Blogger on campus: Wine Writing and Wine Blogging 101, day 1

students-italian-wineWhat a thrill for me to lead my first seminar on the UniSG campus this morning!

My first seminar in the Master’s in Italian Wine Culture program seemed to fly by as the students and I discussed the power of social media in marketing wine; the subjective and self-referential nature of wine writing and wine blogging; and pioneering wine blogs and taste-makers who have shaped the enoblogosphere as we know it today.

Topics ranged from Gertrude Stein and her Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (the ultimate self-referential novel) to Roland Barthes and the notion of [wine] Writing Degree Zero (and so much more in between).

And as an experiment and exercise, we also tasted two wines, a white and a red, first blind and then with the labels revealed. As we reviewed our notes, we discussed how wine writing can span the sensorial and the cultural and how most wine writing lands somewhere in the middle of that spectrum.

We also looked at three different descriptions of the same wine: the winery’s fact sheet; a score and tasting note; and a highly lyrical tasting note. Again, here, we looked at how wine writing can fall anywhere in between the purely technical to the nearly idiolectal (the most extreme form of self-referential wine writing).

It was a great morning, spent in the company of highly talented, motivated, and simpatico people.

After class, we all headed together to the campus cafeteria were the culinary theme of the day was Indian cuisine. And after lunch and coffee, we all gathered outside in the sunshine where the students asked me questions about life in Texas and America and shared their own impressions from their travels there (even in Texas, where one student told me he had the best steak he had ever tasted!).

One thing that is super cool about the Master’s in Italian Wine Culture program is that the group (11 students) is very close and shares all of their lunchtime meals together. Honestly, I’ve never seen a class of graduate students who were so in-tune with each other (usually it’s the opposite). The camaraderie and solidarity were as refreshing as they were inspiring.

A great first day on campus and looking forward to tomorrow’s seminar!

Click here to learn more about the Master’s in Italian Wine Culture program at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo.


Wine blogging degree zero: a preview of my seminars this week @UniSG

Click here to learn more about the Master’s in Italian Wine Culture program at UniSG where I begin teaching this week.

And please follow along here on the blog where I’ll be posting about my experience on campus. Thanks for being here…

wine-writing-wine-blogging-differenceAbove: Taking a photograph of grapes (like these Chardonnay grapes) is a form of enography or wine writing. Some would argue it’s one of the purest forms because it simply captures a fleeting moment in the grape vine’s (and the wine’s) growing cycle.

One of the greatest works of critical theory to emerge from the 20th-century was Roland Barthes’ Writing Degree Zero. It’s a nuanced critique of social realism and the role that literature plays in the expression thereof. It was one of the first works among many that would follow where the “text” was considered distinctly from the author of the text.

Nietzsche said that G-d is dead.

Barthes said (in much more subtle and profound tones than I will go into here) that the author is dead.

Woody Allen said that Marx is dead… and I don’t feel so good myself.

Joking aside (although the joke is more pertinent here than I think many will realize or appreciate), Barthes probably couldn’t have ever imagined that there would be such a thing as wine blogging, although he surely would have seen it as an expression of bourgeoisie culture. With Writing Degree Zero, he did however give us an important for dissecting and getting to the bottom of the anatomy of a wine blog post.

In Writing Degree Zero, he considers (and am I largely paraphrasing here) writing on a spectrum.

Borrowing liberally from this book, with my own liberal adaptation of his model, we can establish two “poles” of wine writing.

On the one side, let’s say to the left for sake of argument (but not sake of political connotation), you have pure technical wine writing. In other words, writing where clarity and succinctness are key. Instructions on how to build a model airplane would fall on the left side of the spectrum, to give you an example. When it comes to wine writing, a wine fact sheet (a “tech sheet” or technical description of the wine) would similarly fall on the left.

On the very far right hand side of the spectrum, you will find poetical language and even incomprehensible language (in the case of the latter, that would be language that can be defined as an idiolect, a language that only one person speaks). Here, an abstract, hermetic poem by a 20th-century poet is right at home with a lyrical description of a wine (Samantha Dugan’s blog, “Samantha Sans Dosage” is a great example of a wine blog that leans heavily in this direction).

technical description of wine — lyrical description of wine

Nearly every wine blog post will fall somewhere in between these two extremes and in more cases than not, the discourse will lean more toward one pole than the other.

Historically, Robert Parker, Jr. and his 100-point scoring system for the wines he reviews represents one of the most extreme expressions of left-leaning wine writing on Barthes’ spectrum. An extreme example of right-leaning wine writing is represented by Alice Feiring and her highly personal narrative style.

One of the over-arching themes we will be covering in our seminars on wine writing and blogging and how it has evolved in the modern era. The greatest wine writing (I believe) benefits from the tension between those two poles. And the spectrum also gives a guide in understanding how wine writing, in part because of its highly subjective nature, rarely delivers absolute truth.

Ampelographers like José Vouillamoz and Attilio Scienza can argue over the accuracy of their entries for Italian grape varieties. But even in the case of this descriptive form of wine writing, the answers — the accuracy — is often gray as opposed to black and white.

Lyrical writers like Samantha Dugan and Alice Feiring probably don’t argue at all. But is it possible that their writing delivers a clarity and a shade of truth that can only be rendered by their lyrical and narrative styles?

Let’s discuss…