WineInk: Examining the craft that is writing and wine

Kelly J. Hayes
A Zoom room full of talent: Moderator Michelle Bouffard, author of 'Tasting Climate Change,' writer Elin McCoy of Bloomberg News, editor Stacy Briscoe of 'Wine Enthusiast' and Harlan Estate vineyard manager Julia van der Vink conduct a seminar at the 2022 Wine Writers Symposium.
Courtesy photo

“It’s not just about the wine; it’s about how the world works. It’s about the story.” That spot-on admonition from John Brecher, one of this nation’s great writers – wine or otherwise – during the 2022 Wine Writers Symposium earlier this month, served as both an affirmation and an inspiration for this writer.

An affirmation in the sense that the declaration dovetailed exactly with what WineInk has always endeavored to do: tell stories. An inspiration in the sense that it stimulated me to continue the work I do each week at this esteemed/historic/embattled small-town newspaper. There has been much consternation lately, in both the local and national media, about “The Aspen Times” and its future. But I continue to believe that my best course of action for the community is to carry on doing the job of telling stories, about wine, and other things, in this town. Abandoning it now would be a disservice to both the paper and its readers.

Engaging with the Wine Writers Symposium (formerly known as the Professional Wine Writers Symposium) is one of my favorite things about being a chronicler of wine. What was once a small gathering that took place in the Napa Valley’s Meadowood Resort in the springtime, featuring three days of in-person seminars punctuated by the consumption of copious amounts of wine provided by the Napa Valley Vintners (NVV) trade group, has morphed into a global Zoom gathering. Obviously, the pandemic was the catalyst for the change. And in the larger sense, it has been a positive development.

While there are, of course, disadvantages to not being in Napa with a small group (I miss it terribly), the mission of the symposium, to connect writers and strengthen the professionalism of the wine writing community, is greatly enhanced by the use of technology and the broadening of the audience. This year, over 250 writers from around the nation and 15 different countries participated in the three-day conference that saw a focus not just on wine, but even more directly, on the process and task of writing about wine.

Each of the three days was broken into a series of one-hour sessions that explored the inspiration of wine and the metaphorical perspiration required to write about the subject. It is a unique field of endeavor, as wine writing requires an ability to explain a business that has so many technical and sociological layers, as well as a plethora of specialized scientific components.

When people hear that I write a weekly WineInk for the Aspen Times, the first question they usually ask is, “How do you come up with a topic each week to write about?” It is a reasonable query, especially as there are 52 columns in a year, and I have been doing this for nearly a decade and a half. But in reality, finding topics is really not difficult to do.

John Brecher and his wife and wine writing partner Dorothy J. Gaiter are now both senior editors of ‘Grape Collective’ but once were the team that founded the ‘Tastings’ column for the ‘Wall Street Journal.’
Max High-Cuchet

Just in Aspen, there is an ever-evolving wine scene and series of happenings that offer up interesting takes and story ideas on a weekly basis. We live in a community that plays host to the Food & Wine Classic, which annually brings hundreds of the world’s most interesting wines and their makers to our town each summer. Our local art museum’s largest fundraiser each year is the wine-infused ArtCrush gala, which this month raised over $4 million for the museum. There are wine cellars that hold some of the most esteemed collections in the country. Our restaurants’ wine lists are honored with national awards, and the sommeliers in charge of them are respected leaders of international wine organizations. Noted winemakers not only come to Aspen to vacation, but they also come to pour wines, sell wines and drink wines with the local community. And many of them call this home, or at least their second home.

Over the last few weeks, this space has featured stories on local wine-centric bike events, a series of global television programs hosted by a former Little Nell sommelier, a birthday celebration of a noted Colorado wine entrepreneur who first came to Aspen in 1949 and a look at the emerging and evolving state of Colorado wines made just a few miles to the south and west of us. I have written about a Paso Robles producer who spends much of his time in his home in Missouri Heights and outlined an innovative wine program at a newly opened and highly anticipated local Mexican restaurant.

No, there is not a problem in coming up with local wine stories in this, one of the most prominent wine communities in the nation.

Rather, the challenge as a writer is often trying to find the right, or appropriate, tone to take in both these local columns and the broader, global tales about the fertile and fascinating world of wine. It is easy to devolve into an “inside baseball” take on, say, the fascination that sommeliers have with highly acidic white wines from Austria or the infatuation with defining natural wines that has been a hot topic among wine writers.

The trick is to find a balance between writing stories that engage with you, the reader, without being too arcane or becoming too general. Ninety percent of the wines consumed are Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay, most under $20 a bottle. To ignore the most popular wines and focus on the few that are so obscure as to be subsets of niche wines is a self-indulgent exercise. And yet, that often is where some of the most interesting stories of artisan or obsessive winemakers lie. It can be a fine line.

Listening to the speakers at the Wine Writers Symposium and interacting with the writers in attendance, it was inspiring to hear the breadth and depth of what writing about wine can be. There were technical writers who examine statistics and trends, business writers who focus on the dollars and financial impacts, bloggers and influencers who look for the fun in wines and wine travel and critics who assign scores and write notes about the aromas and taste of wines. All have their place in the spectrum.

Wine is a microcosm of our world. It is an agricultural product, which is influenced by the changes in climate that affect us and all things. It is a commodity that is impacted by inflation and supply change issues that are a part of our current economic landscape. It is subject to the same global sociological impacts that challenge all industries. But wine also has the power to unite. To provide a respite from the pressures that are part of our lives and bring us pleasure. To take us someplace in glass and, in so doing, make our days just a bit better.

This column, WineInk, tries to do a little of all that each week. It tries to entertain a bit, perhaps to offer you some information that you didn’t know about a place you’ve never been, keep you up to date on the goings on in the community and maybe introduce some new wines. It is an honor to write it on a weekly basis.

My intent, my hope, is that this column resonates with you and that it speaks to your interests.

Thanks for your indulgence.



2019 Frank Family Zinfandel

On the masthead of “The Aspen Times” are the words “Since 1881.” On the label of the Frank Family Vineyards wines are the words “Established 1884.” In the scheme of both businesses, those are long legacies indeed, and both entities have had multiple owners over the last 140 years. Ironically, within days of each other last November, both “The Aspen Times” and Frank Family Vineyards were sold to much larger groups, Ogden Newspapers and Treasury Wine Estates, respectively. And the beat goes on.

Frank Family and their winemaker, Todd Graff, are well known for their production of both Napa Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, but I love this most recent release of their Zinfandel.

“Jammy” is how most folks refer to the concentrated fruit found in late ripening Zin, but this wine is as balanced as it is bold. Yes, the blackberry and dark black cherry flavors are profound, but the wine’s mouthfeel and texture are neither cloying nor overwhelming, but rather soft and pleasant. It drinks like a well-crafted combination of a rustic grape tended with a refined hand. It’s one of the great Zins on the market today.

2019 Frank Family Zinfandel
Courtesy photo
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