Before I get started, let me say that I had the reporting of my escapades at this year’s Wine Bloggers Conference more or less plotted out: I was going to start from the beginning (yes, a rather novel approach) and write about 3-4 posts in sequential order. I was even contemplating covering my two attempts at sabering a bottle of sparkling wine (the first highly successful, the second, well, not so much) and a brief, but apparently memorable dance involving a pole.
I had planned to eventually write about my experience meeting a few of the more renowned professional wine writers, but others beat me to the punch this past week and there has been a bit of a crap storm over Saturday’s “Panel of Professional Wine Writers” and the subsequent “Writing Workshop” Sunday morning. Much of the criticism centers on the fact that the three professional wine writers on the panels, James Conaway (author of several books), Mike Dunne (former wine writer for the Sacramento Bee), and Steve Heimoff (former writer for Wine Enthusiast), were all (short) old white men. While I am certainly not short, I am male, on the verge of “old”, and tragically white (just ask the members of the basketball teams that I coached in another life).
I guess I feel the need to come to the defense of my brittle pasty brethren (I like to think that I am not a member of the age group that the three share, but truth be told, I am likely within a few standard deviations), since they can do little to change these characteristics. Most of the offense that I have seen thus far was taken by wine bloggers who happen to be female (Amy Corron Power of Another Wine Blog, Pamela P [she does not use her last name on her blog, so I won’t either] of Señorita Vino, Mary Cressler of Vindulge, and Marcy Gordon of Come for the Wine). I spent a bit of time with each of the dissenters (except Amy—we were apparently on many of the same excursions, but she evidently avoided me like the plague, which was a wise move on her part), and not only did I like each of them, but I largely shared their opinion: Wine writers are far too white, male, and short (OK, the last one I added since, at 6’4”, it is very difficult for me to see “eye-to-eye” with any of these professionals who barely approach my armpit—if the measure of a wine writer was how well he or she played basketball, I doubt I would have many peers).
The fact that the three chosen were “experienced” white men was certainly not the fault of those on the panels, nor was it entirely the fault of the organizers of the event, since the unfortunate fact is that the vast majority of “professional wine writers” are white men (and a lot of them seem to be old and short).
In a comment to her article, Mary Cressler cites several women that would have been wonderful additions to the panel: “Lettie Teague, Linda Murphy, Jancis Robinson, Katherine Cole, and Andrea Robinson” (the last of which was instrumental in my nascent wine appreciation some 20 years ago, and as a result, I have had a secret crush on her for nearly as long, but that is another story). I would add a couple to that list: Mary Ewing-Muligan and Marnie Old, and there are no doubt more (depending on the criteria), but the fact that I can cite only a half-dozen or so widely acknowledged female wine writers speaks to the much larger conundrum. Add to this that each and every one of the women mentioned is white and I think we are getting to the real issue here: Wine appreciation (and therefore wine writing) has been the bailiwick of the wealthy for centuries, and although that has certainly been changing over the last 50 odd years, white men have a significant head start. And given that many of these positions appear to be de facto life-long appointments, well, there has not been many opportunities for different genders or colors to claw their way in.
My problem with the trio of panels (the third was “How to Taste Like a Pro” which included, Joe Roberts and Patrick Cominsky, two more old-ish [sorry Joe] white men [although Patrick is rather tall]) was not their gender, their race, or their lack of vertical acumen, but rather that there was nary an attempt by the panelists to assume the position of the majority of their audience.
I certainly respect all the panelists and I truly appreciate them for being a part of the conference. They offered several valuable pointers (including the need for rigorous self-editing), and I believe when I left I had a few tools that would enable me to become a better writer.
But I wanted more.
Rarely (ever?) did they attempt to put themselves in our (the blogger’s) place. The wine world has changed drastically since they carved their niche, but none among them acknowledged the “new reality”. Their pointers and advice were largely centered around their withering versions of wine writing: Newspapers are close to extinction and glossy magazines are not far behind.
What I want, what I need, is advice based on the current state of wine writing and more importantly, where it might be headed. I had hoped that those currently (or at least relatively recently) in that arena would be better able to answer the “What’s Next?” question that underlies most of what I do.
The collective lack of effort to see “wine writing” from the perspective of their audience instead of the way it was when they started was in stark contrast to the keynote speaker, Corbett Barr, who, although not a wine blogger, clearly conducted considerable research about the genre before getting up before a presenting at the Wine Bloggers Conference..
While one day I hope to have the scoop on breaking news, write a tell-all book on an iconic region, or, perhaps, be a paid wine critic for an online “newspaper” or “magazine”, until then, my readers are looking to me to help them negotiate the morass of wineries all vying for their consumer dollars. I aim at providing a portion of that information with a well-written and hopefully clever story. Perhaps that is not as glamorous or as noble as the role that the writers on the panels have played, but had they taken a moment or two to do a bit of research or even a modicum of reflection, they may have arrived at that reality.