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I’m baaak! A report on my New England wine trip

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Haven’t blogged in about a week partly because I wanted to see what the reaction would be when I said I might cease writing steveheimoff.com, and partly because I’ve been on a weeklong sales trip for Jackson Family Wines that has been exhaustive in every sense of the word.

For example, last Friday began with waking up slightly hung over after a very late night, following the previous two days of lunches, dinners, tastings and the inevitable late nights at bars with sales guys. Then it was off on a 250-mile round trip from Boston out to Lenox, near the New York State border, a lovely old town (f. 1767) in the Berkshires. That was for a lunch for local restaurateurs at a place I’d never heard of, The Wheatley. The mansion was built as a wedding gift for his daughter by a wealthy New Yorker in the 1870s. She had married an impoverished Spanish nobleman. (That story is straight out of Edith Wharton or Henry Adams, isn’t it?) The owners have turned it into a fabulous destination resort and restaurant. We saw a room that costs $1,800 a night—without breakfast! Anyhow, it’s a beautiful place and the Berkshire setting was very nostalgic for me.

Berks

I lived in those mountains for close to 16 years, enduring blizzards, sub-zero cold and the most wonderful springs, summers and falls imaginable, at a time of my life filled with the wonder, love, friendships and the discoveries of youth.

Then it was back (through rush hour traffic) to the Liberty Hotel, on Charles Street in Boston, where I had an appointment with a blogger, Terry Lozoff, who writes about wine, beer and spirits at Drink Insider.

He grilled me for more than two hours, tape recording the entire session. Nice young guy, smart, and I hope he gets my quotes right! After that, I was ready for a nice martini and some pizza in the hotel restaurant, and then it was straight to bed. Saturday, it was a rental car drive up to Ogonquit, Maine, to a grand old resort on the Atlantic, The Cliff House, where I presided over a dinner for 90 people (more on that later).

In response to last week’s post, I did get a ton of comments on the blog, on Facebook and in my private emails from people urging me to continue blogging. They apparently like reading this blog over their morning coffee! I’m not sure why, but I have a few guesses. I think people crave good writing, and by that I mean not only technically accurate (no misspellings, run-on sentences, etc.) but also honest, colorful writing from someone who might actually have something interesting to say. Terry and I talked about this at some length. He asked me what effect blogging and social media have had on my writing and I told him how I’d discovered (or been introduced to) both transparency and immediate communication. Also that my writing continuously has become simpler and more pared down. But harder to define is how to pour your self, your spirit and soul, mind and heart into the written word. Terry asked me, if I stopped my blog, would I consider podcasts, and I said, no, because, for me, there simply is no replacement for writing.

So why would people like reading about the thoughts and adventures of an aging wine writer, who no longer wields clout as a critic? Search me. But they do. So I’ll keep on writing this blog until I don’t.

Meanwhile, my impression of the wine scene, in Boston, Maine and western Massachusetts, is that it’s very much alive and well, despite this talk about cocktails and craft beer eclipsing wine. I had many conversations with consumers about the popularity of California wine with respect to European, and apparently California is doing quite well. People, both younger and older, like it. So I think in this respect Boston is a little different from New York City. I’m glad that most of the consumers I’ve had contact with on this trip have been below 35 years of age. That’s an age group I feel close to (even though I’m old enough to be their grandfather). It’s exciting to talk with them, and when you really get deep into a conversation you learn that the stereotypes about them (they don’t read books, they live on their mobile devices, they’re clueless when it comes to news or politics or science) are ridiculous. It’s so easy to stereotype individuals and groups until you actually take the time to learn about them.

By the way, at Saturday’s dinner in Ogonquit, I put up a photo of the menu on my Facebook page

Menu

where they described me as “Celebrity Host Steve Heimoff.” That elicited the following comment: You can get fat eating all of that. Mazel-Tov Mr Celebrity. Can I have your autograph please.” That little dig was from my first cousin, Alan. It is a poignant reminder that no matter how inflated your ego gets, your relatives who knew you when you were a snot-nosed, crying little brat will bring you down to earth.

Memory: the first wine I ever tasted was given me by Alan’s father, a legend in our family, the tallest of all the men of his generation, dark as a Spaniard (that was the Sephardic Jew in him), and with a Spaniard’s passions. (Memory-within-a-memory: Uncle Ted once disappeared for many weeks; nobody knew where he was, although we children heard rumors, whispered in hushed tones by the grownups, or in Yiddish which always meant that the subject was juicy, that he was involved in something Important and Secret. When Ted finally showed up one day—as if nothing had happened—there was a new, framed photograph in his livingroom, of him with President Kennedy.) At any rate, I would have been five or six; the occasion was either Chanukah or Passover, both of which meant large gatherings of our Diaspora-ed family, huge quantities of greasy food and raucous conversation. The wine connection? Uncle Ted gave me a glass, one of those thick, stout, etched crystal ones meant, I think, for a highball. It was filled with a red liquid. “Drink, Stevelah,” he said, while the other adults in the family—my parents and all my aunts and uncles and a few grandparents—watched and smiled. I trusted my Uncle Ted; I sipped, and spat the awful stuff out all over my plate. It was Manishewitz. The adults thought it was awfully funny. It is a wonder I ever drank wine again.

Back to the present: The Cliff House dinner was a smash if I do say so myself. Public speakers will understand it when I say that I found myself “in the zone.” I’m reading Lillian Hellman’s memoir “Pentimento” in which she describes how she could always tell, in live theater, whether the audience was enjoying themselves, or if she was losing them. Last night my audience really had a good time. I don’t drink when I’m working like that but nonetheless I get a contact high from the people who do. It then becomes a feedback loop where my excitement excites them and vice versa. The ultimate compliment is when lots of people come up to you afterwards and tell you how great you were, and how much they liked the wines, which really did show well, partly because they’re good anyway and partly because Chef did such a good job creating foods for them. I was invited to the bar by two couples and enjoyed my usual vodka gimlets while chatting with a guy who seemed to have some sort of U.S. security clearance to get into all sorts of classified places, but who also was wild about wine—and his wife was a confirmed Kendall Jackson Vintners Reserve Chardonnay fan, so I told her she was in good company, as that wine has been America’s top-selling Chardonnay for 24 years and counting.

Well, this morning (Sunday) I’m still high from last night, although I shouldn’t be, because I just went through the hassle of driving down from Ogonquit back to Boston. Thank God for GPS and that eerily disembodied satellite lady who tells you exactly how to get where you want to go. At Logan, security wasn’t too bad, although United had yet another problem with their plane, which delayed our departure. By the time you read this on Monday, I will have been reunited with Gus and the thought of that makes me very, very happy.

 

XmasGus


A New Year’s Day reflection

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Happy new year, each and everyone!

We’ve been through a lot over the years, you and I—from my rather clumsy but sincere and hopeful introductory post (dated May 15, 2008, and reproduced here) through the awful years of the Great Recession that impacted so many of us, right through to my transition in 2014 from wine critic to Jackson Family Wines. You’ve stayed with me every step of the way, through 1,679 posts, and for that, I salute you. I would never continue this if so many of you didn’t let me know, nearly every day, that you enjoy reading it. And I’m proud to say that, while I was tempted for a while, I’ve still never taken an advertisement nor tried to sell stuff.

In that first Welcome to my blog post, I wrote words I wouldn’t change today, including these: I’d be thrilled if this forum became a place for people to air opinions and debate issues.” And indeed, that’s exactly what it has become. Some people prefer reading the comments to my posts, which delights me. My readers know that this is one of the few wine blogs that doesn’t require approval to post your comment. Here, once I’ve approved your first one, my computer automatically recognizes your computer (I don’t think I phrased that technically correctly, but you get the idea), so your comment goes up right away. I love the immediacy  and transparency of that. I love real conversations. I love edge.

It was a little difficult finding my footing after I went to Jackson. The biggest challenge was that I don’t taste a zillion wines anymore. Instead, that has forced me to write more conceptually, and I must say, agreeably—about issues and such. But then, there’s a ton of wine blogs out there that review wines. I never did like running with the pack.

Among my first commenters that day were Jo Diaz, who continues to run Diaz Communications with her dear husband, Jose; Monica Larner, who went on to become The Wine Advocate’s Italian reviewer, and whom I still love dearly, and Tom Wark, the Godfather of wine blogs, an inspiration to me and many others. I’ve since made many friendships among my commenters, some of them “only” digitally, but friendships nonetheless.

So here’s to a happy, healthy, wealthy and wise 2015 for all of us! Back Monday.


Twelve Tips for Better Content Creation

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I recently came across this statistic in an infographic on content marketing: “64% of B2B content marketers say their biggest challenge is producing enough content.” (B2B means business-to-business.)

I would suspect that “producing enough content” also is the biggest challenge for B2C (business-to-consumer) content marketers. Cranking out content, especially in the constantly-changing world of social media, is really hard. I mean, good content. It’s easy to generate what my Grandma would have called dreck. Coming up with high-level stuff is hard.

I should know: In addition to this blog, which I write five times a week, I do blog posts for Kendall-Jackson, La Crema, Cambria and, soon, Byron for Jackson Family Wines. So, even without Twitter, Facebook and all the rest of the writing I do, blogs alone keep me on the hunt for content.

The problem is that I have high standards. I refuse to publish something, even a tweet, until it’s as good as I can make it. For me, a post has to rock. I don’t mean that everything I’ve ever written will be in the Blog Post Hall of Fame. Far from it. But everything I’ve ever written has been conceived and crafted with the utmost care, something that the end-readers may never be aware of, nor should they be. But to the extent anyone actually reads and enjoys what I write—and I think they do—it’s because I have overcome the “biggest challenge”: producing enough content.

Readers can tell when content has been produced by people who are just out to sell stuff, the same way they can tell the difference between a cheap suit and a good one. Bad content is a witch’s brew of spin and hype, the very things consumers hate. They can tell the difference between something meant to help, educate and amuse them—which is an article–and something meant to part them from their money—which is an ad or commercial. If a content creator doesn’t thoroughly understand the difference, he or she will not be a success.

I would suggest to anyone working in the world of content marketing that they decide to get really good at it, or else it’s not worth doing. This is why, if a company is serious about producing quality content on a frequent basis, it should hire talented people, pay them well and let them do their thing. Creating quality content—by which I mean interesting content–is an expertise that stands alone: top quality content producers have insights into the psychology of personality and the consumer behavior of the masses, which themselves require an entire spectrum of understanding, ranging from art and literature to history, politics and popular culture. They also understand their particular niche in the market, which requires a kind of bird’s-eye view of things. High-caliber content creators, especially those working in the social sphere, are always going to be a little weird because their talents are more of an art form than a skill or craft.

My advice for content creators is probably not needed, for they are an iconoclastic bunch, who come up with their own ideas. However, for what it’s worth, here it is:

  1. Be familiar with the product or service you’re writing about, and love it. As the late, great ad man, David Ogilvy, observed, he would never write an advertisement about a product he himself did not use.
  2. Know the people associated with that product. Be friends with them. They are part of the content.
  3. Study writing and literature, and read a great deal—stuff that inspires you. Have dictionaries and Thesaursi by your side, as well as books of quotations and sayings.
  4. Interesting content is informative, yes, but it’s also conversational. Would you rather have a conversation with an interesting person, or with a boring one?
  5. If you can work visuals (videos, photos, graphics) into your content, so much the better.
  6. Be curious, inventive, bold in your writing. Take risks. Great content production isn’t for the lazy or faint-hearted.
  7. Make yourself laugh with your content creation. If you think it’s funny, so will others. Putting your readers in a good mood will make them more loyal.
  8. Never underestimate the intelligence of your audience.
  9. Remember, your reputation and credibility are riding on everything you publish. The only thing separating you from complete irrelevance is the trust of your readers.
  10. But trust yourself first and foremost.
  11. Always tell the truth.
  12. If you experience writer’s block, re-read this list. It will always give you ideas.

P.S. If you use Wikipedia—I do—please consider making a small donation to keep them in business.


Fourteen rules concerning wine blogging

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I hope you had a great Thanksgiving weekend! We were down in Malibu, where we ate all the traditional foods and washed them down with a bunch of great wine.

 My post of Nov 24 elicited 32 comments (not counting the ridiculous spams, which fortunately you don’t have to see!), which is pretty good for a middle-aged blog that isn’t trying to rock the boat, but only thoughtfully observe what I see around me. Evidently, this subject of the relationship between wineries and bloggers (and the rules that can or should govern them) is of interest to many of my readers. It certainly is to me, which is why I address the topic with some frequency (hopefully, not too much!) As the Santa Barbara winemaker Larry Schaffer observes, This topic certainly has been covered before, but it’s always fun to see where folks stand on it.”

Fun, yes…and important, for as blogging (and other forms of online wine writing) become increasingly more important, it’s imperative to understand what these formal relationships really consist of. To my mind, the most important aspect of that relationship is that wine knowledge is becoming more diffuse and subjective. This is a huge game changer because:

  1. Nothing can be taken for granted anymore, because everybody is playing by their own rules (unlike the old days, when everybody played by the same rules).
  2. Bloggers, and younger generations in particular, are less beholden to the traditional way of doing things than their parents and grandparents.
  3. Therefore, there are as many sets of rules as there are bloggers.
  4. Therefore, any specific wine has a much greater chance of a great review or a lousy review than it used to have.
  5. Yet “what goes around, comes around.” What do I mean by this? See #14, below. But first, read #6 through #13.
  6. There’s no reason, in principle, why a lot of bloggers can’t decide that First Growth Bordeaux is too expensive, and is boring to boot.
  7. Thirty years ago, if someone had said “Bordeaux is too expensive and is also boring,” that person would have had zero credibility. Today, to say that “Bordeaux is expensive and boring” is a perfectly credible statement. Why? See #1 and #2, above.
  8. The inverse of this is to say that “Wine X is cheap but great.” It’s no longer necessarily true that a winemaker who selects a few special barrels of a wine, then puts extra oak on it and ages it longer before release, will produce a better wine. (Why? See #1 and #2.)
  9. When enough people agree that a “reserve”-style wine isn’t worth the extra money, winemakers will stop making reserve wines.
  10. I, personally, believe that most (not all) reserve wines are worth the extra money, but I am a Baby Boomer, and (once again), see #1 and #2, above.
  11. On the other hand, I don’t always want a reserve-style wine. We had mashed, baked sweet potatoes with marshmallows on our Thanksgiving table and it would have been ridiculous to drink an expensive wine with it. (Well, maybe Sauternes would have been nice.)
  12. Younger generations are more likely to eat things like sweet potatoes with marshmallows than gourmet cuisine, so they’re more likely to gravitate toward less expensive wines.
  13. In principle, there’s no reason why the age-old template of “everyday” wine versus “reserve” wine should continue to exist. Pace Andy Warhol, “In the future, every wine, expensive or cheap, will be famous for 15 minutes.”
  14. Here’s the irony. Although I believe everything I wrote above, I also believe we’ll continue to have expensive, critically-acclaimed wines forever. Why? See #5, above.

* * *

Today is our big event down in L.A., “A Tale of Sand & Fog.” I’ll be reporting on it in coming days. Meanwhile, please enjoy the rest of your Tuesday!


Do bloggers have an obligation to wineries that wine and dine them?

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When I was a working critic I was very particular about not letting wineries spend money on me. I had the reputation of not going out to lunch or dinner on the winery’s dime. I did it every once in a while, but tried to keep it rare. I also was extremely fussy about letting wineries spend money on me in other ways. This was only partly because of Wine Enthusiast’s policies; it also was because it didn’t seem right to accept favors (food, travel, etc.) from a winery if I was going to say critical things about their wine. That would have seemed rude and ungrateful. On the other hand, if I said nice things about their wine, it might have given rise to the appearance of a conflict of interest. Better, then (in my judgment), to keep wineries and their money at arm’s length (the sole exception being, of course, that I did accept free samples of their wines!).

Now, it appears that the issue of bloggers accepting freebies from wineries, and then not even bothering to write about them, has risen to prominence. Harpers.com, out of the U.K., has written a scathing editorial piece decrying bloggers who accept a winery’s hospitality and then claim that their “freedom of speech” gives them the right to not even write about the winery. One Italian producer told Harpers, “If I invite a blogger to my winery, and after I have paid for all of the costs the blogger still thinks I am not worth a mention, it is his/her right to do so. [But] it is also obvious that I, the producer, will never again pay a cent for his/her freedom not to write.”

The producer’s umbrage is completely understandable, isn’t it? The point I want to make here is that there are certain unstated but widely accepted rules in wine writing that include the notion of fairness. If a writer is to succeed longterm at being a success (not just a flash in the pan), the writer has to build up trust and affability among the wine producers she writes about. A wine writer with a bad name will find herself not accepted into the circle of wineries she hopes to cover. To get a good name in wine writing is the same thing as getting a good name anywhere and everywhere else: You have to play nice in the sandbox with the other kids. And if you take somebody’s money, and then insult them—either through silence, or by excessive criticism—you’re not playing nice, and word will travel, in this small playground we call the world of wine.

My generation of wine writers (whom I exult in running into whenever we’re at an event) understood the etiquette of wine criticism. Nobody had to explain it to us; somehow, we just knew that it was wrong to accept a winery’s largesse and then bite the hand that had just fed us. Since my main objective as a writer/critic was to tell the truth, I found myself decreasingly accepting largesse of any kind, because I didn’t want my hosts to feel that I’d been an ungrateful little so-and-so.

Too many bloggers, however, apparently don’t suffer from these inhibitions. They leave hurt feelings in their wake. This is why the Harpers article calls them “an endangered species” and adds this warning shot fired over their bow: “[B]loggers need to stay relevant just as any professional in the sector, and producers are starting to question whether the wine bloggers is, indeed, relevant.” Finally, the writer states something I personally know to be true: “Wineries are beginning to distinguish the difference [between informed and relevant bloggers and those who are not], and are analyzing closely as to where they should spend their few available euros.” Yes, marketers are drawing up their “A” list and their “Everybody else” list, and the A list is getting harder to get onto.

It’s all about being professional, and not just have power because you can push a button on a keyboard and self-publish. The wine press has always been a place of politeness, decency and respect, and blogging hasn’t and won’t change that.


Wine bloggers: Blogging, or slogging?

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Are you a blogger? Have you been at it for a while? Are you running out of steam, not as passionate as you use to be? No, I’m not looking for contestants for the Jerry Springer show, and this is not a Viagra ad. It’s an issue that’s at the heart of soul of wine blogging today, because most of the most popular blogs have been around for years now, and it would be strange if they weren’t getting a bit tired.

That, at least, is the thesis of this story, When Blogging Becomes a Slog, that appeared last September in the New York Times. It wasn’t specifically about wine blogs. They profiled a couple, John and Sherry, who admitted that their popular home-renovation blog had been “feeling off for a while” after eight active years. The problem, according to someone the Times reporter interviewed, was a downward spiral well-known to longtime bloggers: A passion turns into a hobby, which becomes a full-time career. And in some predictable period of time, it consumes your life and sucks the joy out if it.”

This is particularly true of bloggers who post every day, or almost every day. Readers want fresh stuff all the time, and the bloggers understand that, in order to keep their readership up, they have to supply the meat. That, in turn, can cause intense pressure to produce, to the point where it becomes a heavy weight. And, feeling that kind of pressure, a blogger is not in the best emotional or intellectual condition to write strongly, colorfully and informatively.

I know from personal experience—and not just my own–how challenging it can be to produce every day. Some of the most popular bloggers have told me, off the record, of the tedium and difficulty of coming up with fresh topics Monday through Friday. One blogger told me his spouse was furious at him for always staying up well past midnight, just to have that new morning post. It can interfere with your sleep as well as your relationships.

There are different ways bloggers deal with this. Some just resort to reviewing wines, which actually is the easy way out, because you don’t have to do anything original or creative, just pop the corks (sent to you for free) and write up your impressions. My own feeling is that such blogs are no longer among the best, although they may keep going for quite some time, because winery marketing departments will keep sending them wine just to get that hoped-for high score.

Another way of dealing with the Blog Blahs is to rehash the same topic over and over. I will admit to being guilty of this on occasion, although I do try to give a different interpretation and style even when I re-address an older topic, like the 100-point system or California’s AVAs. Some bloggers put up a lot of photographs, which is pretty, but also is a fairly easy way to create a post.

Since I love my blog and wish to continue it, and because I know that lots of people like to read it on a daily basis, I work very hard to come up with these posts. I would never want to do stuff on the cheap or compromise the quality of my blog. Sometimes it’s hard. Ideally, I’ll post a topic the day before, for publication at ten seconds after midnight the next day. That happens 90% of the time, but there are times when it’s just not possible. That leads to what I think of as my Morning Nightmare: It’s 6 a.m., I don’t have a post up yet, what to do? I usually come up with something. It’s not always the most gorgeous, beautifully-written or eye-opening topic, but it’s me, and the best I can do. I think I’ve failed to post maybe ten times since May, 2008. Most of those have been due to illness. One or two were because of hangovers. But usually, no matter how I’m feeling, I post dailyt, for me—and for you.

The reason this matters is because blogs really do represent an important evolution in wine writing. And wine writing, of course, is my soul’s blood. I believe in wine writing; we need good wine writers. The question is, can a blog succeed for the long haul, especially if—as is the case close to 100% of the time—it’s not making money, and is getting tired and predictable? I no longer hear bloggers talking about replacing print publications—that fantasy died long ago, alas. Yet wine blogging continues. I’m hoping that the best ones can keep the creativity going for as long as it takes, no matter what it takes.


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