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