23-12-2015

How to approach wine writing

While I generally enjoy the articles on Tim Atkin, Master of Wine, this one entitled, “Where are all the wine stories?” by Felicity Carter went above and beyond in terms of content, truths, and general observations about writing in wine. It was merely a reflection on her part about working as an editor for a publication in wine and she wrote it while laid up in a hospital recovering and reading texts that were not about wine. The main takeaway being that wine journalism has lost, or possibly never has had much of a narrative spine to it.

It’s one of those things that you dismiss initially but come back to with a grand, sweeping, “Holy shit…” realization that it is indeed true. There is a cycle of pitching in the wine world which is essentially a shotgun effect of tossing story ideas at editors and publishers until something eventually sticks. I know it well as I’m guilty of it myself and have thought there was little recourse until reading this article.

Admittedly, some of what she says is a generalization. There are countless dim editors who will come back at me interested in an idea but want to know the “newsy-ness” of it. That is painful as no matter how good your premise this simple statement will kill your pitch. You will undoubtedly not be able to convince them of the “newsy-ness” and it’s essentially code for, “Don’t bother me as I don’t want to really think about this unless it’s so hot it will generate clicks regardless of what I think.”

So this is why these endlessly overdone topics keep re-circulating as they’re easily understood by those with less imagination and so writers bow down to this. As a writer, coming up with a new idea is quite expensive in terms of your time so this is why we are where we are. But, this is also what sets apart those who plop words out for a publication with little thought versus those who are truly successful as a wine writer.

I recently put up a post in the forum of the Guild of Sommeliers asking for any blog suggestions as my feed reader was getting thin on websites. I came to realize that most of the blogs I follow are by Masters of Wine or other people who maintain a sense of storytelling, curiosity, or adventure in the world of wine. It’s necessary in such a dense subject but it’s not that their writing is necessarily lively, it’s that it’s a journey and you want to accompany it. This I feel is Ms. Carter’s most salient point and it’s one of the reasons I enjoy reading what Jancis Robinson MW writes as despite having been writing about wine for 40 years (!!!) she still gives an air of, “What’s that? Oh, some Georgian wine made of a grape I’ve never heard of and aged underground in an amphora? Why yes, I’d like to try it!” and given this, you want to know what she thought. This is missing in a great deal of writing these days.

This is also why my feed of blogs and general wine reading gets lighter all the time as no one tells a story anymore. It’s just, “Was at a tasting. Here are my notes and scores. Blam. Blam. Blam…” and that’s patently boring to read. I doubt people who write articles like that would seriously enjoy reading others who write like that. This is why I don’t follow too many American wine writers as they are often writing about European or other regions outside the US and have no sense of place. An irony in an thing such as wine where terroir is so important these days that it is not seen as such in the words written about it.

This has given me a new calling as well to not necessarily write better (although that’s always in the cards) but to write with more of a story, something I realize that I was doing a great deal more of on The Tender when living in San Francisco because I was there and was witness to what I then wrote. My degree is in English Literature not journalism and what I write should reflect more of that. This is why such in newer articles like this quick one about Cava I’ve worked to have more of a personal take as opposed to saying, “Hey, it’s time for bubbly crap! Here’s what to drink. Blam. Blam. Blam…”

I’m very encouraged by this as a full-length article I pitched came back with a reply that they’re really not looking for what I dread, the “listicle”. They wanted a narrative thread and a cohesive topic for their readers to dig in to. I truly hope that this article comes to be as I’m excited to come at it with this fresh perspective. Maybe it won’t work and will be a colossal failure like another publication earlier this year although it helps that this potential publication is based in the UK where it seems the idea of “story” is still quite important, unlike the US… No wonder most serious wine publications and certification started in the Isles.

Naturally, it’s hard to always pull off crafting a good story, but in looking back over this year, it’s why I feel that this article about a new project in Morocco was the best I wrote. It told of my adventure to Morocco and I feel it was genuinely enjoyable to go along on the trip. While it sounds incredibly egocentric, I enjoy re-reading it and that’s rarely the case for anything I write. Hopefully, there will be more to come in 2016 and many thanks to Ms. Carter for such a thought provoking view from the other end of the email.