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Writing About Wine

July 24, 2011

Sunday is wine day. Honestly, it’s perpetually been a bit of a challenge. Wine posts never quite seem to capture the same level of attention as stories about cupcakes or coffee. But a while back when I took a hiatus from writing about wine, there were people who noticed and missed my coverage of the topic.

So in some ways it’s a labor of love. I love wine, and I would like other people to love it too. My strategy to accomplish that goal is to demystify the stuff, to take out the snobbery and pretentiousness surrounding the subject. I try to explain what is really important and what isn’t on subjects ranging from appellations to vintages.

Last week when I mentioned that I might be reviewing free samples of wine in the future, I got a very interesting comment from irishj:

Would you tell us please what (other than wanting free wine) qualifies you to review wine? Have you passed even the basic sommelier level exam? Are you studying for your MW? If so, what level? Do you know what an MW is? Have you ever or are you currently working selling wine for a supplier? Have you ever worked in the wine business in any way, say, as a store clerk? Have you traveled to multiple wine regions touring and tasting the local products? Just curious as you are about to potentially affect the sales (on a small scale) of products that many people work very hard to produce…and whose livelihoods depend on those sales. True, you could blog about what YOU like (or don’t like)…but that will be only your very limited perspective and as I am sure you know, everyone’s taste is different.

Naturally, I have some thoughts on this.

No. I do not have any formal wine education. And no, I have never worked professionally in the industry. Although back in my advertising days I was on the pitch team for a few different wine brands, so I learned a thing or two about the business and marketing of wine through those experiences.

I have a tremendous amount of respect for those who have achieved the title Master of Wine. And I make no claims as to be able to match their level of expertise or tasting acumen. If you gave me glass of an 8-year-old Auslese from Saarburg, there’s a sporting possibility I might identify it as a German Riesling, but even that’s a stretch because I consider German wines to be a blind spot in my wine knowledge.

What I do have is an informal wine education, the backbone of which is fifteen years of mindful drinking. The hundreds of wines I’ve enjoyed (and still remember) over that time include varietals from all around the world, including unpronounceable Basque wines, and span various price levels. While not a replacement for the Master of Wine program or The Court of Master Sommeliers, I believe it provides me with a sufficiently broad knowledge base to make the subject more approachable for neophytes and provide interesting commentary for those more seasoned wine drinkers.

During the twelve years I lived in Northern California, I made many trips to the wineries of the Napa, Sonoma, Alexander and Anderson valleys. I went to wineries large and small, including Martinelli and Rochioli in the Russian River Valley. I’ve participated in small focused tastings (both vertical and horizontal), and have attended larger wine festivals.

The thing about wine is that I truly believe it is an unconquerable subject. And I think that is what draws so many people deeper and deeper into its study. The more you learn, the more you realize how much you don’t know. Even if there were enough days in one’s adult lifetime to taste all the wines from all the producers in all the winemaking regions of the world, you would not be able to taste all of their vintages, and see how they develop over time, or even how a winemaker matures from one vintage to the next.

That said, my greatest strength lies in the wines of Northern California. It’s where I discovered my love of wine, but I also have a good working knowledge of the wines from the remaining West Coast. In the few years I’ve been in New York, I’ve gained a better grasp of the regions, grapes and key producers here, although I know I have a lot more work to do on this front.

Thanks to Kermit Lynch in Berkeley, who insisted that despite living within a stone’s throw of wine country French wine still matters, I have a solid understanding of the major wine regions in France, and a real appreciation for the wines of the southern Rhone and Provence.

I am comfortable around the wines of Chile, Argentina, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand. But Italy has always escaped my grasp, and I struggle with German wines too. My exposure to Spanish, Portuguese, and Hungarian wines is admittedly limited.

There is also a lot of wine esoterica that I’ve picked up along the way. I was previously familiar with the practice of chaptalization and I know the history of “free-run juice” as it pertains to the creation of white Zinfandel. I can tell you a bit about about malolactic fermentation and the pros and cons of filtering wine. I’m also adept at identifying cork taint in a glass of wine.

No. I’m not a professional.

Wait. Scratch that. I am a professional. I almost forgot. Not too long ago I got paid to write this piece about a local wine from a local winery by All Over Albany. So maybe, I’m a semi-professional.

But none of this matters.

Any person who is passionate about a subject, and who has some ability to transfer that passion to words on a page, in my opinion is qualified to review it. As for me, I’m writing about wine with a purpose. And that is to make it more accessible to those who think it might be beyond their enjoyment. Because it’s not. There is a good wine for everyone. Even Albany Jane.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. July 24, 2011 9:59 am

    Prior to meeting my husband, I had been enjoying swill (you know what I’m talking about), and I told myself that it was OK, because I would at least drink (semi) local swill, interspersed with a really good riesling. Right before I met him, I went out with some friends to the Wine Bar (back when it was Antica Enoteca – as much as I love the bistro-like atmosphere and Everleth’s menu, I really miss the atmosphere from before) and I got strongarmed into letting go of my riesling and drinking a Sauvignon Blanc, which I really liked. I started going to All-Star (this was back when Empire didn’t exist, and was on Lark St. and not nearly as expansive) and trying to buy “better” wine.

    After meeting my husband, he introduced me to French wine and Pinot Noir. My palate started to develop. That summer we toured the Long Island vineyards for the first time. It began.

    I can’t stomach the swill anymore, and that’s a good thing.

    So, for me, as much as it is helpful to speak with an MW or a sommelier about wine, I find it interesting to discuss other people’s journeys into wine, and how they come to appreciate it. Everyone has a different way they discovered wine – I’m still kicking myself for never venturing out to the vineyards in the Hudson Valley when I lived down there many years back. (I lived less than 10 miles from Benmarl.)

    Anyway, in order to expand our horizons a bit on wine, my husband came up with the idea of starting a “wine tasting club” where we choose a different region each time, and everyone brings a different varietal from the region (or, also, we could choose one varietal and everyone brings a different region, but we haven’t gotten that far yet). It’s been a lot of fun and I’ve been discovering wines that I may never had otherwise thought twice about.

  2. Cali1 permalink
    July 24, 2011 11:07 am

    I’m with Irish. I think some formal training would be appropriate even if just a few classes, seminars. Especially since you are asking for wine samples!

    • July 24, 2011 9:22 pm

      For the record, I am not asking for wine samples. Personally, I think that’s tacky. But if someone is going to offer me a sample of a product, I am rarely going to refuse their generosity. I will however be explicit and transparent about the things I receive for free in the service of this blog. Then you can decide whether to trust my opinion or not. But let me assure you, my opinion is not for sale.

  3. July 24, 2011 10:19 pm

    Last paragraph is greatness. You clearly have enough experience to make things more accessible as do many others. What we take from the internet things we read are by our own choices.

  4. Colleen permalink
    July 25, 2011 3:57 pm

    Here. I think you should take this “class” to better inform yourself ;-)

  5. speshulk99 permalink
    July 25, 2011 6:56 pm

    I read this from the beginning, I have come to the conclusion that you really have feet of clay. In the past you come across as a stuffy uber Berkley type, so, I think that I was wrong. Having made wines now for 11 years…. some from the fine juices available through Hammersmith in Latham as well as buying local peaches and pears at the Troy Farmer’s Market, wine is indeed a magical journey. A mea culpa to you.

  6. irishj permalink
    August 1, 2011 3:49 pm

    I also have some additional thoughts on this. You are in fact reviewing wines and rating them on your (limited) experience, wines that YOU enjoy or don’t. Without real world wine experience (I don’t mean drinking wines from different regions) you honestly do not have the capacity to objectively taste and review. You are simply giving your opinion. I applaud you for posting my comment, I for one however feel that you should leave the “reviewing” to people who have the experience to do so properly. reviewing is different than stating in your blog ” I drank this wine last night and enjoyed it for these reasons…or didn’t enjoy it) I have worked with and for wineries and winemakers from California, Italy, Australia, and France for more than 20 years. Please do not do your readers the disservice of claiming to review, just tell them what you thought. The one thing that you said that I agree with wholeheartedly is that people (some) try to make wine too stuffy or more than it is…I have represented some of the most expensive in the world as well as some great value wines, I have always been a preacher of “drink what YOU like”, not the critics…so what about those cupcakes?

  7. irishj permalink
    August 3, 2011 2:40 pm

    Hmmm. blogger baiting….

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