Is wine writing improving? Someone or other asks me this question fairly often. My short answer is “no.” Here’s my longer answer.
To judge whether or not something is becoming better, you have to know what improvement is. Much of what we (popular media, wine writers, academics) say about “progress” isn’t of much use for this reason.
So let’s think about the purposes wine writing can serve:
- Accurately describe wine – only useful if we define what “accurately” means, which means creating a hierarchy of wine values with one way of judging at the top.
- Make wine seem appealing
- Sell more wine (allowing that wines that consumers think sound exciting and wines that consumers want to buy are two different categories)
- Create a sense of community — by inviting you to share the writer’s experience. If a tasting note is written in a way that lets the reader identify with the experience of tasting — to think that she could be there tasting this, too — she becomes part of a “we” group with the writer, which builds a sense of identifying with wine and wine people. Researchers call this a “wine identity,” and both that identity and that idea of creating “we” groups is the subject of a fair bit of research.
- Judge wine quality
A tasting note might beautifully describe, but do a terrible job of judging quality by creating a comparison with other wines. A tasting note might make a wine sound appealing without inviting a reader into the tasting experience. We can ask whether wine writing is becoming better at any one of these possible goals, and we could have a good conversation about that, but we’ll be talking about part of what wine writing does, not about whether wine writing is better.
Another potential goal — sometimes tacit, sometimes stated outright — is to make wine more “accessible.” But what the heck does “accessible” mean? And is accessibility really a thing we want to improve?
Accessibility, in other contexts, is usually about decreasing barriers to entry: adding a ramp to a public library with stairs means that people who roll can come inside. I don’t think that that’s what most wine accessibility proponents mean (except Tom Wark and his friends punting for fewer rules on wine sales and direct shipping), or else they’d be focusing more on decreasing prices. I think that they’re more interested in teaching people how to read the books inside the library, and to make them enthusiastic about reading.
Without doing a systematic analysis across the wine literature, the gist I get is that accessibility is about some combination of encouraging more people to feel as though they can and should drink wine (that wine is “for them”), encouraging more people to be interested in wine, and increasing wine knowledge. Making wine “accessible” is partially about adding ramps, about augmenting the steep stairs of The World of Fine Wine with technology like WineFolly’s easy-rolling blog posts. But at some level, we’re not just talking about adding a ramp, but about posting some enthusiastic greeters at the bottom to encourage people in wheelchairs to come inside. “Hey, this building is for you! It’s a fun building! Come inside! Love what I love, and buy our stuff!”
This, fundamentally, is what makes me cringe when someone asks me about whether wine writing is becoming better, or whether we’re helping to make wine more accessible. Adding ramps to buildings is great, especially when we don’t destroy the architectural beauty of a good set of stairs doing so. Appreciate the stairs, keep the highfalutin’ publications, but simultaneously add a ramp for people who need or want to read something written more like Buzzfeed than like The Atlantic. Accessible wine writing is about the structure of the community, not about any individual article or writer. In that sense, accessibility is a fine goal, but not one for measuring anyone’s success.
And that other part of “accessibility?” Don’t measure how well wine writing is doing by whether the number of wine lovers is growing. Don’t try to convince everyone else that your particular flavor of stamp collecting is super-cool and think that what you have to say about stamp collecting isn’t very good if everyone you know doesn’t want to start collecting stamps, too. Doing so turns wine writing into a marketing exercise driven by trying to appeal to as much of a target audience as possible. Successful marketing might increase the thickness of your wallet, but it’s a far cry from any of those other fine things wine writing can do.