COMMENTARY

Grape Explications

Musings of a novice wine writer

By Neal D. Hulkower

Admittedly, it seems presumptuous for a novice to be writing about writing about wine. This is especially true of one who started with no particular vision. Since I have been moving away from inchoateness, the fifth anniversary of my first popular wine article is a good milestone to reflect on how I got to do what I never planned to. 

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While numbers first attracted my interest and became the focus of my education and career, words have always been an irreplaceable source of pleasure. I developed literacy in parallel with numeracy. At the same time I was immersed in math, English teachers in high school and during my freshman year in college firmly, sometimes mercilessly, shaped my writing. Liberal arts courses frequently required essays, affording me the chance to hone what I had learned. With one exception, the only writing I did in graduate school was my dissertation in which the ratio of words to symbols is only slightly higher than the odds of finding a revelatory bottle of wine in the “under $5” section.

That exception was a collection of tasting notes I published in a few issues of the long defunct Vintage Magazine in the 1970s under a byline that included the parodistically pretentious title of Minister of Wine, Duncan Hines Memorial Bon Vivant Fellowship, Int’l. These were compilations of members’ reactions to some truly wonderful French and German bottlings. I continued filling notebooks, describing  every wine I tasted through graduate school, which amuses dinner guests to this day. My writing after graduation, however, was exclusively technical and definitely non-vinous.

This situation changed in 2009 when I discovered a reason to write a single piece that included both math and wine. I had become fascinated with the mathematics behind aggregating preferences.  The movie “Bottle Shock” raised my curiosity about how the judges arrived at their rankings and concluded that California wines topped the red and white lists.

After more digging than I expected, I prepared “The Judgment of Paris According to Borda.” It details the flaws in the system used and applies a mathematically defensible method to prove that, while a California chardonnay did in fact belong in first place, a French wine took top honors in the red category. It is the first article in an issue of the Journal of Wine Research that same year.

Around the time the article appeared, we bought our house in McMinnville so we could enjoy life in a fabulous wine region without having to learn a new language or currency. After we became full-time residents of Oregon in 2011, I wrote my first popular article, “Borda is Better,” explaining the method to the lay reader. It appeared in the October issue of the Oregon Wine Press that same year.

Now I was hooked.  As an outlet for my more rigorous inclinations, I joined the American Association of Wine Economists and regularly present at meetings and contribute to its Journal of Wine Economics. Along with the Journal of Wine Research, this periodical has published my reviews of wine related books, allowing me to keep up with the work of more established wine writers. 

On the popular front, I occasionally don a press hat to attend and write about a wide range of wine-related events.  I am deeply flattered that invitations to these have increased recently as the gatherings are certainly entertaining and give me access to some memorable drink. But my preference is to write about things that amuse me even if the potential appreciative readership is small.  While I still collect a healthy number of rejections, I have been fortunate to have articles appear in a few important publications. Most can be found on the American Wine Society site (http://www.americanwinesociety.org/page/journalistarticles)

Generally, I no longer keep detailed notes since formulating and recording them tends to distract me when I’m tasting. Enjoying wine for me is a wholly right-brained activity, while writing exercises the other hemisphere. Although I certainly utilize the latter to prepare articles and do math, I feel no compunction in not mixing the two sides since I don’t do analytic tasting. I want either wine or words in my mouth, but not both at the same time. 

I will point out notable wines from events I attend, but I will not score them. As a card-carrying mathematician, I regard doing so as felony number abuse. Many have railed against the absurdity of reducing the experience of enjoying one of nature’s and man’s finest collaborations to a single number. Yet the persistence of this practice strikes me as ironic in a culture that prides itself in its innumeracy. I hear all too regularly “Oh, I’ve never been good at math.” Yet no one would ever brag about being illiterate. At the same time as boasting about the inability to comprehend even the most basic mathematics, many of my countrymen imbue numerical ratings with importance well beyond anything conveyed by their content.

Recently, I was asked if I had any special training that credentialed me to write about wine. I do not. My only qualifications are that I have a respectable list of technical, trade and popular publications, and have been sampling the fruit of the vine in five continents for nearly half of a century. Unlike the apprenticeship to a mentor I went through in graduate school to earn a doctorate in applied mathematics, I fill in the gaps in my background by working at a winery, listening to the professionals, and especially reading constantly.

There are several writers I admire. Neil Beckett, editor of the World of Fine Wine, himself top-tier, praises three, Andrew Jefford, Hugh Johnson and Terry Theise by benevolently regretting his inability to communicate the emotions elicited by a remarkable Italian wine with “Jeffordian poetry, Johnsonian prose or Theisian powers of self-analysis and self-revelation.” (http://www.worldoffinewine.com/news/soldera-the-great-outsider-
4762352/)

Five years ago, I stumbled into the increasingly crowded field of wine writing with no particular objectives in mind except to entertain myself and whoever might enjoy what I have to say. As I continue writing about this wonderful beverage, I hope what I produce mirrors what I value most in a memorable wine: elegance — the virtue most sought after by mathematicians— complexity and finesse. A lingering finish never hurts, either.

Neal Hulkower is a mathematician and an oenophile living in McMinnville. His wine writing has appeared in a wide range of academic and popular publications, including the Journal of Wine Research, Journal of Wine Economics, Oregon Wine Press, Practical Winery & Vineyard, Wine Press Northwest, and The World of Fine Wine. He occasionally can be found pouring quintessential Pinot Noir at the top of the Dundee Hills.

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