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Wine writing, and what’s wrong with it

Wine writing, and what's wrong with itWine writing in the United States is too serious, too self-absorbed, and too parochial. In the past six weeks, I have seen so many examples of these flaws that I feel compelled to say something. Too many of us want to be famous, and the only way we can do that is to write in winespeak about topics that only appeal to other wine writers who want to be famous.

I don’t write this lightly, and not just because I’m now fair game for every blogger in the universe. I write this because wine writing will never advance the cause of wine in the U.S. unless we understand that most of the stuff that we write about is of little interest to most Americans – including those who drink wine. A friend of mine (who will remain nameless for her protection) is a top-notch food writer who also does some wine. She doesn’t much care for writing about wine. How, she has asked me many times, can anyone read this stuff?

After the jump, what’s going on and how we can fix it:

Dave McIntyre is not only my cohort in DrinkLocalWine.com, but a fine wine writer who more than ably covers the subject for the Washington Post. A couple of weeks ago, he agonized – and I mean agonized – over a column about syrahs. Dave really wanted to write something helpful about the group of over-ripe, over-extracted, over-alcoholic wines that he tasted and that he wanted to like. But he was also honest about what he found: “Syrah, I’m afraid, has fallen victim to the American love of the trophy wine. These are high-scoring wines lauded by wine magazines and available in small numbers primarily through the winery’s Web site or mailing list.”

For this, he has had to endure the outrages of the Internet. I won’t link to the site, because there is no reason to give publicity to the prestigious wine name that runs it and that attracts comments like these. Suffice it to say that Dave was called stupid and dopey, and was even accused of hurting California syrah sales. (Dave, for some bizarre reason, wasn’t aware he had a responsibility to California syrah. The silly man thought it was to his readers.)

And why did this happen? Because too much wine writing in this country encourages that kind of behavior. The writers who practice it have three tenets: First, that California wine – and only California wine – is correct, and that everyone else in the world (save for possibly the Australians) are outdated fuddy duddies. Second, that this California wine style equates dark, brooding color with quality (to paraphrase the great Dan Berger, who also has little use for these people). Third, that no discussion is allowed. These writers are always right and everyone else is always wrong.

Perhaps the best example of their approach is this, which ran in the Los Angeles Times last year, in a discussion about terroir. The author, Matthew Bord, is a former editor at one of the Wine Magazines, and he hits all the high notes: The snarky style, the I’m smarter than you attitude, and the refusal to brook any dissent. And I loved the way he used the phrase “California promotes wines that don’t suck.”

I can almost see Bord holding his breath until he turns blue: “California wine is the yuppie of global beverages and, at the moment, under assault from a cadre of wine writers, filmmakers and importers who have taken an ultra-conservative, borderline Luddite stance toward its incontrovertible dominance of the global wine business.”

What this style of wine writing misses, of course, is that most of us don’t care about that stuff. We’ll never taste the wines that they write about, and we couldn’t afford them even if we could buy them. My favorite one of Dave’s attackers? The guy who took issue with Dave’s assertion that $30 to $50 was a lot of money to spend on wine.

Note to whichever universe that fellow is in: The average price of a bottle of wine sold in the U.S. is about $6.

But what really made me notice how out of touch too much U.S. wine writing is with reality came when I was reporting the pinot noir scandal story. Guess how many wine writers called Treasury spokesman Art Resnick to follow up on the story? 1000? 100? 50? How about three? Me, a fellow from the Wine Spectator, and someone from the Reuters wire service. This is astounding. Can you imagine the federal government announcing that it was investigating ketchup fraud and being equally as ignored? Of course not.

But that’s because the wine involved was beneath too many American wine writers. It was cheap wine made to sell to ordinary Americans to buy in grocery stores, and who is going to impress his or her friends by writing about plonk like that? What’s the point of writing about a wine that you can’t give a 98 to? Or that you can’t buy only on a Tuesday in odd numbered months when the moon is full because you’re damn cool? That the amount of wine involved could have totaled as much as 1.3 million cases – more than 100 times the production of a cult winery — hardly mattered. Some wine, after all, is more equal than others.

Wine writing in the U.S. does not educate. It stereotypes. Too many wine writers are content to preach to the choir, rather than to speak to the masses. Our job should not be to reinforce what we believe because we think we’re supposed to believe it, but to help people understand wine so that they’ll drink it. And we’re not going to do that by only waxing poetic about single vineyard Napa cabernet sauvignons, criticizing people who disagree with us, and pretending we’re better than everyone else. We aren’t. We’ve just tasted more wine (though sometimes I wonder whether some of us really have.)

This links to the 30 most popular brands in the U.S. in 2008, based on sales. Each sold at least 100,000 cases, and most of them cost $10 or less. In fact, 16 of them cost $5 or less. How many wine writers have written about these wines? How many have even tasted them? How many have looked at this market and asked, “Why are people drinking this and not a $34, 16.5 percent syrah – and how does that affect me?”

For the record, I have tasted or written about 21 of the labels in the last couple of years and one of them is in my $10 Hall of Fame. I didn’t like all of them, but I know they matter. This does not make me smarter or more good-looking; it makes me a professional. I’m a wine writer. My job is to write about wine that people drink, not wine that someone else thinks they should drink. My job is to explain why a wine tastes the way it does, not to intimidate someone into drinking it – or not drinking it, as the case may be. And until more of us start doing that, wine will always be a minor part of American life.

Because it is minor, despite the glittery statistical advances of the past couple of years. Almost 40 percent of us, says the Wine Institute, don’t drink alcohol at all. Per capita, we drink about one-sixth the amount of wine that the Italians and the French do, a figure that hasn’t changed all that much since 1980. And, my favorite number – 15 percent of Americans drink 91 percent of the wine (courtesy of the Wine Market Council). Which means that even Americans who drink a lot of wine don’t drink the wines most of us write about. Instead, they’re buying Yellow Tail.

Of course, why would they drink the wines too many of us write about? They can’t buy them and they don’t understand what we’re talking about, anyway. Or, to quote Dan Berger again: “Big = better. It is the insurance policy upon which the reputations of all ‘experts’ are built.”

For more on wine writing and the wine business:

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8 Responses to Wine writing, and what’s wrong with it

  1. acevola@swbell.net' Alfonso says:

    Alright, Jeff. Go get ‘em, tiger!

  2. LouisvilleJuice@gmail.com' Tom says:

    I’m a long time wine drinker who just started a local wine blog in Louisville, Kentucky, which has a developing but still small wine culture. The thing I run into more than anything is people who are intimidated by wine. Beer and bourbon they understand — though there are certainly people trying to make those complicated, too — but wine strikes them as something that is too difficult and fraught with social peril. When I point out that in most of the world wine is the drink of choice of peasants and farmers, they barely believe me.
    I think you’re right. I think there are people who benefit from making things seem more complicated than they are. Talk to anyone in the IT department and you’ll know what I mean.
    Nice piece. I’m printing it out and putting it up in my office to remind what I’m supposed to be doing.

  3. Jeff Siegel says:

    Thank you both for the kind words. Oddly enough, I was talking to a major American winemaker yesterday, who didn’t know I had written this, and he said practically the same thing. So we aren’t the only ones who feel this way.

  4. Kcooks01@bellsouth.net' Kristin says:

    Amen to this! I am so tired of over extracted, over priced, high alcohol wines. And the people who champion their existence to the exclusion of other styles. Thanks for taking up the cause for all of us who prefer a different type of wine. Believe it or not, there are those of us who seek out wines that fall somewhere between Parker and Yellow Tail. Keep up the good work.

  5. gr@gretchenroberts.net' Gretchen says:

    Nice post, Jeff. Wine writers should always keep their responsibility to their readers foremost in their minds. What I find funny is the wines I’ve always been interested in (i.e. wines people actually drink and can afford to drink) are now hot because the economy is in the tank. Everyone’s writing about value wines, but most people are writing about them for the first time. And they’re shocked to discover the amazing breadth and depth of good wine in the $8-15 category.
    Still, even $15 for a weeknight isn’t cheap for the vast majority of people. That’s why I like your $10 hall of fame.

  6. tish@wineforall.com' Tish says:

    Good stuff, Curmy. I think this put-on-the-brakes attitude is healthy. ANd as you noted in your comment, you are hardly alone. COuple more good recent posts in the same vein:
    http://tinyurl.com/ctqz2a + http://tinyurl.com/cqrwez

  7. Jeff Siegel says:

    Thanks for the note, Tish. Those are both two fine posts that you link to, and I recommend them highly. In fact, you gave me an idea for a followup post next week.

  8. jim@hotmail.com' Jim says:

    You guys should check out Wines That Don’t Blow! Now that’s a site that’s got it goin’ on!

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