Why do wine writers write only about wine?

There’s an article by Craig Brown (the humourist not the former Scotland football manager) about being present at the one and only meeting between Anthony Burgess and Benny Hill. Apparently it was not a great success. Though the two great artists admired each other’s work they could not find any common ground: Burgess wanted to talk about comedy and Hill wanted to talk about literature. Specialists often want to talk about almost anything else apart from their area of expertise. This is common in all walks of life except it would seem wine writing. Wine writers only talk about wine. Compare two writers for the Times for example: on the restaurant page Giles Coren pontificates about whatever he feels like with the actual food coming far down his list of priorities whereas Jane McQuitty sticks to recommending wine with not a mention of her hell-raising days at Studio 54*.

I’m not sure how I feel about this. There is a wonderful purity about reading someone who really knows their subject and writes about it to the exclusion of everything else. I like that Tim Atkin et al don’t blether on about their private lives (unless of course they were interestingly scandalous) or use their columns as a platform to opine Archbishop of Canterbury-like on the failures of the Coalition. And God forbid that wine should ever have the Observer Food Monthly treatment with its celebrity lifestyle nonsense. But it does seem odd how wine seems to exist in a bubble cut off from politics, culture and the minutia of everyday life. Occasionally it ventures out to look at global warming, tax rises or a black workers co-op in South Africa but mostly its nose is firmly planted in a glass.

This is fine if you are Jancis Robinson and have a large wine-literate audience to talk to. One of the joys of her website is feeling that you are part of a knowledgeable club. But other mainstream writers have the difficulty of not knowing quite how interested their readers are in what is a complicated subject. Inevitably many fall between two stools: one being too winey for the general reader; the other being not winey enough for the wine bore. Perhaps newspapers wouldn’t be cutting their wine pages if there was someone who wrote not to impart knowledge and recommend but merely to entertain. After all who reads AA Gill to decide where to eat?

* This is a joke. To my best knowledge Jane McQuitty never raised hell at Studio 54.


About Henry

Henry Jeffreys was born in London. He has worked in the wine trade, publishing and is now a freelance journalist. He specialises in drink and his work has appeared in the Spectator, the Guardian, the Economist, the Financial Times, the Oldie and Food & Wine magazine. He was a contributor to the Breakfast Bible (Bloomsbury 2013) and his book Empire of Booze: British History through the Bottom of a Glass was published in November 2016.
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15 Responses to Why do wine writers write only about wine?

  1. Tom says:

    Who reads AA Gill full stop?

    • Henry says:

      I still read AA Gill but then I am old and out of touch. Perhaps I should read Charlie Brooker or Caitlin Moran and then I’d be cool. Do people still say ‘cool’?

  2. Pete Gordon says:

    Somewhat random comment, but I noticed the mention of Tim Atkin. I play in a band in HK with his brother and Tim once came to see us with their father, Ron. As far as I am aware, they both enjoyed the performance a great deal, to the extent that Ron threw a pair of old man’s Y fronts at the singer and told me that I play guitar like David Gilmour. As I recall, Tim didn’t talk about wine at all for the duration of his visit, but I can’t tell you what he he did speak of instead, due to one or two G&Ts too many on my part.

  3. Philippa Chandler says:

    That’s a good point! I read Sam Wollaston’s TV reviews in the Guardian because they’re funny and wide-ranging. Heck, I even read his car reviews even though I’m unlikely to buy a new car in the next, uh, decade.

    But when it comes to a wine review, I’ll just skim the pictures to see if there are any bottles I recognise* and then I turn the page. Wine writers seem to pluck an obscure moment out of their lives and then match wines to it hence articles such as “Top 10 Wines To Pair With Gnocchi” or “Classic Whites For Canal Boat Holidays”.

    * I never recognise the bottles, as nobody reviews “Tesco Finest Table Wine, £2.99”.

  4. Chaz Folkes says:

    That’s a great article, I had no idea that the two had ever met. Interesting to hear that both of them were quite phobic of sex, despite the impression given in their work.

    There is something refreshing about wine writers sticking to wine, although I can see the pleasure of a digression if it’s done well. Perhaps that’s the point; if it’s worth reading it’s worth adding to the review, if it’s just pontificating, better to skip to the pictures and the prices.

  5. Henry says:

    Yes I like that they stick to wine too. It’s refreshing when it’s done well but it can also lead to one week where everyone writes exactly the same article: ‘it’s May, it’s time for rose!’

  6. Some of the best writers – Kingsley Amis. Jay McInerney- wrote brilliantly about wine without ever limiting themselves to writing only about wine.

    We try, on the Sediment blog, to follow in their footsteps.

    • Henry says:

      Two of my booze heroes. I’m now leafing through ‘Everyday Drinking’ and have come across the line ‘the world of booze is rent by little controversies. . . .’

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  8. Richard Ross says:

    I suspect it’s about the amount of column inches that wine is given – if you’re given 500 words, and you have to squeeze in however many recommendations, under orders from an editor, then there is little time left for discursive chat. If AA Gill had to rattle through six restaurants in a column, I think you’d get the same end result.

    Oh, did I ever tell you about when I met Gerard Depardieu …..

    Wine is for most people an adjunct to other aspects of their life – so writing about it really lends itself to the discussion of other things – geography, travel, food, philosophy, sensation ….

  9. Henry says:

    That’s a good point. 500 words isn’t really enough. Wouldn’t it be nice if a newspaper editor had the confidence to say to his wine writer – write about whatever you like on a vaguely wine-related topic, don’t worry about recommending anything if you don’t want to? I can’t imagine it happening unless the writer was like Amis or McInerney already famous. The modern equivalent would be to pick a musician or actor to bore us Alex James-style about their pet vineyard. They could ask Cliff RIchard or Mick Hucknall, or even Gerard Depardieu – now he might be worth reading.

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