Yes, wine writing is “an imprecise art,” as the headline on Philip White’s opinion piece in the Adelaide (Australia) InDaily News says.
As someone who’s had lots of experience in wine writing (magazines, books, blogs), I’m the first to authenticate Philip’s viewpoint that “writing about smells and flavours and the feelings they impart is as imprecise a sport as writing about music or fine art.
I like Philip’s take. He is, himself, a wine “communicator” (his word) who “pl[ies] the waters of simile and metaphor, hoping the beloved readers at least get a feeling.” To instill a feeling in readers: that is the highest goal to which a wine writer can aspire.
It’s not always easy. Critics of wine writing (and they are legion) point to the hyperbolic, obscure, over-blown rhetoric that does, indeed, characterize much of wine writing. Philip (quoting another writer writing about wine writing) assembled a list that could stand as the poster child for stretch: “nail polish remover, petrol, burning rubber, eucalyptus, wet wool, banana, shit and lead pencil.” Not that those aromas (including “shit”) aren’t present in some wines, but the average reader can be forgiven for scratching her head and wondering if she can just, please, go about the pleasure of drinking the stuff.
But there are many different forms of wine writing. When you’re reviewing dozens of wines on a daily basis, you’re forced into certain economies of scale. Woe be the writer who agonizes—Thesaurus by his side—about this or that descriptor. When deadlines are looming, sometimes you just go with “cherry-berry” and have done with it.
Still, I take Philip’s point that “the single most important thing about wine is the way it makes me feel.” I, myself, sometimes wrote about my feelings in wine reviews, but only for the best wines: they merited more words in the review than small peasant wines, and seemed to allow for some celebratory expressions of joy—at least, the extra word count afforded me that luxury. The small peasant wines, when they weren’t very good, also made me “feel” certain things—disappointment, disgust, impatience to get it over with, sometimes anger if the price was insane—but I was the sort of wine critic who hated to say terrible things about a wine I’d already given a low score. There are certain critics (I could name names, and so could you) who seem to take pleasure in kicking a wine when it’s down and bleeding in the gutter. Not me.
But surely Philip is onto something when he suggests that communicating “feeling” is important. I tried to do that in my books; long-form writing is a lot easier to convey emotions. I try to do it in this blog. But I’ve seen writers of the “feeling” school take things too far. Some of them reach for bizarre metaphors whose meanings, if you’re not familiar with them, will zoom right over your head. Some of them bring too much of themselves into their review. I read a review, after all, to learn about the wine, not about the writer’s personality. A little personality, fine, but—like salt in food—not too much. But then, good writing achieves precisely the correct balance of all its parts: objective information, subjective revelation of the writer’s soul, literary references and so on.
I love Philip’s quote from Leonard Cohen: “Each wine has a specific high, which is never mentioned [i.e. in most reviews].” If I correctly understand the great singer-songwriter (who in this instance was writing about Chateau Latour), he meant that the experience of drinking Latour resulted in a particular mindset that was somehow qualitatively different from drinking, say, Margaux. I reckon that could be true only if one knew one were drinking Latour, and if one had a specific love-attachment to Latour. Anytime you do anything with love it does result in “a specific high.” But lucky is the paid, professional wine writer who can truthfully say that he finds love in all his labors. Sometimes, writing is just writing, and to make it work for readers—to make them feel—is the result of effort and talent. It is artifice: not “artificial,” but something that looks and feels like feeling, even when it is not.
Drove up to St. Helena yesterday on a preternaturally beautiful day to have lunch with Freemark Abbey’s longtime winemaker, Ted Edwards, at a little restaurant I’d never eaten at before, Goose & Gander. I must say I’d go back for the charcuterie and beef tartare, both of which were excellent.
I don’t typically drink before driving—and I had the usual long schlep back to Oakland—but since Ted was pouring his Viognier, I made an exception. What a nice wine. Ted told me his story, and the tale of the winery’s Bosché Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, which goes back decades. I asked him if the Bosché is the oldest still-extant bottling of a vineyard-designated wine in Napa Valley.
We both thought for a moment, then almost simultaneously we blurted out “Martha’s Vineyard,” the quintessential Heitz Cabernet that dates back to (I think) 1966. After that, we couldn’t come up with other candidates. Can you? That led us to a conversation about history, new consumers and messaging. How do you educate a younger consumer about an older brand, without sounding like you’re a crusty old curmudgeon reliving his glory days to a youngster who doesn’t really care?
This is the dilemma faced by dozens of Napa Valley producers whose roots date back to the 1960s and 1970s. You have to stay relevant. You can’t coast on your laurels (although some try), because the demographic that’s familiar with your laurels is close to 70. But convincing a Millennial that history is important also is tough. We all know, anecdotally, that younger people are remarkably ill-informed about history. This must be because they don’t think it matters. It’s also why large tracts of the media have been reduced to writing about “the new [fill-in-the-blank],” the hippest this-or-that, the top ten trendiest blah-blah, up-and-coming whatevers, and so on. Publishers understand (or think they do) that younger consumers only care about the here-and-now, so that’s what they push. History tends to get thrown out, like that disposable baby with the bathwater. It’s sad, to many of us who believe that history is an essential component of the wine-enjoying experience. But what you are gonna do?
Why did I write that “history is an essential component of the wine-enjoying experience”? Because wine is so much more than merely what you’re experiencing in the mouth. As Matt Kramer points out in his latest column, there are “wines of pleasure” and “wines of experience,” the latter “deliver[ing] that sort of dimensionality, which, after all, is the distinguishing feature of all truly great wines…”. I would suggest that one of those “dimensions” is the intellectual one of understanding the vineyard’s and winery’s history. We tend to create a difference between “intellectual” and “sensory” pleasures that’s not really true. Any baseball fan knows that a huge part of the interest in watching a great ball game transcends what’s happening on the field to encompass statistics, strategy, the great plays and players of the past, the rivalry between the two games, and the sweet nostalgia of youthful memories of sand lots and bleacher seats. The appreciation of baseball is multi-dimensional.
As educators, we owe it to the next generation of wine lovers to pass on the history, traditions and tales of this wine business we love so well. This is the essence of the fabled “story-telling” that wineries are so engaged with lately. Winemakers understand that the appreciation of wine is so much more than just the organoleptic or analytical part. And thank goodness for that. In the 1980s budding wine aficionados thought they had to master an entire set of tasting skills in order to appreciate wine—as if they were preparing for an Enology class in sensory analysis at U.C. Davis. I always thought that was nonsense, as if you had to be able to deconstruct and then reconstruct a car in order to love driving it.
Fortunately, we’ve matured as a wine-drinking nation to the point where we understand that wine appreciation is, as Matt suggests, multi-dimensional. Still, I do wonder, and worry, about that non-appreciation of history among so many younger people. We just have to make the learning of history more tantalizing, by telling our stories better, don’t we?
Forbes’ Cathy Huyghe, who is turning into one of the most interesting wine writers I know of, wrote late last week about the best non-wine books for wine communicators to read. This is a novel approach; we established wine writers often advise younger ones to read classic wine writers like Harry Waugh, Hugh Johnson and Michael Broadbent, but Cathy is exactly right when she says you can be “a better wine writer [by] read[ing] widely and especially outside the category of wine.”
Cathy didn’t list her own reccos (I wish she had) but instead asked others whom she ran into at the Wine Writers Symposium for theirs. (You can read her article here.)
I’m going to offer my own list of non-wine books. I can’t say that they’ll be helpful to all wannabe wine writers, because these things are terribly personal. But I can say that these are books and writers who have been helpful to me, in terms of informing my style and approach.
There’s a sort of truism in Eastern religious philosophy that anyone you meet can be the Buddha, so you’d better pay attention to them all, in case they have something to teach you. I don’t know about the Buddha part, but it’s certainly true of writers. You never know when you’re going to read something that will stay with you for life! Sometimes it’s by someone super-famous; sometimes, it’s someone you’ve never heard of. It’s a mysterious process of osmosis, by which the writer’s style just sort of eases its way into your head. It’s not about copying or plagiarizing or trying to write like someone else; it’s just that something about the writer impacts you in such a profound way that you find yourself “borrowing” some aspect of that writer’s manner or tone. So here are some writers whose works have informed my own writing in important ways.
Winston Churchill. I’ve read pretty much everything he ever wrote, in many cases several times. Churchill had impeccable grammar and sentence and paragraph structure. His sentences were incredibly complex: long and winding, yet as intricately organized as a symphony score. He knew how to tell a story that keeps you on the edge of your seat, in a stately way. He wrote about massively important historical things, yet told them from a personal point of view that makes you feel you were right there beside him. He also was a strong personality who didn’t try to keep his feelings out of his writing, despite a thorough grounding in journalism. Churchill was, in fact, an emotional man, a fact that most people don’t realize. In his epic “The Second World War,” you can feel his emotions—joy, sadness, excitement, anger, disappointment, humor, even a needling sarcasm. He is a joy to read.
Gore Vidal. I put him on my list because, in addition to being a very good, proper writer, he was wickedly funny. I don’t think the word “snarky” existed in his time, but he was witty and stylish, and was able to make history come alive by inhabiting the inner lives of his characters. And he never wrote anything of inconsequence; whatever he wrote brimmed with importance and his own penetrating intelligence.
Celebrity memoirs. I know, I know; it’s undignified to admit I read ‘em and like ‘em. But I do! Some of my favorites have been Nancy Reagan’s “My Turn,” Lauren Bacall’s “By Myself and Then Some,” Jacques Pepin’s “The Apprentice,” J. Paul Getty’s “As I See It,” the Duke of Windsor’s “A King’s Story,” Keith Richards’ “Life,” and Katharine Graham’s “Personal History.” These were all wealthy, powerful people, and I like reading candid books where they reveal personal things about themselves (some of which are not flattering) that show the real human being behind the façade.
I always have a “latest book I loved” whose style definitely impacts my short-term writing and may go on to influence it long-term. I recently finished “The Savage City,” by T.J. English, a book I didn’t think I’d like but did, very much. It’s a documentary of life, crime and racial politics in New York City in the 1960s and 1970s, a period I’m very familiar with. In fact, much of the action takes place in my boyhood neighborhood of the South Bronx. English obviously did a ton of research, paces himself beautifully, and knows how to tell a solid story with dramatic flair. He also writes with masculine power—not afraid to drop an F-bomb here and there, especially when he’s paraphrasing how people really talk. I like that muscular approach.
There is so much more to making a career as a wine writer than just reviewing all the free samples wineries will drop on you.
Lovely, inspiring article on the BBC’s website about about Andrew Hedley, a British-born New Zealand winemaker (Framingham Wines) who developed throat cancer and had to have his larynx removed, which had a devastating effect on his ability to smell and taste.
“Anything that goes into my nose or mouth now goes straight to my stomach,” he says, meaning, according to the article, that he “had to come up with a new way of smelling and tasting the wines he created.”
Andrew did indeed come up with a new way of smelling and tasting that works so well, he said, “We’ve actually won more awards since I had the cancer surgery.” This is indeed an inspiring story of the ingenuity and triumph of the human spirit.
As I read it I recalled the travails of my own wine-writing hero, Harry Waugh, who following a car accident in which he landed on his head lost his own sense of smell. Yet Harry, who was on the board of Chateau Latour in addition to his other considerable achievements which included writing some of the most influential books in the history of California wine, developed alternative ways of tasting that ensured his continuation as one of the great wine tasters and writers of the second half of the twentieth century.
What are we to make of great wine people who, suffering awful loss of a good part of their sensory equipment, nonetheless remain at the pinnacle of their careers?
Well, for me, the big takehome is that you don’t have to be the awesomest palate ever in order to be a big success. Both Andrew and Harry, and indeed anyone of us, had their limitations: they did what they could do with what they had. And yet something in their skill set enabled them to rise above their limitations.
I don’t know Andrew but I knew Harry. What made him great was his absolute devotion to the grape and wine as well as his ability to put complex thoughts into writing that was easy to comprehend. I have no idea how he managed to tell the difference between a vin ordinaire and a grand vin or vin de garde after his automobile accident, but he did. People still cared about what he said.
We make too much of “expertise” in wine and I realize I need to explain that. With all this attention to Masters of Wine and Master Sommeliers, we tend to think that you need some letters after your last name to be taken seriously if you opine about wine. While I bow to no one in my regard and respect for MWs and MSs, I have to say that when it comes to wine writing of the kind Harry—and a generation of wine writers of the last 30 years, including me—represented, there’s a case to be made that you don’t want so much expertise that it removes the reviewer from the common realm of the 99% who actually buy and drink wine.
There’s another important lesson to be learned from Andrew’s experience. The BBC reporter interviewed a head and neck surgeon who told him, “To be able to differentiate between subtle aromas and tastes of wines must be very difficult and to be honest, it almost never happens in cases where surgery has been performed.” Well, even if you haven’t had your larynx removed, “to be able to differentiate between subtle aromas and tastes of wines” is very difficult anyway! It’s not objective science; even professionals will disagree about what they’re smelling and tasting, which is why my recent blending sessions at Matanzas Creek have been so educational. Taster “A” may find quince and guava, taster “B” may find nectarine and white peach, who’s to say who’s right or wrong? No one, that’s who. But what we can all agree on—at least, I would hope—is that beyond specific flavor descriptors we can all recognize essential quality, which when all is said and done is a function of intellectual interest. For what is great wine, if not a wine that stimulates your mind? And it would seem that, even when your sense of smell or taste is impaired, your ability to be intellectually interested and flattered remains. How cool is that?
Alan R. Balik has a good summary of premox in his column in the Napa Valley Register.
Premox, or premature oxidation, refers to a wine that should age well, but instead turns brown and “off” within just years of its release. The issue of premox has obsessed certain collectors, writers and winemakers for a decade or so, but is now gaining traction. At first thought to affect only white wines, like white Burgundy, it is now considered to impact red wines too, according to a Decanter article reporting on an “oxidative destruction that is not expected at such an early stage in the life cycle of fine red wine,” including from Barolo, Napa Valley, Bordeaux, the Rhône and Burgundy.
Nobody seems to know if premox is something entirely new, and, if so, what causes it. As the articles linked to in this post point out, the cause/s could be anything: global warming, superripe grapes, poor corks and closures, high alcohol, low acidity, high pH, too much new oak, low levels of SO2, excessive exposure to oxygen during the winemaking process, sur lie aging and battonage, botrytis or poor storage (Clive Coats suggested these latter two), and who knows what else. This article, from The Drinks Business, summarizes some of the technical complexities involved in understanding the problem.
It’s impossible to think about premox and not refer to one’s own experiences with older wines. As I (and many other critics) have written for years, I’ve been disappointed in older bottles more often than not. And by “old” I mean more than eight years in Cabernet Sauvignon, and more than four years in any white California wine. (Obviously there are always exceptions.) As Jane Anson describes it in the Decanter article, too many older red wines these days bear “Exotic scents of prunes and figs, the burnt toast undertones of barrel ageing, the silky mouthfeel and unmistakable heat of high alcohol.” These qualities are, of course, not what you want in a ten- or twelve-year old Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon that may have cost well north of $100, but common sense tells me they may be qualities that have come about due to the higher brix that grapes have been picked at over the last twenty years or so. That results in higher alcohol levels; also lower acidity, and, given the weltanschauung these days, plenty of toasty new oak. Add “micro-oxygenation,” or mox, in red wines, which also is rather common in the so-called “cult” red wines around the world, and you may have a perfect storm, in which the inherent elements of the wine begin life initially unstable, i.e. prematurely oxidized. Instability that is built into a wine may not be readily detectible when the wine is young, but with each passing year, the instabilities mount up and perturb each other, until the wine is thrown into disorder.
This is not to argue in favor of the current ethos crying for low-alcohol wines. There is not yet evidence, at least in California, that such wines age any better than higher-alcohol wines. (And they may well be less satisfying in youth.) But we have got to bear in mind that the wine world has already gone through a paradigm shift, in which people no longer care about aging their wines. Whatever they buy is consumed rather rapidly. It was only natural for winemakers around the world to respond to this shift by making wines that are softer, rounder and more delicious in their youth. If ageability is the baby that is thrown out with the bathwater, so be it.
There is one more thing to consider, and that is the matter of personal taste. It may be objected to that the subjectivity of personal taste has no place in an objective appraisal of premox, which after all is a scientific question. But a taste for older wines has never been widespread among the general public, and even experienced oenophiles may prefer their wines vigorous and young. After all, any aged wine is already on the road to senescence. Whether an eight-year old Cabernet is experiencing “the first blush of death,” as the English put it, is a matter of determining how much “death” you want in your wine. It may be because I am, at heart, a Californian, but I have never cottoned to that blush of death thing in wine. It can be “un peu beaucoup,” a bit too much. And, as Clive Coats notes, the notion of early deliciousness coupled with ageability is a bit of a stretch. “It would be idiotic,” he writes, “to expect today’s wine to be both delicious at a year and a half and to hold up for 15 years thereafter. Something has to give. I regret that it seems to be the ageing potential of the wine.”
We tend to forget, too, that we make excuses for wines that don’t rise to the level of our expectations. We say the wine is in an awkward phase, which is really an unprovable assertion, but does have the advantage of letting the wine off easy, if it isn’t showing as well as we would like. If one bottle shows wonderfully (by common consensus) while a second bottle of the same wine is a disappointment, we chalk it off to “bottle variation.” I have even heard collectors say that a power outage of an hour or so, which results in the temperature of a wine cellar rising by a degree or two, can perturb great wine so that it is no longer drinkable! This is what I mean by “making excuses.” We want our expensive wines to age well; when they do not, we offer up every reason imaginable for the failure. But Occam’s razor suggests that the simplest reason is usually the correct one: The wine wasn’t ageable in the first place.
Here in California, research into oxidation is somewhat recent but picking up intensity. This video, of Professor Andrew Waterhouse on “The Oxygen Cascade in Wine,” suggests some of the difficulties, although it is straightforward enough for the non-scientist to follow. Waterhouse’s bottom line is that lots more study is required to determine the relationship of free SO2 in wine and the effects of oxidation, including premature oxidation. Right now, he says, most of what we think we know is “speculative,” which means we’re likely to continue to be baffled by the phenomenon of wines that we think should age, but don’t.
It’s interesting how different media outlets described the wines that were recently stolen from the French Laundry.
The San Francisco Chronicle’s headline reads “Wine thief with nose for best reaps huge haul from French Laundry.”
Calling the Domaine de la Romanée Conti and Screaming Eagle the “best” grants the highest esteem to these wines, suggesting to readers that no other wines in the world can approach them in quality. KRON Channel 4, one of the Bay Area’s leading news outlets, took a more cautious approach, calling the purloined wines “high-end,” which carries vastly different connotations than “best”: ‘high-end” implies a certain rare desirability that gives the wines prestige, but does not elevate them to the highest category of perfection. The Contra Costa Times took a decidedly neutral approach: They called the wines merely “expensive,” a just-the-facts-ma’am description of reality, for in truth, those bottles certainly are among the most costly in the world. Still, they are not “priceless,” as USA Today trumpeted in a flashy headline.
This may all seem trivial, but for students of the media, who wish to understand how news is actually communicated in this country, it underscores the importance of optics—perceptions that become fixed ideas among the public. Now, the job of the headline writer is different from that of the reporter. Usually, reporters don’t write their own headlines; that is considered a special art and is reserved to editors. But no matter who writes the headline, it can achieve a life of its own. When a criminal killed a bar owner and then forced a hostage to decapitate him in New York City back in 1983, the New York Post certainly was correct to give it full front page coverage. They could have headlined, as the New York Times discretely did, “Owner of a bar shot to death; subject is held,” and then relegated the gory details of the “head in a box” to the fourth paragraph. But that headline never achieved anywhere close to the immortality of the Post’s “Headless body in topless bar,”
which has become one of the most famous headlines in the history of American journalism. (Its author, Vinnie Musetto, excelled at eye-catching headers. He also penned the Post’s “Khadafy Goes Daffy,” about the former Libyan strongman’s antics.)
Long before there was an Internet or social media, headlines like these went viral: they were repeated in many media outlets, proving that a great headline is at least as important, in terms of popularity, as what is actually contained in the article itself. This is where, however, a sort of Continental drift between the headline and the actual news can open seismic chasms. In the story about the French Laundry theft, it is only natural that some headline writers would decide that the word “best” sounds stronger than “high-end” or “expensive.” High-end, expensive stuff is stolen all the time, but when “the best” is taken, people pay attention.
However, the fact is that Romanée-Conti and Screaming Eagle are not “the best” wines in the world. There are no “best wines” in the world. Any critic will tell you so. What these wines are, indisputably, are among the most expensive wines in the world. But there’s a big, huge difference, and to call these wines “the best” only reinforces the public’s perception that they can’t get really great wine unless they pay really high prices. That’s the biggest myth in all of wine.