This is the text of my Disrupt! speech, given at the Digital Wine Communications Conference in Bulgaria on Friday 23 October. The format was six speakers talking for eight minutes each on one theme: blend.
I want to talk about blending wine and humour. All too often, wine takes itself very seriously, and this becomes the primary influence on how wine is perceived by most people.
If you search YouTube for funny wine videos, you get 230,000 results. Most of these follow the same old cliché. They parody the swirl, sniff, slurp and spit. The characters tend to be stuffy old wine bores or pretentious sommeliers or arrogant wine shop managers, waffling on about licking river pebbles and smelling of manure. The wine, that is, not them. And somebody usually gets drunk and falls over.
Judging by the number of views these videos get, there are quite a lot of people who find it very funny to watch people drinking wine and then falling over. They would have found last night’s bring your own dinner hilarious. So what’s the problem? The problem is that they’re laughing at us, not with us.
I think humour can help wine become more accessible. But that’s easier said than done. There’s no secret technical formula for being funny, just like there’s no secret technical formula for making great wine. Although it is true that both of them benefit from the right balance of sweetness and acid.
There are some great examples of humorous wine communication already in existence. For example, the Hosemaster of Wine, Keith Levenberg, The Sediment Blog, Chris Losh and many others. However, most people who aren’t already into wine probably haven’t heard of these writers. For wine humour that really reaches the mainstream, you have to go back to Sideways, which is now 11 years old. Even in this film, wine only provides the context for the story, rather than the story itself, yet it still had beneficial impact on people’s interest in wine, especially in the US.
Actually, more recently there’s an Australian series called Plonk, which is partly funded by the New South Wales tourism board. The second series just aired on Channel 9 in Australia, and they’ve just start putting it online. I really hope it gets more distribution because I think it gets the angle just right: funny and likeable, and with just enough proper wine content to intrigue the viewer without becoming too obvious or too complicated.
Now, analysing what makes something funny is a guaranteed way of making it appear totally unfunny. Nevertheless, all of the content I’ve just mentioned has several things in common, and I think these are worth bearing in mind for anyone trying to be more humorous about wine.
So the golden rule, as I said already: don’t take yourself too seriously. There is room for humour in even the most formal and academic sorts of communication. In fact, it can be a very effective tool to provide relief from an otherwise heavy-going piece. This is nothing new – take for example the gravediggers in Hamlet who are there to provide a comedic moment to contrast the tragedy. I’m not saying you have to write the next Hamlet.
Another tip is that you can’t force funny. What that means is that the most effective comedy comes naturally and subtly. Anything that needs extensive setting up or which doesn’t fit easily is going to sound convoluted, and that will diminish its effectiveness.
This is a good example, written by a stand up comedian called Alfie Moore:
"A few years ago, I started learning about wine. I was developing such an educated palate that when I drank a full bottle of posh red wine, I’d sleep with my mouth open to give it a chance to breathe."
That’s a good, effortless joke. Whereas, if you are having to work really hard to make something fit, it’s probably not going to be that good. That brings me on to another point: don’t be precious about what you’ve written. Be prepared to throw away as much as you keep. This is especially hard when you’ve just taken ages trying to craft the perfect little joke about the tannin of Nebbiolo – but it has to be done.
In the course of writing this speech, I wrote and chucked the following lines:
‘I’m not saying you have to write the next Hamlet, although why not? Make it about decanting. To breathe or not to breathe.'
‘I’ve just become an MW. According to InternetSlang.com, that stands for Man Whore. Which would explain all those unusual job offers I’ve been getting.’
‘What’s pink, growing and mostly targeted at women? The rosé wine category.’
I actually quite like that last one but it’s a bit inappropriate.
Another tip: laugh at yourself, not at others. This goes back to not taking wine too seriously. Self-deprecating humour is a good way to endear yourself to your audience and hopefully get a few laughs at the same time.
Also: be very sparing with innuendo – all those suggestive jokes about ‘great body, long legs but it’s a shame about the nose’ belong to a bygone era. Which is incidentally why I dropped that gag about rosé wine. Try to avoid the really obvious jokes too. For example, using Pinotage as a default punchline when you’re talking about poor quality wine, or that old line ‘I don’t like Chardonnay, but I love Chablis!’
That brings me to another thing to avoid: in-jokes. I’m advocating using humour to make wine a bit more accessible for the mainstream, which means avoiding anything that relies on serious wine knowledge. If you say something like ‘finding cheap Pétrus is about as likely as finding grand cru Meursault’ it’s only amusing if you know there aren’t any grand crus in Meursault. And even then it’s not particularly amusing. But what’s worse is that you make anyone who doesn’t know about wine feel stupid.
Incidentally, being funny on paper is very different to being funny on screen. On screen, you can use music, editing, special effects, stunts – there is much more potential for humour, although I think that actually makes it harder to get right.
But in either case, the writing needs to be good. So here’s my final tip: know your audience. Of course, this applies whether you are trying to make wine, sell wine or communicate about wine. If you’re talking to people who know nothing about wine, humour can help to break down the feeling of insecurity that people sometimes have. If you’re talking to WSET students, you can laugh at the more detailed absurdities of the wine world.
So in summary: don’t take wine seriously. Forced humour doesn’t work. Throw away as much as you keep. Avoid cliché, innuendo and in-jokes. And know your audience.
So in the time-honoured tradition of stand-ups everywhere: my name’s been Richard Hemming, you’ve been a great audience – cheers!