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