Identifying The Best Wine Writing

Winewriting I've said before that I believe we are drifting through a "Golden Age" of wine writing. The primary evidence for this position is the exponential increase in the number of individuals writing about wine for public consumption. Surely this results from the ease with which one can now share their thoughts with the rest of the world using digital publishing formats such as blogging services.

I'm thinking about this Golden Age as I note that this week marks the commencement in Napa Valley of the Symposium For Professional Wine Writers, now in its fifth year. I admit I've never attended. But one need not attend to note that Symposium is a serious affair aimed at helping writers be better at being professional writers…this means getting paid.

My experience working with writers over the past 20 years tells me that one is more likely to get paid to write about wine if they possess excellent knowledge on their subject matter, are better writers than most, and work very hard at convincing people who pay others to write that they are worthy of being paid.

By looking at who will be speaking at this year's symposium, this notion that one must have knowledge, write very well and work hard to convince editors to publish them seems to be born out. The speakers consist of people who get paid to write about wine and have gotten paid for some time and people who edit those they pay to write. Among those on the speaking roster are:

Gerald Asher, Great American Wine Writer
Neil Beckett, Editor, World of Fine Wine
Jon Bonne, Wine Editor, San Francisco Chronicle
Richard Bradley, Editor-in-Chief, Worth Magazine
Corie Brown, Founder ZesterDaily
Katherine Cowles, Literary Agent, Cowles-Ryan,
Blake Edgar, Editor, University of California Press
Jim Gordon, Editor, Wines & Vines Magazine
Susan Kostrzewa, Executive Editor, Wine Enthusiast
Bill LeBlond, Editorial Director, Chronicle Books
Bruce Schoenfeld, Wine & Spirits Editor, Travel & Leisure Magazine
Lettie Teague, Writer, Wall Street Journal

This is a list of folks who have successfully made a living working in and around words associated with wine. No small feat.

So, I suspect that those who are attending the Wine Writer Symposium will, primarily, learn what must be done to be a professional writer. And again, that means getting paid.

What's interesting about this idea of the professional wine writer and what it takes to become one is that it's not a depth of knowledge that will break one into these ranks. Yes, having a depth of wine knowledge is important, but that depth of knowledge isn't too hard to find. Nor is it that difficult to achieve. Rather, the key ingredient necessary to missile ones way into a successful career as a wine writer is the ability to write…really well.

As far as I know, there are only two ways to become a really good writer: write and read. A lot. Beyond this, it is important to learn how to pitch a story to an editor and to do so in convincing fashion. And I suspect this will be covered at the Wine Writing Symposium.

And all this finally brings me to the really important point I want to make: With the proliferation of people writing about wine due to the disappearance of any bar over which it is necessary to jump in order to get ones words in front of the reading public, what's needed more than ever is the "Wine Literary Critic".

There is a real need to identify the best wine writers among us. While many of the best will have been already identified and scooped up or given a more visible platform by editors looking for talent, there are in fact very good wine writers who are toiling in front of very few eyeballs. Many in this category have their own blog, but have not been discovered. Or, they've not learned how to promote themselves. Some really good writers don't have blogs at all, but can be found using really well put together sentences in the service of compelling and interesting ideas laid out on Internet wine chat boards.

What I yearn for and what I think is necessary is the dedicated Wine Literary Critic who will analyze and identify the best wine writing available, whether on the Internet, in wine magazines and journals, on blogs or in lowly (but often well-read) wine chat boards. There is so much noise generated by the profusion of words on wine now being published in one format or another that it really is difficult to pluck out the best of the best.

The only form of Wine Literary Criticism that currently exists and that has ever really existed is in the form of reviews of books on wine that regularly appear in wine magazines and on blogs. These are useful guideposts, but they really don't touch the surface of what's out there. Some argue that the quality of writing one finds on line is really quite paltry. While this might be true, it's beside the point. While the general level of wine writing on the Internet might be average at best, there do (and must) exist samples of really good writing.

When I started the American Wine Blog Awards, one of my goals was to draw attention to the best writers using the blog format to communicate. I think this goal was achieved to a degree. But for my own selfish reasons, I'd love to see this effort to identify the best wine writers continue in other formats. For example. I would love to see an annual "The Best American Wine Writing" book published along side "The Best American Religious Writing" or "Best American Travel Writing". Why not?

It's true that the readership for a blog or newsletter or any other vehicle focused on Wine Literary Criticism would be small. However, it would generate a great deal of gratitude among those who are looking to immerse themselves in the best of the Golden Age of wine writing.

18 Responses

  1. Joe Czerwinski - February 21, 2011

    Am I understanding this right?
    In an age when more and more people are opining that wine ratings and critics are irrelevant, that folks should just drink what they like or rely on their social networks for advice, we need a sort of Robert Parker to rate wine writing, instead of people just reading what they like?
    Seems like you are swimming against the tide (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

  2. Tom Wark - February 21, 2011

    Hey Joe….
    Rating the critics is already a well established parlor game. I’m not interested in that.
    I’m interested in a form of wine literary criticism that would work to identify the best wine writing available and to do a bit of lit-crit along the way.

  3. Key Hook - February 21, 2011

    As I’ve read your article, I have never thought that before. Thank you for the information you have shared. I wish i can get more thoughts and ideas here in your site.

  4. William D. Ellis, PhD - February 22, 2011

    I am an organic chemist who has done a lot of technical writing. I found that my writing improved over a period of years by being edited by professional editors, who explained to me their edits. Writing about wine is somewhat technical. I learned to avoid wordiness, improve clarity in conveying my thoughts by better word choice and better syntax. I would include experiencing good editing as a third key to good writing. Bill Ellis

  5. Wink Lorch - February 22, 2011

    I love the idea of the post of ‘Wine Literary Critic’. Perhaps some prestigious wine university (no names named) should appoint it as an annual post.
    Anything that improves the quality of wine writing (not just American wine writing!) is good, and having attended the Symposium for Professional Wine Writing in Napa 3 years ago, I did indeed think that several sessions were extremely constructive and useful.
    I totally agree that a good editor helps improve writing more than anything else – having been a one time editor of an association journal where writing was unpaid, I got really mad with contributors who were precious about their words being edited. I love it when a good editor improves what I write, and yes, I learn from it too.
    The other way to improve writing is to encourage writers to write with awards in mind, as you touched upon. Further examples of wine writing awards include the Louis Roederer International Wine Writer Awards that now has categories not only for books and magazines, but for on-line writing too(, and then there is the newcomer, which holds great promise – the Born Digital Wine Awards ( which aim to award single pieces of writing or video first published on-line. Both these awards are supposed to encourage and reward fine quality writing.

  6. Sediment Blog - February 22, 2011

    Just a little concerned that you seem to elide “the best wine writing” and “American wine writing” – there are other nationalities out here too…!

  7. Tom Wark - February 22, 2011

    The reference to best American wine writing points to the long standing series of annual books call “Best American…Short Short Stories, Essays, Travel Writing, etc.
    Yes, there are other nationalities.

  8. Thomas Pellechia - February 22, 2011

    While I find nothing in your comment with which to disagree, I would like to add that at the top of the list of “best ways to improve your writing” is to read.
    Far too often, would-be writers shoot from the hip, without context, knowledge, or good literary habits and skills…and any writer who hasn’t learned the necessity behind editing is in serious need of an ego slap. 😉

  9. Julius Orth - February 22, 2011

    For an article that seems to be crying out for some form regulatory or overseeing body for content in this forum, it is sad to see how badly this article was composed. I absolutely agree that quality and content should be overriding factors in any written endeavor, but to have the article proposing such oversight being so poorly crafted it leaves little hope that there will be improvement on the horizon. If there is any challenge to the validity of my lowly, unqualified opinion I ask you to simply read the punchline paragraph at the end of the article which is quoted below. “gratitute”? “emmerse”?
    It’s true that the readership for a blog or newsletter or any other vehicle focused on Wine Literary Criticism would be small. However, it would generate a great deal of gratitute among those who are looking to emmerse themselves in the best of the Golden Age of wine writing.

  10. Tom Wark - February 22, 2011

    Thanks for catching the typos.
    Despite the typos, I don’t think the article is poorly crafted. Also, I’m not calling for any oversight body or regulations. I’m merely suggesting that given the noise in the world of wine writing, a little help identifying the best would be appreciated. We have reviews of books all the time and literary criticism is a genuine discipline. Why not see some pointed at wine writing.

  11. Sean P. Sullivan - February 22, 2011

    Tom, I must say that I read this post with relief as it was positive and upbeat about what has been a tremendous trend over the last five or so years – the proliferation of voices writing about wine. It seems like there has been an avalanche of writing lately about how blogs are going away and how no one will really make any money writing or blogging about wine. I believe neither to be the case personally. As you state, there is an enormous amount of writing out there and a considerable amount of very good writing. This is something to be celebrated and embraced. I believe it is a positive trend for both the field and for consumers. I agree that there needs to be a better mechanism for elevating people’s voices from the crowd. Perhaps an interesting business opportunity for someone who wants to take the plunge.
    Washington Wine Report

  12. Mark - February 22, 2011

    Tom, I think you make a good point about the ability to write really well, that’s probably more of a requirement than wine knowledge to be honest since there are so many interesting topics in an around the wine industry which aren’t necessarily wine tasting notes and related content.
    I hope both bloggers and writers can continue to peel back much of what goes unseen in the industry.

  13. - February 24, 2011

    I agree that having a good editor is key to good writing, you need the feedback. Unfortunately, most bloggers don’t have it (including me, although I wrote for my previous job and had an editor there). The Professional Wine Writers’ Symposium seems a bit too ivory tower-ish to me. Since they only allow “professional” wine writers to attend — and those who have no affiliation with the wine business itself — the result is that many people who could benefit from their advice and information are excluded. Yet they rely on the wine industry for sponsorship of the symposium. Not exactly an ideal combination, I’d say.

  14. [email protected] - February 24, 2011

    Interesting article. Agree with the comments about awards and feedback as the way to improve writing. The internet has made wine reviews more widely accesible but has also damaged the quality in many ways I feel.
    By the way, have you guys heard of lovethis? I’ve started using it to get wine recommendations, pretty useful. Check out my recommendations and I’d be interested to connect with you guys to find some interesting labels and new producers. Here’s a link to my profile: Keep up the great blog, how do I subscribe?

  15. replica handbags - February 25, 2011

    What a great idea and fun new adventure! Can’t wait to see these in real life and I sooo wished I were going to CHA to see that mannequin!!!
    pilipalagaga 0225

  16. GastroTommy - March 24, 2011

    Great post Tom. It really got me thinking… I ended up writing an entire call to action for all wine writers called ‘Time for a Change”:
    Tom Powers is an ongoing food and wine web show that introduces you to the greatest under-the-radar wine, food, and restaurants in the world. Curated by sommelier and restaurateur Tom Powers, we also provide deep discounts on these products to our membership Insiders.

  17. Daniel Clark243 - April 12, 2011

    Gerald Asher, Great American Wine Writer
    Neil Beckett, Editor, World of Fine Wine
    Jon Bonne, Wine Editor, San Francisco Chronicle
    Richard Bradley, Editor-in-Chief, Worth Magazine
    Corie Brown, Founder ZesterDaily
    Katherine Cowles, Literary Agent, Cowles-Ryan,
    Blake Edgar, Editor, University of California Press.

  18. amy amster - September 23, 2011

    Kudos to the writers. It is difficult to describe fine wine in unique and descriptive ways.

Leave a Reply