This week’s piece on women in wine focuses on Meg Houston Maker of Makerstable.com. I met Meg some years ago at a conference in New York and have followed her writing as she travels around the globe. One of the things I like about her writing is her use of language. She is very precise and uses interesting turns of phrase, not typical in the wine writing world, alas alak. You can tell that first and foremost she is interested in the craft of writing. This series started as a series solely on Italian women in wine but I have opened it up to women from all aspects of the wine business and from all countries. I think the answers are really interesting and I enjoy having other people discuss their views on Avvinare. I sent Meg these questions and she emailed me back with these answers kindly in the midst of the Christmas rush to finish everything before the holidays. For more on Meg, check out her website and social media feeds.
How did you get into the wine business?
I began writing about wine in 2008. I was in the midst of a graduate writing program focused on creative nonfiction narratives about nature, culture, food, and place. Wine seemed a vexing and difficult topic to write about well, so became an attractive challenge. Soon I was contributing to and editing wine publications, but I gave that up to serve a two-year stint as manager of consumer marketing for a California winery. That experience proved invaluable, deepening my understanding of the industry, but I missed the writing and the engagement with other winegrowers and makers. So, in the last five years I’ve returned to the writing, traveling throughout Europe and the New World to meet with producers, find out what links them to their land, and share their stories with readers.
What has been the hardest part of the wine business for you in terms of gender issues, if any?
I’ve worked in a range of industries, from software to publishing to education, and have experienced problems everywhere. Often the affronts are personal rather than structural—one colleague with a baleful attitude making it difficult for others, rather than systematized sexism, which seems mercifully less common. What is common everywhere is simply a lack of gender diversity, which dulls innovation and impoverishes the work enterprise. Wine communications in particular used to be male-gender dominated, decades ago. I was in Bordeaux recently, traveling with two other young women wine writers. We were met with surprise by one vigneron, who confessed that when he was told he’d be hosting “three American journalists,” he expected three old men. But there is a palpable shift underway, and there are now powerful women editors and publishers working in wine and food. I’ve been fortunate to work with many.
What trends and changes have you seen since you started? What do you see happening in the next 5-10 years in your sector of the business?
Even just in the last five years, digital outlets have amped up their publishing volume and velocity. Traditional print publications have added online magazines with their own content wells, too. That has produced a terrible appetite for content to fill the maw. It’s yielded more publication options for excellent journalism, and more exposure for new, fresh voices. But it’s also yielded more non-excellent work. Editing is often minimal or nil; ditto fact checking. Some of the work winds up feeling rushed and unconsidered, and some seems designed only for social sharing, with its predictable 24-hour poof! flameout. Unfortunately, digital paydays are extremely poor. Many popular sites pay far less than $100 per story, while digital gigs that pay more rarely graze $500. These pieces are just as labor intensive to produce as stories for print. I don’t foresee a shift anytime soon, because the forces are so powerfully aligned around this model now. But I don’t believe it’s sustainable for either readers or writers. On a brighter note: Twenty years ago there was almost no literary food writing, and now it’s everywhere. Recently several new food literary magazines have launched, and I think readers need these chewy pieces, while writers need these new outlets to conduct deeper inquiries. In 2017, I plan to do a lot more literary work, returning to my creative nonfiction roots and trying to sort out what “true stories, well told” might mean for wine and food.
Are people interested in different varietals? International varietals?
It depends on whether the people in question are casual wine drinkers or industry insiders. Wine styles take hold slowly, especially in the hinterlands. Consumers are still catching up to Nerello Mascalese, while somms feel like it’s over. Repeat. Especially with other shiny topics that have blazed through recent wine discourse: orange wines, natural wines, “balanced” wines, sweet Riesling, yadda. The industry begins to tire of them before they actually get traction with customers.
I think I do see expanding appetite for native grapes. Maybe I’m delusional, though, because I value them and am doing what I can to promote them. But I think grapes like that Nerello that are well suited to their place of origin—and arguably ill suited anywhere else—have a strong personality. Strong personality makes a compelling narrative. It makes the wines matter. People like stories about delicious things that matter.
What do you think about the level of wine education in the US ?
The U.S. doesn’t have a strong wine culture, not like in Europe or Argentina, for example, where wine is almost unexceptional because it’s simply part of the rhythm of the day. I often hear Americans who enjoy wine say, “I love it, but I don’t know anything about it.” This perhaps translates to, “I haven’t enough experience with it to have baked it into my life.” So, they treat it as glittery object, highly charged and rarefied, intimidating. And it’s hard to get motivated to learn about something that intimidates you. Many people also seem to feel incapable of talking about wine. They worry they’ll sound, to themselves and others, like fools. When I teach wine classes, I try give people simple language for talking about what they’re experiencing with their senses. It’s amazing how liberated they feel when they have a few reliable words for some of these sensations. You can see a weight lift. Food and wine are social, so building a vocabulary for describing what we’re tasting can connect us not only to the food but to one another. I call this “taste literacy,” and I think it’s critical learning.
What secrets can you share about pairing wines with food?
It’s a big topic! I actually have so much to say that I’m writing a book about it. I used to be more orthodox about pairing, but my perspective and palate have loosened dramatically over the last couple of years. I think it can help to think of wine as food. It evolved to serve a particular role on the table, namely to provide companionable refreshment to other foods. In that way it’s inherently similar to dressings, sauces, chutneys, pickles—foods designed to refresh the palate.
Putting a finer point on it, wine is an acidic food, and good pairings hinge on that acid factor. More acidic wines are more versatile, because they act as peers of high acid foods, but can also balance rich, savory, or unctuous foods that need a cleansing counterpoint. Less acidic wines are more difficult at the table. They flatten out when tasted with more acidic foods, and feel fatiguing and non-refreshing with richer, savory foods. Almost all popular beverages are at least somewhat acidic: coffee, tea, soda, lemonade, even seltzer water. Same principle. So, here’s one pairing tip: Focus first on the wine’s acidity. Then worry about other factors, like fruit, flavor, and texture.
What is going on with sustainability and the natural wine movement?
I’ve encountered may smaller producers in the U.S. and abroad that are quietly committed sustainability and sensible viticultural practices. These winegrowers often forego certification because of the expense, or because of regulations they feel bind their hands. But they uphold a commitment to viticultural holism and pragmatism, to la lutte raisonnée (reasoned struggle). Many live on or next to their vineyards and want to keep their living environment free of chemicals for themselves, their kids, and their employees. (Of course, it’s easier to be an organic producer in sunny, dry, southern Spain than in rainy, gray Bordeaux.) The larger commercial producers seem less interested in the extra handwork and attention that organic or sustainable viticulture requires, and in its perceived risks. But I’ve been encouraged by the dedication and commitment I’ve found among the smaller families who have been on the land for generations—and want to stay there for generations more.
Are you excited about any particular area or varietal these days?
Right now I’m particularly curious about viticulture in special biomes, both cultural and anthropological: islands, high altitudes, cold climates (really cold). Sometimes there’s an enduring heritage of winegrowing in these regions—the Dolomites, Mallorca—which begets a site-specific, autochthonous viticulture and winemaking tradition. Other times these regions are new, or being renewed—southern England, northern Vermont—so the viticulture is based less on legacy and more on personality: Who wants to undertake this winegrowing, on this piece of land, right here, right now? Both types of story fascinate me. On one hand are people working within the constraints and expectations of long history, on the other are people working at the edge of a frontier. This is partly why I love writing about wine. Wine exists within the framework of culture, a dialogue between nature and tradition. But it also must be made anew each year, a fresh interpretation of what the land can yield.