Guy Woodward: keep wine writing simple, stupid


“Condensation and distillation.” No, not the method for a new hipster gin being made in a Shoreditch loft – rather Hugh Johnson’s description of his own writing style. 

Johnson is a man whose words are always worth reading. Not least because he uses so few of them. “I value brevity,” he told an audience of acolytes at the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers in Napa last month. 

In distilling 50 years of wine writing into a few choice anecdotes (“My publisher showed me some tasting notes from a new American critic by the name of Parker. ‘Rather good,’ I said, ‘But what are all these numbers down the side?’”), the doyen of the art came up with another memorable turn of phrase. His debut as a wine writer, he recalled, came at a time when the profession barely existed. As a result, “Some wine merchants took up the pen when they should have stayed with the corkscrew.” 

I can think of one such example who went on to become the mainstay on the editorial panel of a leading wine magazine, seemingly without concern for such trivialities as syntax, thread or an engaging lead. 

By contrast, Johnson’s fellow keynote speaker at the symposium was the American novelist Jay McInerney, who observed there are two types of wine writer: writers who had decided to write about wine and wine buffs who had decided they could write. 

Like him, I fear there are too many of the latter – and the tribe Johnson’s comment most vividly brought to mind was that most prolific band of scribes – MWs. 

In my experience, most masters of wine write for other masters of wine. It’s understandable – having been engulfed in a dense forest of study materials that would suffocate most of us, they become blinkered to the non-wine-geek’s perspective. Unfortunately, that’s 99% of the population. This is not about putting the boot into MWs though. There are some fine writers in their rank – Tim Atkin and Jancis Robinson among the old guard, and her protégé Richard Hemming and Rebecca Gibb among the new. 

No, the point I’m making is that all the knowledge in the world counts for nothing unless you can communicate it effectively. Take two fine wordsmiths, Olly Smith and Andrew Jefford. Smith would be the first to admit that his knowledge of Burgundian “climats” and Australian acidity levels would be dwarfed by Jefford’s gargantuan recall, while his writing doesn’t have Jefford’s effortless elegance (whose does?). But who’s got the TV deal? Smith trounces Jefford as a communicator, because he knows how to connect with an audience. For all the latter’s mastery of language and intellectual rigour, there is only ever going to be so much call for a man whose idea of a pithy tweet is a haiku about existential angst. 

And there’s the rub. When it comes to wine, it’s not what you know, it’s how well you tell it. While in Napa, I attended a debate at the Culinary Institute of America entitled Wine List: Friend or Foe, chaired by Eric Asimov, chief wine critic for the New York Times. As Asimov lampooned various impenetrable, esoteric lists, an interesting point was made that resonated with Johnson’s earlier thrust. 

Tableside manner

Kelli White is head sommelier at Press in St Helena, home to one of California’s finest lists, and has just compiled arguably the most comprehensive ever chronicling of Napa wines in her book Napa Valley Then & Now. Yet for her, “The most important element of being a sommelier is not your knowledge, the list or even the prices – it’s your tableside manner.”

Leaving aside the question of whether or not sommeliers are any better writers than MWs (generally not, although White’s book is a tour de force), White nailed it. The job of the sommelier – or anyone in the business of selling wine – is not to bombard customers with technical minutiae but, as she said, “to put them at ease”. Andrea Robinson MS went further: “Most customers, when they come into a restaurant, feel important. They don’t want to immediately be made to feel stupid.” 

It was noticeable, at a symposium dinner with wines introduced by 12 master sommeliers, just how polished they were in their presentation. And I don’t mean the jaunty angle of their tastevin or the flourish with which they presented the bottle at the table. Each gave a short speech about their wine, interspersing anecdote and insight with engaging élan. Most were better communicators than the majority of writers present. 

If only that were the case with all sommeliers. Sadly, it transpired that most of the Napa dozen had long ago moved on from the restaurant trade to take up marketing gigs with wineries. And therein lies the key. The best sommeliers (and writers and retailers, for that matter) understand that their role is that of marketeer (and that there is more money in the latter). 

Sadly, too many still prioritise memorising PH levels and new-oak percentages over the basic pre-requisite of making consumers feel welcome, valued – and not stupid. They could do worse than taking a leaf out of Johnson’s book when compiling a list and communicating its qualities. Keep it simple. And short.

Readers' comments (2)

  • Dear Mr. Woodward,

    It was not Jay McInerney who observed "there are two kinds of wine writers: writers who had decided to write about wine, and wine buffs who decided they could write." That was my observation at my "fireside chat."

    I don't mind being ignored or having my words wrongly attributed, but to Jay McInerney?

    Many thanks.

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  • Guy, you captured Hugh's comments from the Wine Writers' Symposium...

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