by Ron Washam

The Pulitzer Prize for Wine Reviews

Though it has yet to gain the kind of attention its other prizes have achieved, the Pulitzer Prize for Wine Reviews was handed out for the first time in 2013. The Pulitzer Prize committee gave the coveted prize to James Molesworth of Wine Spectator.

“Molesworth,” the committee wrote, “has created what can only be described as an amazing body of work in very short sentences. With the precision of e.e. cummings, the opaqueness of Donald Barthelme, combined with an intimate and commanding knowledge of fruit rivaled only by Del Monte, Molesworth entices us into a world where wine isn’t just a beverage, it’s the key to unlocking the secrets of the human soul. Novice wine drinkers may read Molesworth for his uncanny command of numbers—his “88” is haunting, an oenologic equivalent of Pynchon’s Lot 49—but wine connoisseurs read him for his gift for language, a gift that takes ordinary words and combines them in a way that renders each of them meaningless. Molesworth has taken wine and used it as a means to destroy the English language. In this, he carries on the great literary tradition of James Joyce, Lewis Carroll, and Professor Irwin Corey. Molesworth demonstrates that the value we place on language is misguided and thickheaded. Numbers, and only numbers, have meaning.”

The Pulitzer Prize panel went on to recommend and analyze some of what they called “Molesworth’s genius for twaddle.” Here is a moving piece from July 2013:

LES VINS DE VIENNE Condrieu La Chambée 2011 (95 points, $85)

Ripe and lush, but very pure, with gorgeous yellow apple, white peach and Cavaillon melon fruit aromas and flavors, lined with honeysuckle, heather and quinine and sailing through the long, stone- and mineral-framed finish. A really beautiful combination of weight and purity. Drink now through 2019. 417 cases made. —James Molesworth

“As beautifully constructed a sentence as Roman Polanski’s,” writes the Pulitzer committee. “Notice how Molesworth begins with fruit and ends with mineral, echoing our own human journey from the Garden of Eden to a soon-to-be-barren planet. The Viognier he speaks of here is ripe and lush, and yet, at the same time, minerally—the skilled wine reviewer can contain worlds within his contradictions. But it’s the aroma of Cavaillon melon, an aroma as familiar to the average reader as the ball sac of a male snow leopard, that condescends the most brilliantly, hanging over the maritime heather and quinine that sail through the finish like an Oracle catamaran at the America’s Cup. In the end, we are left not just in awe of Molesworth’s distorting of the language, but by his breathtaking ability to smell things that aren’t even there.”

The Pulitzer committee seemed dazzled by Molesworth’s recent compositions, also taking note of this profound work:

ROGER SABON & FILS Châteauneuf-du-Pape Réserve 2010 (94 points, $55)

This is gorgeous, with lush linzer torte, boysenberry pâte de fruit and plum sauce notes that captivate, while anise, Lapsang souchong tea and singed apple wood notes fill in the background. The long finish is fleshy and driven. Best from 2016 through 2030. 200 cases imported. —James Molesworth

“In the hands of ordinary wine writers,” the committee writes, “this would come off as a nice bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. In Molesworth’s world, it’s a buffet at an All-You-Can-Eat smörgåsbord in a painting by Edward Hopper. Molesworth takes an ordinary wine and discovers in it a torte, a pâte de fruit, a sauce, a tea (not just any tea, but Lapsang souchong tea, the kind in a bag just like the one on the snow leopard) and apple wood. This vision of wine writing, a vision that shares much with Hieronymous Bosch’s vision of Hell with its unexpected images that are revolting, startles us out of our complacency about wine and makes us feel stupid and mortal. It is as though Molesworth is having his way with us, we are naked and exposed, we trust him to guide us to a wine climax, and, indeed, as he writes, ‘the long finish is fleshy and driven.’ Molesworth has penetrated us, and we reach for a cigarette.”

In awarding the first Pulitzer Prize for Wine Reviews, the committee talked about the criteria for the award:

“We felt that the wine writer’s body of work had to reflect a consistent style of reviewing, one that obfuscates and befuddles. So many wine reviews make sense, speak to the average person in terms easily understood, in the kind of language used every day by ordinary people when they talk about wine. We weren’t interested in that. We were searching for something more esoteric, as is the way of the Pulitzer. We sought to overlook the professional and laud the unintelligible and falsely intellectual. We think we’ve succeeded with our first laureate, James Molesworth.”

HAMILTON RUSSELL Chardonnay Hemel-en-Aarde Valley 2011 (93 points, $32)

This white cuts a bold swath, delivering flavors of dried Jonagold apple, fig, creamed pear, hazelnut and persimmon. Creamy and lush, held together by a finely beaded spine of acidity, with strong minerality kicking in on the lengthy finish. Showy and suave, yet balanced. Drink now through 2018. 6,208 cases made. —James Molesworth

“Here is the synthesis of the Molesworth style exemplified. Notice the use of ‘bold swath,’ and how it immediately makes the reader wonder what the white is cutting a bold swath through—it’s wine as Errol Flynn, or Norman Bates. Then the wine delivers flavors, and, oh, what flavors. Not just an ordinary apple, a Jonagold apple! The subtle Molesworth again displaying his renowned mastery of fruit—James Molesworth, MF (also stands for Master of Fruit). Figs, the eternal symbol of covering your genitals. Creamed pears! Who doesn’t drool over creamed pairs? Most of still dream of our mother’s creamed pears. Or is this sly sexual metaphor? Hazelnut! Persimmon! Now it’s Christmas in your mouth. And, always, there is Molesworth’s ‘minerality.’ No matter how much creamed pear, no matter how creamy and lush, there is minerality. The whole description makes your finely beaded spine tingle. And makes you wonder what a ‘finely beaded spine’ is—an Elton John wet dream? And at the end, after but a few dozen words, Molesworth returns ironically to the ‘bold swath’ of the first line, the echo of Norman Bates, with ‘Showy and suave, yet balanced.’ Indeed. The balanced and the unbalanced. One cannot read a wine review of Molesworth without feeling simultaneously ignorant and somehow in need of a hot shower.”

In their long quest to have readers ignore their wine descriptions and focus on the scores, Wine Spectator has found the perfect weapon in James Molesworth, an MF if there ever was one.

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