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2 things

17 comments

1.

Reaction to my distributor post was fast, furious

And unexpected. I never know when or if something I say will inflame passions or just bore. But the chastising comments I got have forced me to think this thing through.

Most of the negative comments to my post were along the lines of “stop bashing distributors.” Many seemed to be from distributors who took offense to my statement that they lack passion. One comment scored my post 68 points. Ouch. The most telling comment was from someone who accused me of the same faulty logic that Parker used when he said all bloggers are irresponsible: i.e., that all distributors lack passion.

For that, I issue a mea culpa. All distributors do not lack passion. I was wrong to tar them with the same brush, and I apologize.

Others wrote that it’s not fair to blame distributors when there are retail accounts that demand high Parker and Spectator scores; what are the distributors supposed to do? One or two said that the last thing the world needs is another high-priced Napa Cabernet from a famous vineyard. I’m not sure I agree with that. High-end Napa Cab is one of the most in-demand wines in the world, and when this recession is over, I expect it will bounce right back. But that writer is entitled to his opinion.

Someone else wrote in to say that the winemaker I referenced, the one who made the Beckstoffer Cabernet, really had no story to tell. I don’t understand that. Everyone has a story to tell, whether it’s some little peasant winemaker in the Veneto or Robert Mondavi. It’s dismissive to say that just because a winemaker uses Crushpad, he lacks authenticity as a winemaker. The industry is exploring new options and approaches, and these custom-crush, do-it-yourself facilities are one such. In fact, they’re more democratic than the traditional approach, because they enable people without deep pockets to get into the industry.

I think my frustration with distributors is due to the fact that I’ve heard countless stories from innumerable small family winemakers about not being able to get picked up and moved through the system. It’s true, as some commenters noted, that the wine business is exactly that, a business, and no one has the right to expect it to be easy. But when you hear this sad story about lack of distribution year in and year out, it gets to you. Something seems broken, somewhere along the line, if honest men and women who just want to have a little winery can’t sell the stuff without being on the road for 300 days a year.

Finally, there were commenters who agreed with my post. One thing I’ve learned about blogging is, We live in a big, messy democracy and people are going to have all kinds of different reactions to the issues. The 3-tiered system, obviously, is one that ignites passions, as it should. The status quo is unacceptable, and if my post moves the discussion an inch forward, that’s good. But thanks to my critics, I won’t be painting with such a broad brush anymore.

2.

Parker, the Wall Street Journal & Me

I guess the Wall Street Journal is going to do an article on this Robert Parker thing that 1WineDude started and that Dr. Vino hopped on to. Actually, it’s more than a guess. The reporter, a guy named David, called up to interview me, and said he hopes to get to press this week. So, knowing a thing or two about the interview process, and bearing in mind that the WSJ now is owned by that paragon of fair and balanced reportage, Rupert Murdoch, I decided to inoculate myself against any possible misquotes, out-of-context quotes or just-plain lies.

Here’s what I told David.

1. Parker was wrong to impugn all wine bloggers (as I was wrong to impugn distributors).
2. He should say he’s sorry and get this behind him (as I hope to).
3. In fact, he should reach out to bloggers and find out who they are and what they’re trying to do. He might find, as I did, that they’re pretty cool. (I invite distributors to contact me anytime.)
4. The reporter wanted me to say that Parker’s diss of wine bloggers is a huge story in the wine industry. It’s not, and bloggers should let it go.
5. Re: Dr. Vino’s writing about paid travel:
6. It’s all about transparency. If Parker revealed, in his disclosures, that his hired correspondents accept junkets, I have no problem with that. (I don’t know if he did or didn’t, as I don’t read his blog.)
7. If he didn’t, then he should have.
8. If he’s now saying that he, Parker, personally never accepts junkets, but that he doesn’t concern himself with the business minutae of his hired writers, then Parker does have a little ‘splainin to do. But, again, it’s not some huge scandal he’s trying to cover up, IMHO.
Finally:
9. Some bloggers sometimes seek to advance their careers by bringing down the big dogs with sensationalist exposés. I’m not saying anyone in particular is doing this, but it’s been known to happen.

  1. Steve, I always admire you for your open ability to say when you wish to retract a statement or say something in error. Even more so that you say it in Latin (as a student of the language for 4 years). You make it public and you make yourself accountable. Perhaps it’s part of your journalistic background, but it’s also the trait of a worthwhile person. In taking accountability, in admitting wrong in order to correct it, everyone betters for it.

    As far as point 4 goes, I agree whole-heartedly. One of my beliefs in life is that when you pay too much energy toward something negative, you validate that it’s worth that energy–be it emotional or physical. If bloggers want to make a point that Parker’s remark is baseless, they simply need to continue focus on their efforts of proving the statement wrong–that is better than any apology he could offer later on.

  2. Well done, sir. On both counts. BTW: I scored your distributor post an 82 :)

  3. 1.

    I, like you, hear the same stories about distributors day-after-day. I’m sorry that feelings on their end were hurt, and I’m willing to bet that you only heard from the small guys trying to make a buck and stay ahead of the big dogs that own 90 of the shelf space.

    Also, I can’t imagine being a wholesaler (big or small) with the flood of labels out there. Each new brand that a wholesaler takes on means that his staff needs to learn about that one, too, then go out and find shelf space or a menu placement for it. This means that the winery MUST then visit that market at least twice a year, and we have – what – 50 states, and major metropolitan markets within each state. It’s a mess. If this were the peanut butter industry, life would be radically different. (Smooth or chunky would be the options.)

    In defense of Steve, generalized opinions bring out those who feel that they don’t fit the bill, but there ARE reasons for those original generalized opinions. Stereotypes exist for a reason, even if we don’t like the fact that they exist. They do, because we’ve observed a repeated pattern, and I’ve seen the same pattern that Steve was writing about – as I wrote – on a daily basis… I hear it from my brands, so it is a story worth telling.

    2.

    Every spring, the young rams come out and fight the main ram on the mountain top, hoping to topple his position. If the young buck wins, he’s got the herd. If he loses, he must wait one more year. (Get ready for next April, when it will play itself out again.) The fact that Robert pushed back this time means that he’s engaged… But he didn’t lose his ground. From the interchanges Mr. Parker and I have had, he’s always been gracious and kind…. a gentleman.

    I’m betting that he’s been reeling from some of the badly written blogs he’s come across… And, they’re out there, along with all the good ones. They’re like really badly made wines.

    What goes around (mud) comes around. While Robert Parker may regret generalizing, he may also see no reason to take it any further – which would include apologizing for his generalization. To do so would give more credence to something he probably wishes he had never stepped in… the poop that was left on the top of the mountain by younger bucks trying to topple him.

    It’s all just human nature…

  4. Steve, as a blog watcher, I would say this is a big deal. Huge. Which is precisely why WSJ is interested. And Tyler (Dr. Vino) seemed to comport himself with tremendous tact and high journalistic standards in his multiple posts on the topic, not to mention the stream of comments that followed.

    You say you know a thing or two about the interview process. OK, but your mere listing of 9 points above seem a bit paranoid here. Does the fact that Rupert Murdoch owns WSJ now make you think the reporter would misquote you? Your continued objectivity as an editor at WE is testament to the fact that an individual’s professional behavior has nothing to do with the behavior (political or ethical) of a publication’s ownership.

    And why would you refer to the WSJ as “a guy named David”? Is that how he introduced himself to you?

  5. Tish, I didn’t get David’s last name.

  6. Steve:

    I guess that in every facet of every business there are passionate people. I also suppose that the distributors who survive this recession and storm of consolidations deserve understanding but its my belief that help may be on the way for the small wineries.

    In the last few weeks there have been two reports released (one by Silicon Valley Bank entitled “2009-2010 State of the Wine Industry” and one by Vintank entitled “The Wine Industry Social Media”) that is showing the way for all wineries but especially the smaller ones.

    Direct to consumer sales is their answer. Yes, there are kinks to work out, but if done correctly, and a winemaker’s work gets noticed by the millions of wine drinking friends, a buzz can be created that will surprise them to no end.

    There may come a time in the future where those same distributors are pleading with the very same small wineries to please give them a chance!

  7. Steve,

    The WSJ writer called me and I told him that you had also had something to say about integrity and transparency. And I told him what I have told you both publicly and privately–namely that I believe yours is the best written blog in existence.

    I am surprised at your reaction to the reporter. He and I talked for about an hour and it was pleasant, professional and entirely exploratory.

    He has no idea if this is a big deal or not, and he said so. We talked a lot about the idea that there is a pyramid of wine drinkers with the majority of consumers in the wide base and the passionate few in the upper, narrow pinnacle end.

    It is the folks in that end of the pyramid who are concerned about Parker–not just the bloggers. There was a time, as we discussed here, when folks who wrote about wine bought their own wine, tasted blind and if they accepted samples, they did not solicit them. In that time frame, there were folks who published slick paper magazines like yours and took advertising. Those mags did not review wine.

    When WE, WS and others changed the nature of that calculus, and, at the same time, the number of wineries grew to thousands instead of hundreds, the need for wineries to send out samples and the need for writers to accept them, as you and I both do, also changed.

    Parker started in business in 1978 or thereabouts, in the era when wine critics had to be like Caesars’ wife–above suspicion. What we are debating now is how those standards have changed, what they should be and how to treat a publication that says one thing and does another.

    From my perspective, it is about time. And not just because Jay Miller and Mark Squires essentially followed a practice that the Wine Advocate says it does not follow. This debate needs to go beyond Parker and to question us all. There are a lot of questionable practices out there, and as the blogosphere fills up, the number of those questionable practices has grown.

    You have called for transparency, and I accept that transparency is the first step. Whether you or anyone else joins me in calling for critics to taste blind and to conduct those tastings away from the wineries is less the issue than the fact that wine recommendations to folks who pay us to make them ought to be independent, free of bias and above suspicion.

    So, when the WSJ calls you and asks for your opinion, it is because you are smart, thoughtful and have earned the right to be asked about your standards and your stand on what is right and wrong in the wine review world. I hope you gave the man an earful.

  8. In response to the first things-You were dead on in the first place, no reason to consider an apology. Many distributors (generalization shouldn’t hurt feelings if you are not the norm) don’t have the stones to challenge small minded buyers. How sad is that when a distributor tastes the “best” Napa cab they’ve ever had, and yet rejects it. That show no strength of conviction. They may as well be selling widgets if they can’t champion a product they truly believe in!

  9. Steve,

    Well said all around. It’s a difficult business that we are all involved in because wine, as an artform, elicits passionate opinions and responses. I think everyone has fired a few shots at somebody in the industry. I regretfully have done so at many of the critics out there, you included. Sometimes, we fire off regardless of how many of the facts we have accumulated simply because we have constructed a very powerful, very passionate opinion and belief in this business we love so much. If we didn’t, there would be no debate or controversy at any level.

    Speaking from the retail side of things, I am at the front line of it all, and while I do agree with a lot of what you originally said about distributors, I also agree with the fact that not all distributors are created equally. And even amongst the “big boys” of that particular tier, there are those that are truly passionate about wine. Likewise, there are retailers that continue to be overly reliant upon reviewers’ opinions and critiques because it is far simpler to use their reviews than formulate their (the retailers) own opinions.

    It’s been a long time coming for me to admit that the power of a big score from Parker, WS, WE and the like goes a long way in selling cases of wine. However, in the long run, it’s a retailer’s job to be able to temper those reviews with a skilled staff and a quality, comprehensive selection, put together by their own vision and their own interaction with their customer base.

    I agree with all of your commenters that WSJ sees this as a big deal, and it’s equally significant that they asked you for your insight, because of your position on both fronts (as traditional print reviewer AND blogger). I’ve become heavily appreciative of your insight and glad that you’re able to contribute to the debate that I honestly don’t think will go away for many years to come. Keep telling us like it is.

  10. Steve, it was decent of you to retract your “all distributors are the same” comments, so your blog score goes up from 68 to, well, let’s say… “83″. Unfortunately, your sentiment initially expressed has lots of merit, but as you know, it is not kosher to paint every canvas with the same brush.

  11. Thanks, Steve – they picked a good source in coming to you!

    2 Questions:
    1) Did you give them the correct spelling of my name?
    2) Did you give them the correct spelling of my blog address?

    :-)

  12. To have the dream is a great start. Then one needs to have a plan. I have seen too many small wineries ( not all) who have the romantic notion that if “they build it, they will come”.

    It might be that moving away from the established channels (from wholesaler to direct selling) is a good strategy for many of these small wineries.

    It is brutal right now. I have worked for small distribs and large (now w/ large) and the scenario is the same. Work, work, work. and follow-up, follow-up, follow-up.

    There is tremendous passion, in the vineyards, and out in the trade. But you gotta have passion-and-a-plan.

    Even with that, there are some pretty famous and important cult wines that are languishing in the storerooms.

    So along with passion and a plan I would also add pliability, a willingness to change with the conditions we are all facing.

    This is a cycle, we’ll all get through it.

    BTW, thanks Steve, for showing a willingness to be pliable in your opinions. A mark of a good journalist. Bravo!

  13. Yes to both, Dude.

  14. On a more serious note, I do disagree with the assessments here that bloggers are taking aim at Parker in trying to topple him, replace him, become the young bucks that rule the herd, or even using it as a platform to deliberately generate traffic, etc.

    I stand by my statements that most wine bloggers and their readers don’t view Parker as a top dig to be toppled. They would largely, I believe, see him as a guiding light if he chose to be one.

    What Parker did was to unfairly paint blogging with too broad a brush for the sake of promoting his own status and viewpoint. It was entirely unnecessary and in doing so it was Parker who challenged blogs, not the other way around.

  15. Steve-
    I’m not letting you off that easy. You are clearly biased against distributors and you need to realize that they are as much a part of wine culture as the wineries themselves. I hear countless instances of small wineries not being able to reach every customer out there. Well, guess what, neither can Coke or Pepsi. Sure, they may think that distributors are the big “evil”, but they can also partners in business too. In the current economic time, this cannot be more plain to see. Many “cult” wineries are in dire need of some distributor assistance to help move some inventory. This happens whenever there is a recession, or a bad vintage. You accused the distributors of being in it soley for money, but i find it hypocritical that you beat the drum for these “small” producers, while also accepting their free samples and reviewing their wine. Many of these small guys in CA may have legitimit beefs with the current system. And that’s unfortunate, but it’s not everybody’s god-given right to have access to a large distributor network.

  16. Well, T.J., I’m working on my anti-distributor bias.

  17. I agree with T.J. again!

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