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Bay Vieux Briefs


Wine Writers R.I.P.?

Alder Yarrow had an interesting — and upsetting — post yesterday over at Vinography. It’s called “Tough Time to be a Wine Writer,” and to tell you the truth, Alder sounded a little down in the dumps. He wrote about how wine magazines and newspaper wine sections are folding as advertising dollars evaporate and the jobs dry up. As a wine writer myself, it’s worrisome to see the words “wine writing” and “panhandling” in the same article!


Unemployed wine writer

Alder may well be right. If the Ship of State is going down, then so will all the deck chairs sink with it, including wine writers. On the other hand, we have the inspiration of President Obama. But there may be nothing he can do in the short run, and the short run looks pretty bleak.

On the Cecchetti-Racke Merger

Yesterday I blogged on Greg La Follette selling his Tandem brand, and I quoted him as saying there could be “a bloodbath for small wineries” because they don’t have the time or money to travel the country to sell their wine.

This seems to be the rationale behind the Cecchetti-Racke joint venture announced yesterday. The key sentence is “Cecchetti Racke will be reviewing their current distribution network in all markets across the United States with an eye to maximizing the company’s portfolio of wines.” Roy Cecchetti is an industry veteran who’s built up many a brand in the past. With his brother-in-law, Don Sebastiani, he launched Pepperword Grove, and later he created two  inexpensive brands, 39 Degrees and RedTree, whose price points are in the comfort zone of today’s value-oriented wine consumers. The man knows how to sell in a down market.

Chill with Obama’s chile

There’s been a lot of talk about what kind of wine Barack and Michelle will serve in the W.H. but here’s a recipe for the President’s own homemade chile. Personally, I’d drink beer with it, not wine, but that’s me.


The link also contains a video of Obama’s 2001 appearance on the Chicagoland version of Check, Please!, a PBS-aired television show hosted here in the Bay Area by Leslie Sbrocco. Maybe all of us unemployed wine writers can get new jobs as restaurant critics. No, wait, there won’t be any restaurants if this thing gets worse. Oh, well…

Be thankful I don’t take it all

Wine Institute Chairman Bobby Koch sent out an emergency email late yesterday to all W.I. members, as well as the media, urging “immediate action” in writing Gov. Schwarzenegger to oppose his proposed excise tax increase on wine. “lost jobs at our wineries” will be the result, Koch says. There’s a real note of desperation in his tone. It’s not just that a tax increase will hurt wineries, it’s that to do so during this perilous economic downturn might be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. I’d hate to see a tax increase on wine, but with California’s $40 billion budget deficit, it’s going to be hard for the Legislature not to scramble for every dime they can find.

  1. Steve,

    I’m not really down in the dumps. As a blogger I have infinite job security! If you detected some emotion in my post, it’s really concern for the talented people who may soon have a lot less job security than they thought, and who may have to struggle to make ends meet.


  2. Alder, I understand how you feel. I share your sympathy. Any one of us could have tragedy strike at any moment.

  3. Guys, jobs are being lost and will continue to be lost across the employment spectrum. Important jobs are being lost – teachers, health-care workers, scientists – you name it. Wine writers are neither all that common nor essential and the nation is unlikely to petition for their survival. For many wine is a luxury item that may well fall by the wayside as the more important staples of life consume more of a contracting income. What to do? Well you can pack up your laptop and go hide in the corner and hope that it will all be over before the floor disappears from beneath your feet. Or you can wait for the new Administration to work their wonders, even though Obama has said that neither he nor his Administration has a magic fix. Or you can look around and see what contribution you can make. As is being said more and more, we live in interesting times. Get interested! For example a little optimism wouldn’t hurt.

  4. Mike, you’re right that optimism can’t hurt. I’ll do my best to be more positive thinking. But if there’s bad news to report, I have to go there.

  5. Morton Leslie says:

    I don’t mean the following as a snarky remark, but as a serious question.

    What would happen if there was a way for a winery to get the story directly to the customer without going through a middleman? Sort of like direct sales, except direct PR. Let’s say there was minimal cost of access, no need for a printing press, managing editors, sellers of advertising. Beyond that no need to create events, hire chefs, devise gimmicks just to impress jaded wine writers or critics. No need to send out samples, follow up, take care of special requests, special tours to their friends and family.

    What if instead of creating the story and trying to talk a writer into writing it, and usually failing, wineries instead created their own vehicle to talk directly to the consumer?Scary, huh?

  6. Actually, Morton, that’s already happening (as you know) through winery blogs and Internet sites. However, I have a hunch that wineries are
    always going to depend on middlemen for word of mouth, and there will always be some middlemen who are more powerful, or credible, than

  7. Morton Leslie says:

    I actually wanted to say more, but the wife was pacing the kitchen wanting me to stop my stupid typing and give her a lift into town.

    The old standbys in the argument for middlemen are “credibility”, “objectivity”, and “lack of bias.” I don’t completely discount those traits, though I have never seen a direct connection between success as a wine journalist and objectivity or freedom from bias. In fact, I think I have seen bias and a lack of objectivity propel some to success, while undermining the profession as a whole (attracting imitators.)

    Combine that with more and more Americans feeling comfortable with their own particular wine knowledge (or wine ignorance). Many no more need a wine journalist than they need a vodka or rum journalist. Yes, it might be fun to read about rum or vodka now and then, but not so much interest as to create a profession.

    What has undermined the winery speaking directly is the voice most of them use. The usual approach is to ask, “how many superlatives about the wine or winery can I stuff in each sentence?” Or “what totally bullshit story will my customer buy?” Few can stay in the dispassionate education mode long before they cruise back into the voice that turns the customer off. But some wineries have learned to educate in a voice that does not sound biased. They talk about real things that make them or their wine distinctive. Beyond that , they are finding it can easily be a two way conversation. Here is where a talented and skilled wine writer will find success…at the winery.

    I truly think the future of wine communication will be more a two way conversation direct from the producer to the consumer and I think this is where the talented wine journalist will find employment in the future.

  8. have you people lost your minds? What the hell is going on with you people out there? There will be always a sunshine for competent, hard-working, inspired, lucky, “networked” people. A recession, a DEEP one, is hitting many countries in the world very hard. Guess what? Companies and people everywhere will have to come up with newer technologies, thinking, tools, manners in order to survive. Do you americans think you live in a not so great time right now? Does anyone want to trade places with me and take over my brand-new wine importing company in Brazil?? Yes, that’s right, Brazil. By the way, shame on all of you from California. Your market share in Brazil is an awesome (duuuude) 0.12% and I can’t find any company to sell wine down there. Nice job. Come on everyone, the world will continue to spin. This is a great opportunity for the good ones to be set apart from the so-so ones. Steve, I enjoy your blog a lot. Keep it up man.

  9. Morton,

    Very good comments. I agree that consumers should and will be very leary of info coming directly from wineries, as they should. As we all know, most wineries cannot and will not look at their products objectively, instead telling consumers how wonderful every wine they make is, even that one that stuck during fermentation and smells of who knows what . . .

    Until the industry as a whole changes its tune and really trys to educate consumers in a non-obtrusive, non-belittling way, third party writers will ALWAYS have a job . . . . unless THEY become more subjective and less objective . . .


  10. Larry, you’re right about wineries saying how wonderful everything is, but what do you expect? Should they tell consumers, “Hey, this wine really sucks, but you should buy it anyway because I have 2 kids in college and a mortgage and my house is underwater”? I don’t think so! The public understands that wineries spin, P.R. agencies spin, everybody spins, EXCEPT independent wine writers, who have nothing to gain or lose by being honest.

  11. Steve,

    I truly think you’re giving consumers more credit than they deserve – I’m NOT convinced the average consumer ‘sees through’ the spin most wineries give – and this is evident when I do consumer events and here the misconceptions about the winemaking process/specific wines. Sometimes it just makes me giggle – but more often than not, it makes me reiterate what I said in my last post . . .

    So I still think there is a LOT of work we all need to do – starting with wineries and trickling down from there. And I truly, honestly believe that there will always be a prominent place for independent writers such as yourself . . . as long as you give my wines great ratings (-:


  12. Critics like me will give your wines great ratings if you make great wines!

  13. It’s a tough time to be anything.

    Communities are by nature people inter-dependent, whether on each other, on trade and commerce between them, on sharing ideas along well-traveled routes, or on benefiting from collected strengths, the whole always being greater than the sum of its parts.

    There will always be “middlemen” because there isn’t enough time in the day. You can’t farm and prune vines and clean equipment and turn barrels and make sales trips as consistently as your operation’s revenue stream requires. And it’s brutal to track those sales when your farm is at home and you’re in Vegas serving to wine managers after 1:30 in the morning because that’s when they get off. You shift and adjust to the market. You need help to do everything required. The story supports the sales, not the other way around.

    Thoughts are shared in vibrant, productive communities of all types. Ancient cities had orators. Tribes had shamans. New republics defend free press. If you are a writer and a communicator, you experience and you extend. If not wine, then something. Your use your passion to extend someone else’s passion. To an audience who passionately wants to know more.

    The consumers are smarter, growing in legion and placed (and accessible) throughout the world. Wine is still red or white in many places where direct sales can now provide unique, small, focused products for tables dressed with a variety of foods and conversations. The educational aspect of wine writing reaches far deeper than product review. Interacting over mutual interest. Exposure to something interesting and new. An experience remembered and shared forward.

    For the last ten years I have given tours to people from every state and written dozens of wine club newsletters and e-mail letters for wineries with great reach, sharing what happens in this growing region with visitors and unseen consumers who have greater access and greater interest and are hungry for a relationship. The communication is two-way and the response is easily measurable.

    The economy and the wine world are clearly shifting, but as long as someone produces pencils and paper, then writers will extend passionate stories. But a change of perspective may be required, as it always has been. Look at the existence of mobile bottling lines. Collaborative, innovative, productive, and certainly not the way your grandfather did it.

    There is no denying the people supporting the industry are in trouble. Things will always be placed in bottles and boxes and there are all kinds of sales to account, but the vineyard owner and the apprentice winemaker toiling away in anonymity have a passion and finely-honed skill set that doesn’t shift easily. The fiscal crisis reaches every tier of the industry, from grape contracts to recycled packaging materials to tasting room staff. We’re headed back to cash on the barrel head interaction, buying a good bottle of wine in a good deal from a good person. If the internet and blogs and Facebook feed that conversation, then writers will migrate there. We already are.

    The new contribution, perhaps responsibility, may be to telling the stories of the people before the grape. A completely unsolicited recommendation for Steve’s book, New Classic Winemakers of California, does just that.

    Who and why before what or where.

    The relationship, the interesting tidbit, the enlightenment, the point of personal connection that a tasting room visitor takes back to Overland Park, Kansas or Tampa, Florida usually strikes after hearing directly about a person who got their hands dirty, not the difference between varietals. That the sound of harvest beginning is many knives sharpening on whetstones in the pre-dawn fog.

    The success of orators and shamans and the free press and good storytelling has always been making it simple for readers to reply, respond and react. Because then they buy and trade and share. It’s a 5,000 year old industry with great new tools and I see optimistic opportunity. But there isn’t one of us who can do it alone.

    “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”
    — Hunter S. Thompson

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