Want to know the future of wine writing? Look at the present
Two recent articles seem to be about different things but actually address the same point, which has to do with a topic you read about frequently here at steveheimoff.com: What is the future of wine writing?
The first article is called “Wine tasting: Is ‘terroir’ a joke and/or are wine experts incompetent?” and was written by four men, including the economists Karl Storchmann and Orly Ashenfelter, both of whom have long had high profiles in the world of wine.
The authors advance the argument that most “wine experts” are unable to distinguish between wines based on the wines’ origins, “unless they can see the label of the wine.” Thus, in a blind tasting of classified growth Bordeaux, “most wine experts themselves can hardly guess which is which,” i.e., they can’t distinguish between, say, Pauillac and Margaux, when in fact centuries of wine writers have assured us that there are vast differences between these communes based on terroir.
Well, this is nothing new, nor is it particularly surprising. I don’t disagree at all. I’ve been saying that for years, and it’s true, not just in Bordeaux but in California. There may once have been differences between the Bordeaux communes that were obvious, but they have been minimized by winemaking techniques (picking riper, use of new oak, etc.) that reduce the impact of natural terroir and increase the effects of human intervention, so that these days, a Pauillac is more like a Margaux (or vice versa) than it used to be.
What’s noteworthy about the article, given the fact that its actual content is not noteworthy, is contained in the header: “or are wine experts incompetent?” For the first time in the long history of wine commentary (dating from at least the 18th century), “wine experts” have become a suspect class, like sex offenders. The very basis of their expertise is increasingly called into doubt these days, which is a very new development.
This ties into the second article, which actually is an essay, entitled “The future of wine?” The essay is based on an interview with Gary Vaynerchuk. Now, if you know anything about Gary’s philosophy (and most of my readers do), you won’t be surprised by anything Gary has to say. His message has been consistent for years: “the tectonic shift in the wine industry has been brought about by a ‘democracy of information’ that shifts the balance of power ‘away from the gatekeepers and towards the masses.’”
In fact, to the extent that this belief is shared by many in the wine community (among its most ardent defenders is 1WineDude’s Joe Roberts), Gary V. can be credited with having created it, fostered its dissemination through his Wine Library TV show, his books and his lectures, and given it its most articulate expression. From the conceptual acorn Gary V. planted some years ago has grown the mighty oak, one of whose branches predicts the death of print wine magazines, and another of which guarantees the end of the role of the powerful wine critic. No longer will consumers buy wine based on reviews that a few critics have “rationed out” to them. Instead, consumers will “mine their Twitter and Facebook accounts for clues on what to try next.”
My problem with these stark predictions is precisely that they’re too black and white. It’s not a question of “the democratization of information” versus “centralization” of wine information by gatekeepers. These are conceptual extremes; reality contains and in fact necessitates room for both. The issue, as I wrote last week, is that consumers want and need guidance, which implies the existence of–duh!–guides. Wine reviewing has become centralized for the most human of reasons: because people gravitate toward sources of information they perceive as being expert.
Now, having said all this, let us begin, as Marcus Aurelius wrote, with the basics. Here is where Gary V. and his colleagues are correct:
1. There is a greater, more widespread conversation about wine (and everything else) going on, due to the Internet and social media.
2. The older critics are passing from the scene.
3. Consumers do want a two-way conversation with the manufacturers of products and services they buy, including wineries and wine retailers.
All these things are true. Yet because a thing is true does not make it important.
The downside of the worldwide online conversation about wine is that what once was an intelligible exchange between a relatively small group of amateurs has now become a Tower of Babel. “Let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech,” the Lord said in Genesis 11. One thousand wine blogs, in this country alone, not to mention the thousands of essays that have been published concerning them, have accomplished precisely this incoherent babble.
That the older critics are passing from the scene means only that life goes on, as it always has. For every older critic who retires or dies a new one is appointed. The great Bob Thompson no longer is active; instead we have Jordan Mackey, who may be a flash in the pan, yet may accomplish greatness. Gary V. predicts that, instead of having critics with universal influence, “there’s going to be a Gary V. of Napa. I think there’s going to be a Robert Parker of Rhone Valley. I think there’s going to be a Wine Spectator of Central Tobago.” [I assume Gary said Otago, and someone erred in transcription.] I don’t think this is true, however, because I simply can’t imagine it, and if I can’t imagine something with my fertile imagination, it’s because it makes no sense. A single critic dominating the wines of Napa, but not other regions? Really? Does anyone reading this believe that? It would be like a film reviewer covering only Martin Scorcese’s movies; she might have a reputation in film semiotics, writing for obscure journals, but would have no impact on box office. (By the way, Gary drove the conversation about social media, but I don’t recall him ever having much influence over actual sales, the way Parker or Spectator–or Wine Enthusiast–did and does.)
Re: that “two-way conversation,” people have always wanted to hear from the producers they buy from. They always wanted to feel loved and appreciated and spoken to; this is the basis of advertising, which dates at least to the 18th century. The Internet simply automates this process and spreads it out over a greater population. Of course, it does something else that didn’t used to be possible: It enables consumers to feel that they’re listened to by the producers of products they buy, because they can now speak directly to the producer by hitting the “send” button. This is a very special feeling. But is anyone actually listening and, even if they are, so what? No one has ever managed to answer my fundamental question: Show me indisputable evidence that engaging intensely in social media benefits wineries on an ROI basis. I don’t mean just Twisted Oak or Jordan maybe garnering some increased sales because they’re really creative online. I mean something as powerful as a single great review by a single famous critic in a single credible publication. That moves cases. Chit-chatting with your “friends” on Facebook, or tweeting to your followers, or even putting up a great YouTube on the website, doesn’t.
So what is the future of wine writing? Same as the past, pretty much. The big unknown isn’t print versus online, it’s advertising, which is something most wine bloggers don’t understand because they don’t have to deal with it. If advertisers believe print publications are important, they will continue to underwrite them–which is what pays the bills, not subscriptions. There is no evidence I’m aware of that advertisers are keen to abandon print wine pubs and go online, for the simplest of reasons: print magazines reach a far greater number of readers than even the biggest blog. It’s all about eyeballs, and until online pubs can rack up eyeballs, advertisers will stick with print–with its dinosaur critics.