Source/The Wine Writer Is Dead
This is a written version of the speech Andrew gave at the EWBC Digital Wine Communications Conference on November 9th in Izmir, Turkey.
I’m going to begin by talking about sources in general, and what ‘source’ might mean to those reporting from the multiple front lines of the wine world. Then I’ll get on to some practical matters concerning those of us who write about wine, which I guess is most of us. Then I’ll be quiet.
This is a source, close to where I live, in the heart of the Languedoc, near a remote and secluded village called St Jean de Buèges. (Which, by the way, is a very secret and intriguing part of the fine wine-growing zone called Terrasses du Larzac.)
Source, of course, means ‘spring’ in French, and this is a spring. It’s very beautiful, very pure and very quiet. Just water coming out of the ground, but it’s hard not to feel a sense of awe when you’re there.
Since we’re beginning of this conference, it seems to me that this is as good a moment as any to talk about passion and inspiration. That, after all, is the source: the beginning of everything.
That’s why most of you have chosen to do what you’re doing, and have made the effort to come here. It’s what will sustain you for however long you choose to do this. Maybe for a lifetime.
Two things matter about springs. The first is that they shouldn’t dry up. The second is that they remain unpolluted.
You don’t want to run out of passion and inspiration, in other words, nor do you want that passion and inspiration to turn into into cynicism, and to lose its nourishment.
The best way to avoid both hazards, I think, is to keep faith with the moment or moments of inspiration which brought you to wine in the first place. I don’t know what those are; only you do. Springs tend to come into being in quiet and secret places. But that freshness and that innocence lurks somewhere behind most of the best writing about wine.
Indeed it drives great communication in general. We see things most clearly from those who can contrive to suggest that they’re seeing them for the first time.
That vision will be constantly assaulted by the mundane and the familiar, by endless repetition of the basics, by the tedium of trying to make a living. But it’s your job to safeguard and nourish the source, since in the long run it’s what will safeguard and nourish you and your work. (If you want to see this idea developed in a more philosophical way, have a look at the earlier entry on my website called ‘Wine and Astonishment’.)
Here’s another source. This is Gustave Doré’s first illustration for Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’.
This crazy old tramp stomps into a village where a wedding is going on, and insists on telling his ‘ghastly tale’ to anyone who’s prepared to listen. The story changes the life of the one wedding guest who stops to hear it. Then, some hours later, the Mariner staggers off again, condemned to re-tell the story endlessly in order to mitigate the agony it causes him.
We bloggers aren’t wedding guests, hurrying away; we’re eager listeners, or we should be. Every journalist, and every blogger, dreams of being collared by the Ancient Mariner. We’re all looking for ‘ghastly tales’; a ghastly tale is a great story.
Sadly, it’s rare to meet winemakers prepared to confess that they’ve shot an albatross with a crossbow, and survived a week on a ship of dead men, playing dice with a ghostly woman called LIFE IN DEATH and floating through a slimy sea quivering with water snakes. Never mind.
The trick is to listen to everyone you meet as if he or she is the Ancient Mariner. There are stories hidden everywhere. All of your interlocutors, even the smoothest corporate men in suits, even the men from Champagne, are secretly wearing the tattered rags of experience.
Wine explodes with stories, because it’s got so many creators and advocates, because every season is a new narrative, because every planted vineyard has a story to tell, because every wine is a creation.
Struggle to find that narrative frame. Learn to thread facts together so that they form a narrative necklace. If there’s one thing which human beings are even thirstier for than for wine, it’s for narrative. Stories are how we make sense of the senselessness in which we find ourselves. By telling them, we keep madness and chaos at bay, as the Ancient Mariner did. Or we can try.
This is the third image which came to mind when I thought about source. But before I explain why it’s important, let me confess, first of all, why I shouldn’t really be here.
I never wanted to be a blogger. I’m an old pen-and-paper man. As far as technology’s concerned, I’m a chronic late-adopter who still has a pay-as-you-go mobile, who’s always leaving chargers and adaptors behind, who doesn’t know one end of an i-Pad from the other and whose biggest dread is having to acquire a new desktop -- because it would mean moving away from the familiar safety of
I’m not even a good journalist, in that I don’t ask very clever questions, I can’t take shorthand, write slowly with catastrophically bad handwriting and I then struggle to read my own notes afterwards. I take a lot of time to write copy, which journalists aren’t meant to do, and I then take a lot of time to fiddle about with it afterwards.
I should also own up to being second-rate wine geek. I love wine, both as substance and subject, but I’m not obsessed with it, and crave time off from it, which is something that I never seem to get enough of.
Anyway, if I am here, it’s because I’ve learned how to make sauces. The meat, in other words, is not the whole story. The fish is not the whole story. It’s important that there should be meat and fish; you have to deliver information, find and check facts, take positions, make sure that your tasting notes describe wines effectively, make sure that your scores are universally calibrated and coherent. You have to dig and delve. Opinion on its own is just the wind in the trees, not the entire landscape. The retelling of a well-told story is only justified if you can add something to it, if you can move it on.
All of that’s true – yet many of those writing about wine fret too much about being wine experts, about coming home to their readers with lumps of meat and fish, and not enough about being good communicators. Learning, in other words, how to compose the sauces which make eating the fish and the meat such a pleasure.
Let me put it in another way. Blogging, like all communication, is a performance. Of course you have to learn your lines, and get your story straight. But what will make you a great blogger or communicator is how well you perform with that material. That is the bigger challenge.
As I said a little earlier, one of the pleasures of the wine world is that stories are everywhere. The wine world’s a wonderfully plural and democratic place; there’s no given hierarchy of stories, no thundering political herd which reporters are obligatorily obliged to follow.
If you want to write about German Riesling or Chilean Pinot when everyone else is writing about the Bordeaux Primeurs, you will have potential readers. To turn those potential readers into enthusiastic readers or into permanent followers of your work, you need to write about German Riesling or Chilean Pinot in a way that no one has ever done before.
That sounds daunting. In fact it isn’t, for the simple reason that no one has ever been you before. No one sees the world as you do; no one tastes as you do.
The act of writing a single sentence involves thousands of choices, and those choices extend way beyond the grammar you use and the words you choose to the way in which you think of your subject.
Your Chile is not my Chile; your Riesling is not my Riesling. The challenge is to give your Chile and your Riesling maximum force of articulation. What you write about is not what matters most. It’s the way you write about it which matters.
Those are the things I wanted to say about source in general.
- Respect, guard and nourish the place your inspiration comes from.
- Turn all of your material into some sort of a story, and look for the Ancient Mariner in those you meet.
- Remember that protein alone doesn’t make a meal, or a great article or blog entry. It’s the sauce which seduces.
Now I’ll try to address wine communication in a slightly more practical way. If I refer to myself, it’s not because I think I’m any more significant than any of you, but simply because that’s the example I’m most familiar with.
The fact that this conference exists is proof that the old wine-writing world has disappeared. The creature which we used to call ‘a wine writer’ has died.
By which I mean that the comfortable old existence of press trips, press tastings, affable print articles in which you nuance your enthusiasms, plus the occasional sponsored ramble between hard covers is gone forever.
I still write print articles, but they represent under 40% of my income, and that percentage falls further every year. It’s also the least remunerative of the things I do.
I guess communicator is the word which best summarises all of the different things which most of us have to do to string a living together. That includes lecturing, consultancy of various sorts, wine tour guiding and wine judging as well as blogging. I used to do a lot of radio work and I loved that as much as writing.
I’ve written about other subjects as well as wine, including whisky and beer, tea, food, travel and perfume.
Some of you may be wondering how you can frame a career in this area. There is, I hardly need tell you, a huge amount of writing about wine, almost all of it nowadays unremunerated. Indeed some of the best of it is unremunerated. There are no more livings to be made exclusively in that way. The wine world probably doesn’t need more writers, except in two areas, which I’ll come back to
at the end.
The wine world will always, though, need multi-tasking communicators, since the complications of wine can only be dissipated by interpretation, elucidation evangelism, enthusiasm.
This, in fact, is a great opportunity, since it means you can create your own job in your own way.
If you want to be a great tennis player, there’s only one option, which is to play tennis better than everyone else and prove it by beating them.
No two wine communicators, by contrast, ever have quite the same portfolio of activities. Everyone threads their patchwork into a slightly different quilt from everyone else; everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses. You can be, and indeed must be, your own sort of wine communicator. But it’s important to realise that, unless you’re exceptionally lucky, it won’t just involve writing, either
in print or the electronic media.
Let’s go back to source. In practical terms, what sort of a source might you hope to become? In particular, can anyone hope to be a generalist any more in a wine world which, like the universe, is expanding rapidly in every direction?
I think that it is still possible to be a generalist; indeed everyone taking the MW exams needs to become an accomplished generalist in short order. If you decide to be a generalist, though, you’ll be maximising the number of potential competitors in your working life. If I was beginning my career again, I don’t think I’d assume that being a generalist was the default option, or even the most enticing option.
Everything depends on your economic possibilities and your circumstances, but one colossal change since I quit my day job back in 1988 is that the internet means that you can be a source from anywhere, and a source with instant global reach, too.
It’s never been easier, in other words, to implant or embed yourself in the wine world, and to observe it at first hand. As a wine communicator, this’ll give you insights which you’ll never acquire on a press trip.
The internet, moreover, creates its own communicative vacancies. Every language group will sooner or later need wine communicators to work in that language to deliver wine insights and information. The English-speaking world already needs English-language sources embedded in every major wine region; in due course, every major wine region may need a local Chinese-language source and perhaps a Spanish-language source, too. You might choose to appoint yourself to one of these vacancies.
There’s a sense in which all communicators increasingly work for a single employer: the internet. It’s not an employer in the conventional sense, in that we still need to find our own income streams and then package and sell our own products, but the internet provides direct and potentially equal access to those who are looking for communicative help and entertainment.
None of us, in theory at least, needs the old gatekeepers any more: the newspapers, the magazines, the publishing houses. Indeed those who can most successfully generate income for themselves without recourse to the old gatekeepers will be creating the most durable and profitable model for wine-writing in the future.
If you’re making wine, you must have importers and distributors to take your heavy physical product to the market.
We’re more fortunate. We can clatter out a few words on the keyboard, print and revise them, and before the sun has recrossed the sky they can be pleasing the end consumer in Singapore or Latvia. The key, though, is to plan the income-raising component of your communicative activity from the outset. If not, everything you do will be entropy and the source will quickly run dry.
I’m about to be quiet, but let me just mention those two sorts of wine writing for which I feel there are urgent vacancies.
The first is humorous or witty or caustic writing about wine, and the second would be wine writing powered by gonzo irreverence. I’m not much good at either, but when you consider that 95% of wine drinkers take it for granted that wine is inseparable from hilarity, I suspect that almost all of us take it too seriously, too earnestly, too reverently. Almost every blogger is his or her own boss, so let rip.
There’s a future in levity, and I hope we have a hilarious conference.