Monday, April 19, 2010

Rant: Wine Columns=Glorified Shopping Lists?

What inspires you to read about wine? Do you love the history, the detailed stories about wine makers and wineries? Or do you simply want a laundry list of wine reviews? And if you write about wine, what type of articles do you pen? Stories or mere tasting notes?

In the latest issue of Decanter (May 2010), there is an editorial which touches on these questions. In "Fleshing the Press" by Sarah Kemp, the publishing director for Decanter, Sarah states: "With limited space (and a limited editorial brief) given to wine writers, the inevitable has happened--columns have become glorified shopping lists with tasting notes. And tasting notes are probably the reason most people don't engage with wine. Intimidated by talk of blackberries and blueberries, hints of this and that, they conclude that wine knowledge is beyond them." (p.6)

This is an intriguing insight, and accurate to some degree, especially in local newspapers. You are far more likely to find tasting notes and recommendations rather than stories about specific wines, wineries and wine makers. There are blogs as well that are primarily tasting notes, just lists of wines that are and are not recommended. Sure, there is a place for tasting notes, but they have their disadvantages as well. I would agree too that such tasting notes can turn off some consumers, who already feel intimidated by wine.

What most compels consumers? Sarah states they get engaged when they "... read the stories behind it, succumbing to its emotional pull and aspirational effect rather than the taste. What inspires wine lovers is not just the taste but the story, the people, the place and the anecdotes." (p.6) I wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment, and have said as much on my blog before. I believe such matters are much more memorable than tasting notes. They are the matters people will repeat to others, tales they will tell at dinner parties or when they hang with friends.

At a party, are you likely to tell a friend about the blackberry, leather and violet taste of some wine you recently tasted? Or are you more likely to tell that friend about an interesting wine maker who names his wines after constellations and reads medieval wine-making books? I bet that your friend would most likely appreciate the later, and they might then relate it to others.

I know I have much more fun writing about the stories behind wine, rather than creating a tasting note. And my readers seem to react more positively to the fascinating stories. I too find it more interesting to read other's stories about wines rather than their mere tasting notes. What about you?

"What we need is not a campaign for wine columns but a campaign for great wine writing--in whatever medium today's consumer wants." (p.6)

That would include newspapers, magazines, books and even blogs.


Adam Japko said...

Rich, right on. Wine is all about human connection for me as well. There is a place for tasting notes; directory style media like the Wine Advocate or the California Connoisseurs Guide. Beyond that I am reading, listening to, and writing about the context wine consumption. Don't get me wrong, as a trusted source I want to know what your palate leans towards, but that alone would be far less interesting. You do a great job with that balance here, which is what keeps me coming back.

Michael Gorton, Jr. said...

I am with you on this, but I have an issue that I am struggling with. I am not a good story teller, in my opinion. I am not a writer and I feel I am not very creative. But I am trying.

My blog, almost a year old, is mostly reviews of the wines I drink. I have a few stories sprinkeled in there, but not a REAL story.

I have been trying to read more blogs and pick up some idea's. I am trying to be a bit more creative.

The reviews were an old standby. You know when you are in a relationship that is comfortable, you just stay in it. You want to end it, but don't know how. You keep doing what is good for you and you are comfortable do it.

That's where I am.

I am trying to change things up a bit...but it may take time.

Thanks for writing this, posts like this incourage me to dig deeper and find my passion around the vines.


Anonymous said...

Digging out the stories is much more entertaining than straight wine's the challenge, they're also more difficult to write. They take research, thought, and immersion.

Right on, Richard! Great post

Tom Mansell said...


I agree for the most part, especially about the plethora of blogs that are almost exclusively tasting notes, and even then just disjointed lists of nouns (e.g., lime, banana, peach, leather, honey).

However, notes like this can serve an important purpose, especially for people new to wine. When you taste together in a social setting, isn't part of the fun commenting on the kiwi note you might get and then seeing if anyone else gets that so you're not crazy?

Given that tasting notes on a wine will never be the same for two different tasters, it's interesting to compare a writer's perception of a wine to one's own. Indeed, this helps us decide which palates (and thus recommendations) we agree with.

To me, tasting notes are analogous to reference books, used to calibrate one's interest in the writer's palate, while other stories about winemaking or label design, etc. are more like novels, weaving interesting narratives, or non-fiction books, relaying the facts and the writer's interpretation thereof.

Is it interesting to read the encyclopedia cover to cover? I tried it when I was a kid, and the answer is no. It's nice to be able to search it now and then.

The stories of wine will be around long after the tasting notes for individual bottles are irrelevant, but writers who would eschew tasting notes outright fail to capture the whole picture of the wine drinking experience.

Richard Auffrey said...

Thanks for your kind words Adam. I also think you do a very good job on your own blog of telling stories about the wines you review, rather than just providing bare bones tasting notes.

Thanks Michael too for you kind words. Keep writing, and trying to improve your blog. It will come in time, with practice and perseverance. None of us are perfect, and we all need to keep improving our writing.

Thanks Josh, and you are correct that such posts do take more time and effort.

Richard Auffrey said...

Thanks for your comments Tom. I also basically agree with you. Tasting notes certainly have their place, as well as their need. It seems more of a balancing act, where wine writers need some percentage of tasting notes, yet that percentage cannot overwhelm r may turn people away.

I do like your analogy of tasting notes being akin to reference books. I think it is quite apt, and useful.

Matt mmWine Horbund said...

I actually had a post in my drafts about this topic, or something quite similar. I'll still post it, but maybe next week instead of Thursday :)

I agree with you, and the piece in Decanter, to a point. While people who love wine love the story and passion behind it, I'll argue that the vast majority of people want to understand wine better. They want to know what wines pair with what foods, what specific wines taste like. They're intimidated by wine, and look to us for help making it more approachable.

Now, this may sound like a plug for my blog and TV segments, where I strive do just that. I've retooled my blog on the last 2-3 posts so it's easier to read, easier to understand the wine and what you can expect. It's not so people run out and find what I'm drinking. Instead, it's to understand that Shiraz can taste like X, it can pair with Y, and you can find it for approximately Z price. While not a plug per se, I mention that to help "us" understand that while the story of Lise & Vince Ciolino from Montemaggiore in Dry Creek is fascinating, a couple who made their $ in the tech world off and buy a vineyard to produce French style Syrah, run by just them and their 7 yr old son Paolo, doesn't compel the "everyday" person to buy their wine necessarily. It does make ME love them, and have an affinity for their wine, but I'm not sure if that's what will drive the stay at home mom who buys 3-4 bottles of "Mommy's Time Out" a week to try their product.

I also think there's an audience for every style of wine writing. There's an audience for the passion and history behind the wines we discuss, just like there's an audience for reviews. If not, that big guy with the GV initials wouldn't have so many followers and viewers, now would he?


Richard Auffrey said...

Hi Matt and thanks for your comments.

I definitely agree many people are intimidated by wine, and do seek help understanding it. And everyone here seems to agree that tasting notes have a place too.

But such notes can also intimidate people. For example, they may think that if they cannot taste the gooseberry flavors in a wine that they just don't understand wine. Most don't even know what gooseberry is supposed to be. The descriptors can be barriers rather than welcome mats.

The stories about wine are also very varied. Even the least expensive wine has something to say. Maybe you can talk about the animal on the label, what it is and why it was chosen. Or you can place the wine in context, and describe how you drank it at a birthday party, how your friends reacted to it, that Aunt Jane who hates red wines actually loved this one.

GV does more than provide tasting notes. He is also entertaining, and talks about far more than just wine. But give the average consumer a copy of the Wine Advocate, with its bare bones tasting notes, and watch their eyes glaze over.

Matt mmWine Horbund said...

Richard -
I agree that adding more than just tasting notes is critical. During my last TV segement taping, which airs tomorrow, I was tasting an Italian Primitivo/Negro Amaro blend from Puglia. After butchering the name, I mentioned it had notes of Spiced Chocolate. The host looked at me and said "I don't know about that, but it's good" or something similar.

The point is, there's NO doubt that people don't get what we get in wines. I sometimes think I continue to give tasting notes to help people identify what they may be tasting in wines. However, more and more often, I find the most value comes from giving the stories like you mentioned.

Speaking of Animal labels, did you see the April Fools spectator video on animal labels? Was well done - saying that the animal indicates what the wine pairs with. Using the Unicorn was classic.


Richard Auffrey said...

I didn't see that video but will have to look for it as it does sound funny.