Wine Writing 101

The Italians have terroirs and varietals as noble as any in the world, but prefer to keep them hidden: hundreds of millions are spent on consultants and equipment, often with financing from the Italian government, to avoid the straightforward, even simple, approach of the best winemakers (for example, some Burgundians), who make their wines themselves, focusing, first, on viticulture and second, on the handful of cellar elements that make all the difference. And the Italian wine press only acts like the crowd around the emperor, admiring his new clothes. Evie, for one, would like to change all that:

Evie is a new writer at the popular wine-lovers’ monthly, Passion for Wine, and, after an initial trip visiting wineries in Italy, she’s back in her New York office pitching her first article to Deborah, a seasoned wine-world editor.

wine glassEvie: How can I establish credibility with my readers?

Deborah: Say you’re Italian.

Evie: But I’m not.

Deborah: You like Rome, don’t you?

Evie: Well, it looks nice in films.

Deborah: There you go.

Evie: I’d like my first article to be about lesser-known wine regions like Calabria and Molise.

Deborah: And Tuscany.

Evie: In Calabria, I found a family that’s been farming the same vineyard for a hundred years.

Deborah: (Yawns.) Find a rich, flamboyant arriviste with an antique-filled villa in the Florentine hills to position as the “soul” of the region’s “wine renaissance.”

Evie: With all due respect, aren’t readers tired of every winery claiming unbreakable ties to the land, profound roots in tradition, 600 years of winemaking passion, absolute devotion to honoring its noble heritage, when none of this means the wines are necessarily any good? Let’s make some bold, new claims about what tastes good and why.

Deborah: Use B.C. founding dates and get that guy in graphics working on more family crests.

Evie: I was reading through the rules governing winemaking in some of the more renowned appellations—

Deborah: That’s a first.

Evie: —the percentages of the different varietals allowed, for example, and I was wondering, in your experience, how the different grape combinations and the many other rules written by the governing offices correlate with wine quality?

Deborah: They don’t. Italians who don’t know anything about wine need jobs, too, you know.

Evie: I noticed that most appellations are lengthening required wood aging time, from two years to three or more.

Deborah: You know, Italian winemakers have been looking carefully at the great French appellations and trying to emulate them.

Evie: But the French bottle their wines after less than a year in barrel.

Deborah: No, no, they looked at price.

pressing grapes
Grapes in a basket press, after fermentation

Evie: What’s a roto-fermenter?

Deborah: It’s like a many-thousand-gallon food processor that moves the grapes around all day so a guy doesn’t have to climb up on a ladder once in a while and stir.

Evie: But I thought they needed jobs.

Deborah: Someone still has to push the button.

Evie: Couldn’t the owner do that?

Deborah: It’s tricky if you’re wearing an ascot…

Evie: Really?

Deborah: …in Monte Carlo.

Evie: But you said these places were family run!

Deborah: Surely the CEO of the holding company they sold it to has kids.

Evie: Why do all the cellars have a copy of the Manhattan phone book?

Deborah: That’s not a phone book. It’s a catalog of oenological products–yeasts, tannins, acids, carbons, gelatins, rubbers, caramels, glues, chlorides, resins…

Evie: They wouldn’t put that stuff in wine…

Deborah: ‘Course not. They make natural, artisanal wines, and use the catalogs to prop open those heavy castle doors.

Evie: Which sized wineries can we call artisanal?

Deborah: Less than a million bottles, or more if the trucked-in wine arrives at night.

terraced vineyardsEvie: Who is Zaha Hadid?

Deborah: A popular wine cellar architect and the reason you pay sixty dollars for a bottle of Chianti.

Evie: What’s an oenologist?

Deborah: A man who convinces winery owners that the only way to turn grape juice into wine is by wiring $100,000 to an Argentine bank account, in return for which the winery receives a box of little packets of “frutti di bosco intenso” to add to all the wines.

Evie: I thought the oenologists were the ones who made the wines.

Deborah: They’re too busy running their own wineries in Argentina, arranging kick-backs with barrel companies and collecting prizes at wine fairs in London and Bordeaux.

Evie: Would you like to taste the wines I’m going to review?

Deborah: Only if they’re Champagne.

Evie: In terms of vintages, to my inexperienced palate, they all kind of tasted the same.

Deborah: The “phone book” effect.

wine and bruschettaEvie: But the wineries themselves had a lot to say on the topic, none of it bad. For example, they say the 2008s are “fresh” and “aromatic.”

Deborah: Ah, you mean green and diluted. That’s winespeak for “Volume discounts available.”

Evie: Whereas, 2009 is “structured” and “age-worthy.”

Deborah: That means barky. They have to age it, because they won’t be able to sell it as long as anyone who remembers the vintage is still alive.

Evie: They say 2010 was characterized by large temperature differences between night and day.

Deborah: How unusual. Don’t tell me, it was darker at night too?

Evie: I was careful to taste everything blind, and I came up with my own new scoring system to introduce in this issue.

Deborah: How sweet, but scores are pre-set based on how much ad space the winery has bought (plus extra for hosting me in Capri).

Evie and Deborah aside, there are still real finds, if you’re willing to look beyond the familiar names and wine routes. There’s the overgrown hodgepodge of a farm near Castellina with a vineyard of crumbling schist and a shy, young cellar worker producing a mouthwatering Sangiovese, the likes of which are becoming rarer and rarer. Or the woman in Montepulciano, who, with a large winery and deep pockets (usually a recipe for disaster) dares to make wines that reflect the place they’re from, the season and delicate fruit from which they were born.

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Jem Macy

I am a winemaker and writer.

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