From newspapers to blogs, Fredric Koeppel is uniquely qualified to reflect on the evolving and exciting state of wine writing. In the latest installment of our SpeakEasy series of blogger interviews, he offers his insight on the profession in print and online. And, as a bonus, Fredric discusses the nourishing properties of both pizza and poetry. Keep up with what's in his glass on Bigger Than Your Head.
How has the landscape for wine writing changed over the last 20 years? With the demise of many print media outlets, what is your assessment of the digital world of wine writing?
You would have to have lived under a rock in Chateauneuf-du-Pape not to understand how that landscape has changed, first, by the loss of newsprint advertising that devastated the newspaper business following 9/11 and, second, by the proliferation of online outlets for wine criticism and commentary. Print wine columns still exist, of course, and remain influential, but the action that occurs on the Internet in the form of websites and blogs has a larger effect every year. There’s an attrition rate, and many of the blogs that were on the scene in 2006 when I started BiggerThanYourHead have disappeared; it’s not easy to maintain an effort that essentially pays no dividend, as people who were in it just for “free wine” found out. I think the quality of writing and the seriousness of intent have improved enormously among those who write blogs, and those factors can only help in blogging being more widely accepted as a legitimate medium.
What’s the difference between writing a wine column for a newspaper and writing a blog post?
I wrote a nationally distributed weekly wine column for 20 years; I have been blogging for a little more than seven years. The major difference is that working for a newspaper entails having layers of editors, space constraints, complaints about terminology from the copy desk; all of that also implies a comfort level. Blogging offers tremendous freedom, but not to sound like a Founding Father, with that freedom comes a great responsibility. I am my own editor and publisher, and I think that more bloggers need to be aware of the obligation toward accuracy, good sense, spelling and grammar just as if they were writing for a newspaper. On the other hand, nobody allows “holy fucking moly” in a newspaper column. It can be exhilarating.
When you worked for The Commercial Appeal not only did you write a wine column but you also reviewed books, restaurants, movies, music, theater, and dance. How is reviewing wine different from these other forms of criticism and do you find having such a breadth of experience reviewing so many disparate topics helps you write about wine?
My graduate school training, in English and American literature, was all about being analytical, thoughtful and critical, and I try to bring those standards to everything I write about. (I still write art criticism and book reviews.) Wine of course as a beverage is a sensual and subjective exchange, but I always think that anything made by dint of a person’s knowledge, experience and intuition can be analyzed and judged objectively. My breadth of experience is always helpful and deepens my appreciation of the cultural, historical, geographical and personal aspects of wine.
Why is your blog called “Bigger Than Your Head”?
Yes, that’s the perpetual question. Before I launched the blog, I had a magazine-style website called KoeppelOnWine, which was a pretty boring title, so mainly I wanted to avoid anything with “wine” or “vine” or “vino” or “grapes” in the title. BiggerTHanYourHead comes from a cartoon by the great B. Kliban; the cutline is “Never eat anything bigger than your head.” Somehow it seemed appropriate.
As a former English and Creative Writing teacher, what advice would you give to bloggers looking to stand out from the crowd as far as their writing is concerned?
It’s almost too easy to say, “Find your own voice,” because many people don’t know what their own voice is. It’s like saying “Be awesome!” However, readers will become much more engaged with a blog that displays a tone and presence that feel authentic and integrated with the content. If you read Joe Roberts or Meg Houston Maker’s work, without knowing who they were, you would understand that each is a writer expressing a profound sense of who they are and how they sound. Every writer or blogger should strive for that.
I see a lot of homemade pizza on your Facebook feed. What is a recent favorite pizza you made and what wine did you pair with it?
Well, last weekend’s pizza had tomatoes, white onion, pickled red onion, spicy green olives, Italian sausage and borsellino salami, fresh thyme and mozzarella, parmesan and feta cheeses. We drank the Bonny Doon Clos de Gilroy Grenache 2013, Monterey County, and it was right tasty. Pizza night is a good time to try different kinds of wines. I’ve been known to break out high-end California cabernets or Italian reds just for the hell of it.
When you’re not making pizza at home, where do you like to go for pizza in Memphis? What are some other favorite spots for food and wine?
When I stopped reviewing restaurants in 2008, after 20 years, it felt like a reprieve, so we don’t eat out a great deal. For pizza, though, I recommend Hog & Hominy, from the geniuses at Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen, which is also great. In terms of other eating out, the bar at Interim and also at Bari Ristorante e Enoteca, which has a great all-Italian wine list. For special occasion Acre, Iris, and Erling Jensen. The burger at Belmont Grill has been a favorite for 40 years. And I can’t neglect barbecue in Memphis; my favorite places are Payne’s and Cozy Corner.
Who inspired you as a writer and who continues to do so today?
My mother started me with Winnie-the-Pooh and John Keats, and it has gone on steadily since then. I just finished a writing a review of John Updike’s complete short stories, which were inspirational. I continue to find nourishment from the greatest American poets, Whitman and Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, W.S. Merwin and John Ashbery. Poe is a particular obsession. As far as wine writing goes, Michael Broadbent’s original “Great Vintage Wine Book” still inspires me; he taught me how to think about and write about wine. I still go back occasionally and read his description of Mouton-Rothschild 1929. It’s thrilling.