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Writers get words of wisdom on wine

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Local writers and budding wine enthusiasts gathered at the Sacramento Press office Thursday evening for a workshop on how to write about wine presented by author and former Sacramento Bee columnist Rick Kushman.

“We generally associate wine knowledge with ‘class’ or as a social status of some kind,” said Kushman as he opened the workshop. “Really, people just want to know what wine to choose for dinner.”

As more than 20 eager writers listened and took notes, Kushman gave the class his “Three Rules of Wine Tasting:”

* Wear dark colors.
* If you love it, you’re right; if you hate it, you’re right.
* Always bring a swimsuit.

“That last one doesn’t have anything to do with wine, but it seems like a good idea,” added Kushman, illustrating his main point of the evening: Don’t take it too seriously.

“Wine isn’t a great mystery, and it isn’t anything to be afraid of,” Kushman said. “Embrace it! Don’t be afraid to be cheery or funny when you write about wine. It doesn’t always have to be stuffy and dry to be good.”

With that, Kushman got to the core of what writing about wine is all about.

“Wine is a confidence game,” Kushman said. “People just want to feel confident about the wine they choose.”

To develop that confidence, they look to wine writers for guidance, and this is where most wine writers start to take the topic to places they don’t really need to go, he said. All too often, wine writers use (and perhaps overuse) industry jargon and insiders’ lingo that only leaves the reader confused.

Attendee Tammi Korbmaker, 51, a writer and Sacramento Press community contributor from West Sacramento, noted this, too. “People in the industry seem to talk down to readers about wine,” she said.

It isn’t necessary to be a wine snob to write well about wine, Kushman told the audience. We need to remember that our job as a wine writer is to help people trust our judgment – something we can’t do if we are condescending or trying to show off our wine aficionado status.

“Don’t be a snob, don’t sneer, don’t talk down to the reader,” Kushman said. “Assume that it’s OK for people to like what they like.”

Which brings up Rule No. 2 of Kushman’s Three Rules of Wine Tasting: “If you like it, you’re right, and if you hate it, you’re right.”

“Just because something is popular doesn’t make it good or bad,” Kushman said. “Your job as a writer is to explain it.”

How does a wine writer do that? First, get out of your reader’s way. “It’s not about you, it’s about the wine,” he said.

Writers may have some past experience with wines or the wine industry, and that’s just fine, but unless it’s relevant to what they’re saying about the wine being discussed – if it doesn’t really add anything to the reader’s experience – leave it out.

Instead, writing about wine is all about describing. Creatively use words to convey taste, feeling, flavor, emotion and myriad other things included in the experience so that others can taste and feel it too.

“Describe it like you would a man getting off a train so someone would recognize him at the station,” Kushman suggested.

That means more than just the label or the brand name or the type of grape. Does it smell of fruit or fields of flowers or butter or chocolate? Does it have a “zing” to it, or is it soft or rich or smooth? Does the taste linger or have a crisp finish?

Use descriptive, evocative words to bring your reader to the same place you are with the wine.

It’s true that food and wine are emotional experiences to a large degree, so the way you describe wine may be very different than the way someone else would describe that same wine. To one person, it may be reminiscent of a summer garden, while to another it evokes sensations of autumn leaves and overcast skies.

There are no wrong answers, Kushman said. “You taste what you taste, and that’s OK.”

As long as you give the reader your honest and consistent evaluation of wine, you’ve done your job.

As the workshop came to a close, one audience member talked about feeling better prepared to write about wine.

“This has really whet my appetite to go out and go through the wine tasting process so I can put it into words for other people,” said Mike Tate, 52.

Tate, an artist from Sacramento, aspires to make his own wine and write about it from an artist’s perspective in a new wine and art blog he’s developing.

“(Kushman) got me thinking about how to write about my passion but keep myself out of it,” Tate said. “It’s a skill to artistically describe flavor.”

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