Turning Sports Into Wine p. 48

When you're active in the wine industry, you can't help but notice that many wine journalists have past or present sportswriting credentials. Why not delve into this curiousity, and investigate why it's visible enough to be a mini-trend, a minor yet whimsical journalistic phenomenon?
On one memorable day, Paul Zimmerman, former New York Post sportswriter, who now covers football for Sports Illustrated and freelances about wine, was chastised both by Billy Martin, then manager of the New York Yankees ? "What can you expect from a wine writer?" ? and by Pan Am, whose wine list he'd criticized ? "What can you expect from a sportswriter?"
Gerald Eskenazi, who has handled the sports beat for the New York Times for 36 years, regularly freelances about wines for the Times, as well as for an assortment of magazines.
One day, he told an editor from Connoisseur magazine that he had to get off the phone to get to the New York Jets training camp. The editor didn't understand why until he explained that his day job was sportswriting.
"A sportswriter? I had this image of you sitting in a robe in a book-lined library with a snifter in your hand," the editor replied.
In the old days, according to Art Spander, San Francisco Examiner sports columnist and freelance wine writer, sportswriters puffed on cigars in food-stained shirts and guzzled beer and bourbon. Today, hardly anyone smokes, the amount of food stains has diminished, and everyone drinks wine.
In AJR's survey, all of the sports/wine writers credited their interest and expertise in wine to their extensive travels and credit card three-star dining on the road, where expensive bottles of wine were routinely sent their way by the team head office honchos eating a few tables away.
"Sportswriters travel a lot; they're smart, curious, skeptical and want to know about everything. It's a natural progression," Spander said. "People who write about sports have an appetite for the good life, and wine is a quintessential part of the good life," adds Paul Gillette, editor of the Wine Investor, author of many books, including The Coaches' Quotebook.
"Our predecessors as wine writers, in the 1970s, were primarily hobbyists, doctors and lawyers who could afford to collect wine and become knowledgeable," explained Mike Rubin, principal in the public relations firm Rubin-Hunter, former sports and wine writer for the Associated Press. Even today, it's rare to find wine writers who work full time in that specialty.
Humor fits into the linkage, as well. Here are some additional explanations of the similarities and differences.
"More often than not you're writing for people who already know the outcome ? whether that's a score or that a certain bottle is stacked to the ceiling at their corner store ? and are hoping for additional insight," Gillette said.
"If you're a sportswriter, you're inevitably a kibitzer," commented Rubin. "Your job is to second-guess as a fan would (Why did they bunt? Why
didn't they put in a pinch-hitter?), and there are always lots of questions (Why didn't they harvest earlier? Why did they use malolactic fermentation? There's no oak, too much oak, the wrong type of oak)."
Wine book author and former Seattle Post-Intelligencer sportswriter Bob Thompson explained: "What links sports and wine for me is an enthusiasm, maybe a passion for close observation. The reward for sitting through hundreds of basketball games was knowing ahead of time that some shooting guard could not be defensed by anybody on Team A, but could be by somebody on Team B. The reward for tasting thousands of wines a year comes when notes from blind tastings months and miles apart describe exactly the same wine. Seeing something elusive with great accuracy gives me pleasure, period. Wine offers more and tougher chances to do that than anything else I've been able to discover."
"Sportswriting gives you more flexibility than straight reporting. Personal views and values are more acceptable in this kind of writing," added Harvey Posert, former sportswriter at the Memphis Commercial Appeal, and today vice president, public relations for Robert Mondavi Winery.
"The two styles of writing are very compatible," offered Robert Whitley, wine columnist, San Diego Union-Tribune and sports editor, Copley Press, parent company of the Union-Tribune.
"The writing in the sports section is often freer, easier, looser; that's a style which fits wine nicely. In sports coverage, you are descriptive and analytical, but still must set the scene and describe the athlete or winemaker and his or her passions," Whitley continued.
"It always comes back to people and different personalities, and that exploration of whether their individual style is reflected, whether in their style of play or winemaking," added Rubin.
"The ability to communicate is the basic skill in all writing," said Spander. "In wine, it's difficult to explain what something tastes like, and you have to use analogies and be subjective. In sports, people know what's happening, and you can be opinionated after you've been objective," he continued.
"Metaphor and simile are critical for both," added Dan Berger, Los Angeles Times wine columnist and former sportswriter. "It's awfully tough to describe the emotion involved in a winning touchdown drive, or in tasting a hundred-year-old Bordeaux. Whether it's Joe Montana or an 1881 Lafite, you have to make these things come alive," he said.
Gillette expanded on that last point.
"In sports you have total clarity; you know exactly where the goal is and whether the objectives have been achieved.
"In wine it's the opposite; wine gives you the ambiguity and the freedom you don't have in sports," he said.
What does this group think about the state of wine and sports reporting today?
"Most sportswriting is contrived, derivative and unoriginal," comments Berger. "Sports events are oriented towards moneymaking, and the public has been cynical. Wine writing today is not honest enough and is filled with false illusion, pandering and gutlessness, where a wine writer might be overwhelmingly gentle to a particular winemaker for fear of alienating him or her," he added.
"An optimist would say sportswriting has become too psychoanalytical; a pessimist would say too gossipy. In the age of television, sportswriting is all analysis, mostly of psyches," offered Thompson. "Too much wine writing reads like a draft for somebody's doctoral thesis," he added.
The group gave many examples of the humorous verbiage often found today: Spander's favorite was when a wine was described as tasting "pre-Raphaelite," and Lew Perdue, editor/publisher of Wine Business Monthly and former sportswriter at the Elmira (N.Y.) Star-Gazette chuckles about a wine being described as "forward" ? "What did it do? Ask you for your sign or out on a date?"
What about celebrity egos in these different spheres?
"There are inflated egos in the sports world," commented Rubin, "and you see some in the wine world, but winemakers are at least literally grounded in the earth and can't completely overcome outside influences."
Both of these modes come back to adventure and excitement, though, and the ongoing quest to express that vividly, helping the reader experience a certain moment.
"Sportswriting, at its best, covers people and occasions infused with genuine emotion and enthusiasm, such as when a football team comes back in the final seconds of a game. I covered ten Rose Bowls, and there was never one that lacked for drama," said Berger. "When covering wine, it's the reporting of people's artistry and passion, a commitment to improving the breed, making a product greater than the year before. In some ways, sports and wine are parallel, revolving around heroes: We're always searching for heroes in every walk of life."
?(Kodmur is a freelance writer. Most recently she worked as director of public relations for a division of the Seagram Classics Wine Co.)


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