Anatomy of a Great Newspaper Wine Column
What’s a good newspaper wine column look like?
It’s a question that has had a lot of different types of answers over the years. The best newspaper wine columnists are few and far between. Once they arrive on the scene and are recognized for their talent, they tend to fair pretty well, jumping often into magazines, then perhaps organizing wine competitions, and always being asked to judge at them. Sometimes their reputation of knowledgeable and readable prose get them book deals.
Writing a newspaper column on wine is not easy business. Your audience tends to be far less sophisticated than those of wine magazines, so you can’t assume quite as much about the wine knowledge your readers will posses.
Generally the wine columnist doesn’t have too much space to work with. While it’s the enlightened editor and newspaper publisher that brings the tradition and heritage of wine to their pages, they also realize it’s not this somewhat romantic handout to their readership that pays the bills. That’s done by the restaurants, grocery stores and airlines that use the food section for their brand building. Wine is usually just their for the ride.(There are a few columnists and "Food Sections with a real commitment to wine that play an important role in newspaper advertising revenue. In my neck of the woods both the San Francisco chronicle and the Santa Rosa Press Democrat do a good job of providing the kind of wine coverage that appeals to a broad range of advertisers) So the wine columnists must cherish those relatively few inches he gets on a weekly basis.
Bob Hosmon, the wine columnist for Florida Sun Sentinel is one of those people who has been writing a newspaper-bound wine column for many years, and doing it with great success and style. His most current column on mid-priced Bordeaux is a perfect example of doing just the right thing with a small space and for his particular audience.
Hosmon adheres to the C-O-R-E School of wine columning: Context, Opinion, Reviews-Education. His writings have all this in small space, making it easy for a reader to learn something about the topic and Hosmon, while picking up some ideas and for their next wine.
In three short paragraphs we learn that 2002 is a vintage turning out to be better than earlier believed and this has led to there being significant values on the market. We also learn that this mis-evaluation of the 2002 Bordeaux vintage has led to the release of wines at 25%-35% lower than they normally would be. Yet, not only is there good value on the market but also, according to Hosmon "In this price category, ranging from slightly under $20 to about $45, Bordeaux has the world beat." There really is no need for Hosmon to make this kind of statement of preference. The point had been made. But it’s this kind of little tidbit that makes a newspaper column one to read. The reader gets a little inside basball they can use at the next wine-drinking event, plus they have a really good buying tip next time they are standing in front of a huge selection of wine contemplating what $30 wine the’ll give to their boss for Christmas. It’s pretty astute writing for seventeen short words.
That’s a lot to shove into three short paragraphs. And it’s not easy to do either.
From here it’s on to the reviews of some of these Bordeaux that he recommends. I’ve always said a good review, a really good review, is more than adjectives and names of fruit. A good review must offer the reader some context for the wine. Even offering the tiniest bit of information about the wine before the fruits and flowers come you give the reader another reason to pay attention to the wine and even another reason for them to buy it. Hosmon accomplishes this:
"Chateau La Gurgue 2002 ($18 to $22; Margaux): Little La Gurgue’s postage-stamp vineyard is located amid the best parcels of first-growth Chateau Margaux ($150). La Gurgue displays the classic Margaux commune style, marrying a fine violet-scented bouquet to aristocratically lean, supple fruit. Ready now."
I’ve always said that in terms of educating America about wine and promoting wine in general, it’s the newspaper wine columnists and writers that have always done the heavy lifting. But to appreciate their role, you also have to appreciate the constraints they work under. Its not an easy glass to fill.
Hosmon is a frequent contributor to Wine News Magazine and also the associate dean of the School of Communication at the University of Miami.