Sunday, August 25, 2019

Regarding Wine, Writing and “Influencers”

With time comes reflection. What makes a life? What are the influences, positive and negative? What shapes one’s thoughts, preferences, aspirations? What gives one greater fear, or the occasional gloomy feeling? What offers greater clarity and purpose? How does this little microcosm relate to the larger, more immediate world of the everyday? What is it about wine and writing about wine that fills one’s butterfly net?

The bubble of the wine world and the words that swirl about in that rarified atmosphere are but a metaphor for life’s greater meaning. This is my view. It, and the role of the influencer, are the basis of this personal essay.

It began as a casual conversation with a fellow wine writer. Among the thoughts exchanged were a remonstration that we both found many of the wine writers we've followed over the years, of late, made us feel worse at the end of their articles and posts. “Why do wine writers, acknowledged influencers, make me feel crummy when I read them?” I have often been left with a depleted feeling, as if the writer was talking above me, to a more enlightened, more illuminated crowd. What an awful feeling, for a wine writer to make a wine lover feel bad about wine. But it is happening more and more on a regular basis. That is, if one continues to read those writers. It’s a bit like being in a traffic jam on a highway and creeping along slowly, only to find a wrecked car on the side of the road. Looking closer, as most of us do, thanking our lucky stars that we weren’t the unfortunate ones in the car. But with a closer look you see that indeed, you are the one slumped over in the driver’s seat, airbags deployed, with a bloody head and a set of crushed ribs. Yes, that’s the feeling 95% of wine writing, lately, conveys to me.

Of course, one can choose to not read wine writing anymore. Wine blogs are not le dernier mot they once were thought to be. My fellow wine writer friend says sticky eyes have turned to aggregator websites.

With shortened attention spans, too much information, not enough time and other subjects vying for attention in our screenshot world, from where, and from whom, does one draw their influence?

As already mentioned, influence can be both positive and negative. I’m forgoing the negative ones, although they can inspire one to often go in the opposite direction. I think that has been part of the problem with natural wine writing. Growing up in Southern California, I witnessed (and experienced) the harmful effects of those who were the “in crowd.” If you weren’t just like them, they’d torch you, emotionally, day after day. And with natural wine, like wine in general, there are good and not-so-good examples. Honest and reliable natural wine journalists will be up-front with you. Ones in it to be part of the “cool kid’s club,” drink the Kool-Aid, will serve it up to you, and expect you to go along. When it comes to something you don’t know much about but want to know more, and to learn from an expert, find someone who has a wide range of experience in wine, so they can give you a context.

One wine writer who I look to for direction regarding natural wine is Eric Asimov. I don’t consider him a natural wine apostle, but one of many in the wine world who enjoy beverages (and life in general) with a little less intervention. In other words, he has gained my trust when it comes to wine, period.

Eric loves wine. And when he writes, it feels like a conversation. I know what he likes, and some of what he doesn’t like. And often enough, our tastes line up. So, if he touts a particular wine that’s not necessarily in my wheelhouse, I pay attention. Whether it is sherry or xinomavro, I learn something. I’m influenced. And even though Eric isn’t a designated natural wine writer, he understands the category well enough and can provide a frame of reference within the greater world of wine.

Ian D’Agata has had as big of an influence on my Italian wine life as, say, Burton Anderson did to me, un cera volta. Burton lit the match. Ian keeps throwing logs on the fire. And Italian wine is a very large (and unruly) bonfire. His information is encyclopedic, he has one of those minds that just knows a lot of things. And he’s opened me up to a more diverse gathering of Italian wines made from grapes we never talked about 30 years ago. But they were there, just waiting for someone to love. And someone to tell us about them. Yeah, Ian, he’s the one. The Italian grapes "love cat."

Antonio Galloni understands wine in such a way that I get wobbly-kneed when I read his stuff. I’m not discouraged by what he writes, even though I have to constantly stretch and reach up. But he does not condescend, which I find all too much in English language wine writing. Antonio is a great teacher, a leader, and definitely a major influencer for me.

Neal Martin - Wow, I just love what he writes about. And here’s the deal. When he writes about wines that I will never, ever taste again, in this life on earth, he doesn’t make me feel bad about it. Because he tells a story, and tells the history and weaves a normal guy (like himself) into the story, so that we can almost be there. But even if we aren’t (or will never be) it’s still a great story. And if by chance one day we get to taste the wines that Neal does, I’ll be more prepared because of his writing about them.

Now, that said, I’m perfectly happy to drink Vino Nobile or Langhe Nebbiolo, Verdicchio or Greco di Tufo, for the rest of my life and never, ever, sip another sip of Sassicaia, Biondi-Santi, Leroy or Domaine d’Auvenay. But I won’t turn them down (I didn’t when they were offered to me).

Michael Broadbent – I wore out two copies of “The New Great Vintage Wine Book,” when I was working with wines from that milieu in my daily work. And when I was lucky enough to taste with him (once) it was a master class. Not those master classes touted in trade tastings and large group wine trade gatherings. A mano-a-mano master class. And one which I never forgot. It was so seamless, so humble, almost apologetic. And it stuck.

A professor in university class once advised me to seek out eminent people in my field. “If they are truly great people, they will make time for you. And if they aren’t, you don’t need them. They’re phonies.” I took his advice and he was spot-on. Michael Broadbent has been one of those great influences, for which I’m indebted.

Walter Speller – Reading his writing is like looking at a very calm sea after a huge storm. You know there is a lot going on there, for when the storm was raging, our boat almost sank and we were almost lost at sea. But who would know it now?

Walter is a deep current. He has learned to convey peace and calmness, but he knows things. Life isn’t neat. And his writing ferries one across depths. When I read about a wine that I think I know very well, when Walter writes about it, it’s like I’d never tasted the wine before. And he makes me want to open a bottle right away, to see what he sees, feel what he feels. He’s a fabulous influence on me in my wine life.

Darrell Corti – I cannot really say much about Darrell that hasn’t already been said by people greater and wiser than me. His life, thankfully, has been celebrated by many in the wine trade. He has brought a lot of joy to people in this world. He is an extremely complicated and intelligent man. I’m a zygote next to his towering being and accomplishments. But I have never been made to feel less of a person in his presence. He is the teacher and I am the student. I only wish I had more time, more open synapses and well, more time. Darrell’s Xanadu was built for the ages. It is the stuff of greatness. I’m so grateful to have lived in the same period as him and been exposed to his intelligence and, more so, his humanity.

Gerald Asher – For years, whenever I read a column in Gourmet, it was as if I was reading about life on another planet. I was the alien, I was the stranger in a strange land, and Gerald was telling me about wine on earth, here and now. History, romance, emotion! Strong, visceral writing that rejuvenates my interest and love for wine and the culture which surrounds it. For as long as I could remember, I imagined Gerald Asher as having the best wine in the wine business. I still believe that. He is a great influence on me, not for any particular wine but for stirring up my emotions, and to be open to love the wine sitting right there in front of me.

Pick your influencers with care. Make them count. Forget about how many “followers” or “likes” they have. Use your power of discernment, for those whom you follow will lead, for better or worse. You decide, not Instagram or Twitter. Not the influencer. It’s up to you.And up is where we want to be.

wine blog +  Italian wine blog + Italy W

Much thanks to Terroirist, Wine Industry Insight and Wine for recommending this article to their readers.


Anonymous said...

It’s really a wonderful thing to showcase and celebrate those who light up our world. Thanks Alfonso!
-Chris Williams

DeborahParkerWong said...

In looking at your list it would seem that your intellectual wine world is inspired only by male voices. Are there no female wine writers who have stirred your soul?

Alfonso Cevola said...

Yes, I’m aware of that, Deborah…

I took my inspiration over a period of decades…

And as you know, in those early days, there weren’t so many female wine writers. This reflects the times as they were, 10-20-30-40 years ago…

Who are the female wine writers that inspire you, influence you? I’d love to know…

And thanks for chiming in, much appreciated…

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