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Practicing the “do” of wine writing


When I first began covering California, it’s safe to say most of the wine industry didn’t know much about me or Wine Enthusiast (although that’s certainly changed!). We were the upstart, the new kid on the block. And like all new kids, we had to prove ourselves. It wasn’t easy, but I was up for the challenge. I was then deep into the study of traditional Japanese karate, going for my black belt. I knew what it meant to prove yourself: you had to fight. You had to dodge attacks, parry blows, be nimble and crafty, and go on the offensive. You had to expect the unexpected. That was the way to win.

Back then — around 1993, 1994 — I knew what winning meant. It meant making the magazine respected. It meant making it matter. But I knew, also, that these things don’t happen all by themselves. That’s too much to expect. In karate, there’s a Japanese term, do, that means, roughly, the “way” or “path.” When affixed to the word “karate” (which itself means “empty hand”), the term becomes “karate-do,” or the way of karate. (The study area is called the dojo, the place where the do is practiced.) Karate-do is opposed to “karate-jitsu.” “Jitsu” refers merely to the technical aspects of karate. You can practice karate-jitsu; you may even get good at it; but to truly achieve karate’s heights, you have to practice karate-do.
By analogy, I understood that I needed to practice wine writing-do. I had to travel the wine path, live the wine life, commit myself 110%, in the sense that a Zen Buddhist needs to practice meditation and other spiritual arts in order to travel the true path of Zen. (In fact, Zen Buddhist thought has had a profound impact on Japanese martial arts.)

What did practicing the do of wine writing mean? The founder of modern Japanese karate-do, Gichin Funakoshi, wrote his famous Twenty Precepts about 100 years ago. These are the ground rules governing the thought and conduct of the karate-ka, or practitioner of karate. I began by applying his Precepts to my own situation. For example, Precept #9 states “It will take your entire life to learn karate, there is no limit.” That helped me to realize that no matter how long you remain a student of wine, there is always more to learn. It’s a good lesson in avoiding smugness and complacency. Precept #5 is “Spirit first, technique second.” This means that the wine writer may not be a technical expert, but what counts more than expertise is spirit, passion, drive. Precept #6 is “Always be ready to release your mind.” In karate, this means to have no fixed ideas, but to be fluid and supple, so as to be able to react to any external situation. In wine writing, I related this to many things. Being on the road, for example, which can be exasperating, frustrating and even dangerous, but offers unparalleled opportunities for learning and building relationships. Releasing the mind also means understanding that a $20 wine can be better than an $80 wine.

This is closely related to Precept #4: “First know yourself before attempting to know others.” I realized that earning the respect of the men and women of California for Wine Enthusiast meant, first and foremost, earning their respect for me, since I was the magazine’s public face. Nobody will respect a man who doesn’t know himself. Instead, they will pity him.

I won’t go through all twenty of Funakoshi’s Precepts, except to say that my favorite is #12: “Do not think that you have to win, think rather that you do not have to lose.” The two are quite different. If you feel that you have to win, you will be aggressive, which makes a man hard, overly ambitious and unlikeable. If you feel, instead, that you don’t have to lose, it makes you humble, and grateful for every little success that comes your way. It gives you the self-confidence to know that, for all your limitations, you can do whatever you set out to do, because that’s a gift life gives to each of us.

  1. Precept #9 is my favorite, in that it shows we are (or should be) life-long learners. While this applies to life in general, it’s especially important to our given field of endeavor in that no matter how much you know about wine, there’s always more to learn.

    No matter that you’ve got it all wired, guess what? Next vintage, there will be differences — some small, some huge and some that don’t reveal themselves until later, upon reflection and in retrospect.

    People occasionally mistake my passion and enthusiasm about wine for the need to win (being a “know it all”) or having to “prove my superiority” in trying to convey some point about why using champagne doesn’t yield a traditional Kir Royale, or why the wine maker chose to use french oak instead of american oak.

    It’s about trying to widen their perspective, show them the larger world of wine and get the light bulb to switch on; I love it when they finally “get it” and see how much more there is to experience — and to learn.

  2. Expecting the unexpected… I didn’t know you were the Karate Kid, but why am I not surprised.

  3. I’ll show you some chops next time we get together!

  4. We have a little Shorin Ryu Shorin Kan dojo down here in Paso. I will have to ask Sensei, but I am sure that you would be welcome to train in traditional Okinawan Karate for a night. We would be most honored to have you as our guest.

  5. Dear Steve Christian, thanks very much. I retired my gi about 7 years ago. Now I practice just by myself, kata and some bunkai moves.

  6. Steve,

    Great reading. I love it when the existentialist in you pokes its head to look around for it points in the direction of the things we all have in common. You wrote about Karate Do but I was reading it as ‘Surfing Do” and, of course, “Winemaking Do’. May the force be with you, get those good folk in Paso give you a surf lesson one of these days (too rough up here in the north coast).

  7. As a martial arts (Taekwondo) student myself, and aspiring wine writer, I can only say thank you for your post and for sharing your thoughts. I will continue practicing “do” in both, now feeling even more inspired…

  8. Love, love, LOVE the Twenty Precepts!!!

    Good to see at least one other wine person writing int eh vein of Zen wine, I’m not crazy after all!!! 🙂

  9. Well, Dude, you did once say you hoped I’d kick your scrawny butt at WBC!

  10. Great writing-do… it reminded me of aikido where you learn to blend with the other’s energy rather than try to overpower. With blending we transform -winemaking aikido do….

    thanks for the morning smile.

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