Are We Just Talking to Each Other?
Over the past few months I have been immersing myself in wine books. The main motivation for my crash course on the social and economic history of wine has been threefold. First of all, I am a history nut. I studied history and philosophy during my time at Rutgers University and if my wife permits, I will watch what seems like an endless amount of historical documentaries. Secondly, since trying my first carafe of Bandol rosé in Marseilles more than a decade ago, I have made it my business to learn and educate others how a wine finds its way from vineyard to glass. Terroir, sense of place and somewhereness all fascinate me. Just as important as climate and soil is the connection to the people who contribute to a wine’s authentic identity. Many wines lack such a marker, but many exude it. Finally, I have been captivated by the discussion that doesn’t seem to want to go away – the significance and role of the wine writer. I consider myself a wine professional in many respects, but as writer, not much more than an amateur. I don’t have the time to write as much as I’d like and when I do write, it is often while I am hurriedly scribbling down a scramble of fleeting thoughts as I am interrupted by sales calls, appointments and the urge to run long distances in the woods. And when I am able to separate myself from the daily rigmarole, I’d rather read than write. As with many just about any subject matter, there are a number of wine writers that, through their pen, capture the soul of the subject and imagination of the reader. This morning, as I finish up my current selection, American Vintage – The Rise of American Wine, by Paul Lukacs, I came across one of hundreds of passages that I underlined for further review. When writing about the influence of Robert Parker on the modern wine market, Lukacs writes:
“[Parker] soon discovered that there was a dearth of reliable information concerning which wines were worth buying and which should be avoided. Most well-known wine writers worked in the wine trade as merchants or importers, and they wrote as if talking to each other – praising this wine for its resemblance to that one, and defining quality in terms of regional characteristics. Because they had obvious vested interests, their recommendations did not prove particularly useful.”
The line that struck as most prescient with respect to the current style of wine writing in newspapers, magazine and especially blogs (including mine) is, “…and they wrote as if talking to each other…” Though I firmly believe that the best wine writers are those without affiliations to wholesalers, retailers or other commercial interests, many of us are writing to each other. Sure, the wine public is as educated as it has ever been – and I am incredibly thankful for the amount of wine knowledge that is consumed on a daily basis. But as Paul Lukacs brilliantly points out in American Vintage and his latest book, Inventing Wine, those of us in the wine business seem to fail more often than we succeed in engaging in a discussion with the wine drinking public at large.
I dare not try to offend any of my favorite journalists, bloggers and commentators. As a student of wine, I read over 150 stories through my RSS feed each morning over a cup of coffee or two. Many of which are highly informative and entertaining. And I certainly do not think that Robert Parker should be free of the various forms of criticism he has received from the wine cognoscenti over the past few years.
Wine certainly has been democratized, but as we (including I) pile on Parker for his latest business dealings, his arrogance and critique what seems to be a narrowing palate, I ask a simple question – has anyone done more as a wine writer to speak directly to his audience, while also democratizing the wine-drinking experience? If you think not, how does your contribution compare?