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Five Decades of Wine: The Arc of My Career Part 5: The Blogging Years

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I’d heard of wine blogs by the mid-2000s, although I can’t say I read them with regularity. Tom Wark’s Fermentation already was famous (and I’d known and respected Tom for a long time), and a few others were up and coming. By 2007, Adam Strum, at Wine Enthusiast, had told us editors he wanted to develop the magazine’s website (he was enough of a visionary to see that online was going to be very big), and as part of that, he wanted some of us, including me, to blog.

But a year came and went and nothing happened. I think the magazine experienced technical issues with software and hardware. Whatever the problem was, all I knew was that I’d developed an appetite for blogging—only I wasn’t blogging.

So I started my own blog. I didn’t quite know what I wanted to be, and indeed, its style has changed over the years. What I did know was that I wanted a place to write, be published—and be read—that was entirely under my own control.

When you write for an editor or publisher, that person has the ultimate control. It’s true at wine magazines, and even with my U.C. Press books, it was true to a certain extent. “A Wine Journey along the Russian River” was the closest I’d ever come to writing in my own voice. But that was a one-off. I wanted to do it regularly, and blogging gave me that opportunity, or so I thought.

I began on May 10, 2008. My blog quickly became well-known. Tom Wark gave it an early, good review. It eventually came to be nominated multiple times for American Wine Blog awards, although I never did win. Blogging undoubtedly boosted my image—more on this later. But it also had the unfortunate result of plunging me directly into the politics and wars of social media.

I didn’t understand, at first, what I was getting into. That all changed in the summer of 2008, barely two months after I began blogging. I’d started noticing all these reviews for the same wine—Rodney Strong’s Rockaway Cabernet Sauvignon—popping up on various blogs. I thought that was strange. Coincidence? Then I found out that Rodney Strong’s brilliant P.R. guy, Robert Larsen, had staged a sort of coup: He’d promised bloggers to let them review the Rockaway—and only them, because he wasn’t sending it to established print critics, like me. The only thing the bloggers had to do was promise to write about the wine. Robert didn’t ask them to guarantee good reviews—although I suspect he figured they would be good, because Rockaway is a good wine. So that’s why I was seeing all these Rockaway reviews.

This is the post I wrote about it that summer of ’08. It got me into a hell of a mess with my fellow bloggers. I think the word “manipulate” was particularly infuriating to them. Before long, a few bloggers were writing pieces like “Does Heimoff hate social media?” and accusing me of all sorts of nefarious stuff, including trading sexual favors for high scores!!!!

This opened my eyes to the dark side of social media. Last week, I referred to the camaraderie that marked our wine writing circle in the 1990s. Unfortunately, by 2008, that spirit of friendliness seemed to have evaporated. Younger bloggers were accusing older writers of being faded dinosaurs who were paranoid of losing their jobs as print journalism died. It’s true that print, in the years 2008-2010, was in trouble, but it wasn’t because of social media. It was because the Great Recession robbed it of its chief source of revenue, advertising! Much of blogging descended into silliness, enabled by the fact that the very simplicity of hitting that “publish” button makes it hard for a writer to contemplate what he’s written and form a sound judgment about whether he really wants the world to read it.

The Rockaway situation was a sad one, from my point of view, but I rolled with the punches. I admit to enjoying a little bit of a tussle now and then—I’m from the South Bronx, and you learn how to defend yourself on those mean streets. I never took it personally. Social media had become the poster child for uncharitable, false and bombastic statements, although today, the wine blogosphere has become a much more civil place.

Adam, at Wine Enthusiast, also had problems with my blog. He read it every morning, and told me how much he liked it. But every once in a while, I’d write something that irked him, and then the shit would hit the fan. I never knew in advance what would push his buttons, although as time went on, I found myself holding back a little if the topic was something I thought he’d find sensitive. (I was self-censoring myself.) The way I viewed it, the added fame I got from having a successful blog redounded favorably to Wine Enthusiast—an appraisal with which everyone I knew in the wine industry agreed. In other words, my blog was good for both of us: my brand, and Wine Enthusiast’s brand. The way Adam saw it, my blog competed with Wine Enthusiast, in some way I never could fathom. Adam let it be known on several occasions that he strongly wished I would stop blogging. I never gave in, because I knew I was right, and I think Adam eventually came to soften his feelings.

Looking back on it all, I can see that these various situations—the Rockaway furor and the Enthusiast tempest—were symptomatic of a broader phenomenon concerning social media. It upset many traditional apple carts. Social media changed the way mass communication happens in America, and whenever something as big as that is forced to undergo change, there’s misunderstanding and turmoil, as the paradigm shifts.

At any rate, blogging gave me a taste for something beyond Wine Enthusiast. I’d stored up a lot of investment in the magazine; I wasn’t actively seeking to leave. But I wasn’t seeking not to.  I’ll talk more about this tomorrow.

  1. Bob Henry says:

    “Much of blogging descended into silliness, enabled by the fact that the very simplicity of hitting that ‘publish’ button makes it hard for a writer to contemplate what he’s written and form a sound judgment about whether he really wants the world to read it.”

    What these self-taught, self-styled writers lacked was . . . a fact checker, a proof reader, and the seasoned judgment of a copy editor.

    And some original ideas.

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