Wine and restaurant writing compared

A version of this article is published by the Financial Times. 

As I contemplate my annual four-week break from this slot I’m in introspective mood. Whither wine writing?  And how does it compare with other forms of criticism? 

First off, I should make clear that I don’t regard myself as a critic. I want to share positive rather than negative aspects of wine. I hope that instead, I’m a wine writer, one whose job is primarily to entertain and inform. The fact that I started my own website in 2000, and by 2001 had realised that I was spending so much time on it that I would have to erect a paywall for part of it if I were to survive financially, means that we also publish tasting notes on individual wines, about 180,000 of them at the last count in our tasting notes database – with scores. 

Some writers are rather sniffy about reducing the multi-layered glories of wine to a number, which I fully understand. But from the (justified) howls of protest recently when we introduced a substandard way of displaying tasting notes (recently much improved, I'm delighted to say), I deduce that tasting notes, and scores, are very much appreciated by many wine lovers. Because of that, I see scores as a necessary evil. But, because we know how much variation there can be between different bottles of the same wine, even from the same case, we rate each individual bottle separately rather than providing one score for all instances of a particular wine.

It does strike me (and many people I meet) as rather magical that anyone can earn a living from tasting wine, and travelling to the almost uniformly attractive places where wine is grown. (I’ll spare you the whine about tasting cold wine at crack of dawn in freezing cellars, etc etc.) And when they discover that I am married to a restaurant critic, those people generally turn green with envy.

I’m uniquely well placed to compare writing about wine with writing about restaurants since that is what my husband does every other week for the Financial Times, and weekly for JancisRobinson.com. One obvious observation is that it costs much more to review restaurants than wines. Unless you are completely unprincipled and allow yourself to be wined and dined by the outfit you are supposed to be reviewing, you will notch up some pretty substantial bills. And if, like Nick, you prefer to write about places worth recommending rather than writing entertaining but excoriating descriptions of substandard restaurants, you have to add in the cost of eating out in unsatisfactory places to the overall cost of doing your job.

The cost of being a wine writer, on the other hand, can in theory be almost zero. Provided you have established a sufficient reputation, or have a reputable media slot, whether print or online, you may find yourself eagerly invited to professional wine tastings. London has probably the world’s most active wine-trade calendar (see London, capital for wine), but all over the world wine importers and retailers are generally keen to have media endorsement for their wares.

And the emergence of wine ratings has of course only encouraged this. With so many wine writers around the world now doling out scores, it is generally possible to find a favourable one to quote for virtually any wine. Some tasting notes seem almost deliberately tailored to be quoted. Mine are so doggedly written for the consumer rather than the producer or merchant that they are often almost unquotable – a failing that has been pointed out to me on more than one occasion.

So wine writers do not necessarily have to put their hands in their pockets, although if like me they genuinely love wine, they are likely to spend quite a bit on buying wine for their own cellars. I often bring the remains of a favourite sample to the supper table of an evening but the sort of wine I generally want to serve to guests has to be bought young and, usually, kept for many a long year.

Then there is the business of travel. It would technically be quite possible to be a wine writer who had never visited a wine region, but that would leave a massive hole in that wine writer’s knowledge and experience. We need to see vines in situ, to size up vignerons in their cellars, listen to their concerns and priorities, see what their infrastructure is and note how they treat others. Articles that are simply about how wines taste and ignore the stories behind them can be pretty dull.

One major difference between my and Nick’s professional lives is that the wine world is essentially gregarious. If like me you receive a constant stream of unsolicited samples, then you could, I suppose, limit your wine tasting to solitary reviewing of them, but it would be a poor substitute for all the fascinating trade tastings open to curious professional wine writers. If, as I do, you enjoy blind tasting, comparing wines without knowing their identity, then someone else has to organise it.

So one way or another I see my fellow wine writers all the time, and we tend to get on with each other. Perhaps the wine helps. We all have our own outlets, niches and approaches so there is rarely any direct rivalry.

Nick on the other hand can go for months, possibly years, without clapping eyes on another restaurant reviewer. (Although those critics who like to be one of the first to review a new establishment can find themselves surrounded by their peers on opening nights, or during the soft opening periods, well touted by restaurant PRs, before full prices are applied.)

As for where wine writing is heading? Like everything else, on to the smartphone, I would guess. As in most other fields, there are fewer and fewer regular editorial slots while the opportunities for online individual expression are limitless. It may be much easier than when I started in the 1970s to find a platform but there are far fewer platforms with a significant number of readers, alas. (See also What future for expertise?)

There is no shortage of wine-based stories to tell, but they have to be told brilliantly to engage our shorter and shorter attention spans. There’s a good reason why scores are so popular.

It never ceases to amaze me how rapidly the wine world is evolving. Not just new wine regions, new vintages and new vine varieties, but whole new wine philosophies, techniques, ways of judging wine and, above all, new people on the scene. I will do my best to keep up.

Wine writers I particularly enjoy reading 

Many writers, particularly authors, are invaluable sources 
of information, and I'm sure I have omitted many fine wine writers below, but 
I particularly appreciate the work of:

  • Jane Anson of Decanter
  • Eric Asimov of the New York Times
  • Tim Atkin of TimAtkin.com
  • Jon Bonné of Punch
  • Felicity Carter of Meininger’s Wine Business International
  • Andrea Frost (currently resting)
  • Jamie Goode of WineAnorak.com
  • Cathy Huyghe of Forbes
  • Andrew Jefford of Decanter (who will be covering my FT slot for the next four weeks)
  • Hugh Johnson of Decanter and the World of Fine Wine
  • Alice Lascelles of the FT's How to Spend It
  • Neal Martin of Vinous
  • Elin McCoy of Bloomberg
  • Jay McInerney of Town & Country
  • Esther Mobley of the San Francisco Chronicle
  • Victoria Moore of The Daily Telegraph

And of course the whole team at JancisRobinson.com.

Jancis Robinson and Nicholas Lander at restaurant Bourdasso near Carcassonne