The Intellectual & Wine

As I think I’ve said before, I’m a big fan of lists. I like looking at rankings and sets. I like the context it delivers, whether I agree with the rankings or don’t.

Among the most interesting and thought-provoking lists I’ve seen in quite some time was Foreign Policy Prospect’s 2008 List of the World’s Top 100 Public Intellectuals. The list contained no one with a focus on wine, but it was a fascinating glimpse into what the world of the Public Intellectual is made up of in 2008. And it got me thinking. What would a list of American Public Wine Intellectuals look like?

In 1999, MIT Professor, Novelist and Essayist Alan Lightman gave a talk at an MIT Communications Forum entitled "The Role of the Public Intellectual" in which he outlined his definition of what a "public intellectual" is and offered three levels of this species.

A public intellectual is, Lightman said, "often a trained in a particular discipline, such as linguistics, biology, history, economics, literary criticism, and who is on the faculty of a college or university. When such a person decides to write and speak to a larger audience than their professional colleagues, he or she becomes a "public intellectual."

I disagree only slightly with this definition, but probably only to be able to legitimately create my own list of Public Wine Intellectuals. I don’t think it necessary to for the Public Intellectual to hail from a college or university. However, a "public intellectual" must be talking in a broader context than just their area of specialty and their audience needs to be relatively substantial. That said, Lightman’s three levels of Public Intellectual include:

Level I: Speaking and writing for the public exclusively about your discipline.

Level II: Speaking and writing about your discipline and how it relates to the social, cultural, and political world around it.

Level III: By invitation only. The intellectual has become elevated to a symbol, a person that stands for something far larger than the discipline from which he or she originated.

If we imagine such a thing as an American Public Wine Intellectual, then it should be clear that there are far more Level 1’s than Level 2’s than there are Level 3’s. So, what would be a working definition of a Public Wine Intellectual? I’m working with this one:

In individual who thinks deeply about, or engages deeply in, the area of wine and who, through their communication to others in, around and interested in the industry, have provided new and unique insights that have implications far outside their area of expertise.

Following is one list of folks who I would consider important American Public Wine Intellectuals. I can guarantee it is not complete and I can guarantee it is missing some who obviously should be included. But, I think it is an intriguing start.

Dr. Orley Ashenfelter
Professor of Economics, Princeton
President, American Association of Wine Economists
Editor, Journal of Wine Economics

Dr. Ashenfelter first burst into the consciousness of wine drinkers across the globe when in the early 1990s when he published the controversial findings of his study that concluded the quality of a vintage in Europe can be traced directly to weather and that quality is correlated to priced of older vintages. Today, Dr. Ashenfelter directs the only sustained effort at quantifying the business of wine via his presidency of the American Association of Wine Economists and his editorship of its Journal of Wine Economics that has become a rich source of research on everything from market dynamics to the impact of global warming on the wine industry.

Dan Berger
Columnist, Publisher of Vintage Experiences
Very few writers have ever written with such depth on the subject of wine and over a longer period of time than Dan Berger. In his own Vintage Experiences newsletter and in other specialty publications he has delved deeply into the most controversial of subjects, often offering a contrarien perspective. That perspective bleeds into his columns that have appeared in daily papers and popular wine magazines. His writings and ideas on alcohol levels, the 100 point system, wine judging and the importance of understanding wine in the context of food have influenced numerous professionals in the wine industry.

Dr. Linda Bisson
Professor of Viticulture and Enology, University of California, Davis
In nearly every field of inquiry the study of genetics is changing perspectives and opening new paths toward a better understanding how things work in our world and even how they can work better. Dr. Bisson is driving this field of inquiry where the wine industry is concerned in her position at the University of California, Davis’ Department of Enology and Viticulture. Dr. Bisson has stated that, "Knowledge drives the future of winemaking." Dr. Bisson is a regular speaker at conferences that concern the science and business of making wine and is in the course of influencing the minds that will one day take her place in uncovering the knowledge that will define the wine industry’s future.

Roger Dial
No one in the recent past has done more to make the case for American wine. Not Californian wine or Oregon wine or Washington wines, but for the tapestry of wines that hail from across the continent and from every state in the USA. As publisher of, Dial has set the tone for this expansive view of wine in America through his series of provocative essays pleading and arguing that wine lovers should look beyond the common if they want to experience something authentic. His devotion to this endeavor led him to create one of the most impressive stable of writers who fan out across the country reporting on Chardonnay from Massachusetts, Riesling from Utah and Viognier from Virginia

Paul Dolan
Partner, Mendocino Wine Company
Paul Dolan is the leading advocate for sustainable viticulture in the United States. While he is hardly the only person in the industry calling for a revolution in the way grapes are grown and wine is made that can lesson its impact on the environment, he is surely among the most respected and most vocal. His book, "True To Our Roots: Fermenting a Business Revolution" was a clarion call to the industry to open its mind to the impact we have on the industry and how to make sustainability profitable. Dolan, now managing the Mendocino Wine Company after leaving Fetzer Vineyard, remains a leading voice in the wine industry and is effecting change with that voice and through example.

Paul Draper
CEO, Ridge Vineyards
Paul Draper is the Dean of the American wine industry. And not by default. Acting as a spokesperson for American terroir and natural winemaking, he has traveled the world and brought American wines with him. His status as a Public Wine Intellectual derives from the authority with which he can and often does speak about what great American wine is. He has also been one of the most important advocates for single vineyard Zinfandel both in words and in the deeds he carries out at Ridge Vineyards.

Alice Feiring
There’s nothing that says a Public Wine Intellectual can’t be a passionate partisan. Alice Feiring is a passionate partisan for the idea that fine wine is honest and natural wine. An accomplished writer on things hedonistic, Feiring’s recent "The Battle for Wine & Love: Or, How I Saved the World From Parkerization" is a love letter to her preferred wines masked as an investigation into how standardization and technology have ripped the soul from wine and threatens to do even worse. There is the quality of a crusade to Feiring’s work, to which readers have been treated in numerous magazines and newspapers. Though her subject matter is nearly always wine, the philosophy of authenticity that she paints over her subject matter is easily appreciated by readers focused on other topics.

Tracy Genesen
Partner, Kirkland & Ellis LLP
Tracy Genesen is the most important legal advocate behind the revolution of direct to consumer shipping of wine. As Legal Director of the Coalition for Free Trade, she was largely responsible for crafting the legal strategy and arguments that resulted in the landmark "Granholm v. Heald Supreme Court case in 2005. Through this effort, through her ongoing work on behalf of Free Trade advocates, and through her presentations at conferences across the country, Genesen has become the legal mastermind behind a movement likely to be seen in years to come as a fundamental turning point in wine marketing in America.

Randall Grahm
Owner, Bonny Doon Vineyards, Pacific Rim Winemakers
America’s original wine enfant terrible—who wields a mighty pen. No winery newsletter ever written did more to demonstrate that wine and thoughts on wine could could take a place next to seemingly larger, more philosophical and spiritual ideas until Randall Grahm’s newsletter showed up. The iconoclast winemaker who did as much as anyone to convince Americans that Syrah, Grenache and Viognier were varieties they needed to embrace, was among the original popularizers in America of the idea of Terroir and has taken opportunity after opportunity to explain his vision of needing to commune with nature to affect authentic wine.

Steve Heimoff
West Coast Editor, Wine Enthusiast
Through is work as columnist and West Coast Editor of Wine Enthusiast Magazine and witnessed in his recent books, "A Wine Journey Along the Russian River" and "New Classic Winemakers of California", Heimoff has become the best sort of apologist for the California wine industry—the kind that can at once see and communicate its bottled poetry and the poets that produce it, and on the other hand give the industry professionals and consumers who read his work the gift of the brutal honest truth. Steve’s thoughtful commentary on the California wine industry seems always to deliver a subtext of advocacy if not for simple balance then for truthfulness in our view of wine and the business of wine.

Anthony Kennedy
Associate Justice, United States Supreme Court
As far as I know, Justice Kennedy has issued but one piece of commentary on wine. However, that commentary, the opinion in the 2005 Granholm v. Heald Supreme Court decision, ranks as a remarkable investigation into the nexus of Law, America’s Prohibitionist tendencies and our country’s commitment to free trade. The opinion, as most do, had a profound impact on both the wine industry and wine consumers and will continue to likely for decades. But it’s the text itself that is the real contribution. It teaches that while federalism creates the structural foundation for our democratic values, this commitment must be balanced against the need to maintain one economic union.

Matt Kramer
Author; Columnist, Wine Spectator
Matt Kramer is America’s most lucid wine writer. No one has, and with only two books, so thoroughly and elegantly communicated the heights and valleys of Terroir in the United States. Kramer’s strength lies in his ability to examine an idea (the idea that a place makes the wine) and flesh it out entirely, from all angles, without falling into the too easy trap of being a cheerleader. Kramer is a pure wine writer and not a wine reviewer, despite his position as columnist at America’s leading magazine of wine reviews, the Wine Spectator. This distinction, I think, has provided him with the freedom to honestly communicate his ideas and explorations into wine, rather than to retreat ultimately into the boredom of product evaluation.

Kermit Lynch
Importer, Retailer, Author, Singer
Can a raconteur with an ear for music who sells wine be a Public Intellectual? Kermit Lynch certainly proves it can be. The Berkeley-based, long time importer and retailer, more than anyone else, has delved deep into the seemingly minute topic of "discovery" via his beautiful newsletters and his influential "Adventures on the Wine Route." By emphasizing the joy of discovery as it is related to wine, Lynch has and continues to inspire industry folk and wine lovers to take off their blinders and try something different. This message has inspired others to also pick up the torch in the name of "viva la difference". One can also argue that Lynch’s wonderful, down to earth, evocative stories found in his newsletter have also inspired others to take take up the same storytelling approach in their attempts at wine writing.

Jancis Robinson
Author, Columnist

She is not American, but we make an exception because her influence in America has been tremendous. Robinson has been an outspoken advocate for balance in wine and often a foil to Robert Parker and others who profess a love for strength and power in wine. Hers is a as much a dedication to tradition, history and modesty in wine as it is anything else. This comes through in the Oxford Companion to Wine, the finest reference on wine ever published and that was edited by the Brit. She is in many ways an outspoken defender of the faith who has gone about her task with great eloquence in the face of resistance.

Charles Sullivan
Others could be characterized as historians of wine in America. Certainly Paul Lukacs and James Gabler come to mind. But Sullivan is by far the most accomplished chronicler of the history of wine in California. His "Zinfandel: A History of the Grape and its Wine" and his "A Companion to California Wine" set him apart from the typical chronicler of wine. Sullivan is California wine’s academic who’s work will form the basis for future academic surveys of American wine and winemaking.

18 Responses

  1. Fredric Koeppel - August 6, 2008

    Excellent post and a great (and thoughtful) list, to which I would add Gerald Asher, even though his rule has been drastically reduced at Gourmet (symbolizing that magazine’s refusal to take wine seriously now). His narrative essays used to be the highlight of every issue.
    Much as I admire Alan Lightman — he is from Memphis and I have interviewed him many times — I disagree that a public intellectual is connected with a college or university and thus steps out of an academic role to publically speak. Such a criterion eliminates someone like Susan Sontag, who was surely, for decades before her death, this country’s most visible public intellectual.

  2. Tom Wark - August 6, 2008

    I actually spent a good amount of time thinking about Gerald. He would have been at the top of the list were it not for exactly what you note…his role in this arena is reduced, probably by his own choice, to very very little these days.

  3. Thomas Pellechia - August 6, 2008

    I’ll refrain from posting a polemic by naming names, but will say that at least two people on your list seem to be there not for their intellectualism but for their ideology.

  4. Roger Mills - August 6, 2008

    An impressive list indeed. It’s the sort of list that has me shrinking back into the wine niche I inhabit, to appear just two embarrassed eyes in the dark. There but for paths I’ve chosen. College picked on surfing and partying criteria. Career chosen for perk’s it presented; beautiful women, travel, “fame”, and no tie necessary. Wait a minute. Who needs this stinking list? I’m starting my own list. The “Kind of, Could’a Been Intellectuals Who But for Their Sloth and Lowbrow Pursuits, Might’a Been Famous.” There I am, top of the list. Cool.

  5. Steve Heimoff - August 6, 2008

    Tom, I’m deeply honored you included me alongside such stellar people. It made me want to think of a Level III person. Robert Mondavi certainly was, but I think you’re looking for living people. One who’s still very much in the arena is John DeLuca, who is little known to the public, but has been enormously influential for decades, not only for California but for American wine. He may not be a Level III, but he certainly qualifies for Level II: “Speaking and writing about your discipline and how it relates to the social, cultural, and political world around it.”

  6. dfredman - August 6, 2008

    Interesting topic, but I would disagree with Mr. Pellechia about ideology not having a place in adding names to (or deleting from) the list. A passionate, evangelical belief in something makes for the best discussions, particularly when it comes to wine.
    Trying to remain as dispassionate as possible and in the interests of debate, I may be going out on a limb a bit here (and stirring the pot as well), but there’s a pillar of the wine community who sprang immediately to mind who seems to meet the criteria of Level III intellectualism (and maybe even a Level III intellectual partisanship) and that would be Robert Parker Jr. He seems to have transcended the boundaries of pure criticism and has influenced not only the way the wine industry thinks of wine, but has impacted the way that the world approaches wine.
    Whether one agrees with his POV or vehemently disagrees with it, over the past two decades his writing has affected all aspects of the wine world. This criticism has resulted in changes in the ways that other aesthetic pursuits are reviewed, and his palate preferences have spurred growers to develop new agricultural techniques that have been put to use in other fields (so to speak). His early participation on the prodigy board paved the way for other online wine efforts and the scoring system is used not only by other media but to drive the commercial engines of a large number of wine retailers. It could also be argued that his writings have spurred a rebellion against his opinion, giving ideologues on both sides something to argue about.
    As Joe Dressner once said, “let 1000 flowers bloom.” (or maybe that was Larry Ellison)

  7. Thomas Pellechia - August 6, 2008

    I’m not saying that intellectualism can’t include ideology; in fact, it often does. I’m saying that a few of the people on that list appear to me to be all ideology and meager intellectualism at best.
    In my opinion, intellectualism takes rational, knowledge-based thought; ideology merely needs a belief system, with or without knowledge.

  8. Scott Rosenbaum - August 7, 2008

    While not necessarily public intellectuals, I think its worth noting the importance of two academics, James Gabler and Thomas Pinney. Pinney’s meticulous two-volume history of wine in America (as well as his forthcoming annotated Notes on a Cellar Book) and Gabler’s vinous bibliography are enormous contributions to the scholarly study of wine.

  9. Thomas Pellechia - August 8, 2008

    I believe Pinney still teaches, so that would make him a kind of public intellectual, and I agree with your choices.

  10. Douglas Trapasso - August 8, 2008

    I would describe myself as a .00001 Wine Intellectual (in training). I enjoyed reading your list, and will be sure to Google all these names (I’ve heard of a couple of them), so I can learn more about their contributions to the wine world.
    I am a little resistant to the word “intellectual” though. It just seems to imply snobism or superiority. I like the phrase “Hall of Fame” or something similar. (Not to take away from the acheivements of this group).
    In my opinion, wine needs a little less intellecualism, beer could use a little more. Not that we all need to follow religiously That Dude from New Jersey.
    Now I am off to my local library to find a copy of that Foreign Policy magazine!

  11. Pete - August 8, 2008

    Clark Smith. C’mon, how many people in the wine world say stuff like this: “Modern [technology] is electricity, stainless steel, inert gas, wine as chemistry and sterile filtration. All of those things are potentially injurious to great wine. What puzzles me is why they are not all considered ‘manipulation.’ I think it’s because, once we get competent with a tool, it’s not called ‘technology’ any more. Tools are injurious only when they create distance from what we’re supposed to be doing—when they distract us, or allow us to get lazy. It doesn’t matter if Wolfgang Puck uses a microwave; what matters is whether he uses it properly.”
    (From David Darlington’s article about Smith in Wine & Spirits:

  12. Arthur - August 8, 2008

    Douglas Trapasso:
    “Intellectual” is the antithesis of snob.
    You need to avoid any fixations on notions of snobbishness or elitism. Do not confuse expertise and intellectualism with snobbery or superciliousness. It will only limit *you* and mire you in a futile chase of of your own tail.
    Do not be afraid of knowing a lot, knowing more or knowing better than others.
    Yes, others may – because of their own insecurities – lash out at you for this, but do not give in. Maintain grace.

  13. Thomas Pellechia - August 8, 2008

    Thanks for posting that.
    It’s clear that anti-intellectualism is in these days, however, makes no sense to me why people consciously choose not to learn about or know about something, especially something they seem interested in learning and knowing about.

  14. Marco - August 10, 2008

    I think we should bring back snobbery. Wait, it hasn’t left the building yet, sorry. Interesting list Tom and insightful comments all around. Good talk about good stuff.
    Thomas P., I’d like to see your list.

  15. krsn - August 10, 2008

    I’m not so sure I agree with Orley Ashenfelter’s inclusion in the list. I’ve never heard any discussion by him, about him, or about his work in the wine community. I only heard of him from a friend who is an econ major at Princeton. Looking at his website (liquid assets) his in-depth analyses show a surprising lack of statistical thinking. For instance, he has many papers where he analyzes the $#!t out of blind tastings, using complex ranking metric analysis, etc. Never does he clearly consider what question the analysis is supposed to answer in the first place!
    I’m seriously unconvinced as to the relevance of his research in the current wine world.

  16. Thomas Pellechia - August 11, 2008

    My list would likely be lambasted for its obvious intellectualism 😉

  17. Marco - August 12, 2008

    Thomas P. you are probably right;)

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