Why Some Wine Writing Today Reminds Me of a Woody Allen Movie

When I was a kid, my family got two daily newspapers at home. And sometimes, when my father’s job as a college professor took him to St. Petersburg or farther south to Miami, he would bring back the St. Petersburg Times and the Miami Herald. For me, a kid who loved words, this was almost better than Baskin-Robbins’s 31 flavors. It didn’t matter that the news was old when I read it. The newspapers were interesting because of the different ways their writers told basically the same stories. Each newspaper spoke to its audience in a different way.

BananasMy hometown paper, the Tallahassee Democrat, like many newspapers back in the day, had a page with a headline that read something like, “News of Interest to the Colored Community.” I never read those pages since they seemed to be filled primarily with birth and death notices and church stuff. Besides, I figured by the time news truly of interest to the “colored community” reached these newspapers, it wasn’t news to the black community. Many years later, while I was studying journalism, my hometown paper declined to give me a summer job because I’m black. And still many years after that, in a very sweet feature about our memoir, “Love by the Glass: Tasting Notes from a Marriage,” the Democrat’s reporter recounted that shameful fact.

I’ve been thinking about this stuff recently. Several weeks ago, I was on a panel about the wine industry and diversity at the sixth annual Women in Wine Leadership Symposium sponsored by Cornerstone Communications, which just closed its doors after 25 years, and the Winebow Group, which consists of importers and distributors of fine alcoholic beverages.

After agreeing to participate, I told the women who had extended the invitation that an urgent question on my mind was whether the industry really wants diversity. I told them I didn’t mean more people of color buying wine. Duh. I meant a diversity of approaches to talking about wine, ways that make the tent bigger. I told the gathering of 120 women at the event that many readers, winemakers and retailers loved “Tastings,” the lifestyle column focusing on wine I wrote with my husband, John Brecher, for the Wall Street Journal for nearly 12 years. But tastemakers and gate-keepers not so much. Some sneered that it was populist, I told the gathering, which I guessed meant that real people read it.

Back when we started, in 1998, wine writing was largely a job for white males, an insular community. A very smart wine communications person told me then that I had to understand that most wine writers wrote for themselves and six other wine writers.

Some issues were a bit starker then. John and I had a devil of a time getting the Journal to include any people of color in the artwork that accompanied our column. Even when the art supposedly showed the two of us, I was often white. Art directors “explained” to us that they didn’t feel comfortable telling artists what color people should be – so, of course, they were white. With the help of the top boss, we finally changed that.

Then there was that bit of hysteria from Jeremy Parzen on his blog “Do Bianchi,” under the headline, “Bite Your Tongue, Dorothy.” To be fair, he does, in the body of his bullying screed, also tell John that he should bite his tongue. However, for some reason, I alone got the regal treatment of a headline mention! Maybe “John” was too short a word, not enough characters? It’s an interesting peek under the veneer. (Here is our column)

In any case, we are told that the world of wine critics and experts is at a flex point now, where some are questioning the role of experts, their mores and the validity of types of expertise. We are hearing that there are more voices than ever, more diversity of opinion. In my mind, the main thing that’s happened is that wine writers are finding old ideas to recycle and that instead of writing for six other writers many are writing for a dozen other writers.

Jancis Robinson, the formidable British wine writer for the Financial Times, who in 1984 became the first person outside the wine trade to become a Master of Wine, spoke before my panel. Naturally, she urged women to complement their interest and knowledge of wine with some formal educational program. More and more people, she said, are “demonstrating their commitment by getting their certifications.”

The Wine & Spirit Education Trust program that awards diplomas is doing very well in England, she said, adding “with as many Chinese students as British.” She also noted the growing number of women getting the certification.

Robinson also expounded further on the subject that she wrote about a couple years ago in “What Future for Expertise?” in the Financial Times and on her blog. She wrote that in “the twenty-first century the internet and now, particularly, the smartphone have changed everything. Wine drinkers can compare multiple evaluations concurrently – not just at home but in the wine shop and restaurant.”

“I have read arts critics fulminating against the proliferation of ‘amateur’ reviews and arguing that they cannot possibly carry the weight of those freighted by decades of experience and deeply relevant education,” she continued. “But I can hardly use this argument when I have spent my entire working life trying to arm consumers with as much information as possible so that they can make up their own minds about individual wines.” She concludes, “I know I can stay in the game only by working hard and accurately enough to earn my readers’ trust.”

BonneJon Bonné is senior contributing editor at Punch and was for almost a decade wine editor and chief wine critic of the San Francisco Chronicle. He has won many awards. In his new book, “The New Wine Rules, A Genuinely Helpful Guide to Everything You Need to Know,” which actually doesn't have a whole lot that's new in it, he agrees with Robinson about the changed climate for experts: "'A handful of once-powerful wine tastemakers are now much less powerful. Wine drinkers today are more self-assured, and less reliant on point scores and so-called ‘expert wisdom.’”

“An obsession with ‘wine expertise’ in this country may have made it harder for us to enjoy wine,” he writes. “Americans have in many ways been misled by the mystique of wine expertise.

 “We’re dazzled by tales of sabering Champagne and blind tasting bottles of red Burgundy. But these things are really just parlor games,” he continues. “The myth of connoisseurship is that you need to know every little thing, and in truth most wine experts obsess over details that have almost zero bearing on how the rest of us live our lives.”

Bonné writes that he never wanted to be a sommelier and “never got an official blessing to be an expert. You don’t need one either.” But, he explains that, lucky for him, he was born sort of with a tastevin in his mouth. “I grew up with wine around the house; it was a semi-professional interest of my father and I learned about it from him more or less osmotically, the way other kids might learn about baseball.”

Wow. That’s all so familiar. Consider baseball. In our second book, “The Wall Street Journal Guide to Wine, New and Improved,” we wrote, “We don’t understand why people are told that they have to become experts on wine before they can appreciate it. Imagine if people were told they had to understand all of the intricacies of baseball before they could bask in the simple beauty of the game…”

I’m not accusing anyone here of plagiarism. Far from it, although I’d be drunk under the table if I merely took a sniff from a glass every time I read something familiar like that baseball reference.

My point is that, with all of the focus on how the wine-reviewing community has grown – and the attendant deep concern about this among some – the fact is that too many wine writers today are simply repeating what became part of the wine zeitgeist a long time ago. (Bonné apparently likes the word new. His 2013 book was titled, The New California Wine: A Guide to the Producers and Wines Behind a Revolution in Taste.”) What’s more, some writers’ attempts at a more democratic tone, a populist tone, if you will, are not very convincing.

Bonné is a 148-page, small and attractive book. The multiracial groups of people in the art are wonderful to see.  But for someone who says he wants to sweep away pretentions, it reads like he’s having a very difficult time.

Rule 4 about jargon states that “refreshing” as a descriptor is “essentially meaningless,” but then at Rule 19 in a discussion about sweetness, “often cloaked by elevated levels of acidity,” he writes, “This both refreshes your sense of taste and surreptitiously indulges your sweet tooth.” So “refresh” does have meaning? Also in Rule 4, among the “common pitfalls worth avoiding” he writes is “This is so smooth.” He continues, “Smooth? This isn’t a razor ad! ‘Soft-textured’ or even ‘silken’ will be more precise.”’ To whom? Really?

In any event, why are any new rules better than old rules? Isn’t the idea to get away from wine rules? It reminded me of the scene in the old Woody Allen movie “Bananas” when the revolutionary leader, finally replacing the former dictator, demands that everyone wear their underwear on the outside. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

In October, I was sent a widely distributed wine newsletter that suggested readers check out Lettie Teague’s column, “How Wine Sustains Us Through Tragedy and Helps Us Reclaim Joy” in the Wall Street Journal. Yes, awkward. She followed us in that job in 2010. As I started reading, it sounded more and more familiar. She had pulled off an amazing trifecta, winding three pieces of advice from our columns and books into one of her columns

A couple of her readers commented that they recognized Open That Bottle Night, the last Saturday in February officially but we’ve said from the beginning that you should open those special wines as often as you can because no one is promised tomorrow. I also recognized the wedding gift chapter that suggests a gift of several bottles with notes to open this or that one at specific intervals; and the columns about wine refrigerators as gifts or for yourself.

I’m having fun here, mentioning these because they’re just an indication of how some of the ideas and issues we wrote about in Tastings remain valid today. Even the Tallahassee Democrat finally saw the light. However, wine writers need to come up with new ideas as well if they’re going to attract a new audience – and, really, shouldn’t that be easy enough to do if we actually have a whole burgeoning new crop of wine experts and writers?

Bonné wrote that he and his wife, Valerie Masten, vice president of national sales at Skurnik Wines and Spirits in New York, have “concluded that wine isn’t something you need to learn about in classes or by chasing a pin or a diploma. Wine is something that becomes a part of your life in gradual, almost invisible, steps.”

That’s the way it happened with us, as readers of our 2002 memoir, “Love by the Glass,” know. We were hard-news journalists who started studying and drinking wine in 1973. We first went to Napa and Sonoma to meet winemakers and taste their wines before the Judgment of Paris, which happened in 1976 and announced to the world that wines from California, especially from Napa, had arrived. In 1979, in Portland, we became fans of the young wine industry in Oregon. We traveled the wine roads of France for the first time a few years later, and were among the early wave of American wine enthusiasts to visit Piedmont, the home of Barolo, Barbaresco, Barbera and Dolcetto. We joined Les Amis du Vin, a nationwide organization, and tasted wine with many bright lights of the wine world, including the late Harry Waugh, a distinguished British wine writer, merchant, and longtime director of Château Latour. We were also members of less formal tasting groups. In 1992, we chatted with André Tchelistcheff and got him to sign the label of the 1968 Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon that we’d had on our honeymoon in Napa. All of this happened before we ever wrote a word about wine.

We’ve always been quick to say that we’re not experts. We know a lot more about wine than most people, but not nearly as much as others. Wine, to us, is one of those things that the more you know, the more you realize you don’t know because there’s always something new to learn. Our columns and books weren’t intended for aficionados, though many read us along with other books and magazines geared to them. Like those newspapers I grew up reading, we knew our audience: smart, sophisticated people who had money and wanted to spend it wisely and not feel vulnerable in a wine store or with a wine list at a restaurant.

In our books, we called them “a frustrated majority; people who can afford more and better wine, who want to enjoy wine more but who don’t know where to begin. Too often, those people are told they have to become wine experts before they can appreciate wine. We think that’s backwards.” (Flash forward to today. Same thing.)

What we’ve found, in general we wrote, is that people don’t want to become wine experts. They just want help, and many found it easier to ask us than to seek it from other sources. A senior executive at the New York Times, someone we didn’t know, once wrote to us with a question about wine. No, you’ll never know his name. We answered the question, of course, but did wonder why he hadn’t just asked a colleague.

Bonné and Robinson have decided apparently that millennials need simple, distilled explainers. I haven’t seen Robinson’s book “The 24-Hour Wine Expert,” but she has said that it was the idea of her then 24-year-old daughter, Rose, to write something for her 20-something-year old friends. According to an article last year in the British newspaper, the Independent, the book “claims to take ordinary wine drinkers from amateur to expert in just one day.”

A title like that and Bonné’s, which promise to give you everything you need to know about wine, sound like desperate experts condescending to readers. You can become an expert on what kinds of wines you like with some effort, but a wine expert in 24 hours or in 148 pages?

The last acknowledgement in Bonné’s book got under my skin: “Finally, a deep thanks to my mom. You’ve always helped to remind me that sometimes we have to slow down to help everyone else understand what seems obvious in our heads.”

Even though I am always delighted to see mothers thanked for just about anything, that struck me as incredibly arrogant and cast a pall over everything that had come before it. This is just the sentiment that true wine lovers wish would disappear. I thought we were headed toward a time when it would. I was wrong. In wine writing, it seems we’re back where we started long ago.

This holiday season, if you want to help your twenty-something friend or loved one begin to learn about wine, forget these books and do this instead: Buy six or 12 bottles of affordable wine from all around the globe, like a dry red from Portugal, a Sauvignon Blanc from South Africa, a Garnacha from Spain, anything from the Pacific Northwest, a Beaujolais or Rhône from France and a Nero d’Avola from Sicily.

Tell them to drink up lustily and maybe spend a few seconds thinking about where the wine is from and remember that it was made by real people for whom this is their art. Maybe the tasting will lead to interest, which might lead to some deeper study, which might lead to a lifelong passion. That’s good for everybody.

Dorothy J. Gaiter conceived and wrote The Wall Street Journal's wine column, "Tastings," from 1998 to 2010 with her husband, John Brecher. She has been tasting and studying wine since 1973. She has had a distinguished career in journalism as a reporter, editor, columnist and editorial writer at The Miami Herald and The New York Times as well as at The Journal. Dottie and John are well-known from their many television appearances, especially on Martha Stewart's show, and as the creators of the annual "Open That Bottle Night" celebration of wine and friendship. The first bottle they shared was André Cold Duck.  

Read more of Dorothy J. Gaiter on Grape Collective.