Influence, Inspiration and Value in the Wine Media
I’ve often thought it would be a fascinating project to map out The Family Tree of Winemakers. The project would consist of connecting present-day winemakers to winemakers of the past and follow the influence and inspiration down the line: Smith worked under Jones; Jones worked under Washington. Washington worked under Johnson, etc, etc. In the U.S., this would essentially be an exercise in tracing back most of our great winemakers to Andre Tchelistcheff.
This could be done with winemakers because we are talking primarily about craftsmen; folks who get their start working under or apprenticing with another craftsman. It would be harder to do this with wine writers.
Writing, even reporting, is a much more solitary affair. Rarely is a piece of writing a team effort. It’s much more difficult to make the link between one writer and another. Yes, a wine writer who has worked in the business for some time can undoubtedly tell you who influenced their writing or inspired them (two different things, these), but the lineage is not so direct as it would be with winemaking. In fact, I’d bet that while most of today’s accomplished wine writers would name a few peers and writers from the past as their inspiration, they’d also certainly go outside the field of wine writing in reaching for an answer to who influenced their writing style or approach to storytelling.
This is the case with my writing.
After seventeen years of doing this, I thought it might be time to take a stab at revealing those writers who influenced how I approach this particular part of my career. But first, I think it is fair to say that my approach to writing about wine is fairly unique.
First, I write primarily about the industry. It’s “inside baseball” that I primarily do here. This is fairly uncommon within the industry where most wine writing is focused on profiling wines, wine regions, and wine personalities or providing “how-to’s”…all in the service of wine drinkers.
It’s also fair to say that my work here has been in the service of advocacy, another type of writing that is relatively uncommon in the wine realm. Many of my posts and articles have attempted to gin up support for a position or cause. It’s been about trying to motivate the readers if not to take some action, then to at least take up my position.
My writing has also been called “muckraking”, troublemaking, and bomb-throwing. As a fan of Lincoln Steffens, this moniker doesn’t offend me and isn’t far off.
But what has and still does motivate me to write is the fascinating link between social, political, and cultural trends on the one hand and wine on the other. Put another way, wine is the lens through which I see a larger world.
But who inspired and influenced me.
In the world of wine, my debt is owed to Jerry Mead, Matt Kramer, Steve Hiemoff, and Dan Berger. All of them have a style and a distinct voice. Jerry was the muckraker. Matt is the most thoughtful wine writer I’ve ever read. Steve’s best work was always very personal at its core. Dan possesses and always uses the deepest well of knowledge on the industry of any writer I’ve ever known.
Each has influenced me in terms of how I approach the writing I do at Fermentation and I still, often, will go back and read their work for inspiration. And they never fail me.
But then there is the great essayist Gore Vidal. Yes, he wrote fiction. But it was in the service of advancing the world according to Gore. Vidal’s sharpest weapon was the essay. This was a writer who, in five sentences, could provide the background, lay out the facts, indict, convict, then flay his victim right there in the public square—and leave one sentence in reserve at the end for congratulating himself for a job well done.
I’d always been attracted to and taken inspiration from the polemicists and rhetoriticians who, like Vidal, wrote beautifully in the service of causes or ideas: William F. Buckley, Christopher Hitchens, John Reed, Hunter S. Thompson, and, today, the likes of Bari Wiess.
Listing influences is sometimes an effort to align or compare one’s self with your betters. I hope my shortlist does not leave that impression. While I possess just enough hubris and a healthy ego to motivate myself to write and believe what I compose is of value, it would embarrass me terribly to know I’d left the impression I am in the same rhetorical ballpark as those listed above.
However, what I believe Kramer, Mead, Vidal, Hitchens, Wiess, and the others all have in common, and what I believe I too can deliver, is a unique voice and perspective that provides readers with value. In a few days, I plan to test this value theory.