Decanter, Noble Rot and the quest for wise words on wine

Noble Rot and Decanter magazinesI like words. Good ones, or even standard ones chosen particularly craftily and then put in the right order, bring me pleasure. But I’m not crazily demanding: I’m perfectly happy to put up with a very ordinary choice of words, so long as they convey a meaning precisely and succinctly. But equally the wrong choice of words – I’m talking of the “serious as cancer when I say rhythm is a dancer” ilk here – can make me really quite annoyed.

In the latest issue of Decanter, the nation’s premier wine magazine, someone has used the phrase “gustatory perception”. There is something about the phrase “gustatory perception” that, perhaps fittingly, sticks in my throat. In my opinion the phrase “gustatory perception” is acceptable only when used either in a scientific journal or with enormous quantities of irony, and probably best used ironically in a scientific journal. In this case, however, the phrase “gustatory perception” has been used without irony in a consumer magazine by a writer who, as a direct result of producing the phrase “gustatory perception”, was rewarded with real money.

“Colour turns out to be as contrary and debatable as anything else in wine,” he writes, “making a big impact on expectations, winemaking and, perhaps most significantly, the gustatory perception of the drinker.”

He might have ended that sentence with the simple phrase “what the drinker tastes”, but he chose not to. But I don’t blame the writer, I blame the people at Decanter, for creating a magazine in which the non-ironic use of the phrase “gustatory perception” is acceptable. A magazine that doesn’t care whether words are used in the kind of combinations that bring pleasure.

It was the final straw. I’ve put up with the endless panel tastings of wines I’ll never even consider buying, the profiles of wineries everyone already knows about, and the hideous awards issue – an annual doorstop-sized exercise in reader-alienating industry back-slapping – but this was too much. I stuffed the magazine back in my bag unfinished and spent the rest of my bus journey gazing sniffily out of the window. The following day I got a letter from the magazine’s publishers telling me that my subscription was up for renewal.

The only reason I’ve put up with Decanter for so long is that there really isn’t anything else. In the world of wine publishing there’s no equivalent of the old NME-or-Melody-Maker newsagent-based reading wars. In the world of wine publishing there’s not even a reading skirmish. There’s barely a reading evil glare. There’s one wine magazine that you sometimes see in shops that sell magazines, and that’s your lot.

There are a couple of others that you sometimes see in high-falutin’ bottle shops: the World of Fine Wine, whose very name conjures up images of the kind of people who like to let the phrase “gustatory perception” swirl around their mouths like it was the finest Montrachet. The main problem with WoFW is that it costs £89 a year (print only) which, given that it’s a quarterly, amounts to £22.25 an issue, which is bad value however good the writing is.

Then there’s Noble Rot. At £32 a year (in the UK) it’s £8 an issue, which is quite a lot if you compare it to standard consumer magazines, but makes it very much the Jacob’s Creek to WoFW’s Chateauneuf. The good thing about Noble Rot is that it concentrates not on telling readers how wine should taste and whether it’s better or worse than other wines that taste almost exactly the same, but on stories, many of them very well told, and people, many of them largely unknown. The bad thing about Noble Rot is a lack of storytellers: the guys behind the magazine are called Dan Keeling and Mark Andrew, and of the 29 articles in the latest issue they wrote or co-wrote 15 of them, as well as taking most of the photographs. Their omnipresence gives a home-made, rough-and-ready fanzine feel to a magazine that otherwise looks and feels pretty professional, but they have ability to match their enthusiasm.

I’m new to Noble Rot, and have yet to become infuriated by any repeated faults it may have. It’s certainly not perfect, and there are some articles in this issue that seem useful primarily as space-fillers. But it is by some margin the best periodically-published collection of largely wine-focused words at a vaguely acceptable price in the land, a small boast but a notable one. Decanter have had their time; this subscriber is going elsewhere.

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