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Industry reporting: the basics of wine reviewing

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Before I was a wine critic–which is to say, before any of my publishers would let me actually review and rate wines–I was a wine reporter. For quite a few years, I worked for numerous publications that wrote about the nuts and bolts of the wine industry.

Those articles could be about almost anything: a study on some insecticide, fumigating soils, selling in China, pricing strategies, the economics of barrels, estate planning, the consolidating distribution system (yes, even then it was shrinking). That may not sound very glamorous, compared to the popular image of the wine writer hanging out with famous winemakers, eating fabulous foods prepared by superstar chefs, and drinking rare wines. But it was a good, solid job that taught me how to report quickly and accurately, and I loved it. Moreover, I learned a lot about what makes the industry tick.

Having a grounding in the basics of the wine industry has been very important to me. Although I don’t do much reporting anymore on hardcore industry topics, I carry with me to this day an interest in it, especially the marketing, sales and promotional side of the wine business. I also think it makes me a better writer for the kind of writing I now do. Knowing this industry in my bones helps to give me a perspective on things, which I can then pass onto my readers. It also helps to cut through the B.S. that, with some regularity, tries to pass through the reporter’s filter as news. That doesn’t happen much, not on my watch.

Does this industry experience make me a better wine critic? Not necessarily, per se. I’m not saying that to be a great wine critic you have to have done a lot of reporting. But it can’t hurt. Besides, wine criticism is only a part of what I do. And I’m glad it’s only a part. I wouldn’t want to write exclusively for a publication that only published reviews, and didn’t let its writers explore the industry’s other facets.

In my articles for Wine Enthusiast, I think I’m able to bring the perspective of those years of industry reporting to my words. It’s one thing to know, for example, that a winery is exporting to China. It’s another to have a sense of the history of California wine exports to China–to know how odd it seemed in the 1990s. (In retrospect, people like the Wentes who developed the China connection back then, and were thought a little loopy, look like geniuses today. They faced tremendous challenges: a lack of trusted partners on the ground in China, or even a distribution and sales system, not to mention language difficulties). I like to think that, even when I write a simple sentence like, “Wente, who has a long history of developing Asian markets…”), it’s informed with meaning.

I’m glad I didn’t just jump into wine reviewing with scarcely any knowledge of how the industry works, or why it came to be what it is today. When I started, of course, you couldn’t just jump in; you needed someone to let you write in their publication. Today, with the blogosphere, anyone can start reviewing wines with no experience, no background, not even any knowledge. This has been celebrated as a good thing: the end of elitism and all that, the victory of the little guy against the tyranny of the corporate gatemasters. Yes, we’ve gained that. But I wonder what we’ve lost. Does anyone really care that Sally or Jimmy reviewed a Beaujolais on their blog–when they may not know Brouilly from brie? It’s an indication of the desperate situation some wineries find themselves in (wherein wineries need all the help they can get, however dubious) that they’ll actually use Sally-Jimmy’s review. Hey, I’m just saying.

  1. You’re missing the main point about blogging on any topic, in that it’s the realm of the passionate. Sally- Jimmy are not wine critics, and very likely never want to be wine critics. They are the same people who are buying WE, in all likelihood. They just now have an avenue to share that with their friends. If you think that kind of exposure isn’t good for the wine business, then you don’t really know the current state of the wine business.

  2. Steve, do you think the fact that wineries pay attention to little guy’s like Joe (that comment has nothing to do with Joe’s height ;)) might be more indicative of a desperate situation for glossy publications (aka tyrannical corporate gatemasters)? Do you really think wining, dining and kowtowing to the powerful (and few) critics is less dubious than sending samples to a select (or random) number of Sally or Jimmy bloggers?

  3. great article. getting a good background in the industry before jumping into deeper waters is a good counter-argument to the benefit of of wine blogging. the same could be said about winemaking, where shared spaces and advances in technology allow people with little to no experience start their own 200-case-annually winery. I would like to believe that in both examples, the people who work hard and do a good job will succeed, and the rest will slowly fade away.

  4. Kyle – I’m not talking about me at all, but about the hundreds of people who blog about wine with no designs whatsoever of breaking into the biz in any serious way. The same way I might mention music that I love via Facebook, for example. They’re just sharing, nothing more, nothing less, and more sharing is good for any business, including wine. I don’t think focusing on the serious is bloggers is any different than courting a magazine provided both have reach; it’s just good business sense to send samples to WE, 1WD, etc. Now, sending samples to blogs that have 50 people a month reading them probably isn’t good business sense, unless you’re big and can cost-effectively get samples to many bloggers like that, in which case you’re reaching a potentially wide net of people who otherwise might not see your product.

  5. Joe, you used to be a little guy… Seems to me, wineries are starting to go with that type of ground up approach (no-name, small influence, non-expert, regular Joe type bloggers) in addition to the traditional top down (professional expert critics). Steve seems to think that the wine writing/review/critiquing field would be better off without non-experts when wineries and and consumers seem to think they have value. Even if the Sally/Jimmy wine blogger has zero aspirations to steal Steve’s job, Steve seems to not see the bigger picture…

  6. Kyle – I should note that by “you” in my first comment I wasn’t talking to Steve specifically but to anyone who doesn’t see that there is no real difference between wine bloggers and wine consumers (I’ve got a video about this coming up next week on 1WD, I think). That is, to be fair, a very odd thing to come to grips with if you’re not used to self-publishing as being about sharing rather than about aspiration (except in a very few cases). And self-pub was definitely about aspirations for decades, and only shifted to being about sharing over the last decade. Doesn’t absolve anyone from not seeing the current big picture, but I don’t see courting small blogs as being about the death of print so much as it is about casting a wide net at a time when the nets need to be cast wider and wider to cultivate a changing audience.

    Also, I’m still little (insert height jokes here :).

  7. Kyle,

    Does Steve reply to you privately or just not at all? I see you pose questions to him often yet there is rarely a reply. Thanks.

  8. Is this argument still going on? Who the hell cares. There are currently 4 billion wine writers. Can’t read ‘em all. Just as we have favorite wines, we have favorite bloggers. So what if Sally or Jimmy write about wine. If they have nothing to say to me, I won’t read either of them. And if I like what they say, because I also don’t know Brouilly from Brie, I may buy the wine (or cheese) they recommend, and may or may not like it and will keep or stop reading them. And if a bad wine from a factory winery sells big time (imagine if that could ever happen!) so what’s it to me?

    Besides, maybe one day Sally and/or Jimmy will get better at what they do and have something to say. Or not.

    I read one blogger who wrote of a new discovery (to him): Yellow Tail Shiraz. So maybe someone went out to buy it. And liked it. And someone else thought, well reading this guy was a waste of 2 minutes of my life.

    Can we move on, please?

  9. Nick, I do not get private responses from Steve…

  10. In response to “Does anyone really care that Sally or Jimmy reviewed a Beaujolais on their blog–when they may not know Brouilly from brie?” I’m going to say yes because I think maybe wine blogs do have certain demographics that they appeal to. Although I read, 1winedude, vintank, wine-business monthly blog and yours of course I still find if hard to find someone (just one person) with a similar voice that is “reporting” on the topics I care about with in the wine industry. I get what I need from 5 different blogs, but there’s still something missing. Wine buyers are more likely to choose a wine a friend has already suggested to them, if that friend is a friendly, possibly local wine blogger, with similar views and tastes on wine then yes the opinion and ratings of that blogger has weight. The creation of Facebook “likes” and “shares” proves that.
    This whole idea of samples to bloggers is very fascinating. I wonder if companies strategically send out wines to certain bloggers based on their readership base or if they just choose to send wines to the TOP 10 bloggers in the U.S and hope that someone writes about them. If you have say Middle Sister wine which (I think) is heavily marketed to women that maybe you wouldn’t send that wine to a male wine writer( I mean you could) but instead send it to a female blogger with 1000+ readers and is active on Pinterest, possible car pool mom with a book club. Just wondering…

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