Wine and Wagner on the 4th of July?

As I mentioned in previous posts, I read a lot of wine blogs.  And of course, I co-write this one.  But I’m strictly a novice blogger and I hope to improve.  Part of the process beyond
reading is to compare notes with other bloggers.  Next month I’m going to the 2011 North American Wine Bloggers Conference in Charlottesville, VA to do just that.

The official logo for last year’s conference. Not sure if this year’s will be the same — but I can drive to Charlottesville instead of flying to Walla Walla!

There’s definitely a whole lotta wine writing out there.  From books to magazines to newspaper columns to blogs to smartphone apps, you can read about wine in virtually any format.  Some wine writers get the word out by all these means. Jancis Robinson is giving the keynote address at the conference, and she is pretty much the queen of wine communication in all media.   I don’t know if she has an iPhone app, but she’s one of the few wine writers recognized by people who don’t necessarily consider wine a daily food group requirement.  (She also wears very cool glasses, as you can see here and here.  As someone who has needed glasses since the fourth grade, I can’t thank her enough!)

Registering for the conference back in February got me thinking about wine writing, how it has changed over time, and how it compares to writing on other topics.  So I’ve been reading a lot of books, newspapers, and magazines containing wine writing and re-read Gourmet magazine’s review of its wine writing over the years.  I’ve also looked at some of my favorite wine blogs to see how they’ve changed, too.  I can’t claim comprehensiveness, of course, but I’m lucky I can consider it part of my job!

One overarching observation:  ubiquity breeds irreverence, or at least much less reverence.  The majority of wine writing today is a lot more fun to read than it used to be, at least to me.  The older writings from Gourmet definitely approached wine as a VERY IMPORTANT THING.  Perhaps it was, especially in the years after the repeal of prohibition, when most U.S. wineries had to start from scratch after years of non-production.  And the writers’ audience was people who had been unable to get wine legally for nearly two decades, and who mostly didn’t travel abroad.

World War II and the post-war prosperity changed that.  Although European wine production decreased greatly during the war, American soldiers fighting in Europe got to taste local wines and liked them.  And as people began to travel overseas, they wanted to know more about specific wines to look for.  (For many of them, like Julia Child, it was their first experience drinking wine with lunch, too.)  Wine writing of the time, mostly dutifully and sometimes condescendingly, fulfilled that need.  Later on, we got memoirs of wine importers that added a little personality to the mix, and introduced us to the winemakers – many of whom seemed to come straight from central casting.

As more good but reasonably-priced wines became available in the U.S., wine writing definitely changed again.  And as wine reviewing became more widespread, we saw the emergence of what I think of as the “tasting notes” style of writing, the kind of four-line description that fits onto a shelf card below a bottle in a wine shop.  Most significantly, in my opinion, the 100-point system for rating wines telescoped what would otherwise have been a lot of description into two (or occasionally, three) digits.  While there’s some heated discussion these days about the merits of numerical wine ratings, they certainly cut out a lot of adjectives, for good or bad.

Today we still have the wine reviews, the memoirs, and the travel recommendations, but we also have people giving their opinions by means of blogs.  Blogging is rescuing us
from the prose drought of the 100-point system.  Many “professional” wine writers (meaning those who get paid to do it, as opposed to most of us) have blogs that allow them to branch out beyond their weekly or monthly 750 words in a more relaxed manner.  Sort of the equivalent of taking off their ties or high-heeled dress shoes, although in some cases the blogs are associated with their day-job publications so the writers can’t go totally off
the rails.

Among the non-professional writers, some of the most informed voices come from people involved in the wine industry but who don’t rate wines for a living.  Current and former wine industry employees, people who deal in wine peripherals, etc.  Winemakers, in particular, are fresh voices that we wouldn’t have heard in years past, unless they were interviewed by a wine magazine.  We learn about the travails of making wine now in a way we couldn’t even a few years ago.  Most of us will never be winemakers but it’s great fun to read about vineyard, winery, and business activity a couple of times a week.

Then there is the huge, diverse, and highly variable field of wine bloggers who don’t necessarily have that professional affiliation but who love wine.  Love, love, love it!  No need to worry about going off the rails here – in some cases it’s not clear there were any rails to begin with.  There’s a lot to sift through, but much of it is entertaining and if the blog is properly indexed you can easily find blogger reviews of wines that would never make it to the big wine magazines.

So wine writing is, like writing on other topics, all over the place, and it’s a good thing.
But it seems to me that it lags behind non-fiction writing on other subjects, even food writing, which I think of as its closest comparison.  Let me be the first to say that I count
myself among those who don’t write well about wine.  It’s hard to explain, but I think most of us have read a beautiful description of a particular food or meal that evokes something in us that makes us want to have that food – maybe because it reminds us of childhood meals or a very special experience.  I suppose there may be wine writing that evokes that same reaction in people, but I have to confess I haven’t read it yet.  Thought-provoking, fun, controversial, and occasionally beautiful writing, yes — but not in the same league.

I’m not the only person to speculate on this topic.  In his Fermentation blog, Tom Wark (who works for the Specialty Wine Retailers Association) laments that he’s never read wine criticism that reaches the literary heights of good movie reviews; in particular, Anthony Lane’s review of “Tree of Life” in the New Yorker magazine.   But movies, like food, have a lot more going on and greater universality, especially since we start watching movies when we’re very young.  And they provoke emotional reactions that we draw on throughout our lives, consciously or not.  A well-written review taps into those
emotions and makes us want to see the movie.

You’re probably thinking, “No way he’s linking Wagner and wine…” Stay tuned 😉

Wine isn’t usually part of those formative experiences.  Even if we had our lips wet
with champagne, as the French do with their newborns, we didn’t drink wine as
children, and didn’t develop those early comforting or other emotional associations.

So is it possible to achieve that kind of writing about wine when we can’t tap into emotions we experienced in childhood?  I think it may be, and I’d like to cite a piece that also appeared in the New Yorker:  “Secret Passage,” Alex Ross’s analysis of a particular orchestral passage from a Wagner opera.  It’s not as though we don’t hear music as children and certainly we associate music with emotion, but few of us listen to Wagner as kids – and Wagner deals with adult situations:  old order vs. new, political struggle, family loyalty, etc., even when the stories seem more like mythology.   Wine, like Wagner, is for many an acquired taste, and like wine, the more you know about Wagner’s music the more you appreciate it and understand its internal references.

I don’t want to make wine seem more elitist than it does already with a comparison to Wagner, particularly when a lot of blogs today are doing a good job of demystifying it.   But reading Ross’s beautifully written piece about a short musical passage – citing literature (Willa Cather), interviewing conductors and singers, and bringing his own considerable expertise to bear makes me want to hear that music, to find out what it is that gets him so excited about it.

I’d like to think that in the not-too-distant future we’ll have some wine writing that achieves the same kind of thing, writing that excites us so much we just have to try the wines discussed.  As I said, it won’t come from me (as you’re no doubt thinking right now if you’ve come this far in a very long post…), but with all the talent out there it ought to happen.  If you think I’m wrong and that we’ve reached that point already, please say so – I’d love to read any and all opinions.

I’ll keep it short from here on.  Unlike my last post, which had a recipe longer than the rest of the text, I’ve got an easy but very good recipe for you, just right for July 4th barbecues. We’ve given you a baked bean recipe before, but over the past year I’ve
discovered that my slow cooker really does a great job of making beans.  So here’s my recipe for Slow Cooker Pinto Beans.  You can make them ahead and they’re even better that way, too.

We used to be told to avoid salting dried beans during cooking or they’d become tough.  We now know it’s acidic ingredients that toughen the skins and prevent the beans from
absorbing liquid properly, and they should be added when the beans are mostly cooked.   So I don’t worry about adding stock that may have salt in it.  The problem with the slow cooker is deciding how much liquid to add – you don’t want to remove the lid to add more liquid because it takes a long time for the slow cooker to come back up to temperature.
So I add more than needed.  My husband Cy suggested that if I then drained the cooking liquid and boiled it down I could add it back in, avoiding soupy beans and giving everything more flavor.  Then along with the reduced cooking liquid I could also add acidic ingredients, like tomatoes or pickled jalapeños, and also brighten up the flavor with some lime juice and additional spices.

While normally I’m a big believer in canned or boxed stock, you do have to be a little careful here – canned vegetable stock often has a lot of tomato in it so it may be a little too acidic.  Look for one where tomatoes are pretty far down on the list of ingredients, and be sure that the cooking liquid for the beans is no more than half stock.

One of my favorite barbecue wines is Château de Clapier Calligrappe Rouge 2008 ($11), a blend of 75% Grenache and 25% Syrah from the Luberon in the Southern Rhône Valley.  I don’t have the writing ability to describe just what it is about this wine that makes it so appealing to me, but it tastes like sunshine, spice, fruit, and earth all at once.  And it’s red, one of the obligatory holiday colors.  Have a great July 4th!

Bon Appetit!


Slow Cooker Pinto Beans

Serves 8 or more as a side dish

1 pound bag of dried pinto beans, rinsed and picked over
(discard any that look too shriveled and any stones you find)

3-4 cups vegetable stock (optional, you can use all water
to cook the beans)


6 garlic cloves, smashed and peeled, cloves cut in half

One large white onion, cut in ¼-inch dice

2 tablespoons (or more) ancho chili powder, divided use

1 tablespoon ground cumin

1 14.5-ounce can diced fire-roasted tomatoes, liquid
drained and reserved

4-5 pickled canned jalapeño peppers, seeds removed and
peppers minced (you can use the sliced ones in a jar if you like, but it’s
harder to get all the seeds out)

2-3 tablespoons fresh lime juice

Salt and freshly-ground pepper

The night before you plan on cooking the beans, put them in the slow cooker crock and cover them with cool water by at least two inches.  The next day, drain off the water and return the beans to the crock.

Add the garlic cloves, onion, 1 tablespoon of the ancho chili powder, the cumin, and about a teaspoon of salt.  Pour in two cups of stock if you’re using it, and two cups of water.  Add more stock and water in equal amounts to cover the beans by at least an inch (but no more
than two).  Cover and cook on high power for 7 hours.

Carefully drain the liquid from the crock into a saucepan and add the reserved liquid drained from the tomatoes.  Over high heat, bring the liquid to a boil and reduce it by about 2/3.  Add it back to the crock and taste the liquid for salt.  Add at least another tablespoon of ancho chili powder, the drained tomatoes, the pickled jalapeños, a tablespoon of lime juice, and some black pepper.  Cover and cook on high power for another hour, then add more lime juice before serving.

This entry was posted in Alex Ross, Château de Clapier, Jancis Robinson, Musings/Lectures/Rants, Tom Natan, Uncategorized, Wine Bloggers Conference, wine delivery washington dc, Wine writing and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Wine and Wagner on the 4th of July?

  1. Pingback: Terroirist » Daily Wine News: DTC Sales Rise

  2. Sue says:

    That’s so neat that you’re going to a wine blogger’s conference. Writing about wine is a lot more difficult than food writing. With food, you can talk about HOW it’s made, how it’s presented…what it reminds you of, similar recipes with different spins.

    Oh wait, I guess you can do the same for wine, but it just feels like you need to have a much more specialized knowledge. Also your travels give you a unique vantage point. I want to hear all about the conference.

    • firstvine says:

      Yeah, I’m looking forward to it. They’d like people to live-blog some of the wine tastings, but that seems like it would take a little more coordination than I can muster when I’m drinking wine…But I’m hoping to come home with a few nuggets I can use.

      I think you’re right about wine writing and its similarity to food writing, and assuming that people are reading it because they’re interested in wine, I feel free to add details about the producers and how the wine is made. I hope it interests people enough to get them to try the wines — or similar wines. But maybe I’m a tougher sell, because I’m still waiting for some wine writing that sweeps me off my feet!

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