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Jancis got it wrong


I’m not in agreement with the point Jancis Robinson is trying to make in her latest column, which I read in yesterday’s San Francisco Chronicle. Something about getting wine professors to “explain wine to us.” Jancis argues, in her usual clear-worded way, that, since enologists know so much more about wine than the rest of us, they should “share more of their knowledge with us.” She lists such topics as “grape varieties and their relationships, terroir and its influence, grape physiology and how it affects the taste of wine, yeasts and their effects, extraction and tannin management techiques, the role of oxygen, aspects of elevage such as various oak types and other materials, how wine ages, different stoppers” as examples of the kinds of things the scientists should be communicating to the public, in a way that “does not have to be dull.”

Maybe I’m missing something, but wine books and magazines, written by non-scientists but very good researchers and journalists, have for many decades been explaining these things every chance they get. Wine Enthusiast for 25 years has published articles on them. The bookstores are crammed with popular wine books that explain all these issues to a greater or lesser degree, depending on your appetite for detail. And nowadays, hundreds of wine blogs wade into this territory. Google “grape varieties” and you’ll get at 819,000 hits. “Terroir and its influence” gives 60,000 hits, “tannin management” 263,000, “grape physiology” 2,630,000, and “yeasts and their effects” 8,900,000.

I mean, there’s enough information out there on these technical issues to keep a wine-loving man or woman busy reading for the rest of his or her life. So do we really need the wine scientists adding to the information overload?

It’s not that I don’t believe some wine scientists have something to add to the conversation. Jancis mentions Emile Peynaud as an example of the sort of person she’s referring to, a really smart enologist who can explain things in a more technical way than most amateur writers can. Prof. Peynaud, who died in 2004, certainly is a wonderful writer, and I have several times in this blog praised and recommended his book, The Taste of Wine. But he was an exception. In general, academics are not the best writers for a non-technical public. They don’t typically see things through the eyes of consumers, they see things through the (fairly constricted) lens of their own specialty: vines and water uptake, soil structure, fermentation chemistry, grape genetics, metabolite regulation, ecology, rootstocks and the like. The books they write are called “textbooks,” not wine books. Nor is it remotely clear that most wine scientists wish to write popular books, aside from the income they might produce (not much, in most cases).

The University of California at Davis has produced dozens of wine books over the years, and I have plenty of them in my wine library; but for the most part they don’t make for accessible reading. If you’re a total geek, as I and most other professional wine writers are, they’re useful for technical information. But I’d much rather read Hugh Johnson or Harry Waugh or Karen MacNeil or Jancis herself or a good blogger, for that matter, than a U.C. Davis professor, and I wrote my own books (published, by the way, by University of California Press)  in a way I have reason to believe is both educational and easy to read.

Consumers have plenty of technical sources of information on grapes and wine. A dearth of it isn’t the problem. In fact, I daresay there is no problem with wine writing, which exists in every way, shape and form, in every language, on every level; we’ve never had anywhere close to the quantity of wine writing that we have now, and there’s only going to be more of it. So I’m thinking, maybe Jancis had a deadline for her column and couldn’t come up with anything meatier than “encouraging professional academics to explain wine to us.” Let’s let the academics stick to their labs and experimental vineyards. Wine writing should come from professional wine writers who know how to do it well.

  1. So it’s more that you disagree with Jancis than she got it wrong?

  2. Right on the mark, Steve. We don’t need more info, no matter how digestible, on the science of enology. Just as we don’t need more reader friendly articles on outer space. Poetry on the heavens, let there always be more. Readers want to know about the human, historical and social dimensions of winemaking and grape growing, which guys like you provide.

  3. Steve,

    I like the blog – but it takes me to an area I have wondered about for some time. It seems to me that the issue these days isn’t academics writing for the public — but professional wine writers writing somewhat academically about how wine is made. Let me give you a couple of examples —

    Allen Meadows wrote, some time back, that California’s lack of diverse flavors in Pinot Noir stem largely from an overplanting of Dijon clones.

    Robert Parker has often written about the negatives of wine filtration and overly high yields.

    You’ve written, in a blog on Paso, about adding acid out of a back and that making the wine overly tart.

    The list goes on and on…..So, at what point does a professional wine writer move too far into writing about winemaking/wine academia? Is there a basis of winemaking knowledge that a professional wine writer should have and, if so, how deep does that knowledge need to go?

    Thanks Steve,

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  4. you tell ’em, Steve

  5. I think that Jancis Robinson is making a good point in her article. She does not call for simply more wine writing, but for writing that has a background not available to journalists, bloggers etc. You praise Paynaud’s excellent “The Taste of Wine” – why do you assume that not more wine professionals could add valuable (and readable) information to the mix?

  6. Uwe, if the wine scientists thought they could write popular books on wine, they would be doing it now, IMHO. It’s very difficult for a technician to write in an accessible way.

  7. Adam, well, you’ve opened an important area for discussion. I can only speak for myself. I am all too aware of the limitations of my technical knowledge in V&E. There’s little I could ever do to become an expert on these matters, short of getting a degree from Davis, which I’m not prepared to do. On the other hand, I have thought over the years that my job as a wine writer does not require great technical knowledge. Instead, it requires the fundamental skills of a journalist, as well as the ability to taste wine consistently over a long period of time and formulate a vocabulary for describing my impressions. A wine writer like me needs some technical knowledge, but not a lot, I think. I would not have written about acidifying wines without first having been told for years by winemakers that vintners do it. I now think I can taste a wine that has been clumsily acidified, but I wouldn’t issue a blanket statement to that effect without being sure. In articles, I generally stick to what I know, and if there’s something I don’t know, I’ll just quote a winemaker or grower. By the way, I’ve been quoting winemakers for years that the Dijons lead to similar flavors in all California wine. Whenever I say that, I get knocked down by people who insist that this isn’t so, that Santa Maria (say) is vastly different from Anderson Valley, even if both Pinots are 115. I wrote about this in my first book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River (2005).

  8. Alex: disagree, got it wrong, misspoke, whatever.

  9. Steve:

    I think you’re right. There is more technical information on the web, in libraries, on than any 10 people could every read.

    Where there is a dearth, though that is changing rapidly now, is in the winery/winemaker-written story. No one knows more about a brand than the people involved with it on a daily basis. And no one has more riding on communicating that personal story.

  10. tannic says:

    Jancis may have gotten it right, but for how many consumers? Isn’t the purpose of a writer, despite his/her technical knowldege, to inform and entertain the largest audience possible?

    To my point, consider Rombauer Chardonnay. The success of this wine is easily scoffed at by wine geeks, but is also the envy of many of its competitors. Do you think that Rombauer Chardonnay drinkers give a damn about plant physiology or yeast strains?

    I love the technical writing and I try to learn something new at every possible opportunity. But the general wine consumer is probably most interested in reading something more along the lines as what Steve is trying to point out in his criticism of Jancis.

  11. Steven, the eternal problem for a winery/winemaker story is that it can’t be objective. Readers will always sense that the winemaker is trying to sell something, rather than write a good story.

  12. Good Day all,

    Knowledge can be bad..
    This topic makes me go back to something Mark Twain wrote about in the book ” A Pen Warmed up in Hell”. In short, he describes how all the romance of the natural phenomena of the mighty MIssissippi River (water eddies, floating logs etc) evaporated once learned to pilot a boat. Suddenly, a little swirl in the water could signal a sandbar, causing him to consider an action rather than enjoy the moment.

    Sometimes I think that the toughest part of my job is to remember to shut the brain out and “forget” wine knowledge when I go to a tasting.

    My advice: If you are passionate about wine and can make a living from another profession – do not learn the technical stuff!

  13. I think “tannic” has the right idea here. The slice the wine consuming public I get into my tasting room is tiny and highly motivated. When I pour wine for them I work to tell an engaging story first, entertaining second, and informative third. Depending on the feedback I will take them into the whys and hows. I’ve got a strong technical grounding, as well as teaching experience – so the question each time is “how far down the rabbit hole do you want to go with me?” And if I’m not careful, or especially if I am with a group of wine geeks mixed with less inquisitive wine lovers, same problem always pops up – EGO. Eyes Glaze Over.

    It’s easy for those of us with our heads most firmly and deeply embedded in the industry to mistake that the fascination we find with the minutiae should be universal. Truth is, the number of consumers looking for an education is not even a rounding error. The vast majority are just looking for some level of enjoyment.

  14. Hi Oded. Some technical knowledge is required of a professional wine writer. But basically, I think readers want to know how the wine tastes, and a little something about the winemaker, region, history, winemaking technique and food pairing. Of course, it all depends who you’re writing for. If I was working for Practical Winery & Vineyard magazine, I’d probably write more about technical issues than I do now. When I was an editor at the first incarnation of Wine Business Monthly, I did extraordinarily detailed writing on technical studies coming out of UC Davis. I enjoyed that, but I much prefer to do the kind of writing I do now for Wine Enthusiast and in my UC Press books (not to mention this blog!).

  15. Morton Leslie says:

    Steve, good topic, but I disagree with both Jancis and you. I don’t care who it comes from, but there is a need for more scientific accuracy in what the general public reads about wine. Too often when the non-scientist and technically ignorant wine writer (I do not mean that to sound offensive) explains something technical to their reader, they do not understand the issue in full context. They tend to over emphasize, over simplify, or just get it wrong. The non-technical wine journalist is particularly susceptable to parroting a wineries marketing message as scientific fact because it makes good reading. The result is we end up with wine marketing “stories” presented as scientific fact.” What the writer calls “seeing through the eyes of the public” often is “knowing what makes a good story.” My personal opinion, Jancis is at the front of the pack in passing on simplistic and unsubstantiated stories as scientific fact. Maybe because of that, she realizes we need help.

    While the non-technical writer may not see it, marketing stories can have consequences to the industy. An obvious and simplistic one is “filtered wine bad, unfiltered wine good.” A story resulting in hundreds of wineries replacing a properly conducted filtration, that would only be beneficial to wine quality, with additional fining, centrifugation and/or the addition of unnecessary preservatives. How many wineries hide the filter when the writer visits? Romantic notions make good writing, and many prevail because of how nicely they read, rather than their accuracy.

    Our wine industry is no different than any other. Maybe not the best of examples, but I bet we could find hundreds of stories about the scientific safety of off-shore drilling that were planted by BP in the mainstream media. I’m sure a non-scientific, but effective journalist like Rush Limbaugh has presented some of them in great detail as scientific fact. He may have believed them. We obviously needed more… and different… and louder voices.

    We so often hear about someone doing something “natural” without reflection by the writer on the romantic and religious meaning of the concept of “natural.” Or what unintended consequences there might be to a “natural” practice. Ignorance of science and the effectiveness of a romantic notion is routinely used by marketers or politicians. Usually it goes unchallenged.

    I know the context in which you say “Let’s let the academics stick to their labs and experimental vineyards” but in a different sense, it isn’t always how well it reads. Another voice never hurts the conversation particularly if it looks at things from a different perspective, and causes other and louder voices to be a little less gullible and work a little harder.

  16. Hi Steve,

    I’m a fan of your blog and been following it for a while. On this post, however, I agree with Jancis Robinson.

    I think more scientists should emerge from their insular worlds to communicate with the outside world. I’ve always thought one of science’s biggest failures is marketing. That is, explaning complex things in a way non-scientific people can understand it, and, maybe more importantly, help people appreciate why scientists do what they do.

    So, I think to encourage scientists to write more “geeky” wine articles is a good thing. And, doable.

    I thought Jamie Goode’s The Science of Wine was a good read – though maybe a little picture deprived. I understood what he was saying despite my tastes for more social, funny and down to earth wine writing.

    I think, if scientists can start communicating to people it can only benefit both sides. Them for having to learn the tools to get their ideas across to people outside their community and us for appreciating the finer details that go into fine wine.

  17. Steve, I agree with you that a lot of academic writing makes for dire reading. However, following your argumentation you would have denied Emile Peynaud to write his book because he was an enologist, not a writer.

    As I understand the article, Jancis Robinson thinks that there are quite a few entertaining scientists out there and that it is somewhat of a shame that their knowledge remains locked up in their studies. And she may have a point here.

    I strongly disagree with tannic’s statement that a writer has to be, foremost, entertaining. It should be true and informative above all. The real disappointment is writing that aims to be merely entertaining. Sometimes a story can be entertaining even if the writing itself is not. But then again you are right by saying that it all depends on who you are writing for.

  18. Steve,
    I pretty sure you don’t have to worry about too many wine researchers invading your turf. They are busy enough with their own jobs. But let’s say they did decide to write a consumer piece on a complicated subject such as… oh…, the terroir of Red Mountain AVA in Washington State. Why would you assume they would not do a good job or that we couldn’t learn something new and valuable about the subject? I do agree that wine journalist don’t need an enology/viticulture degree for telling stories, putting the industry in greater context and sharing their professional critiques. Or that scientist may not always be the best communicators. FACT: some wine journalist make blanket statements that are simply inaccurate and un-proven. Let’s face it; wine is complicated, subjective and not always straight forward. Sometimes we need a scientist call out journalists BS. Paul Gregutt posted a wonderful piece on his blog, “an experts appraisal of Washington terroir”, written by Dr. Allen Busacca. The article elegantly explained the difference between an AVA and terroir. It’s a very understandable, informative and easy to read piece that takes a ton of BS out of the conversation. This is exactly what Janis R. advocating was for, to help more consumers to understand French wines. So let me get this correct, you wouldn’t want to see more wine scientist doing this? Could you or a consumer simply just google Terroir+ red mt and come up with the understanding and context of Allen’s article….. Well I guess now you can but still….

  19. On the retail end I have to agree with Tannic and John here, most people I deal with really don’t care. Sure they ask questions but you can literally see them gloss over as you answer them. I think they ask only to show that they are interested in wine…I once answered a, “What’s in it?” question with “It’s 70% Syrah, 30% Grenache and 25% Cinsault” just to see if they were paying attention…um, they were not.

    There are dorks/geeks in every field, there are people that want to know how a airplane flies…really? I just want it to go up, get me there and land, could give a rat’s ass how. Those that ache for the “why” will seek out those that have to share the “why” but I think they are small percentage of the whole.

  20. Landon, you raise good points. As with all statements, there are exceptions to the rule. I have a hunch most wine technicians would not be capable of writing accessible books for a general public — at least, not without extensive editing. Then too, the example you cite (“terroir of Red Mountain”) doesn’t really fall into most university-level specialties that I’m aware of. I don’t think Davis or Fresno has a Professor of Terroir. They have soil scientists, but “terroir” is not a scientific discipline, but a creative one, based on extensive tasting and some degree of interpretation. It’s not as if I’m saying “No wine scientist should ever write a wine book for the general public.” They have, and will continue to. But how many great wine books can you name that were written by scientists, as opposed to amateurs?

  21. Hello Steve (and Everyone),

    How do you all feel about valuable wine content being offered in a mobile wine app that delivers reviews and articles from good bloggers, or seasoned wine veterans?

    Do you feel it is smart for authors to extend their exposure in apps like ours, as consumers use their mobile devices more and more (and can cut out the noise…large search results, and hundreds of blogs to sift through)?

    Hello Vino

  22. Marc, I love a good science writer, like the late Carl Sagan, or anything by Tim Ferris. Steven Hawking, too. But these are the exceptions to the rule — scientists who also are artistic writers. And if you limit it to wine scientists who are also great writers, you can probably count them on the fingers of two hands.

  23. Hello Vino, not for me, but more power to ya.

  24. Landon says:

    Hay Steve,
    I totally agree with you about a lack of great wine books written by scientist. I can’t name too many but we need more. At the same time, I have read great wine books that take science out of context. The beauty of Busacca’s article is that he brought a different prospective to the table about terroir and AVA’s Dr. Busacca is a retired WSU Geologist by the way. I believe he wrote the TTB petition to establish Red Mountain as an AVA. What Janis might be saying/advocating for is this different prospective. As a journalist you can investigate, taste, and research all you want about a State, region, winery, or vineyard. But until you get out in the vineyard and dig pits in the soil, how would you start to explain terroir differences. Let’s say two wineries buy fruit from the same vineyard. You might rate winery X as a 99 point wine and winery Y as a 89 point wine. I might not agree with your ratings but will agree the wines are different. Well what’s the difference, winemaker, picking date, extraction time? Well now that we understand winery x picks from soil profile A in the vineyard and winery Y picks from soil profile B in the vineyard we might be able to explain- in better context -to consumers why the two wines are different. I would just leave it as thanks Allen, can you write more please?

  25. i don’t think people WANT to know more wine details. like has been pointed out in the above comments, there is more than enough information to go around. so what about NEW ideas and information, the whole point of research in the first place? that’s different. but new ideas are scary. ideas that contradict the status quo even scarier. safer to moo along with the herd than to look for something new. and that’s what outre-mer wine scientists can provide: something new to chew on.

    i know that’s where Scott, my husband and the visionista behind our endeavor, turns, to wine professors and researchers around the globe, to their papers he finds as he explores his own interests and ideas for our vineyard and wines, ones that may be more quickly discounted/disregarded on this continent. [ok, disclaimer: he’s a PhD chemist by training, so has the ability to sift through data and content that makes a qualitative kind of person like myself writhe in agony.] the people he contacts are usually very happy to have a conversation with him, and being a (former) scientist himself, plus his acumen for farming and wine, he can talk the talk. but it’s not mainstream stuff, and it is very technical. and, like i said, it shakes up currently held ideas. scary stuff. for most.

    since we planted our vineyard in 2005, open minds are few and far between, we’ve noticed, industry people we’ve met so hell-bent on prescribed ways of doing things (if it ain’t broke, why fix it – that kind of thing), and fear (well, i’d like to label it as ‘fear,’ versus something like ‘contempt’) of new people and new ideas runs rampant. so i’m not surprised there’s not much drifting over from scientists and researchers across the pond(s). nor that no-one is taking the time to write consumer-friendly pieces to spread the [new] word. what’s the point?

  26. Plenty of room for all and more writers really. I understand both points actually. Everyone learns differently and everyone has or wants a different style of writing.

    The Key is EDITING !!! Man some (a lot) of bad editing being done…or maybe that is the problem, many writers think they can do both… WRONG!!! This can ruin any type of article.

    In the end I see the side of Steve and Jancis (not a Jancis fan).

    Keith Miller : )

  27. I didn’t read Jancis Robinson’s article. But for me wine falls into two categories, I like it or I don’t. I don’t need a scientist or a wine professor to explain to me the ins and outs of soil science, viticulture and oenology in order to determine my preference.

    Furthermore, I don’t need to read about it. I’d much prefer standing on the soil looking at in in the vineyard as a consumer, writer or grower. So respectfully, it sounds like is was a slow news day for Janis; because if she was in touch with the current climate of the California, National or Global Wine Industry in the slightest she wouldn’t have built a case for needing “professional academics to explain wine to us.”

    PS I skimmed Steve’s last paragraph and only ’till I wrote my last sentence realized that clearly we’d come to the same conclusion. Does that tell you anything about Millennials and them wanting to READ about or be explained in DETAIL the ins and outs of the science of wine? That’s what I thought.

  28. I have more than a passing interest in this debate. I am a wine educator that has been writing about wine for years. Much of what I write is exactly what Jancis is talking about, making the technical aspects of wine more approachable. There are better writers out there (you being one) and certainly many with a stronger technical background in wine than I have, but my gift, according to my readers is that I make the techie stuff fun to read. This is less about blowing my own horn than it is pointing out that there are plenty of wine lovers out there that would enjoy reading about the technical aspects of wine, if it was written well enough.

    The argument that wine writers need a background in journalism rather than wine seems to largely be embraced by journalists. I have been embarrassed by journalists that I have tasted with at wineries and there are more than a few that would do well to learn more about the subject before writing another word.

    There is room for many different styles and technical levels in wine writing, but I think you do the consumer a disservice by dismissing both their interest in the technical side and their ability to understand it.

    Certainly, too many wine journalists do a disservice to the consumer and the industry at large by caring only what a wine tastes like without a clear understanding of how it got that way.

    The filtering debate is a great example. Too many journalist reward the lack of filtering without any clear defense of their position. Filtering is a tool, and as the late Dr. Peynaud, whom we both hold in high regard, pointed out to say that filtering is bad is to say you don’t know how to use the tool. Ever since Kermit Lynch made a career out of avoiding filtered wines too many journalists, IMHO, have jumped on the band wagon without a clear understanding of the technical ramifications.

    We not only need more technical writing aimed at the consumer, I feel we need more pundits with a deeper understanding of the subject that they profess to be experts on.

  29. Stephen, thank you for your thoughtful comment. I think the best wine writing strikes a balance between technical expertise and individual taste, seasoned with good writing. Obviously, I believe I strike that balance. But others are free to disagree.

  30. David Cole says:


    Your both right and wrong (no I am not a democrat…:-) That was for you!) The great thing about wine is the diversity of the wine and the people that drink it. So there will be both camps on the information issue.

    I did find this interesting Steven, the eternal problem for a winery/winemaker story is that it can’t be objective. Readers will always sense that the winemaker is trying to sell something, rather than write a good story.” From my experience most winemakers can’t sell at all! LOL! There is so much great wine out there that has never been tasted because winemakers don’t get out there and SELL it! There are exceptions to this of coarse, but the best wineries are not run by winemakers, they have a staff that can market and sell. So luckily we get to drink some great wines!

  31. Someone pointed out this long and interesting discussion to me and I’m pleased to have initiated it, albeit in tangential fashion.

    But it does seem to me that no-one, including dear Steve, has read my article properly.

    My point was not ‘we need scientists to explain wine to us’ but ‘with a bit of ingenuity, the achievements of scientists can be used for generic promotional purposes’. The Australians have been doing this rather cleverly, as I outlined in my article. The Bordelais are, IMHO, missing several tricks – and are instead wasting millions of euros on pointless generic ad campaigns.

    Now there’s another topic for you to chew on…

  32. Kay Bogart says:

    The new outreach program at the University of California, Davis, is called VENSource. We are currently running a series of 2-day (or single day) classes called Wine Flavor 101. They are addressing wine flavor negatives and positives through a lecture followed by a “tasting” (sensory evaluation” of the compounds or characters discussed in the lecture. In some cases the wines are spiked with the compounds being discussed and in other cases, the wines are examples of actual cellar and/or vineyard practices. This is especially valuable because students are able to actually perceive the flavors (and/or aromas) that they have just heard about. This type of tasting, done by UC Davis professionals, is not available elsewhere.
    To get more info, go to

  33. Lew Purdue’s eLetter brought this tidbit from the wine writer of The Scotland newspaper:

    “…American psychologist Timothy Wilson asked a group of students to use instinctive judgments to rank a selection of strawberry jams. Amazingly, their conclusions correlated closely with the results of a blind tasting by experts.

    Encouraging enough, but the story gets better. Wilson then repeated the experiment with different students, who this time had to be more scientific and write down their opinions. Far from improving the results, any correlations with the expert views effectively disappeared.

    Quoting this and other experiments in his excellent book ~The Decisive Moment~ [read more about it on Amazon], Jonah Lehrer describes how “thinking too much” can cause us to create – and rely on – a selection structure that is worse than useless. Our instincts about what generates positive feelings can often be the surest guide.

    Detailed analysis is unhelpful when deciding what you like – although it has a part to play when considering why you like it. Wilson and Lehrer appear to be saying that “what” and “why” should never be asked at the same time.

    Adopting this view, I now use a broad-based tasting panel, briefed to focus on their first instincts rather than being too scientific…”

  34. Steve:

    I think “objectivity” is exactly what reader’s of a winery blog or website DON’T want. Wash away all the scores and ratings and what a small brand like mine is left with is me talking to the people who might want to buy my wine.

    Each blog entry, each comment on another blog, each tweet, each new release, each pop of a cork is just a line in the book that is the story of a brand. None of them, by themselves, are particularly meaningful nor does any one bit (byte) of communication tell the whole story. That LONG story is hard-won, and for it to be long and won, it has to be authentic and “true.” It doesn’t have to be objective.


    “Blink” by Malcolm Gladwell covers some of this ground as well.

  35. Doug Schulman says:

    Thanks for the clarification, Jancis.

    Steve, regarding what you have said, I don’t think the plethora of information on wine science written by journalists and bloggers is at all adequate as much of it is untrue. You have said yourself that you are no expert in this arena and I wouldn’t expect you to be, but that means I want to hear about these issues from someone who is an expert. It has happened quite a few times that I have seen information presented as fact regarding the science of wine that contradicted what has been written by someone like Jamie Goode, whose take on the matter I will trust over a nonprofessional’s any day. I personally wish all of these journalists and bloggers would not write so much about a topic outside of their area of expertise.

    As far as the idea of presenting some of this information as a marketing tool, I think that could be quite successful if done well.

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