Wine Writing: Generalism vs Specialism
Years ago when I started writing Winedoctor I had a very generalist approach; I would write about whatever took my fancy (as long as it was wine!). A Chilean Chardonnay here, an Australian Cabernet Sauvignon there. After a few years of this superficial go-where-I-am-led writing I decided it would be better to focus on one or two areas, and I settled on two regions of France about which I knew most, Bordeaux and the Loire Valley. I could direct better which wines I featured, and who I profiled. I could pour my efforts into visiting the regions and enhancing this knowledge, rather than looking for the latest press trip to, well, anywhere. My generalist days were behind me.
I was never really qualified for the job of generalist wine writer anyway. It is a difficult task to undertake and I admire greatly people who write on all walks of wine life with authority and conviction. To glide seamlessly and knowledgeably from the top wines of Burgundy one week, to Georgian Saperavi the next, and back to grower Champagne and new releases from South Africa before the month is out is an impressive feat. And the best do it so well. The advantage of this approach is that there is always something new to entertain the reader, so this style of writing is perfect for a weekly newspaper column or a Sunday supplement, “good gigs to have”, as some might say. After all, most people like variety in their drinking (or in their drinks reading, at least), and so the go-where-my-mood-takes-me approach is a useful one.
But this wasn’t for me, for various reasons, so instead I specialised, and as a result I developed a detailed knowledge of two regions at the expense of my knowledge of others. Today I know I couldn’t write a generalist-style weekly column with any authority; I could write a different Sunday column on the wines of the Loire for a year, such is the rich variety in this region (says I, sipping a glass of Gascon from the Sologne as I type), but I am certain readership figures would decline. I think readers generally look to these Sunday supplements for shopping lists and digestible information, not for in-depth articles (there’s a word limit, after all). But perhaps that is a discussion for another day. Suffice to say my treatise on Loire Valley Gascon is best kept for a book on the Loire, or a detailed profile on the Winedoctor site.
These thoughts came to mind as I read Burgundy expert Bill Nanson’s post describing his frustration at comments about the region which he knows so well made on Twitter. I liked a comment made in response by Victoria Moore, whose columns fit the knowledgeable and seamless description above, that it is best for generalists and specialists to give each other mutual respect. I agree with this process; just as a primary care doctor (GP to the Brits reading) must respect the expertise of a hospital consultant, and the hospital doctor must understand the difficult all-encompassing nature of primary care, so too must generalist and specialist wine writers understand and, ideally, refer to one another.
It doesn’t always work this way though. Recently I was on the end of an aggressive and critical response from a generalist when I pointed out there was another side to a controversial Loire Valley story on which he was writing. Why did this happen? Does a ‘specialist’ come across as ‘know-it-all’ when speaking up? Or are some generalists not as secure with their very broad remit as their peers? These thoughts have made me cautious about wading in when generalists make questionable comments which I view as worthy of further discussion. Recently, I have ignored comments I have read on the “wonderful 2011 vintage in Muscadet”, despite the fact (and it is fact) that the 2011 Muscadet harvest was riddled with grey rot (which comes through to many of the wines), in order to avoid a similar confrontation. Likewise I have avoided commenting on a recommendation of a Vouvray from a big-name large-volume domaine, even though the wines are fairly dreadful examples of the appellation. These are the sorts of comments that, sadly, come from scraping the surface of a region, perhaps via a press trip. Reflecting on my decision not to interject, however, I think it was wrong not to say anything. And so perhaps in future I will offer a contrasting opinion. With respect, hopefully mutual, of course.