Wine Writing

Wine Writers in Glass Houses 9 min read

Can there be any other business where there is so much bullshit? - Dr. Carole Meredith, Grape Geneticist, retired UC Davis Professor and winemaker


When I was in high school, I was the tallest girl in my class. I stuck out from the crowd, which got me taunted, teased, bullied and occasionally beaten after school; curiously, by my female classmates. I could never figure out how to belong. One day, after a particularly brutal attack, one of my assailants found me crying in a bathroom stall. “Why?,” I tearfully mumbled. She looked around, making sure that we were alone and then said in a quiet, steely voice, “Because you are not an a-hole like the rest of us.”


There are moments that one never forgets. That was one of them.


Some feel the need to undercut others in order to self-exalt. What they fail to grasp is that, by accosting someone for being more, they will not gain superiority for being less. Unfortunately, it takes years of slouching and hiding one’s decent nature for some of us to stand proud; to finally realize that it was someone else’s problem all along, not ours.


Being in business helps.  As you become more successful and your confidence grows, you start to realize that worrying about the minutia of hatred and pettiness is a waste of time. Occasionally, a need for more fulfillment takes you on a different path, one that is full of surprises.


I became a wine writer because I inadvertently discovered that I was happiest when I put pen to paper. My motivation was simple, and arguably, naïve—to share my passion and give readers a window into the world of wine that I’ve come to love, an insight that was inviting and inclusive.


I had never anticipated that this world could be controversial. Wine is an inherently subjective experience; therefore, every opinion has validity. The only meaningful difference between opinions is the opinion holder’s wealth and breadth of knowledge. Some views may be well-informed due to subject knowledge or mastery of technical data. Few have the gift of super-palates that allow them to taste more subtle flavors than the rest of us. However, when it comes to matters of taste, subjectivity rules.


With every word I write, I strive to encourage my readers to trust themselves. Ultimately, it’s their palates that matter most. I do that because of who I am and what I believe. I flourish on acceptance and wane on conceit. There should never be a place in any realm, including wine, for superciliousness, snobbery, snarkiness and self-aggrandizement. These things come at a steep cost to the reader.


Journalism turned out to be quite different from my hopes and expectations. For starters, I unwittingly presumed that the gracious lifestyle that accompanies the wine world would prompt wine writers to be generous themselves; an entirely flawed premise. I discovered the opposite. The little power and influence that comes with the job have turned some folks into egomaniacs.


Don’t get me wrong, this profession is far from a walk in the park. It is tough; fast-paced, filled with hard work, deadline demands, little time for a personal life, and sparse financial rewards. I often chuckle to myself when asked how one lands such a dazzling career.


I could tell them all about getting stuck in the middle seat on long-haul flights, jet-lagged marches through unknown regions, late night dinners that are impossible to enjoy or overwhelming wine events when you are surrounded by rowdy crowds when all you really want is a quiet contemplative moment with a glass in hand and a good conversation.


For instance, when a region hosts a journalist, they are often offered lovely meals to accompany local wines. Unfortunately, it is difficult to relish such largess when you are falling asleep in your soup. “Glamorous” visits to the world’s wine regions sometimes include a hotel room with no shower or working bathroom, nonexistent lights, or dysfunctional Wi-Fi. Enduring being disconnected from the world and frequently feeling that things are beyond your control requires arduous effort and considerable psychological stamina.


However, the worst part of these regional visits is rarely logistics. Often, it’s the company of fellow journalists. The “refined” world of wine writing appears to include a number of discourteous, arrogant, thoughtless examples of everything that’s wrong with humanity. Of course, not everyone is boorish. However, the number of disruptive, entitled neurotics is disturbingly high. The same people that haven’t learned the terms “please” and “thank you,” who trample others to grab the best seat at the table, who interrupt every conversation, who feel free to make all kinds of insensitive remarks without ever experiencing a moment of self-awareness—these same folks shout the loudest from their blog perches and pages of the periodicals that publish them. Rather than feeling privileged to be part of the wine world, they seek its diminishment. Gratitude for being included in a singular world of limitless discovery, infinite learning opportunities and unique camaraderie, an honor to be cherished, somehow escapes them entirely.


Some thrive on negativity because it offers an opportunity to flaunt their sense of self-importance. If they can find or create any controversy in the wine world, they will pounce on it at warp speed. They actually believe that calling someone out makes them more powerful.


Don’t think that this has anything to do with public good. It’s never be about the consumer because it always has to be about them. They love changing the conversation and often burn with righteous indignation over the smallest hints of impropriety. All the while they feel perfectly comfortable receiving gifts of wine, expensive meals, and sponsored tours. They never see any conflict of interest in accepting advertising or soliciting donations. The readers are just supposed to blindly trust that they are impartial and fair.


For years we were being “saved” from ethics-related scandals, the “Parkerization” of winemaking, the evils of high alcohol wines, and all sorts of “earth-shattering” disasters by those who fancy themselves investigative journalists; self-appointed crusaders who love to nanny us for our own good.


One of the most prominent victims of the assassin’s pen over the years has been Robert M. Parker, Jr. Why? Because he is the ultimate target. As the Japanese say, “The nail that rises above the board is pounded down by the hammer.” There seems to be an awful lot of hammers out there.


We can debate whether Parker is the best writer, has the ultimate palate, or has too much power…blah, blah, blah. However, no one can debate his unwavering integrity, stellar work ethic, unmatched relatability, or genuine passion for wine. No one. I have never had an involved discussion with Mr. Parker myself (outside of a few short exchanges) but I’ve heard hundreds of people over the years say the exact same thing—the man oozes grace. The mind is truly astounded at the number of reviews he produced over the years. While many mostly dial it in, he took the time and trouble to tell the real story. His publication, The Wine Advocate, accepts no advertising or paid perks. His storytelling, along with the uncompromising integrity of his rating process, has preserved Parker’s brand through the decades as the touchstone for all wine writing. It brought him abundant adulation from those who count, and spit buckets-full of hatred for those who are resentful of his many achievements.


Given the amount of power he wields, he’s had more choices and temptations along the way than most of us can even fathom. He could have easily “sold out.”  Yet, he chose to stay true to his principles.


How many of us are writing love letters honoring our 28-year-old marriages? I have seen some fine examples of sordid behaviors on public display. Yet, these same folks love to preside over the court of public opinion, judge and execute on the spot.


Robert Parker has helped thousands of small businesses survive and thrive. Oddly, those stories are never written. It must be dreary to delight in human decency instead of tearing down those who have essentially transformed the world of wine journalism. I guess none of those who deflect and defame have ever made a personal or professional error of trusting someone who may have misrepresented their intentions.


Is it possible to always be objective and consistent; to earn a living without selling your soul?


In my view, Robert Parker is a unique example of someone who has achieved that lofty goal. Personally, I find it inspirational. It’s astounding how some can be so disrespectful and mean-spirited.


I’m often told that writing criticisms will legitimize me as a writer. I refuse to buy that point of view. There are infinite numbers of wonderful stories to share with the world and not enough lifetimes to tell them. Why waste energy on the negative? If I can connect one more consumer with a worthwhile winery, why would I choose to engage in some self-important repartee?


We all live in glass houses. Maybe it’s time to realize this and restrain from the all-too-easy temptations of casting stones.


Remarkably, consumers can’t get enough of Parker. They love him with abandon. Similarly, nearly every vintner and winemaker, here and overseas, who had met him, hold a very high opinion of him. These two groups are who matters most, they actually produce something tangible, support it with their funds, in other words—make this industry go around.


A word to naysayers: Stop saving us from the wine world’s alleged catastrophes. Take a long hard look at the real one—your house is made of the same glass as everyone’s; your interior flaws are on full display for those that cast even a superficial glance.


Perhaps it’s time for some frank self-reflection and shifting the focus to becoming better at our craft. Instead of investigating the flaws of others or pontificating on subjects on which we don’t have nearly enough knowledge, perhaps we ought to focus on doing our jobs better, our own body of work, and what value we deliver.


Now, that could be a worthy effort. No stones required.

Ilona Thompson

Ilona Thompson is Editor-in-Chief at PalateXposure, a destination site for oenophiles, gourmands and luxury travelers. She also recently launched #Wine, a site dedicated to wines and spirits reviews, and #Photography, a site devoted to high-quality wine, food, and travel related photography.

  • A very good article. I am not a journalist but a wine blogger, mostly writing about Italian wine, but yes, in a world where one would think people enjoy exchanging opinions and views about a common passion, often it is a bit of a ego-club. I would also call it sometimes a mens’ club of wine. However, I never care much for that just ignoring it and doing my thing. 😉 And though it is fun to be invited to producers and other events, it is also hard work, and non-stop activities, so you have to have a good stamina to hang in there sometime and also write and post about the events for what you are really invited to do etc. However, I love it and do not complain at all. Of course, I am a blogger and decides what and when I write about so if I do not have time, I do not go to an event or producer visit, etc.
    A very nice recount of the work of Robert Parker.

    November 25, 2016 at 2:44 am
  • A really, really solid piece. I am going to share this on my site this week. Thanks for the honesty!

    November 15, 2016 at 11:13 am
  • Regina M Lutz

    Great, great, great! Thanks for saying what so many of us who’ve known Robert Parker for decades already know — his skill and enthusiasm for writing about wine is truly sensational. I had the chance to meet him more than once during the time I worked for Robert Mondavi Winery, where he was an annual visitor and always found him courteous, dedicated, and had a wicked sense of humor.

    Regina M Lutz
    Napa, CA

    October 20, 2016 at 4:13 pm
  • This is beautiful, Ilona.
    Pure gold.
    Absolutely refreshing and honest.
    Thank you.

    October 20, 2016 at 8:03 am

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