I’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.
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.”
“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.