Wine Writing Again: Born Yesterday

Nobody complains more about wine writing than wine writers, and I admit that I am not the least complainer of the lot. But this time it’s personal: My ox is being gored.

For the New York Times food section of September 13th, Eric Asimov wrote a nice, informative essay about the wine of Cahors. Asimov is one of the best wine writers the Times has had, and he did a good professional story about his discovery of the revival of the traditional, Malbec-based, “Black Wine” of this historic region. The problem is, the story has been written before – probably several times, because this news isn’t new; but the time that concerns me most is the article on this subject Diane and I wrote for Food & Wine magazine 35 years ago.
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The resurrection of the fabled wines of Cahors apparently is an often-repeated – or continuous – process. Our article reported then the same facts that the Times story does now: In the Middle Ages, the wines of Cahors rivalled those of Bordeaux, particularly in the English market. They lost ground as the English armies that had occupied much of central France – including Cahors – gradually retreated to the coast, enabling Bordeaux to establish its ascendancy. That dominance was completed when the phylloxera devastated the Cahors vineyards. In the aftermath, it proved too difficult and too expensive to replant the vineyards on the steep slopes that had provided the Black Wine’s greatness, and viticulture largely retreated to the valley floor and viniculture to mediocrity. But lo! a new generation of winemakers is now arising, and they are reclaiming those difficult slopes and with them are restoring Cahors’ historic greatness.

The hero of the Times story is Jean Marie Sigaud, who is credited with, in 1975, having the “brilliant idea” of planting grapes again on the hillsides. Well, our article’s paladin was Georges Vigouroux of the reclaimed hillside vineyards of Château Haute-Serre, who since 1976 had been making big, powerful, elegant wines there, which, by the time of our visit in ’82, were being hailed in France as reviving the glories of Cahors.

I’m not complaining here simply that Diane’s and my work has been ignored (though obviously that irks me, and if the Times didn’t maintain its stupid policy of isolating its wine writers from their peers and colleagues, it could easily have been avoided), but about a common fault of the wine writing profession that I think is far more serious – the total failure to acknowledge, or, in many cases, even be aware of, the work of predecessors. In almost every other discipline, writers are expected to recognize previous efforts, especially those substantially in agreement with them. In wine writing, articles are written as if history began yesterday – and that’s deplorable.

I realize that most writers can’t afford the luxury of a research staff – but surely a Google search is within reach? Some reading around in the area you’re writing about? And publications the size and authority of the Times could afford to pay someone for an hour or two of archival work? Or am I just being an old pedant, and demanding something no one is really interested in?

Probably the latter, I suspect.

8 Responses to “Wine Writing Again: Born Yesterday”

  1. Dennis Mitchell Says:

    Hollywood releases some new and creative cinema from time to time, but there are numerous remakes of once-successful films and to most movie-goers of recent generations, these are brand new. I wouldn’t compare Tom Maresca to Orson Welles, but you get the idea.

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      I’m not entirely sure I do (I’m still on my first cup of coffee), but I’m pretty sure that’s a handsome compliment, so thank you very much.

  2. ANGELO CLARIZIA Says:

    Shame on NYT even if the guy Asimov writes in isolation.

  3. Joe Janish Says:

    Agreed, Tom. Sadly, the days of researchers and fact-checkers are long gone. Further, it seems that if something occurred or was published “pre-Google” (i.e., prior to 1998) and therefore does not appear in a search, then it didn’t happen — at least as far as the internet generation is concerned. But Asimov is old enough to know better.

    If it’s any consolation, Asimov fails to acknowledge even his own previous work. Take, for example, his nearly annual essay on the “revival” / “comeback” of Lambrusco — which has been written and rewritten by Asimov for over 10 years. (Ironic that he repeatedly resurrects a resurrection story as “news” — and never mind the fact that something needs to go away before it can come back!). Perhaps it’s not a research / acknowledgement issue, but rather a memory issue?

    Keep fighting the good fight, Tom!

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      Thanks, Joe. The more we rely on electronic memory, the less we use our own, or even bother to look back in our files. I know this to be true, since I’m guilty of it myself.

  4. Alfonso Cevola (@italianwineguy) Says:

    Hi Tom,

    I don’t see Eric as writing from an isolated point of view (perhaps elevated, yes) but I do know, living with a journalist for a newspaper, that there is damn little time for a “remembrance of things past.”

    I would posit another perspective in this matter. It is one in which people of a certain age (of which I am as well as you are) who have become invisible. We live in a time of such rapid change that there is no time, or appetite, for reflection.

    Yes, we should celebrate those who came before us. Yes, we should honor the elder statesmen and women of our trade. But I would advise against waiting around for anyone from any generation to recognize one’s contributions. The world simply doesn’t have time, or the interest, right now.

    I’ve learned to live with my cloaking device on. It’s like all the updates on the phone and laptop that I cannot stop. I am invisible – and if anyone is over 60 (which now includes Eric) the harsh reality is that we are often unseen by the younger generations. That’s a fact of life in these times.

    What that realization has done for me has been to free me up. There is no tail on the kite, there is no kite! I’m free as a bird…

    “Some strange beast, perhaps a bird, invisible somewhere, emitted from time to time a faint and lamentable shriek.” – from Romance by Joseph Conrad and F.M. Hueffer

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Alfonso. I like your idea of “a cloaking device.” And I’m impressed by the very apt quotation from Conrad, one of my favorite writers: he was a “strange beast” too, as we are all becoming.

  5. Ed McCarthy Says:

    Tom, you make several great points, but I suspect, as you acknowledge, the only ones who care about it are fellow-wine writers.Asimov writes in isolation, as you mention, without the benefit of learning from fellow-wine writers.

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