Thursday, March 15, 2007

Wine Writing and the Problem of Objectivity, or Is There Room for a Nigella Lawson of Wine Writing?

Imagine you are reading a recipe. Or a food column. Or a cookbook. This is what it says: "This spaghetti sauce is the color of crushed tomatoes with a hint of brown from the meat. Aromas of basil, tomato, and garlic are followed by pronounced flavors of tomato, browned meat, and herbs with a spicy finish. I give it 97 points." Would you make this? I wouldn't. Sounds too clinically observant, too detached, like it's trying to be objective about spaghetti sauce, which is not something to be objective about! It's devoid of passion, and barely engages the senses. It is, sadly, remarkably like the wine reviews I post here, which fit the cookie-cutter image of what a wine review is supposed to be.

Instead I'd make something like this, copied from Nigella Lawson's How to Eat: "This is my favorite--along with all my other favorites. I love the buttery, eggy, creaminess of the sauce, saltily-spiked with hot-cubed pancetta: it's comforting, but not in a sofa-bound kind of way. It feels like a proper dinner, only it takes hardly any time to cook." Somehow, in just a few lines she manages to convey the mood of this spaghetti, the complexity of it, and most importantly the taste. She tells you how you're going to feel when you eat it. And she admits straight off the bat that she loves it, and loves other food just as much.

Why am I copying recipes on my wine blog? Lately I've been struck by how very different food writing and wine writing really are. Food writing is expected to be subjective; wine writing is supposed to be done under the illusion of objectivity. Which is odd, because for many of us wine is very closely related to food. We think of wine as an ideal accompaniment to a meal, obsess about how to pair wine with a food that will bring out its best characteristics, and often cook with wine as well.

There have been a few posts in the blogosphere lately by Ryan Fujiu and Tom Wark on subjectivity and wine tasting. There have also been some about the perils and possibilities of the 100-point system for wine reviews by Ryan Opaz and Dr. Vino. Just yesterday, guest blogger Steve Bjerklie wrote a piece for Catie on Through the Walla Walla Grape Vine on points, too. Points and objectivity (or the lack thereof) in wine writing seem to be the perennial debates of the wine blogosphere, as far as I can tell. Don't believe me? Go back and look at a thought-provoking article from last March by Laura Ness of Appellation America about women, men and wine points that was posted on the Women Wine Critics Board.

Here's what I think: wine points and the illusion of objectivity are related problems. The leading culprit for giving folks the idea that wine reviews are objective is, alas, the 100-point scale. This is not an entirely novel perspective, but I think it bears repeating.

So I began to wonder, is there room for wine writing that is unabashedly opinionated about wine, for a prose style that is flagrantly personal and marvelously evocative? Is there room for a wine writer who would do for wine writing what Nigella Lawson has done for food writing?

I don't think so. For reasons that I cannot understand, writing about wine like Ms. Lawson writes about food would be cringe-inducing and irritating for most folks. Of course, some people find Lawson's food writing equally annoying. But she is, perhaps, an extreme example of the general trend in food writing in which passion and competence rather than objectivity and expertise is what drives the medium. I think the reverse is true of wine writing: it's driven by objectivity and expertise. Is this because food writing is a genre largely pioneered by women, while wine writing was (and continues to be) a genre dominated by men? Sure there are exceptions--great women wine writers like Jancis Robinson, for example, and great male food writers like James Beard--but I think statistics would support my sense that wine writers and even wine bloggers are largely male. Is this in turn because wine media and marketing are driven by a points mentality and most women, as Steve Bjerklie argues in the column above, are not?

So I wonder, is there some reason why it's ok for a woman to rhapsodize about scrambled eggs but not sauternes? If so, what is it? Does it scream "undisciplined"? Does it smack of amateurism when we are striving for professionalism? Why do we put numbers on wine, but we don't grade other food products? Most important, can you help me figure out why we are ok with impassioned and highly-opinionated accounts of hamburgers but shy away from emphasizing the mysterious, subjective, glorious, and even alchemical properties of this elixir called wine?


Sonadora said...

I wonder if it has something to do with the differences in the two products. Food is and has been for everyone. It is a product of the masses. Wine, on the other hand, at least in the US (I can't begin to pretend I know about the culture of wine in other countries), has not been a product of the masses. It's a luxury and it's generally seen as refined. Perhaps that level of exuberant expression that seems to be okay for food, just doesn't fit with the refined and proper image that wine has traditionally had? (I am in no way suggesting that this is how I feel, simply offering up a thought as to why the styles of writing are so divergent.)

Dr. Debs said...

I think you've really hit on something, Sonadora, with your notion of popular food culture and the absence of a popular wine culture. At least until now. I do think that's changing in the US--think of your pursuit of "everyday wines." So maybe with all the blogs and the increasing knowledge of wine in the US (some of the surveys of 20-somethings and what they drink are pretty fascinating) I've been too quick to say that food-style wine writing won't catch on.

Anonymous said...

I think it may have something to do with the number of dollars involved, similar to shelling out bucks for a show or movie: you want to know what you are getting for your money.

On the other hand, times are already a'changin' There is a whole new crop of wine writers writing blogs, and many of them are women. Check out Sonadora's blog, for example - and here's a favorite of mine from Wine Outlook:

Dr. Debs said...

Welcome, el Jefe. Thanks for the comment, and I do think once upon a time it was about $. Wine was expensive and imported or domestic and not very good following Prohibition here in the US in the 40s and 50s--not that long ago. But now, if you read Dr. Vino about that $$ hamburger, food can cost way more than wine. As for women bloggers, you are right--there are more and more and some are coming back to it after a hiatus (like Cork and Demon). And of course, among the women, there's me.

Dr. Debs said...

I got a comment from Stephen, a reader who shared these thoughts which I quote here with his permission:
"I'm not sure whether you accept email responses and comments, but
thought I'd try.

First, I'm not sure that Nigella Lawson is actually an advance in
food writing. I tend to rely on expertise in all evaluatory writing,whether it's about wine, food, books, or music. That doesn't meanthat there's no room for style or panache, but (for me, at least),there needs to be recognizable expertise.

There's no shortage of great woman food writers who draw on deep
expertise. Julia Child and Diana Kennedy are two obvious examples.

A wonderful example of a woman writing subjectively and passionately on wine is G. B. Stern (see
Gladys_Bronwyn_Stern). Her "Bouquet" (1927), a diary of a wine tour in France, is a delightful book.

I really enjoy reading your postings, even though the wine selection in Central Arkansas isn't that good."

I've already ordered my copy of Stern, which Stephen was kind enough to excerpt for me. The writing is fabulous. I'll have a review soon!

farley said...


I often feel as you do, on two points: that the wine writing world has been occupied mostly by men and often in a less personal way than food writers approach their subject.

Yet, here we are. You, me, Wine Chicks, Wino Wannabes, and more (including, obviously, my hero Jancis). What you get from us is observation, irreverance, analysis, style, and spunk that may or may not be different than what's already out there. But at least we're putting it in the mix, not to be intimidated by the sterilty of some attitudes toward wine.

Of course, there are male writers doing their own thing as well, whether it's El Jefe with his Twisted style, John at Brim to the Dregs with his thoughtful musings, or Beau at Basic Juice spinning tunes and telling grapes how to act....

I say as long as people are writing about wine in new & exciting ways, we'll all benefit.

Dr. Debs said...

Hi, Farley. Thanks for leaving a comment. Obviously, I am thrilled that as many different alternative voices as possible enter into the discussion of wine. I just hope that we keep our free-spirited spunkiness and don't try to mold ourselves too much in the professional magazine reviewer mode. Sometimes the points discussions that erupt every now and again just seem to me to miss the point, which is precisely what you outline in your response: bloggers are different, and different is good!

Edward said...

As always a terrific piece of writing.

I don't have a particular problem with giving a wine a score. I think it is important to put your neck on the block and a score does so. It is easy to take two or more meanings from words, much harder with numbers.

Do numbers give a sense of objectivity. Yes, but is this unreasonable?

If I sit by the side of the road and watch cars go by, I can estimate the speed they are travelling. I have no machine other than my eyes and brain to measure of this. But if I sit there long enough, watch enough cars - I think I can give a fair account of the speeds, and rank of the cars.

I drink lots of wine. I have no particular problem being able to rank and order wines I like. If I drink with friends there is a surprising correlation amongst us.

The brain is an amazing thing. Sure it can be subjective, but it can also make objective conclusions about a range of things.

Dr. Debs said...

Welcome, Edward, and thanks for the kind comments (coming from Wino Sapien, this means a lot!) You comment was very interesting, and caused me to realize I actually am not opposed to points, either. I'm opposed to what they have done to wine writing. I love your analogy of cars speeding by--that's what points and objectivity have, I think, done to wine writing: they've produced these sound-byte speeding bullets of wine info that folks hold onto for dear life while in the wine store. I think points are here to stay--but I would like to see them embedded in something larger and seen as subjective not objective markers. Tim's posting on Hunter Thompson points in this direction. He's not going to abandon points, but he's going to see what he can do to mix things up a bit so the points are not the only thing. Bloggers like us, and readers of bloggers like us, can make a real different in the way we think and write about wine, I believe.

Edward said...

I love numbers, but am not opposed to reading notes with no points, I guess the point provides an interesting short hand.

I read Tim's piece on Hunter S Thompson. I think you need to look no further than here, if you need some inspiration:

Genevelyn writes to most beutiful tasting notes, with poetry, song and life thrown into the mix.

Anonymous said...

Edward is *mostly* right, except he forgot about Einstein. In the theory of relativity he posits that all things are relative, especially concerning speed (except for the speed of light, which has been potentially disproven). In other words, it depends on how fast you and your friends are going when you make those judgments of those cars speeding by, just as it depends on each individual wine critic's palate to judge the noteworthiness and flavor profiles of a wine.

I've read many "big name" reviews of the same wine and they rarely if ever use the same descriptors, except for the most general ones (black fruit, cherry, tannic, minerality, etc). The numbers generally seem to cluster, I'll grant that, but I have never noticed a conspicuous declaration of blind tasting at the bottom of their reviews either. What I'd really like is to see them in a blindfold...shoot, I might have to start my own blog, "Blindfold Wino."

Point being, taste blind if you want to score and taste with your eyes and mind wide open if you want to drink wine (just don't peek at those scores until afterwards). And then write your heart out, or just silently enjoy the evening with a close friend or two.

Dr. Debs said...

Thanks Paul and Edward, for continuing to put your comments up on this story. I love Paul's idea of tasting with your "eyes and mind wide open." And just to repeat: I agree with Edward there is a place for points in wine writing. I just don't think it should devolve into the dominant way of writing about wine. Imagine a world where all you had was the short story. I love short stories, but sometimes I want a novel, sometimes a haiku, and sometimes a sonnet by Shakespeare. Wine writers should be aspiring to the same diversity.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post! You really hit it out of the park on this one. Keep up the great writing.

Dr. Debs said...

Thanks, Mary! And thanks also for linking to it over at WWCB.

Anonymous said...

I cannot help but think that it IS perfectly acceptable for women or men to write either in great detail or poetically about food and/or wine. With regard to wine, one of the problems is that with relatively few exceptions,too many wine critics have perceived their profession as their "turf" and in this have striven over the years to protect that turf from women. That, of course, has fairly well shown that women have to some extent been locked out of wine writing.

There are, of course, exceptions, and as well we both know, nobody laughs at either Serena Suthcliffe or Jancis Robinson.

This is true of course in many professions. With regard to wine, however,there are signs a borning that we will be seeing more women entering the ranks of "serious" wine writers in an increasing number of high-profile magazines and quality newspapers.

Best wishes
Daniel Rogov

Dr. Debs said...

Thanks for the comment, Daniel, and welcome. I do think the glass ceiling in wine writing is beginning to crack, but I also think that women may choose to write differently about wine than the men. What I hope is that this is not seen as "amateurish" but as true difference--professional codes and styles can be just as limiting as the protectionism you talk about here.