Now that my book An Ideal Wine is coming out, it seems like a good time to dust off my customary disclaimer: I’m not really a wine writer. Thus, one might reasonably ask: Then what the hell is the book about? Well… it’s about people; it’sabout business; it’s about culture; it’s about civilization. In other words – okay, it’sabout wine.
One of my pet maxims is that wine is a reflective beverage – not just in that it makes you ruminative, but it reflects the world around it. And by that I don’t just mean the land, climate, et al. – the amalgam of influences that winefolk like to call terroir – but, rather, human values, or the way wine exposes our preoccupations, which is a constantly shifting social proposition. I didn’t really get interested in wine until I’d been a journalist for several years, writing about things from rivers to arm wrestlers to rodeo clowns. My model was the eclectic New Yorker writer John McPhee, and one of his pieces that affected me was a portrait of a chef, which illustrated the earthiness and complexity of cooking. Not long after that, I read a profile of Robert Mondavi (by Moira Johnston – also not a wine writer), which illuminated the diversity of the wine industry, incorporating everything from farming to business to the snootiest levels of white-linen society. The catchphrases I developed in my head were: Wine is the essence of civilization, and wine is where culture and agriculture meet.
I subsequently asked a friend of a friend – a partner in a wineselling company – how I might learn more about wine in order to write about it. Very cogently, he said: “Go to work at a winery.” I subsequently lucked into a harvest job at Ravenswood when it was still a 5,000-case boutique (as opposed to the million-case household word it is today), which not only taught me the nuts and bolts but imbued me with hands-on appreciation of the realities, which was also enhanced by making wine in my garage.
Sometimes, when not-very-wine-savvy friends appreciate one of my homemade wines, they suggest that I sell it – i.e., become a commercial winemaker. They don’t know what a joke that is, though they might if they read An Ideal Wine. I would never want to be a real winemaker for some of the same reasons that I wouldn’t want to be a filmmaker (even though I love film at least as much as I love reading and writing): I couldn’t handle the pressure of pouring investors’ dollars into a product that has to pass muster for mass consumption. I’d rather interview winemakers, who tend to be intelligent and articulate, and interpret their work in a social context. Having made a fair amount of wine myself, when I interview winemakers I feel like I can relate to them, which I hope fosters rapport that results in realism. But they don’t always see it the same way, and it makes me uncomfortable when I get the (not uncommon) feeling that a winemaker is hoping I’ll help him or her in the market. That’s just not the kind of writing I do, any more than a reporter interviewing a politician is necessarily aiming to help them or a sportswriter interviewing an athlete is necessarily hoping to help them. In other words, this is journalism, not public relations – which means I hope to write about wine as it exists in the real world, not in a photoshopped, soft-focus ad selling “the spirit of place.”
I don’t mean to imply that most wine writers are flacks, doing the bidding of winery owners in order to get free wine. (Not most of them.) Truth to tell, I don’t have the genetic gifts of real wine writers – specifically a palate capable of parsing pear, sage, cola, nectarine, mineral, dried cherry, yah de yah de yah. It often embarrasses me to taste wine with winemakers, because I don’t usually have much to say – I can detect broad stylistic characteristics, but I can’t smell angels on the head of a pin. As a general rule, when it comes to that most vaunted of wine phenomena – terroir – I confess that I can’t really perceive it. I wish I could – it sounds fantastic – but I just don’t have the chops, or maybe the imagination. In my new book, there’s a chapter where Kermit Lynch and Randall Grahm attempt to educate me in the perception of terroir, with moderate success: Under their tutelage, I can tell the difference between wines grown in limestone and wines grown in schist. Could I do it by myself? I could probably perceive the difference, but probably couldn’t identify what’s responsible for it; I might not even be inclined to call it “minerally.”
The first column I wrote for Wine & Spirits (where I’m now a “special correspondent”) portrayed a dialogue between a psychiatrist and a patient who feels inadequate because he can’t perceive things in wine that he reads about in reviews. It never ran, because the magazine’s editor and publisher, told me it “felt like an attack.” Jeez, such defensiveness – and coincidentally from a person who once wrote that an Edmunds St. John syrah “grips, but with a lazy give.” I’ve heard about food porn, but I thought it had mainly to do with pictures; since you can’t do much visually with wine, though, I guess the heavy lifting here (so to speak) has to be shouldered by words – i.e., writers.
Somehow, in the wake of that disagreement, Josh Greene went on to become my good friend. Eventually he put me on the Wine & Spirits masthead as a regular contributor, though I think we both know that “special correspondent” means “not really a wine writer.” Why does he feel that way? Well, let’s see. I have an article in the August issue about the Sonoma coast, but it’s written from the point of view of a cyclist. And one of my Wine & Spirits stories won a pretigious award for wine writing – but that was on a technicality. I mean that literally: It was about technology – or, more specifically, a crazed technologist. Just so you know, most of its contents are contained in An Ideal Wine.
Which proves my original point: The book isn’t really about wine.
David Darlington is the author of An Ideal Wine: One generation's Pursuit of Perfection - and Profit - in California.