The World’s Worst Wine Writer?

In USA Today (2/23/07), wine writer Jerry Shriver recommends a 2005 Barton & Guestier “Bistro Wine” Pinot Noir.

He says: “The fruit is restrained, the texture is soft, and there’s a smidgen of that ethereal ‘Sideways’ character lurking in the bottle.”

Now, is it just me, or is this an example of terrible writing?

To me, it seems meaningless: what specific information does a reference to a movie character communicate to the reader about the taste of the wine being discussed?

It’s even less meaningful if you, like me, haven’t seen the movie and don’t know what it’s about or who the character is.

So Jerry’s writing strikes me as unclear and uninformative.

But I don’t drink wine — or see many movies.

How would YOU rate this little bit of wine criticism by Jerry — good, bad, or terrible?

And why?


32 thoughts on “The World’s Worst Wine Writer?

  • I have seen the movie, enjoy a glass of wine with meals, and that description of wine still doesn’t do a thing for me.

    Especially as the character whom I presume he is referring to is a troubled, bordering-on-alcholic, loserish guy.

    Now, if he were to say that the taste conjures up the lush dusky, poetic beauty of California wine country as portrayed in Sideways….I might be sold.

    (I’d have to think about that though)

    And like you say….this only makes sense to those who saw Sideways. I’m not sure it was THAT kind of box office hit.

    Although….wine lovers probably saw it, and I guess that is who is target audience is.

  • I think it’s fantastic writing, if you want to cover up for the fact that you have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about. “The texture is soft” a “smidgen of that ethereal…” huh? It sounds like I’m overhearing one of those guys at a cocktail party trying, dreadfully and without result, to impress a woman on a precept he has not the faintest comprehension of and believing his own b.s. Ugh…

    Aren’t all liquids in liquid form soft in texture? Maybe Mr. Shriver had one too many tastes of the product before he sat down at the keys. Maybe describing wine for a living can get a little boring and he was just seeing if anybody was paying attention. Maybe he just biffed this one and the editor was sleeping on the job.

    Hopefully not all of Mr. Shriver’s writing languishes in this self-assessed spiritual realm of fictional characters and this “texture of liquid is soft” non-information. (My example of terrible writing…)

    Of course, I am absolutely positive that not every sentence I have written as a professional writer has come across as I have intended or hoped for. I think I need a drink. Is any of that wine left?

  • I have to say (with glee) that this excerpt is utter garbage.

    I have seen the film Sideways, and whilst it’s hilarious, it did nothing to warm the wine industry to me at all.

    I hate the ridiculous analogies they use to try and describe flavours, aromas etc.

    I hate the posing, the snobbery, the pretentiousness of it all.

    But then again, I don’t pretend to know what I’m talking about. I’m a beer man. Always have been, always will be.

    But this post is about the writing, and while I’m all for using descriptive writing to get the piece to connect with the reader, this flowery nonsense is not about giving an idea to the reader about the wine at all.

    It’s all about making the writer feel important and superior to the reader. And THAT, is why this is awful writing.

    I think to keep reading this drivel, the reader would need to quaff AT LEAST a bottle of the aforementioned wine…

  • I have seen the movie which was very funny. But if this author thinks he’s complimenting the wine by comparing it to the wine connoisseur character in the movie, then he needs to see it again.

    The main character would be more appropriately compared to a screw-off jug of Carlo Rossi than a sophisticated bottle of Pinot Noir.

  • Hello?

    Has anyone noticed that ALL wine writing is like this?

    – Even (particularly?) the stuff on the labels.

    Because what else can you say about wine, when the truth would be “tastes like a good caberet sauvingnon”, “tastes like chardonnay”, or “tastes a bit sour/sweet for my liking”?

    Much more impressive to say, “Deep ruby with purple notes the Hardys No Preservatives Added Cabernet Sauvignon shows shows ripe mulberry, plum and blackcurrant flavours. This wine is freh and well structured showing blackcurrant fruit, with cigar box and white-pepper like flavour characters.” (taken from an actual wine label)

    Cigar box? Mulberry?

    I’ve seen how they make wine, and I can assure you, freakin’ cigar boxes don’t come into it!

    Then again, maybe I’m just being an ‘anti-wine snob’.


  • Steve

    I am quite the novice wine tasting novice (double emphasis on novice there)…but in defense of experienced wine aficionados, there are nuances in wine flavor that become apparent after awhile. Different areas of your tongue pick up different tastes.

    Believe it or not, I have picked up hints of chocolate, cherry, and smokiness in wines I have tasted. I don’t know how this is even possible but it happens.

    Cheese lovers are just as annoying in their obsession…lol!

  • Bob: To date, no movie characters–or humans whatsoever– have turned up in my wine.

    If this does happen, I most certainly do NOT want it to be the Sideways guy.

  • I have heard of wine geeks who say things like, “It tastes like Spring.” But such descriptions are highly personal.

    Believe it or not, something like “Deep ruby with purple notes… ripe mulberry, plum and blackcurrant flavours…” That’s much better, and it actually means something to a wine geek.

    Even the “cigar box” is useful, as it conjures up images of cedar and tobacco. No, wine has nothing to do with cigars. But wine, beer, and other fine beverages have many flavor notes that appear in none of the drink’s components. If you doubt this, and you drink wine, all you need to do is to start a wine log. You can even do this on a budget. Try different wines, and as you try each one, write down the wine’s characteristic in your log. Try to put into words the wine’s color, aroma, and flavor. And this is certainly something anyone who writes for the wine community should try.


  • It’s the snobbery of wine. I imagine the thought is it makes the wine appear sophisticated. Instead, most of us are goofing on it.

    But are we the intended audience? Could it be the person most likely to buy the wine thinks this babble is the level of “sophistication” they’re looking for, regardless of whether or not it makes any sense?

    Kinda like trying to make sense of a too-expensive piece of art no one really understands. The person who buys it likes the psycho-babbling story behind it.

  • Thanks for posting this example. I agree with your comments above, Mr Bly. All widely-read critics have an audience who seeks them out precisely for what you write in your last paragraph. Spmetimes even the best of those critics rely on a kind of shorthand to convey their thoughts. Their loyal readers may say, “I know exactly what you mean.”–and perhaps they do. But a journalist’s responsibility is to convey meaning to the entire circulation. A novice wine drinker might have to study up to understand every aspect of what’s been written about, but the meaning should still be there.

  • I also don’t really know what the “Sideways” reference means, and I’m in the wine biz and I like that movie! Maybe it refers to the “spit bucket” scene…?

    I write a lot of back labels and tasting notes for my wines, and I desperately try not to be too precious, while at the same time trying not to be too hip for the room. It’s a fine line…

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  • Mr. Shriver is among a very large group of marginal wine writers. There really aren’t many “great” wine writers. A great wine writer has got to be a kind of journalistic poet writing about taste. Most wine writers, and food critics, too- are like fine artists who can’t quite get the eyes correct when drawing/painting a person. Not many folks can. But it’s not a sin to try. Mr. Shriver’s sin is mixing film references with his tasting notes. It’s like mixing metaphors in a novel. It just doesn’t work, and tends to upset people. “Smidgen” is also one of those words that when a reader sees it in print he/she might be forgiven for saying “how unfortunate”. In addition, “Sideways” is an abysmal film notable only for its accurate portrayal of Pinot Noir. Movie characters don’t “lurk” in wine bottles, even those characters from films about wine. Perhaps a more effective version of Mr. Shriver’s controversial sentence might be something akin to: “The fruit is hardly noticable and when noticed-barely palatable; the texture is soft like a squid or an old, mottled, slightly large and spiney jellyfish. When appreciating the bouquet one is reminded of the D-Day Landing sequence in Private Ryan so quiet, with a smidgen of bullets and violence lurking in the finish that is so important to a good wine. ”

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