Why wine writing is just like wine labels

So, do you know what this wine tates like
and where it comes from?


How mind-numbingly boring can I make this first paragraph? Which sets of colourless words can I summon up that will be guaranteed to make all but the most obsessive readers give up and head off to do something else with their time? 

Baldly-presented facts are always a fairly reliable sleep inducer: 

“xxxxx, in the south-west of xxxxx is the third largest wine region in xxxx. Wine has been produced there since xxxx and…” 

zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

Alternatively, there is the dull personal revelation: 

“I have never really liked eating fish with red wine, but last weekend, when our friends Nick and Nigel came for dinner…” 

zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

Over the last few weeks, as one of the judges of the 2014 Roederer International Wine Writers Awards, I have struggled with tens of thousands of these kinds of words, as I worked my way through over 400 articles, columns, blog posts and books. Each writer could enter up to four pieces of writing in each of five categories (apart from possible submission in the ‘Books’ and ‘Artistry’ sections) which meant that, in some cases, I had the chance to experience multiple doses of some of a wine communicator’s work. This was not always a joy.

If the writing was often uninspiring, so too was the content. Far too many people talk about the importance of ‘the story’ behind a wine without, by all appearances, having any real idea of what a story really is. Stated simply, unless you are James Joyce or Proust, neither of whom would necessarily have made a very successful wine writer, a story has some kind of beginning middle and end. It has a who?, a what?, a where?, a when?, a how? and a why? or at least a few of these. It is not a succession of facts or opinions. The only place for that kind of writing is business reports and textbooks whose reading is generally involuntary. (For a perfect example of the genre, just compare the tedium of the WSET course textbook with any of the wonderfully readable general wine books published by writers like Jancis Robinson, Hugh Johnson and Oz Clarke). 

And, dare I say, there’s an incentive to getting this right. One of the hats I wear is as editor at large of Meininger’s Wine Business International and rarely a week passes without Felicity Carter, that magazine’s brilliant editor, lamenting the poor quality of yet another batch of articles she’s been sent by people who imagine they have a god-given right to see their words in its pages. Interestingly, given the global nature of the publication, we’ve discovered that one’s native tongue has little to do with the understanding of the importance of story-telling. Some of the best contributors have English as a second or third language. If you think you can tell a really interesting story to an audience of people who earn their living from wine at a high professional level, please contact her. But please, please don’t do so unless you’ve really assimilated the previous paragraph.

Part way through the Roederer judging exercise, as I plodded my way through yet another dull opening paragraph and desperately struggled to maintain the will to live, I had a minor moment of revelation. Most wine writers are just like most wine producers: they presume that the people looking at the words on the label or the page or screen are already on their side, and have a significant level of interest and knowledge in the subject. 

The parallel is striking. On the one hand, we have a producer baldly labelling his wine Grignan-Les Adhemar; on the other, we have the writer starting his piece “Grignan-Les Adhemar is is the northernmost wine-growing AOC in the southern area of the Rhône”. Both approaches work perfectly well for people who either already know and like Grignan-Les Adhemar or are sufficiently wine geeky to want to learn everything about every single one of France’s wine regions. The bad news is that if we were to assemble all of the people who fall into both groups, we’d end up with a pretty small congregation. How many more might choose to read on if the piece began “There can’t be many wine regions that owe their name to a nuclear accident…”? * 

Obviously, there are winemakers whose production is small enough not to mind only appealing to a small niche of consumers, just as there are writers whose work is directly aimed at geeks – and bloggers who appear to be targeting their efforts directly at themselves. And that’s fine by me, but when it comes to judging for awards like the Roederer, geek-fodder and onanism aren’t going to get my vote. What I have been looking for is inclusive writing: fascinating stuff that even someone with only the most passing interest in the subject might find themselves reading, almost against their will.

Fortunately, there have been some really fine examples of this kind of writing – both from established names with shelves full of awards, and from new writers I’d never encountered before, so I’m looking forward to discussing these with my fellow judges when we meet to choose the winners next week.

In the meantime, if you’re a wine writer who has entered a number of this kind of competitions and failed to win, I’ll pass on a piece of invaluable advice I was given a very long time ago. 

It was apparently originally coined by the late 19th century US short story writer O Henry who said something to the effect that “after every sentence and paragraph, put yourself  in the shoes of the reader. If he says to himself ‘And then?’ and can’t help wanting to read the next sentence or paragraph, you’re getting it right. If on the other hand, the instinctive reaction is ‘so what?’. you’re not”.

But then of course, putting yourself in the consumer’s shoes has rarely been a skill I’d associate with the wine industry.

* In case you were one of the hundreds of millions of wine drinkers who were blissfully unaware of the fact, Grignan-Les Adhemar is the new – since 2008 – name for the Coteaux du Tricastin whose wines lost sales in France following the accidental release of uranium from the Tricastin power station.

5 comments

  1. I can't believe someone submitted that style of text for a Roederer Award! Happy to say that our (encyclopedia-style) Grignan-les-Adhemar description mentions nuclear controversy in the first paragraph.

  2. Thanks Jonathan. Good to hear from you. And yes, the Wine-Searcher editorial quality is definitely a cut above much of the rest of what's out there. Please keep it up.

  3. My experience mirrors yours completely Robert. Though I will go on to say that I've stumbled upon several pieces that start brilliantly but then lose steam and fall flat on their face. I find the hardest part of crafting a story is weaving anticipation with education followed by entertainment. If they don't dance seamlessly together, I'm quick to click “close” and grab a drink in despair.

  4. So true Gabriella. As we both know, if you don't have enough entertainment value, the rest is valueless.

  5. I love this parallelism, it's so true 😀 Both wine writers and wine producers seem to suffer of the same disease: self-reference! Anyway, I'm glad to see that for the third year in a row, some colleague in Palate Press is awarded. It means that this magazine is growing (or collecting) valuable wine writers. Despite my poor contributions, I mean (I never tried to submit my articles to an international competition, I'm too much aware of my limits)

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