Once when I was killing time at a Swiss airport, I met a very nice man. Prosperous looking, he wore a three-piece suit, and told me he was head of a manufacturing group. He was friendly and chatty.
Right until the moment I told him I was a journalist.
His demeanour changed and he started ranting. It was like the word “journalist” had prised his lid off, and the pressurized contents were now gushing forth.
Every morning, apparently, several newspaper newsletters hit his inbox, revealing to him that journalists were lazy and stupid. Quality had gone. Once glorious newspapers were now full of dreck. Repetitive, dreadful, facile stuff that — worse — sometimes had spelling errors.
“Do you pay for a subscription?” I asked.
“No” he said.
“Do you advertise?” I asked.
“Why would I spend my money on that rubbish?” he snapped.
It was just like being on social media watching people talk about wine writers.
Why does everybody hate wine writers?
Just over a week ago, I was at the Born Digital Awards Summit in Belgium, which brought judges and winners together for an “un-conference”. The goal was to challenge core assumptions about wine. What would packaging look like if there was no glass? What would wine tourism be like if Disney was in charge? And “How would the wine industry change if wine writers vanished?”, which I tweeted.
These exercises are a staple of future-casting, where people try and imagine the forces that might disrupt their industry. They can provoke interesting answers.
But not on wine Twitter. A few people engaged with the spirit of the question, but it also evoked an outpouring of criticism about wine writing — including from other wine writers. Wine writers are boring. They pontificate. They’re irrelevant. And nobody reads them anyway.
In the past, I have also lamented the lack of narrative non-fiction wine writing. But that’s a different thing from suggesting that your average wine writing is crap. In fact, I think today’s crop of wine writers are amazing, doing outstanding work under extreme financial pressure.
Sure, wine writing can be prosaic. But there’s a reason for that. Three reasons, in fact.
One: The nature of the beast
Each month several magazines hit my doormat, addressed to my partner: Australian Aviation, Aircraft Interiors International and Business Jet Interiors. Inside are stories about seats, lighting, carpets and aviation-compliant coffee pots. As far as I can tell, what really excites aviation writers are seating configurations.
My own subscription, Strings Magazine, is full of stories about passionate violin makers who feel really, really strongly about working with this type of wood, not that one. Not what you’d call gripping stuff.
That’s specialist writing for you. It circles round the same topics, focusing on minutiae. Yet while aviation audiences accept it and get on with discussing exit rows, wine people get furious and write tweets condemning wine writers.
They seem to believe there’s a whole world of amazing stories out there that writers just need to tap into. The reality is that most winemakers make wine, most families are proud of their traditions, and most producers revere their vineyards.
Occasionally a great story comes along, but it’s not the norm. When it comes to specialist writing, the most you can expect is writers who can take the mundane and make it readable. Which wine writers generally do.
Wine writers do suffer from one serious problem: too much expertise.
Wine writers spend lots of time and money learning about wine, and they’re keen to demonstrate their knowledge. When I first started editing, I used to strike out references to soils and trellising, because they don’t advance the story, plus they’re boring. But the writers got upset, because they thought people would assume they were ignorant.
They have a point. The currency of the wine industry is arcane knowledge and people don’t trust wine articles that don’t pay proper homage to the Kimmeridgian ridge. So now I let that stuff stay in.
It does nothing for readability, but nobody wants to let it go.
3. The economics
In the old days, before the internet came along and sucked all the profitability out of publishing, writers had a way to learn their craft.
There was a time-tested method and it went like this: a writer wrote something and handed it in. Then an editor ripped it apart and told them to do it again. Red pen was involved. Sometimes shouting. Occasionally, public humiliation.
(My boss once walked through the department waving my work and yelling, “Who wrote this shit?” I‘m still shaking, nearly 20 years later.)
Qualifications — whether from journalism school or wherever — do not make you a professional writer. They get you in the door. And most wine writers are qualified in wine, not journalism. They learn by doing.
At least, they used to.
When I wrote a story on Gordon Ramsay for The Age newspaper in Melbourne, I did four or five drafts before I submitted. The editor requested another four rewrites. Then another editor made a suggestion, and then the subeditor rang me six times for clarifications. After that, the story went to the legal department, to ensure it wasn’t violating Australia’s egregious defamation laws. Only then did it go to print.
That was in 2006. Apart from the big marquee names, most publications today don’t do that level of work for staff writers, much less for freelancers. Writers now send in copy and see it published immediately, or after a quick tidy-up.
My magazine, Meininger’s Wine Business International, is bi-monthly, so we have the time to do rewrites and a fact check — and for many wine writers, it’s the first time they’ve experienced anything like it. They often get upset, seeing it as a criticism of them, rather than a normal process.
An entire generation of new and talented writers is working in the dark. They’re relying on email interviews and stitching things together from internet research, because nobody is pushing them to get out the door and speak to people. They’re burying the lede, because nobody has taught them to nail an angle. They’re writing pedestrian prose, because they haven’t developed a voice.
They’re the lost generation.
Every editor I know is worried about this, and behind the scenes we’ve even talked about mentorship schemes. But nobody has the time, because we’re all doing more with less.
Under these circumstances, the calibre of wine writing that’s on offer is amazing.
If anybody still feels the need to criticise the state of wine writing, I have a suggestion: Buy a subscription. Place an ad. Make an investment in good writing.
And to those who don’t feel like coughing up, but who want to complain anyway, I have a simple response. It’s the same one I gave the ranting Swiss gentleman:
“You got what you paid for.”
Felicity Carter is editor-in-chief of Meininger’s Wine Business International, an English language wine trade magazine published in Europe.