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The care and feeding of wine writers (Well, this one, anyway)

25 comments

From time to time I’m reminded that sometimes we don’t always see things as they might appear from someone else’s point of view. In my line of work, wine writing, this can cause misunderstandings, because writing is all about communication, and if communication is muddled, it doesn’t help clarify the message.

Well, this long-winded intro is a way for me to let P.R. people, winery execs and others whose job it is to promote their winery know how best to work with me, to help me do my job so I can help you do yours. In an ideal world — and why should ours not be ideal? — P.R. and wine writing both would benefit.

1. You can call me. I’m amazed at how many people think they can’t. They think they’re pissing me off or something. You can! I answer my own phone. (My secretary, Rose Mary Woods, retired many years ago…badda bing!) I ask only that you keep your pitch brief, know what you want to say and say it. What gets me impatient is when someone calls, and 10 minutes later they’ve just gotten to the year 1987 and I’m like ZZzzzzzzzzz…. If I say at some point, “Thanks, but it’s not really working for me,” please don’t argue with me or ask whoever else they can talk to at the magazine. And please don’t feel like I’ve been rude. I’m a polite, courteous, sensitive guy, but I do have a job.

2. If I visit you at the winery, let’s both relax and enjoy it. You have a message to deliver, of course, and I’m there to hear it. But you don’t have to be on message all the time, just as I don’t have to be “Steve the wine critic” all the time. Before I was “Steve the wine critic” I was “just Steve,” and I still like being “just Steve” even as I assume you like to be “just whoever you are.”

I realize we can’t take the “friendship thing” too far, in most cases. In the end, this is business. But there’s business that feels sticky and awkward, and business that feels warm and fun — even when we’re not drinking!

3. Ask me questions about my tasting process. It shouldn’t be a mystery. I’m very transparent. I have well-formed opinions on tasting and scoring, and am glad to share them with others. Above all, if I’m tasting with you, let me know what your desires are concerning my thoughts. If you want me to be blunt, tell me. If you don’t say, “Steve, be honest, warts and all,” then I’ll assume you don’t want real feedback, and I’ll just make nebulous remarks. You’re the host — we’re playing by your rules — so make them clear. I’m not a mind reader.

4. There are certain things that make me feel weird. They won’t affect my reviews — I mean, we’re talking about my integrity — but it does make me wonder. For example, if we’re in your office and I see Spectator magazines and plaques all around, but not Enthusiasts, it’s like, WTF? Elementary courtesy and common sense. Nothing like ‘em.

5. Know that I don’t typically review at the winery. There are exceptions, but in general I subscribe to what Wine Enthusiast’s tasting director, Joe Czerwinski, calls “tasting room bias.” That’s where the wine tastes better at the winery than in your office or home. But even though I won’t be formally reviewing the wine with you, I’m happy to talk — and talk — and talk about it with you. That’s what we both love, right? Drinking wine and talking about it. But know this, too: the published score has a fair probability of being lower than you might have thought based on my remarks at the winery. Why? Tasting room bias.

I’d be interested in hearing from other people, especially reviewers, if you’ve experienced tasting room bias. Do you believe in it, and if so, how do you counter it?

  1. Steve: That’s about as transparent as can be. And it goes a long way toward rebutting the assertion that there must be a sort of Chinese wall between wineries and writers.

  2. I’m not a professional reviewer/writer, but tasting room bias most certainly does exist. If I go to a tasting room with the intent of purchasing a wine, I will often find myself wondering how it is I came back with a certain wine. Or I’ll second guess not purchasing a certain wine if I’d decided ahead of time on a given budget to spread over several wineries. I suppose you wouldn’t go in thinking “I want to award a 90+ score to exactly one wine here,” but the context and expectations are nonetheless important.

    At any rate, I tend to find the context of tasting multiple wines back-to-back is much different than how I’d drink a wine at home. Accessibility and forwardness are rewarded with back-to-back tasting, while drinking at home allows for food pairing or at the very least a more patient approach. Qualities like excessive extraction or flabbiness are less noticeable over a few sips, but are fatiguing over a glass or two. A wine that is tight or funky initially may unfold quite well at home, yet taste dull or off over a few sips.

    It’s refreshing to understand your tasting methodology, and I think it explains why you rate certain wines highly relative to the other mags. While others Advocate for big, high pH wines with heavy extraction or sit as Spectators on the sidelines when it comes to elegant, balanced wines, you more often recognize red wines with lively acidity and complex aromatics.

  3. All reasons for adopting the CCGTM (Core Consumer Group Tasting Method) alternative to the ITEM (I’m the Expert Method) approach. All personal variables get cancelled out by the shear numbers of reviews. Long live “The Wisdom of Crowds”.

  4. Your take regarding “tasting-room bias” is spot-on! This extends to the “winemaker effect” as well as “looking-at-the-barrel-when-tasting” phenomenon.

  5. Very thoughtful posting.

  6. Number please????? (-:

  7. 510-893-7479

  8. About bribes, do you take bribes

    :-))

  9. Sean C. says:

    Very good posting and right on the money. Having worked with you over the last few years, one thing I admire most about your workings with PR professionals is your willingness to hear our clients stories and being bluntly honest about your interest in covering them. There’s nothing better, in my opinion, than hearing you say you’re not interested in the story rather than not responding at all. We know where you stand on the ideas and we move on or we think even harder about what might interest you in the future. I’d much prefer hearing no, than hearing the “great black hole” of no response. But, then again , I guess no response also means “no.”

  10. Nico: No.

  11. I think tasting room bias exists, however you can’t get a better feel for the spirit behind what a winemaker is doing than by visiting…

  12. Morton Leslie says:

    Dude – Unfortunately we way too much of “the spirit behind” influencing critical review and don’t see enough of “the wine itself” influence.

  13. If all the PR folk read this, Steve, I’m sure you’re in for less headaches. Imagine if every wine writer included something like this on a section of their site under the label, “If you’re in PR.” It’s definitely a great way to take control of the communications you receive.

  14. Whether about NY baseball or wine, I’ve found our conversations to be enlightening and pretty much on a “steve to steve” basis.

    Steven Mirassou

  15. Very insightful posting. I would like an opinion on the relationship between editorial and advertising. Here in South Africa, some magazines send journalists farrive or a tasting and all goes well. A few days later, the winery gets a call from the advertising department stating that: “Our staffer visited your winery, he’s written a great story, we feel you should back this up with an advertisement in our publication.” Sometimes the winery just gets a blunt response to an invitation: “You guys never advertise with us, why should we visit?”
    Unfortunately this is not unique to South Africa. I would like to hear your take on this situation.

  16. The whole tasting room bias can swing both ways~It’s amazing how lush and beautiful a wine can taste in the tasting room when being enjoyed over engaging conversation in a fun and relaxing setting!
    However, I have found it can go the other way as well, when you know you like a specific wine/varietal/vintage but encounter an less than enjoyable visit with a less than enthusiastic tasting room staff member it can leave a less than satisfying finish on your palate :)

  17. Stewart Johnson says:

    So many awards, so little wallspace…but I guess I can shove a few of the raves aside (my Mom is prolific in this regard). So, where do I order a nice assortment of WE plaques?

  18. Stewart, you gotta earn them!

  19. Emile, here’s my take. There is a fire wall between advertising and editorial. I recognize the importance of advertising to a magazine and I respect the work that the advertising department does. However, ads having nothing to do with my reviews. If a winery chooses to advertise based on one of my reviews, that’s their business. I’ve given dreadful scores to wineries that advertise in Wine Enthusiast. Also, no one at the magazine would ever do anything like you cited (“Our staffer visited your winery, he’s written a great story, we feel you should back this up with an advertisement in our publication.”) In fact, advertising for future issues is sold well before the ad dept. even sees my stories, so it would be impossible for that to happen.

  20. Steve, ah but if it were only so simple…. I have no doubt that you go about your business of tasting and reviewing and reporting with the highest sense of personal integrity. Good for you.

    However, the influence of advertising on editorial is alive and well in other aspects of the magazine — perhaps outside of your control, but real nonetheless. In truth, the overlap between edit and ads in magazines has evolved well beyond the clumsy “Our staffer visited your winery…you should back it up with advertising” phone call. It has become at once more subtle yet more pervasive.

    For instance, if there is a strong fire wall between editorial and advertising in WE, then why can they not manage to put a black hairline between the label reproductions (which are ads) and the actual reviews in the Buying Guide? And why are invitations to pour at WE Taste of the Town events based on advertising (or did you not realize that?). And it does not take much of a glance at the list of annual WE “Star” award nominees and winners to see how advertising weighs heavily on the editorial product.

    Bottom line, Steve, you are doing your best to shoot straight and stay pure, but don’t be so naive about the big picture beyond your own reviews and articles.

  21. Great post, Steve.

    It is really quite simple. Do not expect me to be anything other than an independent critic who is otherwise a fairly normal person except for his strong distaste for NY baseball in any form, but especially that which comes in pin stripes. I learned my baseball near the Green Monster.

    I won’t come to your winery until I have tasted your wines and I won’t review any wines I taste with you. I will be happy to review your wines in peer to peer tastings, and unless there is a really good reason to visit your winery, I probably won’t since there are several thousand of you and I have work to do and baseball to watch.

    And I amazed at how often people in the PR profession think they are doing writers a favor by talking to them. Your stories are nice, and I probably know more about your winery than you can tell me in ten minutes anyhow. Steve has that right as well. Keep it brief and do not let your feelings be hurt when any of us say no. We would love to visit your winery up in Lake County and spend six hours or more driving back and forth for a two hour visit, but some times it is just not in the cards.

    It may surprise you, but offering to fly me back and forth on your helicopter will not change my mind. And I would rather attend a media tasting with you than go for a ride on the winery owners’ power boat.

    And Steve, I don’t have any plaques to send out to wineries so I never expect to see them when I do visit someone. At least you can convince a few folks to display yours.

  22. Charlie, I’ve spent many hours at Fenway and saw some fabulous games there, including the famous 1978 sudden death playoff game between the Yankees and the Sox. That was the greatest baseball game I ever saw. I remember the feeling as soon as Yaz popped out. Disbelief, shock, horror. It was as if the city died.

  23. Steve, as a fellow wine writer here’s how I deal with “tasting room bias:” When I find a wine that I sense has a story to tell – quality, value, personality, trend, news and so forth – I buy it to taste again at home, sometimes blind, sometimes open, often with a dish with which I sense it will be compatible.

  24. Mike: I sometimes do that, too. But I taste so many wines that it’s impossible to do it with all, or even most, of them.

  25. Mike Dunne makes a useful comment, but it applies to his medium, not Steve’s and mine.

    When I was writing newspaper columns, for pennies and thus a hobby and not a way to pay many bills despite being in large newspapers, I had an outlet for wines tasted on a more casual basis. I am developing that again by extending the commentary on the free portion of my rag’s website.

    For example, I am becoming a fan of Rose’ from the Navarre region of Spain. Old vine Grenache there is producing some of the most delightful summer drinking wines in my experience, and reminding me again how much I wish CA would find a way to grow Grenache successfully as a lighter wine.

    I have just come across a 2008 from Dashe Cellars, and there is no way to get into print in my newsletter with notes from a comparative blind tasting given that I have just written my Rhone issue (July 2009). But, I will taste that wine with an eye towards commenting on it in a more casual way.

    It is fine for blogs and newspaper columns to be more casual, but I do not see how the normal review articles in WE or CGCW can taste wines at wineries and even at home a second time with dinner and the label showing and write definitive notes about the wine. That is for more casual writing–not unserious writing–but not within the context of other wines tasting blind in peer-to-peer tastings.

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