Being a self-confessed wine geek, I am always curious to read new and interesting takes about both wine itself and the industry. I don’t exactly remember when or where I first heard about TONG – About Wine magazine, but it was likely on twitter, and once I read a little more about it, I was intrigued.
Now is the point when I would normally introduce you to the magazine, but I recently had the opportunity to interview the editor and publisher, Filip Verheyden, so I will let him do it instead – in 140 characters or less.
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LF: If you had to explain what TONG is on twitter – i.e. in 140 characters or less – what would you say?
FV: Looking to demystify wine. One central theme, each time different specialists, broad spectrum towards the subject and no advertising.
LF: How does it feel to have pioneered the first international wine magazine from Belgium, and does national culture play any role in the thinking behind TONG?
FV: No, absolutely not. Wine is one of the most international agricultural (and cultural) products in the world. That’s why I’m also in the Master of Wine program. Wine takes you everywhere in the world. For that reason, TONG is in English, and not in Flemish. That market [Flemish] is simply too small. I used the name “TONG”, which is Flemish for “tongue”, because most of the people in the wine industry are not in fact native English speakers, but they all speak it.
LF: What do you make of the current trends in wine writing and analysis, and do you think it is due to change any time soon? Have we become over-complicated in the way we talk about wine?
FV: No, we haven’t become over-complicated. I have very strong views on this. We live in the age of the Anti-Specialist. Due to blogs, social media, etc. everybody has become a “specialist”. When something is written down, it looks as if it has more power than the same thing being spoken out. That is why people feel more “special” when they distribute their writings. But writing down something does not make you a specialist.
That is the reason why TONG does not work with journalists – unless they are specialists in their fields of work. Specialists only write about their specialty, wine writers write to order…making them the antipode of a specialist.
LF: Other high-quality wine quarterlies, such as The World of Fine Wine, have many intellectual and academic articles, but at the same time, they still review and rate wines, and also carry advertising. This means that they have an obvious way to attract and retain (in their case, wealthy) consumers. Who is TONG aimed at, why would consumers be interested in reading it, and how can you reach them?
FV: That’s a very difficult question! I started TONG the completely other way around: starting from what product I wanted to make and, only after that, trying to define the reader group. TONG is a very difficult product, in that way that there are no concrete marketing channels for it. If you make a cheap brand of jeans, you know in what kind of magazines, television programs, etc. you have to market it. There are no clearly defined channels where we can market TONG. And this is confirmed by our very heterogeneous reader group: wine geeks (especially in the US and in Scandinavia), wine students, and winemakers (especially in the new world). To be honest, no wine magazine wants to write about TONG. In the end, that is a big compliment. I am still looking in what format/magazine/social media I can find a lot of our possible readers together. But so far, I have not found them.
LF: You originally come from the world of food – what sparked your self-evident passion for wine?
FV: I don’t know. In essence, I am a man of nature. I am also a beekeeper. For me, working with my bees is the same as drinking wine or preparing a wild salmon, first trying to find its identity, the structure of its flesh, and then use my skills to prepare a superb dish to do it justice. Everything where there’s an interplay between man and nature intrigues me. But not intellectually; it’s more a gut feeling.
LF: What is it that makes wine more than fermented grapes and a means to intoxication?
FV: Like food, wine is great when it has a personality, when it talks to you. In fact, I believe in the old sacral identity of wine. It makes you more human and at the same time brings you closer to nature (although wine is not a living product!).
At the same time, wine also has a scientific identity and reality, and that is what TONG wants to focus on. Both ‘realities’ exist and can live perfectly next to each other. But in our ‘wine communication’ world, many people mix these two realities, and that is what TONG wants to react against. For example, the concepts of ‘minerality’ or ‘terroir’ are not based on scientific proof. When somebody says: “This wine is very mineral because it rained a lot during summer, so that the minerals in the soil were solved into the water and could be taken up more easily by the vines. It’s minerals you smell and taste!” – then he or she is telling bullshit. Minerals are not only present in wine in very small amounts (very much below their threshold levels), they actually don’t have a smell. The taste of a wine is developed during fermentation. The soil only has an indirect effect on the taste (via the ripeness level of the grapes).
LF: How much do the following factors contribute to a wine, and which are the most important: land, fruit, climate, people, and technology?
FV: All of them. Wine is very complex. There’s no perfect recipe. But it is very clear that wine is a highly commercial and technical product. Wines with deliberately (induced by actions of the winemaker) high levels of Brettanomyces f.e. are often seen by journalists and consumers as ‘terroir’ wines (maybe also because French wines have high levels). Brett gives more broadness to a wine, with more smoky and meaty aromas. It makes it more ‘unique’. But, in fact, it is considered (by present quality standards and the definition of wine styles) a fault in the wine, which is spoiled by bacteria – yeast in this case.
LF: What impact do you think ‘natural wine’ has had on the industry and how much will it influence the coming decades of wine-making?
FV: It will pass very quickly and, in the wine industry itself, people are laughing about it. Natural wines are made by lazy winemakers. In my view, SO2 [sulfur dioxide] is as important to wine as grapes are. These so-called ‘natural’ white wines all taste the same: oxidised and without any varietal character or freshness, while the ‘natural’ reds are all dominated by Brettanomyces.
I think this trend was very cleverly developed, though. At a time when people want their food to be ‘natural’ again, very clear and straightforward. But I do not believe these wines will survive. Also because of the trend of global warming and rising pH levels in wine, these ‘natural’ wines will be even more difficult to stabilise chemically and microbiologically.
LF: What other publications – wine-related or not – do you read and enjoy reading, and why?
FV: When I am not studying about wine, I like to read poetry, especially in my native language. I like the sound of my language and I love the power of words. I don’t read newspapers – a waste of time when you can watch the news. I also don’t read tasting notes. They’re only a show-off of the author, and after one day they are outdated.
I also like looking in beautifully made books, no matter what the subject is. They bring me ideas. Ideas for new projects always originate in my guts. Only after that I start thinking about them.
LF: Do you have plans for any other wine or food projects up your sleeves?
FV: Yes. Something completely opposite to TONG. But related to wine. I can only give you the title: “A Secret”…
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Having now read three of the issues that have been published so far, I have a few thoughts of my own.
- I find it commendable and encouraging that a publication like TONG now exists – it provides real, practical knowledge about wine from the people who are best placed to talk about their given subject – and the motives of the publication couldn’t be more clear or transparent
- I like the way it looks: the fonts and typesetting changes with each issue (and therefore each subject), as does the style of photography, which is always engaging and often quite beautiful
- While I must admit that some of the knowledge goes over my head due to the fact that it can be very technical in nature, it encourages me to learn more so that I can (eventually) understand what is being said
- Sometimes the ‘reality’ of what is being discussed is in direct opposition to trends and/or perceived collective wisdom in the industry, which is always refreshing…some acidity to balance to often over-extracted world of wine journalism
TONG Magazine is published quarterly. The current issue is #8 and its subject is oak.
A 1-year subscription costs €100, while a 2-year subscription is €175, plus shipping (which varies depending which country you live in). Back issues are available for €28 each, plus shipping.
*Note: I have no personal or commercial relationship with TONG Magazine or its publisher.*