subscribe: Posts | Comments      Facebook      Email Steve

The future of wine writing? Here’s a scary scenario

45 comments

“[T]here is no doubt that around the world, the financial sustainability of being a travel writer in particular, is in severe doubt.

Publishers say that they are awash with copy and articles and that they do not want any more pitches and on the other side of the fence, writers say it is becoming increasingly difficult to receive commissions or for work to be published and paid for.

At the same time, the per word rates have plummeted…”

So says the website, e travel blackboard, in announcing that the International Food, Wine & Travel Writers Association (which I’ve never heard of, but it seems legit) is sponsoring a $1,000 scholarship for any “writer who aspires to enter the field of food, wine and/or travel writing.” In addition to the money, the winner gets to go on the IFWTW’s 7-day Conference at Sea cruise through the Caribbean next January. Sounds good; I’d enter, but one entry requirement is that you cannot have made any money already through writing, so that eliminates me. But, hey, you aspirational bloggers? Go for it.

Anyway, that part about travel writers hitting bottom frightens me. Wine writing and food writing have always been closely allied with travel writing (which is why there’s an International Food, Wine & Travel Writers Association), so if travel writers are in trouble, what does that bode for wine writers? We (bloggers) have assumed, almost automatically, that wine writing will continue to be a viable career into the future. Many bloggers and others have simultaneously assumed that this writing would be on the Internet, rather than on paper (although I’ve expressed my doubts about that), but either way, the working assumption has been that there will always be wine writers and that some of them will do quite well.

But what if the travel writers are those canaries in the coal mine, the first ones to sicken and die when the air becomes toxic and is no longer capable of sustaining life?

The writer of the e travel blackboard article also had this to say:

I have just returned from the USA, where the situation is much worse than in Australia, with masses of untrained and unprofessional writers…claiming to be travel writers, bugging airlines and hotels for freebies to go on trips to apparently write, providing very average results, if any at all, while seriously damaging the reputation and credibility of the profession of travel writing and making it impossible for professionals to operate.  Of course, less scrupulous publishers like these “writers”, because they end up with articles for nothing. The writer [is] happy that they have had a “free holiday”.

If you substitute the word “wine” for “travel” in that statement, it might just summarize a certain segment of the wine blogosphere. (Please, please all of you who are scrupulous and honest and do it for the love, DON’T accuse me of tarring all wine bloggers with the same brush! But you know that there exist some “untrained and unprofessional writers…claiming to be wine writers” out there…don’t you?)

I guess this gets back to the Twitter/Facebook social media model of “everybody’s their own critic” and “friends listen to their friends, not to some distant critical God.” That’s fine. Democracy in action and all that. But if there are fewer and fewer paying magazines and websites, and more and more wine writers doing bad writing, then simple logic dictates that the economic future of wine writing is pretty dismal, in the long term.

People used to make a living as milkmen, gas streetlamp lighters, town criers and all sorts of other jobs that no longer exist. Could “wine writer” be as anachronistic as those someday?

  1. Steve, you may just have something there.
    A stiff per word tax on wine and travel writers to help fund universal health care and other historically failed programs of big government?
    Since verbosity is so much more prevalent than vinification , think of the possibilities……and unintended consequences. ‘Nuff said.

  2. You wouldn’t be alluding to blogs like http://www.winewhoreblog.com/ or http://wannabewino.com/ that rely quite heavily on press samples and are quite laudatory, would you?

    At any rate, the magazines will still serve the audience of high end collectors as there just aren’t all that many bloggers who are either independently wealthy or connected enough to taste a lot of high end wine. So for the people who want 90+ point cellars, Wine Enthusiast, Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator provide a valuable service.

    Blogging does fill a niche, when done well (especially in the style of http://2daysperbottle.blogspot.com/ where the author isn’t so pliant in appeasing his press sample giving benefactors). Where the major magazines focus on collectors, blogs help the consumer of more modest means. This works on two levels. While magazine reviews are limited to a sentence and a score, a blog can provide deeper insight because electronically published words are cheap. There’s also greater breadth, particularly at the low and mid-price levels. Several critics just can’t cover as much ground as thousands of drinkers. If you’re interested in trying a wine from some obscure corner of Europe, chances are you can find some kind of blog info on it.

    So while there are a fair number of bloggers who actively solicit press samples, the top Growths of Bordeaux, Napa cult wines and great Burgundy are never going to be their focal points. Unless DRC or Angelus start sending out press samples expecting a glowing review.

  3. Steve,

    The type of “writer” you discuss here and the cited article bemoans was at the heart of the ethics questions I posed in my piece some time ago (the one in which you participated).

    I sense that this “writer for hire” model will be come more prevalent simply because it offers better ROI. A puff piece is a half-sibling of the advertorial. It is just as effective because it will not raise skepticism in the casual consumer’s mind.

    Why better ROI? Because even though professional and informed critics can be subject to bias, they are still approach the subject product form a critical standpoint. They are far less likely to feel beholden to the producer of the product.

    This approach to wine writing/reviewing is getting a lot of support (http://finance.yahoo.com/news/VinTank-Offers-Advice-to-prnews-15447084.html?.v=1) and we can only watch and see what comes of it.

  4. Oy…

    Correction:

    “It is more effective because it will not raise skepticism in the casual consumer’s mind. “

  5. Greg, Wine Enthusiast magazine, for which I review California wines, does not focus exclusively on high end collectors. We and I take very seriously the job of educating and helping the consumer of more modest means, of which I am one.

  6. Steve-

    I didn’t mean to imply that you don’t actively seek to publish reviews and articles on wine at all price/prestige levels all while practicing good ethics.

    But I do think to a large extent the end-users are collectors and distributors whose tastes are perhaps less eclectic and more driven by positive reviews. My feeling is that this base will always be drawn towards the most respected wine publications. Blogging should fall into more of a niche operation picking up what slips between the cracks, with the shills being separated from the talented enthusiasts over time.

  7. “…more wine writers all the time, who are doing worse and worse writing…”

    I see it now, the STEVE HEIMOFF School of W(h)ine Writing(TM) to open Fall 2009. Act now to ensure your spot, as space is filling fast. We guarantee that Parker won’t call you a Blobber after pass our rigorous course!

  8. Morton Leslie says:

    Given that recent generations x, y and millennials do not seem inclined to read to the extent of baby boomers or their parents I would say the market for good wine writing will continue to diminish over the next decade. Forget about new wine books. Information will be short clips short enough to match the attention span….and the “true facts” about wine will be determined by the order information comes up in google.

    Add to the fact that those same recent generations look at the seasoned critic as old and corrupt and the learned connoisseur as representative of a bygone age. Young people look to the collective for answers. We are moving into the age of the “wiki.” Future wine marketing will cease being concerned with influencing the wine writer and more interested in manipulating the wiki. There will be an ap for that.

    Wine publishing whether paper or electronic will become a future ap on the replacement to the iphone. It will read the UPC code and project a wiki score on the bottle, along with whether it is fairly priced, and probably with a green or red light signaling the environmental credentials of the producer. Later the purchaser will probably use the same device to post his or her contribution to the opinion of the wiki.

    Steve, I hate to say it, but it looks like there will be an ap for you.

  9. The major wine publications have access to far more wines than any one blogger could ever hope to taste. That is why, in my opinion, blogs will succeed if the look for niches. Simple blurb tasting notes of readily available wines merely echo what can be found in Wine Enthusiast, Wine Spectator, etc. Blogs with niches, though, whether they are looking for great deals, like Good Wine Under $20, offering visual delights, like Chateau Petrogasm, focusing on a local wine region, like Lenndevours, or even looking at how wine evolves over time, like my own (and thank you for the very kind words), will find a place in the wine reading universe.

    Others will use their blogs as audition and practice sites, hoping to hone their skills as wine writers while looking for a paying gig. They, I fear, will be disappointed. I did that for a while with political cartooning, only to see that real cartoonists, successful artists with decades of experience, were losing their jobs as newspapers cut costs. The future of print media is not rosy.

    Many will just wine blog because they love wine, they love writing, and the two go together so well.

    Finally, some will do it for the freebies. In my personal opinion, Wannabe Wino is not in that camp, for she usually drinks wines she buys on her frequent trips to California, and she buys things she likes. She does not seem to be on a freebie-hunt. I have also seen her write negative reviews.

    Greg, thanks again for the kind words. Steve, good post, but I would not say travel writers are canaries in the coal mine. They are the miners right in front of you. The canaries were newspaper cartoonists, movie reviewers, and beat reporters. I am not sure I would attribute the gas in the mine to blogs. It is more likely reduced advertising budgets, lower reading rates by the younger generations, greater choice in media spreading out the budget dollar, and less discretionary spending not just for the magazines, but also the products they review and promote.

  10. Morton, I sincerely believe there are young bloggers out there who desire to be fantastic writers as well. I know some personally. Won’t mention any names, but there’s some awfully good writing. You just have to weed through endless piles of crap to find it.

  11. Tuition is my School is a mere $1 trillion a semester.

  12. Steve, you are strrrrrrrrrrretching here.

    First off, wine writing has never been “closely aligned” with food and travel writing, at least in this country. Wine writing is a far smaller niche, and my impression is that very few food or travel specialists would dare delve into the murky waters of wine writing. Meanwhile, there’s not much “alignment” in that association you plucked out of cyberspace to start this post; they seem to have 26 members in all, and I recognize none as wine writers. In short, wine scribes are very different beasts.

    Further, you seem to be taking this premise as another opportunity to cast aspersions on bloggers, even as you beg not to be accused of tarring everyone with a broad brush. Why mention bloggers at all? Do you know of a single blogger (your synoynm for untrained, unprofessional writers…) who has sought out the freebies implied in this post? On the other hand, I know that print magazines, yours included, are more than happy to have their staff and contributing writers accept free trips (without disclosing them, of course). In the meantime, if you do know of any bloggers who are trolling for free trips, go ahead and name ‘em. By suggesting they exist, you are implying that any blogger could fit in that category. That is a far cry from reality.

    I find it interesting that Greg has called out several bloggers in particular. I am not a fan of “The Wine Whore,” and yes, the premise of his blog makes me wince. But Sonadora at Wannabewino may well be the most earnest, sincere and straightshooting wine writer anywhere – in print or on the Net. These two individuals have basically two things in common: they blog, and they are wholly transparent about receiving and even soliciting samples. Since when is transparency considered a greater sin than the opposite?

    And I had to chuckle when he commended 2daysperbottle for being relatively tough when reviewing wine. Has he not noticed that Wine Enthusiast is so tough that they no longer even print scores below 85, and never ever give scores below 80? (Not that WS is that much tougher).

    In fact, there are just way too many blogs to characterize them as appealing to any segment of the wine-drinking populace. What I see happening here, in this post, is yet another case of you trying to speed up an evolution. The shift from print to Internet as a source of valued information is well underway, but rather than accept the shift as a process, you seem to want to condemn any aspect of it that doesn’t fit your conviction that some writers (“trained, professional”?) are better fit than others (bloggers) to cover wine. Give it a couple years, and then let’s see.

  13. That ship has already sailed.

    There has been a dumbing down of travel writing in established travel mags. All are scrambling for dollars, struggling to find a stable readership. I don’t think they fully understand the dramatic changes happening under their very noses. And there has been a corresponding shortening of the attention span in younger readers, that coupled with an increasing interest in more unusual travel experiences.

    I have long found collective threads on some obscure travel websites, personal in the main, to have the most update, relevant material available for the younger traveler. It is not simply the specter of ‘untrained and unprofessional writers’ that threatens the travel writing industry but of the irrelevance of the latter.

    Of the remark by the e travel blackboard article, just how does one train as a travel writer? I imagine by writing about one’s travels. And the unprofessional dimension? The internet is simply too vast to take such a remark seriously. Given a travel subject, a country, I could locate fifty reputable e-zines, bloggers, and even youtube vids that would assist the young traveler. Because it is not a question of substituting one voice for another, the trained and the untrained, but of the cumulative effect of dozens of voices scattered across the web available to a traveler versus a ‘professional’ travel writer’s singular, often insulated, point of view.

    Now, when substituting the word ‘wine’ for ‘travel’ two notions immediately occur to me. The backstory of wine is rarely effectively told in professional wine mags. Indeed, the very persistence of the once revolutionary 100 point scale, simultaneously a gross simplification and a dumbing down, is ample evidence of this. And secondly, the young, sadly, have no particular interest, as far as I can tell, in the backstory.

    Yet I think many professional wine writers have, in fact, encouraged a very simple-minded relation to wine, a simple-mindedness that has itself opened the door to many bloggers! I respect the pros for all their hard work, their years of dedication, but I find a lot of them uninteresting, lacking in adventure or style, despite their training and professionalism.

    It not that there are so few good irregular travel and wine writers, it is that there are so many. That is the crisis. And it’s a good one.

  14. I’m always impressed with the comments on your posts, Steve – you seem to get great reactions and well-stated positions on your topics, and you actually respond to the thread, which is something I try very hard to do myself and it’s a pet peeve of mine that many bloggers (especially the very successful ones) often don’t seem to think doing that is important.

    That’s really all I wanted to contribute, because I’ve got absolutely no clue where the future of wine writing is heading.

    Actually, I’ve just lied, I do have some inkling of where this is going.

    It’s going the way of Liberation – in the opposite direction of its recent past, where only a few distant voices held the cards and the “dialog” was one-way.

    Chances are the pendulum is going to swing too far towards the Liberation side before the next stage of wine writing equilibrium is achieved. But, as the Taoists and Osho would have said, there really is no center – just constant adjustment between the extremes.

    Cheers!

  15. Excuse me Greg, but I resent that. I received perhaps one or two sample bottles in the entire first year I ran my blog, yet I posted with the same frequency I do now. More than 75% of the wines I review are self funded and I post nearly every day.

    I could stop accepting samples today and would still have the blog as it is today and as it was before I ever took a sample. I have never solicited a sample. Wineries have contacted me for every sample I’ve received.

    I also write negative reviews, but I attempt to not drink crap wine, especially since I self fund the vast majority of my wine. Of my last 30 posts, 5 were about wine sent to me via sample….so 17% of posts. I actually think that quite pales in comparison to many other folks. I could continue to go back, but I think you are sorely mistaken.

  16. Ken, it’s hard to do great writing — I mean, really literary great writing — for a print periodical. Newspapers and magazines for the most part are in the news business, not the literature business, so they (we) stick to the facts, along with analysis and, sometimes, opinion. The reason I’ve written a couple wine books was because University of California Press gave me the opportunity to truly write in the best way that I possibly could. In particular, my first book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River, took me 2 years of research, interviewing, traveling, writing, re-writing, editing, substituting a phrase for something more elegant or clear. That’s the kind of writing I hope doesn’t disappear. Book companies themselves are dying, which will afford fewer opportunities for great wine writers to get published. But I believe that the instinct to do great writing — which some writers were born with — will never die. Those writers will always find a way to do great wine writing.

  17. Ouch, not sure why Greg feels the need to go naming names and pointing fingers. I believe that a blogger does herself justice by posting a sample policy to make clear any potential conflicts of interest. Our friends of the Glossy Magazines have long since given up steering clear of conflicts of interest. Perhaps this is why bloggers are now more empowered and much-followed? The savvy consumer of late can read through the glossy reviews adjacent to the advertisement or the obviously pay-to-play nature of some reviews. I believe that this blog post was aimed at a different point and think it important to show caution calling out specific writers.

  18. Steve,

    You raise a profound question that moves outside the issues of quality and ethics in wine writing and blogging. The available content in all topical areas and industries has proliferated to the point that audiences are diffused and no longer consolidated around magazine and media brands. That, combined with a major meltdown in ad spend in traditional media has the future of paid journalists in question.

    Besides a major interest in wine and a new attempt at blogging about wine lifestlye elements and habits that suit me, I am a 30 year media executive currently running a fairly large consumer publishing business.

    I can’t say exactly how, but I have a bias that there will always be a premium available for good content. The media support system is broken, not the value of writers and journalists. Once the advertising model evolves and lands on the right commercial model for consumers and content providers (premium paid content seems to be a likely candidate) then I belive things will feel more secure for journalists.

    I don’t think the problem is primarily in wine and/or travel and I certainly dont think that greedy bloggers are primarily driving traditional journalists out of work.

  19. To everyone who assumes that wine bloggers “rely heavily” on samples, I suggest you actually read our blogs before you open your mouths. That, in a nutshell, is insulting and inaccurate.

    I spent the vast majority of my disposable income on wine. That’s right SPEND. The wines that i buy are for my enjoyment and consumption, and if i buy them, clearly I love them and therefore am inclined to blog about them.

    Yes, I do get press samples. However, these are not solicited and while i do my best to taste & review them, I do not ONLY review samples. to make this assumption about ANY blogger is just inaccurate, and over simplifying the situation.

    Furthermore, in my experience, bloggers are transparent. If you read the post, you will see if the wine was purchased or sent as a sample, versus purchased. I don’t believe that major wine writers actually say that in their articles as standard, now do they?

    Do your homework.

  20. Tim, as a representative of a “Glossy Magazine” I wish to assure you I have no conflicts of interest. I call them as I see them. If a winery that I give a good score to chooses to buy an ad, it has nothing to do with me.

  21. I am delighted that I came late to this conversation. It is like a good boxing match or maybe more like tag-team wresting in a ring with six corners and uneven teams.

    It is also a lively and instructive discussion about media and their changing faces. Too bad about the hurt feelings, but that happens in lively discussions. Who wants a discussion in which no one’s ox is gored?

    So, bloggists, keep on blogging. Writing about wine is fun–that’s why so many of us do it. The old pros make money at it. Some of the bloggists will as well. And some of them will get bored and just drink the stuff without being tied to their computers. Folks like Steve and I can’t help ourselves. It is what we do as a vocation and what we do as avocation–at least when we are not jetting off to Miami Beach for fun in the sun or going to a ballgame or searching for the good surf.

    Maybe because I taste so many wines, or maybe because I like hearty conversations, the blogs I like best are the ones like Steve’s, Ken’s, Tom Wark’s, Tish’s. They are about wine sometimes, but mostly they are about the stories that make up the background. It is harder for the newcomers to know those stories but the ones that stay in touch over the years certainly will have stories to tell when they have been around a while.

    In the meantime, their tasting notes are as valid as anybody’s, but they are going to have to prove it over time, and that proof is not going to be measured by whether one accepts samples or not, whether one publishes good reviews or good and bad reviews, whether one has been to Argentina and has a feel for the Mendoza or has learned about Malbec from the written words of others and bottles tasted. Ultimately, there are going to be folks who get followed broadly on the Internet and folks who have a small circle of fans and folks who basically are sending their words off into the ether never to be seen again. No matter. But, there will be an ordering of importance. If there are 500 wine bloggers independent of the winery-backed blogs, they may all have been created equal but they will not all wind up equal.

    Oh, and please let me know when the Internet causes Robert Parker to pack it in. I could use some of his market share.

  22. As a newcomer to the wine blogosphere, I find this entire conversation fascinating. Believe it or not, my husband and I both write wine blogs (they have different focuses) AND we are subscribers to Wine Spectator. Some wine blogs I read, others I do not. I do find publications like WS valuable in that they provide information about wines and wine regions that I have never experienced for myself. I also find value in the opinions of established wine critics, who have certainly tasted more vintages and more wines than myself. That being said, I am a firm believer that one person’s opinions are no more inherently credible than another’s, particularly in the worlds of wine and art. Further, the price tag attached to an opinion is not necessarily a reflection of its value. What is so threatening about wine bloggers providing their opinions free of charge? Is it that the wine writing industry is build upon a cracked foundation, which relies upon the elite few positioning themselves as the true “experts,” while the uneducated readers are expected to accept their opinions without question? And since when are only high dollar wines worth talking about? In some ways, we are reaching a time when wine blogs are much more relevant, and I daresay credible, to the majority of the wine drinking world than are publications for hire. It is the responsibility of readers and producers to do their homework, to decide which blogs are worth reading and worth soliciting, and to vote with their visits. I don’t think this type of wine writing conflicts with paid writing, I think it merely enhances and enriches the conversation.

  23. Charlie Olken writes about bloggers: ” In the meantime, their tasting notes are as valid as anybody’s” Well, not in the meantime, anytime, as Wine Conscience writes. The democratization of wine reviewing will ultimately banish the old lions to the bush. Apart from the bestowing of high numbers and puffs, the influence of Connoisseurs Guide, WE, WS, WA will wain as more consumers take their guidance from friends and friends of friends and other enthusiasts who publish their views online at places like CellarTracker and Snooth.

    Charlie and Steve along with such journalists as Dan Berger or Steve Pitcher or Andy Blue or Eric Asinov, or Dorothy (Dottie) and John as well as regional newspaper columnists like Sandra Silfven will have their readership, but mostly for their reporting on the fuller human dimension of winemaking and grape growing regions–sidebar stuff which will become more of the main content. It also helps that these individuals write well. But tasting notes in the context of printed wine journalism that heretofore shaped buying decisions will fall by the wayside

  24. If the comments of enthusiastic amateurs are “more relevant” and dare you say it, “credible” simply because they exist, then the views of Steve’s neighbors are more relevant and credible than his. I am sorry you chose those words because so much else of what you have written makes eminently good sense.

    Every opinion enhances the conversation. Amen to that, sister. Amen and I say again, Amen.

    Your blog has a very special focus and point of view, and I am guessing that you know far more about environmental issues than you know about wine. Now, that is a guess, but it is based on the tight focus of your blog. Your writing is crisp and clean. Bravo for that. But there is more to credibility than putting pen to paper and self-publishing. Credibility is far more demanding of us than that.

    Folks who write about wine for a living and have done for ages may have positioned themselves as experts when they started writing. I certainly did. But when we have managed to be followed by large numbers of readers who have a reasoned and reasonable level of faith in what we are writing and they, not the industry pays us for our commentaries, then it is the wine drinking public, not ourselves, who give our work credibility.

    The blogosphere is here to stay. We are all in its thrall or we would not be posting on this page and others. But, it is still in its infancy, and so are you as a wine writer. The “wine writing industry” (I would call it more of a game than an industry) exists because consumers, not writers have built its foundation. I was here when the WS started. Folks like Shanken and Laube, Parker and Tanzer, Heimoff and me have earned their/our chops.

    I was welcomed to wine writing by folks who knew more than me at the time. And believe it or not, the wine writing industry welcomes you as well. Don’t get too exorcised that people like Steve and me find much of the writing in the blogosphere of questionable use and based on questionable ethics. Go out there and do better and you too will have a long and enjoyable career in the game.

  25. Tom Wark says:

    I honestly could care less how a writer gets their wine, either via samples or purchasing it.

    But I do like reading good writing. And good writing is rare. Very rare. And no one gets upset if what they are reading isn’t really well written. But, I would think they do get inspired and elated when it IS really well written. I can count on my two hands the number of wine writers that are truly great writer that I’ve read over the past 20 years. And I don’t think I need that many hands to count the great wine writers I’ve read in the blogosphere over the past 5 years.

    But I’ll still look for them with hope that I’ll find them.

  26. Note to Tom Merle: I noticed you dropped yoiur mentions of Zagat and Trip Advisor. Wise decision that–because restaurants do not disappear from the market with the rapidity of Williams Selyem or Morgan or even Chappellet and Joseph Phelps. And the less said about Trip Advisor the better.

    But I wonder how quickly places like Snooth and Cellar Tracker can respond to the comings and goings of wines in the market when they rely on wines purchased in the market all over the country by thousands and thousands of people. They will gain in influence, but I would be suprised if they replace wine evaluations by subscription media. Timeliness and comprehensiveness are still distinct advantages. The blogosphere is a more likely place to see timeliness challenges to traditional media. But, comprehensiveness will be the weak point of the individual blogger who does it for fun. And if a blogger does it for pay, that blogger becomes either or professional or a whore depending on who does the paying.

    So, Tom, don’t count us out yet. I know you know this, but it is an important bit of reality that all of the widely read consumer subscription publications have substantial online presences, and those presences are going to grow and change to meet the needs of the subscribing public.

    Charlie

  27. Actually, I was going to cite ‘American Idol’ Charlie… Anyway I’ll keep banging the drum for aggregate enthusiast reviews (and these include mixed hobbyist/trade compilations like the Vintner’s Club ratings).

    Trip Advisor, for the few abuses, has been invaluable. You’ve probably even used it, Charlie. Yelp.com or Chowhound.com are probably better parallels though.

    Just to take one of your brands, Williams Selyem: close to 100 notes were posted on CellarTracker in the month of May alone on mostly new releases from this producer. And the membership of CT continues to grow, which will pick up velocity as the new super duper, social media format is rolled out.

    For the Real Journalists I’d like to see something like http://www.rottentomatoes.com/ which aggregates movie reviews around the country. Or something similar to the major wine competition medal counts compiled by some fellow. Bots should be able to do this.

    The consumer subscription pubs will continue to place more content online certainly. But the wine reviews themselves by one person, I think, will lose some of their clout (except for Dottie and John at the WSJ). Instead, as I noted, the stories will prevail. For example, I just read the article in Wine Spectator on how Pierre Emmanuel Taittinger was able to take back the Champagne house for the family. This is the kind of coverage where wine writers shine, IMO.

  28. This is a merrygoround for we critics of critics. It will take a couple years to shake out. In the meantime, is it at all possible that in the process of ramping up the scrutiny of the wine-reviewing and review-sharing process that we will find ourselves with a simple situation in which criticism is simply LESS important than it used to be?

    Maybe I am in the minority but I have no trouble finding good wine to drink at reasonable prices, and really good wine to drink at slightly higher prices, and incredible wine to drink at splurge prices. The incessant flow of ratings — with the vast majority of them being 85 points or higher (as detailed in my recent post at the Wine Skewer) has proven that there is an abundance of critic-pleasing wine out there, which in turn means an abundance of drinker-pleasing wine out there, meaning that rating and reviewing are simply less important than they were 20 years ago when Robert Parker appeared on the scene to “advocate” on behalf of consumers/collectors and protect them from mediocrity.

    Well, mediocrity is so 20th century! We are living in a Golden Age of wine, but you would not know it from critics/buying guides. To admit as much would be to admit the obsolescence of the current reviewer model, replete with scores and tasting notes. NOBODY but nobody reads buying guides anymore, and the only reason scores contirue to get used is that producers/marketers one one end of them and retailers on the other continue to flog them.

    We are a couple crises (a la the Parker/Miller brouhaha) and incidents (Rockaway) from the truth being exposed: reviews are broke, and they don’t even need fixin’. They might as well just be scrapped, because from a user’s standpoint, their utility is kaput. I like the rottentomoatoes analogy Tom Merle brings up. If a human or bot were to aggregate all of the top ten or so “scoring” mechanisms for wine and comapre the results, we would likely see a very clear pattern: the higher the price, the higher the score. Gasp!

    How, where and when people will gravitate toward reading about wine in formats and contexts other than buying guides remains to be seen. But it will happen for wine, just as it has been happening for food and travel.

  29. Tom –

    “no one gets upset if what they are reading isn’t really well written”

    This just isn’t true, at least in my case it isn’t true. Poor writing has stopped me mid-post, mid-magazine, mid-book… never to return…

  30. 1 Wine Dude,

    You’re the exception to the rule. Otherwise, only a handful of wine blogs and wine articles would ever be read.

  31. Tish makes an excellent point. We are awash in terrific vino at all price points; just as we are awash in ratings. Increasingly consumers will make their purchases based on (1) price; (2) what they tasted and liked–and there are many more opportunities to do this in urban settings; and (3) some dimension beyond taste and price, i.e., personal experiences when, for example, they met the winemaker or read some human interest story concerning the winery.

  32. Tish–

    I think your 85-point argument misses the mark because it assumes that readers neither understand nore care about the difference between 85 points and 88 points or 88 points and 91 points. They do–because they appreciate how the various writers apply the so-called 100-point system.

    We all know, and so do they, that this is not really “100-points” the way our math tests got graded in second grade or high school. It is effectively, for my publication, a 25-point scale in that we have almost never scored anything below 75, and damn few wines below 80. Our readers know what our scores mean. They know because our tasting notes tell them. Wine descriptions still count, and a major part of our writing and editing process is tailoring words that explain each wine in a way that both tells the reader what to expect and why the wine has rated as it does.

    So, to me, your 85-point argument is less relevant than the emergence of new media argument. The wine media that emerged in the 1970s and 1980s replaced the old wine media. If new media replace CGCW, WA, WS, WE all the other “W’s”, that will not surprise me, but it will not be, in my opinion, because the 100-point system, in all of its fractured iterations, drives us out of business.

    Someday, someone will invent another rating scale. But no matter what the scale, it will have flaws and it will not work on a straight continuum from 0 to whatever else is at the end of the scale. The old 20-point scale never worked that way. The Zagat 30-point scale does not work that way.

    And, when Tom Merle’s “the public speaks” system replaces all the subscription media (of which John and Dottie are not part, by the way, Tom), the rating system they use will have flaws as well. All systems do.

    When Connoisseurs’ Guide added 100-point scores to our five-level rating system (downturned glass, no stars, one, two and three stars–and they are stars, not puffs), one of our readers commented, “I don’t care if you use the ten-chopstick system”, it is your judgment, not your rating system I am paying for”. We went to 100-points for a very different reason–it had become the “lingua franca” of wine ratings and we felt we needed our voice to be additionally part of that system.

    Tom Merle argues for agglomerated scores without tasting notes. You argue for a scoring bot. People have been trying for years to sell that concept, and it did not work 30 years ago, has not worked today and will not work tomorrow because it is too slow and will turn everything into varying degrees of rhetorical pablum. Something else may emerge, but it will emerge because it offers more specific and helpful guidance, not more average guidance.

    As a final note, I appreciate that you have no trouble finding wine to drink that pleases you without either reading critical media or tasting lots of wine on your own. In point of fact, most wine drinkers do not read the critical media today–and did not ever read it, so most wine drinkers are quite comfortable without paid help. Otherwise, we critics would all be living in the south of France. But, I would be interested, and maybe this is one part of the discussion that we should take to email, in hearing you discuss how you learn about new wines. You are not the average punter who has never subscribed to paid media and will not. So, your experiences will be interesting to me as part of an on-going discussion.

    Charlie

  33. Charlie, I don’t disagree with your points here at all. I am also hyper-aware of the vagaries of rating systems because I both red a lot about wine and shop for wine a lot. Indeed, as I will post soon on my blog, I learn about the vat majority of new wines I try from savvy, honest retailers, mostly in the NYC metro area. Simple as that. I think of good retailers as the front line in the battle for good wine AND good value, and I have a number of great go-to folks. These are people who can A) tell me what stands out from the pack, B) deliver quality above price point and C) work in varying contexts, whether that be a specific menu or, say, a wine I need to show in a tasting to contrast with another wine.

  34. Tish, your comment is vapid. You are contending that a retailer has less selfish motives, and more objectivity, than a wine reviewer like me. That is so obviously false, it’s a joke. Merchants are in business to sell what they buy. You have no proof that retailers are more capable of a sound recommendation than I am.

  35. Milkmen and Wine writers won’t bear the same fate. For one, they’re completely different beverages. Secondly, and more seriously, the written word is always going to be a major component of our lives. Everything today is becoming more and more about how we can pass these words to each other better and faster. That’s what social media is all about. There will always be a need for someone who can create those words, and so, a need for writers, wine or otherwise will prevail.

  36. Dylan, but what happens when someone twitters about a wine to 1000 of their “friends” and each of those friends is getting 1000 other tweets about wine? How do they decide?

  37. Charlie,

    I meant to argue for agglomerated tasting scores fortified with notes as in rottentomatoes.com, but also the people’s choice sites such as cellartracker.com, amazon.com, yelp.com, in fact in every area where there is consumer choice, though, it is true, I rather like unadorned medal count. As with individual reviewers, the “Wisdom of the Crowd” provides a number with opinions.

    I’m interested in group scoring plus backup to identify wines that hit the sweet spot, that appeal to a range of palates (the Lodi competition shows this is possible). I understand that countering the rule of the reviewer is a bit insensitive since you and Steve make your living off your recommendations.

  38. Steve, easy now. You entirely misread my comment as reflecting on you. I never said your recommendations are not sound at all. I was pointing out that I get my very best recommendations from retailers. Are they unbiased? Is the Pope Buddhist? That has nothing to do with this situation. Yes, they are selfish. They want to make a sale. But they also want me to come back! Which is why their motives are actually beyond question. They want nothing more or less than to sell me the RIGHT wine I am looking for. Let me rephrase what I meant so you won’t feel so defensive: I get my best recommendations from retailers who know what they stock and know how to help me find what I am looking for.

    Could you do the same thing? Possibly. But I still would probably ask a retailer first because retailers may not taste as many wines per week as you, but they have tasted more broadly. And they have chosen to stock varying wines for varying reasons–and can communicate that in a way that is way more helpful than a tasting note and score can. Nothing personal, but I appreciate the world view and real-world experience of a good wine merchant over that of most any wine writer.

    Next time you get an all-expenses-paid trip to Bedford Hills, I will happily take you on a 20 minute drive to my favorite wine shop, and I’ll show you exactly how a good wine retailer talks the talk and walks the walk. I have been turned on to more good AND great wines by them than I can count.

  39. I think Tish’s argument will win the day, but with a heavy dose of Mr. Merle’s pragmatism, leavened with Charlie’s wisdom.

    Four reasons I don’t do tasting notes:

    1) Coming face to face with a great book, for my purposes, Clive Coates’ The Wines of Burgundy. The sophistication and depth of commitment Mr. Coates has demonstrated over the years, especially to such a beautifully contrarian and undisciplined AOC, puts the majority of wine writers in their proper perspective, and his work demands a humility to which I readily submit.

    2) The generosity of Andrew Jefford’s work whose brilliance is to write for a quotidian crowd all the while gently hinting at an unarticulated cultural depth. Mr. Jefford remains the finest wine writer I know, my superego, so to speak.

    3) The good faith and honesty of fellow bloggers, those who take such a writing as their project.

    4) The reality is that it far easier to wander to a local retailer to find something interesting, something one has never had before, as it is to plow through collective tasting sites or the glossies, never mind the WA.

    The simplicity of this approach reminds me of the Czech’s Velvet Revolution accelerated by shop owners who, collectively, placed a placard in their store windows, a placard which read ‘No’.

  40. Note to Tom Merle–

    I am not worried about insensitivity in your comments. I felt none. But I do sense a bias not borne of independent analysis. And your comments about the Lodi show raise that specter again. One wonders if you have your own dog in this fight (a cliche not meant as a description of the conversations that go on here).

    And …..

    Note to Ken Payton, with further reference also to Tish–

    A good wine merchant is a joy to behold. My only problems with that concept is that everyone is beholden to their own products–whether that is Joe Dressner or my good friends at Vintage Wine and Spirits in Mill Valley (a truly old-fashioned wine merchant) or me and my sausage.

    It is far easier for Ken or Tish to wander into a local wine merchant than to read all that there is to read. And who is to gainsay that? Not me, thats’ for sure. But there is no one size fits all solution to the distribution of wine advice and thankfully, for guys like Steve and me, some people still like to listen to the opinions of folks whose comments come from our own methodologies.

    And, Ken, as for my wisdom, if it exists at all, it is a function of age. I have been around this track a few times, and I like it so much that I am going to keep going around it until Tom Merle’s average of averages pushes me off of it or I get sent to the knacker’s yard for some totally other reason.

  41. Sonadora-Whether this is a correct characterization or not, after subscribing to your blog for a while, I saw more press samples appearing
    with less than critical reviews following a more or less formulaic rubric. I don’t doubt your sincerity and enthusiasm, and others have vouched for
    you here. My intent was not to group you with that “other” blog, but I
    think it’s fair to ask how wineries’ hospitality colors your perceptions as your blog has gained in influence and readership.

    Tim & Tish-Perhaps it’s a bit unfair to name one blog and not another.
    But if it’s fair game to discuss a critic’s motives and tastes, then maybe
    blogs should be fair game as well. Do you have to make a statement about every professional critic if you have an opinion on Jay Miller. It’s fine if a blog’s policy is to accept samples (or even solicit samples), but it doesn’t mean anyone has to like the result.

  42. Paige Granback says:

    Wow, I’m sensing a bit of the old “Kids these days! What do they know about anything?” mentality. It’s kind of amusing, considering every generation has lamented the group coming up behind them! And guess what? In every era, quality still floats to the top. I think that in spite of the proliferation of new voices in the wine world and the ease with which one can declare one’s self a blogger with the click of a few buttons, content and quality will still reign supreme.

    At present, it may be true that you have to wade through an awful lot of crap to find it. But I don’t think that will hold true forever. As this new medium evolves and matures it will get easier to both identify and locate wine writing of good quality. So relax everyone! This is not a death knell for quality wine writing, merely the growing pains of a new era.

    Oh and to whomever said that Gen X’ers, Gen Y’ers and Millennials don’t care about the back story—I think in all of those groups, the back story and the personal connections far, far outweigh a score on the 100-point scale. Hell, many of us underachieving Gen X’ers have a disgust for the 100-point scale going back to junior high. We know it don’t tell the whole story! Probably also explains my inability to string together a coherent comment. :-)

  43. Paige Granback says:

    PS: I do wish that more legit bloggers would identify themselves by real name and, possibly, even by location which can be a relevant piece of info. I struggle sometimes to find an “about me” section which tells the story of the writer.

  44. In an effort to bring some entertainment to wine blogging while also hoping to lend some “credibility” to accepting samples, I have challenged the social media “guru” to a Whore-Off: http://www.winewhoreblog.com/2009/06/whore-off.html

    See you all there!

    Cheers!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Will Work for Wine (Alice Feiring & Who Really Killed Wine Writing) | 1 Wine Dude - [...] of this gloomy state of affairs on the world of wine and wine writing, and from what I’ve seen, …

Leave a Reply

*

Recent Comments

Recent Posts

Categories

Archives