What I Have Learned
Spend some time writing down your realistic goals. Going to be the next Robert Parker? Join the back of the queue. Going to build a reputation through winemaker videos? Yawn.
Going to unearth some hitherto unheard of wine region? Count your audience on one finger.
Sadly the world is not big enough for a legion of wine writers able to earn a decent living, because wine worth writing about appeals to a miniscule percentage of the buying public that seems much larger because of both your unbridled enthusiasm and the romantic, quasi-religious nature of wine itself. My advice is to spend an hour standing in the aisles of a supermarket noting what Joe Public buys and why they buy it.
So be realistic. Know what you want to achieve, know the obstacles ahead and never give up.
I empathize with the anti-score lobby, I really do. A bit. How can something born from the marriage of Mother Nature and the smectite clay-encrusted artiste; an elixir as cerebral, mercurial, intellectual and intoxicating as wine, a God-given entity that can age with inexplicable beauty and reach a profound level of ineffable complexity and subtlety, be reduced down to a piddling number? On the odd occasions when I have been appraising 19th century claret or wartime veterans from Burgundy, I am almost moved to waive a score. But you see, I did not start scoring wines for you. Like everyone else, I scored wines as my own personal record, so that when I would come back and reacquaint myself with the same wine, I could see whether my appreciation had changed. It just so happened that over time, a few other people are now privy.
Those that berate scores usually miss the point. They usually wheel out the old cliche: "How can X be 95 points?". Points floating about the ether on their own are useless. Rather, scores are there to contrast and compare: just one piece of a huge limitless jigsaw that when fitted together forms a picture of your palate. They are not the be all and end all, even if others interpret them that way. Secondly, scores nail your opinion to the mast. They keep the critic in check, revealing any untoward biases, making them answerable to readers' queries, hold them to account. Give a wine 100-points and you should expect it to be served blind back to you, just to keep you on your toes. Feel free to criticize a wine, but always remember that someone may have persevered through mud and rain to do the best they can, so show them respect.
Scores, or at least a useful, comprehensive database of scores, gives you the slimmest of possibilities of making a living from writing about wine. Write down all the websites that are financially, independently successful and they have one thing in common: they are founded on a database. Don't kid yourself that your mastery of the English language is such that you can make a living from it, unless your name is Hugh Johnson. The cold hard reality is that you cannot support a family on haikus.
What is a perfect wine? Out of almost 32,000 notes, only about 30 bottles have been bestowed a magic number that comes loaded with expectation. It is impossible to define what a perfect wine is, apart from being prosaic and defining it as something that could not possibly be improved upon. That is not enough. A perfect wines taps into a spirituality and profundity that cannot be put into words. It must be incontrovertible: a scintilla of doubt does not a perfect wine make. A perfect wine must be endowed with longevity. Awarding a wine 100-points before its wheels fall off after three years will make you look a prat.
There are two types of wine critic. Firstly, there are those that do it for the wines. They are indifferent towards fame, money and the number of Twitter followers or adulation. They are driven my something inside and they could never countenance another vocation. They don't seek glitz and glamour. They would prefer to spend an evening enthusing about wines to a bunch of beginners. There are others that do it as a vehicle to further their personality, essentially a vehicle for selling themselves and their glamorous lifestyle that you too can buy into (if you can afford the astronomical price of one of their events.) There is a market and perhaps a need for both, though I personally find the latter rather superficial.
The Wine Advocate
Working for The Wine Advocate is a privilege and probably the best job in the world. But the work and pressure is intense and unrelenting. I once worked out that in a calendar year I was publishing at least 10,000 words per week for Wine-Journal alone. Now that I have been covering several wine regions for The Wine Advocate, I cannot calculate exactly how much I publish, but when it is something you love doing, that is inconsequential. You have to have a thick skin. You have to ignore the pathologically obsessed dullards who wake up each morning and pray at their personal shrine, next to the dartboard pinned with a photograph of Robert Parker, for the downfall of poverty? Disease? Infant mortality? War? No, the downfall of a bi-monthly wine publication. Working for The Wine Advocate is a blast and to be frank, I still have to pinch myself each morning.
Always be nice. There are very few nasty people in wine and you soon gain an undesirable reputation if your mindset is to belittle or disparage others for nothing but your own gain. My bugbear is seeing noble wine writers refusing to acknowledge hard working sommeliers or waitresses, as if "Please" and "Thank you" were never part of their vocabulary. On one trip, the young couple who were assisting my visits to wineries were shocked when I asked if they fancied a burger on the last day, my treat as a token of thanks. Why? Well, because the previous gaggle of wine journalists had informed them that they were not to be spoken to unless asked. Twats.
I was lunching with some of my favourite U.S. writers a few weeks ago. Sitting around a table in New York, I remarked that all of us had either recently published a book or in the process of writing one. Books are the new blogs. It has come full circle. You once had to be in print to have any credence, then it was the Internet and now that is saturated and wine blogs are a penny a dozen, how are you going to put yourself above the rest? You must pen a book. Not any old paperback destined for the bargain bin, but something that will make a mark on the wine writing landscape, a book that might one day be your legacy. Given the omnipotence of the Internet, it is perverse but highly welcome that we are entering a golden age of wine literature. Some of finest books ever written have appeared in the last two or three years and there are more to come. In 2013, the printed word apropos wine, is alive and kicking because at the end of the day, there is nothing more pleasurable than turning a page.
I enjoy Twitter. I don't mind dabbling in Facebook. I prefer the former because the latter gobbles up time I can ill-afford. Twitter is also an extremely effective tool
for when your content is behind a paywall plus I like the fact that it is limited to 140 characters. I would not base a career of Twitter and it is a useless medium in which to conduct
a conversation or heated debate. Don't some wine writers have better things to do at weekends than argue about natural wines on a sunny Saturday morning? Like living? Then there are
those that seem paranoid about their number of followers, some purportedly spending money on inflating their followers, as if that has any
credence at all.
On the other hand, I have met some fantastic, like-minded people through Twitter and news can break here before anywhere else. I enjoy Twitter for what it is. Sometimes it can serve a useful purpose in exposing the true personality of a person, that in in actual fact they are a complete cock. You should always remember that not everybody wants to "join the conversation" because rather than stay indoors staring at a computer screen, they are actually out in the fresh air engaging in human interaction. For a majority, social media plays either a tiny part in their life, or none at all.
Use social media but don't allow it to use you.
I love Bordeaux. I must have visited there almost 100 times over 16 years, completed the same number of primeurs. I am lucky that in my formative years, Bordeaux was just about affordable and I would happily mop up off-vintages and less known growths to further my education. The fact is that something like Wine-Journal would be virtually impossible to get off the ground now because someone of modest means like myself would not have access to the benchmark wines. As I have written many times before, Bordeaux is staring down the barrel of a gun being held by a disenfranchised generation that refuse to pay for the gilded palaces flanking the Gironde. If you value your wine to become the plaything of millionaires, do not be surprised when they become bored. The trouble is that most of the Bordelais continue to live in a fantasy world that is full of gala dinners every night of the week.
The Young Imbiber
Like Dylan, jazz, golf and corduroy, wine is an occupation that should not be approached until you are in your thirties. I always laugh when I hear of writers who pop up in a puff of Pinot-scented smoke announcing that they, the new Messiah, have been put on this Earth to introduce young folk to the world of fermented grape juice. In reality, the so-called "millennials" are dabbling with soft drugs and shagging around, exploring the nether reaches of the planet, head-banging to Queens of the Stone Age; stone broke, panicking about never being able to afford a mortgage, fretting about remaining single, flipping hamburgers whilst calculating how long they must suffer this ignominy before their crippling student debt is paid off or rebelling against all forms of authority.
I never bought a bottle of wine until I was about 26-years old. But my non-vinous life is a fundamental part of communicating about wine, without which I would feel as if I had lived a life inside a hermetically sealed "wine bubble", oblivious to the fact that it turned me into a boring old fart.