Oh, The Stories Wine Writers Write

reblogged from Nick Miller's TumblrI’ve noticed a “thing” trending recently — a bunch of stories in wine-related media (and showing up on my various social media timelines) featuring young couples launching new wine brands, often making wines from non-mainstream varieties. “Young couple starts winery” is not a particularly original storyline, but the thing about the couples featured in these recent pieces is that they — like the couple in the pic above (who do not own a winery, BTW) — are RIDICULOUSLY photogenic. Which can’t possibly hurt the marketability of these stories.

This storyline is part of a larger genre of shopworn but easy-to-sell “interest” bits, including: “guy makes cubic dollars in private equity/tech/real estate, buys vineyard, builds ‘world-class destination winery’, hires famous consulting winemaker and viticulturist, releases $200+/bottle Cabernet” and — a variation on the ridiculously photogenic couple theme — “hipster somm pairs with rebel urban winemaker to produce wines that cut against the grain of the ‘international’ style” (some trendy facial hair mandatory in accompanying photos) and “winegrower eschews technology, converts vineyard to biodynamic practice, produces ‘natural’ wine” — which must include at least one photo intended to depict rugged individualism: rough clothes, 1,000-yard stare, vineyard dog, rented sheep among the vines, and a cow horn with a handful of poo.

Then there’s the ever-reliable, if somewhat more rare, interest piece formula: “rock star/celebrity ‘makes’ wine!” and the even more rare: “who knew/isn’t it awesome that ‘people of color’ can be winegrowers too?” I’ve got a few ideas on what the next formulaic “interest” tropes might be that wine writers pursue to bore entertain us: winemaking politicians, and winemaking people with disabilities (the former arguably being a subset of the latter).

Writing From The Other Circles Of Hell:
Lists & Pairings

The interest pieces are not that difficult. The writer likely is working off a press release with stock photos. They may have met the featured player(s) at a wine-themed event, or on a junket, and exchanged a few words. The writer might follow up with a phone interview, and even may go so far as to taste some wines and make a few notes to add that little bit of je ne sais quoi to the piece they are putting together.

But the writer has to do some real work to put together a list: “20 Top-Scoring Wines Of 2013!” or “15 Best Wines Under $15!” pieces might require as much as several hours of browsing on WineSearcher and note-taking. Or perhaps the writer could troll their stack of press releases and stock photos for something like “The 5 Coolest Wineries in Ohio!” or “The 10 Most Ridiculously Photogenic Winemakers Under 30!” Writers who also happen to be tasters and critics could go back through their own notes to pull out “My Top 10 Wine Discoveries Of The Year!” or “The Single Best Grüner Veltliner Money Can Buy!” or “My Thoughts On The 50 Red Burgundies Tasted On My Last Visit!”

Even more work is necessary to produce a pairing article. The writer might actually have to taste pairings to write about the “best” wine to go with beef/fish/chicken/pork, or with a particular style of cuisine. Or perhaps they could just read through a sampling of the thousands of articles that have already been written on this subject, and synthesize an “original” piece. But there is no way to do an original piece on which wines to pair with things like breakfast cereal, Girl Scout cookies, or chocolate-covered popcorn, without actually tasting those pairings — and that strikes me as work above and beyond the call.

I can see where this is going: “Best Wine And Toothpaste Pairings” perhaps, or maybe something along the lines of “Which Scotch Pairs Best With 2008 Pinot Noirs From The North Coast?” or “The Best Colorado Wines To Pair With The Best Colorado Dutchie!” Better yet, lets see some creativity in combining the list article with the pairing article — surely someone can do “10 Best Franciacortas Under $8 to Pair With Funyuns!” The possibilities are mind-numbingly ridiculous endless.

Wine “Journalism”

No doubt about it that there are stories to be reported in the wine world: business and marketing trends, acquisitions, mergers, management changes, deaths, weather, government regulation, and so forth — enough to keep at least a platoon of writers gainfully employed.

But I have a special place in my heart for a particular genre of wine journalism I call the “agenda” piece. Some writers apparently can’t seem to help themselves from 1) seeing an article — usually in a scientific journal — they don’t have the expertise to fully understand, 2) spinning up their misunderstanding through a personal agenda, and 3) producing a piece generally intended to scare the under-informed reader. From carbon footprint to water use to pesticides to nutritional labeling to sulfites in wine — and plenty more — a lot of misinformation gets slung around, agenda-driven drivel that wants debunking.

I give the agenda pieces credit for some substance. I take stronger issue with other formulae masquerading as journalism that are largely substance-free. One of these is the faux-outrage piece, which the internet is especially good at perpetuating. It goes something like this, usually with two or more participants writing successive pieces on the same topic:

“Did you hear the outrageous thing so-and-so said? How do you feel about that?”
“I’m completely outraged! What do you think about so-and-so being outraged at that?”
“It’s absolutely outrageous!”

…and on and on in a never-ending circle. I suppose it is possible to feign interest in the original outrage for a few moments, but for the love of gods it gets boring really quickly.

Another example of substance-free journalism is the unpaid infomercial. Any wine-related product can be plumped through the vehicle of an “interview” with the producer, inventor, or PR person. I’m especially fond of the logrolling form where one author tacitly endorses another, which goes a bit like this:

“Hey folks, So-and-So has written a book titled ‘Blah!’ So tell me, So-and-So, what is ‘Blah’ about?”
“It’s about blah-de-blah-de-blah. Please buy it.”
“Would you mind if I lobbed you a couple uncritical softball questions about the opinions you expressed in ‘Blah’?”
“I’d be very happy to answer uncritical softball questions! Please buy my book.”
…{uncritical softball Q&A}…
“So there you have it, folks. So-and-So has written ‘Blah’ and answered my uncritical softball questions about the content of the book! Thanks for talking with me about your ground-breaking opus.”
“You’re welcome! Please buy my book.”

I mean in all seriousness — this is not journalism, it’s infotainment. And not particularly engaging infotainment at that. George Orwell may have said: “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed; everything else is public relations.” William Randolph Hearst said: “…all else is advertising.”

Another empty zombie that wine writers keep feeding brains to is the “wine writing is dead” theme. In fact, I do have some sympathy for the writers who are making column-inches by repeating this theme — but how many more articles do we have to endure on this topic? I don’t happen to agree that writing itself is dead, but I will admit I think that maybe the demands for content have caused some writers to at least go a bit numb from the shoulders up.

Attempting Originality While Constrained By Cliché

I could go on listing the lame story lines wine writers are subjecting readers to (um… “natural” wine, anyone?), but I’m starting to bore myself — and by now I’m sure all three of my regular readers are sick of what probably seems like kvetching. But the direction I’m going with this is not complaint. This is a pep talk — one I often give to myself.

As a winegrower, I have a deep understanding of the demands of repetition in practice, and of the emotional toll that this can take on the creative mind. Every year I do more or less the same things in the vineyard and the winery, somewhat constrained by caution and tradition. It can be frustrating. I remind myself of the wise words of Judy Rodgers, who came out of Alice Waters’ kitchen to open Zuni Café: “You’re better off making the same recipe six times than constantly trying new ones. You’ll do it differently each time, and probably make it better.” So yes I’m doing the same thing over and over while at the same time working to perfect it — like a golf swing.

At the same time, I am always on guard that while I’m busy “doing it differently each time” any changes I make are thought through and warranted. Nothing should be attempted just for the sake of doing something different. It is possible to confuse novelty with originality, but nobody worth your effort is fooled.

“The most damning revelation you can make about yourself is that you do not know what is interesting and what is not.” — Kurt Vonnegut

By statistical definition, half of the winegrowers in the world are below average. The same is true of wine writers. However, a strong institutional memory in winegrowing assures that the average is always improving. Does the same sort of institutional memory exist in the world of wine writing? From my perspective I see no evidence that there does.

In all honesty when I read much of what shows up in wine media today what I see is a cry for help:

“I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.” – Stevie Smith

So you writers get out there and do better! Stop playing the “write-by-numbers” game. You may write something you regret, but write so that you have actually chosen what to regret. At least for the first draft, “[w]rite like no-one will ever read what you’re doing.”

Otherwise, nobody will read what you are doing.

16 thoughts on “Oh, The Stories Wine Writers Write

  1. Samantha Dugan

    Amen. I could not agree more dear friend and that is being said by someone that has fallen into a few of these traps myself, (outrage anyone?!) but we need to start calling people out on this garbage….that way they can’t hide behind the guise of “People want to read this” bullshit.

    Thanks for this piece kid…it’s important.

    Reply
    1. John Kelly Post author

      Yeah that’s the irony — been guilty myself. I’m in a 12-step program for it…

      I the same vein I opened above, on a scale of zero to interesting it is a statistical certainty that half of all people are below average. And uninteresting people read and talk about uninteresting stuff. So maybe people DO want to read this bullshit. Just not you, or me.

      Reply
  2. Kyle Altomare

    I have a theory regarding the “half the people in this world are below average”; it’s the trend in society- everyone gets a trophy, and everyone passes classes with at least a C, because you deserve it for being alive. Which, sadly is not the case, yet we have given them trophies none the less, and now they feel validated to post their opinion EVERYWHERE (and pictures of their trophies on Instagram). But hey, if you’re pretty, don’t worry….you’ll go just as far as Kim K and Kayne.

    Reply
    1. John Kelly Post author

      If everyone gets a C or better, C is the new F. It’s just utilitarianism driving the continued advancement of failures through the educational system.

      Reply
  3. Thomas Pellechia

    Regarding your observations, no argument from this writer: but I want to make a distinction:

    Those of us who write not just for the joy of spouting off our opinions but for the more mundane task of having to earn a living, and whose experience pre-dates the Internet/blog, social media explosion face a double conundrum: to get editors to pay for what the “new” culture believes ought to be free; to interest readers whose collective attention span (and cognizance) flirts with non-existent.

    John, I view your non-complaint as recognition of the symptom that the disease manifests. I have no idea regarding the identity of the solution.

    Reply
    1. John Kelly Post author

      Thomas I understand the conundra, which is why I tried to frame this piece as a non-complaint. I’m fortunate that I don’t have to write for a living just now, because my family would starve. I write because I would burst if I didn’t, whether what I scribble is just a journal entry or a primordial howl is immaterial — I must write. The only “joy” is in the catharsis, and in seeing the finished bit.

      I think it is important for every writer to do everything possible to get as much good writing out as they may, by whatever method they can. If nothing else as an example to others.

      Reply
  4. Thomas Pellechia

    “I think it is important for every writer to do everything possible to get as much good writing out as they may, by whatever method they can.”

    Not that I think people should stop expressing themselves, but the reason you have had to issue your non-complaint is that everyone can write–something–but not everyone can write something worth reading. If the distinction is allowed to die, so, too, will good writing.

    Reply
    1. John Kelly Post author

      The distinction won’t die so long as there are readers capable of making the distinction. The genesis of my non-complaint is that I see a lot of work product not worth reading. I recognize there is a market for writing based on small words and small ideas, where quality is relative and the reader and writer get a trophy just for showing up. But hey, it’s just writing — there’s a lot of wine out there I choose not to drink as well.

      Reply
  5. Bob Henry (Los Angeles wine professional)

    John,

    Not knowing your e-mail address, let me “crash” this post to proffer a comment to yours here:

    “Gee, Tom – I thought clickbait headlines were beneath you ;-)”

    Link: http://fermentationwineblog.com/2014/03/french-wine-will-never-interesting-american-wine/#comment-401192

    See this article on clickbait:

    “Your Thoughts Aren’t Even Worth A Penny Anymore”

    Link: http://www.mediapost.com/publications/article/220965/your-thoughts-arent-even-worth-a-penny-anymore.html?edition=70640

    ~~ Bob

    A math correction: Half of all folks are below the median. Not below “average” (the mean).

    A difference with a distinction.

    Reply
  6. Bob Henry (Los Angeles wine professional)

    John,

    A bibliography on the importance of repetition in practice.

    ~~ Bob

    Excerpt from BusinessWeek “Opinion” Section
    (December 1, 2008, Page 110):

    “10,000 Hours to Greatness;
    Malcolm Gladwell dissects the paths of super-achievers
    and finds that practice beats intelligence and talent”

    [Link: http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/08_48/b4110110545672.htm%5D

    Book review by Catherine Arnst

    Outliers:
    The Story of Success
    By Malcolm Gladwell
    (Little, Brown; 309 pp.; $27.99)

    . . .

    What does matter, he [Gladwell] says, is the 10,000-hour rule. No one gets to the top unless he or she puts in 10,000 hours of practice in a field . . .

    Excerpt from Fortune Magazine “Leadership” Section
    (November 24, 2008, Page 160ff):

    “Secrets of Their Success;
    Malcolm Gladwell on what separates extraordinary achievers
    from the rest of us.”

    [Link: http://money.cnn.com/2008/11/11/news/companies/secretsofsuccess_gladwell.fortune/index.htm%5D

    Interview by Jennifer Reingold

    . . .

    F: What link does practice have to success?

    G: The 10,000-hour rule says that if you look at any kind of cognitively complex field, from playing chess to being a neurosurgeon, we see this incredibly consistent pattern that you cannot be good at that unless you practice for 10,000 hours, which is roughly ten years, if you think about four hours a day.

    Excerpt from The Wall Street Journal “Opinion” Section
    (October 29, 2008, Page Unknown):

    “The Hard Work of Getting Ahead”

    [Link: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB122523991308478311.html?mod=relevancy%5D

    Book review by Philip Delves Broughton

    Talent Is Overrated
    By Geoff Colvin
    (Portfolio, 228 pages, $25.95)

    . . .

    This is one of the grimmer messages of Geoff Colvin’s excellent “Talent Is Overrated.” Mr. Colvin, a writer at Fortune, seeks to explode the notion that the talent contest among human beings ends with their genetic inheritance. Instead, he argues, great performance comes down to one thing more than any other: deliberate practice. . . . He means a disciplined focus on weakness and a relentless effort to improve. Such practice, when it is done right, is “highly demanding” and “isn’t much fun.” But it is necessary, not least in the world of business.

    . . .

    What is most useful about Mr. Colvin’s book is its candor about the limits of potential. It does not suggest that you can do anything if you try. It says that starting early is a huge advantage in life. Mr. Colvin believes in the 10-year rule, by which it takes 10 years of hard work to achieve excellence in almost any important field. . . .

    Reply
  7. Bob Henry (Los Angeles wine professional)

    With the indulgence of John . . .

    Kyle,

    Here’s an anthology on the “everybody gets a trophy” and grade inflation and “Lake Wobegon” phenomena characterizing contemporary society.

    ~~ Bob

    Excerpt from The Wall Street Journal “Opinion” Section
    (May 29, 2008, Page A15):

    “Moppets With Helmets”

    [Link: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB121201777980927709.html%5D

    Book review by Tony Woodlief

    A Nation of Wimps
    By Hara Estroff Marano
    (Broadway, 307 pages, $23.95)

    First, some numbers. “In 1968, 17.6 percent of students received As in high school . . . in 2004, 47.5 percent of students had an A average.” . . .

    Excerpts from The Wall Street Journal “Opinion” Section
    (December 20, 2001, Page Unknown):

    “To B or Not to B?”

    [Link: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB1008808906665607720.html%5D

    By Harvey Mansfield

    Harvard is now considering what to do about grade inflation. Having at last awakened to the scandal of giving its students 51% A’s and A-minuses and graduating 91% of them with honors. . . .

    Excerpt from The Boston Globe
    (October 7-8, 2001, Pages Unknown):

    “Matters of Honor:
    Harvard’s Quiet Secret: Rampant Grade Inflation”

    [“Three Story Package”]

    [Alternate link: http://www.hsj.org/modules/lesson_plans/article.cfm?ArticleId=182 ]

    By Patrick Healy
    Staff Reporter

    . . .

    Last June, a record 91 percent of Harvard students graduated summa, magna, or cum laude, far more than at Yale (51 percent), Princeton (44 percent), and other elite universities, a Globe study has found.

    . . .

    ”Honors at Harvard has just lost all meaning,” said Henry Rosovsky, a top dean and acting president at Harvard in the 1970s and ’80s. ”The bad honors is spoiling the good.”

    . . .

    Many Ivy League schools now limit honors, but Harvard says that’s unfair — today’s seniors are better students than a generation ago, and those who do honors work deserve the distinction.

    . . .

    . . . As at many schools, at Harvard, the A to F grading range has unofficially turned to an A to B-minus range.

    As a result, the university’s current honors requirements make Harvard unique: It inevitably rewards grade inflation with honors.

    ”A Harvard graduating class with 91 percent honors is the most impressive indicator of grade inflation I’ve seen in a long time,” said Arthur Levine, president of Columbia University’s Teachers College and an authority on grading. ”Rather than singling out who performs best, they’re singling the 9 percent who perform the worst. Harvard has done away with true honors.”

    . . .

    Yet some academic insiders say that when 91 percent of Harvard graduates can claim honors, it becomes more like a reward for good attendance than for excellence.

    . . .

    . . . Today, one-quarter of all honors go to these students who do not earn honors in their major. It requires only a B average overall, and not everyone needs a thesis.

    . . .

    Excerpt from Newsweek “Education” Section
    (March 3, 1997, Page 64):

    “When an A is Average;
    Duke takes on grade inflation”

    [Link: http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/1997/03/02/when-an-a-is-average.html%5D

    By Daniel Pedersen
    Staff Writer

    . . . The average grade in the average course at Duke is now approaching A-minus — and, if anything, rising. When A stands for average, some faculty members are now asking, do grades mean anything at all?

    . . .

    Excerpt from The Wall Street Journal “Weekend Jounal” Section
    (October 27, 2000, Page W17):

    “An Excess of Excellence;
    These days, it seems, all must have prizes.”

    [Alternate link: https://math.temple.edu/~paulos/average.html%5D

    By John Allen Paulos

    . . .

    [Section subheadline:] Average Isn’t Good Enough

    These [examples cited above] are only the most recent manifestations of the infamous Lake Wobegon syndrome, whereby everybody, or almost everybody, is deemed to be above average. Studies repeatedly show, for example, that the vast majority of us think we have a better-than-average sense of humor and possess a better-than-average empathy for others. (Technically, of course, almost everybody can be above average; in fact, almost everybody has two arms, which is slightly more than the average number of arms.)

    The Wobegon syndrome extends to the supposedly hard-headed world of business. If one frequents online business sites, one will discover that almost all the stocks they are writing about are “buys” or “strong buys,” with occasional “holds.” Where are the “sells” and “strong sells”? Maybe only companies that manufacture solar-powered flashlights qualify.

    Pick any social dimension along which people can differ and their attitude toward it often demonstrates some trace of Wobegonism. In most communities, for example, if one asks about crime, one will hear something like: “It’s awful in general, but we don’t really have any problems around here.” This might be literally true in a few places, but not, by definition, in most.

    . . .

    Reply

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