Erika Szymanski: Winner, Best Investigative / Journalistic Wine Story
interview by Richard Siddle
Richard Siddle talks to Erika Szymanski whose article on “How to replicate a wine from 1,500 year-old-grape seeds” was the winner in our Investigative Investigative/Journalistic story category.
Here she explains what her motivation was for writing the article and how she went about it.
Why did you enter the Born Digital Wine Awards?
“I think that a lot of what I write is pretty boring and the pieces I find most interesting are, I suspect, a little esoteric. I thought the winning piece was neither boring nor esoteric. Short and flippant, but maybe there’s a place for short and flippant.”
What was the motivation behind writing your winning article?
“I wrote the winning blog post in response to a number of popular news pieces anticipating the recreation of ancient wine after archaeologists discovered ancient wine grape seeds.
“That sort of nonsense is too tempting fodder for mockery to pass by. My goal is partially to help fight against the damaging speculations of bad science journalism but, if I’m honest, it’s also partially the gratification of laying out in detail why reading something makes me squirm.”
How did you get in to wine and wine writing?
“I grew up in an oenophilic household with parents who read about everything they enjoy. I picked up my father’s copy of Emile Peynaud’s Le Gout de Vin over summer vacation when I was about 13 and realised that wine was this utterly remarkable thing: very physically and sensually and intellectually and socially gratifying all at once.
“I started wine writing just for myself as a way to keep up my writing skills and as an excuse to keep reading wine microbiology and chemistry once I’d left that field, and those are still my motivations.
“My other writing life is as a PhD student who studies science communication (among other things). Sometimes the two bleed into each other a bit.”
How would you describe your style of writing?
“I’m one of a relatively few wine writers focusing on science topics, even if much of what I do these days veers into the philosophical or social.
“Among the wine science writers, I suppose you could say that I’m obnoxiously opinionated. I’ll never try to write an “objective” report of a new research study; I’m going to tell you what I think about it.
“I’d rather a writer’s inevitable biases be obvious rather than something she tries to hide. Objectivity just means that you’re not being open (with your readers, and maybe with yourself) about your values and assumptions.”
What else do you read to help with your own writing?
“Now, that is a very, very long list indeed. Start with philosophy, environmental science, theology, and (guilty pleasure) good cookbooks. Classic fiction, anything medieval, and graphic novels when I have time.
“On writing about wine: don’t. Use wine to write about something else. This is for two reasons. First, the market for writing happy stories about the winery you visited/winemaker you interviewed/wine you drank is saturated (and most of those stories are pretty boring anyway).
“Second, wine is interesting because it’s a tool for thinking and living well.
“It’s what Aristotle called a topos, a common subject people can relate to that you can use to build an argument. Wine is a superb topos, and a thing of beauty for thinking and living. It’s rarely about (just) the wine.”
How will you spend your prize money?
“Basic living expenses, and maybe a little extra help for conferences I’m attending on science communication and food policy in the next few months.”