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Notes on wine writing etc.

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I got a greater understanding of Uber while I used their car service for three days during the World of Pinot Noir. They have a great business model and are looking to get involved in ancillary areas, such as wine tourism, which is a great idea.

I was reminded of Uber again reading yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, where in the Personal Journal section, they have an article called “Race is On: Ride-Sharing Car Services Versus a Taxi.”

The article was largely analytical, comparing Uber with Lyft and Sidecar, its chief competitors, and with taxicabs. The reporter didn’t say if one was better than the others–but you could discern his own personal preference for the private cars, when he used terms like “a safe and courteous ride, with a side of serenity” to describe the experience. That certainly coincides with my own experience. I got to know my Uber driver quite well over three days; we even promised to stay in touch. How often does that happen with a cab driver?

It strikes me that a parallel can be made between the new private car services industry versus the traditional taxicab, on the one hand, and the proliferation of social media sources of information about wine versus the traditional wine critics who for decades have dominated the national conversation about what to drink, on the other hand. Until very recently, I was, of course, one of those traditional wine critics, so I think I have some understanding of them and their milieu. But I also am a consumer of services (such as Uber and taxicabs) as well as a voracious reader of wine blogs. So I’m wondering if Uber is going to put taxicabs out of business, and if the online wine writers will put traditional wine critics out of business.

We’ve had this conversation on steveherimoff.com for years now, with every shade of opinion being expressed in the comments. In general, I’ve been a staunch defender of the established wine writers. My belief was that they may become obsolete, but it’s not going to be for a while, at least until the current batch of famous wine critics retires or dies. Most are in their sixties, and should have many more years of active work.

So it’s not a question of “if” a small cadre of wine writers will be eclipsed, but “when.” It’s also a question of the relationship that readers will have with whomever replaces the famous wine writers. As we’ve seen with Uber, people like having personal relationships with those who provide them with services. I don’t want to sit in the back seat of a cab with a driver who grunts at me and with whom I seem to have nothing in common–not that I can tell, because there’s no conversation between us. With my Uber driver, I sat in the passenger seat. She told me of her life and dreams, and I shared mine. That’s a personal relationship, one that tears down boundaries between “driver” and “passenger” (i.e. between “authority” and “nobody”).

In my own prior career as a wine critic, I tried as hard as I could to tear down those walls. Although I recognized that others perceived me as an “authority,” it was important for me to let them know that I didn’t perceive myself that way. Oh, sure, I understood that I tasted a lot more wine than most people, and that I had studied wine a great deal more intensely, and so that necessarily gave me some greater knowledge of the subject. But I never was comfortable with the gaping boundary between me and others, as if that’s all I was, and I tried to narrow it all the time, by letting people know that–just like them–I’m just a normal guy, with my own insecurities and dreams.

I think that the success of steveheimoff.com was precisely because people thought it’s pretty cool for a bigtime wine critic to get down with them. I never held anything back on this blog, even when my former employer told me to. I stood up for its independence–which was a way of standing up for myself, and also for the integrity of my readers. My past employer learned to live with steveheimoff.com, and I think they eventually got to respect it and understand that the mysteries of symbiosis actually made their own brand stronger.

I guess without even knowing it consciously, I created steveheimoff.com to be the Uber of wine blogs. It’s not a blog where you sit in the back seat, silent and looking out the window, as an anonymous driver impersonally whisks you to your destination (at which point you have to tip him!). I wanted a blog where the reader sat right beside me in the passenger seat, where we could have a conversation and get to know each other.

Surely this sense of two-way communication, transparency and honesty is the essence of social media. It’s also the essence, it seems to me, of the kinds of relationships that wine companies need to have with their customers. It’s the kind of conversation I hope to continue to have here on steveheimoff.com, and with the people I’ll be meeting through my new job at Jackson Family Wines, where I hope to provide “a safe and courteous ride” through the byroads of wine, as seen by me. I know that some, perhaps many, of you will give me a skeptical look. Fine. Please do. Hold my feet to the fire.

  1. Uber is a well-funded company that aggregated one side of a marketplace to create a better experience for the other side. All these black cars existed before, but their impact on the market was less significant because of fragmentation and lack of customer access.

    1,000 independent wine bloggers representing a rounding error on consumer wine purchase studies. BUT, take the 100 best bloggers, aggregate their capabilities, give them structure and common consumer interface… now we have a ballgame.

  2. Michael Brill, what’s the difference between 100 bloggers and Yelp? Who determines the “best” 100 bloggers?

  3. Well, I’ve never been one to be skeptical of you, Steve ;), but I’ll give it a shot!

    First, I’ve asked this before and never gotten a response: “Speaking of other blogs, which other wine writers (digital and traditional) do you read and keep up with?”

    Second, I am most definitely not accusing you of anything (just asking the question), but when exactly did you get the call from JFW and when did you stop reviewing wines for Wine Enthusiast? If you look at the ratings database, you’ll find 18 JFW wines scored 90 pts or higher that look like they’ll appear in the 4/1 issue. I know there is a lag time between submissions, review and publication, but when exactly did you review the Hartford Court portfolio? I’m not saying the wines aren’t as good as you say, just want you to clarify the timing so people don’t think you threw down a slam dunk after the buzzer sounded.

    How long do you think your reviews will still be published by WE and will any other JFW wines be included in future reviews?

    What happens to all the samples you’ve received in the last month?

    Finally, I’m glad that you acknowledge that relationships might matter more than sales for social media. You’ve never expressed this feeling so clearly in the past…

    Once again, congrats on the new gig. I’m sure you’ll find it rewarding, adventurous and a worthy challenge! I sincerely wish you success!

  4. Yelp is collective intelligence… the more than participate, the better. But this only works where laypeople can effectively interpret and describe a product. Restaurants, dog groomers, and smog check shops are three recent examples for me. It’s not 100% effective, but it’s pretty darn good.

    Laypeople cannot effectively interpret and describe wine. If they could, we would have already seen the disintegration of the expert model like we’ve seen with so many consumer products. It is not an exaggeration to say that almost nobody knows how to buy wine. People need to be told what to buy. I have no problem admitting that there are so many wines in the world that I need to be told what to buy. Wine is sold, not bought.

    The market determines the best 100 “bloggers” (quotes intentional because I don’t think the delivery vehicle of the future is an independent website). Those that figure out their niche and execute on that will do well. Those that simply accept whatever the UPS truck drops off and write “Awesome juice – 10 toes up!” type reviews will retain their current obscurity.

    My belief is that we will see consolidation of critic *brands*, not fragmentation. Yes, I said that. 95% of the world is just not going to invest meaningful time in understanding wine outside of a transactional context – they need fast answers to immediate purchase decisions. This requires technology to connect expert advice to the point of purchase, a change in content monetization from publishers, and authority for consumers to hang their hat on. I feel that the least friction will come from a small number of well-known authorities rather than a long tail selection – people just don’t care. Just to further dig my own unpopular perspective grave, I can even see a scenario where the existing diversity of retail sales people and restaurant somms gives way to simple access to objective advice at the point of purchase.

    So, yeah, if bloggers are to be meaningful in a world of point of purchase information transparency, then they need to work together to form an authority that can get in front of consumers. Otherwise… well, I just don’t see it mattering outside of a group of insiders who like talking to themselves.

  5. Michael – “if bloggers are to be meaningful in a world of point of purchase information transparency, then they need to work together to form an authority that can get in front of consumers.”

    That’s called Google.

    Steve – does this mean you’ll be sending me Mt Brave samples? :-)

  6. Good analogy. One thing that initially drew me into this blog was the opportunity to talk to a professional wine critic about how the wines were evaluated, and get an honest response. I sincerely enjoyed sitting in the passenger seat of your wine critic car.

    I’m also curious to hear about and learn from your experience working for JFW. Will you be involved in any of their new Willamette Valley projects? If so, we should grab a beer at Lumpy’s

  7. Joe, back to Steve’s Uber analogy… certainly you could have googled “private car service” and found a car that way. But nobody (except JP Morgan admins) did that. Just like no one is going to walk into a wine store and bust out Google. It’s had to think of something less useful for retail wine purchase decisions than Google.

  8. Michael, I use Google in retail shops…

  9. Steve, did you really not give your driver a tip?

  10. Awesome Kyle… could you quickly take me through how you use it? You walk into a mid-size retail store with, say, 1000 products. You start to walk down an aisle, you pull out your phone, bring up Google… and now walk me through the rest.

  11. Michael:
    1. Wine looks interesting
    2. Search on phone for said wine
    3. Look for blend or info on producer/grape/region
    4. Check prices of other retailers
    5. Occasionally see if anyone (major critic or regular Joe) said anything about it
    6. Decide if I’m going to buy…

  12. Kyle,
    You would rather search the interwebs for a random blogger review than ask the retailer?

  13. Samantha: Amen! Plus, even if you discover a wine online you think you might like, you have to figure out how to get it. Whereas if you’re in the store and the merchant recommends it, you go home with it.

  14. I never said rather. Michael said that no one uses Google in retail stores. I just said I have. I get info from retailers and from random people via the interwebs. I never said how much stock I put in either. Some prove very useful, many not so much. It’s all about building a collection of information about a wine that I may or may not buy. Honestly, I buy very little wine at retailers. Funny story about using a retailer for info, I’ve had a retailer tell me that the descriptive terms on the back label are actual ingredients. I am savvy enough to use both Steve’s (industry insider), Alder’s (critic), and Samantha’s (retailer) advice to make my own decision.

    Plus, I like pretty labels…

  15. Thanks Kyle… that sounds reasonable. Actually I just tried that with a KJ wine and winesearcher was #2 and so prices only took a few seconds… K&L was #1 and that had a WA and WS review and score. In the Parker review was the blend… the whole process took a couple minute. So as validation of clear purchase intent (likely of a bottling you are already familiar with), I’d say Google is actually pretty dang good. Of course the question is what about the other 999 bottles, including the one 3 feet away made by the same winemaker with better fruit from a better vintage selling for $30 less.

    What was interesting is that CellarTracker came up as #4 on page one. But other than Alder’s blog on page one, it was a smattering of blog links interspersed between retailer links. I didn’t recognize most of the names. If there were aggregation, that would change and their impact could be felt broadly. But now, as far as the retail customer is concerned, they’re not Uber drivers. They’re guys with black cars you don’t know exist.

  16. Michael, yes, Google works looking for a specific wine to do a quick price comparison, find out some brief info about the wine and to see if any alarm bells (i.e., brettanomyces) exist. I’d love to hear more about cruzu, but not in a way that hijacks Steve’s blog…

    Steve, any chance “we could have a conversation” regarding my questions? It’s getting lonely in the passenger seat…

  17. redmond barry says:

    I assume this is intended as a form of partial retirement, in which case Mazel Tov. But I expect the Hosemaster to show no mercy. It’s one thing for an industry flack to have a flack website; for a highly respected critic and writer to turn into a neo-Balzer is something else again. Wish you the best,

  18. Michael, I’m having trouble thinking of anything **more** useful than Google at any point of shopping, including point of browsing at the shop, apart from a discussion with a knowledgeable salesperson at the same shop. Cell phone + data plan + Google = almost instantaneous access to anything that’s ever been written about that wine, including aggregated Cellar Tacker reviews. If you’re living on a planet where that type of search isn’t going to increase over time during any point in a purchase in which a consumer has a question, it’s probably not called Earth ;-)

  19. Joe,
    That’s correct of course, the issue I have both as a retailer and a consumer, how the hell do I know if the person writing those notes know their Beaujolais from their Pinotage? Just because someone posts something on Cellar Tracker doesn’t mean they know anything about wine and it takes only a few minutes on most blogs for me to back out quietly and close the door behind me while the “writer” in question spends time learning more….just seems goofy to be to stand in a retail wine shop Googling, and thankfully for us our store has proven itself to the consumer so it almost never happens for us.

    That said I did have a customer tell me he drove to us because when he was at BevMo their “sommelier” (as he was described to him) answered, “Where are your white Burgundies?” with “Oh, they don’t make that anymore”….so I can see why in some cases people would Google. I still say, find a good store or a critic whose palate is like yours and you will drink richly.

  20. Joe, I have no doubt that there is near-infinite information about every wine that is sold and one can find that with Google. I also have no doubt that there is millions of dollars of lost change in the streets and bushes of San Francisco… but that doesn’t mean I’m going to find it.

    Let’s say that I’m in a store with 1,000 SKUs and I’ve got a leisurely 30 minutes to shop. To research a wine that I don’t know a lot about, let’s say that it takes at least 3 minutes (shorter to just validate a purchase, but I want to read a few opinions as well). Let’s say walking around the store and finding bottles that piques my interest takes 15 minutes… that leaves us 15 minutes to Google – or researching exactly 5 wines. That’s 5 out of 1,000 wines. I fail to see how this is meaningfully useful.

    And how in the world did I pick those 5 wines anyway? I just so happened to remember a name or region or like a label? That’s basically random. When you have to pay for wine, buying a meh, overpriced or worse bottle is really quite painful.

    Sales people are another topic. Nothing beats an engaging, knowledgeable sales person who can elicit your real preferences, identify the best products, handle your objections, force you to expand a bit, and give you bits of stories so you feel great about your purchases. I’m all for that. OTOH, many customers are intimidated or lack trust, and many sales reps are more interested in their personal prefs, business goals or simply don’t have sufficient time to spend 30 minutes wandering around the store as their personal shopper.

  21. “Nothing beats an engaging, knowledgeable sales person”

    Most definitely, but sadly they are far too scarce. The exact same can be said about distributors…

  22. All, to Kyle’s point, I’m not saying that those other sources aren’t useful (of course they are), but that so is the Internet, and it’s only going to become easier to find high quality info. and opinions on any product, wine included, in the future. I don’t think anyone could reasonably dispute that as the trend to which we are heading. Do I trust Google’s army of extremely well-paid engineers and their company hoards of cash and profit to continue to improve the already arguably good experience of finding those quality sources within seconds of a search, and to someday incorporate images such as labels to make the searching even more intuitive and even faster?

    Yeah, I’d totally take that bet.

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