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Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.


I suppose it’s not particularly original to point out that social media is not the first movement to revolutionize the authoritarian structure of broadcast communication in this country, but the second. The first was the rise of cable T.V., which was supposed to “let a thousand flowers bloom” by breaking up the old network model, dominated by NBC, ABC and CBS.

That the three traditional nets took hits from cable is undeniable. But they’re still powerhouses, aren’t they, and who’s to say they, or one or some of them, won’t come roaring back? Still, gone are the days when (as I was reminded by a neighbor), John Chancellor could intone, in stentorian cadence, “This…is John Chancellor,” pronouncing the final syllable as in “lord”, thus underscoring that the hierarchy ran from God to NBC to us.

Those were the good old days because you didn’t have to think. John, or Uncle Walter, or Chet or some other trusted and knowing white man told us how it was, we believed, and all was well in America.

Then came cable. There would be dozens of channels, it was said — maybe 100! It was unthinkable for Baby Boomers raised on four (the nets plus one local). Viewers would have choice. And so it came to be, but of an order of magnitude even greater than anticipated: We now have hundreds of channels. And yet the more things change, the more they stay the same. The voices of authority did not go away; they simply changed. Glenn Beck, Keith Olbermann, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Chris Matthews — these are the new (albeit more opinionated) newscasters, the Uncle Walters and David Brinkleys of the cabes. Whoever said cable T.V. was changing the rules was wrong.

Which brings up the question of social media. It is now supposed to do exactly what cable T.V. was supposed to do: wash away all vestiges of concentrated, top-down communication. To be sure, there’s been much chatter, over the dreary and pessimistic duration of the Great Recession, that the New Media are replacing the Old Media, and good riddance to bad rubbish!

Let’s take a closer look. Let’s restrict it to the wine industry, which is after all the main thing that links us together. Yes, we now have a vast array of social media and, yes, for sure, the wine industry is watching, looking and listening. (A friend just called to announce she’d gotten a job as social media director for a large winery chain. What hath Hardy Wallace wrought?) But what else do we have? If I ask you — any of you, and there are thousands of you out there — to name a certified social media superstar, you will come up with the following:

– Dr. Vino
– Gary Vaynerchuk
– Alder Yarrow
– Tom Wark
– Eric Asimov

(All white guys, I might add. Hmm…)

Isn’t that true? They are the most widely-read blogs on every list; their names are becoming brands (in Gary V.’s case he already is a brand). What’s more, it’s hard to see the platform expanding much beyond them. Maybe there’s room for a few more names; two or three or five or six, but you get my point. There’s not an infinite amount of room at the top of the social media pyramid to sustain fame for more than a handful of celebrity bloggers, any more than there’s room in cable, or was room in network T.V., for more than a handful of celebrity news voices. So what, exactly, has changed?

Well, for one thing, in social media there exists the reality of instantaneous two-way communication. In the old days, if you disagreed with something Uncle Walter said, all you could do was shout at your T.V. Fifteen years ago, if you found Rush outrageous (and I hope you did), you were similarly stifled. Today, of course, you can email, or comment on a blog, or blog or Facebook or tweet on your own, to the whole world. That’s new.

What isn’t new is that we’ve simply replaced an old generation of authoritarian critical voices with a new one. But the new boss is the same as the old boss, in essence. It’s been said that each additional Parker point is worth $7 in the wine’s retail price. How much is a Gary V. recommendation worth? (I can’t tell you how much a Heimoff recco is worth in dollars, but I’m told a good score from me moves bottles.)

There’s nothing really unusual or revolutionary about social media when you think of it along these lines. People — the hoi polloi — always have wanted guidance with wine. In Rome, everybody wanted what Caesar drank. Later, they followed the Pope, or the monks, and when Europe became secular, the likes of Professor Saintsbury and André Simon provided guidance. Parker is a late incarnation of Thomas Jefferson, giving trusted advice to his friends. Gary V. is a (I can’t say the) new Parker.

So enough about “down with authority!” We’ll have famous wine critics as long as we have 5,000 brands for sale in the Wall of Wine and a confused public desperately seeking guidance. The only difference is that the new famous wine critics are pronouncing from the Internet. (Wait a minute, isn’t Gary V. writing books now? I guess predictions of the Death of Print have been exaggerrated.)

  1. Holy heaven–I just about fully agree with this post…how boring 😉

    By the way, Steve, yours is the only blog that even after I check the box does not notify me when a new comment is posted. Are there others with the same complaint?

  2. Thomas, I did not know that. I’ll look into it immediately. Thanks.

  3. Steve. I have that problem too. I thought I told you about it.

  4. This is a test of subscribe to comments

  5. Ok, here is the follow up comment that I want notification on.

  6. Isn’t Gary V actually the new Wilfred Wong?

  7. What an odd post. You seem to want to have your cake and eat it too. Though you mention the dominant feature of Web 2.0, interaction, you also seem to dismiss it by accentuating authority. Gary V’s video column may bill itself as a “vlog” but it really ain’t two way, even though the Vayniacs comment after shows. It’s just another wine review outlet that uses the new media. In some ways it’s a variation of an infomercial–selling vino instead of beachfront property [side note: the ‘father’ of the infomercial, Dave DelDatto, now runs a winery]. And of course there is bound to be at least one member of the younger generation coming along who appeals to that generation.

    The real bloggers serve as discussion facilitators. Alder Y and Tyler C while they do wine reviews are really very articulate discussion facilitators (as are you). Tom W’s observations pull in viewers because they deal with the issues that wine drinkers are interested in. You all make opening statements to get the dialogue going, an important service, but not one that people will pay for, like some do for WA, WS, WE, Connoisseurs Guide. None can expect to influence buying decisions like the old guard; rather they stoke the fires of what we might call wine policy. You all get the ball rolling, but are not really deferred to as “authorities”.

    And once again you make no mention of the real revolution spawned by the Internet: the rise of user critiques–the real New Authorities. I won’t go into my usual rant, but I will quote Eric LeVine, founder of CellarTracker who participated in a thread on the recent WSJ article over on Dr.Vino: “Nonetheless, when trying to figure out whether to drink something from my cellar, do I rely on a 15 year old [review] from Parker or the 50 notes from fellow wine lovers who have had the same wine in the past year? Pretty easy decision…”

  8. Brad: lol

  9. Jose, here’s your followup.

  10. Here you go.

  11. A recent report from Information Resources Inc. (which tracks sales in grocery stores, boxes, etc., less in stores that sell only liquor) showed that 74% of those buying beer, wine and spirits lean on recommendations from friends and family.

    The point of social media is not how much attention how many ever people “at the top” get but the ability to communicate quickly and easily with peers, who in turn are the key influencers.

    Don’t look at how social media is like old media but how it is different.

  12. Great article Steve. In my opinion the only aspect you missed was the power of recommendation and the ease and speed of communication. Today I can send a link to your article to 50 people I know are wine bug bitten. If you missed that evening when Uncle Walter said something profound, well… tune in the next time.

  13. You make an interesting point that the idea of top down communication hasn’t gone away, but I think the big difference is that anyone can enter that space and attempt to gain a spot in that list of most popular blogs. The thing about the internet is this – if your content is good, people recognize it and they will find it and consume it. In an old medium like TV, there is someone controlling it, you had to go through someone to get your stuff up there. Here, anyone can do anything they want, and people move toward it, so long as it’s good. So maybe you still only have a few names that have the power to sway the masses, but those in power can definitely be usurped by anyone who wants to do it better. That was never really the case before, or at least, it was much harder.

  14. A fatal flaw with this post is not addressing the platform from which each of the people you mention come from:

    – Dr. Vino – professor; time in his schedule (time enough to take on book projects, at least)
    – Gary Vaynerchuk; owns his own business
    – Alder Yarrow; owns his own business
    – Tom Wark; owns his own business
    – Eric Asimov; writes under credible masthead as a function of his job.

    The answer to your question about more people coming to the fore is a matter of resources — financial and time. It has nothing to do with the top of the pyramid. With a 1000 + wine blogs out there I would suggest the 80/20 rule is a good maxim, therefore there’s plenty of room.

    However, there is a finite amount of people who can commit time and resources based on not being in charge of the bulk of their time — i.e. they work full-time.

    I would guarantee that if you took the next 15 most popular bloggers and gave them a small amount of money to invest in their blog infrastructure and freedom from the need to contribute to household income you would see a radically different landscape in 1 years time.

    Ironically enough, you would also have the quality work output necessary to bring advertising dollars to the space, as well.


  15. Yay- I hath rath!

    One point with the 5 people you mention. Only 1 is mainstream (Gary)- And he’s still fringe for the mainstream. (Even Eric is not a household name)

    There is still a ton of room up there (unless everyone is trying to do the same exact thing)…

  16. Hardy, we’ll see who lives and who dies.

  17. Steve, I’m sure that a good score from you moves bottles. You should give us a good score.
    -people forget that social media has been around for a long time. “word of mouth” is what it used to be called. What we are seeing now is a new kind of social media, it happens much faster and is also more fickle. In a marketing sense, social media should be taken advantage of just like all other types of media.

  18. Brett: you got that right. “social media should be taken advantage of just like all other types of media.” That’s exactly what wineries are trying to do.

  19. Brett’s point about social media originating with “word of mouth” is well taken – not only is the medium now faster, it is stickier. What was once said, heard, remembered, and repeated (probably incorrectly) is now there for anyone to find via google.

    A quibble: Sure, cable TV opened up more channels, but the number of channels was still finite and controlled and there was/is a significant cost in getting access. And the networks survived by “joining them”, sucking up channels like ESPN, etc. that were successful on cable. The internet, on the other hand, has a low cost of access and anyone can get access.

    Also, like broadcast, cable is still a “one-to-many” model. Social media on the internet is “many-to-many” and that is the game changer.

  20. El Jefe, yes, except for this: almost as soon as something is uttered in social media, it’s immediately swept away by hundreds — thousands — millions — billions of new words. Magazines have a lifespan of a month or a week or two — the old networks had a lifespan of 24 hours — the cable networks have a lifespan of perhaps a few hours — but the lifespan of a tweet can be counted in milliseconds.

  21. Cable TV is largely dreck.

    “Isn’t Gary V actually the new Wilfred Wong?”

    No, he’s the new (or old) Crazy Eddie.

  22. I think what is always overlooked with the supposed replacement of Parker is that Parker reviews over a thousand wines each issue. Vaynerchuk probably leads the way as a blogger but what does he review a year? A thousand (3/day, 5 days/wk= 780)? While people always want to depict Parker as the emperor for his control over people’s taste, he is actually quite egalitarian in promoting many more different wines than anyone else.

  23. Hi Steve,

    Well done article–here is my take as a Director for a direct marketing driven social media strategy firm.

    I attended my 30 yr. high school reunion last year which inspired a look back at 1978 for me. When doing this retro, I realized that a few things were in place that made sharing information or creating exposure for you or a business very difficult:

    1. Mass media controlled our information and the flow in which it was delivered

    2. Technology aka the platform was in the hands of mass media via radio, print, & TV

    3. Unless individuals or companies knew insiders in the mass media, or they were willing to pay large advertising fees, they were unable to deliver their messages to a large audience

    Today, Social media is the revolution and evolution that allows us to create our own audio, video, or written content. To control our messages and information. And it allows us to proactively deliver this information to our strategically targeted audience.

    In my opinion, social media is the greatest opportunity for businesses today–yet many (including the wine industry) fail to recognize why this is a fact. . .

    The fact is social media networks (blogging, Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, bookmarking) are simply the new sales and marketing channel for individuals or businesses to leverage.

    This is not a hip, trendy, or passing phenomenon. This is the evolution of communication that is here to stay.

  24. Interesting . . . and one that should make us all ‘think’ a bit about the past, present and future.

    The big (or strong / popular/ etc) just get more so in this world . . .Period. It IS difficult to break into the space occupied by those who have already developed a following and the bigger they grow, the harder it will be for others . . .

    And as all talk about the ‘democtatization’ of information via social media / the internet, the reality is that a vast majority of folks STILL only listen and follow a handful of folks . . . period.

    This does NOT mean that everyone else should ‘give up’ – on the contrary, it should make everyone else either a) work harder to break through or b) find niches not covered by the others to get a foothold . . .

    Thanks again!


    larry schaffer
    tercero wines

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