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Is The Golden Age of Wine Writing over?


This question hit me last night shortly before I went to bed. I come from an era when wine writers took the art of writing very seriously. They actually sweated over each word, using Thesauruses (Thesauri?) and dictionaries, piling sentences elaborately upon sentences, building up paragraphs into a narrative, worrying over leads and looking always for the flourishing finish.

Of course, it all had a purpose and was well-rewarded. One wrote for a publication — be it a book, magazine or journal. One had the option of writing at length. One was aware that, even though we were merely “lowly” wine writers rather than serious novelists or investigative journalists for the New York Times, we nonetheless were members of an elite: writers. And I think we wine writers, who became active in the 1970s and 1980s, were aware, at least semi-consciously, that we had plunged into a Golden Age of Wine Writing that had been going on for quite some time, and showed no signs of waning.

What is a “Golden Age”? The term is most commonly used to refer to the Greek Age of Pericles (c. 440 BCE), when Athens was at its classical height. Sophocles was writing his plays, Socrates was busy corrupting Athenian youth by encouraging them to think, Democritus was theorizing the atom, Protagoras was inventing a little theory that someday would be named for him, and Herotodus and Thucydides were recording it all, and inventing History in the process. Several centuries later, the Greek poet, Hesiod, wrote that during the Golden Age “Men lived like gods without sorrow of heart…with legs and arms never failing they made merry with feasting beyond the reach of all devils.”

All Golden Ages end, sadly. Hesiod accorded the demise of Greece’s Golden Age to the time when Prometheus gave mankind the gifts of architecture, mathematics, astronomy, navigation, medicine and fire, among other blessings. For this, Zeus “became angry at Prometheus for making people powerful by teaching them all these useful skills.”

The Chief of the Gods, of course, famously punished Prometheus by chaining him to a rock and causing an eagle to forever eat his liver.  Why was Zeus pissed at Mr. P. for elevating mankind? Probably for the same reason the Hebrew God was angry at Adam and Eve for eating of the tree of knowledge. Gods are jealous. They want all the power to themselves. Perhaps they fear that a mankind made equi-powerful to them will bring about destruction and madness. It’s hard to know just what a God is thinking.

We wine writers of a certain age had our Golden Age. We had our Platos and Sophocles, our Pythagorases and Pericles, and long, sunny days in which to labor at our love of writing. Now, who was our Pericles, what was the fire he delivered to mankind, and how are the Gods punishing mankind today? Our Pericles was the two Steves (Jobs and Wozniak) and Bill Gates. The fire — the great power — they gave us was the personal computer and the Internet. To what rock are we now chained, and what eagle is it that eats our livers?

Hence the decline of the Golden Age of Wine Writing.

Who writes anymore? People tweet. They misspell (on purpose?). They Facebook. They churn out silly little books like Crush It! and 101 Wines: Guaranteed to Inspire, Delight, and Bring Thunder to Your World that nobody cares about and nobody will read tomorrow because they have nothing to say. I’m not complaining, exactly. Life goes on. The Millennials deserve their chance. Will the wine writers amongst them reverse the decline and restore the Golden Age? Golden Ages, once gone, do not typically come back. I can see a time, in 300 years, when somebody says to somebody else, “Can you believe that once upon a time there was a class of wine writers that was like a priesthood, elevated and slightly mysterious but revered, who pronounced mystically upon wine, and wrote lengthy treatises on it, which were purchased and studied by the masses?” To which the other person replies, “You have got to be kidding!”

[to be continued]

  1. I have to say that there isn’t a whole lot I can agree with in this one. Let me preface this by saying that I was a writer during the Golden Age (some of it anyway, and albeit a not very influential one at Wine News, a magazine that published for 25 years until last month). It seems to me that the Millennials, as you continue to refer to them, will undoubtedly be saying the same thing in a different guise 10 or 20 years from now as well. Time marches on, and what in retrospect was warm and fuzzy then will simply cease to be later. The Milleinnials may not come at wine criticism from the same direction as the Golden Agers, but they come at it nonetheless. For me, it’s not a question of which generation gets it “right” because there is no way to objectively judge that; instead, the question turns on relevance. I would point out that the Golden Agers brought us the very double-edged 100 point scale sword in addition to words upon words. The Millennials may bring more misspellings and phraseology rather than “building up paragraphs into a narrative,” but it does seem that this is what the typical consumer wants. Doesn’t make it right or wrong; just that it is what it is.

    There’s more than enough room for the old timers and whippersnappers. Maybe both sides should give each other a break.

  2. Steve, we’ve got to stop meeting here this way. It’s starting to be a bad habit.

    I agree with everything you’ve said but I hope that you don’t see a wall where there is actually a door! Instead of being passed by or put on a shelf, wine writers such as yourself are in a wonderful position to capitalize on this shift. In fact, you’re kind of doing it right now.

    I think that people do still want information from ‘experts’, but the delivery method is, no doubt, changing. With this change, I personally believe that you’ve got even more opportunity to wax philosophical about any wine you choose, without editorial input or the constraints of word count, etc. It’s called a wine blog! I know you’ve already got one, but it’s mostly for industry geeks like me, which I think is intentional (correct me if I’m wrong).

    I don’t necessarily think that new delivery mechanisms means that content has to suffer. I think Alder would tell you he still agonizes over word choice. Sure, there are a lot of hacks out there, but as we pass through the ‘transition period’ the cream will always rise to the top.

    AND, (this is a BIG and) I’d love to see you out there doing it! Maybe, and yes I plan to continue beating this dead horse endlessly, you could even dedicate it to seeking out those daring, visionary, forward-thinking wineries venturing out into new varietals, new sites, new styles. Not to give them an 80, 90, or 100, but to tell their stories so they might survive long enough to actually realize that “100 point Cali grenache (to borrow from comments past)”.

    Just a thought.

    See you here tomorrow, same time, same place? Don’t forget to say something mildly controversial. After all, it’s why I love you.

  3. No. It is not gone. In fact, from my position I see some very good wine writing come across my desk. Certainly Twitter, Facebook, and the blogging platforms make it easy for anybody to put their thoughts to virtual paper, but we are finding that there is still a thirst for knowledge. Indeed, you noted yourself just a day or two ago that people are seeking deeper knowledge about the wines they drink than in the “Golden Days” of your (yes Steve, I did that on purpose), when they just wanted to know points.

    Good content will always have an audience. It might not be on paper, or even in the written word, but good content will be sought out and seen. We have the great fortune to be in a rather discriminating industry, wine, where the consumers tend to be more educated. Those consumers will turn away from something poorly written or thought out, and will gravitate toward the quality.

    As for a class of wine writers like a priesthood, you might have identified the problem right there. I posit to you that the problem might have been with the priests their desire, like all priesthoods, to keep the sacraments to themselves and membership exclusive. The Catholics led to Luther, who had a message people wanted to hear. As long as you say something people want to hear, you will be heard. The priesthood might fail but the message will live on.

  4. Like other moments in our existence, the gods have elevated mankind yet again, this time with a publishing platform that allows them to promote their thoughts and feelings about wine (and other topics). While this has democratized the ability for one and all to express their opinions, it has yet to silence those who bring much needed substance to this subject.

    Just as the Golden Age was followed by an exponential growth in self-proclaimed philosophers, mathematicians, and historians, not all stood the test of time. Only the great ones survived.

    The blogosphere is already littered with those who endeavored to change the world of wine but have since given up their pursuit. Three or three hundred years from now, only the great writers will be remembered.

  5. I think it’s just more spread out. It’s like when rock music splintered into sub-genres that spawned more sub-genres. The sub-genres started to be able to exist outside the framework of the traditional record business, and now the periphery is hugely expanded with lots of interesting things going on- while the mainstream and most corporate end of it has been brought back to earth a little by a more evened playing field. I see this sort of thing happening here. It reminds me a lot of the gaining influence that I saw in DIY hardcore punk culture 20-30 years ago.

    For my wine knowledge, I try to pick the best of it for my use- be it traditional wine mags, uber-critics, blogs, message boards, etc. There’s still nothing that can totally replace curling up in bed or on a plane with a magazine.

  6. Surely there were hacks who flourished during the Golden Age, and surely there are excellent wine writers who thrive today. One only has to look at the great work of Jancis Robinson and her co-contributors at to see how smart wine writers can use blogs, Twitter and the like to communicate effectively (and with style and smarts, too.)
    If wine writing is on the decline, as you say, then what do you make of the fact that the average wine consumer has never had such a diverse selection of well-made, well-priced wine at her disposal?

  7. Sasha, I don’t see the connection between wine writing and a diverse selection of well-made wine.

  8. Chuck Hayward says:

    Oh, there’s plenty of good writing out there. Most of it is in Australia, however, where the craft has been passed down from elders to youth quite successfully. Here’s a review from Philip White, one of the great masters of wine writing down there who writes to his own standards and to those of no one else. He writes reviews like a jazz musician. Mind you, this is simply a wine review. When it comes to essays on the current state of affairs in the wine industry, watch out….. Yes, he probably represents a bit of the golden age of writing down there but folks like Campbell Mattinson have been passed the torch and are running with it quite successfully.

    Port Phillip Estate Morillon Tete De Cuvee Mornington Peninsula Pinot Noir 2007
    $46; 13.5% alcohol; screw cap; tasted 15 OCT 09; 94+++ points
    This is as good as Mornington has got thus far. It’s mysterious, heavy and compressed. It almost smells of gun blue and gunpowder, but not quite. It reminds me of Domaine de l’Arlot Nuits Saint George 1er Clos des Forets Saint Georges 2004 as a young wine. It’s black cherries, soot, black cats and licorice, with cassis and framboise below, which is not to say it’s too alcoholic. It’s just surly and authoritative and dense. The palate is lithe, tight, and ungiving, with little of the cheery raspberry and whatnot you’d expect, say, of Morey St Denis. This is one scary, sinister mutha. It needs at least a decade. Then, it’ll kill you, but not by percussive intrusion. It’ll slay by undressing itself, and then your defences. Forget all the firearms shit. This is a cross between Carmen Miranda wearing nothing but a hat made of fruit, and Nastassja Kinsky turning into the black panther in Cat People:

    See these eyes so red
    Red like jungle burning bright
    Those who feel me near
    Pull the blinds and change their… minds
    It’s been so long

    Still this pulsing night
    A plague I call a heartbeat
    Just be still with me
    Ya wouldn’t believe what I’ve been through
    You’ve been so long

    Well it’s been so long
    And I’ve been putting out the fire with gasoline
    Putting out the fire
    With gasoline

    If you haven’t got my gist yet, this wine is not for you. It’s for me. And I’ll have to drink this bottle now, so I can join the girls.

    Here’s another. Pinot noir seems to inspire Whitey…

    Port Phillip Estate Mornington Peninsula Pinot Noir 2008
    $37; 14% alcohol; Diam cork; drunk 14-15 OCT 09; 93+++ points
    Spicy, not quite abrupt, Burgundian timber itches the inside of your nose when you put it in here. You don’t have to put it in very far. But there are blackberries which ease this lumberjacked machismo. Deadly nightshade. Juniper. Anise. Dried figs. Baby spinach. Chicory. Peppery watercress, like the stuff Colonel Light left in the Delamere Creek in 1836. Some sorta thing blacker than a cherry. Dried prunes. That all makes your nose feel well scratched. I’d like to say that when you put it (the wine, not your nose) in where your teeth are, it’s soothing, but no. It wangs around your mouth like a polecat in a cage trap. It’s livid and vivid and very hard to feed. But shit it’s a good wine. It has all the tight stuff, all the intense black devilry, all the hot gearbox and clutch of a pinot which will be a ravishing beauty in about six to eight years. So call it a Jaguar (car) and forget the polecat bit. No bullshit. The tannins (extra fine and velvety) and the acid (not quite Sandoz or Owsley, but pretty swift) and the sheer sinewy nature of the fruit and the sap all add up to a trip that’s worth waiting for. And I don’t mean a Ford with a Jaguar badge. I mean pre-aircon 4.2, stripped to the bones. Bravo, sweet Sandro Mosele!

  9. Chuck, I will admit the examples you cite definitely have their own style!

  10. Chuck Hayward says:

    That’s kind of the idea. It’s great to see writers with their own individual palates and perspectives on the world of wine. Otherwise, it’s all formulaic and trending towards mediocrity where there’s an avoidance of taking a stand at the risk of offending someone. Who needs that!

  11. Some could argue we’re just getting out of the Bronze Age, my man! 🙂

  12. Dude, that is good writing!

  13. Kind of my point. Wine writing, like other criticism, doesn’t exist in a black hole. It’s there to educate and guide the consumer, single out producers who excel (and those who don’t), elevate the overall level of discourse — and, ideally, the quality of wine. If wine writing were in such a sorry state, wouldn’t the quality of what we drink suffer for it? Yes, I realize it’s an extreme counterfactual to throw out there, and there are plenty of other, much bigger factors that explain the improved quality of wine on the market. But I just can’t get too worked up about the perceived deficiencies in the state of wine writing when there’s so much good stuff out there to drink and read. Is there lots of dreck, too? Of course.

  14. Steve, raising the writing bar (as you do), you’ve also asked everyone who comments on this blog to write at a higher level. And they do (thanks, all).
    Great writing and great wine (whether written about or just sipped while writing) are inseparable.
    Anyway, the more misspellings, the fewer hits on Google (unless you misspell when searching…)


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