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Want to know the future of wine writing? Look at the present

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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.

  1. Steve – a very cogent and thoughtful take here. I’d only add that it will take time to see how these shifts and influences pan out; even the stock market looks extremely volatile (& is) until you back up fat enough away from it and see the real trends…

  2. Absolutely. Very good synopsis, Steve. And don’t forget that many of the younger generation are more interested in how a wine fits into the rest of the lives than into some kind of appellation/varietal matrix.

    They would rather get a recommendation from someone who loves the same music and movies–and are less concerned about someone who may know wine, but doesn’t know them!

  3. I agree, Steve, especially about the cost/benefit calculation of online versus print advertising. I had a conversation with an important winemaker a few months ago and the question came up which was the better use of resources — a full time social media expert or a couple of full page ads in Wine Spectator or Wine Enthusiast? Not much question now — print rules — although as has been noted this may change. Great article.

  4. Patrick Frank says:

    It sounds like Gary V. is saying that the wine world is heading toward something like the world of movies: People read “expert” movie reviews, but they also listen to friends & social media, and look at ads & trailers. The experts’ influence on what movies they watch is significant but not decisive. If so, this may well point to a reduced reliance on wine experts in the future.

  5. I agree about the influence of bloggers, but I think some wineries in Virginia might disagree about the efficacy of social media. For emerging regions that don’t routinely get ink in the magazines, social media can help them build a community among customers and attract traffic into their tasting rooms, where most of their wine is sold. Virginia’s recent growth has been accompanied by some very active social media campaigns on Facebook, Twitter and in blogs. The state has hosted the Drink Local Wine conference in 2010 and the Wine Bloggers Conference in 2011 to get word out through new media, because “old” media wouldn’t cover it. Enthusiast and Spectator have only so many pages each year, and they have to cover the new releases of California pinot, Bordeaux, Brunello, etc. Focusing on new media worked, as old media is taking notice – this month Virginia is featured in Wine Enthusiast and Sommelier Journal, and its wines are rated more frequently in Spectator than ever before.

  6. I think I disagree with Dave Mc. just a bit about Virginia. The reason its wines are getting noticed more and more whereas wines from Michigan are not is about rising quality. The event itself, and not the social media aspects, created the coverage because media, just as much as consumers, love a story. On the other hand, the agressive use of social media cannot hurt, and so I do not take issue with those who choose that path.

    Ultimately, though, Steve is right about print pubs that take advertising. They cannot exist on the Internet alone because their business model does not rely on subscription revenue for much more than paying postage. And, I am not sure that subscription revenue even does that. When folks look at print pubs that have gone away, it has always been because they could not generate enough ad revenue to keep their model afloat.

    The Napa expert model may not ever exist, but it would not surprise me to find increased numbers of focused models. The CA model has existed for years in CGCW, in the California Grapevine, in Dan Berger’s publication, etc. Look at Burghound.

    But those models will probably not exist in the print area because the startup costs are enormous. They do exist today in the online subscription area, and I have felt that the potential there exists for the tightly focused review to exist. Why not Bdx Retreiver? German Shepherd? Kiwi Birdwatcher?

    Napa may be too tight a focus, but not CA, and maybe not WA or OR, or Pacific Northwest sometime in the not too distant future.

  7. Just ironic that the tool you use to communicate with is the same one your arguing against.

  8. Rory, I’m not arguing against any tools (Facebook, blogging, twitter, the Internet). I am just calling into question the efficacy of these tools in selling wine.

  9. Dave McIntyre, you make excellent points. I think the Virginia pheonomenon [if that's what it is] is highly complex. I wouldn’t discount VA’s geographic location [close to D.C.] as part of its increasing visibility and popularity. Nor would I discount the fact that the state has made promoting VA wine a high priority. That is an example of government investment that works! They have a very smart, active marketing team. I would put social media considerably down on the list of the Top Ten Things that have fueled VA wine.

  10. Curious Mike- as I have asked this question of many and never had it answered.

    How did you measure the ROI of that 50k WS campaign?

    Marketing people in large wineries can’t, so depending on the winemaker, they are even further removed.

    Branding lacks precised measurement tools – DIGITAL media, at least, has some basic chance.

    “I had a conversation with an important winemaker a few months ago and the question came up which was the better use of resources — a full time social media expert or a couple of full page ads in Wine Spectator or Wine Enthusiast? Not much question now — print rules — although as has been noted this may change. Great article.”

  11. First, stating in title that the present provided a gateway of vision into the future is inherently flawed, more than ever in this rapidly morphing age of marketing.

    As a new small, 1 person winery, with no marketing budget, let me say that some blogs DO help sell wine, though that is not what I rely on social media, blog samples, or ANY branding tool by measuring case sales – its actually impossible to measure true final reach from eyeball to POS.

    I have been fortunate, and ecstatic to have had 5 recent mentions in large print publications. That said, the measurable sales combined was eclipsed by two blogs, both east coast based that generated multiple purchases & wine club sign ups, wine untasted.

    Times are changing – only a fool would bury their head in the sand and deny it. Is print dying? No, but its certainly not the only game in town, and I doubt (thank God) there will never be another force as dominant, as Parker, again.

    I’ll finish by saying, I assume everyone knows these conversation are about as useful as all the Facebook posts on politician during the election. No one will change their opinion on them.

    And more importantly, isn’t wine writing supposed to be for the end consumer? They aren’t reading any of these many posts….

  12. We could solve all of this if we could just find the guy with the crystal balls.

  13. Steve – I am sorry but I couldn’t keep out of the fray any longer. Again the way you belittle social media ignores the many benefits of using this very important communication channel. Moreover it translates into ROI no matter how you slice that acronym even if you use it to mean conversion to sales. Instead of me pounding my fists and trying to convince you I will just point to the conversation on Facebook with many wineries giving you proof: http://www.facebook.com/pmabray/posts/10151551436183824

    There is ALWAYS ROI in talking to your customers.

  14. Paul, as long as you use language like me “belittling” social media, you will never understand what I am really saying.

  15. Maybe Paul should have used ‘disrepectful’

  16. Best way to sell wine is face time, the old fashion way. You can’t beat a real connection.

  17. “Disrespectful” also is incorrect. These words, “disrespectful” and “belittling,” say more about the people who use them than about my intent.

  18. Michael DeLoach says:

    As always, very thoughtful and considered, Steve. My observation is that as long as there is a three-teir system, the democratization of wine reviewing translates to sales, if at all, weakly. My feeling is that this is because wine buyers, as gatekeepers, winnow the countless choices down to a very few SKUs before consumers have a chance to try and decide for themselves, or to find the crowd-sourced wine they are seeking. Buyers also tend to choose products that sell due to changing popular consumer perceptions and purchase behaviors(e.g.: Pinot vs. Merlot, Malbec vs. Shiraz). While it can be argued that gatekeepers may be influenced by online group-think more now than they have been by print publications previously, it certainly doesn’t explain why there is an astounding array of “Moscato” now available in stores while high-scoring and much-blogged-about wines are hard to find. My feeling is that most folks who purchase and consume wines don’t really care as much about wine criticism in any form as we want to think they do. They are too busy looking at what other people are buying, serving and drinking.

  19. Except you used the r word to describe me, Steve

  20. Not necessarily, Michael. Some of us are defending the power of peer recommendations whether online or off. The Mosato phenomenon may be due in large part to a recommendation from another non critic, whether paid or armchair. These people are not busy looking, but responding to what a friend has said, and then finding it suits their preference. And the wine comes in different degrees of sweetness. I’ve had some that were nicely balanced.

  21. I think most readers of posts related to this would all be in favor of the relationship between producer and consumer getting closer. At least I don’t recognize any commenters that I know from the middle tier. The end-user communicating with the actual producer is not in the best interest of the wholesalers or the big branded wineries.

    I sure do enjoy the debate though.

  22. For me, this conversation is too general to be of value. When 60 something corporate execs tell me they have eliminated all print subscriptions and 70 something retired professionals are toting their iPads and using them for many interactions with retailers, relatives, former colleagues and more, you know that it is not business as usual. The way we interact, gather info and exercise buying power is going through a massive mind shift. Gary’s message is, what are you waiting for? I totally agree.

  23. Steve,

    Many thanks for this extremely thoughtful (and thought-provoking) piece.

    Needless to say this is hot topic – especially those of us who spend our days sharing (and attempting to create) written content about wine.

    You raise many interesting points, but what strikes the deepest chord in me is your mention of the “two way conversation” that consumers are seeking these days. You hit the nail right on the head.

    The “democratization of wine” doesn’t subtract value from our work – it merely pushes us to step down from our individual soap boxes and encourage a proper DIALOG with readers, students, and consumers.

    People today are becoming more interested in OPINIONS than they are in POINTS, much as Patrick Frank states above in regards to the film industry.

    We should be guides, not tyrants – our role is to pose the questions and empower consumers to answer them.

    Thanks again – please keep inspring us!

    Cheers,
    Aaron

  24. Dear Aaron, humble thanks.

  25. Just saw this and felt it should be shared here:

    “In a study of 154 people aged between 18 and 25, associate professor Lyons found that social media extended young people’s drinking habits.

    “Facebook was embedded in these people’s drinking cultures. They used Facebook to gain information about drinking, places, people, products to organise when they go out, to share photos about drinking … to interact while engaging in a drinking session. They use it to connect with alcohol brands and products and to receive alcohol promotions.”

    …Alcohol marketing was seamlessly integrated with users’ conversations, photographs, and comments…. ”

    The big marketers are figuring this out slowly, we really need the little guys to also get a chance to use the medium to improve their sustainability.

    Original article was form the New Zealand Herald: http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10869894

    Steve is posting this article here breaks some type of Steveheimoff.com rule, please remove and don’t ban me for your dialogue.

  26. CSMiller, just keep it civil and you can post here anytime you want! I have no ego when it comes to people disagreeing with me, in fact I like it. But I do draw the line at personal insults and ad hominem attacks.

  27. Remington Norman says:

    The terroir comment you cite is misguided. Bordeaux is, for the most part, blended wine and blending inevitably muffles terroir in that the relative contributions of grape mix and place become fused (or better, confused). There are broad stylistic differences between Margaux (generally feminine and elegant) and Pauillac (more robust) but these are readily obliterated by the individual grape mix. In Burgundy, by contrast, mono-cepage viticulture encourages maximum expression of site, untrammelled by multi-cepage blending.

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