Three years ago in the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik wrote a scathing rebuke of wine writing, saying that what wine books “rarely seem to be about is drinking wine. Remarkably, nowhere in wine writing, including [Robert] Parker’s and [William] Echikson’s, would a Martian learn that the first reason people drink wine is to get drunk.” Gopnik would love Eric Arnold’s First Big Crush, which seems to try to right Gopnik’s perceived imbalance in wine writing single-handedly.
Eric, now a thirty-something News Editor at Wine Spectator magazine, tells a ribald tale of a year’s worth of winemaking (and “GD”–getting drunk) in New Zealand that would make Chaucer proud too. But in between the salty and perhaps unsavory bits is a fast-paced tale about how wine is made–mostly cleaning tanks and hoses followed by sales and marketing–and the kiwis who make it. I wrote Eric five questions I had about the book.
Practically no page goes by without some mention of genitalia, masturbation, general swearing or reference to being drunk. Why?
Two reasons. One is because those things are funny—at least they are to me and the vast majority of my generation. So if you can speak to your audience in a way they’re used to being spoken to, and make them laugh, they’re more likely to keep turning the pages and learn something. The second, and more important reason, is that any good nonfiction writer does his or her best to write in the style and voice of the people they’re profiling to capture the sensibility of that place and time. People who live in small towns and work on farms of one kind or another tell dirty jokes, swear a lot and drink even more. People associate wine with sophistication and glamour, but producing it just isn’t sophisticated or glamorous. Hate to break it to you.
Wow, I made it through all that without so much as a goddamn masturbation joke…I think I need to go get hammered now!
One hot-button issue in wine is the degree of naturalness in winemaking. You witnessed tannins, tartaric acid, and sugar being dumped in the wine. Did you have to apply any chemicals in the vineyard? Did what you saw there change your view on how natural winemaking should be?
Well, saying these things are “dumped” into the wine is a bit dramatic—they’re added with caution and precision after careful analysis. I certainly didn’t feel like I was watching sausages being made. It became clear pretty quickly that winemaking additions and subtractions are done so that the wine tastes good when you or I sit down to drink it. As for the vineyard, no, I didn’t personally apply chemicals, but I did see them being applied with tractors, as ground or canopy sprays. To be honest, I didn’t really have a view on how “natural” winemaking should be before I got to New Zealand, and I can’t say for certain that I do now. I think every winery should do what works best for them and what they’re trying to achieve at whatever price point they hope to sell their wine. If they’re smart businesspeople, they won’t bite the hand that feeds them and unnecessarily pollute their farmland.
Another hot-button issue is the use of scores and your chapter on the Air New Zealand Wine Awards is indeed revealing. At the end you say that “A gold medal in the Air New Zealand Wine Awards or a 95 from Spectator simply means that a wine tasted good in that environment on that day. Period.” Do you still feel that way now that you’ve been at Spectator for a couple of years?
Sure. Because let’s not ignore the sentence on the previous page, which reads, “…the tasters doing the assessing are not only trying their best to be good consumer advocates and are usually very knowledgeable and experienced…” When a wine is rated highly in an analytical environment, that’s not a guarantee that it will taste good to you when you have it with dinner or as you roll out of bed in the morning or whenever it is you like to drink your wine, because everyone’s tastes are different. But it probably will taste good because these guys are experts at what they do. The point I was hoping to make is that ratings and medals mean something, but they don’t mean everything. Our job as consumers is to figure out, over time, how our own tastes align with those of the critics. Use the critics as guides, not gods. Wine critics have a pretty difficult and thankless job, actually. They’re probably right 99% of the time and no one ever thanks them for it, but the 1% of the time they’re wrong or someone disagrees with them, consumers practically show up at their doorsteps with pitchforks and torches. Somewhere there’s a poor wine critic asking for more stones to be placed on him.
You have a lot of experience now with New Zealand wines. What are three wineries that you would recommend tourists put on their itinerary? And a short list of your favorite wines to put on our tables?
Certainly visit Allan Scott after you read the book, just so you can see if I did a decent job describing the place. Then email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) and tell me. Then I’d say Highfield, just for the view you get of Marlborough from their bell tower. And then the Fromm Winery, just because the wines are so unique for the region. As for favorite wines to put on the table, you’d have to ask the critics about that. See above! Ha!
Any chance we are going to see your writing anywhere else besides the magazine any time soon? Another book in the works? Or even a blog–where you could write your own wine tasting notes?
I’m still just a baby, so right now the world needs me writing tasting notes about as badly as it needs Britney Spears giving parenting advice. As for another book, I’m not sure. I have a few ideas, but I think I need to decide if I’m going to be the guy who writes wine books or the guy who writes books about doing a weird thing for a year. As you know all too well, writing a book takes a lot out of you, so I need to recharge my batteries a bit before I think of upending my life again to write another. Rest assured that if the book is about entering the priesthood, there won’t be much in the way of genitalia, masturbation, general swearing or references to being drunk.