Wine Journalism: the Agony and the Ecstasy

Wine journalism is a glamorous job, right? Those free press trips to exotic locations, lavish hospitality from famous wineries, all-expense-paid attendance at international conferences where you drink the best of the best of famous vintages . . . that’s the lush life, isn’t it! Want to try it? Take a look at what the job really entails:

Marathon mornings. We all love drinking wine – but would you still love tasting about 75 of them, all young and raw, every morning for a week, every single one of them magnificently served from brown paper- or foil-wrapped numbered bottles by harried sommeliers in a cavernous – and cold – former railroad station amid the clatter and grumbling of about a hundred other equally cold, tired, already palate-weary colleagues? Do you think you can muster up the focus to taste, analyze in some fashion, and evaluate each one of those wines with equal attention? And record your impressions and evaluation in some fashion, from lined pad to iPad, quickly and accurately enough to get through your morning’s allotment of wines in time?

Arduous afternoons. After enough lunch to scrape the tannins from your cheeks and tongue, are you up for flying visits to three or four wineries, tasting up to a dozen wines at each, listening to the winemakers talk about their wines, this vintage, and what is slumbering in their cellars, and then asking them intelligent questions to elicit the kind of information that you and your readers need to know to properly understand and evaluate this harvest and its wines? After that, can you manage – if you’re very lucky, you may first have up to half an hour at your hotel to wash your face, brush your teeth, and “rest” – to sit to a multi-course, multi-wine gala dinner that will start late and run far too long, especially with a 6:30 wake-up call awaiting you back at your hotel? That hotel, no matter how Spartan it may be (forget about luxury suites and swimming pools), now looks like an unattainable oasis to you.

Bus bondage. Busses, of course, are the blessing and the bane of trips like this. The blessing is that you don’t have to drive yourself and can sit in comfort (sometimes) while the driver squeezes his giant Pullman through narrow streets and narrower entranceways. The bane is that you can’t drive yourself, but are stuck wherever you may be until the bus arrives, and then maybe stuck some more until all the passengers who are supposed to be there show up. It does no good that you know writers X, Y, and Z aren’t planning to join the bus: they’re on the list, and the bus doesn’t move until they’re officially accounted for. And then, for a random example, you drive at ponderous, regulated speeds into the usual massive traffic jam on the Florence-Siena autostrada, where you sit for anything from 20 minutes to 2 hours.

If you are masochist enough that all that really appeals to you, then welcome to the club: you’re at least psychically fit to play the pro on the wine circuit.

I always wanted to write a magazine story that would tell wine lovers what it was really like on a wine press trip – but I could never get any editors to OK the idea. Given what sells most wine magazines, they didn’t want to puncture any romantic notions – better to leave the illusions of luxury travel lubricated by the nectar of the gods intact! Believe me, ladies and gentlemen, for the vast majority of us serious working stiffs of the wine press, life aint like that.

This was all brought forcefully to mind for me by the fact that each new year brings with it the annual renewal of the three Tuscan new-release events – Chianti Classico, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, and Brunello di Montalcino. These three very important presentations are all crammed into one week in February, which is both convenient and borderline hellish. I love this week, and I hate it. I love it because, like the annual Barolo and Barbaresco presentations in May, it gives me a chance to really learn the new vintages – to see what the wines are like not just from one or two producers but across the whole spectrum of the appellation. You don’t get many opportunities for that kind of perspective or that kind of depth, however physically and intellectually trying the learning may be. That knowledge, and the small handful of truly unforgettable wines you will taste during the week, are as much ecstasy as you get.

Another reason I love it is that, like the May week in Alba, it also gives me a chance to schmooze with colleagues from all over Europe and (increasingly these days) Asia and get their perspectives on the events and the wines. These are often very different from those of the few American participants, and that makes the experience even more valuable. My European colleagues especially often look for different things in the wines than I do, and rate them by a different scale. It can be quite eye-opening to try to come to terms with those differences: you can learn a lot just by listening.

All of which, incidentally, always makes me wonder: Why are important American journals like the New York Times, the Wine Spectator, and the Wine Advocate never represented at these events? Just asking.

I hate the week for lots of reasons, most to do with personal comfort. To begin with, February isn’t the best time to visit Italy. Tuscany is cold, and the huge, centrally unheated, stone palazzi where the tastings usually occur are colder still. I remember more than one year when we foot-soldiers of the press corps tasted with our overcoats and hats on, and the producers put their best bottles right on the few and feeble radiators to try to bring them up to a drinkable temperature.

At least it didn’t snow that year. The year that it did, we all feared being trapped in Montalcino after the end of the tastings, because its steep streets and access roads were unsafe for cars and busses.

Other countries can be far worse. I remember a Portuguese trip where our van driver and the local guide/translator (whose solitary word of English seemed to be “No”) got lost the minute we left Lisbon. They stayed that way for a week, refusing ever to ask directions or to take advice. Iberian pride, I guess. We arrived at every appointment two to three hours late – only to discover that, no matter how late we were, our hosts weren’t ready to receive us – in fact, treated our arrival as a (we hoped pleasant) surprise.

Then there’s the hospitality, which is generous to the point of life endangerment. One trip to the Italian Piedmont, the week before Easter, produced multi-course meals (many antipasti, many pastas, huge secondo, many cheeses, desserts) of roast kid twice a day, every day. In Portugal, it was bacalao – another great dish, but not twice a day every day. By the end of a week like that, beer and pizza look like heaven.

But the reason I hate it most stems directly from the factor that makes the whole week worthwhile – tasting so many wines, one after another, without food, without conversation, without leisure. It’s artificial, it’s false, it’s completely untrue to the way we actually consume wine, and it makes every individual judgment provisional at best. But it is also the only possible way to gain a vision of the whole spectrum of a zone’s production in a particular harvest. So the agony is real, but the compensations, in the form of knowledge and experience, are great, very great.

As for glamour: Between bouts of waiting for busses and eating too much, you’ve been tasting somewhere between 80 and 100 young red wines, perhaps more, every day. You have to have learned something, but the payment for that knowledge is a tongue and cheeks that feel like the sole of your shoe, and a sleep deficit that a winter-storm-tossed transatlantic flight is not going to remedy, and who knows what other physical after-effects. I call on my fair bride as the state’s star witness. As I came through the door after one of these trips a few years back, Diane nearly screamed. “Good god!” she said, “what have they done to you? You look like the Michelin tire man.” So much for glamour.

6 Responses to “Wine Journalism: the Agony and the Ecstasy”

  1. Periodismo de vino: la agonía y el éxtasis : ArgentineWines.Com Says:

    […] Fuente: Tom’s Wine Line | Trad. […]

  2. tom hyland Says:

    Tom:

    As someone who has endured these same trips (often with you), I have to complement you on this writeup- these events are marathons, aren’t they?

    Nice of you to point out the opinions of foreign journalists. I have made many friends over the years this way and indeed it is great to hear their thoughts on the wines – as well as many other topics.

    As for the NY Times not being there, I believe they have a policy of not letting their writers go to week-long events such as these. As for the Spectator or Advocate, I think it’s more of a personal choice on the part of their respective writers.

  3. Tom Fiorina Says:

    Thanks for your brilliantly honest portrayal of a wine journalist’s true life.

  4. Janice Verrecchia Says:

    Nice picture of the Chianti Classico tasting- it hints at the the athletic stamina needed! Cheers dall’Italia!

  5. Charles Scicolone Says:

    Ciao Tom- I think you have said it all when it comes to these trips.
    I can only agree with you!

  6. Frank de Falco Says:

    Why aren’t the Times, Spectator et al. present, indeed!?

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