A wine photographer’s journey

I fought against the bottle, but I had to do it drunk. - Leonard Cohen

I am a wine journalist who takes photographs. These days you have to do that because publications and clients do not like paying photographers. They feel that they pay their journalists plenty enough as it is. In fact, most publications don’t pay journalists enough. Some still do, of course, but they’re far and between. It doesn’t help that, when it comes to the subject of wine, there are enough wannabe wine writers who are happy to provide their services for free.

The wine media-related industry, in other words, is in a sorry state of affairs. Which is why, when you actually examine the way the subject of wine is addressed in both print and online publications, you are pretty much reading the same things repeated over and over again. Most writers simply copy what’s been written by other writers, ad infinitum. What’s worse, a lot of the information being copied is just plain wrong. That means it’s bad information that gets repeated, ad infinitum.

Let’s pick out just one of them: The entire idea of “100-point” scores, one of the most fallacious ways of talking about wines ever invented. Why? Because wine quality isn’t actually perceived by any human being in these terms. Wine, they say, is an art and a science, which it is. Another art that is performed with something of an accomplished, mathematical rigor is music. When talking about a song by, say, the Beatles or the Rolling Stones, would you give “Yesterday” a 95 and “Paint It Black” a 92? Of course not. That would be stupid. Some people love “Yesterday” and some people hate it. Many people think “Paint It Black” is a dumb song and no doubt some people think it’s one of the greatest songs ever written. Therefore, numbers would be useless beause any perception of “quality” is strictly personal. You can’t say what’s better, best or not so good. That’s common sense.

It’s the same thing when comparing, say, Beethoven to Mozart, F. Scott Fitzgerald to Hemingway, the movies directed by Scorsese compared to Spielberg’s, Manet compared to Monet, and on and on. Numerical ratings do not apply, and neither do they apply to the finest wines of the world, which are just as artistic, just as unique unto themselves, and just as personal when it comes to perception of quality as any expressions of aesthetic value. 

In fact, even more so when it comes to wines, because much of the quality of wines is connected directly to where they are grown. Simply put, the finest wines or the world are reflections of their regions, their vineyard sources, and what we call their terroir or “sense of place.” It’s an agricultural practice as much as an artistic concept, in which Nature plays a huge role, exerting a direct impact on both terroir and circumstances related to each and every vintage. Appreciation, invariably, is in the eye of the beholder. How do you put numbers, or 100-point scores, on something of this magnitude (I am always in awe of Nature)? You can’t, of course. It’s silly.

Yet, a huge proportion of what you read in conventional wine media is obsessed with the idea that you can numerically rate wines, with the presumption that this tells you all about them. This, my friend, is exactly what I mean by writers copying other writers ad infinitum, even when what they’re copying is just plain wrong. They’re like lemmings. And not just “wrong” in the sense of being incorrect, but wrong in a sense of being irresponsible. It is irresponsible of anyone to misrepresent anything, including a wine which happens to be a direct reflection of where it’s grown, or a winemaker’s craft. When you attempt to pigeonhole the quality or profile of this kind of wine in terms of numerical ratings, you are misrepresenting that wine and being irresponsible to your readers. 

I am a wine journalist who takes photographs. I’m not getting senile, I know I’m repeating myself. I am just putting an emphasis on the fact that, by nature of the photos I’m presenting, anyone with two eyes can see that I am writing about wines from the perspective of someone who is actually in the places of which he speaks. That way, there is no room for imitation. I’m capturing Nature as best I can, and the resulting photographs are unique to my own experiences. As a journalist, in fact, I make a point of not reading wine magazines or other wine writers for the express purpose of retaining originality and integrity. I don’t want anything to come between me and the grapes and wines.

Not that I haven’t learned a great deal from other people. At the beginning of my career as a wine professional (in 1978… I now qualify as something of an “old-timer”), I had my mentors, just like everyone else does when they start out. I’d say they were people like the legendary winemaker André Tchelistcheff or the groundbreaking wine importer Kermit Lynch. Today I hang on to the utterances of winemakers such as Greg La Follette, vintners such as Bruce Neyers, or amazing grape growers such as Markus Bokisch, Ehren Jordan or Tegan Passalacqua. These aren’t just “anybody,” they’re people who have come about their reputations honestly—through hard work, perseverance, employing great instincts and flashes of insight that have accumulated into hefty, unimpeachable bodies of work.

It would be the height of arrogance to say I wish more wine journalists were like me. I wouldn’t say that because I know I’m no genius, and far from the most talented writer and photographer. Besides, I wouldn’t want anyone to be like me (what would be the point, when you’re trying differentiate yourself?). But I like to think I also go about my business honestly, building upon over 45 years of labor in my own tiny speck of the wine universe. If you have any doubt, just look at my photos (re randycaparosophotography.com). They may not be the finest in the world from a technical standpoint, but they make their point in terms of being exactly what they are: Vivid depictions that take you to a place—a world of wine as perceived through the eyes of someone who believes the most compelling wines are the products of grapes, Nature and people, reflecting an aesthetic medium that strongly resists pat descriptions or delusional pronouncements.

It’s all there, like ingredients in a can. You don’t have to like it, but it’s all mine, dammit.

Thank you, R.C.

The author/photographer with one of his contempory mentors, winemaker Greg La Follette, in a remote vineyard, where all the action is.

a sommelier’s perspective

Compelling curvatures of leaves, canes and tendrils. Vivid, pillowy, plump, fat or oval, hunky or discreet clusters of fruit. Dancing on taut wires, or hanging freely in the wind.

Cracking crevices in twisting trunks and gnarled spurs. Green, resiny, composting scents of scrub, woodland and underbrush. Rocks, gravel, sand and loam. Lonely barns, buzzing insectories.

Moon dusty flatlands, killer slopes, dreamy hillsides. Sweet, heady, funky or wild party-like fermentations.

Blinding sun, cutting wind, miserable rain. Smidgens of oak, cold steel, flashing light, tinkling glass. Sticky hands, grimy faces, stained teeth, prickling burred jeans, filthy shoes.

These are sensations that mean something to a sommelier. 

At least to an ex-sommelier (28 years of my prior life) who is still driven by that original thirst; a consuming curiosity. Seeking signs, any hint or direct correlation, between what is found in the field and what ends up in a bottle… or photograph. 

This, really, is the only thing that interests me. Opening those proverbial doors of perception; through words (not numbers!) and, hopefully, images.

That’s my stand. I’ll shout it from the hilltops. 


Author/photographer with Kermit Lynch in Berkeley.

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