Robert Parker, Gary Vaynerchuk, and Nicolas Joly walk into a bar. The bartender looks up and says, “What is this, some kind of joke?”

• • •

Wine journalists Mike Dunne and Andrew Jefford love a good joke. But they’re not finding much to laugh about these days. Both men recently grumbled publicly about the seriously un-funny state of their profession. To them, wine writers are too earnest, too reverent, too, well — sober.

Dunne, after judging applications to this year’s Symposium of Professional Wine Writers, noted archly, “Humor is lacking in wine writing as exercised by fellowship candidates. They are a serious bunch, sternly focused on their mission.”

What’d he expect, knock-knock jokes?

Jefford, meanwhile, delivered his philippic in an address to the EWBC Digital Wine Communications Conference. What’s lacking, he opined, is “humorous or witty or caustic writing about wine” and “writing powered by gonzo irreverence,” adding, “Wine drinkers take it for granted that wine is inseparable from hilarity.”

It’s not strictly true, of course, that the wine literati are utterly lacking in smart-alecks. We have snarky dispatches from the Hosemaster of Wine, plus an occasional Twitter pun war between Howard Goldberg and Randall Grahm. So Dunne and Jefford mustn’t have meant them. They must have meant writers who are actually funny.

To consumers, wine might truly be a funny business. But to producers, it’s more like a funny farm. The industry is bedeviled by brutal competition, a hegemonic distribution network, a patchwork of arcane laws, the vagaries of vintage, the fickle tastes of tastemakers — plus blight, bugs, Brett, and blunt fatigue.

On the other hand, despair makes great material. Mark Twain once observed that “The secret source of humor itself is not joy but sorrow. There is no humor in heaven.”

Right, because in heaven, the wine would be easy to make, would flow from the taps, would cost nothing, and anyone could drink it. Meanwhile in hell, the wine would be hard to make, would be packaged in breakable glass, would cost a lot, and could only be consumed by people over 21.

There’s no guarantee of profit in this difficult métier, either. Good fruit is incredibly expensive, not to mention costs for labor, equipment, transport, and storage. The need to age wines before release produces long delays between booked expenses and booked revenue. As an old vigneron once said, “Give a man a bottle and he’ll drink for a day. Teach a man to bottle and he’ll stay broke for a lifetime.”

The three-tier system adds extra drag. It’s nominally designed to protect innocent consumers from fiendish producers, but functionally, it just bleeds producers dry. I fear soon the middlemen will devise a way to remove all their remaining costs from the system. They’ll eliminate the winemaker.

The industry is especially difficult for those trying to work in a hands-off, non-interventionist style. These winemakers rely on native yeasts, use little or no sulfur, and forgo modulations of a wine’s sweetness, acidity, or texture. It’s a risky approach in an industry in which the bulk of consumers value fruit-forward sameness.

But these so-called natural winemakers are a headstrong bunch. I was in a bar in Sonoma during harvest when two of them came in for a much-needed pint. They were tired and stained after a long day at the sorting table, and soon started complaining loudly about a stuck fermentation.

After ten minutes, a harvest intern at the next table, fed up with their bawling, looked up from her beer and shouted at them. “Oy! Couldn’t you just inoculate the must?”

They both looked up at her, stricken. “What — and ruin all the fun?”

lightbulb

New technology is challenging these old-style winemakers to adapt. Take the debate about screwcaps. They hold promise against the scourge of cork taint, and can be cost effective. But there’s little consensus about how the closures perform over time, and consumers still regard them as down-market. The industry is so divided that it would take ten winemakers to change a light bulb. One to screw in the bulb, and nine to argue that he should have used a cork.

Consumer taste is fickle, too, and fashion dictates the marketplace. No sooner does a customer fall for Riesling than she switches her allegiance to Vin Jaune and Blaufränkisch. Remember the fate of California Syrah? I heard about one producer who won the lottery. A journalist asked him what he planned to do with his winnings. “Oh,” he replied, “I reckon I’ll just keep making wine until the money runs out.”

Even winemakers who keep up with the trends are often thwarted by regulatory and distribution hurdles. A winemaker in Utah recently tried to make an orange wine, but the authorities arrested him for extended skin contact.

Like the wine industry itself, wine writing, too, is in flux, with a new generation of writers bypassing traditional publishing channels. Nowadays, anyone with a corkscrew and Internet connection can call herself a critic.

But like it or not, reviews by mainstream critics still make or break a winery. The old guard may be fading, but its influence persists. I know a man whose wife got a concussion and now thinks she’s Robert Parker. “I’d send her to treatment,” he told me, “but we can really use the samples.”

• • •

Yes, winemaking is a difficult business, and I’m as guilty as the next writer of taking my subject too seriously. Maybe I should follow the advice of Jeffords and Dunne, and lighten up my next story. I’m planning an exposé on a couple of California winemakers who are experimenting with concrete. I hear the wine is cheap, but the shipping will kill you.

[author] [author_image timthumb='on']http://palatepress.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/MHMaker.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]Meg Houston Maker, MA, CSW, is a writer curious about nature, culture, food, wine, and place. Find her creative writing at Megmaker.com and essays on food and wine at Maker’s Table. Follow her on Twitter @megmaker.[/author_info] [/author]

About The Author

Meg Houston Maker, MA, CSW, is a writer curious about nature, culture, food, wine, and place. She’s passionate about traditional food-ways, artisanal food and wine production, and the human connection to landscape. Meg is former Executive Editor of Palate Press and now serves as a regular columnist. Find her essays about communications, social information, and writing on megmaker.com. Find her essays about food, wine, and the pleasures of the table on Maker’s Table. Follow her on Twitter @megmaker.

  • http://girlwithaglass.com Alana Gentry (@girlwithaglass)

    I just sent this article to a winemaker with the note, “I’m proud to say Meg is part of my wine coterie. Wonderful writer.” You are a great representative of our Women Wine Writers group. Meeting writers like you was exactly what I was hoping to achieve in creating it. Right on.

  • http://winebird.co.uk Helena Nicklin

    I absolutely agree that wine writing can be too serious. There’s a huge opportunity to capture the imaginations of busy, young people who love a glass of wine but don’t want to hear about bally malolactic fermentation.

    I’m trying to bridge that gap with 3 minute beginner videos, several wigs, a well behaved cocker spaniel and not a wine bottle or glass in sight! (Winebird’s VINALOGY)

  • http://www.biggerthanyourhead.net Fredric Koeppel

    oh, i dunno, i always thought i was pretty damn hilarious…

  • http://www.hosemasterofwine.blogspot.com Ron Washam, HMW

    Meg,
    For as long as I’ve been in the wine biz, and that’s too damned long (according to others), people have complained about the lack of humor in wine writing. So I started doing it. If my blog isn’t “gonzo irreverence,” what is it? Not everyone thinks I’m funny, I certainly don’t, but lots of folks do. And I told Mike Dunne, a friend of mine, that I was turned down for the Napa Valley Wine Writers’ Symposium scholarship a few years ago because, the director told me, I wasn’t the kind of writer they were looking for. They wanted “journalists.” Gack.

    Your piece here is lovely, Meg, and very amusing. Nicely done. Now try doing it twice a week. It’s a lot easier to write tasting notes. Or long essays about wine regions. Or opinions about the future of wine writing.

    I can tell you that folks might ask for “gonzo irreverence,” but they sure as hell don’t like it when they’re the target. I have the hate mail to prove it. And, beyond that, I get a LOT of private emails praising my work from people who want to give me a pat on the back, but don’t want to comment on the blog because perhaps I’ve offended someone they know. There is little humor in wine writing because the wine community is pretty damned thin-skinned. And, most of all, self-important.

    Thank you for the mention.

  • http://www.thomaspellechia.com Thomas Pellechia

    Nice commentary, but it could have used some humor.

    I’ve always thought of humor as a way to evaluate intelligence. The less a person’s sense of humor, the lower that person’s intelligence quotient is likely to be.

    I wonder: has anyone applied an IQ test to wine writers? Has anyone applied the test to wine lovers?

  • http://www.thomaspellechia.com Thomas Pellechia

    Incidentally, I have received some email about my comment above.

    To all–the comment was sarcasm, gonzo-like, get it?

    Geez…

  • http://www.thomaspellechia.com Thomas Pellechia

    Try this again. Looks like my previous explanation did not make it through.

    My comment was gonzo-like, sarcasm. Get it?

  • http://ancientfirewineblog.blogspot.com Jason

    If wine writers and the wine business are lacking humor I’d humbly suggest that it isn’t a failing in their sense of humor, but a lacking in their sense of fun and conviviality.

    More recently I’ve written less and read more. I want to know more about the history of imbibing on this planet. You know what I’ve found? It is only in the last 50 years that anything about alcohol was really taken to a serious extreme. It is about people, communities and the bounty of the earth. It was, has been and still is (for most people) a fun, social function that is not serious, in the wine critic sense, at all. I want to be that person. That doesn’t mean I won’t write, but I’ll write about my experience with a human touch. Scores, stats and specifics just don’t resonate with me and I am far from alone.

    Thanks for writing something that is a reminder to me, but will likely be an under appreciated wake up call for others!

    Jason

  • http://illahevineyards.com gabe

    wow. apparently wine writers even take their humor seriously

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  • http://www.sedimentblog.com The Sediment Blog

    I hope you won’t consider it inappropriate to mention our own blog here?

    We’ve won a couple of awards for Sediment, which we’ve been told is entertaining, irreverent, amusing…well, we’ve also been told it’s ignorant and rubbish, so you should probably make your own minds up. But we do make people laugh. On this side of the Atlantic, anyway.

    Do, please, visit us, and see if you agree that we have found a way to combine wine and humour.

  • http://www.paulgregutt.com PaulG

    Humor in wine writing?!? Great idea. Maybe I’ll revive the blog and give it a try…

  • http://www.blog.bayareawinesociety.org tom merle

    Irreverance sells. See today’s LA Times http://bit.ly/WwBD9k

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  • http://www.sahmmelier.wordpress.com Alissa Leenher

    Brilliant as usual. Thank you for a few giggles today.

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  • http://www.starkinsider.com Clint Stark

    Bait and switch! With that “no laughing matter” little did I realize how funny, entertaining and informative this article would read.

  • http://www.megmaker.com Meg Houston Maker

    Thanks, everyone for reading and posting your thoughts. (Sorry to weigh in late. I was vexed, or maybe hexed, by a commenting problem, too.)

    Humor is hard, and I wasn’t reaching for high comedy, just a few one-liners tailor-made for a rimshot. I’m not ready for the Catskills, but schtick was definitely the intent.