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Being Wilfred Wong’s Twelfth Man



Why are some people so (anonymously) nasty on the Internet? It’s really the saddest aspect of a digital community that, aside from that, is a pretty nice place to hang out.

My old friend Wilfred Wong posted on Facebook an unsigned email he got, (you’ll have to scroll down on Wilfred’s feed to the post that begins “Today was a day of mixed blessings”) from a person who obviously has (a) anger management issues and (b) too much time on his or hands or (c) both. Now, Wilfred, for those who don’t know who he is (and I would assume most of my readers do), is the Cellar Master at BevMo, the big liquor chain with a gazillion outlets in the Far West. His primary job, as he writes, “is researching wines (and now beer and spirits) for their quality.” I’ve known Wilfred longer than anyone else I know in the wine industry. We met around 1982. I was a novice: he already was knee-deep in wine, literally. So Wilfred’s had a lot of experience.

Which gets to the point. Why do so many people in the wine social media world think that experience is bad? It doesn’t make sense. Throughout all of human history, societies have respected their more experienced members, whether they be shamans, healers or hunters. These are the members who hold the society together–who constitute its collective memory–who form a living link between Now and The Past. Yes, every now and then there are revolutions–none more noteworthy than our own American–but even when we won, we respected older traditions of honesty, integrity, fairness. Those were not American values; they were human values.

But now, especially in the wine blogosphere and on Twitter, we have arrived at a period of incivility. People feel free to insult others with far more accomplishments than their own–and they do it all too often anonymously. Perhaps even more appalling is when they reveal their identities: then their attacks are done with impunity.

Here’s my message to the coward who emailed Wilfred: You try doing what he’s done. Try lasting 30-plus years at the top of your profession, earning not just good money but the love and respect of your peers throughout the industry. (If you want proof of that love and respect, read through the comments on Wilfred’s post.)

By the way, trashing a big box store like BevMo is the height of arrogance. It’s like the people who only drink expensive wine and think average-priced wine is for “the little people who pay taxes” (as Leona Helmsley once described us). For one thing, BevMo has some very fine wines, but that’s beside the point: What’s important is that BevMo gives value in wine to millions of Americans. What’s wrong with that? And Wilfred, through his service, makes their shopping experience a lot easier and more delightful than it would otherwise be.

So please, you harpies out there taking aim at Baby Boomer writers and critics, chill. You won’t get anywhere just hurling spears. If you want to achieve a career in the wine industry, I suggest you do exactly what Wilfred has done: hunker down, work hard, make friends and be respectful. That’s always been the way success comes.

  1. pawineguy says:

    Allow me to be the first to comment with my agreement. While I do not agree with your politics Steve, on the wine side we are in agreement more often than not. The “Bloggers”, to lump them together for a moment, who have little or no experience in the wine industry, never toted a bag from store to store trying to make a sales pitch, and who get excited that they had an online tasting the resulted in a few cases of wine being sold, have shown a total lack of respect to those with decades in the industry.

    When they try to tell wineries how to market to millennials, or anyone for that matter, they often do so without any perspective in the market. I enjoy reading some of them, and they have some interesting points to make at times, but most are doing so just from the perspective of a consumer, with no idea how the wine industry actually operates. I am sure there are salespeople shaking their heads on a daily basis, wondering why these people are so excited about their “impact”, which often pales in comparison to what he or she accomplishes on a daily basis.

    Keep up the good work Steve, and it’s ok, I know you’ll make me angry too, but you do a great job.

  2. Thanks very much pawineguy!

  3. I enjoy your reading your blog, but I disagree with your opinion of Mr Wong. I find his ratings less helpful than any other critic and over weighted toward wines where BevMo has a greater profit margin.

  4. Steve,

    It continues to amaze me how short sided folks can be, especially in social media. As you so eloquently point out, there’s this sense of ‘anonymity’ that makes many feel ‘immune’ from human decency . . . . I just don’t get it.

    Your points about Wilfred are well spoken and well taken – like his reviews or not, he has earned his spot in this industry, and should not be harassed in such a manner. Is it right to disagree with him? Sure, that’s never frowned upon in my book. But to go beyond that is just plain hurtful and doesn’t help anyone.


  5. There is a long standing tradition in the wine business of working with and for older, more experienced winemakers and growers. The Internship/apprenticeship, be it international local, is a critical part of every winemaker’s education. It’s how we learn, grow and eventually figure out how to strike out on our own.

    Even perhaps more than my winemaking mentors (who include Randall Grahm, Ed Kurtzman, Don Blackburn, Michael McNeil and Michel Rolland), Wilfred reigns supreme as my # 1 Shaman. I met him when I was 19 as a winemaking student at UCD and learn daily from his compassion, kindness and eye for the beautiful in everyday life.

    I simply don’t see this kind of incivility towards in the wine making world, among the hose-dragging and blend-composing crowd. I think we know we have too much that we owe our mentors. And up and coming winemakers know they have too much to learn.

    Keep talking about this, Steve!

  6. I have known Wilfred for twice as long as Steve has–well, not quite, but longer by a decade anyhow, and there is not a nicer, kinder, sweeeter guy in the wine biz. He started out by turning a corner grocery store in the upper Haight Ashbury (Ashbury Market) into a source for top-quality wine at the very beginning of the CA Renaissance. He earned his chops, and in an era when so many become instant experts, Wilfred is a seasoned professional.

    That he now works for a big box store does not change that fact. And any idiot who attacks him personally and then does it anonymously is not just a coward, but also a fool. Criticize his role because that is fair game. The rest is absolute crass cheapness.

    Thanks, Steve, for spreading the story. And thanks to Wilfred for all he has done in a positive way to make wine more accessible to the world. There are not many people who have done more.

  7. What in the world does this have to do with social media or wine bloggers? I still don’t understand your anti-social (media) hair trigger. So some random person probably heard Wilfred talk a bit too high falutin for BevMo’s reputation so they sent off a nastygram. But that could have just as easily been sent by postal mail or interpretive dance… why SM and bloggers have been dragged into this eludes me. Am I missing something?

    (Having said that, I agree with your sentiment… it’s just that this particular incident is not a good hook for you to press play on your anti-SM rants)

  8. Perhaps what you’re missing, Michael, is my experience (and that of a great many others) of wine blogs, Twitter and so forth, in which a great deal of personal bashing of established wine writers is being expressed, and has been expressed for years. To call my postings “anti-SM rants” is to display a certain ignorance of reality. I have written and stated for years that I am PRO social media. I used it all the time. I tell winery owners and winemakers they ought to use it, to the extent they’re able. What apparently has earned me an undeserved reputation for being “anti-SM” is that I have questioned the hyperbolic claims (usually made by social media consultants) that SM is the answer to a winery’s prayers. And in this, history is proving me right.

  9. Dear steveg, that is your right. But at least you have the integrity to sign your name and offer a rational basis for your position, instead of just anger.

  10. Steve, I agree with everything you posted today. I wish Wilfred had posted the entire message and not just a three-sentence snippet. I would like to see the broader context of the attack.

    Unlike Michael, I do see how this has to do with SM. You are correct that in this age of digital networks people are more apt to engage, and sometimes criticize, with others via social media. As a whole that is a good thing (hey, look ma, I’m doing that right now!). Yes, some people seek shelter in anonymity. Often times, this is a sign of cowardice, but maybe not all the time. Just as with blind tasting, what’s in the bottle (or content) matters more. The three sentences Wilfred posted suggest no content to the attacker’s claim, so the attack can be shrugged off and forgotten. An anonymous writer, such as RH Drexel, has great content. The author’s identity is not important, but the content is still worthwhile.

    And only since you’ve brought it up, and I’ve asked for clarification in the past, would you please provide a concrete example of “hyperbolic claims (usually made by social media consultants) that SM is the answer to a winery’s prayers.” Have a good day and enjoy the moisture!

  11. Let’s be clear here. We all love Wilfred but he is not a critic per se. He is an employee of BevMo, and he is responsible for putting a good face on their offerings in the same way that folks do for K & L and for any other store in which the store does its own promoting of the wines it has to sell.

    He is not an independent critic anymore than the guys at K & L are or the guys at Vintage Berkeley or CA Wine Merchant or any other retail outlet are. Or than winemakers are, for that matter.

    But to attack him personally as opposed to objecting to store-generated praise for the wines it has to sell or even to criticize his judgments (totally fair game) is what has folks complaining.

  12. John Bradford says:

    I have never met Wilfred either, but you don’t have to scroll too far down his page to see that he goes beyond the beauty of the wine business. Wilfred appeals to more than the wine snobs out there. As Alison Crowe said, Shaman. Someone who connects and facilitates passage through the worlds of wine at a level that is comprehensible. He is a nurturer.

  13. Steve, how can a person-to-person email sent to someone in *private* and subsequently shared on social media by the *recipient* be damning of digital communities?

    I have no issue with your grousing about the lack of understanding that many young wine consumers have about the value of professional critics. I also completely share your and other professional critics’ belief that 1 experienced wine writer is more valuable than a 1,000,000 amateurs. I read the same anti-critic dribble that you do and provide public rationale for why I think it’s wrong-headed.

    I’m just saying that this case, I don’t see the link between the two topics.

  14. Steve,
    I admit that I have at times gleaned an anti-SM/Blogger bent from your writings, and am not entirely convinced of your correlation of the attack on Wilfred & the ‘youthful arrogance’ of SM. I believe it is the by-product of a bigger trend; the Internet’s access and ability of everyone to be a content creator and critic (my full-time career is in the games & tech sector, where the trolls are uglier than you can imagine, and where such attacks are commonplace). Wilfred stated that the hateful missive arrived via his business email — therefore, it could have come from a customer, an industry colleague, a critic as easily as from someone claiming the social media/blogger moniker.

    That said, we are completely aligned in our respect and affection for Wilfred. In addition to being BevMo’s Cellar Master – a role which has him writing most/all of the wine descriptions, blogging, educating and helping guide its wine buyers and partner wine makers; he also travels the globe each year judging wine competitions completely independent of BevMo. One can choose to disagree with his ratings and descriptions, just as one is free to disagree with Mr. Parker. However, I would hope he/she would take into consideration the service he provides to the mostly-mainstream wine consumers that make up the majority of the retailer’s customer base. Most don’t read blogs or Wine Spectator; many don’t understand the 100pt rating system – heck, many only know wine comes in red and white. But Wilfred makes the wine-buying experience a little less scary and a bit more of an adventure for so many (full disclosure: I’ve worked as a wine specialist for BevMo for nearly 13 years, and see this first-hand at the store level). No one can convince me such a commitment is anything but good for the industry as a whole. And for that, I raise a glass to Mr. Wong – and to you for being his eloquent supporter.

  15. I have known Wilfred since his Ashbury Market days and have tasted with him at least once or twice at Connoisseurs’ Guide at the invitation of Charlie Olken. Wilfred exemplifies the term ‘wine professional’ to a lot of us. He possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of wines and has never in my memory gone about his business in a blatantly self promotional guise. I learned a lot from watching Wilfred in San Francisco after I entered the wine business as a green rookie in 1990. I took a very different path, but nobody succeeds geeting to where he is without having a good palate, a astute understanding of the business, and a thick skin. I guess that is true for any of us. One would need to be blind and deaf to not have noticed all the negative comments directed towards his association with BevMo over the years, but still they both endure. A testament to that it takes all of us to make a difference.

  16. Ed Masciana says:

    Au contraire, Steve, I met Wilfred in 1982 as well. We’re actually twin brothers who were separated at birth and he went to live with a Chinese family which explains why we look different.

  17. Dear Kyle, re: “claims that SM is answer to winery’s prayers” etc., OMG you have got to be kidding. Everyone from Vaynerchuk to Paul Mabry to Joe Roberts [bless their souls] to every social media consultant I’ve ever met has made claims to that effect. If I’d bothered to keep track of every one of them, I’d never have time for anything else.

  18. Steve, thanks for taking the time to respond! We must be listening to different clones of those individuals. I understand they are big proponents of social media, but I have never heard them say that SM will answer a winery’s prayers or “that social media is the end-all and be-all of wine marketing.” Maybe they have and I missed it, but you still have not provided one, just one, concrete example of any of those three claiming anything more than SM being a powerful tool that can be utilized by wineries to their benefit. I’m not asking you to keep track of every one, just one.

    I’m sure Paul will chime in and let me know if I’ve been missing his message…

  19. Wow, here we go again. I try to stay out of these unless mentioned by name. However, aside from the misspelling of my last name in your comment, I never claim social media the be the panacea for all the industry’s woes. As anyone that has read, listened or talked to me about social media is that it is a tool in a marketing/communications/etc arsenal that must be used like email or the phone and can not be ignored. A powerful and essential tool but not the only one and not the cure all.

  20. Thanks for chiming in, Paul. That’s what I thought you’ve been saying. In fact, you and Steve seem to be in agreement. I don’t understand why he thinks you claim it is the answer to all wineries marketing problems, when I, you and Steve all know it is not…

  21. On topic. Wilfred Wong is a prince among men and no matter the source (blogger, customer, vendor, etc) doesn’t deserve any negative energy . . ever.

  22. Everyone deserves respect. Thank you, Steve, for calling out the anonymous person that attacked Wilfred. Those kinds of attacks tear us all down as a society. The lives of teenagers have ended over these kinds of attacks.

    I don’t know Wilfred personally, but I do know that he’s a wine lover, Giants fan and 49ers fan. So, I’ve got a few things in common. I think anyone that helps clarify what’s in the bottle to a customer trying to find the right wine, is doing a good thing.

    By the way, Steve, I love your politics!

  23. Thanks Brad Kitson. Go Niners next season!

  24. An opinion of someone is fine. It is when a person takes it to far and makes it an insult or an attack that then becomes hurtful, inhuman, ignorant, and unnecessary. Whether it came from an old or young wine blogger is irrelevant, that it is happening at all to a wise man (with free will) who should be treated with honor for being in this industry, which enables the rest of us to be able to blog, deserves a relevant rant from Heimoff. Thank you Steve for saying something all of us should be doing. For those who disagree, remember what your mother always told you, “if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all”. VERONICA @100WineBlogs I will sign my name to it.

  25. David Weintraub says:

    I don’t know WW, so I have no reason to defend him, but lets be realistic about this.

    WW is in the position that he’s in because he’s good at what he does. I’m assuming his track record speaks for itself. With that said, to slam the guy for being a shill, or something worse like dishonest, is somewhat ridiculous. That would mean you know for a fact that he’s either of those two things, or else you’re just someone who feels the need to be a dickhead.

    In almost every career/job, etc, you are beholden to someone. There’s no way to survive in this country if you’re not. I’m a radio talk host, and formerly a producer for the UFC. I got my balls up with the UFC, and guess what it got me? Fired. As a radio host there are a lot of things I’d love to say, but I don’t. Why? Because I want to have a life. In other words, I won’t ever be told what to say, but there are things I do in order to be successful. I don’t lie. I’m not dishonest on the air, but certainly I’m swayed in some sense by the position I’m in. Howard Stern is no different (although, he’s got more leeway, which is earned).

    I’m guessing WW has earned leeway in his career, and is less beholden to BevMo than someone might suggest. But maybe, just MAYBE, he’s slightly swayed, albeit unintentionally at this point, and it on some level barely affects his work. So? And? He still does good work? For if I went into BevMo and consistently noticed that his ratings were awful, and his comments off, others would notice too. At that point he’d probably lose his job. But guess what? He’s not losing his job (he may be, I don’t know, I’m just sayin’)! He’s a person who rates wines for a large company who sells to the masses, and by and large the masses seem to trust him.

    What else is there?

    In other words, stop being a fucken dick just because you’ve got a computer you can hide behind. And stop being one of those people who always knows how to criticize, but never knows how to solve.

    No one likes that person.

  26. It is not an elitist notion to suggest that wine writers (online and offline) must EARN our attention and respect through “deliberate practice” and “craft.”

    Excerpts from BusinessWeek “Opinion” Section
    (December 1, 2008, Page 110):

    “10,000 Hours to Greatness;
    Malcolm Gladwell dissects the paths of super-achievers
    and finds that practice beats intelligence and talent”


    Book review by Catherine Arnst

    The Story of Success
    By Malcolm Gladwell
    (Little, Brown; 309 pp.; $27.99)

    . . . [Malcolm] Gladwell [‘s] … Outliers is thought-provoking. His insistence that cultural heritage, timing, persistence, and an eye for the main chance are the determinants of success is sure to have readers considering their own destinies.

    . . . What … matter[s], he says, is the 10,000-hour rule. No one gets to the top unless he or she puts in 10,000 hours of practice in a [professional] field. . . .

    See this related book . . .

    Excerpts from The Wall Street Journal “Opinion” Section
    (October 29, 2008, Page Unknown):

    “The Hard Work of Getting Ahead”


    Book review by Philip Delves Broughton

    Talent Is Overrated
    By Geoff Colvin
    (Portfolio, 228 pages, $25.95)

    . . . Geoff Colvin’s excellent “Talent Is Overrated” . . . seeks to explode the notion that the talent contest among human beings ends with their genetic inheritance. Instead, he argues, great performance comes down to one thing more than any other: deliberate practice. He does not mean simply hitting 200 balls on the driving range or mindlessly playing scales at the piano. He means a disciplined focus on weakness and a relentless effort to improve. Such practice, when it is done right, is “highly demanding” and “isn’t much fun.” But it is necessary, not least in the world of business.

    . . . Mr. Colvin believes in the 10-year rule, by which it takes 10 years of hard work to achieve excellence in almost any important field. So if you do not start the violin until you are 17, and you are up against people who have been playing hard for 10 years, it is unlikely that you will ever be as good as they are. This is not a matter of precocity or childhood genius but a simple fact about invested effort.

  27. Bob Henry says:

    Ripped from the headlines . . .

    “ Hires Wilfred Wong to Expand Research, Grow Social Media, and Make Wine More Accessible”

    Summary:, the nation’s #1 online wine retailer, today announced the addition of Wilfred Wong to its San Francisco-based team, effective March 31. As Chief Storyteller, Wong will research wines and wineries from all over the world, and share his findings with customers through the website, email newsletters, blog, videos, social media channels and educational events.


  28. Bob Henry says:

    . . . and this:

    “BevMo! Announces Wilfred Wong’s Retirement”

    Summary: Ultimate neighborhood specialty beverage retailer BevMo! today announced that Wilfred Wong is retiring from BevMo! to spend more time focused on his passion for writing and researching wines. Wong served as BevMo!’s Cellar Master for the past nineteen years, reviewing thousands of wines each year and guiding BevMo! shoppers in their selection process.


  29. Bob Henry says:

    And finally, this related story:

    “How Useful Is a Wine Expert’s Opinion?;
    UC Davis study indicates consumers and experts differ significantly in wine preferences”

    Summary: A study involving wine sensory character, quality perception and preferences by wine experts, trained panelists and consumers indicates consumers have a wider range of wine sensory “likes” than expert tasters and competition judges. The results suggest that consumers are likely better off trusting their own preferences to choose wines they like, rather than relying on “expert” advice. University of California, Davis, professor and sensory scientist Dr. Hildegarde Heymann discussed the study at the Department of Viticulture & Enology’s annual research update meeting, Recent Advances in Viticulture & Enology (RAVE), held March 13.


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