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Are wine blogs going tabloid?


I sometimes think the answer is yes. There are some of them out there that seem to be keened for every scandal that happens in the world of wine. Is somebody treading too close to the ethical edge? Is someone making money that a blogger thinks is inappropriate? Is somebody somewhere, anywhere, doing something that can be made to appear wrong? It’s going to end up in a blog, and most likely in some of the best known blogs in the country.

This screechy pattern of exposés is getting so frequent, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a headline like CULT WINEMAKER LINKED TO SECRET LOVE CHILD or FAMOUS WINE ACTUALLY MADE BY SPACE ALIENS! One current example is the brouhaha stirred up when Sea Smoke put the words “grand cru” on their label, as reported by Dr. Vino.

Afterward, Tom Wark jumped onto the bandwagon at Fermentation.

Dr. Vino was actually pretty straightforward in his reporting; it was his commenters who got upset. Tom was more affronted, calling the Sea Smoke label “the most audacious packaging move I’ve ever seen a California wine ever make.” As someone who sees a lot of wine labels, I’ve seen far worse, such as labels where you can’t tell what the brand name is and what the proprietary name is, or where there’s an appellation listed that isn’t even an official A.V.A. (you’d be surprised, kids, at what an understaffed TTB can let slide by). I certainly find it much more audacious when a winery releases an expensive wine that sucks, which Sea Smoke’s wines emphatically don’t. Sea Smoke’s little exaggeration, therefore, doesn’t really bother me all that much, although the fact that they resorted to a Jim Laube quote shows a certain desperation in an era when Jim’s reputation has been declining for years.

Look, there’s nothing new here. We had a brand in California called Grand Cru years ago (does it still exist?), and don’t get me started on “reserve.” California wine labels frequently have stupid language on them. I personally detest anything French, including Grand Cru, because to use French words on an American label always strikes me as pretentious and misleading. But that’s not the only wording on labels I don’t like. I hate it when they put on somebody’s name–Jennifer’s Vineyard, or Terry’s Block, stuff like that. I don’t know who Jennifer or Terry are, and I don’t particularly want to. If you want to name a block or vineyard, do it the way Al Brounstein honestly did at Diamond Creek: Gravelly Meadow, Volcanic Hill, etc. In other words, something useful, not just personally boastful.

Why do certain bloggers revert to sensationalist stories that don’t, in the long run, matter? Because they want to boost readership with controversy. We all want more readers, needless to say, but at what price?

  1. Dr. Vino reported the news and Tom had a strong opinion (that you happened not to share). I don’t see anything “sensational” about what either of these guys did. I do find irony in the fact that the Sea Smoke Grand Cru story had faded from discussion, pretty much, and yet here it is, getting new life from a guy huffing and puffing that it’s not a story. (And since you resuscitated the near-dead horse: Sea Smoke’s little “exaggeration”? Seriously?)

  2. These are the kind of stories which play well on Twitter, which get recirculated, which drive traffic, which raise ones Klout score…

    …and which depress those of us who sustain long-form, entertaining writing.

  3. As to pet peeves on labels: “The [fill in]” as the most prominent phrase. Such as “The Bonecrusher” “The Offering”. I think it started with Australia, but now seems to be prominent in California. And then there are cute animals ….

  4. So if you hate vineyards named after the owners, I bet you can’t stand wineries named after owners… Newest headline to read: “Steve Heimoff can’t stand Harlan Estate, Colgin Cellars, Shafer Vineyards and Joseph Phelps!” Best of all, the story was broken by none other than Steve himself!

  5. No one should be surprised by this. That sensationalism is all around us and perpetuated by shows like Keeping up with the Kardashians, and other “reality” shows. The content doesn’t matter; it is all about the drama surrounding it. Sad but true, the masses suck this up.

  6. I am amused by your constant bashing of wine bloggers. Are you not one

  7. Steve,

    “Sensationalism” is fun. It’s fun to read and its fun to write. At least I enjoy both.

    That said, I think the Sea Smoke labeling of its wine “California Grand Cru” is the sensationalist thing and a far worse overstep than using “Reserve” on the label. The term is placed on the label exactly as one would place an official appellation or something else that is supposed to provide information about the wine in the bottle. But it does neither of those things.

    “Grand Cru” means something very specific in the world of wine and it takes on even greater meaning when it is attached to labeling information. The old “Grand Cru” brand (does it still exist??), was clearly using the term as a brand name, not as a literary slice of information.

    All that said, let me assure you that I do indeed want to boost my readership. And I regularly do the math on how various actions might do so. I’ve ruled out appearing naked on my blog as that would likely have the adverse affect. I’ve ruled out reviewing wine as that is better done by others. I’ve ruled out using advertising because I don’t think it will bring in the kind of readers that would benefit my other readers.

    However, I do fall back on occasion into using headlines like “The Top Ten….” because folks seem to like those things. And, truth be told, I’ll get a little sensationalist from time to time. Just cause I can.


  8. Which kettles are you calling black, Mr. Pot?

  9. Colorado, I have no problem with wineries named after owners. It makes sense. If I had a winery I’d probably call it Heimoff Cellars or something like that. But I’d never name a vineyard after my mother (although I did name my dog after her).

  10. I think it is regretful that an American winery would exaggerate to the extent of claiming to being a Grand Cru. Instead of blowing smoke, Sea Smoke should promote themselves in far more substantial ways. Like my California winery close to the Napa Valley, Chateau Banal. We never claim to be anything other than hard working eco-farmers working the soil in the naturalistic way. Rather imitating others, we are unique in our practice of hyper-dynamic farming (sometimes referred to as wahabi bio-dynamicism). Instead of making broad quality claims Chateau Banal focuses on a life force centered, phenomenological approach to agriculture. We integrate Steinerian, Freudian, Reichian, Humanistic and Spiritual theories into a unique organic model for winegrowing. We unleash the latent potential in every grape, enabling its underlying character to move more easily towards its natural state. This has entitled us to be the first American winery to achieve the destinction of Gran Fausseté on our label .

    Robert (Bob) Banal
    Chateau Banal
    Modesto, California

  11. So then why is naming a vineyard after a person unacceptable in your eyes? I fail to see a distinction.

  12. I don’t mind a little sensationalism. I puts some spice into the blogosphere and most of the time, it is based on truth–or reasonable perceptions of truth.

    Sea Smoke’s use of Grand Cru does not bug me because it is French. It bugs me because it is term that has very specific meaning, indeed, legal meaning in France, and thus implies something very specific that words like Reserve or Special Selection or Limited Release do not.

    As for the name of your winery: Obviously, it would be Steve Heimoff. Or just plain STEVE!! to your friends.

  13. Thank God! Mr. Wark will not be appearing naked; I hope, with all due respect, that you, Mr. Heimoff, will follow his example and not appear naked on your blog either. Why! the very idea… Now, to the important thing – if I ever make another wine, given the discussion, I’m going to put “Grand Cru, Reserve, Ancient Vines” and have “naked” label – something naked – I don’t know what yet. And, if I can get it past Big Brother (that’s the TTB), I’ll, perhaps, name it “Could Be the World’s Best Wine…” It will be a blend of all the left over swill I can collect from several wineries aged on left over must that was sat on by a pair of mating yaks…

  14. We shouldn’t be surprised at a tendency for eye-catching headlines or a shock-ish approach anywhere. Why should blogs be all that different from print, after all?

  15. 1WineDude, in that case, are you going to blog about your, uh, liaison with Michelle Bachmann?

  16. Dear Bob Banal, I’ve heard that the wines of Chateau Banal are best appreciated under the influence of anti-psychotic meds.

  17. Steve, the last paragraph sounds like you may be channeling dear Andy Rooney. Pretty funny

  18. Grand Cru Vineyards today is a brand of Classic Wines of California, a wing of the Bronco Wine Company. If the French don’t go after Sea Smoke, perhaps the Franzia cousins will. Then the story moves from something “sensational” to something more along the lines of a debate about “intellectual property rights.”

  19. Daily wine blogs, like 24 hour cable TV news channels, simply run out of interesting, stimulating or otherwise engaging topics on which to report. There are just too many “slow news days” in the wine business.

  20. To lump Dr. Vino in with sensationalist wine blogs is ridiculous. He does a strong job of collecting information, and it turns out that some people find that valuable. Meanwhile, your blog is a nice regular read, and sometimes you clearly resort to silly traffic-driving tricks. Pot calling kettle, indeed. Sheesh.

  21. How about California pinot as “Burgundian” or “Bordeaux” blends. Ever used these descriptions?

  22. Steve – Well, Michelle Bachmann can be kinda hot for her age when she gets all doled up for those big functions… so I’ll just say that I won’t totally rule it out…

  23. 1WineDude: And the Dudette says what about that?

  24. The major media operates the exact same way from the standpoint of looking for controversy. Take our CA weather for instance. A little drizzle comes and the news casters call it, “Storm Watch 2011.” The only thing missing is the scary background music.

    I would suggest this is the norm, and one aspect that you can correlate between pro media, and bloggers. I am anything but a suck up as it is not my style, but I do appreciate a little brilliance when I see it. I believe there is some with your approach to this post.

    I think a good portion of those that post on your blog are themselves bloggers, and some authored posts on the “Grand Cru,” controversy. I also believe this post contains controversy to those that post here, and a slight “stir” can be seen in a few responses. Really quite brilliant!

    In reference to the Sea Smoke label, well I think it’s pompous, unless I take a deeper look. Watching more closely now in the weeks following, look at us all. We’ve all been talking about this label. Many have posted blogs. I’ve posted comments of my opinions. Isn’t this considered a style of marketing? Is Sea Smoke brilliant, or pompous, or both?

  25. LOL @ Chateau Banal. Nice bit of satire.

    Seas Smoke wines may indeed deliver even given the 1er Cru pricing they attained out of the gate. But their game has always been about marketing. It was very good, but subtle enough not to hit the consumer over the head. Having an allocated mailing list, the catchy name, the no visitors allowed policy at the winery, all played into the LA/NYC trend chasing attitude. If you can’t get into the nightclub, it must be awesome, right? Now calling themselves a Grand Cru just looks kind of desperate.

    If you build yourself on being a hip trend, then you’ve naturally defined the lifetime for your product. Once the next trend comes along, you step aside. Sea Smoke inevitably will become the Silver Oak of Pinot: a strong brand that appeals to the casual high end wine shopper, but lacking buzz. You can’t recreate the original buzz with a label change.

  26. Great Post… There are delicious wines made every year, all over the world, by thousands of different grapes. There are so many wine exceptions out there. It’s the discovery of this that is truly joyful.


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