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What I’ll tell them about wine writing

April 4, 2011 by steve  
Filed under Wine

I’m speaking tonight, more or less extemporaraneously, at the U.C. Berkeley Haas School of Business MBA Program Wine Club (wow, that’s a mouthful). They asked me back after my gig there last year, which means they liked me, they really liked me! Or maybe they just couldn’t find anyone else.

Since I won’t have scripted remarks, I was thinking, as I walked up the hill back from the gym, that I would give the students a potpourri of stuff we could chat about, and that they can chose anything or everything, or whatever else they come up with. Among the topics I thought of were California varieties, regions, wines, winemakers, wineries, wine writing as opposed to wine criticism (including how I became a wine writer), the changing face of wine writing, social media and its impacts, blogging, collecting, the 100 point system, Wine Enthusiast and how I work, Parker’s retirement from California and its meaning (if any), cult wines, how I see the market emerging from the recession, P.R., marketing, creating buzz, the 3-tiered distribution system, etc. etc.

That took about 10 steps up the hill. Then I reverted back to “wine writing as opposed to wine criticism” and figured I’d point out to them that there really is a difference, and it’s of particular concern to me, since as longtime readers of this blog know, the quality of wine writing is something I feel strongly about. And then it occurred to me to point out that every wine writer is aiming at a particular audience. My writing, whether in the magazine or on this blog, is not aimed at beginners. For example, it is extremely unlikely that I would ever have a pronuniciation guide for European varieties in anything I write (Cah-berr-ay Sew-veen-yon). I expect my readers to know how to pronounce everything (well, almost everything. Not Croatian varieties. Drnekusa crna, for example, or Trnjak). I also expect them–you–to have read widely and know a lot about the industry. If I say “Constellation” I don’t point out that it’s Constellation Brands, the second biggest (after Gallo) wine company in the country, based in New York. I drop the word “Parker” with some frequency and don’t bother with his first name, because you already know it.

People have asked me if I think I’m writing to the same people in both the magazine and my blog. The answer is yes…and no. I have less of a sense who reads me in the magazine, because there’s almost no dialogue between writer and reader, and also because the magazine contains my scores and reviews, which go out all over the place. It’s very different in the blog, where I get instant responses via the “Comments” section. When my readers think I’ve made a dumbbell of myself, they don’t hesitate to let me know.

The Haas MBA students are mostly unknown to me, which is why I’m going to wing it tonight. How can you write a prepared speech for an audience about whom you know almost nothing? I wondered if they would feel slighted when I walk in and say, basically, “I didn’t even prepare any remarks,” but I’m not really worried about it, because I can pull enough rabbits out of my hat to entertain and enlighten them no matter what they want to talk about. I like public forums. My hands sometimes get a little shaky at first from nerves, but I don’t think anyone can see it, and it doesn’t affect my mind or my mouth, i.e., I can still speak cogently and at length about anything I know about; and after a while, I’m in my element. And the more interactive an audience is, the better and more fun the event is. There are many areas of wine I don’t know much about–South Africa, Sicily–but when it comes to things I do know, it’s a lot, and I like to talk.

We’re going to taste four wines I chose: Shypoke 2008 Charbono, Robert Foley 2009 Charbono, Cambiata 2007 Rocosa Loma Vineyard Tannat and Joseph Swan Vineyards 2007 Matthew’s Station Vineyard Tannat. I gave them all high scores. I want the students to know, if they don’t already, that it’s not always about Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and the others. California can produce outstanding wines from scores of varieties. The problem is that they’re hard to sell, so growers and vintners don’t waste their time making them. Part of the wine writer’s job is to let consumers know about these “lesser known” varieties which in many cases are more food-friendly (and ageworthy) than Cabernet and Pinot, even if they don’t get scored as highly. But that’s a different topic, one I may take up in a future blog.

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