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A clash of generations under the Golden Gate Bridge, with pen and paper

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Well, I made it into the online edition of Bohemian, a free paper of Sonoma, Marin and Napa counties which, like most free papers, is read (and presumably written) by a younger crowd that hangs out in Sebastopol and  St. Helena coffee shops with wi-fi’d laptops or pecking away on their personal digital devices. The writer, the splendidly named Alastair Bland, was reporting on last month’s Wine Institute-sponsored New Generation Vintners and Growers event, held at an old military base under the Golden Gate Bridge, which I attended. Wine Institute had billed this gathering as aimed at Twitterers, Facebookers, bloggers, etc. and indeed the crowd of 40-50 people did all the above, live from the venue. I was reporting for Wine Enthusiast, and Alastair had a little fun describing me:

“Veteran journalist Steve Heimoff of Wine Enthusiast, meanwhile,  flaunted a dashing old-school style with his trademark rustic pen and a crinkly pad of paper.”

Go ahead, smile. I did. It conjures up images of Cary Grant playing that 1930s reporter in “His Girl Friday”.

carygrant

Maybe I should have been cradling the phone in my shoulder, screaming “stop the presses!” as I furiously typed copy on my old loyal Royal (with, improbably, a gorgeous Rosalind Russell seconding me). Alastair painted a vivid contrast of reporting styles by describing another attendee, “Wine blogger Thea Dwelle, who [was] sending out some 15 tweets while the hip and trendy discussion proceeded.” Readers thus had the sweet pleasure of visualizing the old and the new, the past and the future, a hip and trendy newbie vs. a grizzled old, ink-stained fourth-estater, in a word-picture expressed by a decidedly non-”Bland” writer, Alastair.

Alastair also wrote: “[Heimoff] broke from his notes just once to ask the panel if, through this incorrigible focus on social media marketing, we might expect to see wineries succeed based on a slick web presence rather than on their wines’ quality. The panel answered in consensus that there is plenty of room for both making good wine and frolicking on the web after hours.”

That’s not quite how I remember it, although maybe you shouldn’t trust the memory of anyone who still reports things with “a rustic pen” (and jeez, I pay $2 for my Pentel EnerGels, which doesn’t seem so rustic to me!). It’s true that I asked only that one question. I wanted to ask a lot more; I always do, because questions flood my mind; but I held my tongue because people weren’t there to hear me, they were there to hear the invited speakers. As for my one question, nobody ever did answer it, not really. I asked, “It’s great for a winery to try and establish an online reputation, but will that help it in the long run if their wines suck?” It’s still a good question, don’t you think? I do. But of course, I still write things down on “crinkly pads of paper.” (Do the pages on my pad actually make a crinkly sound? I try so hard to be inconspicuous.)

I might say here that taking notes — whether with pen and paper or in some more modern way — actually helps a reporter think through and analyze something before he blabs about it to the entire universe, in instinctual but entirely unreflective observation, as is the Twitter way. I could claim that reporting that is cautiously and considerately expressed is better than spurts of immediate impression. I could say, Check your facts before you tweet on them. I could, but I won’t, because I don’t want the social medianistas to jump all over me. They can be fierce. There’s room for what they do.

Yet I do worry about this: as expertise fades away, into its place steps the anarchy and chaos of sheer enthusiasm. Wineries no longer fear being criticized by knowledgeable wine experts because there are no more knowledgeable wine experts around. Instead, there is competition based on who can attract the most Twitter followers or Facebook friends or unique visits on a blog or some other metric that measures anything and everything except the quality of the wine in the bottle. It’s like the Tea Party people who are mostly ignorant about actual facts, but like being part of the crowd.

I personally don’t fear that expertise will disappear. For thousands of years wine has succeeded based on quality, not gossip, and there’s no reason to think that social media will change human nature. I also think that the furor over social media is going to die down. Ever hear of bubbles? They expand to maximum size, then they blow up, and everybody wonders, “How come we didn’t know it wouldn’t last forever?” But then, I am “old-school.” At least I’m “dashing!” (Yet one more thing I have in common with Cary Grant.) How about suave…sophisticated…sexy? (Dream on.)

  1. Steve, you should have been cradling the phone on your shoulder screaming “Get me Duffy…I should have known better than to hire someone with a disease!”

  2. Steve,

    My beloved Girlfriend, a “wine blog” enthusiast, sent me your article “Clash of Generations…” because I am a “Internet Policy” blog enthusiast and your essay touches upon some very interesting questions.

    While I am in the throws of applying to law school and can not afford to launch into a flowery diatribe (better for the both us, it could last for pages..) I would very much like to respond to your comments.

    Let me quickly iterate, I am in no way defending the snarky little pill that dared to scoff at your questions! I’m more interested in your pontificating at the bottom of the post.

    First, “expertise” is a tricky thing to quantify and often, especially in the age of information, “enthusiasm” quickly bleeds into the age old realm once gated off from mere lovers. I like to refer to it as the giant “Good Will Hunting” phenomenon and I often use myself and sneakers as an example. I grew up in Rochester, NY, where “sneaker culture,” “high end street wear” and “urban fashion” are terms seldom uttered. After learning about blogs, then learning about sneaker blogs (!!) however, I quickly became able to name every shoe on the street and impress even the most hardened of teenage shoe guru. So with that I warn you, where their is a will now their is a way, and its an easy route! Furthermore, Amateur enthusiasts are often the least likely to be perverted by outside interests like money and fame. It’s the reporter, who aims to uncork that next great wine, or the reviewer who gets his wine for free that we should be worried about.

    Finally, you refer to social media as a bubble, bound to eventually burst. I hate to throw stones sir, from what my girlfriend tells me you are quite the legendary figure on the Wine Blog circuit… but you’re unequivocally, 100% – dead wrong. Lest you forget, “blogs” are the biggest most successful Social Media device on the planet. Blogs make it possible for you, me and everyone we know to publish internationally, for free! that ain’t goin anywhere! Furthermore, one could easily define Facebook and Twitter as ‘micro-blogs’ aimed at fulfilling man’s most inherent of desires, to be heard and to communicate with others. We are inherently, a communal beast – it is because of that inalienable reality that social media will only proliferate and expand with the ever growing world wide web.

    Thank you for giving me this respite from my dreary Law School Applications and please by all means, continue jotting down notes in that trusty pad of yours! You’ll have the last laugh when the kids of this generation forget how things actually feel.

    Best,
    Sawyer

  3. Dear Sawyer, I’m not saying social media is going away. Just speaking in terms of its impact on my little world of wine, which has been exaggerated.

  4. Steve,

    There has to be an end to the craze somewhere. But any bursting bubbles will be that of egos, not social media. I think that in the end, this comes down to the bloggers, marketers, and businesses. After all, it’s this crowd that is making such a fuss over things.

    Just like wine, people eventually learn to tune out the garbage: rambling tweets about lunch and indigestion; personal preference blogs written by bland and amateur writers on topics such as red and white and pink and bubbly; wine sales carried by the buzz of uneducated consumers — these are fads and egos that will burst.

    The cream will rise to the top in new journalism, and egos will burst across the viral virtual world, and craziness will calm into a new craziness — but as a marketing channel, social media is surely here to stay.

  5. Thank goodness for the blogosphere. I would never have seen that wonderful exchange of ideas between an old fogey like you and such a smart twenty-something like Sawyer. It has to be one of the funniest things yet seen. How dare you suggest that expertise is worth anything in wine appreciation?

    By the way, does one need to be a pontiff to pontificate? If so, you must be the Pope of The Left Coast Blogosphere–but it is only for the day. Sort of like the TV program–Queen For A Day.

    And do pontiffs pontificate on yontiff? No wait, that is a whole other line of ethnic joke. Sorry, wrong forum.

    By the way, I wonder if you are aware of the latest in social media tools as shown as the Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas.

    Digital chopsticks. Now you can eat your lunch and make notes at the same time. But I am guessing that a fossil like yourself is simply not up on this technology.

    As for the bubble, I have always wondered if it is not illusory in any event. Thea Dwelle has thousand of followers and thousands of folks she follows, but you cannot just sign up to follow her, she must approve you. So much for openness in the new social media. What level of paranoia is this?

    And as long as I am being snarky, I must note that she voluntary followed me (as I am so hungry for followers that I do not preapprove who comes along), and then she dropped me when she discovered that I knew you. You may think you are Cary Grant, but, old buddy, I think we are both chopped liver to the Thea Dwelles and their incessant warbling.

    No thanks, old man, do not apply. You take notes with pen and paper.

  6. If a product is total crap, no amount of marketing can save it – eventually, the story will be seen as a lie. I have, however, in my career seen fairly crappy products succeed because of brilliant marketing. And I have seen brilliant products fail because of crappy marketing. So I guess the answer to your question then is “It depends on the degree of suck.”

  7. Oh, and as one who still thinks the most pleasurable writing experience possible is that of a fountain pen scratching on plain paper, please continue to crinkle your paper proudly!

  8. Steve, glad you saw the piece. FYI, I also use a pen and paper, I’ve never tweeted in my life, and I forgot my Facebook password! Scribble on…

  9. Nice post, Steve…

    Remember, we were all young once. SF in the 60′s ( or ’70s) was enthusiastic as well. they didn’t have Twitter and FB, just Fillmore West and a doobie. But youth is bulletproof (bubbleproof?)

    I have your washing machine. Where would you like me to put it?

  10. Though I now have to accept that I am repeating myself over and over again, whenever this sort of topic pops up on SH’s blog, which is about every third one, I will continue to inject “The Wisdom of Crowds” POV. Steve steadfastly refuses to comment on this phenomenon, preferring to give the impression that Twitter and Facebook are the Alpha and Omega of Web 2.0/Wine 2.0. That what we are dealing with is a battle between Those Who Know Better and the mob of yahoos intent on furthering their anarchistic agenda. Which only reinforces for some of us how out of touch SH is with the changing wine evaluation scene.

    Twitter and FB have their place, but online forums continue to reign supreme for assessing the quality and the human stories associated with particular wines, whether it’s the Wine Spectator forum (I couldn’t find Wine Enthusiast’s version), or Mr. Garr’s Wine Lovers docking station in cyberspace, or Snooth or CellarTracker with its over a million tasting notes.

    Sawyer nicely captures this democratization trend when he cites his street smarts about sneakers, enhanced by bloggers. This is not “expertise fading away” just relocating to users. We don’t need no stinking Pontiffs passing down decrees from above. Better for you old time journalists to focus in-depth well written pieces on the context of wine–the regions, techniques, history etc. For these pieces, and not the single palette wine judging, you can and should stick around.

  11. Tom–

    Did you say you repeat yourself over and over and over and over? Well, I guess we all do. And you know what? I am beginning to believe you.

    Now, don’t get too excited, Tom, because “believe you” has its limits. I like the “sneaker” analogy so much that I have thought about how it applies to wine. And here is what I find.

    There is a continuum of wine information from amateur jottings to professional journalism. Much of it is free, even at the higher value end of things. When I was writing for the LA Times, I was essentially asked to distill Connoisseurs’ Guide articles of 20,000 words with hundreds of tasting notes into Times articles with 1,000 words and a few cherry-picked notes. There was a general upper-price ceiling on the Times articles, but not on every one, and so those articles, and the not dissimilar articles that now appear in the SF Chron in their tasting note grid are the upper end of free commentary–or were. There are now free outlets on the Internet. You do not see Alder Yarrow reviewing inexpensive wines, for example.

    But, all of this part of the free continuum is geared to the person who is less than deeply involved in wine collecting. Those folks will read Steve’s blog and Eric Asimov’s, got an occasional clue from Dottie and John, find the odd nugget in the writing of Laurie Daniel, etc.

    But here is why the expert is not going to disappear. There are thousands of labels out there–over 3,000 bonded wineries in CA and another 2,000 negotiant and second labels. In OR and WA, you will find (my guess) about 1,500 more. And worldwide, it is anybody’s guess but do please start at way over 10,000 more just for reality’s sake.

    The paid expert evaluates these wines in a comprehensive setting, hopefully with enough care to eliminate bias, and he or she does that in a fairly timely manner with the data presented in a cohesive package of information. Wine lovers who are trying to decide between Benovia, Bjornstad, Hallberg, Williams Selyem, Papapietro Perry, Freestone, Handley, Marimar, Morgan (I can make this list about 400 longer of producers who have limited edition Pinot Noir bottlings of varying qualities from vintage to vintage and vineyard to vineyard) simply do not want the opinions, after the fact when the wine has gone off the market, of a bunch of generalists.

    So, to me, it is easy to see how the small-market newsletters will have an easy time. My own limits are time and age, not possibility. Parker may retire at some point in the next twenty years, but if he wants to see his newsletter continue or see younger writers take it over, that possibility will exist.

    That leaves the question, to me, at least, of the middle. You have said that pay publications need to focus only on “background articles”, and I think you miss the point, and that is where we really part ways. The Wine Spectator, The Wine Enthusiast and other slick paper magazines have several raisons d’etre, not the least of which is that they provide advertisers with a link to a particularly interesting demographic. And so, when they publish tasting notes of the type they do, and they publish those notes in big numbers, they are serving the information master that you see, they are serving the tasting note information master for all but the geek end of the wine community and they are in existence because their business model works (the advertisers need them).

    I don’t see them going away either. Whatever Snooth and CT and Palate Press and other wine info sources on the Internet may become, they are going to have to find a value proposition, and thus a revenue stream in order to exist long-term.

    Despite the willingness of the twenty-somethings to say, “Hey, old man, we don’t need you”, many of their millions, will change their minds as their wine appreciation keeps building in knowledge, collection and curiosity. And, if I am right, expertise will continue to have its place.

    Wine is not sneakers in the long run. You cannot go down to the corner store and try one on for free. Each bottle costs what a pair of Sawyer’s sneakers cost for the folks who will continue to value expertise.

  12. I have given up trying to guess the direction that social media will move us. Everything is evolving in ways even the most cutting-edge 20-somethings can’t predict (especially those on the cutting edge – most are way too busy admiring the trees to see the forest).

    But this whole “wisdom of crowds” meme? That’s SO twenty-aughts. The very idea is an oxymoron. Crowds cannot have wisdom, only individuals. Crowd behavior is always a post hoc phenomenon, always reactive. Crowds do nothing except in response to some primary mover. That mover is ever an individual, from the first lemming off the cliff to the guy who yells “fire!” in the crowded theater.

    Crowd reaction is contextually sensitive – and it is savvy marketers who have always and will always create that context. Much is made of how skeptical, world wise, and self-sufficent the new generation of internet-fueled consumers is. But in my opinion, anyone who believes that hundreds of these new consumers blogging and social mediating together are coming up with anything novel, and free of the influence of traditional marketing, is just willfully delusional – or selling something.

  13. John,

    Either you are not conversant with the literature on collective intelligence or you are willfully distorting the meaning of ~crowd~ in this context. The New Yorker writer, age 43, who popularized the “wisdom of crowds” concept, perhaps making it a meme, takes all the problems you mention plus others (e.g., bubbles) into account in his treatement. Meaning if certain criteria are operative in group assessment, influence peddling, self or group delusion, etc. need not follow. Here’s a good overview:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Wisdom_of_Crowds Also have a listen to this podcast: http://itc.conversationsnetwork.org/shows/detail468.html

    Charlie,

    Much to chew on. My mouth is full–digestion and reply for another day.

    TOM

  14. Tom, I’ve read the literature – and lived the life of a trained scientist long enough – to have developed the informed opinion that WOC as you and other proponents formulate it is a myth. More accurately I see it as an ideal, a simplification, just like the concepts of “democracy” and “free markets,” that does not obtain in the real world. Without the strong observational bias of WOC proponents, the true incidence of crowds coming to conclusions that are “better” (by what criteria?) than those of “experts” does not rise above the level of coincidence. Markets fail to deliver on their promise all the time. Next you are going to try to convice me that enough monkeys typing gibberish will eventually produce the works of Shakespeare. Or that “survival of the fittest” has meaning in a social context. It’s not that I don’t “get it” – I do – it’s that I don’t BUY it.

  15. I’ve been following this “crowd vs. expert” conversation closely. While I haven’t made my mind up yet, I’m tending to think that these aggregate websites that clump in different reviewers are simply different — not better or more trustworthy — than a single critic. There certainly doesn’t seem to be any scientific basis for contending that the aggregates are sounder.

  16. John,

    It’s futile and too time consuming to enter into a dialog with someone who so emphatically dismisses something as a myth rather than respond to references (somehow, I’m not surprised that my computer gives me a warning of malware when I try to open up your wine store site {8^D–sorry I couldn’t resist).

    What I’m trying to get across, apart from the utility of group/networked decision making, about which there is much sound scientific support –just Google it, Steve–is the desirability of identifying wines that receive high marks from a broad array of citizen and professional tasters (CT does include the opinions of Jancis Robinson and Burghound).

    I know you’ll all dismiss Tim Hanni’s work on different kind of tasters who can be grouped into clusters. For those of us who think he and his colleagues are on to something, identifying those few wines that have broad appeal across those clusters seems worthwhile, and to a large extent puts the lie to John Hodgson’s premise about the randomness of medal distribution.

  17. I meant to write ~winery~ not ~wine store~ since I know John’s tasting room just off the Sonoma Square.

  18. Hi Tom – let’s not hijack Steve’s blog over a difference of opinion. For the moment shall we leave it at we have looked at the same references and come to different conclusions? Some day we may discuss it further over a bottle of wine.

    I am concerned about the malware notification when accessing the Westwood Winery site. If you don’t mind, please send me an email with the details. My AVG anit-virus was giving me the same message but we never found anything in the site code. As a precaution we seleted the entire site and re-uploaded the original source code. The AVG suite is no longer giving a warning, but Google has not got around to removing their malware warning yet.

  19. I love laughing at the intermingling of generations and individual POV – remembering when my dad showed up in BELLBOTTOMS in 1972 and now knowing that is how my son is looking at me when I try to think I am keeping up with technology, communications, whatever.

    Someone “mentioned survival of the fittest.” Damn; I thought it was “survival of the FATTEST.” I was so prepared to survive!

    “I personally don’t fear that expertise will disappear. For thousands of years wine has succeeded based on quality” – actually for thousands of years wine was mixed with honey, fruit juice and even lead (those crazy Romans knew how to have fun) and quality then would not float as quality today!

  20. Tim, you’re right, what was “quality” 2000 years ago might not be considered “quality” today. Yet we know that Julius Caesar preferred his Falernum (whatever that was) to all other wines — and that the Romans had their “comet” vintages. So there has always been the perception of quality, and that’s what I’m talking about. I don’t believe “absolute” quality can be measured across generations, since tastes (unlike mathematical formulae) change.

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