Thursday, October 20, 2011

6 Ways Wine Writing Differs from Food Writing

Some of you noticed I hadn't posted very often lately. The reason was that I spent the summer doing a day job as food editor at SF Weekly: a job I was recently laid off from, as part of Village Voice Media's nationwide cuts.

I've written about food here and there for more than 20 years, but this was the first time I had a full-time job immersed in the world of food -- not wine and spirits.

One thing I didn't expect was how small the wine world looks, from the position of the food world. The greatest thing about food writing is that it's such a huge playground, with so many more subjects to consider.

I would take a break on weekends to look at what my favorite wine writers were up to, and look: another article on high alcohol! Another screed about how California wines are too ripe! Don't get me wrong, I love writing about wine, and since I do it for money, I even wrote a 100-point-scale essay for Palate Press on the side this summer.

I cranked that out in about 25 minutes because let's face it, is there anything new to say on the topic? Yet we got 65 comments, which means my colleague W.R. Tish and I aren't the only wine lovers who like saying the same things over and over.

That's only one of a few differences between food writing and wine writing. From my fresh perspective, and since I've got some unexpected free time just now, I thought I'd list a few others:

* Winemakers are much better interviews than chefs
All winemakers have college degrees; most have advanced degrees. Some chefs go to culinary school rather than college, and while they may make creative, expressive dishes, usually they're not great at talking about them.

 * The wine readership is genteel and mostly on the same page
You think Robert Parker and Jancis Robinson feud? Or Old World and New World drinkers? That's nothing: try getting vegans and people who like foie gras in the same room. Adam Lee excoriated me on this blog yesterday, without the use of ALL CAPS or a single profanity. Food writers get ruder treatment even from readers who agree with them.

* Everybody cares about food -- which shows you how few people really care about wine
The odds are pretty small that I can sit on a plane next to a stranger and talk about super Tuscans, even in business class. But if I tell people I'm working on a piece about burgers, everybody's got an opinion.

* Food writers are expected to write negative reviews
I might write a whole post about this topic soon, considering I wrote earlier this week about why wine writers almost never write negative reviews. The main reason is that bad food is worse than bad wine. Also, bad service is very irritating and can ruin a meal, but plays no role in wine criticism. And bad wines can simply be ignored, but major restaurants are a form of news and need to be covered.

* Wine writers eat better than food writers
This is one consolation of not being a food editor anymore: if Walgreen's starts selling pre-made plastic-wrapped sandwiches, or Wendy's reformats its burger, I don't have to try them. This week, in fact, I was supposed to be shooting a video for SF Weekly giving my expert opinion on insect cuisine while sampling same. Good luck with that, Peter. I'll think of you next week -- and of you, Jonathan, diligently visiting every dingy Chinatown restaurant even when your foodar tells you "run away" -- while I'm attending a wine event at Michael Mina. (In return, think of me when you use your health insurance.)

* Politics are far more important in food

I'm not sure there's a single significant political disagreement in the wine world: AVA definition, maybe? Direct shipping doesn't really count, as almost the whole wine industry is for it. Compare that to subsidies for agribusiness, police raids of raw milk, zoning laws for food trucks vs. brick-and-mortar restaurants .... here's something I'm going to really miss, because I love writing about politics and issues, and in food you'll never run dry.

So I'm back to freelancing drinks stories like this LA Times story of how Bacardi committed single-cell genocide to keep its business from Fidel Castro. I'm re-engaging with this blog; I've even opened a brand-new Facebook page for it.

And if you want to help support one of America's unemployed, you can send me a little cash by clicking the Donate button below (it's Paypal.) I've made it a permanent feature on the right side of the blog. Unlike the New York Times or Baltimore Sun, or even my reviews at Wine Review Online, reading this blog is free. If you like what you've read, consider leaving a tip as you might for a barrista who gets your coffee right.

Also, I hope you'll indulge me in a little more food writing on this blog than I was doing before. After all, I haven't had a wine yet that's exactly like the experience of ordering, eating -- and getting to write about -- Crude Drugs Chicken Feet.

Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.


Karin said...

Sorry to hear that you're unemployed but looking forward to the expanded scope of the blog. Good luck!

jkgalbraith said...

the palate press piece you wrote was particularly good. While i am in favour of the 100 point system u do find it ludicrous that scores are concentrated in the 80+ range. Much like video games where 7/10 is an average score. Lunacy.

Anyhow, thanks for the article, I got a kick out of it, one of those "the only grown up in the room" moments; the arrogance of those who decry points scores beggars belief.