The Language of Wine
Of all the things you have written about in your 30+ year career, on your own website you published your lecture on Wine and Astonishment – why this article in particular?
I put that up on the website because it stands alone quite well, because it’s not ephemeral in the way that most journalism necessarily is, and because it was really as far as I could go with that particular approach to wine.
I never trained in philosophy and hence am an amateur or a dabbler in it, though I love study in that area when I have time (which is rare). In particular, one of the most compelling books I’ve ever read on any subject was George Steiner’s 1978 book on Heidegger (which originally appeared in the Fontana Modern Masters series). I still have it, now in deplorable physical condition, and have re-read it several times: a brilliant work of exegesis. This book meant an enormous amount to me and changed the way I thought about almost everything. It took me into Heidegger’s own texts, which are hard going, but I could eventually see an application to wine.
I was then asked to give a lecture for the Wine Communicators of Australia in 2012 so thought that this might be a useful approach for Australia at that time. I suspect it was vastly uninfluential! But since it was kind of nuggetty, and I was a bit pleased with it after all the effort which went into it, I thought I’d bung it up on the website. Neil Beckett was also kind enough to publish it in World of Fine Wine.
Tasting, drinking, enjoying wine can be such a cerebral experience- can language ever do it justice?
It’s interesting that you say ‘cerebral’ because I think that most people would say drinking wine is not cerebral at all, but rather a straightforward and easy sensual pleasure. Perhaps that’s one of the distinguishing features of wine geeks – they’re people who intellectualize wine. Talking about it and writing about it is part of that intellectualization. But yes, I think language can do it justice, whereas language is totally unable (to take a contrasting but linked example) of doing justice to the experience of sex, despite the valiant efforts of a few skilled writers like John Updike or Anais Nin. Doing wine justice in language means working overtime with metaphor and simile and other rhetorical tropes; we don’t have a lexicon of aroma or taste in the way that we have a visual or musical lexicon. “Plain” winespeak is dull. Using tropes well takes a lot of skill and anyway is not to everyone’s taste. I can easily imagine that Fine & Rare has big-time customers with fantastic cellars who never read a word of wine writing.
You talk about approaching wine philosophically – can you explain what you mean?
What I really mean is in the ‘Wine and Astonishment’ piece, and in particular in the ‘Against wine-worldliness’ section. Approaching wine philosophically means peeling away all that is ‘received’ about wine. It means unpicking everything which we take for granted about it, so as to see it anew each time, or try. To see the being of wine in the wine. It’s difficult! But that’s the way to derive the most enjoyment from it, and to honour it to the maximum. I don’t want to sound precious and of course there isn’t a lot of point getting all wonky and strenuous about Blossom Hill Sun-Kissed Red. But any serious wine from a site of some kind of distinction made without artifice may reward such an approach.
And if you hadn’t tasted any wine for six months or a year, maybe you could also see Blossom Hill Sun-Kissed Red in that way, too.
Has the language of wine writing developed, stagnated or reduced in your experience?
Both developed and stagnated. It’s developed because more and more people do it, and some of them are very talented. That’s great. Nothing stays the same and everything moves on. But I also feel it may have stagnated because “wine criticism” has created a kind of institutionalization of descriptive wine language. A lot of wine criticism sounds to me as if it is generated by Deep Blue, or Alpha Go, or Google BERT – the same laudatory phrases, adjectives, descriptors and analogies come rattling breathlessly out over and over again. I honestly don’t know how you avoid this if you are going to do wine criticism professionally and seriously and I am full of admiration for those like Antonio Galloni, William Kelley or Jeb Dunnuck who pull it off successfully and keep sounding fresh and authentic.
I’d also briefly observe that increasingly writers in this field as in others have never been through the hard knocks of print journalism, sub-editing, writing to length, cutting via revision, fact checking and so on. I spent four years as an editor before beginning as a wine writer in 1988. If you’ve only worked online you can easily slide into self-indulgence and prolixity.
What writers outside of the wine industry have influenced and inspired you?
This could be a very long list! And I’m not sure if you mean influence in terms of form or content, journalism or ‘literary writing’ &c. Anyway, here are four. You can’t beat Robert Louis Stevenson for stylish narrative flow. Nabokov’s sentence-construction is irresistible, near-faultless, and crafting interesting sentences is the basis of all great prose writing. For complete imaginative freedom and the making-new or re-minting, re-weighting or re-pitching of every chosen word, read Ted Hughes’ poetry. Finally and most importantly for wine writing (which runs to purple), read Bertrand Russell for concision, precision and economy: great disciplines. The History of Western Philosophy is a good place to start, even though Russell unaccountably omits Heidegger from his big book.
(Can I also say how much I dislike the phrase ‘the wine industry’? Wine is agriculture and craft.)
The Professional Wine Critic
You talk about how the internet has democratized wine – everyone can write about it, review it, share opinions etc. Where does the professional wine writer fit in this new age of wine writing?
It comes down to two things – quality and access. If you can write beautifully (one definition of quality), people will always want to read what you write. If you have an original or an intelligent take on the wine world (another definition of quality), people will also want to read what you write. And if you have unrivalled access, then people will, too, want to read what you write.
You need talent for the quality part but money can buy you access. Indeed you sometimes need money to acquire access, both directly (to buy the bottles or the tickets to the tastings) or indirectly (“to move in the right circles” and to have the time to do so). Fine wine is a rich kid’s game and there is no getting away from that. Indeed this gets more true every year.
I don’t really know how to define ‘professional wine writer’ as it’s common to work in this field without needing to make a living from it; it then becomes a lifestyle choice. But some of those who make that choice produce high-quality work so they seem eminently professional to me. I don’t stress about the distinction but anyone young coming into wine writing without private resources should know that it is a very poor way to make a living. If you are going to raise a family while doing it, then you will certainly need a ‘primary income’ partner, or need to do other income-generating things as well as writing, or need to start with a lot of money.
Have you changed your approach on how you judge wines over the years? What are the most important factors you look for when judging wine? How do you approach a wine when reviewing it? How do you decide what wines to review?
I should point out that I am not a wine critic but a wine writer (different though linked disciplines); and in any case today journalism in the ‘writing’ sense is only about 25% of my income nowadays.
I take part in a lot of blind (and, less often, sighted) tastings for both Decanter and World of Fine Wine, and from time to time I also talk about wines in the columns I write. If I visit a region for research, I may write up some of the wines I have tried afterwards; and wine description forms part of my wine-education work. I have also worked for over a decade with a great sommelier team on a London restaurant wine list, and very satisfyingly seen that restaurant go from no stars to three stars, and supplying descriptions for wines is a part of that work. But I have no primary wine-reviewing responsibilities as such at present.
To judge wines well, you need to be exposed to a wide range of wines but at the same time remain true to your own tastes or aesthetic beliefs, the sense you have that some wines really are better, more profound or more worthwhile than others. There are many sorts of good and great wine but if you are true to your own aesthetic beliefs you cannot ‘like everything’; some wines acclaimed by others will seem deeply disappointing or shallow to you. Yet the job also imposes palate width: to write about wine successfully for a wide audience, you should be open to as many types of beauty in wine as possible. This is an inherent conflict in wine writing and wine criticism.
I believe you should criticize the specious, the superficial and the merely modish in wine, though many critics nowadays seem to shy away from this part of the job and prefer to omit diplomatically rather than criticize. (A critic or a wine-writer who likes/praises everything is not a critic but a promoter or a cheer-leader. Some I think consider this their duty, but I’d disagree.)
The chance to criticize aesthetic failings is a clear advantage of blind tasting, and it’s to the credit of magazines like Decanter and World of Fine Wine that they have always maintained that tradition.
The Decanter Awards has become a well respected international wine awards competition. Do you struggle to get producers from the more classic fine wine regions of Burgundy and Bordeaux to submit their wines?
Well, we don’t ‘struggle’ because we never expected Lafite or Latour to enter – why would they? Our assumption was always that those entering would hope for a medal as a sales aid, so if you can sell everything you produce ten times over then there would be no point in entering. But over the years we’ve learned that producers enter for many reasons, not just to help sales; sometimes they enter just to get some feedback or as a benchmarking exercise. And in some areas we do now get classic fine-wine entries – we’ve had Grand Cru Burgundy in the Best In Show category for the last two years, for example. If you look at this year’s Best in Show line-up you will find other fine wines, too – the Wiston Estate Blanc de Blancs, Torres’ Grans Murailles, Brusset’s Hauts de Montmirail Gigondas, the Heidsieck Blanc de Millénaires 2004, Ch de Meursault’s `17 Clos des Epenots , Brokenwood’s `17 Graveyard Shiraz … I’d be thrilled to have any of those in my cellar (in fact I’d love to have the complete Top 50, which is a wonderfully catholic collection).
In a previous interview you have alluded to winemakers adapted their winemaking to gain higher scores. These days, do you feel the critic is now more dictated by the vigneron (a move towards restraint, reduction in oak)? Or is it a new critic’s discourse that is dictating current trends in winemaking?
Did I really say that? Perhaps back in the Parker heyday, but I think that’s all behind us now as there are more critical voices and no critical hegemon. (I thought Robert Parker did a fantastic job, by the way, and I remain in awe of his achievement; a lot of ‘Parkerisation’ was boundary-pushing in quest of excellence more generally and it served a useful educational function, even if those wines and wine styles proved ephemeral.)
Yes, wine craftswomen and craftsmen are very definitely in charge, and so much the better. They are all in a different place, of course, both geographically and along the experiential curve, but that will always be the case and quite right since consumers are in different places too. I may have had it now with wines in which the smell of oak is palpable but many consumers still like them.
The only note of caution I’d express would be towards those wine cultures where the press corps and the producers are best friends and spend a lot of time together. That is dangerous. I live in Languedoc but I don’t socialize with wine-growers, and in general my best friends are not wine producers, though wine producers are great people who I admire deeply. I love tastings and I love drinking wine at home or in other relaxed settings with friends or students, but I’m not a big fan of grand wine dinners and try to avoid them. (Though I admit that it’s the only way most us us can ever get to drink rather than taste truly expensive and sought-after wines.) Such events often provide the very worst conditions for truly appreciating those wines, for seeing ‘the being’ of those wines in the wines as I said earlier. Too many wines, overly distracting surroundings, not enough time spent with each wine, inauthentic remarks about them, clashing etiquettes between giving the wine proper professional attention and being nice to your neighbour … so often these are artificial wine-worshipping rituals and it’s a tragedy that so many great bottles end up being consumed in such circumstances.
Because wine is “social” it’s very easy to get sucked into its social circuit but I think you need to keep your distance. I noticed this proximity and interdependence when I was living in Australia and of course I understand why it happens but it did mean that the writers as a group pushed a certain ‘critical aesthetic’ on producers. Since they were domestically very influential it became crazy hard for any up-and-coming producer to resist – lower alcohol, early picking, lots of ‘tightly wound’ wines, lots of lean acid lines … You may like that, you may not, but it’s not good for any wine culture to be too homogenous, and it’s also a terrible way to go about the revelation of terroir. People like Chris Ringland who also made fantastic Australian wines in the non-zeitgeisty style became invisible men and had to live underground. But perhaps the naturalistas have come along and blown it all up now.
You provide full disclosure on earnings on your website. Why did you feel the need to be so transparent? Is there a concern over the transparency of other critics/ journalists?
When I started that there had been one of the periodic kerfuffles about wine writerly corruption. So I started and never stopped. People are vaguely interested so why not? In Sweden, personal income is public information; bring it on everywhere. (Including for all candidates for high office.) I also thought it might be useful for people starting out in this line of work to see just where 30 years of experience could get you! Then they might think twice …
Transparency is a virtue, I think. However objectivity and independence in any kind of rigorous journalistic sense is just a dream for most wine writers; the sums you can earn are too paltry to make a satisfactory living from, let along subsidize the required travel and expenses. If the leading ‘wine critics’ can manage to work in that objective and ethically neutral way, as they claim, that’s great; good for them. Fantastic. Set against that, you have other folks badging themselves as wine writers or critics who have wine-trade jobs, or who import wines. This is not a good basis for objectivity, though I understand the financial need. Wine writing may not be an ethical swamp (the stakes are too low for swamp status), but it’s certainly a marsh.
The Concept of Fine Wine
‘A great wine gives us satisfaction, a sense of wellbeing and makes us want to drink it again: it creates and develops sociability between friends. It is unique, rare, typical and long-lived.’ – Gianfranco Soldera. Can you define what the concept of a great wine means to you?
First of all, let me just point out something obvious: the taste of most wine is more complex and more delightful in one-mouthful terms than the taste of most foods. Food flavours are simpler, though a great chef can create complexity by assembling and cooking foods. (The complexity of wine is in part due to the fermentative process, and is to some extent shared by foods which have also been through that process.) That fact, plus the fact that wine contains alcohol and alcohol is a mood-altering drug, is why we like and ever revere wine; all wine. It tastes shockingly exciting and gets you drunk.
What good or great wine does is not to turn the concentration of flavour up – that’s easy to do by artificial means such as acidification or oaking. Good or great wine manages to communicate beauty, harmony and a sense of profundity akin to that which we derive from great works of art (though wine is not art). It exceeds itself. It’s crafted and we can appreciate the craft, but it also seems to be a beautiful and rare phenomenon of the natural world at the same time, like a sunlit landscape after a storm or a skein of geese crossing a winter sky. Enumerating all the ways in which these things can happen would fill volumes, but that’s the core of it.
You talk about how humans are the catalyst for terroir. Has the discourse around terroir unfairly dismissed the importance of the winemaker?
No, I don’t think so; wine writers love to write about winemakers. I don’t know anyone who advances the risibly simplistic notion that ‘terroir is all that matters’, because the counter-proofs are so comprehensive and so ubiquitous.
What recent wine experience/s astonished you for good or for bad?
Well, I have just been with a group of Wine Scholar Guild students in Alsace, truly one of my favourite wine regions and full of men and women who think deeply about wine and its relationship with place. Notably Olivier Humbrecht MW. We spent almost two hours with Olivier, and he gave us a Pinot Gris masterclass. For once (it’s a widely mis-used term!), this was magisterial. If anyone on this earth is ‘a genius of wine’, it is Olivier Humbrecht. He has thought very, very deeply about everything he does, every gesture and every intervention; he takes nothing for granted or on trust; and he is both fiercely intelligent but also has an innate feel for and understanding of the potential of wine from the sites in his care. He is the perfect extension of his vineyards; you might almost imagine that his vineyards have brought him into being, that they needed him to be in order to express themselves in wine. There aren’t many wine books which urgently need writing, but one of them would be a book either written by Olivier himself, or written by someone else who could take a year off, spend most of it with Olivier, record dozens of hours of interviews with him in the cellar and in the vineyards, get it all transcribed and then distil it down and order it. That would truly advance wine knowledge and be of great benefit to others.
What are the most exciting developing regions for fine wine?
Bordeaux! I’m in awe of the progress made there over the last 20 years, particularly in terms of the understanding of tannins. Tannins are the key to quality in fine red wine. Nothing would help southern hemisphere regions making ambitious red wines more than a breakthrough in the extraction and expression of tannins in their wines – the hallmark of all great European reds. Red winemakers in general need to stop stressing about acidity and become obsessed by tannin. To learn about tannin, go to Bordeaux.
I’m always shocked by the quality advances made by over the last couple of decades by those working in Napa (not coincidentally the only region outside Europe which has managed to endow its fine red wines with truly satisfactory tannin structures) and I love to taste those wines on the rare chances I get to do so, though it seems to me that climate change is a colossal threat there.
Georgia, setting aside the longevity of its wine traditions, has stunning quality potential and remains the reference for skin-contact whites (the sixth genre of wine alongside red, conventional white, pink, sparkling and fortified wines) as well as reds from the hugely distinguished Saperavi, and who knows what else from the other five hundred indigenous varieties. Look out for great things too from Slovenia and Croatia.
Italy, finally, is a wine world on its own, brilliantly elucidated of late by Ian d’Agata and others. We will never stop learning from Italy and never stop being surprised by Italy. Italy always has more to offer. It is wine’s mother-country.
Can you tell me the inspiration behind your poetry?
Is it poetry? For those that don’t know, I put short texts up on twitter (@andrewcjefford). I started in 2011 by calling them haiku but they are not haiku; indeed the more I think about this topic the more it seems to me that haiku can only be composed in ideographic languages; the requisite concision cannot be achieved in languages where words are alphabetical constructs and rely on grammatical patterns for meaning, nor can the requisite resonance be achieved in such languages since they have fewer homonyms. I’m sorry this is a bit technical, but it’s the reason why technically adept haiku in English tend nonetheless to be a bit banal, and why no translated haiku of Basho really makes sense without a lot of background explanation (and without at least attempting to say the Japanese sounds out loud).
It still seems to me, though, that one might do something interesting in an ultra-short form, so some of these ‘short texts’ do have a poetic intent even if they don’t actually achieve that intent. Other, though, are more like epigrams or even draft memes. I’m very conscious that these short texts could be irritating so I try to put them up at quiet times, early in the morning and so on, and not too often – every six days or so. They are an indulgence and the only excuse is that they mean a lot to me and a lot of work goes into them, bizarre though that may sound.
The Future of Wine
What varietals are in danger of extinction and which varietals will replace them?
I don’t think any variety is in danger of extinction, and certainly not any major variety – assuming we can overcome the colossal problems currently posed by trunk disease. (Some varieties like Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Ugni Blanc are very susceptible to this cluster of fungal diseases, and it is barely an exaggeration to frame this challenge in terms of it being ‘the new phylloxera’).
Climate change may mean we have to move the varieties we love to new or different locations, eventually. But this is an immensely complex question and we should proceed with caution. The time lag inherent in vineyard plantings mean in any case that we have no choice but to act slowly. Portugal, Italy, Croatia and Georgia are all treasure-stores of varietal diversity for the future, but I’m loathe to trot out a Jack-and-Jill list of ‘great future varieties’ because how great a variety is depends on where it is planted. What’s for sure is that we need more varieties in more places.
You have mentioned previously that you fear the most commercial varietals will continue to be grown despite climate change making them less interesting and this is due to the commercial reputation of these varietals overriding their suitability. How can the industry help change this predicament?
Let me just rephrase this a bit, to reflect my current thinking. What I would say here is that I think the major varieties are colossally overplanted, for logical and understandable marketing reasons. There is, somewhere or another, a perfect variety or set of varieties for every distinguished viticultural site, but it simply cannot be the set we have at present; that set is far too limited, especially in non-European locations, almost all of which have been planted with a small cohort of ‘classic’ European varieties pretty much regardless of climate and soil suitability. We will make progress in finding better varieties for the world’s distinguished viticultural sites, but it will need several centuries to change and improve the scene substantially.
However the coming century will be one of enormous climatic challenges and dramatic, sometimes horrifying societal changes and ‘natural’ disasters. (The inverted commas are there because many of these ‘natural’ disasters will have anthropogenic causes.) We cannot de-carbonise the atmosphere as swiftly as we need to; indeed we haven’t even come close to facing reality yet in this respect. So we’re in for a very bad time. The coming century may not provide the conditions of peace and plenty required to undertake this kind of work. And climate change itself means that the climatic givens of any distinguished site must now be regarded as subject to galloping change, which makes the matching process more difficult. The marketing challenge, meanwhile, endures, though I would hope that all ambitious and accomplished wines are eventually sold by origin rather than variety. (Variety in the end must be the servant of origin; origin, interpreted and expressed by winemaking craft, is what renders ambitious and accomplished wine compelling.)
What are your thoughts on alcohol? Is there too much concern for high alcohol in wines?
In a word, yes! And I deeply regret the printing of alcohol levels on labels in this respect (though it is of course essential in other respects), since the figures lead to cognitive bias.
I’m not saying that unharmonious alcoholic heat in wines is a good thing; it isn’t. But in my opinion it is much less common than geeky wine chatter or righteous wine conservatism suggests. There is no reason at all why a richly constituted wine reaching 17% naturally should be over-alcoholic any more than a fine vintage port at 20% is over-alcoholic or an exquisitely aged Cognac at 40% is over-alcoholic. The result of this ‘alcohol angst’ is a loss of enjoyment where none need exist, and (even worse) sometimes a loss of producer confidence in the natural articulation of their wines and its necessary foundation in full phenolic ripeness. This can have truly catastrophic consequences.