by Peter Pharos

The Good Wine Writer

Someone once told me that nothing in wine media gets page views like writing about wine writing. No one seems to be sure quite why this is the case. It might be because, in wine, everyone fancies themselves a writer. It might be because wine writers are an easy target. It might be, whisper it, because even when confined to a topic as limited and prosaic as wine, writing is an act that provokes much more interesting discussion than making beverages does.

Whatever the reason, the conversation seems to be relentlessly negative. Everyone, it seems, is unhappy with the state of wine writing, including wine writers themselves. So, in a Victorian spirit of perpetual self-improvement, I have spent a lot of time listening and keeping notes. As a result, I think I now have a solid understanding of what it takes to be a good wine writer, and I am ready to share this with you.

Wine writing as an activity exists because of the wine industry and the relationship between the two is, depending on your view, symbiotic or parasitic. As such, the good wine writer should first and foremost appreciate she only has a job because of it, and thus support the industry, or, in trade parlance, “our industry”. At the same time, it is very important that the good wine writer is a wine journalist. When I say journalist, I don’t mean the real-world journalist, of non-dom payrolls and revolving doors, but the journalist of popular imagination and Hollywood lore. Tirelessly pursuing the truth, fearlessly going against established interests, heroically exposing scandals. Just as long as the scandals refer to what the guy on the other side of the river is doing. And certainly not the scandal of what everyone is doing. Times are tough and the wine industry is just trying to make a living. So the good wine writer should remember his symbiotic/parasitic part in the chain and support our industry.

The good wine writer should, naturally, be a good writer. Actually, the good wine writer should be an outstanding writer. It is one thing to hold a reader’s attention when talking about things of fundamental importance, high complexity, and visceral interest, such as politics, the arts, a ball hitting a net, or you won’t believe how this actor looks now. It is quite another to do this while mostly discussing why this beverage is very slightly different to that other beverage if you are really paying attention. On the plus side, the wine writer gets to write about how much fun it is to take a drug without having to worry about a visit from the police, in most countries at least.

The good wine writer should also be a good communicator. This communicator should be able to address the 1% that drinks expensive wine and the 97% that drinks inexpensive wine, and ignore the 2% in between that actually cares about wine. What this last cohort drinks is not expensive enough to merit subservience and not inexpensive enough to merit populism, so it has been decided these are the wine snobs that scare everyone else away. The fact that this 2% might be the only ones that might actually read about wine is immaterial because there is no writing, no magazines, and no newspapers anymore. Instead we have empty, floating, bottomless web vessels, ready to be filled with content, so the good wine writer should be a good wine content provider. What content is, is not quite precise, but it seems to be largely whatever feeds the next iteration of platform capitalism.

It goes without saying that the good wine writer/communicator should not be writing about wine, unless they have a very solid knowledge of their subject. This means being a better viticulturalist than viticulturalists and a better enologist than enologists. Any expertise less than that and they will obviously get duped. A sophisticated appreciation of the wine-related aspects of climate science, chemistry, and manufacturing will come in handy. They should also have an understanding of the politics and culture of the area they are writing about, because a wine without context is a wine that doesn’t fetch more than a few quid.

The good wine writer should understand food in great depth and extoll the pleasures of the table, because wine without food is just another alcoholic beverage. This is somehow hampered by the fact that a good part of the wine trade is convinced that food and wine pairings don’t exist, and enjoyment is tautological: you can very well enjoy a fine Pinot Blanc with a deep fried Mars bar, if that’s the sort of thing you enjoy. Speaking of the wine trade, the good wine writer should also have a better grasp of the wine business than the people that make money of it. They should understand the travails of merchants and importers, indies and supermarkets, sommeliers and accessories salesmen. If they have time, they can try, as a diversion, to understand the travails of the person that actually buys the thing. The good wine writer’s load is alleviated somewhat by the fact that one area they don’t have to master is epidemiology and medicine. Indeed, when it comes to the life sciences, the good wine writer should be a committed sceptic of medical opinion and do his own research or, alternatively, be a Keynesian. In the long run, we are all dead.

The good wine writer should be a generalist. There is no point in talking about the drink if one doesn’t have a solid understanding of the rich and varied world of wine. Without an all-encompassing view, one is simply a regional advocate and cheerleader, with little to differentiate him from a PR stooge. Even if one’s heart and actions are pure, there is little point in having an opinion on a Burgundy if one doesn’t regularly try the Chardonnay they make in Canada, Oregon, Mexico, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, South Africa, Italy, Romania, India, China, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and, of course, England.

Wine is so rich, varied, and complex that the good wine writer must have local knowledge, speak the language, and ideally live in the region he is covering. As it is unlikely the wine writer has an infinite number of clones, leading an infinite number of lives, to cover a near infinite and ever increasing number of wine regions, the good wine writer then has to be a specialist. As the writer’s duty is first and foremost to his readers and the truth, the good wine writer has to use his local connections and viticulturalist’s understanding to inform the readers that some vintages are downright awful and best avoided. Then, he has to go to village café, where his fellow locals will surely celebrate his clear-headedness, accuracy, and integrity. As the good wine writer is, presumably, writing for an audience somewhere else, possibly far away, he also has to have an in-depth understanding of his readers, similarly speaking the language and sharing the culture. It is challenging to be in two places and partake in two cultures at the same time, so the good wine writer should opt for some sort of Persephone arrangement.

Most important of all, the good wine writer should not be a critic. Being a critic is an act of supreme arrogance: who, after all, is the wine writer to say what is good and what is bad. (That is a privilege allowed only to the people who do have that knowledge, the wine producers and the wine trade, who can give you an honest and straightforward answer: the good wine is the one they make and sell, and the bad wine is the one everyone else makes and sells.) As, however, any piece of writing requires a selection and, thus, implicit criticism, this is a bit tricky to achieve. Perhaps the wine writer can consider picking regions and wineries at random, and then making sure that the language and description is neutral and noncommittal. The appeal of such a strategy to readers has not been fully explored.

Should the good wine writer descend to criticism, they are not being such a good wine writer anymore, but at least they can save themselves from complete self-degradation by staying away from scores. It is widely agreed that the score is the lowest form of wine criticism: it alludes to scientific accuracy; it creates rigid hierarchies; it obliterates complexity and nuance. Everyone mocks the wine writers who pretend to score, and pours scorn on their methods, technique, and competence. Everyone knows it is just empty marketing and hype. Curiously, it is also what everyone will ask first and last, what everyone will comment on, and what everyone will remember from any piece of wine writing.

There is one thing, however, that everyone hates more than the wine score, and that is the tasting note. What the wine writer should be writing about a wine if they should not write a tasting note and give a score remains unexplained. Maybe the best wine writer is a good interpretative dancer. If the wine writer is unrepentant and wants to proceed with scoring individual wines, then it is vital that this assessment is fair. This means doing away with the frivolity of the swirl-sniff-spit. The good wine critic should taste the wine repeatedly, in different scenarios and across its lifetime. As it is notoriously difficult to predict how well a wine will age, the good wine critic is a wine coroner who will only talk about a wine when it’s safely past peak. (Unfortunately, a should-have-recommended buying guide is yet to be tried out for commercial potential.) What is more, the hedonic pleasure a wine drinker will get from a specific bottle rests on a myriad variables, from provenance, to food, to context, to mood. So, in order to be useful to the consumer, the good wine writer should not be writing criticism in the general and abstract, but be next to each wine drinker as a Roman pregustator, but only after she has run a full profile of that wine drinker’s precise gustatory preferences and psychosomatic state.

Finally, and most importantly of all, the good wine writer should have no Conflict of Interest. That is the exclusive prerogative of everybody else in the wine trade. The good wine writer should not host events, sell stickers, accept hospitality, or even be friends with anybody in the wine business, because these will all obviously create perverse incentives. Indeed, the good wine writer should not even receive samples because a person who tastes upwards of 5,000 wines a year, can clearly be swayed by the promise of drinking some wine. So, the good wine writer should buy the wine themselves and be entirely immune to the effect of price on perception of quality. As no single piece of wine writing is ever going to pay for the cost of procuring the bottles to make that piece worth reading, the ideal wine writer is thus a person of independent means, who operates at a significant permanent net loss, and yet is committed enough to the art to deliver a product of professional quality. Quite why someone would spend time, effort, and money to promote other people’s businesses, is unclear. It is, it appears, the good wine writer’s lot to (altogether now) “support our industry”.

So there you have it. This is all it takes to be a good wine writer. To be perfectly honest, I haven’t met them yet and I don’t know for a fact that they exist. But if this person does exist, if there is someone out there who has the journalistic fervour of a young Bob Woodward, the appreciation for nature of David Attenborough and the understanding of business of Michael Lewis. Someone who can communicate the geomechanical properties of Tuscan soil to Generation Zers and make Boomers excited about natural wine. Someone who has simultaneously the local knowledge of a sleeper cell and the global outlook of The Economist. Most of all, someone with Themis’s clarity in their judgement, and Astraea’s purity in their motives, man, if that person does exist, I really hope she doesn’t waste her formidable powers and exceptional talents writing about fermented grape juice.

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

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