November 19, 2010
Ceci n’est pas une pipe was Magritte’s famous caption for a painting that, quite obviously, depicted a pipe. In a similar spirit, I should explain that this is not a blog, despite outward appearances and my use of certain bloggy devices such as hyperlinks and a comments page. Instead, what I envision this site to be is something of an open-source wine column, written as deliberately as your favorite newspaper wine column but without the compromises those writers must make for their work to be accessible to a general audience.
One of my favorite wine columnists, Eric Asimov of the New York Times, started an overdue discussion on his blog last year with a post called “What Can Best Be Left Unsaid.” The post discussed how he’d managed to write a column on Châteauneuf-du-Pâpe without committing the usual wine-columnist tic of explaining that Châteauneuf comes from the Rhône Valley region of France, which is actually not one but two distinct regions, Northern and Southern, the latter of which produces red wines based on the grenache grape which, in Châteauneuf, can be and usually is blended with up to a dozen other varieties, some of them white. This is all Wine 101, the sort of thing that Eric Asimov’s regular audience doesn’t need to be told (and those who do can easily consult Google or Wikipedia). But for some reason there is an expectation that a wine columnist should assume he is writing for neophytes.
The same expectation does not hold true for any other kind of columnist. As I write this, the latest New York Times chess column makes reference to the “Kan Sicilian opening” and includes sentences like, “if Carlsen had played 47 g3, then 47 … Qd2 48 Qg2 e2 49 a7 e1/Q 50 a8/Q h4 would still be a drawn position,” secure in the knowledge that anyone bothering to read a chess column understands that stuff without needing it explained. Sure, a chess column that covered fluff topics like “Five Chess Sets That Make Great Gifts This Holiday Season” would have a much larger readership, but a paper with intellectual aspirations like the Times grasps the importance of directing its chess coverage towards those who study the game at a high level as opposed to those with a casual interest. It’s always mystified me why wine writing should be treated so differently. If chess columns were written like most wine columns, the writer would constantly be pausing to explain, every time he makes reference to (for example) a bishop, that the bishop is the piece that can move diagonally in any direction across the board.
The kind of wine writing that actually does target itself at serious enthusiasts is, if anything, in an even worse state. The current fashion is newsletters modeled on the Wine Advocate wherein a critic rattles off three-or-four sentence tasting notes on hundreds of wines to which he’s given scant attention in a mass spitting exercise, each accompanied by a point score purporting to be an ex cathedra pronouncement on the wine’s absolute (and often inchoate) quality. Some of those newsletters are reliable buying guides. Others not so much. In either case it strikes me as depressing that professed connoisseurs of something as potentially beautiful, thought-provoking, and life-affirming as wine should aspire to nothing grander than a buying guide.
There is an irritating cliché about wine which holds, “It’s what’s in the glass that counts.” That’s sometimes true of wine, but rarely is it true of wine writing; it’s not what’s on the page that counts. What counts is where it takes you, what it inspires you to think about after you put it down. The best wine writing, in my opinion, is the kind you can enjoy late on a Friday night while sunk into your easy chair, nursing the last glass of the evening’s Burgundy. Sometimes it will talk about specific wines, but usually only as an excuse for a detour somewhere else. Anyway, that will be the aspiration here. You will have to be the judge whether I can pull it off. New columns will be posted Fridays on a schedule I hope will average out to something more-or-less biweekly. Thanks for coming along on the journey.
For further reading:
- Eric Asimov on “What Can Best Be Left Unsaid.”