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Malcolm Jolley: It takes villages: On writing about wine

Commentary

Wine writers practice access journalism, a phrase used with derision in the business of hard news. There it’s when reporters who get too close to their subjects are suspected of being compromised. Wine writers don’t worry about that too much; we can’t afford to. If we don’t have access to the wine, we have nothing to write about.

Even if a wine writer was so independently wealthy they could buy all the wine they wrote about they’d have to be organized enough to figure out which wines to buy, when, and where, and seek out the people who made them. Wine writers are notoriously disorganized (except for their wine notes) and winemakers are notoriously busy and focused on their day job of making wine, where one mistake or bad day could cost them an entire year’s work.

I tried to organize a small wine trip for myself in Northern Italy this spring. I had a very good time in Piedmont, I managed to learn a few new things and wrote a column for The Hub based on it. But professionally it was a bit of a disaster, and not just because a canceled flight caused an unscheduled layover in Germany. I had forgotten key logistical factors, like ground transportation, and I had no redundancies when things didn’t work out the way I had hoped or planned.

Like the reporters who cover Hollywood stars, wine writers need access and organization and more often than not that means a reliance on public relations professionals and their winemaking clients. This reliance doesn’t eliminate conflicts of interest but it does work in a particular way in the wine world.

You may notice that very little of the wine media concerns itself with bad reviews. That’s because in a world awash with wine there’s no need. There’s always another wine, or region, or whatever to write about. Outside of stories of abject fraud, or intergenerational culture war (see “natural wine”), there’s not a lot of call for notices of wines to avoid. Also, wine writers wish to avoid these wines as well, so we tend to focus on what to recommend.

Conflicts of interest in the wine media, such as they perceived to arise, are generally Pollyannaish. Like the grade inflation that is frustrating post-pandemic university admission, wine score inflation is now more or less a given among those who still rate wines numerically. Scrutiny of any popular 100-point scale will more often not reveal it to be more like a 12-point scale (88-100), or less, assuming anything over 95 points is rare.

I stopped rating wines numerically some years ago because in part of my access conflict of interest, but mostly because it was absurd to proscribe a quantitative score to a qualitative experience. A glass of wine is not a foot race or a hockey game. It depends entirely on context and its value cannot be fixed outside of its price on the market.

I have a different conflict of interest related to access journalism: TMI. TMI in real life stands for too much information, and it’s what we say to those who are sharing something we find distasteful or embarrassing. TMI in wine life, really just means there’s too much information to convey in a standard media hit. Or there’s too much information for a consumer (or writer) to process and remember about a given wine.

My next column is about the red wines of Languedoc in the South of France, where I traveled as a guest of the Vins du Languedoc in May this year. I tasted as much wine from as many places as I could. A lot of it was really good. But writing about it will be complicated.

The Languedoc has its own regional appellation, Languedoc AOP. There are, after that, nine sub-regional appellations, which actually make more wine and wines than the general one: Cabardès, Clairette du Languedoc, Corbières, Limoux, Malepère, Picpoul de Pinet, Pic Saint Loup, Saint-Chinian (which has it own two sub-designations), and the Terraces du Larzac.

After those nine (or eleven depending on how you count), there are five village-designated appellations that are mini regions within the subregions, centred around a small town (usually with a castle). Some of my favourite reds came from the designated villages of Corbières Boutenac, Faugères, Fitou, La Clape, and Minervois La Livinère.

Apart from physical place and some geographical variance like soil type, elevation, or proximity to the sea, the main differences between the wines of the villages were the particular blends of grapes appellations allowed or encouraged. The style across all is easy on oak and big on fruit, leading towards a brooding complexity, with some interesting things being made with blends that favour old vine Carignan or Mourvèdre.

The challenge will be figuring out what information to leave in about the wines from the five villages, and what to leave out. The temptation is to leave everything in, and that’s the site of the conflict. A savvy wine writer will learn very quickly never to show their work to its subject before it is published or posted. The subject will invariably be disappointed that some detail has been left out.

A TLDR (too long, didn’t read) version of the column might just simply be to look out for a label or wine listing with the name of a village on it. Or just a lot of names. The more specific the place of origin, the more embarrassed the winemaker might be if things didn’t turn out right. But there are probably a few more details for me to fill out among my pages of notes, and hopefully the subjects won’t be too disappointed.

Joanna Baron: Criminalizing residential school ‘denialism’ is both unnecessary and unconstitutional

Commentary

Independent Special Interlocutor Kimberley Murray, in her Interim Report, “Searching for Missing Children and the Unmarked Burials,” has recommended that the government introduce new legal tools, including the adoption of civil and criminal remedies combatting “denialism.” In her report, Murray wrote that, “There are significant gaps in legal protections at the federal, provincial, and territorial levels to protect the sites pending searches and investigations” and that “[…] denialists are attacking the credibility of Survivors’ truths about missing children, unmarked burials, and cemeteries at Indian Residential Schools as sensationalist.” Murray’s proposal has been countenanced with openness by Attorney General David Lametti, so it bears consideration.

Lametti, who appointed Murray to her role, indicated at her recent presentation held at the Cowesses First Nation that he is open to all possibilities for fighting residential-school denialism. He said that includes “a legal solution and outlawing it,” adding that Canada can look to other countries that have criminalized Holocaust denial.

“Denialism” is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “a person who does not acknowledge the truth of a concept or proposition that is supported by the majority of scientific or historical evidence”. It’s a term borrowed, as with many current lobs in the culture wars, from psychology, where it refers to a person who rejects an uncomfortable or identity-threatening truth. Denialism has emerged as a recent shibboleth for abetting increasingly illiberal restrictions on open discourse.

There is such a complete lack of rigour and clarity in what constitutes denialism that any legal project proposing to attach criminal sanctions to it would be devoid of clarity and predictability, basic stipulations of the rule of law. Would residential school denialism, for example, encompass investigative journalism such as Terry Glavin’s trenchant piece from 2022?

In his bombshell investigation for the National Post, Glavin agreed that the government’s residential school policy amounted to cultural genocide and entailed brutal psychological, physical, and sexual abuse. Glavin also found that, for all of the country’s paroxysms, a year after the announcements not a single mass grave was discovered, nor any human remains unearthed. Not a single child among the 3,201 registered on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 2015 record of deaths was located. Glavin also noted the caution urged by local Indigenous leaders most involved in the sites in question.

Glavin’s piece asked questions that are rightfully, and somberly, asked in the wake of as grim an allegation as the discovery of unmarked graves of children: What remains were unearthed and how can they be connected to existing historical records? What charges ought to be laid? Who will lead these efforts? For asking these questions, Terry was made persona non grata by the legacy media. Journalist Bari Weiss, who interviewed Glavin in September 2022 for her Honestly podcast, summarized her interest in l’affaire Glavin as showing what happens to a society “ when the truth no longer matters.”

Murray’s report quotes MP Leah Gazan for the proposition that “denying genocide is a form of hate speech. That kind of speech is violent and re-traumatizes those who attended residential schools.” However, hate speech is already criminalized in Canada—although defining the line between merely repugnant speech and hate speech is a famously fraught exercise, and free speech defenders like myself would be more comfortable if the state relegated itself to its highest fetter on liberty—imprisonment—only in cases of actual or threatened physical violence, since it is particularly these grey areas that create huge chill effects against open discourse.

But Murray’s proposal seems to go beyond that, urging the adoption of new legislation which would conflate any critical discussion surrounding residential schools and unmarked graves with hate speech or pathological denialism. If the new law goes beyond what has previously been defined as hate speech, it is likely unconstitutional under s. 2(b) of the Charter, which protects even the most offensive and repugnant speech which comes short of hate speech.

Besides being unconstitutional, such a law would be thoroughly illiberal and ill-advised. It raises the spectre of driving anti-Indigenous racism underground, where it will flourish away from the disinfecting influence of open discourse.

Other discourse that Murray would seem to target, while distasteful, is best responded to with rational argument rather than criminal censure. There is a somewhat arcane small fringe of Canadian conservative intellectuals who are apologists for residential schools, and I personally find these apologists misguided and odious. In an op-ed published last year, Brian Giesbrecht decried the fact that, in the midst of a national frenzy of self-flagellation following the announcement of the detection of 215 human remains, nobody bothered to mention that enrolment in the schools was often voluntary, nor did they mention “the fact that at that time the school had an impressive outdoor swimming pool.”

This minimizes real horrors. Canada’s policy of residential schools was unmistakably evil and cruel, stripping children from their families, meaning-making traditions, and communities, and any attempt to minimize this by pointing to the upsides of assimilation or the impressiveness of swimming pools are wrong-headed. Still, it seems likely that a law aimed at criminalizing those who “don’t want to admit the schools inflicted those harms”, as one survivor quoted in Murray’s report put it, would put Giesbrecht’s blithe comment, better dealt with by opprobrium and counter-speech, within the realm of criminalization.

The practicalities of criminalizing denialism also should be contemplated. Were such a law to be passed, and someone prosecuted under it, it would effectively put residential schools on trial. In the 1980s, Holocaust denier Ernst Zundel sat trial several times for his pamphlets “Did the Holocaust Really Happen?” His trials effectively put the Holocaust on trial, with the crown bringing in Holocaust researchers and survivors to support their case, while the defence put noted Holocaust deniers on the stand and cross-examined Holocaust survivors about the accuracy of their recollection. The trials gave Zundel a platform to bolster his case that the Holocaust never really happened. It was an unsightly, disgraceful spectacle.

The solution to ignorance or prejudice in a free society can never be censorship. Attorney General Lametti is a celebrated legal scholar and was even my dean at McGill Law. He knows full well that Murray’s proposed law is constitutionally suspect and should put a halt to it.