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What has blogging contributed to wine writing?

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Someone suggested I write about this, and it may not be amiss at this time to make some general observations regarding the contributions, and they’re many, that blogging has made to traditional wine writing.

Having one foot in both camps gives me some perspective. As a traditional print guy, I can say that the rise of blogging, and other forms of Internet intercourse (social media), has been a goad to us writers, a kind of cattle prod or match-to-the-fuse (I’m straining for metaphors) that is lending a certain urgency to our jobs. It may be that print journalism took its primacy for granted (I’m speaking not just of wine writing but of print across all subjects) and needed a jolt. Print-based wine writing, which was centuries in the ascendancy, by the 1990s dominated across the globe, with power concentrated in a relatively small number of publications. These were heady times to write for a popular wine magazine, and as one who went through this terrific period, it seemed like the future would be more of the same — only better.

When the Internet first came onto the scene no one in wine writing gave it much thought. I received an assignment to write about it in 1992 or thereabouts, and didn’t even know what the World Wide Web was. I had an Apple, but without online access, so I drove over to the downtown Berkeley Public Library and rented time on their computer. There, I discovered the online world of wine clubs and chat rooms. I thought it was charming and wacky, but never for a moment had an inkling that it would amount to anything more than an interesting wrinkle in our vast and growing wine world.

What the eruption of wine blogs did by the mid-2000s can be inferred by its impact on both publishers and writers. The two are different beasts. Publishers are by and large business creatures responsible for keeping their publications alive and making a profit. Writers tend not to have heads for business; we are creative types. Call it left-brained (publishers) and right-brained (writers). I think both types began to be aware of wine blogging at about the same time (2005) but reacted in different ways. Publishers set studies in motion to determine the feasibility of going online, with all the long-range planning that entails. Writers, by contrast, could only watch and wonder what it all meant for them. When the national media conversation turned to the potential threat that online posed for print — around 2007 — writers, who are not the most emotionally stable of people anyway, began to seriously wonder if their jobs might be in jeopardy. Thus more and more of them (us) took to blogging. It was extra work, it didn’t pay, but it was fun, and it seemed wise to stake your claim on what might turn out to be the future.

So right there you have the most visible impact of blogging on wine writers: it gave us a renewed sense of urgency, of vigor. It stimulated the creative juices and made us work harder in the areas of research and investigation, as well as in sheer writing frequency. For me, it brought back the days when I was a daily stringer for the Oakland Tribune. Those were exciting times, with deadlines, breaking news, press conferences and phoning in stories from pay phones on the road because there wasn’t enough time to file in the normal way (type it up, rush it to the City Desk). When I realized the force of blogging, it made me realize that I had to work twice as hard to be a good wine writer.

Blogging taught me something else: to rediscover my writer’s voice. Traditional print journalism always has demanded a very circumspect form of communication by the reporter. You can never write in the first person (unless it’s a column). You can never display emotion or attitude; the reporter must be fair and balanced and present all sides of the debate without taking sides. Such formalities don’t apply to blogging. This is both a blessing and a curse, but it does make for an intensely creative form of writing I had previously reserved only for my wine books and (unpublished) fiction.

Blogging has compelled traditional print to take more seriously the views and beliefs of readers and offer them a chance to weigh in, in a more immediate and interactive way than the old Letters to the Editor section allowed. I have learned through my own blog that readers want to have a voice. They want to read the opinions of others and have the ability to respond, thus making the “Comments” section a real conversation. There are times, on my blog, I just sit back and let readers have at it amongst themselves.

Blogging has made this print reporter more sensitive to issues of transparency, which is something I didn’t really think about before. Blogging has made me re-examine the notion of who’s entitled to voice an opinion about wine. I still reject the suggestion that all opinions are equally valid (although that doesn’t mean that people don’t have the right to express them), and I utterly condemn the insulting put-downs that some print wine writers have directed toward bloggers. I concede that everybody has to start someplace in their journey to knowledge. When I was at Wine Spectator (and I say this respectfully, not accusingly), I discovered that some of the other writers sometimes faked being experts, because at that time they weren’t. They had just started writing about wine a few years earlier, and were learning on the job. I didn’t think there was anything wrong with that then, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with bloggers learning on the job now.

I’m sure I could come up with lots more contributions blogging has made to wine writing, and I hope this post will reassure bloggers that at least one print guy understands the positive role you’ve played. I also hope that one aspect of traditional print wine writing will rub off on the blogosphere: being measured, not intemperate, in the language we use.

  1. Caleb Sexton says:

    Thanks for the post. It is great to hear your perspective on the changing face of wine writing.

  2. Very interesting read, Steve – thanks for the insights.

    One item that jumped out at me was this:
    “…It stimulated the creative juices and made us work harder in the areas of research and investigation…”

    Bloggers as a whole tend to get an inordinate amount of flack over the fact that they’re unedited opinions, and that they’re often inaccurate and under-researched in their opinions. Your article here gives us an entirely different perspective to that, which I guess is a recognition that the better wine blogs actually do their research and have writers who know their subject matter well.

    Great read.

  3. Steve, you bring up some very valid points…we are at a very different point in space and time. I’m a great example of a wine blogger who comes from left field. I have “a lot” of business experience, sales & marketing as well as technological (and a lot of first hand social media experience) but not much more than “wine passion”. It was easy to jump in because so many of the wine bloggers who write don’t seem to have real classical business experience, but I readily acknowledge that I don’t have wine industry time when I write. I do know that some skill sets are transferable so I can write in generalities. In the meantime I am reading veraciously about the wine business.

    Just like the people you mentioned at the Wine Spectator, who pretended to be experts, people are trying to get a foothold to get a job. The problem is when you lack skills in several areas it hurt even if they don’t notice.

    Recently I had a winery owner tells me that there is so much “advice” (read noise) floating out in cyberspace that they are hearing that many of his fellow winery owners are doing nothing because they don’t know who to follow…unfortunately that hesitation may cost them dearly.

    Is there a right and a wrong? Only time will tell!

  4. Very thoughtful with well chosen words. You’ve struck the right tone here and come off like a real gentleman. Class, Steve. Thanks,

  5. Morton Leslie says:

    I hear you Steve and I am in agreement to a point. The problem is blogging has changed the substance of the writing. Well, maybe it didn’t change it, the change was on the way. But its seems to be making the change permanent.

    When I first started reading about wine from books when I was a student, wine writing was timeless. It was less about a certain label, or a certain wine business, and more about a place, a culture, and a craft. There were discussions of vintages, but no self respecting writer would venture an opinion until several years after the wines were released and put in the cellar. There was a distance kept as well from the producer. Wineries made little effort to influence the product because the product was general, non-commercial, educational, intended to add enjoyment, not influence the purchasing decision.

    As wine was discovered by America a lot of new voices stepped in. They came from many walks of life. Most were new to wine. Example…a police dispatcher in So.Cal started to read about wine and meet winemakers. He discovered things he didn’t know and immediately started writing about it. It was basic stuff, but new to him and to most Americans. He was easily influenced, you could essentially give him a story, and his writing became a third party endorsement for your wine. Soon he was syndicated. Advertising took a hit, PR agencies prospered, and the modern profession of wine writing was born. There were exceptions like Bespaloff and Asher, but most were a direct voice from the industry to the consumer.

    What does a direct voice of the industry sound like. It generally is what is “new and improved.” It is a winemaker’s philosophy on wine quality. A wineries new solar panels, it sprays cow dung aged in bull horns on its vines, it’s unfiltered and unfined. It’s the winemaker who does absolutely nothing to wine who is rejoiced by the writer. It a lot of cases it is meaningless b”’s”t.

    Another thing that has changed is something Mark has touched on. “so much “advice” (read noise) floating out in cyberspace that they are hearing that many of his fellow winery owners are doing nothing because they don’t know who to follow” Yes that is a problem. Nubie winery owners actually “following.”

  6. The best answer to the question posed in your headline is: a lot more navel-gazing.

  7. Pete, sometimes I think you’re right.

  8. Morton displays the voice of reason here. In the back-and-forth debate over mags vs. blogs, wine books have lost some street cred. Interestingly, you’ll find that many of the better (IMHO) blogs feature a reading list of recommended wine books. And, as I stress when teaching about wine, a person’s best prose-based wine education can be found in a good wine book as opposed to any wine magazine.

    As for what blogging has actually contributed to wine writing? How about three things: a welcome shift to transparency; a celebration of as it’s bought, poured and discussed in real life; and the ability to make wine writing a conversation rather than a one-way street.

    Yes, as Pete said. there is indeed quite a bit of navel-gazin; and (as has been said before) there is perhaps a PR-fueled naivete on display in many wine blogs. However, print magazines come nowhere close to blogs in terms of raising controversial topics and fostering positive debate.

  9. Great post, Steve.

  10. When I started as a journalist, an old political hack took me under his wing. I took notes in city council meetings and on cocktail napkins in bars. I read Environmental Impact Reports for fun and I researched until I knew enough to only ask the questions that needed to be asked. As Steve says, the glory was to beat the competition. I took this to Capitol Hill and elsewhere.
    I now know a lot about the global wine business. Could I make wine tomorrow as a result? Absolutely not.
    At Vinexpo, the fair’s CEO, Robert Beynat, told me he had little interest in bloggers and it is practically impossible for a blogger to be credentialed for Vinexpo (he may regret this in 2011). Many winery owners tell me they don’t know what to do with unknown bloggers asking for samples and so don’t send any (it is very costly..).
    So I encourage bloggers to inform their opinions (as some do very well, and certainly you, Steve) and while, as Morton and Mark say, the noise will continue, the sediment will fall to the bottom.

  11. The first thing to remember is that blogging is still journalism. There has always been good and not so good, objective and not so objective journalism. Morton points to one journalist, but that guy, and he was, if I am right about which curmudgeon Morton is talking about, was also a real wine lover. He just figured out a way to monetize his blog (magazine, life). It was journalism just as blogging is journalism.

    The notions of transparency are not new. The blogosphere did not create them, buit it has allowed new voices to question what those notions mean and to add to the conversation. Both positively and negatively, in my view.

    The thing that is most important about the blogosphere is that it has opened up the conversation channels. We had channels like that in chat rooms and on bulletin boards, but this new sphere is far more open and allows anyone to speak at any time and to everyone who will listen.

    Whether all of those voices are worth listening to–or whether any of them is worth listening to is being decided every day. There is nothing wrong with enthusiastic amateurs finding their professional palates and their voices. We all started that way. It was just that there we not a lot of professionals around years ago when folks like me, Parker, Bob Morissey (who started the Spectator) began to write and to see if anyone would listen to us.

    The standards of knowledge are today a lot higher than they were back then, and that is part of the problem for today’s new entrants to the field. I read and like several blogs whose wine descriptions are not especially good, but I like them anyhow because they have interesting stories to tell.

    The wineries will eventually figure out which bloggers to follow and to support. They do the same thing with journalists. I get samples from lots of folks. I have never seen a sample from Colgin or Screaming Eagle or Littorai. Parker and the Spectator do. I get samples that others do not get. It’s a big world out there, and the wineries will figure it out because eventually the folks reading all these bloggers will figure it out.

    Finally, a note on books. I am just finishing up a book for the same publisher that published Steve’s books. It will run hundreds of pages, hundreds of thousands of words, pull together all kinds of information, analysis, background and deeper background. No article in a magazine, newspaper or blog can do what books can do. And in a funny way, the same is true for print publications. Sure, no print publication is going to carry Ron Washam or Sam Dugan yet their blogs are must reads. Very few consumer publications will ever carry Ken Payton, yet his blog is deep, thoughtful and can be highly technical.

    So, my conclusion is that, at least for the moment, the blogosphere is a great vehicle for opinion, for limited provision of information, but it has no real ability to replace the depth of a Parker newsletter with its one hundred pages of text every two months or the WS with its hundreds of pages of text every three weeks. The blogosphere is a different place, and its value is different. Not necessarily better or worse but definitely different and, thus, not likely to replace some forms and functions of print.

  12. Great discussion happening here.

    Mark my words, Vinexpo will have bloggers present within three years – I’m certain of it. Otherwise, it risks its very future. Sounds overly-dramatic, but it’s probably true.

  13. And… the cream of the crop will rise to the top.

  14. Folks: you heard it here first.

  15. Because the platform is so new, we’re all still trying to figure out where blogging really lies on the continuum of wine writing. I’m very skeptical of anyone who implies having enough knowledge at this stage of the game to make definitive and generalized pronouncements on the state of wine blogging, be they gushingly positive or dismissively negative.

    Regarding wine bloggers themselves, I wonder about those who feel that just because they *can* throw up a website and beginning tapping away at their keyboards, then they *should*. They’re often doing so at the expense of thinking carefully their about mission and audience. Adding to that is the ease with which many bloggers are seduced by the empowerment afforded them by online tools and technologies. In the end, I think the more successful bloggers will be those who focus on carving a niche and contributing something truly unique to the world of wine writing (do we really need another armchair wine reviewer?).

  16. One thing that just occurred to me (I’m slow) is that most bloggers and trad. media people are talking about blogging as separate from trad. wine media, or as some sort of adjunct to trad. media.

    I’m always confused as to why this approach is taken.

    In the end, it’s all “wine writing,” and the medium does not define the quality of the content or the credentials of its authors. The medium differs only in the barriers to entry. The easier the barriers are to overcome, the larger the amount of crap that can enter. If the medium defines anything, it’s the audience that’s most likely to read the author’s content.

    I don’t agree that blogging about wine (or any topic) shouldn’t or should be done depending on the author. They’re not getting paid for it so f–k it, let them use a blog to chronicle their opinions and tasting notes if they want to do that. The reality is that this approach doesn’t hurt anybody, it’s just easier in the blogging medium to ‘fake’ expertise or to pretend to be something that you’re not – let readers decide what’s worthwhile and what isn’t.

    I do agree that cream will rise to the top in blogging – by and large, with a few exceptions, no one is reading really crappy blogs. Others might not be so great now, but could become influential one day depending on the niche, talent, and drive of their authors. As Steve noted, nothing wrong with those folks figuring it out as they go – I suspect Parker was far from an expert taster when the first TWA issues were printed up!

  17. Thomas Matthews says:

    Steve,

    With all due respect, you were never “at” Wine Spectator — you were an occasional freelance contributor who wrote mostly about charity auctions. I don’t see how this qualifies you to judge how much Wine Spectator editors knew about wine, and whether they were “faking” being experts, and I’m surprised by your gratuitous attack.

    No honest wine writer claims to know everything about the subject, and every serious wine writer understands that only by continuing to learn can they have anything to teach. Wine Spectator editors “learn on the job” by visiting wine regions, interviewing winemakers, reading the literature and tasting, tasting, tasting. Then we report, as best we can, what we have learned. Nothing “fake” about it.

    I respect any wine writer who puts in the same effort, whether they publish in print or on the internet. For me, the “fake experts” are those who consider themselves justified in making assumptions without doing their homework, no matter how many vintages they have under their belt.

    Thomas Matthews
    Executive editor
    Wine Spectator

  18. Tom, it’s manifestly untrue that I “wrote mostly about charity auctions.” I wrote, on assignment, about everything, and had the back page — The Collecting Page — to myself for years. It dealt with topics from ageability to food pairing to terroir to cellar conditions. If you want to go through individual issues from those years, feel free. As for “learning on the job,” it was obvious to me that everybody was indeed doing just that. No one is born with the ability to taste wine, or to write about it with acuity and insight. I admired the reviewing staff for their dedication, and still do, but it is undeniable that they were developing their palates at the time. I count that as a strength, and what I wrote was meant to be a testament to that strength, not a “gratuitous attack.” Honestly, Wine Spectator needs to learn how to tell the difference between its friends and its enemies, and not be so ready to take offense.

  19. The conversational aspect can’t be overstated–and its byproduct, a greater sense of community among those who blog and comment. Print just can’t do this. But more importantly is the newsiness of blogging–its immediacy. Weblogs can certainly be used, as you are Steve, to sit back and ponder the Larger Issues and trends, informally–another plus. But most important blogs can respond almost instantly to emerging topics like, say, the flap about the Robert Parker team. Tasting notes as a blogging activity have no advantage. Other online channels shine here, yes, CellarTracker and Snooth. You note these qualities, Steve, but are not persuasive, to me anyway, that wine writing in mags can absorb any of these characteristics.

  20. Tom, magazine wine writing can go into greater length and depth, which most people would agree is important. My feature stories are about 2,000 words. Would anyone have a blog that was 2,000 words long? Nope. My articles usually also include photos, maps and other visual aides. So magazine writing, while it has its limits, is different in kind from online writing. You’re right, print pubs aren’t interactive and immediate. But they have strengths that online writing doesn’t.

  21. Steve

    I have seen numerous blogs go way over 2000 words. I just started mine a couple of months ago, but I think that all of my entriesl go over 2000 words…
    http://www.grapestwc.blogspot.com

    See for yourself.

    In addition, many of the blogs I read (Dr Vino, WS, etc) also can be lengthy.

  22. I am far from an expert in wine, but enjoy drinking it and learning about it. Seeing Thomas Matthews’ over-the-top response to your post on blogging reawakened a long dormant memory of my own interaction with him, when I was a mere reader of his magazine. I had written to “the Editor,” questioning WS’s relationship to certain restaurants it was fawning over. In the same article I was reacting to, WS saw fit to trash food writer Amanda Hesser with no apparent basis for doing so, and I complained about it. Matthews reaction was essentially the same. Attack the source of the unwelcome information, talk about what a wonderful institution WS was, and, in my case, refuse to print anything I’d written in his magazine. He was unable to engage in a two-way conversation then, and things haven’t changed much. That’s unfortunate, because someone with his long experience might have contributed something useful on the subject of blogging vs. print. Instead, all he’s provided is hysterical bloviating.

  23. Steve – I do, on ocassion, include pieces in my blog that click in at about 1700-2200 words. These are invariably in-depth pieces on a wine, region, or a winery.

  24. Dude, didn’t know that.

  25. Steve is more right. Whether or not some of the better blogs go in depth on certain pieces I don’t think is the point. The wine mags have the clear advantage here. While we all read long items on a monitor, it’s just more enjoyable to read 2,000 word articles in a magazine. Such essays tend to give an overview of an area, a family, a vintage, etc. Quick response isn’t as important as solid writing well researched which I think the mags excell at. Nonetheless, wine news and debate gets superior coverage online and why all print publications are suffering in our interactive age.

  26. Tom–

    If the Internet ever figures out a way to monetize the kind of debates we have here, mostly among professionals in any event, the mags will be all over it like white on rice.

    And by the way, Tom, which wine print publications are suffering?

  27. I should have narrowed my statement or elaborated. Print publications in the news and opinion biz. Conde Nast closed down Portfolio for example. Time and Newsweek are limping. And of course all newspapers with the possible exception of the Wall Street Journal. Tina Brown’s ~Talk~ which hit almost a million readers went down the tubes after four or five years. She now runs The Daily Beast on the web which is proving to be a fierce competitor of Ariana Huffington’s version–both exemplify how and why the Internet is so dominant in a certain mode of communication.

  28. Steve,

    This point made your piece worth the read for me:

    “I concede that everybody has to start someplace in their journey to knowledge. When I was at Wine Spectator (and I say this respectfully, not accusingly), I discovered that some of the other writers sometimes faked being experts, because at that time they weren’t. They had just started writing about wine a few years earlier, and were learning on the job. I didn’t think there was anything wrong with that then, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with bloggers learning on the job now.”

    I recall from a conversation we had several months ago that in the beginning of your career, you practiced writing tasting notes by studying successful wine writers’ work.
    For me, blogging is exactly that – practice. It gives me a place to develop my writer’s voice, and being that it’s a public forum – like a magazine, for instance – I always check my facts. I’m sure I’ve missed a spot here and there – but never do I attempt to pretend to be an expert about anything (except delicious gourmet beer and sausage restaurants in downtown Los Angeles. Another subject.)

    -Erin McGrath

  29. Erin, mmmm…beer and sausages! Like!

  30. Steve,
    FYI – this blog posting now runs to 4714 words (not counting this reply).
    So you are clearly out-blogging your print self!

  31. Paul, well you must be counting comments! Regards to friends in the great NW wine country.

  32. That’s Paul’s point, Steve. It’s a bit like writing an article with very long quotes from people that expand on or challenge the writer’s POV. But instead of weaving the quotes into the story they come at the end when the author can also weigh in.

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