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Say goodbye to the Golden Age of Wine Writing

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Robert Gorman, in his 1975 book California Premium Wines, identified “three Englishmen—Harry Waugh, Hugh Johnson and Kathleen Bourke”—as the first “to write on California wine with any depth and sense of perspective.” This was not so much a slam on our native writers of the 1960s and 1970s, who could not have had the perspective of their much more experienced literary cousins across the pond; but it was a lament that came home to roost not ten years later, by which time American (which is to say, Californian) wine writing had descended into gobbledegook.

I was, on re-reading Gorman the other day (I’ve owned the book for decades), unfamiliar with Kathleen Bourke. It took a Google adventure to understand why: she’d been editor of the British publication Wine Magazine, the progenitor of Decanter, in the 1950s, and had given Michael Broadbent an early start in his wine-writing career. Of course, the magazine was unavailable in the States in those pre-Internet days, and so Kathleen Bourke was terra incognita for me.

Not so Harry Waugh and Hugh Johnson. Waugh wrote his inimitable wine diaries throughout the 1960s and 1970s and in his spare, leanly elegant and self-deprecating prose introduced a generation of Americans to French wine and a generation of Britishers to California wine. Hugh Johnson, of course, rose to stardom through his many books and articles, particularly his magnificent Vintage: The Story of Wine (1989); my dog-eared copy testifies to my eager devouring of every literate, lovingly crafted word, inspired no doubt by Macaulay.

In America, though, the ground broken by Bourke, Johnson and Waugh lay largely fallow, as our wine writers chose a path of greater expediency and commercialism. There was an explosion of wine books in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, but few made for good reading. They might have gotten their facts straight, but 35,000 words of facts makes for dull reading. There were exceptions: Bob Thompson’s 1993 Wine Atlas of California owed everything to Hugh Johnson in terms of style and even the book’s design (no wonder: they both shared the same publisher). Matt Kramer made quite a few ripples with his books (which were much admired in Europe) but, again, while accuracy might have been his forte, readability was not.

The main reason American wine writing fell into such doldrums was because of the wine magazines. They were frankly advertising vehicles. Writers, who were paid poorly, accepted their bleak compensation with grimness, and enjoyed the non-monetary aspects of the lifestyle their jobs provided. The less said about the quality of the average wine magazine article of the 1990s, the better—and I include myself in this indictment. Prose became captive to word count (itself enslaved to advertising), as well as to the whimsy of publishers who did not want unkind things said about potential clients; and there was, also, a pedantic “magazine style” that crushed creativity. Then, too, the advent of periodicals like People magazine (along with music videos on MTV) meant that the typical American had the attention span of a hamster. Wine magazines, no less than those in other areas of the culture, gave readers brevity, with its accompanying clichés and irritating reductionism.

I at least tried to overcome all this with the publication of my first book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River (University of California Press, 2005). It was not a commercial success, but it was an artistic one and I enjoy reading it today. Despite the magazines, there might have been, in the 2000s, a burgeoning interest among writers to aspire to Johnson-hood and Waugh-hood, but if there was, the infant was strangled in its cradle by the rise of the wine blogs. No longer was there even the appearance of writerly quality. Any yahoo could blog, for free, with the resulting democratization of vulgarity—not in the sense of obscenity, but in its Latin root-origin of unrefined crudeness. In my blog, I tried to write wittily, and think I succeeded, but I, too, succumbed all too often to the snarkiness to which bloggers remain subject.

Is there a body of American wine writing today we can admire? I have enjoyed the books of Jordan Mackay and of Benjamin Lewin, MW (another Johnson-phile), but while his dust jackets say “he divides his time between the eastern United States and the wine regions of Europe,” he is essentially British, which explains his unique literacy. There may be others of whom I am unaware. But then, I don’t pretend to keep up with wine books anymore. The Golden Age of wine writing, it seems to me, is past.

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