The Independence of Wine Writers
Everyone likes a good marking. “Grade me, grade me” demanded Lisa Simpson. It is a chance for me to rate the wine writers, journalists and opinion formers. The prospect of such power make me swoon. Caparisons, as someone doubtless once malapropped, are odorous, but smelly, or not, we like to know where we stand.
There’s often a disjunction between the opinions of the person I know and what they write. Were journalists allowed free rein they would be writers and express independent opinions more forcefully as it is the nature of magazines and newspapers to require cut-and-splice. The spirit of compromise prevails – often wine writers end up penning advertorials for certain regions and the average wine writer needs bend in so many directions – the need to be relevant, the need to identify trends, the need to be an agony aunt to the average consumer. The truth is more complex than simply what’s hot and what’s not, but the anxiety to shape the subject matter to fit the lifestyle pages shows how feeble is the editorial understanding of the subject matter. The by-product of such dumbing down is an invertebrate deference towards brands and supermarkets as if universal availability was a positive virtue, but even this stance is disingenuous. It would be easy for the wine writer to become jaded and institutionalised knowing as they do that the advertisers determine the agenda.
I also miss the style of writing that communicates a deep love for the subject. Perhaps I have a romantic notion the juice of the grape will inspire a measure of intoxication, or, at any rate, liberation. Although many of our journalists have good knowledge and write with technical proficiency there is an absence of soul in their offerings. By steering clear of controversy they are not tackling many of the issues that matter most in wine. Ultimately, their job is to recommend products to consumers. Part of the problem is that the journalists must be seen as much as the wines to stay in the loop. The loop is actually a commercial noose, for all the time they spend at major tastings (sampling the same things they’ve tried a dozen times)You can’t be a professional naysayer in the wine trade or take on vested interests; no-one will invite you to tastings, regional and national wine associations will make you persona non grata. I’m not saying that journalists are obsequious or complaisant, but that they are naturally exposed to pressures, subliminal or otherwise, that contribute to shaping the articles they write.
When I first became interested in wine the literary colossi were the genial Hugh Johnson, Serena Sutcliffe and Michael Broadbent, all twinkling decorum. Wine was the province of the enlightened amateur: Cyril Ray, John Arlott, Auberon Waugh. Johnson was a great stylist, one could imagine sitting around a table while he holds court. Wine was remote, very much the province of the upper classes and bound closely to tradition. Eventually, it became democratised; for this we have to thank the supermarkets and a breed of new young (some not so young any more) writers. Here is a small selection of those whom I admire:
Oz Clarke is certainly the great communicator. He is a natural, fascinating to converse with and brimming with a fund of great anecdotes. He writes with sprightly flourishes and boundless enthusiasm and can pull the most far-flung metaphors from the distant horizons and make them appear like the most just observations. Not only is he good at demystifying the subject but his recommendations have the evangelical insistence of a Mrs Doyle pressing a cup of tea on one.
Turning a beautiful phrase, writing with kinetic power and observing detail with a poet’s eye, Andrew Jefford’s language is eloquent and sensitive. He seems thoroughly engaged with where he is and able to empathise with whom he is talking to: he is not writing celebrity profiles or looking for the sound-bite but seems invite the confessional response. His book New France ought to be considered one of the best wine books of the decades for he manages to capture the colours, sounds and smells of the countryside, you can hear the growers talking and everything rendered in limpid prose. If I give the impression that it is airy-fairy it is anything but, there is a wealth of detail. Andrew Jefford is the poet laureate of the wine world. He writes with kinaesthetic fervour, the dirt is not just under his fingernails but the nib of his pen. No brings to life more clearly the romance of wine, the smells, the sensations of the countryside and vineyard (imagine a Seamus Heaney of the wine world), no one is more comfortable with engaging with the esoteric or outlandish theories of growers or renders their homespun philosophy with such sympathy. This is terroir writing…
Few can match Jancis Robinson for prolific output and sheer authoritativeness. Her web-site is testament to hard work and conscientious research and has become the greatest forum in the world for debate and exchange of information. She writes with admirable clarity, dry humour (signifying formidable knowledge) and with considerable discernment; effortlessly and efficiently pouring forth descriptions, information and opinion. If you asked other wine writers whom they respect amongst their fellow scribes Jancis would deservedly be amongst the first named.
Tim Atkin writes for various periodicals. He has formidable knowledge, holds strong opinions and is refreshingly uninhibited in his use of language. To me he is one of most modern writers, able to condense an argument and get straight to the point.
Some writers have to work within the limited space allocated. Victoria Moore’s column, despite being suffocated in a tiny cul-de-sac, is full of lovely vignettes, smart apercus, kinetic tasting notes and thoroughly imaginative food matches. She deserves a larger playground to roam in.
Jamie Goode is a fascinating read on the science and philosophy of wine, a subject that few others dare to tackle. He is certainly amongst the most open-minded of writers. His wine blog (which does cover subjects other than wine) is one of the best forums for readers to unload their opinions. The web-site is brilliant and visually stimulating with plenty of browsing appeal for the beginners and the wine geeks alike.
There are many other fine established and embryonic wine writers. I like Natasha Hughes, Joanna Simon, Anthony Rose, Simon Woods and Philip Williamson.
I am going to say something that will shock you to the quick as you will think that I am licking the splayed toads of the establishment but I believe that most writers and journalist do a very good job. They work hard, they know their stuff, they love the business. It still strikes me that some of the trade mags are filled with unmitigated drivel and spurious sound-bites, but intelligent debate can be only be fostered if more space is given to writers to explore issues in depth and not to reduce arguments to caricatures of positions. A pertinent example of this was the recent knuckle-headed Channel 4 Dispatches programme which missed every trick in the book by treating its audience like morons and by focusing so intently on certain targets that it missed shedding light on the less salubrious aspects of the wine trade.
I also believe that the agenda in the wine trade is set by the big brands and the supermarkets – money talks as loudly as ever - and whilst once upon a time some journalists were complicit in this (newspaper advertising after all was being paid for by the brands that they were writing about), most now have the independence and the confidence to call it as they see it. The supermarkets and brands will still spend a lot of time and money courting the opinion of the movers and shakers, but they should not expect the trade to swallow what they pump out (wine or press releases). Journalists, however, are still editorially constrained by having to write about what is perceived as relevant wine (i.e. wine that is widely available) although this is a classic bogus assumption – there are whole areas of the UK where there isn’t a Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Waitrose or an M&S.
Wine writers have been further unshackled by their blogs. The art of blogs is to write little and often, rather than trying to present a fabulous dialectical disquisition on every subject under the sun. The danger of such blog entries is that they read like sound-bites. The advantage is that you can record spontaneous musings and keep it fresh and lively and the only editorial interference you suffer is your own. Wine blogs still largely celebrate wine and make recommendations, but they can also shine a light into the darker recesses of the wine trade and challenge perceived orthodoxies.