you will remember was the prankster behind that hilarious phony Italian restaurant that won a Wine Spectator award. The new book “recommends 150 wines under $15 that outscored $50-$150 wines in brown-bag blind tastings.”
This time, the book is for real, and fine, as far as it goes; I myself frequently come across relatively inexpensive wines that out-score expensive ones, and I love pointing that out to Wine Enthusiast readers. What I find interesting is the discussion going on behind the scenes of Robin’s book. For example, in this review, Joe Briand, a wine buyer for a major restaurant group, digs into the concept of blind tasting and declares “I believe blind tastings tend to leave the subtle wines that I prefer at a distinct disadvantage to bigger bolder wines which ‘stick out’ more when consumed blind.” That remark, plus others, prompted Wine Spectator’s executive editor, Tom Matthews, always first out of the gate to defend blind tasting, to clarify [in the Comments section] his earlier assurances that Wine Spectator reviewers always taste blind. “I agree with you that we can learn more from a wine the more we know about it,” Tom wrote, and then immediately added, “But in order to evaluate a wine without biases (conscious or not), it’s important to taste blind.”
Do you see the inherent contradiction here? How can both statements be true? If you can learn more about a wine by knowing more about it, then why is it more important to taste it blind, instead of in some sort of context? Well, the answer, of course, is that context is vital for a proper tasting, as Tom knows. There are not simply two ways to taste, blind and open. There are gradations. But the blogosphere has created this impression than it’s an either/or proposition, and Tom, I think, is replying out of intimidation from the Woodward/Bernstein gotcha! crowd.
(By the way, Tom’s job now seems to be damage control: to peruse the wine blogosphere and reply immediately to anything that could possibly be negative.)
Goldstein himself points out the complexities of tasting in this Feb. 13 blog posting, in which he laments that certain luxury producers (he names LVMH [Yquem, Dom Perignon] in particular) “are overpriced,” and he indicts “the mainstream wine media” for not taking “brands to task for this.”
Well, as a representative of that mainstream wine media, here’s my reply. Anybody who reads my reviews knows that I’m not a slave to prices. I give crummy scores to expensive wines all the time. I don’t have to overtly accuse a wine company of taking advantage of image; my scores are the ultimate accusation. But in general, I agree with Goldstein. He’s on the mark when he writes, “My sense is that, especially when it comes to hazy markets like wine, real human beings—within certain constraints — generally anchor themselves to market prices that are imposed upon them, and generally pay for things what they’re told those things are worth.” That’s true; always has been in the luxury department, and always will be. But it’s also good to let people know that, if they’re serious about not wanting to get ripped off, they need to take the time to educate themselves. A stupid consumer will be taken advantage of every time; an informed one is far more impervious to manipulation.
I am just getting around to reading Hugh Johnson’s 2006 memoir, A Life Uncorked, which was published by my publisher, The University of California Press. It’s a good read and I recommend it especially to younger bloggers who are considering careers in wine writing and criticism.
Johnson is of course one of the most famous living wine writers and has been for a long time. One of the topics that fascinates me personally concerns longevity, or, more precisely, how is it that somebody can make a good living, over many years and even decades, from writing about wine. It’s something I’m sure a good many wine bloggers wonder about. It must seem daunting at the outset: so many would-be wine writers, so few spots available for actually getting paid for it.
When Johnson started writing, the field was considerably more open. He experienced what he calls his “Damascus moment” in college (Cambridge University), where he was able to drink (because colleges back then had their own cellars for undergraduates) such wines as Lynch Bages ‘53 and Lafite ‘49 (which Penning-Rowsell described as “delicate, distinguished but perhaps over-light”). That persuaded him to join the University Wine & Food Society. His first job, after graduating with what he calls “a gentleman’s degree” [i.e., more or less useless, like a B.A. in humanities] was as a staff writer for Condé Nast, at Vogue. One of his earliest assignments was to write an article about turkey, and what wines to pair it with.
“I knew, of course, very little about turkey or what wine to drink with it,” Johnson writes, adding, “but ignorance is the safest starting point for a journalist. I identified authorities. I rang them up. I wrote down their answers, and my name appeared at the bottom of the article.”
From there, Johnson was off to the races, so to speak. “Once a writer has been identified,” he writes, “…you can imagine what happens. ‘This Hugh Johnson, who is he? Never mind, he writes about wine in Vogue.’ Could I have lunch? Would I like to visit Champagne? It didn’t take long.”
There are several elements of Johnson’s story that are relevant today for wine writers. Even though the times are very different, the fundamentals still apply. For one, Johnson as a young ambitious writer recognized authority. He understood that his knowledge of wine was necessarily limited by his youth and inexperience — not a bad thing, as his remark about “ignorance” suggests, because that realization allowed him to open the empty vessel of his mind to every source of information that could possibly fill it, beginning with established experts. (Johnson testifies to learning from the “handful of regular wine writers” then working in Britain, including André Simon, Cyril Ray and Elizabeth David.)
Johnson not only turned to established writers to inspire and teach him, he began forming relationships which were to last a lifetime, and would later help him in his own career. Part of the secret of longevity at any job, but especially one so evanescent and creative as wine writing, is for people to like you and want to help you. But that’s only part of it, and maybe not even the greater part. What’s central to longevity is excellence in your writing, and that in itself is the product of several components. One is a thorough knowledge of your field. Johnson specialized in the wines of France (although, as a talented writer, he could make sorties through other countries and not be embarrassed). I specialize in the wines of California. Once the wine writer becomes well-versed in his or her field, she must develop a lucid, friendly writing style that people find accessible and enjoyable. It can be tricky to take as complex a subject as wine (which involves organic chemistry, farming, technology, history, geology, politics, psychology, economics, business and fashion) and then translate it into written words that are simple to comprehend. It’s not exactly turning a sow’s ear into silk, but something along those lines. Here, too, Johnson benefited from being heir to a long line of British writers who took the written word as seriously as they took their Monarchy. From Elizabeth David, for instance, Johnson writes: “[S]he taught me how to stickle; there was never a more pinpoint stickler for accuracy and honesty. It slowed her writing down to a crawl, all the checking and delving.” For the writer, to stickle (from Middle English, to rule, order, dispose; to raise objections, haggle, or make difficulties, esp. in a stubborn, narrow manner and usually about trifles) is as necessary as oxygen is for breathing. The writer stickles, not others, but himself.
Good wine writing, like good writing of any kind, is hard. Getting and keeping a job in this industry can be challenging. Keeping it for many years, as Hugh Johnson has done, requires a kind of miraculous ability to juggle many plates at the same time. Among the hundreds and hundreds of wine bloggers working today, a very limited number actually will graduate into the front ranks and still be getting paid to write about wine twenty years from now. I have my own ideas who they will be; probably you do, too. I’m going to be talking about this later this month at the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers at Meadowood. It should be interesting.