Are scores an abomination, or an important tool? Where will the next generation of wine writers come from?
And what should people drink under lockdown?
These are all hotly debated questions within the wine community – even among the world’s top wine writers, as was proved by a recent online get-together between Eric Asimov, Tim Atkin MW and Elaine Chukan Brown.
The comfort of wine
The writers were taking part in a RealWineBiz webinar, organised by Meininger’s Robert Joseph and 5forest’s Polly Hammond. These are weeknight online gatherings of wine professionals and, on 28 March, the spotlight was turned on wine writing. But, perhaps not surprisingly, the trio – whose lives are devoted to wine – got straight into talking about what they were drinking, rather than what they were writing.
“I haven’t strayed far from my apartment in Manhattan, apart from occasional trips to the food market and for air, but I get paranoid quickly and head home,” said Asimov, the senior wine critic for the New York Times. “I did a column on comfort wines, on the wines people are drawn to in anxious times. For me it’s Syrah, specifically from the Northern Rhône.”
Tim Atkin MW, one of Britain’s most significant wine critics, also gravitates to the Rhône Valley, but chose Grenache as his comfort wine. Former academic Chukan Brown, who now writes for jancisrobinson.com among other outlets, said her ‘comfort wine’ is one she has a connection with through friends or particular producers.
Even moderator Robert Joseph, who has written more than 25 wine books, chipped in: “Malbec is one of my comfort wines,” he said. “I would have said Pinot Noir, because it’s my first love in wine, but there’s something about the combination of fruit and spice that appeals to me.”
The conversation then ranged over old regions, new regions and whether Bordeaux is still a reference point (general agreement: yes) – all of which finally led to the question of whether wine writers should be generalists or specialists.
Narrow or wide?
Atkin MW felt he’d been lucky to have started 35 years ago, when newspapers and magazines had more space for wine. Writing a weekly column for The Guardian, he said, was like being a wind surfer, where “you have to know a little about a lot,” he said. These days, however, he makes a living with his in-depth reports on regions ranging from South Africa and Argentina to Burgundy. “I do deep dives,” he said. “The minimum I spend in a place is two and a half weeks, and a month in South Africa, so I’m probably travelling five months a year to do my reports.”
Chukan Brown suggested that another possibility was to specialise in a category of wine, rather than a region, or “your specialisation might be your methodology rather than just your place or style.” Unlike other professional critics, she hadn’t come to wine from a journalism background. “I come to it as a researcher who believes in sharing information,” she said. “For me, thoroughness of knowledge is primarily important, but once you gain knowledge, you share that knowledge.”
As for where the current opportunities might lie for wine writing, Atkin MW suggested that “one place that strikes me that hasn’t been done particularly well is Italy.” Spain, he said, was another possibility.
Perhaps inevitably, the conversation then turned to scores.
“I’m on the record as being anti-scores,” said Asimov. “It gives many false impressions of wine.” First, scores suggest that wines can be graded on a universal scale, and that wines are inherently better or worse than one another. “I have always felt that wines should be chosen for the occasion.”
Atkin MW, who uses scores, disagreed, saying he thought rating wines in this way is “a way of understanding someone else’s palate,” he said. “What’s wrong with saying ‘I like this’ rather than something else?” Problems only arise when the score becomes an end in itself. “The 100-point scale is the international gold standard and you work within it, and you do your best to make it work for you and your readers.”
Chukan Brown added that “scores are a way of communicating something, and it’s a particular person communicating something to their readers.” She also rejected the idea that scores are merely subjective. “We have created a convention of understanding. A good taster is informed by education and experience. They are judging wine through a history of tasting conventions that gives their score a greater context than just their own preference.”
Where will the next writers come from?
Discouragingly, Atkin MW said it would now be hard to enter the profession without a private income.
Asimov agreed. “Every now and then I see young writers who have a really distinctive voice and interesting things to say, but they don’t have a way to sustain wine writing as a business,” he said. “There just aren’t the outlets.” He added there are now only two newspapers in the US with on-staff wine writers.
Chukan Brown wasn’t quite so gloomy, pointing out that she had only begun in 2012, when she’d blogged five days a week. She’d viewed it as an apprenticeship, or type of graduate school, where she knew she would have to immerse herself in the subject without pay. However, she said, “I wouldn’t recommend it”.
Her advice is that would-be wine writers should think about what other skills they can add into the mix – in her own case, she is able to give speeches, run educational seminars, and can even create her own illustrations.
“You have to be a wine communicator – you have to be good at public speaking and education,” said Atkin MW. “You could get a good fee for speaking to a bunch of lawyers and doctors – to earn the same amount of money in journalism, you’d have to research and write for a month.”
The coronavirus effect?
“Since this began, pretty much all of the writing that I’ve done about wine has been done in relation to how coronavirus has changed our lives,” said Asimov. “I think it’s pretty clear that, in the US at least, there will be a difficult period related directly to restaurants.” Restaurants play such a major role in wine that “it’s unclear and unsettling as to what’s going to happen”.
For Chukan Brown, the situation is now driving home how much “economics is part of sustainability.”
Speaking more philosophically Atkin MW suggested that coronavirus “will change us as people, and that’s bound to change the way we write and interact with other people.” He doesn’t see that as a bad thing, adding that for the past decade, wine writers have had to work harder and harder to make a living. “I want to do even less, but better. Maybe we’ll get used to living with less – it will benefit me, my friends and my family.” With the caveat, of course, that it depends on how long the dislocation lasts for.
Is there even any point in writing about wine in the face of such a social calamity? For Atkin MW, the answer is a clear “yes”.
“There’s a football manager in England called Jürgen Klopp and he talks about football,” said Atkin MW. “He said it was the most important and least important thing in life, and that’s true of wine. Wine is irrelevant in the greater scheme of things – people, are dying while we have this conversation – but it’s important. It’s part of civilisation and community.”
At which point the discussion ended, the cameras switched off and the critics could then think about their next glass of comfort wine – and maybe contemplate the new reality, where talking to people all over the world via a computer screen is now an integral part of civilisation and community, too.