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Is wine writing a “dodge”?

July 20, 2011 by  
Filed under Wine

Dodge: to use tricks, deceits, or evasions; be shifty; to evade a question, charge, etc. by trickery, cleverness [Webster’s New World Dictionary]

Dodge, synonyms [Roget’s Thesaurus]: elude, evade, escape, swerve, turn aside, duck

At first my reaction to Dan Berger describing wine writing as a “dodge” was one of curiosity. Why would Dan (an old friend) call it that? A funny word to use for an occupation that he, I and many others of us have practiced honorably for a long time.

But Dan is one of the senior members of our profession, a respected veteran who was making a living as a wine writer when I was still drinking Bob Red, so I decided to mull his remark over for a while to discern his true meaning.

I re-read the exact context in which “dodge” appeared:

“It was an event staged by a winery for a small group of media people, all of whom have been in the wine writing dodge for decades…

Let us deconstruct this statement and see if we can get to its bottom. First of all, Dan is at an event staged… This is vital information. He is not relaxing with friends at home or a bar. He is at an event, a word that is to be interpreted with some alarm by those in the know. An “event” is not a natural occurrence in the world. It is a fabrication, an artificial social gathering to which people are invited who can further the agenda of the people who host it, by writing about it, creating buzz about it, and whose aim is to make more money for the host than the host has spent on it. Yes, an event is staged, and any media invited to an event must be aware that they are simply being called upon to be players in someone else’s drama.

Dan certainly is so aware, and this consciousness on his part must be taken into account when we move onto the next deconstruction concerning his use of the word “dodge.”

All of whom have been… This is vital information too. Dan is not alone. He is with a group of his peers (not including me. I was not there.) When wine writers who have known each other for a long time find ourselves at events, there is a certain communication between us of which outsiders may be unaware. I won’t call it “jaded” or “blasé,” for that would suggest a corruptness that isn’t so. It’s more like, “Here we are at the old cattle call again.” Someone blew a whistle and we, the wine media, moo obediently and shuffle through the corral to the place where the feed has been dumped for us to chew on. This doesn’t prevent us from enjoying ourselves, or doing our jobs to the best of our ability. But it does bring up that McCartney line from Penny Lane: “Though she feels she’s in a play, she is anyway.” So this, too, has to be taken into account in considering Dan’s remark.

Now we get to the money phrase: the wine writing dodge for decades. Not just “the wine writing dodge” but “for decades.” See the previous paragraph. There is a hint of ennui here, of déja vu, of Groundhog Day. But why the word “dodge”? Is wine writing a trick, a deceit, an evasion? Are we shifty? Do we use trickery or cleverness to duck certain charges? I’m not sure what Dan means. Certainly, one implication of “dodge” may simply have been that wine writing–of the kind Dan and I practice– isn’t the most difficult way to earn a living. No heavy lifting, very little sweating (except for deadlines), no rush hour commute if you work from home, as Dan and I do. We’re not pounding steel in factories or descending into coal mines to hack away at rocks, we’re not bus drivers or janitors or people who pour asphalt onto roads. We’re rather soft-handed members of the intelligentsia, and it’s likely that we work hours of our own choosing and can make time available for long lunches, or naps, or even to take entire days off if we feel like it, without having to ask a boss’s permission. So maybe that’s what Dan meant by “dodge”: we’ve made a good living for a long time by doing something pretty easy, and we’ve gotten a lot of perks along the way (such as a great wine and food that invariably is given to us at events).

Here’s what I hope Dan didn’t mean by “dodge”: that there’s something inherently dishonest about wine writing. A lot of people think there is. They think we make up our reviews out of nowhere, that we’re freeloaders just scrounging for swag. Maybe they think we really are evading making an honest living by doing something so, well, effete. There may well be working men and women who see wine writers as members of the liberal media who “just don’t get it.” Certainly, there’s a lot of class resentment floating around the U.S. lately, and if members of the media are the recipients of it (and they are), then a wine writer in particular must be the object of loathing and scorn, particularly for those people who don’t drink alcohol.

The aspect of cleverness comes in here. People don’t like clever people. The snake in the Garden of Eden was clever. Clever people trick normal people into doing things that are harmful to them, and to society. Yet wine writers are clever almost by definition: all writers are clever. We have to be. “Clever” traces its roots to the Middle English “cliver,” referring to a claw or hand, meaning “adroit with the hand.” Cavemen who were adroit with their hands developed skills others did not possess. Perhaps they were better at chipping flint into arrowheads, or creating spears that could kill a wild animal at 30 paces. So we see that the root of “clever” was not some aesthetically pointless sharpness of wit, the way Oscar Wilde was clever with a quip. No, the earliest form of cleverness furthered the survival of the clan. Writing may not be as central to survival as the killing of animals for food (and to prevent them from eating us), but writing certainly is central to a society’s ability to understand itself and to pass its wisdom on. The framers of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence were clever writers.

Finally, there is the meaning of dodge ”to evade a question.” This may once upon a time have been an accurate charge against wine writers. We lived in ivory towers, made our pronouncements from on high, and provided little if any transparency as to how we actually ran our businesses. We expected the public to believe us because we were experts and they weren’t. If they asked us questions, we felt no need to answer them.

Well, obviously, blogging and social media have changed all that. There may still be some wine writers around who won’t let anybody know how they really operate, but most of us–me included–aren’t that way. You can’t be secretive anymore. Discerning readers won’t let you. I don’t think there’s a question I’ve evaded in my blog, except, perhaps, that of my sanity, which isn’t really something I could speak objectively about anyway.

So while I’m still not sure exactly what Dan meant by “dodge,” I’d like to thank him, because I got a blog post out of it that was fun to write!

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