Musing: How the invasion of social media players is changing the rules for wineries
It used to be, and not that long ago, that only a handful of writer/critics shared the not unpleasant burden of communicating to the general public about wine.
Wine writers were a kind of nobility, a knighthood. Few in number, but lordly and powerful, they (exclusively white males) occupied a sanctified ground between the wine-producing part of the industry, and the consumers who bought wine.
You need go back only to the 1970s to see how intimate this fraternity was. In California, Bob Thompson, Charlie Olken, Earl Singer, Harvey Steiman, Andy Blue, Nathan Chroman and perhaps one or two others essentially controlled the spigot of information to the entire state (and beyond, to whomever else read their books and columns). Known to each other, sharing the same overall vinous philosophy and orientation to the top wines of Europe, they were largely in agreement about everything: which wineries produced the best wine, which growing regions were superior and which ones to watch, and which varieties worked best where. Their message was collectivist, easy to digest, and the fact that they marched more or less in lockstep with each other helped convince the public that they were right.
How different it is today! From policy being controlled by a group of like-minded people, we now have the Internet and its associated social media, whose members clamor to make themselves heard, and are being heard, with “the fierce urgency of now.” We are witnessing the equivalent of the breakup of the old Soviet Union into a mass of uncongealed, squirming parts. Or, to mix metaphors, it is like a gigantic invading army of ants, streaming over everything in its path and against which there is no protection. The Internet and social media literally are changing the landscape, even as we stand upon it. And what I want to talk about is the reaction of the typical winery to this onslaught.
Back in those days of yore, wineries needed only to form relationships with 5 or 10 writers, in order to trust that their tale would be communicated to the public. That was easy. A few lunches or dinners here and there, a couple new releases shipped off, the occasional meet-ups at charity auctions or winetasting events, and that did the trick. It was a small, convivial world, which is why few wineries had, or felt the need to have, P.R. firms to guide them through it.
Now, what’s a winery to do? The proliferation of critical voices — and no one knows who the survivors will be, much less the eventual powers — makes it essential to reach out to as many as the winery can physically grasp. Yet what has been lost in this brave new world? The relationships. The younger bloggers say, in effect, “Good. If you have a relationship with a winery, you can’t be objective in reviewing its wines.” Or else they say, “I can form my own relationships with wineries, thank you. Just give me some time.” The older writers, if I can characterize their position, say, “Over the course of 20 years (or 25, or 30), I have amassed a thing called wisdom. When I speak, it is with the voice of authority, of hard knowledge won from experience.” To which the young bloggers reply, “Who cares about your wisdom? No one under 50.”
And both sides are right.
It may be that wisdom and experience are overrated. That I’ve tasted, say, every vintage of Georges de Latour, and most of them several times, alongside Joel Aiken, and used to be able to hear Tchelistcheff explain them, in heavily Russian-accented English, really counts for very little, when you think about it. What is that, to a 23-year old person just discovering the joys of wine? It is like my grandparents reminiscing about General Pershing at the dinner table while I, 8 years old, longed to get on with it with my friends.
There’s good and bad in this. The good is that every generation gets to reinvent the way it interprets reality through the prism of its own emergent understanding. That keeps things from being too conservative, too staid and unchanging. The bad is that information does, sadly, get lost. Into the gap step wineries, the savvier of whom understand that you must never stop re-defining yourself, to each potential customer, of whatever generation, using each and every tool available. Critics, too. We can’t rest on our laurels.