The Worst Kind of Wine Writing

Old Parn I strike myself as a pretty nice guy. Easy to get along with. Tolerant.

If you agree, forgive me. If you disagree, then what follows should be par for the course.

Tom Parnell (of the "Old Parn's Wine Reviews" wine blog) is wrong. In fact, so wrong that his latest post, "Wine Writing is Broken", needs a common sense response.

Mr. Parnell is a young Englishman living in Oxford who admits about himself that he, "spends too much time conceiving ideas; too little time executing them. For often has it been said that his ideas should be executed." Put me on the "his ideas should be executed" side of the ledger.

In his latest screed, Mr. Parnell concludes "that far too little wine writing reaches out to the uninitiated" because wine writing is delivered in "patronising and insipid ‘buy this one not this one’ columns, or in exhaustive, geekily inaccessible prose" when instead it should force the reader to be "Inspired. Or tickled. Or shocked. Or provoked."

Parnell's contention is that the vast majority of mass-media (newspaper columns, magazine columns, etc) wine writing is generally boring, uninspiring, filled with useless geeky terms and useless to the common drinker.

One presumes that Parnell, since he knows what's wrong with wine writing, is capable of delivering the right kind of wine writing. Let's take a gander:

"This same freshness is fucking transformative, what’s more, when it comes to the blackcurrant. Because (to my gob, anyhow) full-on dark fruit flavours can get a mite tedious and two-dimensional, despite their initial appeal. But this wine sacrifices nothing of the intensity of the fruit, yet renders it complex, subtly floral, light. Blackcurrant and elderflower. Fuck yeah.
Parnell on the 2009 Act Five Shiraz Viognier

And fucking horrendous it is, too. Cardboardy flaps of egg-marinated bacon in that suddenly-not-so-tasty-tasty malted bread.
Parnell on the 2009 Le Froglet Chardonnay, Vin de Pays d'Oc

"I don’t know about you, but I go weak and jibbly for wines that seduce me with a heady waft of fruit, then pull me up, slap me and strap me, look me fucking dead in the eye and ask me if I reckon I’m hard enough."
Parnell on the 2005 Domaine de Mourchon, Seguret, Cotes du Rhone Village

Fuck, Yeah!!

I guess my problem isn't that Parnell is crass, guilty of his own charges and uninspiring. My problem is that he doesn't name names when he charges that most of

"the world of wine writing is insular. It treasures its own elitist terminology. It prizes information before communication. It jealously, gleefully guards its own exclusivity — a hideous, smugly masturbating gatekeeper — crooning and babbling, gollum-like, at its own shrivelled genitals."

Nice, huh?

So who are these wine writers that are "hideous, smigly masterbating gatekeepers"? Let's be courageous and name some names. Let's take a gander at who Mr. Parnell believes he with his "fucking" and "fuck yeah" and "complex, subtly floral, light. Blackcurrant and elderflower" and his "Cardboardy flaps of egg-marinated bacon in that suddenly-not-so-tasty-tasty malted bread" (huh?) is doing better than.

Jancis Robinson? Tim Atkin? Tom Canavan? Oz Clarke? Jamie Goode? Jasper Morris? Tom Stevenson? Or any other of his British "counterparts"?

What about on this side of the pond? Which elements of the American wine writing corps does does Parnell see "crooning and babbling, gollum-like, at its own shrivelled genitals"?

Eric Asimov? Dan Berger? Jon Bonne? Lettie Teague? Paul Gregutt? Matt Kramer?

We'll never know, I suppose. It's very easy to sling about accusations as long as you don't have to stand up and actually point at individuals, particularly your wannabe peers.

The fact of the matter is, Parnell's "J'Accuse" blog post is the easiest piece of writing anyone thinking about wine writing can spit out. There's no risk in taking the oh so very courageous stand of going to bat for the "initiated" wine drinker who, Parnell imagines, can't quite come to grips with words containing more that two syllables, or "jargon" such as "terroir" or concepts such as French classification systems. It's the kind of approach to commentary that is aimed at uplifting one's self to expert status by knocking down one's betters by calling them out as "elitist". This is all too easy.

At the very end of his screed, Parnell, in a small font, clarifies:

"I should perhaps clarify that the above is very much concerned with wine writing for public consumption — in the mainstream print & online press, particularly — and not wine writing for a niche/expert/obsessive audience"

Sorry, it doesn't save the insipid, weak, cowardly nature of the post. The fact is there are scores of wine writers using the English language and who are writing in newspapers for "public" consumption who do inspire, who instruct, who provide moments of discovery, and who treat their readers with the kind of respect that assumes they can understand complex words and who don't need to conclude with "Fuck Yeah!"


26 Responses

  1. Clint - May 4, 2011

    Tom, your post made me click through to Old Parn’s rant. It was quite funny, “a hideous, smugly masturbating gatekeeper” – and, no doubt, delivers a wallop of Brit “charm”. I think it’s less serious expose, and more nudge-nudge wink-wink. Then again, being Canadian I am naturally bent when it comes to humor.

  2. mari kane - May 4, 2011

    Cheers Tom-
    Unfortunately, there are too many wine writers obsessed with what other wine writers say. Everyone of them wants to be both Average Joe and Superior Jane, showing they have security and identity issues they have to work out on the page. Sad, really, especially when the writer has to resort to profanities to get his message across. Personally, I just do my own thing – insider info for the masses – and let the rest of the wine media do theirs. No wino’s perfect.
    See you at WBC 2011!

  3. Justin Roberts - May 4, 2011

    Parn is engaging in what is commonly known as British humour. You obviously don’t get it, but we’ll put that down to cross-cultural misunderstanding… If you don’t like his writing, don’t read his blog.

  4. Tom Wark - May 4, 2011

    Thanks for the suggestion. I hadn’t read Mr. Parnell’s writing before today. And I’ll be implementing your suggestion.
    However, am I to believe that his entire blog post contending that the wine writing fraternity sucks was in jest? Am I too believe that it’s just “British Humour” that explains is willingness to criticize without actually offering examples?

  5. Justin Roberts - May 4, 2011

    He does make some very relevant points Tom, and for many people the “examples” would be obvious without having to name them. His turn of phrase is obviously what you have a problem with – and yes, most Brits would find it mildly amusing at the very least (just read the comments to the post).

  6. Tom Wark - May 4, 2011

    To be clear, while I find his writing without humor, it’s not his turn of phrase I have a problem with. It’s his willingness to indict nearly all wine writers without having the courage to name these people categorizes in the nastiest of ways and for his own inability to live up the simplest standard that he sets down. Finally, he indulges in the easiest kind of criticism possible.

  7. Marcia - May 4, 2011

    I got the British humour thing even if it isn’t my cuppa tea. I also don’t get my hackles up over wine writing (or regulation) in the way Tom does. (Although I am in the STOP HR1161 camp.)
    I can lace my comments with profanities as well as the next guy, but it certainly does nothing for me in wine writing. I’m with Tom on this one.

  8. Old Parn - May 5, 2011

    Thanks for the link, Tom (or Wark, for symmetry’s sake). And I have absolutely no problem with your reaction. I raised what I consider to be a problem with the standard (and the exclusive nature) of much mainstream wine writing — in (yup) a deliberately provocative, comically exaggerated way.
    You’re right: I didn’t name names. Fair doos. But if you thought it was nasty already, how much nastier if I did that?
    Either the rant resonates with you or it doesn’t. I’m entirely at peace either way. It was (yup) a rant.
    Humour and style are clearly a personal thing. I’m sure we can very happily avoid reading one another’s blogs.

  9. Thomas Pellechia - May 5, 2011

    I hate it when I’m reading something and can tell that the author is trying to manipulate me. That means the writing is bombastic and, even worse than over the top, it’s desperate.
    Sorry Mr. Parnell, while your sentiment may have merit, and in some instances it does, your style fuckin’ sucks!

  10. [email protected] - May 5, 2011

    May I suggest the possibility that you’re just peeved because someone else called Tom, with a better surname, has taken all the traffic you never had.

  11. Tom Wark - May 5, 2011

    Darn….Found out.

  12. Jeff - May 5, 2011

    I fondly remember watching “European Vacation” when I was a kid and not really understanding why it was funny until years later when I watched some Monty Python and Mr. Bean and then got the homage.
    So, yes, perhaps there’s an element of British humor that is just too wry for us Ugly Americans to understand.
    I read the piece and thought it was boring and in tune with the wine blogosphere in 2006, not 2011. Oh well, everybody has to take a slagging at one point or another in order to realize they’re not as clever as their mind’s eye alleges.

  13. Tom Ferrell - May 5, 2011

    While I might agree with Tom Parnell regarding his general criticism of wine writing, I’m not sure what he writes much of an improvement or original except for liberally using the F word. What is always welcome is exceptionally good prose which can be done without the F bomb.
    I’m sure Mr. Parnell will find an anti-elitist audience. But when you get down to it, anyone who gets into wine appreciation the subjects of interest end up being a little geeky to the uninitiated, irrespective of the use of profanity.
    I do find some of his self-disparaging comments funny, particularly that he “spends too much time conceiving ideas; too little time executing them. For often has it been said that his ideas should be executed.” I’m sure I will steal that turn of the words as a humorous description of my own shortcomings.

  14. Raghavan Nair - May 6, 2011

    Enjoyed your piece. There is a lot of excellent writing on wine out there, and I have learned a lot from the blogs you mention, especially Lettie Teague and others at the Wall Street Journal and Eric Asimov. Thanks for setting the record straight.

  15. Joe - May 6, 2011

    A strategically-placed expletive can be the perfect flashpoint for effectively getting a thought across. Sometimes, when conveying raw emotion, nothing works better. I hope that was the intent. Little heavy-handed with the f-bombs, but that’s his prerogative, I suppose.
    Clearly a piece looking for a reaction, and- well- it worked. A little yellow journalism does wonders for conversation sometimes. But if it is such a terrible piece, why give it undeserved attention? Parnell got exactly what he wanted in the end. I appreciate your intent to stick up for good wine writers, but why not just use the comment field on his blog to make your point, rather than promote a publicity stunt (as they say- any publicity is good publicity)?

  16. Julius - May 6, 2011

    Sadly there is no humor in “Parn’s” writing, British or otherwise. What there is, is spouting derision of other peoples work, with short excerpts of his own flaccid contributions punctuated with insipid attempts at capturing interest with excessive use of misplaced profanity. Wine writers may be weak, but they have far more talent than this hack will ever dream of having.

  17. Charlie Olken - May 6, 2011

    I like provacative winewriting as much as the next guy, and having spent a fair bit of in Olde Blighty and having been married into an English family, I am both sympathetic to the British sense of humor and to winewriting that steps out and has the balls to take on the establishment view of things.
    But there is nothing wry in the Parnell piece, nothing dry, nothing but an expletive-laced rant. Hunor, or even humour, does not have to be subtle, can be profanity laced (anybody remember George Carlin), and frankly, it does not matter that some people might be offended by it (anybody remember the Hosemaster), but it does have to be funny. This stuff was not the least bit funny, and it does not matter that a few of his accolytes may have found it funny.

  18. Jo Diaz - May 7, 2011

    I also found his story very off-putting. Since when does the word wine and f*#k – civilizing beverage that it is – come into the same sentence and make any real sense? Potty humor is great in the bars (sometimes), with stand-up comedians doing their schtick, too. When it’s written, it better make some sense. His story just didn’t. I was stunned with his irony about bad wine writing wrapping itself inside of itself.
    With you on this one, Tom.

  19. Justin Roberts - May 7, 2011

    Julius, I take it by your spelling of humour that you’re not British, so you wouldn’t know, would you? If you don’t like it, don’t read it.

  20. Terrence - May 7, 2011

    I’m British, and I’ve read Parnell’s stuff before. Unfortunately all of his posts, on both this blog and others, are full of purple prose. It’s not a British thing — he just writes like a bit of a pratt.

  21. John Lopresti - May 8, 2011

    I think, where the chasm divides the Parn approach to wine reviews and, introspectively, the wine assessment editing process; as compared to TWark’s imagistic style, is, often TW’s site is an aggregation of wine cognoscenti bemusedly discussing common interests occasionally only somewhat vinifera-centric.
    I imagine Parn enjoying beaujolais, grappa, retsina; beverages indigenously European; even, by some associative thought process, southern European. There is a modicum of affinity between those animated peoples in warm Mediterranean climes and their far northern insular neighbors residing in the British Isles.
    Occasionally, one of those leaping kinds of wines surfaces in the American enologic scene. There is one winemaker on the Wineroad, in Sonoma County, CA, now somewhat mellowed, who sometimes earned notoriety for daring-do of the sort Parm might enjoy; preponderant fruit up front, added to the northcoast penchant for near-Port alcohol content by volume; and supplemented with what probably is more than a dash of citric acid added to the freshly dry lot as it begins its long aging process in large volume cooperage or stainless steel. Bright, fast, and deceptive.

  22. DAN - May 8, 2011

    I guess wine writing has gotten political. That’s ok. I’ll just ride around Napa and Sonoma, read what I want, drink what I want and be happy!

  23. Troy - May 8, 2011

    Yeah, this guy needs to go…

  24. Justin Roberts - May 9, 2011

    You seem a bit confused Terrence. Parn did not post on this blog. He left a comment. A comment, which could not be less purple if it tried…
    As for Parn’s own blog, you can take it or leave it.

  25. Terrence - May 12, 2011

    By ‘this blog’ I meant ‘the blog to which we are referring’, i.e. Parn’s wine blog. I thought that was obvious.

  26. Charles Saunders - November 26, 2011

    Old Parn is one of the few wine writers I read without fail and his appeal lies in the fact that to non oenophiles, he’s approachable and engaging. You may not agree with his opinions, but you can engage with them.
    “Traditional” wine critics won’t be able to see the world through his eyes but then they have long since lost the ability to see the world from the eyes of the average wine consumer as well. Therein lies the problem.

Leave a Reply