Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Why I Don't Like Wine Writing

I'm going to be a little bit all over the place here, so bear with me.

I don't like most contemporary wine writing. I think that's been pretty clear. It's almost uniformly humorless and often reads like a self-important pissing contest of adjectives and a bragging match over trophy wines like they're college sexual conquests.

Wine is booze. Wine is fun. Wine can be beautiful and transcendent and wonderful and weird. Just like sex. If we described sex in the manner of wine writing, it'd be the most un-arousing prose on the planet.

And I think that's the issue. Wine writing is either cold and clinical or it's the flowery puff of romance novels and the trite sensuality of Bible Belt missionary sex. It fails to capture the nuance, intimacy and situational spontaneity that is inherent to wine tasting. Tasting and fucking are unique in that they are intensely personal while simultaneously requiring the willful participation of another, whether that be a winemaker or a leather-bound gimp tied up in your basement. Or something in between.

Wine writers are, generally, too indulgent in themselves to care that there is a wine or a reader involved. Most wine writing is the equivalent of mindless, violent masturbation where nobody is enriched but the actor. Your adjectival calisthenics do not impress me sir!

Strangely some people do care, but in the same way that people care about vanilla pornography featuring skinny bleached blondes with bolted on tits and muscular gentlemen with nothing to recommend them but one qualification, a sort of over-ripe high alcohol extraction of the penis. It's immediate, simple and easily accessible. Gender is obvious. Roles are clear. The viewer isn't muddled by questions like "Hey that short-haired girl is kinda cute, does that mean I'm gay?" or "What's that woman doing to that man in the harness? Isn't that against the Bible?" It's what we're "supposed" to find sexy. It's how we're "supposed" to write about wine.

When a writer pretends objectivity in wine writing and criticism, what he does is mask that this objective writing is writing for the lowest common denominator for mass consumption. It fails to actually stimulate or enlighten. It's the airport novel as opposed to literary fiction. It's comforting predictable prose and superficially titillating plot twists, not a challenging and provocative foray into history, culture, taste and odd personal perversions.

I get much more pleasure from reading the distinctive, idiosyncratic and eloquently personal ramblings of a passionate wine enthusiast than the rote critiques of the most organized, rational wine writers.

Perhaps this is cynical, but I think that mainstream wine writing is so poor because its ranks are filled largely by journalists who, writing ability aside, are little more than wine hobbyists. They are not wine professionals. Their connection to wine is that of an enthusiast and a tourist and they're writing for other tourists. They do not produce the product nor do they select products for import. There's a disconnect because they do not understand the passion required to be foolish enough to want to produce and sell something so weirdly personal and bizarre as wine.

Who are the major wine writers? Jancis Robinson? Travel writer. Robert Parker? Lawyer. Eric Asimov? National news journalist. Wine came later and wine came from a perspective of an elite consumer. Their first loyalty is to the writing and the idea of wine, not to the wine itself. They're out to sell themselves and their philosophy first.

The wine writers I like, people like Thierry Thiesse and Randall Grahm, are winemakers and importers. They're not writing about wine because they need to make deadline or want to sell some sort of safe Club Med package-tour idea of wine, they're writing because they are passionate about the business that has become their true vocation and, recent publishing success for Mr. Grahm aside, is the source of most of their income.

And as annoying and unwatchable as I might find him, most of the time Gary Vaynerchuk has done more to democratize wine since, well, Randall Grahm. And Gary Vee literally grew up in a wine shop. Wine is his life-long vocation and he wants to share all good wine with everybody, not some expensive wines with the initiated few.

So seek out those wine professionals who also write. Many restaurant sommeliers have wine blogs, as do wine shops. Sure these are going to be opinionated and biased, but that's what all writing is. It's just the wine critics who try to hide their bias by perpetuating the adjective-industrial complex where there is a "right" and a "wrong" way to describe wine; where wines can be quantitatively judged on its qualities and that the judgment of the Wine Critic, through some miraculous fiat, carries a declarative value somehow greater than one man's opinion.

In the immortal words of legendary wine enthusiast Thomas Jefferson: "That's some bullshit right there."


Cabfrancophile said...

What a great post, a lot of food for thought here. For me the function of a tasting note is to relay a sense of the 'structural' qualities of a wine. It's dry, austere, at best utilitarian. But attempting to convert bottled sunshine to a litany of adjectives is even more masturbatory. Hence my attempt to pare it down. The reader doesn't need carnal knowledge; the reader simply needs to know whether the wine is something worth experiencing. A sense of style and effectiveness of that expression is the starting point for a personal experience.

I often wonder what the attraction is of reading notes on wines so rare, old or expensive one will never taste them. It's vicarious if not downright pornographic.

Your observations on critics are astute. I've sometimes wondered if there's such a thing as a "lawyer's palate." Parker and other white collar critics come from buying wine as a luxury item, as a status symbol. Inevitably they focus on wine as just that.

I love the connection you make between Grahm and GV. You might give them a bit too much credit, though. For all their enthusiasm and creativity, they are marketers. I think they're internally conflicted as a result, but in the end they are still pitching something. Democratization for them is motivated by their ideals, but also by profits. In a way, that's more noble than those whose motive is to work their way into an elite inner circle.

David J.D. said...

Good thoughts all. I think all critical motivations are dubious, so the least dubious to my mind is profit, especially when the interest in profit motivates an effort to increase wine appreciation and decrease pretension.