Podcasting wine

I have discovered podcasts. For some time, I’ve heard podcasts are an interesting replacement of radio or other media, but somehow, I haven’t been interested. But recently I realised that instead of half-listening to music when I drive or walking mindlessly with my dog, I could actually listen to something. And the something I decided on was podcasts on wine. Indeed, after some searchers, quite a lot appeared. In this post, I want to write about my experience as a podcast listener.

Let me start with some reservations. First, the account below is my subjective take on the podcasts and only on those I listened to. I do realise that even though I was so irritated by a couple of podcasts that I will not come back to them, they might well be listened to by others with much pleasure. Second, any such ‘review’ will make sense only if I offer some critique rather than words of admiration. And so, I will tend to focus on the irritants in my podcasting experience (but there will be some good stuff as well). However, I do want to be helpful (if somewhat academic) and I want my critique to be constructive and polite My final reservation is that I will not talk about the technical aspect of the podcasts. Some hosts have jarring voices, some have very silky ones, some people seem to have better equipment. Having said this, I must admit that Matthew from Matthew’s world on wine and drink could get rid of the incessant buzz/hum – I am at the end of my tether; I did end an episode of GuildSomm because I just couldn’t bear the inflections (elongation of open syllables at the end of a word) of one of the guests.

So, let’s start – a wine nobody’s review of wine podcasting. There seem to be two main kinds of podcasts. One is person-focused, the other is issue-focused. The former, which I think is more frequent, consists of interviews with famous (so we’re told) people in the world of wine. In the latter, the host and their guests discuss a particular problem, issue, topic. There are also a few podcasts (such as James Suckling’s) which focus on wine reviews. I haven’t listened to them, on balance, I don’t look views on an individual wine. It’s not a criticism, rather, a personal preference. I’m generally interested in general knowledge about wine, without a particular focus (like natural wine or sustainable wine). I tend to prefer longer podcasts and avoid podcasts of around 10 minutes.

1. Podcasts about people. They also have two kinds. First, way more frequent, focuses on the person themselves, the other on the person’s knowledge.

And here we come to the first problem. There are a few people that every host wants to interview and so, for example, I have already hear that Jasper Morris (the Burgundy expert) had a wine company, that he then sold it to the BBR merchants and that he wished he could have written about Beaujolais more times than I care to remember. I am almost sorry for Mr Morris that he has had to re-tell the same stories over and over again because the interviewers did not bother to prepare themselves better and think of different questions.

More generally, I find celebritisation of wine personalities unhelpful. Do I care that winemaker A likes colour red, B has a winemaker father, and C studied in Burgundy? Let me be blunt – I truly couldn’t care less. These repeated questions about whether the interviewees have always wanted to be in wine, and what they learnt either from their fathers or mentors, and how much time they spend abroad are only tedious. If anything, I think of them as manifestations of interviewers’ sloppy preparation. In addition, such questions/interviews show how difficult it is to conduct an interesting interview and that you cannot just blag your way through.

In addition, a few things repeatedly irritated me in such interviews. For example, you can quickly realise that Tim Atkin’s (I listened to most of his interviews on his Cork Talk) interviewees are really contacts in his iPhone. he knows everyone, but after a while his inevitable mentions about going a long way with this very famous person and having drunk a barrel of wine with that, are just tiresome. Yes, I get it, you’ve been around, you know everybody, but in my heart of hearts, I really don’t care. This is not why I choose to listen to your podcast, I listen to it because he’s very knowledgeable and offers space for the interviewee to talk in.

In contrast, quite quickly, it wasn’t immediately clear who was the interviewee in the first episode of Jancis Robinson’s podcast (I didn’t really mind all that much as she does know a lot), but the GuildSomm’s very very very cool interviewer’s attempts to build his ego just made me press the stop button.

There is also a point in such interviews when the they stop being an interview and start being a chat (take the episode of I’ll drink to that with Eric Asimov) and for me it doesn’t work at all. An interview is not a chat, it’s a structured communicative event, ideally well prepared with a question line leading somewhere. There is no place for the ego, for competition, for showing up the interviewee. And indeed, when I say I would like to see a line of questioning, I really say that interviews are difficult and not for asking questions that have just popped into your mind.

2. Podcasts about issues. On balance, I suspect that if you know your stuff, it’s easier to do a podcast about an issue. And indeed, there are many episodes from which I benefited a lot. What quickly becomes obvious, however, is that there are many episodes on, say, pinot noir or chardonnay, and they are all…the same. I really would like someone to say something outside the box. Tell me something no one else tells me….Ask your celebrities something no one else asks.

And here it’s the people in the know that have a clear advantage. Here the MWs who drink with the wonderful wine celebrities and have opinions can, if they prepare, ask questions that lead the interviewee in a new direction. But, to be honest, that doesn’t happen very often (perhaps TA’s Cork Talk and Wine Blast deserve an honourable mention, but, to be frank, they also often go in the well trodden groves).

What irritates me no end is when an issue-episode is turned upside down and becomes a person-episode. The episode on wines of Germany in The Wine Conversation was just a clinical example. Anne Krebiehl had obviously so much to say about German wines but the interviewer was more interested in the early life story. I was fast forwarding the interview but the conversation on the uphill struggles of the interviewee would not stop. Bloody hell….Last night I listened to GuildSomm and the host just couldn’t stop introducing the interviewee. Luckily, I could stop the podcast.

As I love Burgundy, I was delighted to find out that the abovementioned Jasper Morris had a podcast. So, I switched it on and after 15 minutes stopped. It wasn’t a podcast – it was a lecture. As I said earlier, the Mr Morris’ knowledge is monumental but podcasts should not be used as brain dumps. It just doesn’t work.

Incidentally, all too often I hear questions about the producers or domains which are followed by a long list of names which if you don’t already know (and so don’t need anyway), you are very unlikely to get! You want the long list, put them in the notes. Why do interviewers ask such questions? Probably, because they can’t think of another.

Matthew’s world….is a basic, educational and it almost works. I do wish he would make it a bit more ‘with a twist’. An anecdote here and there, yes, please, great, but I think naming all the domains of Beaujolais will always be tedious. As Matthew goes on and on (though his episodes are shortish), you just wish there was something more.

So, let me now say a few good things. All such pitfalls tend to be avoided by the Wine Blast (and unfortunate title, I must admit), the newest of the podcasts, I think. It tends to be issue-oriented, but somehow it avoids the monotony – most episodes are a mix of the talk by the two hosts and by their guests. It works very well. And although  I do occasionally wish they would stop chatting at the beginning and get on with it, it’s not a major issue. The crucial advantage is that the interviewees are almost always there to share their expertise. Indeed, When Mr Atkin talks to experts – I think such interviews are his best. The interviews with Barry Smith and Edward Slingerland were just fantastic.

Interestingly, Susie Barrie and Peter Richards did a few episode-long interviews (Jasper seems a must on every podcast – yes, the same stories), they mostly went for natural story tellers. I loved Oz Clarke’s story about sex in the vineyard. Yes, it was about him, but crucially, it was a good story. The same was with Hugh Johnson. Both men understand very well they are interviewed for entertainment not for telling the listeners about their long walks to school.

3. Some others. I stopped listening to the UK wine show when the introductions lasted half an episode and the podcast was so UK-oriented that it was pointless. I can’t remember why I stopped listening to Unreserved wine talk. But I do remember why I immediately stopped listening to Wine for normal people. I thought the hosts really misjudged the level at which they were talking (but over 400 episodes would suggest that I am wrong not them). The forced humour in the now defunct Wine for Sophisticated Homies was just embarrassing for me. I couldn’t stand it.

I know that I will not listen to podcasts of famous people liking wine (e.g., Wine Times and White wine question time). But I want to stress that I actually do appreciate a different take on the podcast. I do appreciate that they’re not offering more of the same interviews with the same people (you know who!). It’s just not for me.

So, I suppose I should make a recommendation. For me Wine Blast (gosh, I do hate the name), despite some shortcomings (a bit chatty and bit too much about the hosts themselves) is the best-judged show. It’s the best balance between entertainment and education and I have learnt a lot. As for the interview podcasts, it’s a more difficult choice. I’d probably choose Tim Atkin’s Cork Talk. And if he got rid of the cheap biography questions, his immense knowledge would be a wonderful foundation to create a very good interview.

Just to note that  I still haven’t listened to a number of current podcasts, e.g. Looking into wine or Wine with Meg do look promising.

There are two things I would like to conclude with. First, doing a podcast is way more difficult that might first appear. You do need to be clear what you want to say, how you want to say it (the preaching in all the podcasts can be quite insufferable) and, crucially who you want to say to. It’s very difficult to be everything to everyone.

In addition, I’ve been fascinated by how similar the podcasts are linguistically. You all talk very much like each other and I was wondering whether anyone actually reflects not only on what they want to say but also how. And I am still looking for a podcast in which the expertise of the host or the guests is less in my face. I do appreciate, however, that as an academic (and a linguist) my tolerance to plumage display might be lower.

The second bit is that the length of your contacts book does not guarantee a good podcast. Yes, it’s important to get interesting people to talk to you (and most hosts do that) but unless you have an idea what to talk about, you will continue asking about the favourite country of you interviewee (it was an actual question asked in one of the podcasts and it floored my jaw). Podcasts, like lectures, take preparation. Yes, my experience allows me now to go to a lecture completely unprepared and get away with it. But it will not be a very good lecture, I will simply get away with it. You need to prepare and it does show when you don’t. Boy, it does.

So, finally, the world of wine is amazing. Podcasts can open it for plonkers like me. Go opening! Good luck!


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