The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

Wine Writers Aren’t Out of Touch; We’re Aspirational

Posted on | January 10, 2013 | Written by Emma Criswell | 4 Comments

In Tuesday’s edition of Vinography Alder Yarrow wrote a post titled “Is the Wine Writing World Out of Touch?” and his writing asserts that, yes, it is. Mr. Yarrow reacts to a recent graphic posted by the University of Michigan that breaks down which companies produce the most wine sold in the United States. After looking over this graphic, I am frankly not surprised that this is the case.

I grew up in southeastern Ohio, surrounded by beer drinkers whose idea of “fine wine” was Sutter Home White Zinfandel, which not coincidentally is the number four most purchased wine in this country. A restaurant wine list in Ohio leaves a lot to be desired for someone like me, but no one has ever believed I’m from Ohio anyway. (To be fair to my fellow Buckeyes, Ohio has some top wine collectors in the major urban areas of Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus, Akron and Toledo.) I, as Mr. Yarrow suggests, am not most of America, and my tastes are not the norm. I love drinking grape varieties that most of my friends and family have never heard of, from regions they didn’t even know existed, and pay money for the privilege. While I’m not the norm, I do have the benefit of growing up around said norm and I am able to understand why the people who drink Blackstone Merlot drink what they do, and maybe, just maybe I might able to write for them too.

Some of my colleagues don’t have this luxury (or curse, it depends on how you look at it). And we write for the crème de la crème of connoisseurs–those of us who live in an area where we can acquire the wines described by Eric Asimov in the New York Times, or easily procure the new Jancis Robinson tome on wine grapes. But we aren’t the rest of the country.

Let’s face it: a taste for Sutter Home can be a starting place. All it takes is guidance and exposure for a palate to change. For example, here at IWM, we focus on education. We have tastings each Saturday, focusing on a specific theme, and at times have “grand” tastings where guests can sip wines that were never on their radars. In this way, we’re able to expose someone who has never ordered anything other than Pinot Noir when out to dinner to Rioja or Valpolicela—and we can explain why it tastes the way it does and who is skilled at making it. From there, we can explain why the customer likes Pinot Noir so much and what other wines may fit their chosen flavor profile just as well, if not better.

To my thinking, the most striking point Mr. Yarrow makes in this article is this: “for every bottle sold of your favorite small production, biodynamic, cool climate Pinot Noir made by two hipsters in a garage, there are 50,000 bottles of Cranberry Twist White Merlot consumed with pleasure in this country.” His argument is that as wine writers, perhaps we’re doing Americans a disservice by concentrating on the small, lesser known wines we love. However, I don’t think the insiders of the wine world are out of touch here; we know that the preference for Cranberry Twist White is typical. I just think we are just astounded to see the math. The numbers are telling. I understand what Mr. Yarrow is saying, but I disagree with his idea that we are “out of touch.”

We know most of the world of wine drinkers aren’t comfortable paying more than $20 for a bottle and that Pinot Noir is popular because of the movie Sideways. There’s no arguing that we don’t write for them, but we aren’t out of touch with them. We just choose not to write about Arbor Mist, or Santa Margherita. We choose to write about Bordeaux and Burgundy, carbonic masceration, and fermenting in concrete eggs. We choose to write about esoteric facets because they are fun and we enjoy them. There is bound to be someone out there who enjoys reading about it too. They just may decide not to spend the money, or the time, to find and drink the wine beyond Barefoot Cellars.

That intrepid wine-lover wouldn’t be the first.

Comments

4 Responses to “Wine Writers Aren’t Out of Touch; We’re Aspirational”

  1. Alder Yarrow
    January 10th, 2013 @ 12:38 pm

    Emma,

    Thanks for taking up the subject. I’d like to clarify something that a lot of people seem to be assuming about my thoughts on this subject. I actually don’t think that wine writers are doing a disservice to consumers by writing about more expensive, smaller production wines. I also don’t think they SHOULD spend much time, if any, writing about the wines that are on grocery store shelves in the Midwest. Why? Because the people who buy those wines aren’t the people who read what wine writers churn out.

    My point, which I apparently didn’t make as well as I wanted to given so many people are interpreting my screed as you have, is this: it’s fine to write about the wines that are interesting to you and your readers, as long as you know and remember that the wine world is not the rarified realm that you occupy and drink in. It’s the world of Gallo Hearty Burgundy and Turning Leaf Chardonnay. 99% of Americans never drink, and never will, the wines that we love to write about. As writers we don’t have to change what we’re doing as a result of that reality, but we damn well better remember it, lest we start imagining, as politicians often do, that the rest of the world lives like us.

    Alder

  2. Emma Criswell
    January 10th, 2013 @ 1:00 pm

    Alder,

    Thank you for clarifying. As an employee at IWM, I do write about the wines on our shelves, but in my other writings I definitely write about wine that interests me personally. I am happy to share my knowledge with those who are searching for it, while being fully aware that we are a pocket of the wine drinking community who are very fortunate.

    To touch on your comment about posting on big box wine sales in the Midwest, I couldn’t agree more. I’ve seen friends who still live there begin to struggle with finding wines to enjoy after expanding upon recommendations and reading wine education books I’ve lent them.

  3. Evan LaNouette
    January 14th, 2013 @ 11:56 pm

    Hi Emma,

    Great piece. I too am from Ohio and can relate to the lack of wine understanding that fills many parts of this country. Places where wine is seen in linear terms and compared to other libations without regard to the particular merits of the drink in hand. Often a low cost-to-alcohol ratio is what many are seeking out, and in these cases I would argue that it is not an example of a wine drinker, but of someone who drinks their alcohol from wine.

    However, one fact to keep in mind is that the U of M’s “wine consumption poster” will always change decade to decade. The players in a competitive market are always fighting for greater market share as new competitors emerge and consumers trend in one direction and then another. Although wine writers won’t be able to convert the bulk masses that they would like to shape. Wine advocates can catalyze change to some degree – even if it is relatively marginal.

    For the minority willing to listen wine writers are eager to speak and share.

    Thanks again Emma, great work.

    -Evan

  4. Emma Criswell
    January 15th, 2013 @ 10:58 am

    Hi Evan!

    It’s great to hear the same sentiment from a fellow Ohioan, especially an Ohioan who now shares my affinity for wine!

    Great point regarding the “wine consumption poster” always changing, but likely will still turn up similar results with the mass producers of grocery store wines, but with a bit of fluctuation.

    The best thing for us is to keep doing what we do.

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