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Saying goodbye to the Golden Age of Wine Writing

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I was talking yesterday with my old friend, Andy, who lives in Northampton, an area of Western Massachusetts I have close ties with. Andy told me that John Wolfson, the son of another friend of ours, is Editor of Boston Magazine, which makes me proud of the kid. At the same time, Andy’s wife, Jan, has gotten a contract to write a book about art, but it’s going to be a digital book. This led to a conversation about the future of print journalism versus digital publishing. I told Andy that the roadblock so far to the success of digital publishing has been the reluctance of advertisers to pay anything close to the rates they pay for ads in print publications. Since advertising is the lifeblood of publications, that means that publishers can’t pay their writers as much for digital contributions as for print articles. I don’t know what the overall average is nationwide, but I’d guess that print pays at least five times, maybe ten times as much as digital.

I also pointed out to Andy that this situation not only bodes ill for people who wish to make their living doing journalism, but also for the American people. If a reporter can’t make a living reporting, then who’s going to report on the shenanigans of the local City Council (or, in Andy’s New England case, Board of Selectmen)? The heart and soul of American democracy is tied to an independent press, investigating and reporting without fear. This vital issue is at stake in the new reality.

Finally, I told Andy how grateful I am that I got into this wine writing gig during what I think of as The Golden Age of Wine Writing, which I estimate to have occurred over the last 30 years or so. Before that, nobody made much of a living writing about wine in the U.S., for the simple reason that not enough people cared about wine to buy and read a wine magazine. There were a few wine writers at big newspapers–Frank Prial at the N.Y. Times, Nate Chroman at the L.A. Times–but that was pretty much it.

However, with the growing up of the Baby Boomers and their (our) amazing, historic embrace of wine and wine culture, all that changed. Wine magazines started popping up all over the place, and while wine writing has never been a way to get rich (with a few exceptions: Jancis Robinson, Hugh Johnson), it was at least a way to practice an honorable career, one moreover that afforded the writer quite a bit in the way of perks.

All that is changing. Nobody knows what publishing is going to look like in five years, much less 25. But I think we all have the feeling that something revolutionary, and possibly destructive, has occurred. Was publishing, in the traditional way we think about it, simply a phenomenon of the Age of Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution that is now fading away, in the Age of Digital Information? Nothing lasts forever. People need and want information, but do they care where it comes from, or what the motive of the information provider is?

As for wine writing, there are a lot of really talented young writers out there who would just love it if they could make a decent living at it. My fear is that they won’t be able to. But maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe future generations won’t need wine writers anymore than we need soothsayers. After all, with Wikipedia and Google, all the information in the world is right there with the click of a button. Right?

  1. Steve, you touch upon a number of interesting/provocative issues; let me touch base with some of your statements which are meaningful to me.

    “After all, with Wikipedia and Google, all the information in the world is right there with the click of a button. Right?” We certainly disagree about many issues, but “culture” isn’t one of them, and your writing among others can’t be replaced by Wiki!

    “Who’s going to report on the shenanigans. . .” This is the very reason I applaud Bob Woodward and Edward Snowden. I whole-heartily agree with your conclusion: “This vital issue is at stake in the new reality.”

    As for the prosperity of young wine writers, it seems to me that “artists” have always fought “starvation”. The “Golden age” of many things are in the past!

  2. Another dramatic post as usual.

    While traditional print may be falling to the wayside, digital alternatives represent a different type of publishing and don’t signal it’s entire demise. Wikipedia and Google don’t deliver news; they facilitate the discovery of information. Sites like Patch, Cravelocal, and numerous other local-oriented, niche sites continue to thrive and grow. They cultivate their own writers, including a fair amount of talented ones. So if anything, it seems like publishing is broadening.

  3. Dennis, thanks. I have mixed feelings about Snowden and wonder how History will treat him (and us).

  4. You forgot Bob Thompson and Robert Lawrence Balzer. Thompson’s writings, to me, were far more memorable than either Prial or Chroman.

  5. The next five years will be interesting, but the next 20 will be truly instructive. And Steve, your points are well made and well taken. Whew. It is certainly difficult to find income for writing.

    I can only hope that the best writing will find enough income to sustain. Here is an extreme, probably silly comparison: I was just listening to Robert Greenberg’s fabulous audio biography of Beethoven. He points out that the Viennese noble class recognized Beethoven’s quality early on, enough that they decided to pay him handsomely — all to make sure that he would be left alone to focus on music. That freed Beethoven from having to write “jingles” or other pablum just to make a living.

    Now, wine writing is not exactly piano sonatas or symphony composition. But it is something. I would offer that Wine Journey Along the Russian River, for example, is a vital piece of history and perspective. You were able to write the book while knowing that the book was not going to be a primary source of income. We’re all the better for it, and glad that you weren’t preoccupied writing advertising copy just to score a paycheck.

    So we’ll see, but I worry, just as you do.

  6. Evan Dawson, its true that I wrote “Russian River” knowing that it would not be a primary source of income. But it’s also true that I received an advance for it from University of California Press, so at least it didn’t cost me money to write it!

  7. Steve – Oh, certainly true. Just saying that you are able to focus on the craft as you see fit, which is a rather rare and powerful position to be in. And readers benefit from that. As time goes on, fewer writers are in that same position, as you described in this post.

  8. Bill Haydon says:

    Excellent article. Personally, I think the golden age of American wine writing could just now be dawning, and I pray that the economics don’t act as a hindrance.

    It would seem that American consumers are beginning to reject (or at least tire of) what I see as the dominant writing of the last 20 years: a combination of the five sentence tasting note with attached score and the glossy, but shallow, Wine Spectator type travel article. In it’s place, I think might come a market for deeper and more nuanced writing about win in the British tradition.

    Your blog–though I often disagree with some of the contentions–certainly fits this emerging style.

  9. The more I think about this post, the more strongly I disagree with it.

    We’re living IN the “Golden Age of Wine Writing.” And it’s only getting better.

    Once upon a time, the barriers to becoming a “wine writer” were huge. Quality wine was rarer and more expensive than it is today, making it extremely difficult for anyone who wasn’t rich to learn about it. There were only a handful of wine publications. Writing for those publications — and the major-market dailies that employed wine columnists — often depended on holding a (worthless) degree in journalism. In many ways, being a journalist was being a member of a guild.

    Today, anyone, anywhere, can write about wine. There are more publications than ever before and it takes just a couple minutes to launch a blog.

    The best writers will absolutely rise to the top.

    And don’t bash on bloggers as “unqualified & masquerading as professionals,” as someone did on Twitter today. An equal percentage of “professional” wine writers are masquerading.

    Less than a year ago, for instance, you confessed that you’d never heard of orange wines…

  10. Steve, interesting thoughts. I worked as a journalist and freelance writer out of college (I graduated in 2005) and I could see the market drying up all around me every day.

    “As for wine writing, there are a lot of really talented young writers out there who would just love it if they could make a decent living at it. My fear is that they won’t be able to.” Yep, and it doesn’t just apply to wine writing, but all kinds of writing. It’s gotten harder and harder over the past ten years to make any kind of money writing. Luckily, there are still plenty of folks who love writing so much that they have to keep doing it anyway. Cheers!

  11. STEVE,

    THE MEDIA INDUSTRY IS LESS SANGUINE THAN DAVID WHITE ON ITS FUTURE . . .

    [CAPITALIZATION USED FOR EMPHASIS. ~~ BOB]

    Excerpt from the Los Angeles Times “Business” Section

    (October 10, 2005, Page C1ff):

    “Black & White and Read by Fewer”

    [Link: http://articles.latimes.com/print/2005/oct/10/business/fi-newspapers10

    By James Rainey

    Times Staff Writer

    In a recent e-mail chat about the future of their business, several young New York Times reporters concluded with dismay that most of their friends don't subscribe to the newspaper.

    . . .

    A Media Management Center study reached an even more alarming conclusion regarding younger readers -- estimating that BY 2010, ONLY 9% OF THOSE IN THEIR 20s WILL READ A NEWSPAPER EVERY DAY. . . .

    Excerpt from the Wall Street Journal “Markeplace” Section
    (June 24, 2013, Page B2):

    “Gauging Investor Appetites for Print Media"

    [Link: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323300004578559561956424342.html

    By William Launder

    "The Week Ahead" Column

    Not as many consumers buy newspapers as they once did. Several major corporate newspaper deals moving forward this week will test how much appetite investors have left for print media.

    . . .

    Driving these deals, one way or another, is the collapse of the newspaper print ad market over the past few years -- which shows no signs of stopping. U.S. PRINT ADVERTISING FELL 55% FROM 2007 TO 2012, according to the Newspaper Association of America. A FURTHER DROP OF 6.2% IS EXPECTED THIS YEAR, AND A 6.8% DECLINE NEXT YEAR, predicts Magna Global, a division of IPG Mediabrands.

    Another media agency, ZenithOptimedia, expects total ad spending on newspapers to fall 8% annually in the years ahead.

    At that rate, THE TOTAL MARKET FOR PRINT NEWSPAPER ADS WOULD BE REDUCED [BY NEARLY 80%] to less than $10 billion OVER THE NEXT DECADE from $49.3 billion [pre-recession 2006 levels] . . .

    WHILE DIGITAL ADVERTISING IS GROWING, it was just 11% of total ad revenue in 2012, according to Newspaper Association data. Magna sees it rising by more than 14% next year – A GROWTH RATE THAT IS STILL TOO LOW TO FULLY OFFSET THE PRINT DECLINES.

    . . .

    Aside from taking steps to cut costs, publishers are trying to offset the ad declines by boosting subscription revenue, including by raising print cover prices and charging for full access to websites if such “paywalls” weren’t already in place.

    . . .

    Excerpts from The Wall Street Journal “Opinion” Section
    (July 8, 2009, Page A15):

    “To Rake It In, Give It Away”

    [Link: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124701229573408977.html

    Book review by Jeremy Philips

    Free:
    The Future of Radical Price
    By Chris Anderson
    (Hyperion, 274 pages, $26.99)

    It is easy to see why free is an appealing price for consumers, although how companies make money by giving stuff away is less obvious. In “Free: The Future of a Radical Price,” Chris Anderson, the editor of Wired magazine and the author of “The Long Tail,” sets out to explain why free is an increasingly compelling business model.

    . . .

    Free business models, whether purveying digital products or tangible goods, are based on cross subsidy — that’s why you get a “free” mobile phone when you sign up for a long-term service plan. In the digital realm, the “freemium” model offers the elusive free lunch. . . .

    Advertising is plainly the best known free model. . . . As Mr. Anderson notes, though, ADVERTISING CAN’T PAY FOR EVERYTHING ONLINE. IF YOU HAVE A BLOG, “NO MATTER HOW POPULAR,” THE REVENUE FROM ADSENSE — a Google service that places ads on Web sites – WILL PROBABLY NEVER “PAY YOU EVEN MINIMUM WAGE FOR THE TIME YOU SPEND WRITING IT.”

    Of course, that’s fine for bloggers more interested in fame or influence than in money or for blogs (like Mr. Anderson’s own) that are loss leaders for more lucrative endeavors, such as writing books or making speeches. BUT IF YOU HAVE TO EARN A LIVING FROM THE WEB, “FREE” CAN BE A PROBLEM. . . .

    ~~ BOB

  12. Steve and Joe (1 Wine Dude),

    Posted on Colorado Wine Press blog entry titled “Maybe Steve Heimoff was right (I might have lost my mind…)”

    [Link: http://www.coloradowinepress.com/2013/09/maybe-steve-heimoff-was-right-i-might.html?showComment=1379761243217#c7440103855321415122

    ~~ Bob

    Bob Henry (Los Angeles wine industry professional)
    September 21, 2013 at 5:00 AM

    I think Steve was thinking less of Ovid, and more along the lines of 1950s decade “Golden Age of Television (Dramas)” as his paradigm when he composed his blog entry titled “Saying Goodbye to the Golden Age of Wine Writing.”

    Joe at 1 Wine Dude got it right in his blog entry titled “Are We In The Golden Age Of Wine Writing? (Hint: Not Even Close!)”

    [Link: http://www.1winedude.com/are-we-in-the-golden-age-of-wine-writing-hint-not-even-close/

    Wine writers back in the 1970s were better educated than today’s successors in print and online. Better credentialed — coming largely from the ranks of seasoned newspaper and magazine staff writers who had already established their “writing chops” on various reporting “beats.” More graceful stylists and more compelling storytellers. More careful fact-checkers.

    And less opinionated and more humble than today’s successors.

    Not guilty of the narcissism displayed by too many “stream of consciousness” wine writers today who feel the need to express every little observation and opinion that pops into their head. Bereft of restraint and self-censorship.

    Self-styled “citizen journalists” who mistakenly believe they are protected against defamation and libel.

    See this article for their wake-up call . . .

    Excerpts from The Wall Street Journal “Personal Journal” Section
    (May 21, 2009, Page D1ff):

    “Bloggers, Beware: What You Write Can Get You Sued”

    [Link: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124287328648142113.html

    By M.P. McQueen
    Staff Reporter

    Be careful what you post online. You could get sued.

    In March 2008, Shellee Hale of Bellevue, Wash., posted in several online forums about a hacker attack on a company that makes software used to track sales for adult-entertainment Web sites. She claimed that the personal information of the sites’ customers was compromised.

    About three months later, the software company — which contends that no consumer data were compromised — sued Ms. Hale in state court in New Jersey, accusing her of embarking “on a campaign to defame and malign the plaintiffs” in chat-room posts.

    In her legal response, Ms. Hale, 46 years old, claims she is covered by so-called shield laws that protect reporters from suits, because she was acting as a journalist and was investigating the hacker attack while researching a story on adult-oriented spam.

    Bloggers are increasingly getting sued or threatened with legal action for everything from defamation to invasion of privacy to copyright infringement. . . . . There have been about $17.4 million in trial awards against bloggers to date, according to the Media Law Resource Center in New York, a nonprofit clearinghouse that tracks free-speech cases.

    Many lawsuits are thrown out of court or settled before trial, but not before causing headaches for the accused. Though the likelihood of a plaintiff winning a lawsuit is not high, “you could go bankrupt” just from defending against them, says Miriam Wugmeister, a partner at Morrison & Foerster LLP and a privacy and data-security law expert.

    . . .

    SLAPPED WITH LAWSUITS

    Civic gadflies and self-styled watchdogs who accuse local politicians and companies are getting slapped with lawsuits. People who post messages in chat rooms, online forums and blogs can be held liable for invasion of privacy or for making defamatory statements, which are damaging, false statements of fact.

    . . .

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