A Search For The Soul Of North American Wine Writing (Via South American Wine)

Vinted on June 29, 2011 binned in commentary, going pro, wine publications

I think traditional American wine-writing may have totally jumped the shark.

Yeah, I am actually going there.  And yeah, it will probably take around 1100 words.

You see, last week marked my (extremely) long-overdue second contribution to Nomad Editions’ iPad wine magazine, Uncorked. The long-overdue part is entirely my fault – things have been busy, as in senator-on-the-campaign-trail-trying-to-hide-his-mistresses-from-the-press level busy, enough so to keep me from contributing weekly.

The Uncorked story is titled “My Andean Adventure: One wine dude’s search for the soul of South American wine” and it’s core topic is more-or-less my bout with the Chilean version of Montezuma’s Revenge (you know the title isn’t mine, because I would have called it “Joe’s Colon Vs. The Diabolically Banal South American Budget Wines” or something similarly tasteless), and includes photos of mine as well, taken on a camera that costs less than $200, and so marks one of the few times that I’ve also been a contributing photographer (cue eye-rolling from any serious photographer reading this).  You’ll have to subscribe to read the article, but at less than $1 per month for a weekly wine mag that includes regular contributors like Tom Johnson (of Louisville Juice) and sommelier / award-winning author Courtney Cochran, you’d have to be a pretty hard-ass cheapskate wine lover to pass it up.

The thing that got me musing about wine writing jumping the shark was that my first draft of the Andean wine travels article was rejected summarily by Uncorked’s editor, (writer and winemaker) Stephen Yafa.  Stephen’s words from the Editor’s Note of last week’s issue:

“When Joe Roberts sent in his article on wine-touring in Chile and Argentina, the piece was wrong for all the right reasons. It was objective, balanced and unemotional. It wasn’t Uncorked, or Joe.”

Stephen is an excellent editor, and like all good editors he has knack for being right…

I’m pretty sure that people don’t read this blog for a balanced and unemotional take on wines and the happenings of the wine world.  Objective – or at least as credible as possible within the context of Op/Ed writing – maybe, but balanced and unemotional? No way.

That’s not by accident.  Why read a blog – any blog – if not for the character and opinion of its author(s)?  In my view, it’s the “personal-ness” of any blog that makes it compelling enough to warrant spending my increasingly-limited free time reading it; if I wanted anonymous, scrubbed-squeaky-clean coverage, I’d go look for it on CNN.

Stephen knows all of this, so when I gave him an article that would have worked for a more traditional outlet, he stopped editing it at the second paragraph and basically said (paraphrased and reinterpreted) “WTF is this?  Because it’s not you.

So I wrote about my gut instead, and managed to weave in my quest for trying to find wines with real soul and character from a region (South America) that is arguably better-known for its near-endless parade of banal, value-for-money selections – and resubmitted it to Stephen.  The result was… well, it’s unique.  Let’s put it this way: if you could wait for the universe to expand, collapse, and recreate itself over several trillion years while somehow remaining around all the while in disembodied form to read wine coverage, you are still never going to find this kind of story printed in the major wine glossies.  I give Uncorked props for having the guts (pun intended) to “print” it.

And in thinking in retrospect about the search for true “soul” in wine in South America – for flawed-but-more-colorful and characterful standouts among a sea of the polished, slightly-better-than-average but ultimately forgettable – I drew a parallel to the wine writing world that seemed… eerily familiar.

So much wine writing is too “safe.”  It’s formulaic, and as talented as the contributors and editors may be in terms of their writing and tasting skills, their genius is being lost in following formulas.  Formulas are not what you use when you’re going for unique expression – they’re better suited to other tasks, like helping robots make cars. And yet we encounter formulaic writing at nearly every turn in the wine world; I feel as though most winemaker profile pieces could be swapped out of one major wine pub and plopped into any another, and over 90% of the readership wouldn’t even notice any more.

I’m not saying that I have unlocked the Rosetta Stone code of soulful English-language wine writing here, folks. But I am saying that I think the chances of hitting that jackpot it in the major wine publications in circulation today are a lot lower than in the alternative media sprouting up in the spaces in between those pubs.

Wine blogs, and new, edgier beverage publications are, in part, a reaction to the banality of wine coverage. Some of them, of course, ironically fall into that same sea of banality, but the ones that don’t… well, they really don’t.  They are a joy to read – in large part because of their passion, originality and breath-of-fresh-air-ness. Like the most interesting wines I encountered in South America, the authors and editors of those publications have character and real f*cking soul.  They take chances. Sometimes, like the inevitable X-games-level competition wipe-out, they fail spectacularly – but when they win, they do it in equally spectacular fashion, garnering hundreds of comments or reactions, and continuing and evolving the discussion in myriad unpredictable ways after-the-fact.

I don’t know about you, but I’ll forgive the embarrassing wipe-outs for the big wins, for the two-way evolving conversations, any day of the week.  They’re small payment to endure for enjoying the occasional perfectly-executed surfing of the 70-foot wine writing wave.  In some ways, it takes the surfers with a ton of courage, talent and intensity to make us even notice the sea, and to remind us how difficult it is to rise above it.  Those are the writers and publications that inspire me to take chances and infuse an much “me” into the wine writing mix as I can – the ones throwing caution to the wind, getting back on those boards after each and every time that they fall over, all in the name of pushing for the vino coverage equivalent of a glorious 360-dismount.

Here’s to those chance-taking surfers of the wine writing world – long may they not take things too safely!






  • Old Parn

    Resounding agreement. RESOUNDING.

    You are spot on in your reference to the safety, the formulaicism. This is something that dismays me enormously. So many pieces that won't connect with anybody but the hardcore, obsessive audience. Too little that inspires, provokes, *reaches out*.

    Great post, anyhow. All 1,100 words of it.

    • 1WineDude

      Old Parn – thanks. Is it untoward of me to say that I might be in love with you for using the word formulaicism? :)

  • PaulG

    Dude, blogs are unchained melodies because they are solo efforts. When you join the print orchestra, you are gonna have to put up with the conductor. Both have their proper place.

    • 1WineDude

      PaulG – Very true. And the best of those orchestras still allow the solos to shine from time to time, I think.

  • @AndyatHuntWines

    Brilliant take on the world of wine writing, Joe. Banality is the first word the comes to mind when looking over the myriad wine publications available today. Honestly, your gut (and its issues) is way more interesting than what's usually published. Bravo for calling attention to this particular malady. Your originality, edginess and don't-really-give-a-f*ck-about-being-PC attitude are what make 1winedude a must read wine blog.

    • 1WineDude

      @AndyatHuntWines – thanks, I appreciate the good vibes, that comment is kind of making my week right now! I owe you a beer…!

  • Dale Cruse

    I am incredulous that you wrote a travel piece about South America & did not include the following passage:

    Our first stop is in Bogota
    To check Colombian fields
    The natives smile & pass along
    A sample of their yield

    • 1WineDude

      Dale – and well you *should* be, my friend! :)

      • Dale Cruse

        Joe, I'm going to make you (& only you) an offer: I'm willing to be your RUSH editor. Here's what that means: Every time you write a piece for your blog or other publication, email me your manuscript & I will ensure AT LEAST one RUSH reference is included!

        • 1WineDude

          Dale – well, I suppose there really is no way I can pass that up! I hope this is not an expensive service…?

  • 1WineDude

    It's interesting… since posting this, I've gotten a handful of emails (more than I would have expected!) from folks working for wine mags (all of whom will remain safely anonymous for obvious reasons!) who more or less have said "yeah, we *have* to write that way and it's a little stifling but that's how the bills get paid" or some variant of that.

    I respect that situation. I lament it, but I respect and understand it.

    Writing is a job – sometimes it's closer to artistic expression that a lot of other fields, but people still need to put food on the table and sometimes "safe" writing is the only way to ensure a steady paycheck.

  • 1WineDude

    Andy – please do! We need a break from vino once in a while. :)

  • Phil

    Well, I just spent way too much time without success trying to find what famous writer had the quote (paraphrasing): Learn the rules of good writing and then learn how and when to break them.

    What I takeaway from it is that a lot of people want to skip ahead to being brilliant and expressing their voice without first understanding how to write. You do it well Joe, but many don't. There are plenty of things I come across that scream for someone to take a step back, put their ego away, and just present the information so it can be easily understood. A whole magazine full of writers all being daring can quickly become a disaster, particularly if you're relying on people who don't write for a living (sorry, I guess I can't help but think of our publication).

    Everything has its place and while everyone wants to be James Joyce or Joe Roberts, our duty is not to our writers but to our readers. If we have a writer who can insert their own voice and style into an article and still convey the necessary information for our readers, that's great, that's what we want. Too often that is not the case and what is happening is that the writer is becoming the star of the article instead of the subject. Now some might say, "Boring!" but I would say that you wouldn't want to read our publication if we let all of the writers express themselves artistically all the time or even most of the time. Or maybe you would (actually, I bet you would), but would the other thousands of people who we need to appeal to? I doubt it. There is an extraordinary amount of talent involved in being quirky and interesting AND informative.

    PaulG brought up an excellent point: a magazine itself must have its own voice, otherwise it's just uncoordinated noise. What the voice is depends on the goals of the publication: Uncorked is going to have a different voice than Wine Spectator because they have a different audience and writing an Uncorked article for Wine Spectator is just as wrong as you submitting a Wine Spectator article to Uncorked. The universe is big enough for both of them.

    When it comes to blogs, you're absolutely right. A blog is it's own publication and its voice needs to be the voice of the writer. But to bring this full circle, unless you can write, it's just noise.

    • 1WineDude

      Hey Phil – great to hear from you, as always!

      So many great points and topics fro discussion in your comment, I don't know where to start! And thank you first off for the kind words.

      I agree totally about learning the rules before they can be broken – and I believe in it deeply. When I studied English Lit in undergrad, I was fortunate enough to have professors who a) assigned creative writing and b) forced me to adopt styles and express creativity *within* those styles before they'd let me submit pieces that were really off-the-wall. The lesson was, I don't care if you have chops, prove you have them by expressing them within different contexts. I have written here on 1WD about doing the same thing in wine tasting – i.e., sure, nobody understands your tastes as well as you do, but you can't break the "rules" of tasting notes until you can prove you understand what those rules are, and that means being disciplined in a traditional way first, then cutting loose when you have developed something worth cutting loose!

      And I do appreciate that publications should have unified and different voices, different audiences, etc. And the wine world is (hopefully) big enough for most of them. The trouble is that too many wine pubs (I'm not just talking mags here, I am including freelance pieces, newspaper columns, etc.) duplicate each others' styles and things have become formulaic and therefore boring as a result.. I am pretty sure what will/does work for the rising generation of younger wine lovers is not what works for Boomers, for example, yet few pubs or editors would be willing to risk trying to integrate those styles, even gradually, into their mastheads.

      I'm not saying that pubs should run off, fire their staff, and hire bloggers. But I am saying that it doesn't look like a talent pool is being nurtured for the future in many cases – this leaves those pubs vulnerable to the stylistic changes and demand from that younger audience. Not all of those people are going to have such visceral reactions as I do when I encounter the formulaic stuff, but the deeper they roam into the wine geek forest, the more likely they are to start wondering why they feel as though they're reading the same old stuff over, and over, and over, and over, and over….


  • 1WineDude

    BTW – looks like the Uncorked article is available online for free now at https://nomadeditions.com/uncorked/2011-06-24/glo

    Which I have to say seems an odd biz model (only putting current issue behind the paywall/subscription), but hey, that's their call! :)

  • Jen

    Good call – American wine-writing has definitely jumped the shark. Amid an abundance of wine blogs, there are very few I actually want to read as it is tough to find entertaining, informed bloggers with a decent palate who don't take themselves too seriously!

    I'm sorry you got sick in Chile; I guess I've been pretty lucky since moving to Argentina and Chile nearly two years ago. Also, Chile does tend to get a bad rap for banal budget wines; while it has plenty, there are some hidden (though often pricier) gems out there if you know where to look.

    • 1WineDude

      Thanks, Jen. I agree that too many bloggers are now taking themselves too seriously – I see that as a troubling trend, actually, because almost no wine bloggers can stand on their own; it's the community that gives us power, without the community we are kind of like… I dunno… individual beggars waiting for table scraps from Wine Spectator or something!

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