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The changing approaches to wine writing

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I don’t think wine tasting notes are in “big trouble,” as this op-ed piece by Lewis Perdue suggests, but Lewis is correct to point out their inherent subjectivity and overall fuzziness. He’s hardly the first: People have complained about winespeak for generations. “Hocus-pocus,” “the double brusheroo” [love that] and “trying to make things complex and involved” were just a few of the accusations leveled against wine writers by Mary Frost Mabon, in her 1942 book, ABC of America’s Wines. Forty-six years later, the British writer Andrew Barr, commenting (in his book, Wine Snobbery) on such descriptions of wine as “strawberry ice cream,” “browned rice pudding,” “baked bananas” and “old-fashioned sweet peas…stewed in butter,” said such descriptions “merely serve to increase wine snobbery.”

Lewis, in his piece, reaches to Alice Through the Looking-Glass and Bill Clinton’s infamous “it depends on what the meaning of is, is,” to suggest how puzzling it can be for wine consumers to make sense of winespeak. He very properly points out all the reasons, genetic and environmental, why different people experience things differently on a sensory level (or at least describe them differently). But he doesn’t entirely throw the baby out with the bathwater by calling for the elimination of wine writing. He allows that “wine writing is hard.” He is aware of the “vocabulary crisis” we writers often experience: “the similarity of [so] many wines” poses the risk of every review sounding like every other review. And certainly this is an ongoing problem: when he talks about the “thesaurus writer,” I had to giggle; next to my desk is not one but two thesauruses (thesauri?), as well as dictionary. Many are the times I sought a synonym for some adjective or verb, because I’d been over-using it.

To the extent there’s a problem (and if enough people complain, then there is), what’s the solution? Assuming we want to keep wine writing in some form (we do, don’t we?), there are two alternatives: One, which we might call the “full scale ahead” approach, is suggested by Lewis: Nailing down a specific taste or smell to an analogous real-world object requires good writing, astute perception and the ability to summon the right word.” This approach implies that there are objectively correct ways to describe wine: the successful writer simply (or not so simply) has to muscle through the mist and find the precise formula. This is certainly the rather flamboyant approach taken by many modern wine writers. Oz Clarke hews this way better than most: witness his descriptions of some of Sanford & Benedict Pinot Noirs: “more damsons in 1989, more raspberries and blackberries in ’88, more plum skins and fresh pepper in ’87.” And: “violets in 1989, …a favored kid glove thrown down on a dressing table in the ’88, toastier, deeper, becoming husky-voiced, dark and stately in the ’87…”. [Love that, too, especially while Lauren Bacall is still on my mind.]

On the other hand is the “less is more” school that prefers to hint rather than elaborate. No one is more understated than Harry Waugh. Here he is on a Freemark Abbey 1970 Cabernet Bosche, which he tasted during a visit to California in 1972 (and this is a fairly long review for him): “With this wine there has been blended 10% of Barney Rhodes’ 1970 Merlot. What a color and what a fabulous bouquet. A beautiful dark color with a fabulous Cabernet bouquet. A splendid powerful wine which will certainly make a great bottle.” No blackberries, no black currants or cassis, no fribble-frabble about “kid gloves” or “husky voices,” no window of drinkability, just Harry’s immediate, visceral reaction: Me likee.

The two approaches are as different as can be. Harry’s—the “less is more” style—for all its elegance and brevity is, I think, on the way out, if not already dead. Parker pounded the nails into that coffin. Which leaves us with the “full scale ahead” school. See you tomorrow.


Wednesday wraparound: Fred Franzia, more post-WBC14 opinionating, and “the tipping point”

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Not sayin’ that Fred Franzia is on the same enlightened level as the Dalai Lama, but it seems to me that HuffPo’s Chris Knox came down on him a little strong—even for a medium (the blog) that’s known for snark.

“Trash-mouthed, unapologetic [and] downright crude”? Well, I don’t think Fred ever graduated from charm school, but he’s not as bad as all that. I’ve known him—not well, but some—over the years, and I’ve managed to find affection for him, even though he’s done one or two crummy things to me. But I’ve done crummy things to people, too, so as usual, the Golden Rule applies. Fred, like it or not, is a product of his time and place—besides, someone once said that people who swear a lot are more honest, and there’s a lot of truth to that.

More important is Chris Knox’s j’accuse! against Two Buck Chuck. Now, I can’t say I have any idea if the wines contain (as Chris alleges), “animal blood and parts” (I should think the FDA, or whoever the relevant government agency is, would be up on that). But I can say that I respect Fred, and Bronco, his company, for making wine that anybody can afford to drink—and varietal wines, at that. I think we all agree that the most important thing for the wine industry is to get more people drinking. Two Buck Chuck does that; Petrus doesn’t. So kudos to Fred, from my point of view.

* * *

Kudos, too, to Joe Roberts AKA 1WineDude, for telling it like it is yesterday on his blog. I was kind of at Ground Zero of all the post-WBC14 grousing and blather, and I really wasn’t in the mood to put my [strong] thoughts into words, so I refrained, except in a few private exchanges. But Joe, bless his heart, who perhaps has garnered some credibility in the world of Millennial bloggers, let ‘er rip. The comments on his blog—104 and counting, as I write this—make for fascinating reading on their own. My fave: did the panelists (those accomplished online/print writers that happened to be middle-aged white dudes) miss an opportunity, or, did we bloggers miss the opportunity?” Joe deserves credit for his courageous, truthful expression of the facts.

* * *

Some of us were talking the other day about how a new winery/brand reaches “the tipping point,” in terms of popularity and success. One suggestion was that, to a certain extent, this can be stage-managed, through smart, creative marketing, promotional and sales efforts—although admittedly, that can be expensive. Another point of view is that tipping points occur serendipitously. You can’t make them happen, no matter how much money you spend (as any number of billionaires who have run for California governor over the years, and embarrassingly lost, well know). All that the expenditure of money (on media events, etc.) can do is increase the winery’s chances of being noticed by “the right people.” That is indeed important—but beyond that, there’s still the element of magic. Moreover, a winery can “hit it” for a brief period of time—Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame—but staying relevant is a lot harder. If there was a formula, or template, for reaching “the tipping point,” everyone would know it. But there isn’t.

* * *

Finally, a link to another blog, today’s edition of “Juicy Tales by Jo Diaz,” in which she expresses points of view I pretty much agree with. And with that, I’ll wish you all a good day!


If there’s a “new wine style,” what is it?

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“A shift in the consumer base,” fueled by “a new wave of innovation in global wine styles”: that’s what Rabobank, one of the the nation’s biggest lenders to wineries, is talking about, in their latest report on the wine industry.

And when Rabobank talks, wineries listen. Every winery in the country—certainly every winery I know in California—is obsessed with predicting the future, for if there is indeed “a new wave…in global wine styles,” wineries want to know about it. What is this “new wave”? What is the shift going to consist of? Most importantly, what new “wine styles” are consumers going to be looking for?

To begin to understand the future, it’s necessary to know the past, for nothing happens without lots of things that have already happened making it happen. So let’s take a look at the past, to see if it helps us comprehend the future.

We know what “wine styles” the consumer likes now, for the consumer votes with his wallet. You might loosely call it “Californian.” People like ripe, fruity wines, red and white. They like varietal wines (notwithstanding this current gaga about red blends). And, here in America, they like wines from California.

But it hasn’t always been so. The last time there was a true “shift in wine styles” was more than a generation ago. That’s when Americans started drinking more dry wine than sweet (those silly Sauternes and Rhine wines). It’s also when they decided that varietal wines were more upscale. Since California led the nation in the production of dry varietal wines, it’s no wonder that consumers gravitated toward California wine.

Let’s go further back in history. Before the era I just described (some call it the boutique winery era), America had been mired, for another 30 or 40 years, in that sweet wine era (if they drank wine at all, which not many did). Prohibition was, of course, the dead hand that had interrupted the country’s vinous progression. So what was happening before that? Again, not many people drank wine—but those who did drank good wine, from Europe and from California. It may not have had varietal names, but in many cases it was made from proper vitis vinifera varieties.

So we’re had three distinct eras since the 19th century: one, when a few Americans drank good wine; a second, when more Americans drank bad wine; and a third, the current, when lots of Americans are drinking good wine again, mostly from California, but in reality from all over the world. So if we’re in for a global shift in wine styles, what could it be?

Well, first, the timing is right: America seems to change its preferences every 30 o4 40 years, so, if you date the current era to the boutiques of the 1960s, we’re ripe for a change, maybe even a little overdue. If things do change, then today’s preference—remember, it’s for ripe, fruity wines from California—will have to change to something else. But what could that be?

We’re not going back to a liking for sweet wines, believe me (although a great off-dry Riesling, a sweet late harvest white wine or a red Port are earthly delights!). Therefore, consumer preference is likely to remain with dry wines. What, then, about fruitiness? I can’t see that changing either, for at least three reasons: one, fruitiness is an ingrained taste: not only humans like fruitiness, but birds and animals, too. Two, the world palate has shifted away from lean, angular wines to riper, rounder wines, and no matter how many articles get written about the low alcohol fad, that’s not going to change. Third, if we are indeed in a time of global warming (as indeed the Bordelais themselves believe, and as seems to be an increasingly credible belief in Napa Valley), then it will be awfully hard to produce wines of the type of old-style Bordeaux, when alcohol levels barely exceeded 12 percent, tannins were gigantic, and the wines took decades to come around.

So what options do we have? Precious few. Dry, fruity wines are what seems likely to remain. Of course, we could turn away from wine altogether: America could become a cocktail drinking country, a beer drinking country, or—heaven forbid!—a dry country. But none of those options is likely. Wine has been at the center of western culture for millennia; it’s now becoming so in Asian culture; wine is not going anywhere.

So the Rabobank prediction has to be taken with a certain latitude. There won’t be any major “new wave of innovation on wine style.” That’s bank-study language: the people who write this stuff have to come up with sexy sound bites in order to make headlines. What’s more likely is that the trend of the last three-plus centuries will continue. The world’s love of noble varieties—Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Syrah—will continue, despite short-term shifts, every few decades, in the particulars. A few oddballs will succeed at the margins—Muscat is the classic example—but they don’t have staying power. The major varieties Americans love won’t change. Zinfandel will go in and out of style, as the press dictates—but the great producers always will be in demand among the cognoscenti. Beyond that, I just can’t see any huge new intrusions of other varieties.

It looks to me like, far from Rabobank’s prediction of “a new wave of innovation in global wine styles,” we’re looking at a continuation of what is. What will determine who makes it, and who doesn’t, isn’t so much a question of style, as of marketing, communications, consistency, value, consumer engagement, distribution, success in direct-to-consumer, sales expertise—in other words, the fundamentals of good business practice. There is, indeed, “a new wave of innovation,” but it’s not a stylistic one, it’s innovation in the way wineries interact with, and respect, the consumer.


Friday Fishwrap: old wine writers never die, we just eat pizza!

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Hello. My name is Steve and I’m a “grand-fatherly white male traditional print writer.”

That’s what Amy Corron Power called me in her blog today. She was referring to my recent panel on wine writing at the Wine Bloggers Conference; my co-panelists were Mike Dunne and James Conaway, who are pictured, with me, in this little graphic Amy put up.

writers

She wrote, apparently facetiously, that we were “the only ‘true experts’ to whom we should aspire.”

I must admit that when I saw my panel I had the same thought. Three aging Boomers in a room full of bloggers mostly in their twenties and thirties: Yes, it did seem a little weird to me.

But let’s break it down. There’s lots of collective career success between Dunne, Conaway and me. And the Wine Bloggers Conference always has had a pedagogical or mentoring relationship with the bloggers who attend: I’ve gone there for long enough, and sat on enough panels, to know. If you’re a young and ambitious blogger, who better to get advice from than older guys (and gals) who have been around the block a few times and can tell you what’s up?

* * *

I’ve written a fair amount (here, on Twitter and on Facebook) about Oakland’s changing culinary scene. One classic example of it—and of what not to do—centers around Michelin-starred Daniel Patterson (Coi, in San Francisco) and his recently shuttered Oakland restaurant, Plum. Much was made of Plum when it opened in 2010 in the Franklin Square area off-Broadway. It was from Patterson, it was at Ground Zero of the restaurant scene in the newly-dubbed Uptown District, and it was high-concept and expensive. Those last two distinctions sealed Plum’s fate.

I ate there a few times in 2010-2011 and was always disappointed. I’m not big on high-concept food, where the abstract thinking and plate design seem to be more important than the flavors. And the prices were quite high. It was the experience of eating in places like Plum that always led me to tell people I’d rather have good, cheap Mexican or Thai than throw my money away for a “culinary experience.”

Well, apparently I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. Patterson closed Plum and has reopened the spot as Ume, a Japanese-themed restaurant whose prices aren’t bad. I haven’t eaten there yet, but plan to; Michael Bauer gave it a pretty good review in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Plum’s closure does say something about Oakland and what its citizens want in a dining establishment. We want nourishing, delicious food in a friendly environment that’s filled with people who look and sound like us. Oakland isn’t San Francisco or Manhattan; high concept doesn’t cut it. (I still don’t understand the success of Commis.)

The quintessential Oakland resto is Boot and Shoe Service. Loud, easy-going, happy, hip and boozy, this pizza-themed joint caters to a blue-jeaned, tattooed crowd that knows how to have a good time. I love bringing friends, sitting at the bar munching on a margherita pizza and gulping vodka gimlets while all the pretty people come and go. There’s money to be made in Oakland, only you have to know what people want. Whole Foods understood that when they built their big store around the corner from me. I credit Whole Foods with helping to turn my neighborhood around. I think Josiah Baldivino understands that, too, with his launching of Bay Grape. We Oaklanders are proud of our culture and traditions, and will support entrepreneurs who believe in us and respect our way of doing things.


Things I told the wine bloggers conference about writing that got retweeted

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Well, the 2014 Wine Bloggers Conference is over. Gus and I had a great time. I was on three panels and also was asked to make a few remarks during the farewell dinner, so I told the attendees that I felt a little like that Woody Allen character, Zelig, a human chameleon who seemed to show up everywhere.

One of the panels was on wine writing. As always with a crowd as social media savvy as the wine bloggers, some of my remarks immediately hit the twittersphere, where they got retweeted. Here are a couple of them that seemed to strike a chord, with comments by me.. I should explain that each of us panelists got thirteen 500-word essays pre-submitted by WBC attendees. We were asked to critique/comment on them.

What I said: “I’m appalled that people can graduate from high school in this country and not understand the proper use of the comma.” It wasn’t just the comma, it was the apostrophe, it was run-on sentences, it was just plain old bad grammar and punctuation. If you expect to be taken seriously for your writing, you can’t be committing those kinds of errors.

What I said: “People will always need guides when it comes to wine. Wine writing is essentially pedagogical.” There’s only one reason in the world why anyone would read anything a wine writer writes: They hope to learn something. Otherwise, why bother? So if you’re going to write about wine, you have to master something. It doesn’t have to be technical: the rainfall in the Médoc or something like that. You can master describing the countryside, or a raunchy after-hours party. But you have to master something. If you don’t, then don’t bother writing.

What I said: “Write from the heart. Wine writing isn’t P.R.” The puffy-fluffy hyperbolic writing of many of the submissions blew my mind. Just about every entry suffered from it. “The perfect summer sipper,” “Don’t miss the [whatever], “not to be missed,”  things like that. I told the attendees, “Don’t make your writing sound like a brochure for a Princess Cruise Line, or an article from Sunset Magazine.” Writing is the soul’s blood. If you’re going to write about wine, you have to bleed on the page.

What I said: “If you have a book in you, write it, sweat it out, make it beautiful—even if it never gets published.” A book is “long-form” writing, as opposed to a blog post or, even worse, a tweet. To be able to construct the perfect sentence—and then go on to the perfect paragraph—and then link paragraphs together, like pearls on a necklace, until you have 50,000 or 100,000 perfect words: That is the most beautiful experience a writer can aspire to, even if no one ever reads it.

Not everything the professional wine writer writes is Nobel prizeworthy. We all do what we have to do. But the aspiration: that’s the thing.

This was my third or fourth Wine Bloggers Conference, and I always come away impressed by the passion and ambition of the bloggers. I told them that there are many, many different ways to use writing in the wine business. If you’re working for, say, Kermit Lynch and writing for the newsletter, that’s one thing; if you’re writing articles for Wine Enthusiast, that’s another thing, if you’re newspaper syndicated, that’s a third thing; if you’re an independent critic, you play by your own rules. So there’s no one way of writing that’s appropriate for every job a blogger might eventually get.

But good grammar and punctuation are imperative for any writing. I suggested they read Hugh Johnson: such a lovely writer. Alexis Lichine, too. Michael Broadbent, Harry Waugh, Professor Saintsbury. They had passion, knowledge and the desire to record it in words—and were great writers. You don’t have to write like them; but you do have to write as well as them; or, at least, that should be the goal.

 


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.


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