Fintan Kerr: What makes a good wine writer?

By , 14 February 2024



Minature of Roman scholar and wine writer Pliny the Elder writing in his study. Source:

With the exception of a few producers and occasionally a prominent sommelier or two, the wine industry is fairly understated, with very little visibility beyond the trade itself. This is obviously as it should be; there’s little time for self-promotion whilst you’re busy growing, making, selling, distributing and so forth. enotourism and especially social media is changing that landscape, but for the vast majority of involved consumers, information about wine still tends to come from books, magazines and articles. This is the home of the wine writer and our job is to open up and share the world of wine, as honestly and accurately as we can.

Actually, is that wine writer or wine critic? Nowadays I don’t believe there’s much of a distinction to be made between the two; I can’t think of a wine writer who doesn’t write tasting notes, even if they don’t affix scores, nor a wine critic who doesn’t give contextual background and information to the wines they’re tasting. Some are fortunate enough to have secure roles with major publications, often covering a specific country or group of regions that they have experience with, whilst many, me included, work on a freelance basis for multiple publications. Importantly and dishearteningly, very, very few are able to earn enough of an income to only write about wine, at least not without a supportive spouse or generational wealth to fall back on.

The rise of social media, content creators and influencers threw something of an existential hand grenade into our world. At first, they were mostly met with scorn and derision. Then with frustration, as many of the press trips and opportunities that would have traditionally gone to writers were now being filled with the Instagram savvy instead. Finally, I believe we’re at a point where there’s an element of acceptance and understanding. You see, we’re in the same game. The objective is the same and, in many cases, so is the quid pro quo; come on a trip or receive samples, inhale everything we have to say and tell your audience about it. I am of course being a little disingenuous; there are wine writers and there are wine writers. Just as there are content creators and content creators. The devil’s in the details.  What makes the best stand out from the rest?

First and foremost, let’s start with an unpopular opinion: if you are a wine writer, you are either mostly writing for the industry, or for the consumer. Regardless of your intent, there will be carry-over to the other side; if I am writing with the intention of finding and sharing the best wines of the Swartland, the sorts of wines I would spend my own money on, that’s clearly consumer based, yet the wineries will benefit from the exposure. The reverse is also true but much less so; it’s rarely in the consumers best interest to be fed an advert under the guise of genuine, effusive praise from a writer. Herein lies the problem. All wine writing is intended to be read by a potential consumer. How do they distinguish between the two? An article in a major magazine enthusing about a winery will generate interest; it’s meant to! Would the writer spend any of their own money on the wines they’re praising in such an article? A much harder question to answer but very often, no, they wouldn’t. How do I know? Because I’ve written plenty of these articles before, earlier in my writing career.

Another possibly controversial contention I would make is that a wine writer needs to let his or her preferences and personality show. One of the great myths of wine education is that objective ratings are all important and difficult to achieve. In reality, objective criticism of wine quality is really quite easy. After a few years of tasting, judging and practicing, everyone ends up at roughly the same level. Simply put: it isn’t difficult to determine how “good” a wine is according to BLIC (Balance, length, intensity and complexity), the baseline for qualitative assessments in our industry. Once you’ve done it a few thousand times, it comes naturally. It’s important of course but not in and of itself.  It only really sets the foundation for what’s to come next; context, insight and opinion, from someone who’s actually got something to say. Assuming they do, of course. Early in my writing career I was shocked to discover that prominent critics existed, who had never visited the regions they were proclaimed as a regional expert for. You don’t have to live in a region to have an informed, educated opinion, but you do have to have set foot there at some point!

Lastly, I believe wine writers need to be willing to take some risks. At some point, you’re going to have to disagree with a producer, however prominent and famous they might be, as Tim Atkin MW recently wrote about. If you’re writing about a region, you’ll discover that many of the producers are not on the same wavelength as the regulatory body managing it and both are going to give you conflicting information and the question becomes: what’s the truth as you see it? Most importantly, you’re going to have to be willing to sacrifice some sacred cows when you believe in the opposite. In the world of industry-focused wine writing, this usually looks something like “Natural wine isn’t really natural, ha!”, but in consumer wine writing it’s normally a little more original, provocative and risky. Access from producers is easily cut off and there’s a lot of entrenched information in wine; swimming against the current is tough work.

Managing all this whilst actually surviving in a world where writing pays increasingly little explains a lot about the cautious nature of the work, and the lack of new, young writers in the industry. For example, I am away from home for 20-24 weeks of the year for tourism and enotourism related work; I wouldn’t personally be able to pay my bills with the money I make from writing alone. The positive is that I can be picky about what I write about. Despite the difficulties explained above, there are still some excellent wine writers and communicators managing it all with aplomb. Some are friends and others I would dearly like to meet one day. I will leave a shortlist below of some of the very best, and I hope it helps you find some new corners of the wine world.

Recommended Following:

Tim Atkin MW – Tim is not only a fantastic writer and journalist himself, but publishes a number of articles on different topics, often from lesser known writers. Peter Pharos, Jon Atkinson MW, Anne Burchette and Margaret Rand are often found on his website, writing some of the best articles and opinion pieces outside of any major publications. As a disclaimer, I also write for Tim.

Konstantin Baum MW – For a long time I thought about creating a YouTube channel and now I don’t think I will, if only because Konstantin is doing a better job than I ever could. Surely the best wine communicator outside of traditional writing in the world, right now, with fun, informative and interesting video content.

Tom Hewson – If ever a corner of the wine world needed a fresh voice, it was for sparkling wine. Tom Hewson is the specialist writer for sparkling wine at Decanter but also has his own substack, with regular articles and content on the world of Champagne and sparkling wine. I’ve already learnt a huge amount from Tom in a short period of time.

Everyday Drinking – Jason Wilson, the author of Godforsaken Grapes, has one of the most irreverent, amusing and interesting newsletters in the world of wine. It goes beyond the world of wine into drinks more generally, with a little overlap with food and pairings. It’s one of only a few newsletters I look forward to reading when it arrives!

  • Fintan Kerr, DipWSET, lives in Barcelona and is a wine writer, educator and founder of Wine Cuentista (Cuentista is Spanish for “storyteller”.) Follow him on Twitter: @Wine_Cuentista


5 comment(s)

Please read our Comments Policy here.

    WineGrifter | 17 February 2024

    Look on the bright side; at least one person is reading you 😉

    WineGrifter | 14 February 2024

    A wine writer also needs a car or at least the volition to travel rather than writing about regions that he’s never visited (but surreptitiously trying to sound like he has). I rather doubt this author has ever been to the great continent of Africa let alone Swartland.

      Fintan Kerr | 15 February 2024

      It turns out that blocking on social media is not enough to deter the Phil Mugfords of this world from spreading their negativity. I´ve only been to three countries in Africa, one of them being South Africa. Yet this article isn´t anything to do with the wines of the Swartland, which you´d know had you actually read it, instead of being so in a rush to take a shot that you fall over your own shoelaces.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Like our content?

Show your support.