Handicapping the James Beard Wine/Beer/Spirits Writing Award

I'm always interested in Awards. I like Awards. I think they have meaning when meaningful deliberation is put into choosing who should be nominated for and given an award.

The James Beard Awards have for many years been recognized as the premier presenter of awards focusing on restaurants and journalism related to food and wine. I'm always particularly interested in the James Beard Award for Writing on Spirits, Wine or Beer. This year, three articles were nominated for this award:

Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl
Minnesota Monthly
“Chardonnay Uncorked”

Jonathan Gold
LA Weekly
“The New Cocktailians”

Lettie Teague
Food & Wine
“Is Grüner a Great Wine or a Groaner”

Which should win the James Beard Award? Here's my take.

Grumdahl Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl
Minnesota Monthly
“Chardonnay Uncorked”

Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl's "Chardonnay Uncorked" is excerpted from her recently published book "Drink This: Wine Made Simple". Grumdahl, a multiple Beard Award-winner is one of the best wine writers you don't know. The restaurant reviewer and wine writer for Minnesota Monthly, Grumdahl is an expert in breaking down the seemingly complex (like the various styles of Chardonnay, where each style tends to produced, and how to serve and drink each style) and presenting the pieces in a easily digestible format. This article is a perfect example of this form of wine writing: Writing to Educate.

At its essence, "Chardonnay Uncorked" gives detailed instructions on how to hold a Chardonnay tasting party with the intent not only to discover which style of Chardonnay you prefer most, but to understand and remember the differences between the primary styles of chardonnay. It's a damn worthy couple of intents. What makes this approach to wine education via the media are two things. First, he writing is really excellent. No one doubts Grumdahl knows her stuff and no one doubts she can communicate that stuff with a real, authentic, unique and fun voice. Second, the content is inspirational. That is, a reader can easily use the essay to create their own chardonnay tasting party.

Should this wine the James Beard Award? If instructional intent, good writing and a knowledgeable author is the criteria for this award, then this is an outstanding Nominee and deserving of the award.

Gold Jonathan Gold
LA Weekly
“The New Cocktailians”

Jonathan Gold isn't just the most celebrated American restaurant critic (he won the Pulitzer Prize in 2007 for his work at LA Weekly), but he one of America's most important and gifted essayists. In "The New Cocktallians" for LA Weekly, Gold continues his practice of diving down deep into secondary American cultural trends to both uncover their internal meaning and invest them with his own critical set of meanings. In "The New Cocktailians", Gold examines the meaning behind what the only somewhat derisive "cocktail moment" that has sprung up in LA bars and restaurants and across the country.

Though ostensibly a guide to where best to experience the current cocktail moment in LA, this article is really an examination of how to navigate "hip", the difference between art and mockery, and the importance of augmenting the authentic with passion…all in the service of giving Los Angelenos directions to the next great cocktail moment.

Gold can write! And he knows it. This article was surely nominated on the strength of his prose, but also on the wealth of research that went into it. It's the kind of article that makes its subjects famous not only because it is an important article but because Gold wrote it.

Teague Lettie Teague
Food & Wine
“Is Grüner a Great Wine or a Groaner”

Lettie Teague is among America's most influential wine writers. Plain and simple. Leave it to the Wall Street Journal to snap her up and give her a twice monthly spot in their Weekend Edition alongside Jay McInerney who will write the wine column the other two weeks of the month. Lettie is a two-time James Beard Award-winner, the former wine columnist for Food & Wine Magazine, a blogger over at eRobert Parker, an author and a really nice person who has a fun little pixie-face that hard to look away from. "Is Gruner a Great Wine or a Groaner" is a perfect example of how she became so appreciated by readers.

"Is Gruner a Great Wine or a Groaner" is a travelogue/grape profile masquerading as a detective story. Ostensibly the question Lettie wants to answer is why did Gruner Veltliner fall out of favor with America's wine cognoscenti? After briefly going after the answer here in the States, Lettie gives us that line we all wish we could write: "I decided to travel to.." And off to Austria she goes to give us a first hand look at Austria's best and most interesting producers of Gruner.

Lettie always brings a bit of whimsy and personal style to her work as a wine writer and this piece is no different. Like any good essayist, she puts herself in the middle of the story without making it about her. If the Awards committee at the the James Beard House is looking for style AND substance from a very readable writer, then Lettie will win.

According to the James Beard Foundation, the judges for this award are looking for: "accurate,
insightful reporting, exceptional writing, unusual perspectives, and
other attributes of fine journalism as they pertain to food and
beverage topics."

That's pretty broad, as it should be I think.

Although Gold's "The New Cocktailians" is local in viewpoint since it looks at the LA cocktail scene, I'm inclined to believe it will win. Gold's perspective on the "Cocktail Moment" transcends LA and applies to a real movement across the country, puts it in historical perspective, and layers this all with Gold's own flip and edgy style. It's the most demanding writing of the three nominees too. In the end, I think Gold wins since his is the most important contribution to the beverage culture in America.

13 Responses

  1. amy - March 23, 2010

    No comment on the book awards?

  2. Tom Wark - March 23, 2010

    Damn, how much fun would it be to be a judge! Unfortunately, I can’t comment on the book awards as I’ve not read them.
    What do you think?

  3. amy cleary - March 24, 2010

    Well, hard for me to objective as I’ve worked on Been Doon So Long.
    The three nominees are:
    Been Doon So Long: A Randall Grahm
    by Randall Grahm
    (University of California Press)
    The King of Vodka: The Story of Pyotr
    Smirnov and the Upheaval of an Empire
    by Linda Himelstein
    World Whisky
    by Charles Maclean
    (DK Publishing)

  4. richard - March 24, 2010

    I read Teague’s article on Gruner when if was first published. Her thesis was that the grape had fallen out of favor amongst sommeliers, which may be true for her buddies in New York. She failed to account for the fact that Gruner was up over 100% percent in US sales according to Nielson at the time she went to press. If the trade is against Gruner, it wouldn’t be growing like it is.
    And yes, Tom, I’m one of those evil wholesalers, but I happen to carry 20 different Gruners in inventory, while most others carry one or two. I have to toil and sweat for every Austrian placement I make in the face of hesitant and passive buyers. If only I wasn’t keeping great wine out of the consumer’s hands…

  5. Print koozies - March 25, 2010

    What U share above really help me a lot, It blow away my wondering ! So thankful !

  6. Samantha Dugan - March 25, 2010

    Wow….I want my wondering blown too.

  7. Mark's Wine Clubs - March 25, 2010

    Well for Jon’s sake, I hope they aren’t taking that picture into account when voting lol.
    Judging would be a ton of fun, much like judging tastings is a lot of fun…although significantly less pressure in this situation.
    Richard-I think most people in the industry tend to wail on wholesalers because most don’t provide anything of value. If you’re finding well priced internationally viable Gruners, those are the type of connections and stocks that we’re happy to pay the small mark up over FOB that it takes to be able to access them. Now, if you tell me I should have to pay the same mark up for one of my restaurant clients in order to buy directly from a winery when I am licensed the same way you are…..I’m not really happy with that statement, although it is made to me almost every day.

  8. Pinger - March 25, 2010

    Thanks for linking these Tom. I’d probably vote for one of your better posts than ANY of these. I groaned through Teague (mostly due to the subject….who cares?)and Gold, while undeniably an accomplished writer, comes off as a pompous ass (not surprising for LA). If limited to these three choices Dana wins by default IMHO.

  9. richard - March 25, 2010

    To Mark’s Wine Clubs.
    Here’s what I will tell you. Is the WSWA an evil organization made up of big liquor distributers? YES. Should wineries be able to direct ship to consumers? YES. Are the big liquor distributers helping wine consumers? NO.
    That being said, I chuckle at this blog because Tom Wark lumps the big liquor distributers together with the independent distributers, but they are two vastly separate animals. I work in a state that’s reciprocal, so consumers actually can purchase direct, but guess what, most don’t know what to buy. Nor do “professional buyers” at the retail and restaurant level. Someone has to warehouse-ship/sample/educate people. And yes, someone has to seek out the small, hard to find producers that would otherwise receive no attention. That someone is the independent, fine wine distributer. And it costs money to do those things.
    Again, I want to re-state that the 3-tier system should be torn down, but that won’t affect the fine wine wholesalers. It will only allow Costco to buy pallets of KJ direct. And I say let ’em.
    To Pinger, I guess you don’t care about a grape variety that shows terroir, ages wonderfully for decades, and pairs with everything from chips and salsa, to sushi, to charcuterie, to Southern BBQ, to vegetarian, to…

  10. Mark's Wine Clubs - March 26, 2010

    Richard- I think we can all agree on the 3 tier system and its faults. Tom’s in an interesting place, it’s not as if he could realistically say, most distributors as part of the 3 tier system are bad, but some are ok. I don’t think anyone is saying every single distributor does a bad job, but when no one that deals with them consistently (be it wineries or educated consumers) is happy with the way they do business, it’s a sign of a broken system.
    I can certainly respect your point about how distributors don’t necessarily help wine consumers.
    One point I will make is that as we move into an age dominated more and more by information online the industry will need to adjust to the fact that a blog recommendation is just as good as an in-person recommendation from a neighborhood wine store.
    Just as I think there is going to be a place moving forward for a company such as mine focused on less known or lightly distributed wineries there will always be a place for a distributor focused on those same types of wineries.

  11. Bacchism.wordpress.com - March 26, 2010

    They are all accurate, insightful and well written. It is maybe Lettie Teague’s article that presents the most unusual perspective. Her article is probably only of interest to wine geeks or the burgeoning crowd of average wine drinkers who have come to be devotees of the grape. Most people have no idea what it is but I’ve seen many shriek in delight at the prospect of a new Gruner. These people will keep Gruner on the shelves and lists for years to come and for good reason. Moskowitz’s article is great. Her disambiguation of Chardonnay is important to the contemporary wine scene and she does a great job but I’ve seen it done before. If I were a judge I would be most inclined to give the award to Gold. I wonder if it is because I really don’t know jack about cocktails that I found his article the most absorbing. His style of prose was also very different from the others, more commanding and determined. He also makes great use of history throughout. This one sentence “The Cocktail Moment brings drinking from its Mannerist period, home to Jell-O shots and Slippery Nipples, sickly sweet cosmopolitans and chocolatinis, to a crisp neoclassic period” which I’ve only included part of (read the article it’s great) is enough to win him over to me. That’s proly enough, huh? Thanks to Tom for linking these articles.

  12. Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl - March 29, 2010

    Hi Tom,
    Glad you liked the piece! And I think you’re right, probably Jonathan will win, he deserves it. But I’m thrilled you liked the book excerpt, I know what I’m doing sort of reads like Pat the Bunny to wine experts, but I’ve been getting tons of responses from people who were very new to wine, did some of the tastings, and tell me their lives have been changed… Anyway, I’d be delighted to send you a book if you are interested, just e-mail me at dmgrumdahl at mnmo dot com.

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