Thoughts on the James Beard Writing Award Nominees

I’ve never paid much attention to the James Beard awards, apart from a casual browsing through their ranks to see if chefs I’ve experienced have been recognized for their work. This year, however, I found myself paying particular attention to the group of award nominations focused on writing, and wine writing in particular. As I browse through this year’s nominees, I find myself struck by the notion that these may be perhaps the only national awards given to wine writers, and then I find myself paying even more attention.

This years nominations in the space of wine writing are as follows:

Books on Wine & Spirits:

Noble Rot by William Echikson
Scotch Whisky by Charles MacLean
The Wines of Bordeaux by Clive Coates

Newspaper Writing on Wine, Spirits, or Beer

Allie Johnson for “Wine Makes Us Wet” in The Pitch, Kansas City, MO 9/30/04

Elliot Essman for “Can the Corona for your Cinco de Mayo
Party” in Crosswinds Weekly, Albuquerque, NM 5/29/04

Randall Roberts for “Raising the Bar” in Riverfront Times, St. Louis 3/10/04

Internet Writing on Food, Restaurant, Beverage, or Nutrition

Alexander Lobrano for “Essential Restaurant Guide: Paris” on 8/04

Jennifer Rosen for “When Corks Attack ” They Do It With TCA” on 2/8/04

Mark Rozzo for “Going Global: Argentina” on 9/04

Magazine Columns (of any sort – only one nominee related to wine):

Lettie Teague for her column Wine Matters, and specifically the columns “Educating Peter”, “Educating Peter: Geography Class”, and “Educating Peter: The Rules of Pairing” 9/04, 10/04, 11/04.

Magazine Writing on Wine, Spirits, or Beer:

Lettie Teague for “Wine Matters ” The Latest from Argentina” in Food & Wine 5/04

Michael Steinberger for “Kings of the Rhône (Chaves)” in Saveur 5/04

Natalie MacLean for “Waiter, There’s a Flaw in My Wine” in Ottawa City Magazine 12/04

Newsletter Writing on Food, Beverage, Restaurant, and Nutrition

Nat Decants Wine E. Newsletter by Natalie MacLean
Pinot Report by Gregory S. Walter
Rosengarten Report by David Rosengarten

MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award (one of the nominees is wine related):

Natalie MacLean for “American Idol” on 7/16/04

First of all, let me congratulate everyone who has been nominated. It’s definitely a great recognition, and every one of these authors, publishers, and columnists works damn hard at their job and gets paid a lot less than they should.

Several things strike me as I look at this section of the nominations focused on wine. First of all, I’m stunned and appreciative that the Beard association actually has a category for Internet-based writing at all, so kudos to them for that. Though truth be told, there’s enough writing out there that they might consider actually having separate categories for beverages and nutrition, though. I wonder if they will ever include blogs in this category, or consider creating a separate category for them?

It’s also interesting to me that there is not a single mainstream wine magazine or wine magazine columnist nominated. Lettie Teague from Food and Wine sits in the grey margins — I consider the magazine more about food than wine. While I often think that most of the mainstream U.S. magazines (Spectator, Enthusiast, Wine & Spirits, The Wine News, Vine, WineX) are pretty crappy, I’m surprised not to see at least one nomination.

I’m also surprised at how sparse the newspaper columns and columnists are in these nominations. With the exception of Allie Johnson’s piece on Kansas winemakers, none of the other nominees have anything to do with wine.

It’s great to see Jennifer Rosen and Natalie Mclean get nominated, although truth be told, Natalie has got a few too many Beard awards already. They really love her stuff. I think Rosen’s piece is a particularly nice bit of writing, and one of her better columns.

Gregory Walter definitely deserves mention for his slavishly detailed and passionate newsletter The Pinot Report, and I think the nominees demonstrate how much better the writing has gotten at Epicurious recently.

Overall, though, I must say I’m a little disappointed at the overall level of what is on offer in the wine writing world as evidenced by these awards. There are a few stars recognized here, like Bill Echikson’s book, that is a fabulous piece of writing, but having read through many of the columns, newsletters, and articles, I’m left with the distinct impression that we can do a lot better. It’s all competent, but most of it lacks a certain passion that somehow the writers in the food world are able to capture.

Of course, it’s easy for me to sit here in my armchair and comment — I’m not a paid wine writer doing this for a living. All the same, I maintain that the bar is set pretty low right now, and I challenge myself, as well as others out there to push themselves to write about wine in ways that quicken the pulse, stimulates the senses, and drives people to want to drink, to share, and to experience what the wine world has to offer.

I’ll be watching. And writing.

Here is the full list of nominees, courtesy of Bruce Cole at Saute Wednesday.