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Musing: How the invasion of social media players is changing the rules for wineries

26 comments

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.

  1. “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.”

    Steve, let us not forget the distaff collective Smith Corona and Underwood contributions of Millie Howie, Jeanie Bergin, Barb Ensrud and, yes, Mary Lester in the late 60s and early 70s.

  2. What you describe is simply the process of disintermediation that’s occurring in every field of information dissemination. Change the names and make the same argument about the relationships behind Washington political coverage.

    As someone who writes from and about an “emerging” wine hinterland that seldom gets more than the odd passing nod elsewhere, I can affirm that the better, smarter wineries here in Michigan are cultivating new relationships among the few of us who cover them — even as they simultaneously realize that this impartial coverage means they’ve forever lost the ability to control their own message. That represents a serious mindset adjustment for many of them.

  3. Thoughtful post, Steve. I’ve been around since the days of the wine media Star Chamber (what’s Chroman doing these days?) and it seems to me the changes run deeper and broader than the proliferation of voices alone.

    Perhaps there are more voices because there are so many more wineries? And while new media have caused a tectonic shift in how marketing is disseminated and consumed, there has been an even bigger shift in the shape of the marketing message itself: what, when and how it is presented and how it is interpreted by the consumer.

    I’m leery of the concept of the new guard-old guard dichotomy. I’m not sure it is playing out that way – that model may be outdated. There is not the same degree of antagonism between extant generations (perhaps) as there were between Boomers and their parents. I see more intereaction between generations from late Boomers through X, Y & M.

    Someone once told me a goose wakes up to a new world every day. The way I deal with the demands of the new market is to strive to be the goose.

  4. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
    There is just as as much groupthink and collectivism (and easy to swallow “information”) among the new cadre of wine commenters. Inevitably, out of the myriad or voices a few purveyors of vino “veritas” will emerge.

  5. Joel: Great comment! Thanks. Really thought-provoking.

  6. Ray, thanks for pointing that out.

  7. Jim Caudill says:

    And there’s the matter of respect. As things evolved over the past few years, I made the decision early on to treat bloggers of all persuasion with the same respect and responsiveness that I formerly reserved for the old guard. I’ve heard too many winery types grousing about “housewife blogs” that are only about getting free samples (not my term Mildred, honest). As I result, I think I can play in both sandboxes, and watch with amazement as the wine conversation wafts over the countryside, from wherever it wafts. Re-invention is a very good thing, for everybody.

  8. The wisdom garnered over time is only ever wasted if it never impacts your future responses to life…

  9. As much as its “old guard” versus “new guard,” as Joel rightly points out, it’s happening in every niche.

    Specific to the wine niche, however, is the type of content that’s being written.

    I know this has been bandied about and I’m not looking to bloody anybody up, but wine’s mainstream press simply does not address the information hunger that is present and growing today amongst wine consumers.

    WE and WS are quickly morphing into wines equivalent of the Robb Report.

    Even if you argue that WE is for the average enthusiast, I would still say the content is heavily lifestyle-oriented and its that content that simply doesn’t resonate with that many people.

    If only Wine & Spirits, the Sommelier Journal, Rachael Ray Magazine and Fast Company spawned a love child would you have something interest.

  10. Ommmm

  11. About ten years ago, when I was writing a wine column for the Los Angeles Times, a PR person told me that I had become one of the top ten wine writers in the country. I asked what I would have been rated if I were not writing in the Times. He graciously explained that I MIGHT be in the top fifty.

    It is true that there were fewer of us in the early seventies, but Steve Heimoff is too young to remember influential folks like Hank Rubin (Bon Appetit and the San Francisco Chronicle) or Robert Finigan or Robert Lawrence Balzer or Frances Peterson (Joel Peterson’s mother) or even the late Fred Cherry.

    There were many more than ten, but not so many as there are today given the expansion of the interest in wine and the explosion of the Internet. Yet, to say that Bob Thompson, Harvey Steiman and Andy Blue and I were essentially of one voice is to be kind, a misstatement. We all came from our own perspectives, and we all had our own viewpoints. And we still do. You and I are peers of a sort in the Bay Area writing scene, and good friends, but we have differences on many subjects.

    I read about thirty blogs, not all every day (I do have to make a living at real work), and I find two things about them. Their opinions are not uniquely brilliant, and sometimes not even all that well thought out. With all due respect to all writers everywhere, I don’t see how folks like Tish or the “new” Wine Curmudgeon or Alder Yarrow or Tyler Coleman are more thoughtful than you or me. I do like the idea that there are so many voices and that they offer a starting point for virtually any discussion and any direction that one would want to follow.

    I have seen far more than thirty blogs, of course, and while I am unlikely to read Lenndeavours for its NY/Long Island focus or Besottted Ramblings for its Champagne focus on a daily basis, those blogs are expanding the universe of information. And so are so many others. Good on ‘em. The more information out there, the better.

    Are they replacing the old guys? Not yet. They are expanding, enhancing our universe. We are not at war with them and they are not at war with us. Wineries could never control their own messages. Just ask Hank Rubin (he who fought in the Spanish Civil War in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade) if anyone ever controlled him. Or Bob Finegan or Frances Peterson.

    Yes, things are changing in the way that information is distributed, but it is just a new form of press. The old press was not controlled and did not think with one voice. Sorry, old buddie, but there is a more than a bit of misdirection in what you have suggested.

  12. Jeff–

    The one thing that strikes me over and over again in criticisms of WS and WE is that they have hundreds of thousands of paid subscriptions while so many folks in the blogosphere are trying to figure out how to monetize their efforts.

  13. Charlie, what I meant was that you guys tended to agree on the Big Picture: what the best wines were, the best regions, the best wineries. I know you didn’t agree on everything. But, for example, in Connoisseur’s Guide (1982 ed.) you rated highly Caymus Cabernet, Heitz Martha’s and Montelena Chardonnay. (All got 3 puffs.) So did the other critics writing at that time. This, in turn, helped the reputation of those wines and wineries, which in turn inspired new wineries to try to produce Chards and Cabs that would get equally good reviews. Which in turn helped lead to these 2 varieties being the most planted and popular wines in America. See what I mean?

  14. Steve–

    I find that you are stretching for a point that is simply not supported by the facts. Folks agree and disagree. Agreeing that CS and Chard were doing well in CA was hardly a revelation in 1982. By that point, Chardonnay acreage had already jumped from less than a thousand in 1970 to well over 20,000 acres. That is more acreage than any other white grape today or then except blending grapes grown in the Central Valley and destined for jug wine like French Colombard.

    The French found that out the truth about Chardonnay in the Paris tasting of 1976. With all due respect, I suspect that the Time Mag report on that tasting (report, not opinion, from a writer not in your list of sycophants) had a fair bit to do with the growth in popularity of Chardonnay.

    Beside, sometimes agreement actually means something, and it is not nefarious. The Internet and the blogosphere did not invent the truth. It has invented more voices and those voices are contribuing lots of ideas. But, when it comes to wine criticism, the blogosphere cannot invent new ideas. Not unless its denizens are tasting with whole new palates. It matters not whether they or you or I or 1,000 bloggers like or dislike CA Chardonnay. That is simply a matter of opinion, and matters of opinion are not new. They go back to Rome and beyond if Latin aphorisms are to be believed.

    But if the blogosphere suddenly embraces Torrontes or Grillo as the new Chardonnay, and those varieties grow over 20 years from nothing to megastars as Chardonnay did, and if the old guard writers like me and you pooh-pooh those grapes, well, I will be wrong about the good old boys network that I say did not and does not exist.

    And one more housekeeping point. I don’t know where you get your quoted Connoisseurs’ Guide ratings. Certainly not out of the Guide itself. Maybe out of the book that Earl Singer and I wrote with Norm Roby–and if so, those wines were rated one to three stars, not uniquely at three stars. So, a different source and a different rating than you have suggested. It’s a small point, but one of some import to me.

  15. JD in Napa says:

    My answer to “Now, what’s a winery to do?” is “Get Involved”. Embrace social media to create a community of “followers” and “Fans”. Provide unspun information directly to this community using the same tools as the “new horde” (and some of the traditional horde) use. Do something that neither the social or traditional media do: speak with the house voice.
    It’s a cool end-around that could pay off handsomely. Let’s watch what happens with the Murphy-Goode experiment.

    This is not to say that you cut the wine critics, regardless of platfom, out of your communications. Heck, they can “follow” and “Fan” you, too.

  16. Rusty Eddy says:

    You guys are really making me feel old. Mary Lester? Fred Cherry? And what was the name of the woman who wrote the (I believe it was called) The California Wineletter?

    I had a conversation today with another “old” wine PR guy about how our craft has changed over even the last five years. It frankly feels good to be keeping up with it all.

    Now, when Gerlad Boyd starts blogging, we’ll have true confirmation that social media has arrived! (Love ya Jerry!)

  17. Rusty, we’ll have to be afraid. Very afraid, when Prof. Saintsbury starts twittering.

  18. California Wine Letter: Phyllis Van Kreidt who worked at the letter with her husband, Charles, and continued it for a couple of years after his passing.

  19. Steve,

    Just want to quickly say thanks for the blog. It’s an interesting oversight and one that should be read by many both on the blogging and ‘traditional’ side of the wine biz.

    And Charlie and others make some great points about old school vs. new school . . .

    I am excited about the proliferation of information that is out there . . . and that so many diverse voices are being heard.

    I am also scared about the proliteration of information that is out there . . . and that so many diverse voices are being heard.

    In this ‘immediacy’ world we live in, people too often believe that ‘if it’s written, it must be true’ and this certainly is transferring to the blogosphere. Many who read your blog will vehemently disagree . . . but WE are not the general public; WE are not the ‘everyday wine buyer’ . . .

    I hope that many of these blogs will have ‘legs’ and still be around in 12 or 24 months . . . my guess is that some will and many will not.

    Cheers . . .

  20. Your words paint a picture of too many broad strokes. This 23 year old would care to hear about those stories as long as they were told by a good story-teller. Not every 23 year old is the same, I’ll concede, some also just care if that the wine came in one of two colors and is a liquid. Don’t bother them with more details than that. However, it’s unfair to assume that people my age don’t care. We seemingly always have that bad wrap–maybe it’s not a matter of us not caring, maybe it’s a matter of self-fulfilling prophecy. If in all the wisdom available to your generation you were able to see that, perhaps what’s considered vital information would be passed on, if not possibly requested by us darn youth with our rock n’ roll music.

  21. Hey Steve,

    How goes it?? Hope the book’s doing well. Enjoyed the post. Got me thinking:

    I think that the “changing of the guard” or whatever you’d like to call it between generations is always uncomfortable, though I think that it’s particularly so for the wine biz and its associated writers/influencers this time around because it’s so dramatic. The Internet and its social tools are empowering the new guard to assume their roles at an astounding rate – and yes, sometimes without merit or smarts.

    At the end of the day, though, it is what it is (meaning the party is getting a whole lot bigger and, let’s face it, rowdier). And I think wineries – and writers, for that matter – who can adopt the attitude that – “COOL! the party is bigger and more fun with way more players anyway” – will be best positioned to succeed. And no matter how many players there are, the best – in terms of quality writing, insights and “getting” what customers want to hear – will still rise to the top. That’s a certainty, no matter how rowdy the party.

    Besides, people who call the cops when a party gets too loud are usually lame anyway. ;)

    Courtney
    HIP TASTES Blog, etc.

  22. So I take back an earlier comment about Twitter and its influence.

    Not re wine but re the Iran elections. Tons happening and this morning the Iranian vote council agreed to a 180 degree turnaround and will recount votes being contested. BBC says go to twitter#iranelection, apparently/naturally there are competing #s. In Farsi and English, primarily.

    So, other than twittaste sessions I remain skeptical re Twitter and wine, but it seems to do a good job at sparking what some are calling the first net revolution.
    (That, of course, remains to be seen.)

  23. Gosh, was the world really that small “back then”, Steve? I remember when I got into the wine pr business it all seemed so huge.

    And for what it’s worth, despite the new voices and new venues and opportunities to communicate, there still is something to be said for the work of an honest broker PR person, someone who has some institutional knowledge, the ability to pitch a story to a writer, and the skill of composing an interesting press release.

    Communicating isn’t all about just 147 twitter characters.

    GREAT post.

    Tom…

  24. Cheers Steve!

    Let me first say this is one of the best posts I’ve ever encountered in my short lived ‘wine career’ exploits. The history, tonality of your thoughts and subsequent comments truly encompass an angle of the wine industry which is generally of little interest to that of people like me, the absolute normal consumer in today’s wine market. Heck, I might be less than a normal consumer frankly, due to economic constraints.

    As an actual part of the Murphy-Goode experiment (as it was so-called above), my personal focus and goals at present (should I be blessed with a position) is exactly to translate all that this post and comments mean to you folks in a language tomorrows wine enthusiasts can get with. However, just as I’ve blogged about and truly believe, the next generation wine drinkers are not age contingent by any means. Rather, ANYONE who engages in wine culture for the first time or beyond social events. It’s never too late nor too ‘early’, with proper supervision of course to find a love and understanding for wine. Just as in Europe (I’m a German/American citizen) pre-teen folks learn about and drink wine in family settings and associate wine with such experiences growing up. It’s a wonderful introduction to what they will likely continue doing responsibly the rest of their lives, passing it down along the way. I’ve seen it numerable times first hand.

    In general, I’m much more aligned with Dylan’s comment “This 23 year old would care to hear about those stories as long as they were told by a good story-teller. ” I myself felt a tad alienated by your post to some degree, if for no other reason than being black and clearly having no direct history with which I might relate with as a modern consumer. Nonetheless, it was how it was back then and it is now how it is. Introducing Wine 2.0.

    Wineries clearly need to broaden their markets in order to remain competitive and the all important consumer is more important now than ever. That’s where guys like me come into the picture. And we shouldn’t need to go it alone, that’s for sure. We’re Pop, Rock & Hip Hop and you guys are Classical, if that makes any sense to you. (If not, there’s a first hurdle, ha!) Personally, I welcome all of your insights and would be honored having any of you contribute to my social ramblings should I be fortunate enough to find a job offering them within this industry. I hope and pray so. Don’t hesitate contacting me. Mine is a positive world meant to Edu-tain.

    Again, brilliant perspectives and thanks for a great post. I learned a lot and will certainly borrow some of your knowledge and words to share with Generation “G”.

    Thanks for reading!
    Kamary

  25. One of the really Cool things that could happen is that people could understand that “group behavior” is “group behavior” regardless of the subject matter. People who love dogs, go to dog “contests, socialize about it, etc. …. do that about dogs. People who like sports, demonstrate typical behaviors just like wine drinkers or Yo-Yo Players. There’s a lot to learn about group behavior by studying and/or participating with yo-yo players, but most people WILL NEVER THINK ABOUT IT OR LEARN ABOUT IT because they haven’t got the slightest bit of interest in yo-yos.

    I’d write more .. but heck .. I’m out the door ô¿~

  26. SoCoolBob — do write more.

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