Orange Wine and the State of Wine Writing

Have you ever noticed that the best writing about wine isn’t really about wine?

The New Yorker’s Troy Patterson Jr. is proof. His most recent critique of a niche culture comes at the expense of Orange Wine, “distinguished by what are conventionally considered imperfections: astringency, bracing bitterness, earthy funk.” Ouch!

This is not the conclusion of, but rather a sidebar to, Patterson’s article entitled, “How the Orange-Wine Fad Became an Irresistible Assault on Pleasure” in the latest issue of the New Yorker where Patterson is an in-house writer.

A little about Mr. Patterson. His first real writing job was at Entertainment Weekly as its Book Critic (that’s funny in itself). From there he elevated his position in writing circles to become the style editor at Bloomberg, the fashion columnist for the Times Magazine, the television critic at Slate, and the film critic at Spin before landing a coveted Staff Writer position at the New Yorker.

Patterson goes on about Orange Wine, writing:

“The overbearing boldness of orange wine is too diverse to categorize. Some are nutty and firm, like weird sherries, and some are briny, some brightly acidic, and some highly herbal. Some suggest a Carmen-Miranda-headdress spectrum of fruit. At a wine bar where all the descriptions somehow read like Allen Ginsberg’s grocery list, I tasted a Sicilian example said to evoke “copper kettles, chamomile flowers, Ricola popsicle.” Its finish prompted the question, “Is that a note of melon or is it a hint of Goodyear rubber?”

Again…ouch.

The Orange people have not taken Patterson’s essay in the spirit it was written. Patterson is not so much communicating his dislike of the Orange Wine genre or the challenge of many of its examples. Rather, he has his cultural critic hat on and is attempting to make sense of the embrace of difficult drinks by Nicheites. What is it, Patterson is asking, that draws a certain type to these new, challenging and oh so nouvelle drinks?

There is a, how shall we say…dismissiveness…to his response:

“This stuff pairs well with the conflated ethics and aesthetics of bien-pensant food culture. The intrinsic emphasis on abstruse methods of production and challenging nuances of terroir suits going fashions for the sustainable, the “authentic.” You get the sense, when gripped by the vinegar-ish bite of an extra-ripe wine, that it is ideally consumed at a reclaimed-wood table in the dining room of a Hudson Valley weekend home, while listening to a proud host holding forth on how best to decant it and describing its intricate flavors and idiosyncratic kinks with the haranguing passion of an indie-rock record collector.”

The Twitterers don’t like this conclusion:

The New York Times’ Eric Asimov stirred up the Orange People with this tweet. Many of them responded with caustic and sarcastic and dismissive responses that took Patterson to task for opining on Orange Wine without displaying a comprehensive knowledge of the category.

This misses the point.

Patterson isn’t so much using his witty, acerbic pen to diss orange wine (though he does that well). Rather, he is questioning the propriety of elevating unpleasantness to a point of trendiness and proof of superiority:

“a full-bodied orange wine, with its uncompromising austerity, approaches an absolute limit: sensation without sensuality. It tastes like an assault on pleasure. A wine with a finish like sucking on a grapefruit rind is not a wine to drink for enjoyment. It is a wine to suffer through—the suffering is proof that the drink is morally improving—and then to enjoy talking about. The talking is the proof of the drinker’s good taste.”

This is a point that could be made about any number of things and subjects Patterson is merely using Orange Wine as an example.

Those who take offense at Patterson’s portrayal of Orange Wine rather than contemplating his larger point can rest easy. Patterson isn’t a wine writer, despite using wine and drinks as an occasional vehicle for his astute and interesting observations about popular culture. But what I don’t think you can do as you fret over this writer’s critique of your new favorite type of wine is deny his writing chops. He is fun to read. Very thoughtful. He possesses the ability to make intriguing connections between subjects and ideas.

People complain these days about how wine writing is too geeky; too self-absorbed; too unhelpful to the average drinker. These are not problems with wine writing. Wine writing isn’t for the vast majority of people who drink wine and who do so with the help of $8.00 sweetened bottlings. Wine writing is for people who wine as a passage to other places.

The problem with wine writing is that there are no Troy Patterson Jrs in the wine writing club.

 

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9 Responses

  1. Mike Dunne - September 9, 2019

    It’s been suggested that his piece is satire, and it could be, but if it is it apparently didn’t work, to judge by the rabid response. Regardless, he well may be “questioning the propriety of elevating unpleasantness to a point of trendiness and proof of superiority,” though what is unpleasant to him may not be unpleasant to others. And that could be his message – to each his own taste. But if you invite him to dinner, don’t be surprised if he goes off on the sriracha.

  2. Tom Wark - September 9, 2019

    Mike

    All good points. However, Troy is too good a writer to allow a satire to be mistaken for a real critique. Honestly, I think one of the underlying issues many have with this piece is that Mr. Patterson is not a well recognized (read: outsider) member of the wine fraternity.

  3. Mike Dunne - September 9, 2019

    I didn’t think it satire when I first read it, but after a well-read friend claimed it was I could see some things in the essay to suggest his tongue was firmly in cheek. However, the friend could have been satirical in his own right.

  4. George Ronay - September 9, 2019

    This was too long in coming and well deserved. It’s just another extension of wine lists suddenly became “curated” instead of “selected” – somehow selecting a wine apparently isn’t worthy, while curating one (where the grapes grow, what phase the moon was in, the orientation of the vineyard rows on the landscape… etc ad nauseum) requires at least two or three “letters” of recognition…. MW, MW, CSW, OPITA, (the last being Obnoxious and I’ll let you figure out the rest….)

  5. Douglas Trapasso - September 9, 2019

    I hope Troy Patterson next writes about the sudden surge in popularity of hard setlzer. I didn’t even know what this stuff was a year ago.

  6. Blake Gray - September 10, 2019

    It is a tremendously overwritten way of saying, “There is a style of wine that I personally do not like, and no one should like it.” Other writers could and have written the very same thing about buttery Chardonnay, overripe Cabernet, sweet red blends, Moscato, you name it. It’s self-centered snobbery.

  7. Tom Wark - September 10, 2019

    But Blake….

    That’s not what Troy is saying, at least that’s not the point of his short essay. What we have is a critique of the culture surrounding a new breed of wines (drinks) that appear to glorify faults in a way they never have before. It’s not a wine review.

  8. Blake Gray - September 10, 2019

    No Tom, that’s not what he’s saying; that’s what you’re reading, because that’s what you want to read. Look again.

  9. doug wilder - September 10, 2019

    So an apparently skilled writer who doesn’t normally cover wine publishes an article about a niche genre that just maybe has a little too much truth for some insiders who seldom, if ever stop to consider that anybody except them could have an opinion that matters. Look around – people who comment about stories on wine are people in the industry, usually other writers. 🙂


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