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What I’ll tell them about wine writing


I’m speaking tonight, more or less extemporaraneously, at the U.C. Berkeley Haas School of Business MBA Program Wine Club (wow, that’s a mouthful). They asked me back after my gig there last year, which means they liked me, they really liked me! Or maybe they just couldn’t find anyone else.

Since I won’t have scripted remarks, I was thinking, as I walked up the hill back from the gym, that I would give the students a potpourri of stuff we could chat about, and that they can chose anything or everything, or whatever else they come up with. Among the topics I thought of were California varieties, regions, wines, winemakers, wineries, wine writing as opposed to wine criticism (including how I became a wine writer), the changing face of wine writing, social media and its impacts, blogging, collecting, the 100 point system, Wine Enthusiast and how I work, Parker’s retirement from California and its meaning (if any), cult wines, how I see the market emerging from the recession, P.R., marketing, creating buzz, the 3-tiered distribution system, etc. etc.

That took about 10 steps up the hill. Then I reverted back to “wine writing as opposed to wine criticism” and figured I’d point out to them that there really is a difference, and it’s of particular concern to me, since as longtime readers of this blog know, the quality of wine writing is something I feel strongly about. And then it occurred to me to point out that every wine writer is aiming at a particular audience. My writing, whether in the magazine or on this blog, is not aimed at beginners. For example, it is extremely unlikely that I would ever have a pronuniciation guide for European varieties in anything I write (Cah-berr-ay Sew-veen-yon). I expect my readers to know how to pronounce everything (well, almost everything. Not Croatian varieties. Drnekusa crna, for example, or Trnjak). I also expect them–you–to have read widely and know a lot about the industry. If I say “Constellation” I don’t point out that it’s Constellation Brands, the second biggest (after Gallo) wine company in the country, based in New York. I drop the word “Parker” with some frequency and don’t bother with his first name, because you already know it.

People have asked me if I think I’m writing to the same people in both the magazine and my blog. The answer is yes…and no. I have less of a sense who reads me in the magazine, because there’s almost no dialogue between writer and reader, and also because the magazine contains my scores and reviews, which go out all over the place. It’s very different in the blog, where I get instant responses via the “Comments” section. When my readers think I’ve made a dumbbell of myself, they don’t hesitate to let me know.

The Haas MBA students are mostly unknown to me, which is why I’m going to wing it tonight. How can you write a prepared speech for an audience about whom you know almost nothing? I wondered if they would feel slighted when I walk in and say, basically, “I didn’t even prepare any remarks,” but I’m not really worried about it, because I can pull enough rabbits out of my hat to entertain and enlighten them no matter what they want to talk about. I like public forums. My hands sometimes get a little shaky at first from nerves, but I don’t think anyone can see it, and it doesn’t affect my mind or my mouth, i.e., I can still speak cogently and at length about anything I know about; and after a while, I’m in my element. And the more interactive an audience is, the better and more fun the event is. There are many areas of wine I don’t know much about–South Africa, Sicily–but when it comes to things I do know, it’s a lot, and I like to talk.

We’re going to taste four wines I chose: Shypoke 2008 Charbono, Robert Foley 2009 Charbono, Cambiata 2007 Rocosa Loma Vineyard Tannat and Joseph Swan Vineyards 2007 Matthew’s Station Vineyard Tannat. I gave them all high scores. I want the students to know, if they don’t already, that it’s not always about Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and the others. California can produce outstanding wines from scores of varieties. The problem is that they’re hard to sell, so growers and vintners don’t waste their time making them. Part of the wine writer’s job is to let consumers know about these “lesser known” varieties which in many cases are more food-friendly (and ageworthy) than Cabernet and Pinot, even if they don’t get scored as highly. But that’s a different topic, one I may take up in a future blog.

  1. I’m a kosher wine blogger and agree that there are so many varietals out there aside from the “big 5” (cab, merlot, pinot, sauv blanc and chard….throw in grigio while we’re at it), but very few people have heard of them, and in the kosher world, very little is even produced. I’m a big fan of tannat and wish I could locate a kosher version of it, but that’s besides the point.

    I would definitely like to see an “after-action report” on your schtick and get a rundown of your speech. This is something I struggle with regularly between “writing” about wine and “critiquing” wine. Especially since I am merging both wine review and wine 101, often in the same post.

  2. i also am a winefotainer and no matter how i prepare, i leave my notes and go with the audience. reading people is better for the job than describing wine. they already have the wine. nothing i say will make them taste blueberries. my job is to create an experience memeory that includes the wine. lafite drunk in vile circumstance will be vile in sense memory. (well, maybe not the 1982 vintage) so my goal is to be honest with them, they will not be fooled, hope for a corked wine so that i can provide an example, and enforce the use of wine as a lifestyle rather than an alcoholic beverage. there’s vodka for that.

  3. Grapemaster: Winefotainment! I like that.

  4. Tannat? Charbono? Are you kidding me? Is this still Apri 1?

    These young people, probably mostly under 30, have never heard of those varieties. Why not give them a couple of better known reds to accompany a tannat and a charbono?

    You will be talking so far over their heads that you might as well be talking in tongues. Do yourself and them a favor and build into your topic. We often talk about people learning from experience. You are assuming that these people would know an ageworthy Cab from Two-Buck Chuck. I didn’t when I was a grad student. Did you?

    I’m sure that you and they will have fun. My marketing professor was a consultant to Weibel when I was in grad school. Showing them Robert Foley and Joseph Swan wines is a giant step up from the Green Hungarian to which we were treated when he took the whole class to visit the winery.

  5. Charlie, I did this seminar last year. They’re more knowledgeable about wine than you think.

  6. Charlie,
    I’m under 30 and know about both Charbono and Tannat. Granted I’m not the average under 30 person but since these people are in the Wine Business program at Davis I’m willing to bet the majority of them know as well.

  7. Steve,
    Sounds like fun! Good luck!

  8. Nova–

    Steve is probably right. They are likely to be more knowledgeable than I assumed. My bad on that, but since they are MBA candidates at UC Berkeley and in the Wine Club, I do know something about that having been one of those myself.

    I still think Steve would serve those students better if he used a wine or two with which they are familiar as part of the exercise in extending their wine knowledge. But, they are lucky to have a first rate wine person coming to talk to them. Both Steve and students should have fun.

    But here is another question. When I was an MBA student, I don’t remember having time during the week to go to events like this. Oh sure, we would pop out to the local for a refresher usually after 1100, but not before. MBA programs must be easier than they used to be, especially at Cal. :-}

  9. Carlos Toledo says:

    Steve, does the californian tannat lean towards the francais or the uruguayo type?

    Thanks, mate. Carlos

  10. Carlos, from my understanding it’s more toward Uruguay.

  11. Charlie, I dunno, they meet 9-10 times a year from 6-8 and it’s always very crowded [60-65 people] so they must find the time.

  12. Steve,
    I trust all went well, I know you are a great speaker. Is it only me or did anyone else think you goofed up on the pronunciation of CaberNet Sauvignon?

    Silly things aside, in light of what I see as a trend on wine blogs to discuss wine writing as opposed to wine issues, I wonder: do you think that the immediate response you now get is making you a better writer?

    I see a parallel here to the winemaker’s world. In the past, winemakers worked in the shadows, interacting mostly with issues that concerned wine MAKING. These days, a winemaker has to deal with PR folk, marketing folk, reviewers that want to rate a vintage before the grapes have finished fermenting, CPA’s that ask them to justify barrel purchases and more regulatory agencies than I care to mention. It seems there is less room for long term results, the kind that build a legacy, than there used to be. I think this shows in many of the wines produced these days.

    Do you think the “pressure” to have a daily written piece and the immediate feedback bloggers get work to produce better writing?

  13. Dear Galactic, interesting question. I might blog on it. Personally, for myself, I think my writing gets better every day, from a strictly writerly point of view. As for writing about winemaking, I don’t think people want or need hardcore details of V&E — what forest the oak was from, who’s the producer, what level of toast, what kind of yeast, rootstock, clone, etc. Sure I could do that. I have that information available. But it’s not kind of wine writing I want to do.

  14. Oh, come on, Steve. I can’t wait for your essay on the differences between Seguin-Moreau and Demptos barrels, complete with discussions of toasted heads and once-used versus new barrels.

    Because that is just the amuse-bouche for us geeks. I want to know your real feelings about D & J used for Chardonnay as opposed to Viognier.

    Of course, Galactic does care about wood as well, but you need to be sure that he does not think you are talking about his 1950s-era Mercury woody.

  15. Charlie – is that “Mercury” or “Mercurey”?

  16. Steve,

    By “wine issues” I meant more about factors that affect how the wine world (and the wines available to the consumer) are being transformed, not someone’s oak choices. I’d rather watch flies make love than hear about oak lactones (hey, that’s not a bad name for a band!).

    And for the record: it’s a 1951 Ford (although I love Merucrey Barrels) and, I am wearing no clothes.


  17. Galactic, “Flies Make Love” is a better name for a band than “Oak Lactones.”

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