Imagine the Wine Curmudgeon's shock and surprise when he read this:
"In all honesty, I think most readers would prefer to learn from those that were educated in a specialized field (wine) and those that have real hands on experience (at a restaurants, wineries, sales positions, winemaking and such) rather than learning from those that were taught to write prose (journalism) while learning about wine on the job."
The quote comes from a post on the Enobytes wine blog, which regularly ranks among the top blogs in the business. It was written by Pamela Heiligenthal, who co-founded the blog and has an impressive list of credentials after her name, including a couple of wine certifications. It generated tremendous comment (almost 80 the last time I checked) and a fair number of them agreed with Heiligenthal.
That doesn't mean, however, that her premise makes any sense. In fact, it is flat out wrong. Why, after the jump:
I don't know Heiligenthal (though, apparently, I'm going to meet her in 10 days on a wine trip), and I'm sure she means well. But good intentions don't make up for bad ideas, no matter how you phrase them. And this is a bad idea. I'll skip the obvious part about enforcing such a completely un-enforceable concept, including the bit about the First Amendment to the Constitution. This is the United States, and anyone can write about anything they want without getting permission. Or that, given her reasoning, I'm not qualified to do this.
It's a bad idea for lots of other reasons.
• Certification is no guarantee of quality, and non-certification is no guarantee of non-quality. I have met people who write about wine with all sorts of initials after their name whose palates are non-existent and who can't tell the difference between a sentence and a corkscrew. And some of the best, most knowledgeable wine writers I know are not certified. The legendary Diane Teitelbaum, who helped me get started in this business and knows more about wine than most people know they need to know, is not certified.
• Heiligenthal compares wine writing, as a skill, with occupations that require licensing or certification, like law and financial planning. This is certainly not a valid comparison; wine writing in no way is as important as law or financial planning, and doesn't deserve the same consideration.
• Why certify wine writers if we aren't going to certify movie reviewers and restaurant critics? Heiligenthal spends some time on this, and concludes that the best restaurant critics have worked in the restaurant business. Which means that someone like Mark Bittman, who may be the best food writer in the country, isn't qualified to do his job?
• Wine writing is not just one, clean, neat subject. It's thousands of subjects, and who's to say what's more important than another? Am I less of a wine writer because I specialize in $10 wine and regional wine? Or can I only be certified if I write about "acceptable" subjects?
• Heiligenthal seems to imply that writing skill is, in some way, a detriment to what she considers quality wine writing. I'm baffled by this (and maybe I've misunderstood it). Is Hemingway less of a novelist because he writes well?
Again, I'm sure Heiligenthal means well. The Internet has removed many of the barriers to wine writing, and it's a scary place where here be dragons. Even I, for all of my contrariness, can see the appeal of a world where everyone accepted that I was one of the best, and where I didn't have to worry about finding an audience or being successful. But that's not how the world works. We live in a marketplace of ideas, where everyone has their say. The people who say the most intelligent things over the long run squeeze out the people who say stupid things.
And the Wine Curmudgeon wouldn't have it any other way.
More about the conundrum of wine writing:
• Robert Parker and the Vintners Hall of Fame
• Wine writing: Does it make a difference?
• Cheap wine, consumers, and good reporting
• Wine writing, and what's wrong with it