Wine Writing (& how to make it better)

“There’s a whole lot of Astral Weeks I don't want to tell you about. Both because whether you've heard it or not it wouldn't be fair for me to impose my interpretation on you, and because in many cases I don't really know what he's talking about. He doesn't either.”

- Lester Bangs, Stranded, 1978

Once or thrice a year, as the mood requires, I revisit Van Morrison’s 1968 classic, Astral Weeks. Because I tend to make an occasion of it, I usually pair it with its essential companion piece: “Lester Bangs’s essay on Astral Weeks”.

Working through both the illuminating review and the music, I can’t help but picture the miserable, 70-something curmudgeon, anointing his poetic genius on those fortunate or tortured enough to receive it.

Then I remember: he was 23 when he made the album.

But let’s not be sidetracked by Van Morrison, his petulance, or that seminal 47 minutes of music. This has more to do with Lester Bangs and how today’s writers might learn from his work.

Bangs was one of rock music’s first critics, and was pivotal in defining the genre. A gonzo journalist cut from the same cloth as Hunter S. Thompson or P.J. O'Rourke, he became something of a star in his own right, and was brilliantly played by Philip Seymour Hoffmann in Almost Famous.

What made him compelling was that he was an open book. He had no real ego, just a desire to immerse himself in all things rock ’n roll and share his findings with whomever was interested. He did this with some of the most vivid prose imaginable, forging a connection between the reader and the music by effortlessly assuming a familiarity with both. Crucially, he understood that his job was an art in itself, not unlike the music he was discussing.

In 1978, Bangs was asked to write about his “Desert Island Album” for a book, Stranded. This was how that essay began:

Van Morrison's Astral Weeks was released ten years, almost to the day, before this was written. It was particularly important to me because the fall of 1968 was such a terrible time: I was a physical and mental wreck, nerves shredded and ghosts and spiders looming and squatting across the mind. My social contacts had dwindled to almost none; the presence of other people made me nervous and paranoid. I spent endless days and nights sunk in an armchair in my bedroom, reading magazines, watching TV, listening to records, staring into space. I had no idea how to improve the situation and probably wouldn't have done anything about it if I had.

If you’re not invested yet, then you never will be. He anchors the story in his world and ours, and before he’s even addressed the album, the reader has confirmed their participation.

The review continues down that path with relatable anecdotes and sharp insights. Bangs avoids passing explicit judgment, because as he points out, he’s not worthy. Instead he illuminates the space around the music, inviting you to explore it more deeply.

Lester Bangs, at home

My feeling is that many of today’s wine writers tell their readers both too much and not enough.

Some wax lyrical about intrinsic qualities, but don’t bother to place the wine in context. Others insist on treating it like an academic dissertation and taking on the role of school teacher. Yet others adopt specific, verbose descriptors imploring one to look for Andalusian plum pudding and HB pencil shavings in the mid palate, proving that sometimes the real dichotomous mélange is the insecurity and egotism of a critic.

Admittedly, there are appropriate occasions for all of the above, but as a rule, there is a lot of reading material out there and not enough to get excited about. Writers have to do a better job of unlocking the dopamine.

Where might that be?

Stories – because that’s what we’re talking about – don't exist solely for information. They derive most of their value from how they’re told. The best ones feature a heady blend of honesty, drama, vitality, and charm along with toasty notes of humor and sensitivity delicately woven in. Whatever you look for in a book, a podcast or a documentary movie, these are the sorts of qualities we should expect whenever the subject matter is remotely subjective.

Relax, Bangs wasn’t perfect either.

Like other critics, past and present, he arguably had too much influence. If he believed an artist lacked heart or integrity, he would eviscerate them and fundamentally impact their career.

Bangs was too invested in rock music, and considered it a matter of life and death. No surprise then that he died of a drug overdose at 33, outliving most of his heroes by 6 years. But his legacy is bigger than that and today’s writers and critics could learn a lot from him.

In fact, whether it’s food, wine, cars, fashion, or watch straps, the arbiters of quality and taste would well to invite their audience a little closer, realizing that their job is not only to inform, but to entertain, inspire and serve.

If you’d like my recommended pairing for Astral Weeks, forget about wine and go straight for the hydroponics.

You've obviously read these, right?