Pity The Wine Writer

June 10, 2020

In his first column for Witchdoctor, wine writer PHIL PARKER promises never to use lines like “touches of leather and a little bit of manure” or “entwined in a tryst with elements of stone and citrus.” Welcome aboard, Phil!


Phil promises to never use descriptive phrases that sound like they come from a bodice-ripper romance novel

I have always enjoyed writing. In fact, I believe that I communicate, and think way better in print. And for over 30 years I have had a rollercoaster ride in freelance journalism as a part-time job, kicking off in the mid-1980s with feature articles for Metro, North & South, the NZ Listener, the Herald and many others.

Those were the golden years for print media and for specialist writers. Magazines and newspapers would buy stories to fill the space between the huge amounts of print adverts rolling in from eager advertisers. Readers would snap up the glossy mags from the local book store, supermarket or dairy. The publishing houses made shitloads; hobby writers made a buck. Win-win.

But the stock market crash of 1987 pretty well killed off tyro freelancers like me. Advertisers ran away in droves (or BMWs). Print media companies hunkered down and relied on their own payroll writers and eschewed the bright young things of freelance journo. I did sell the odd feature story over the next 20 years, but things got leaner and meaner – and then we all got totally fecking clobbered by the Global Financial Crisis in 2007.

Phil writes: after three glasses of anything subjectivity goes out the window

But in the meantime, I had left my chosen profession of physiotherapy to launch a wine tour company, aimed at the burgeoning market of inbound tourists from the Northern hemisphere. So I figured: I have qualifications in wine education, I run a wine tour business, I drink a reasonable amount of wine. Why not be a wine writer? I drink therefore I am one.

Thus – being in a reasonable niche market, I approached a few magazines and newspapers and secured a number of wine writer gigs (mostly unpaid). So. Here we are today in the post-Covid 19 Level 1 NZ bubble. And here I am with a new wine column.

Problem is most wine writers are regarded as total fucking wankers by the general public. And not without good reason. There is a tendency for some wine writers to wax poetical about the aromatic and metaphoric virtues of wines in a way which alienates the average drinker. (i.e. somebody with a neck and a thirst. And to be totally honest, after three glasses of anything, subjectivity goes out the window because, well, duh! Wine contains alcohol.)

Where they grow the wine that will get you totally rat-arsed drunk after two bottles

This very fact is sadly overlooked by nearly all wine writers, who would rather say, “Subtle oak nuances flirt with the nose, while crème brulée and tropical fruit flavours predominate, with a symphony of citrus notes and honeyed vanilla,” than, “This is a Chardonnay which will get you totally rat-arsed drunk after two bottles.”

But then, most of your mates could say that, if they were intelligible – and it would neither be terribly interesting, amusing nor informative. So as a writer you are rather stuck with having to say something descriptive about the wine. But there is a standard vocabulary based on the Aroma Wheel (see: Google) developed at the University of California at Davis by professor emeritus Ann C. Noble. The good professor has obviously spent many an hour drinking good wine and analysing the aromas and flavours thereof. This is extremely helpful when you try to describe in print how you interpret a particular wine and distinguish it from others. Each grape has its own flavours and characteristics just as a Granny Smith differs from a Braeburn apple, or a raspberry tastes different to a boysenberry.

Now, as a twisted hobby, I have collected some real genuine doozies from wine writers and back label poets. Here’s just a sample. And for some reason, many sound like lines from a bodice-ripper romance novel:

A perfumed décolletage, graced with lime, line and tempt.

Entwined in a tryst with elements of stone and citrus.

Tautly structured, offering blossom-laden vows of focus and persistence.

Touches of leather and a little bit of manure.

An intriguing earthy underlay with nuances of sewing machine oil.

Full and fleshy with a juicy lip-smacking succulence.

Subtle nuances of potter’s clay, and penetrating length and depth.

Pretty seductive already but will benefit from age.

Tight and brooding by nature, the earthen and savoury elements are framed with lingering minerality.

See what I mean? Totally alienating pretentious bollocks. But they are in the minority and most writers today are very un-snobbish and do try to convey what a particular wine tastes like, but in a relatable and straightforward fashion. In that company I would include Yvonne Lorkin, Michael Cooper, Neil Hodgson, Joelle Thomson and John Saker.

Writers do have to try to convey something in print which evokes the very subjective experience of a glass of wine (or two). I always think it’s akin to writing about music – trying to nail the ethereal in a pithy phrase.

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Originally a physiotherapist, Phil's fascination with the fermented grape juice led to the launch of his wine tour company Auckland Fine Wine & Food Tours at the turn of the century. A seasoned and well-respected wine writer, Phil's oenophilia led to the publication of his wine region guide to New Zealand, The Mad Keen Wine Buff's Road Trip (Random House).

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