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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.


Having trouble “getting” social media? Welcome to SMOG!

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Tales from the AVA front

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“Democracy,” Winston Churchill told the House of Commons in 1947, “is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

Churchill might still have been sour toward democratic forms of government, given the fact that, two years previously, he had been unceremoniously thrown out of office, in a free election, by a British public that—while grateful to “the old man” for winning World War Two—nonetheless found him insufficiently liberal and vigorous to lead them in peace.

I begin today’s post with the famous Churchill quote because it can be adapted to the topic of American Viticultural Areas, or AVAs. “An AVA is the worst way of categorizing winegrowing regions, except for all other forms.” Anyone who follows the AVA process, especially in California, knows how sloppy, irrational and unhelpful it can be. And yet (to paraphrase another politician, Donald Rumsfeld), we have to deal with the AVA system we have, not the one we might want or wish to have at a later time.

The talented blogger Hawk Wakawaka points out some of these incoherences in a Sept. 8 post in which she deftly brings readers up to date on the long simmering brouhaha down in the Santa Rita Hills, which some people are trying to have expanded eastward, a proposal that infuriates others. It’s not my goal today to do what Hawk has already done, and done better than I could. Rather, I’m fascinated by her contention, based on TTB’s published guidelines, that [as Hawk puts it] any sub-AVA “must be generally congruent with” the conditions of the existing AVA.

This can sound a little confusing. What does “congruent” mean? It’s easier to understand in the context of Ballard Canyon, which was granted AVA status by TTB last year. Here, the key is Hawk’s statement that “Ballard Canyon [is] considered to be distinctive enough to merit [its] own sub-AVA status, while still generally congruent with the conditions of Santa Ynez Valley as a whole.”

Well, anyone can see this is where we run into trouble. The main problem concerns how you define the terms “distinctive” and “congruent.” The two seem to be opposites. If a region is so distinctive that it merits its own appellation, fine: we can all understand that. But how can it be distinctive and still be similar [congruent] to other appellations nearby?

Clearly, these are angels-dancing-on-pinheads concepts. There are clear and distinct boundaries between, say, the ocean and the beach. One is wet and watery, the other dry and sandy. Although the waves occasionally wash over the sand, we still insist that the two places are distinct, and we are correct in asserting that.

But appellations are fuzzy. We know this, not only intuitively, but through witnessing the contention that underlies almost every single appellation petition. When Gallo wanted to move the boundaries of the Russian River Valley southward, people erupted in anger. (It got done anyway.) And now, in the case of Santa Rita Hills, we have the same thing going on. (I suspect that TTB will approve the expansion, but you never know.)

It’s confusing, because who’s to say exactly where a climate influence or a soil composition begins and ends? Obviously the west winds and fogs that sweep over the Santa Rita Hills don’t abruptly halt at the 101 Freeway. And you don’t have to be a geologist to suspect that neither does the chemical composition of the dirt, or its structure, radically change at the Freeway. Therefore the petitioners who want the eastward expansion seem to have some justification for their case.

But there’s a slippery slope. If you give the Santa Rita Hills another ½ mile or so to the east, why not give it ¾ of a mile? Or a full mile? At some point, we would all agree that pushing Santa Rita Hills—a cool-climate appellation—too far to the east would be ridiculous. But how are we to know exactly where the line is?

There’s another problem. Consider the Pisoni Vineyard. Many different wineries buy grapes from it; their contracts generally allow them to determine picking times. If one winery picks two weeks later than another, which factor influences the resulting wines more: the vineyard’s terroir, or the winemaker’s picking date? The one thing the two wines have in common is their vineyard source; the fact that both hail from the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA is basically irrelevant. We can see that, while defining AVAs is overall a good thing, from multiple points of view, at the same time it’s a bit of a distraction.

This reverts back to Churchill. Determining these AVA boundaries is messy and frustrating, which is to say the process is political. Boundaries end where they do when the fighting process ceases (often because TTB makes its final decision). In the wine educating I’ve done in my career, I’ve always tried to point out that appellations are useful, as far as they go, but that the ultimate appellation is the brand and winery.

Incidentally, the TTB currently is considering ten AVA petitions, of which I find two noteworthy. One is Lamorinda. For those of you who don’t live in the East Bay, this is an area on “the other side of the Caldecott Tunnel” in Contra Costa County that consists of the towns of Lafayette, Moraga and Orinda. It’s very suburban and upscale and, for that reason, lots of people with money have planted vineyards in their yards, and are making wine. They want their own appellation and I suppose they’re going to get it. Another proposed AVA is Los Olivos District. That’s a little puzzling to me. Los Olivos is, of course, within the Santa Ynez Valley, but then, so are the villages of Santa Ynez, Solvang, Ballard and Buellton. It’s not clear to me why the Los Olivos people want their own appellation. If anyone out there can explain the difference between the terroirs of Los Olivos and Santa Ynez town, please let me know. On the other hand, if eventually all those townships get AVAs, it will be the wine writer’s full employment act; we’ll spend decades talking about their differences, the same way we do now, fairly inconclusively, with Oak Knoll, Yountville, Oakville, Rutherford and Calistoga.

My bottom line: There is congruency within AVAs and neighboring areas, but it’s a squishy type. Nonetheless, we should try to understand it, especially in California, where certain critics say all wines are starting to taste like each other.


A winery digicom manager on his job

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Mark Gordon is senior digital communications manager for La Crema Winery. He oversees all digital media outreach for the company’s various brands, including social media, blogs, and web development and design. He’s also my colleague. I interviewed the 46-year old recently in Healdsburg and began with a tough question.

SH: Aren’t you too old to really “get” social media?

MG: I’ve been involved in the web since its infancy. What you tend to find after a while is what goes around comes around. Something that’s being touted as new and innovative is something most likely that’s been done before. A case in point would be Facebook. It’s AOL done right–an evolution of that. And I bring a varied background. I cut my teeth in journalism, back when cutting-and-pasting was actually cutting and pasting things! So having a good foundation in writing, wordsmithing and knowing the basics of journalism helps on digital, because it all comes out in storytelling.

On a scale of 1 to 10, how important is social media to a winery?

I’d say that social media is probably an eight. But marketing yourself digitally is a ten. By that, I mean social media is a tactic, but there are other tactics out there as well. The key is in finding the right blend that resonates with whom you’re trying to attract as a consumer.

What social media channels do you work with?

All the usual social media suspects: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest. That’s where we play the most, as far as social’s concerned. All those channels are designed to drive people towards our own properties, particularly those that have blogs, where we can tell more long-form storytelling and deliver more meaningful messages. Pulling that circle out a little wider, I’d say then you talk about sites where link-sharing is important: StumbleUpon, or reddit, or some of the “food porn” sharing sites, like foodgawker. And then another circle is getting relationships going on with other influential publishers, so your message can be carried outside your sphere of influence.

One year, MySpace is big; the next, no one uses it. How do you stay on top of social media’s fast evolution?

Agility. As a digital strategist, the important thing is to look in your crystal ball and see where you think things are trending. I mean, Facebook is the textbook example of a channel where the strategies have changed due to the fact that Facebook now is essentially a pay-to-play entity. Knowing that, and being able to see ahead of that last year, we decided to pivot towards more authentic storytelling.

What is the role of wine bloggers?

Wine bloggers are in the mix. They can be influencers, people who can help carry a message on behalf of a brand. For us, one of the most important things for wine bloggers is obviously that earned hit.

What does that mean?

“Earned media” means a blogger writes about one of our brands in a manner in which they’re not paid for their work. So we get them samples, or it happens completely organically that they review one of our wines, and that’s a super-valuable thing for us as a company to have those impressions out there on the web.

What about paid wine bloggers?

We call it “influencer outreach.” It’s identifying folks who resonate with our core consumer, and finding ways to work with them. In some cases, it may be something where we pay them as essentially a journalist for hire, to not only write stories on our behalf on their blog, but through other channels. If they have a big following on Pinterest, maybe we do something with them. If they’re influential on Facebook, maybe we ask them to post on our behalf.

Is that all transparent?

It is transparent. The Federal Trade Commission now requires any sort of paid content marketing to be disclosed. So all the folks we work with disclose that.

La Crema just launched, with your help, Virtual Vintner last Monday. What is that?

Virtual Vintner is a crowd-sourcing platform where we’re tasking members of our community and people who are enthusiastic about wine and winemaking techniques to help us craft, from grape to glass, the next La Crema wine. We start off with the decision that will set the course for this adventure, which is whether you want to make a Pinot Noir or a Chardonnay. And from there, it becomes a choose-your-adventure style program. At each step of the journey, we’re not only asking folks to make decisions, we’re giving them the tools they need to make a decision that resonates best with what their personal tastes are, and educating them on the process of winemaking.

How long does the contest last?

We don’t consider it a “contest.” There are contest elements within it, but it truly is an interactive journey. Within that map of different elements—the varietal, the region, the vineyard, the barrels and so forth–we’ll ask people to make a series of choices.

Will there be winners?

Over the various stages, every time you vote, you’re entered in a sweepstakes, and the winner of that particular sweepstakes will come out to Sonoma County for a one-on-one at La Crema, to meet with winemaker Elizabeth Grant-Douglas, maybe get to do some barrel sampling.

So they get a nice vacation!

They get a nice vacation, yeah. And there will be other “contests” as well. Once we get the wine into barrel, Virtual Vintner will have a flavor-describing contest, where participants will have this ability to assume what the tasting profile on that wine might be. They’ll write up a series of tasting notes, and whoever comes closest to what our expert panel determines the flavors to be, will win another prize.

How can people learn more about Virtual Vintner?

You can go to LaCrema.com, or directly you can go to vv.lacrema.com.


Wednesday wraparound: Fred Franzia, more post-WBC14 opinionating, and “the tipping point”

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Not sayin’ that Fred Franzia is on the same enlightened level as the Dalai Lama, but it seems to me that HuffPo’s Chris Knox came down on him a little strong—even for a medium (the blog) that’s known for snark.

“Trash-mouthed, unapologetic [and] downright crude”? Well, I don’t think Fred ever graduated from charm school, but he’s not as bad as all that. I’ve known him—not well, but some—over the years, and I’ve managed to find affection for him, even though he’s done one or two crummy things to me. But I’ve done crummy things to people, too, so as usual, the Golden Rule applies. Fred, like it or not, is a product of his time and place—besides, someone once said that people who swear a lot are more honest, and there’s a lot of truth to that.

More important is Chris Knox’s j’accuse! against Two Buck Chuck. Now, I can’t say I have any idea if the wines contain (as Chris alleges), “animal blood and parts” (I should think the FDA, or whoever the relevant government agency is, would be up on that). But I can say that I respect Fred, and Bronco, his company, for making wine that anybody can afford to drink—and varietal wines, at that. I think we all agree that the most important thing for the wine industry is to get more people drinking. Two Buck Chuck does that; Petrus doesn’t. So kudos to Fred, from my point of view.

* * *

Kudos, too, to Joe Roberts AKA 1WineDude, for telling it like it is yesterday on his blog. I was kind of at Ground Zero of all the post-WBC14 grousing and blather, and I really wasn’t in the mood to put my [strong] thoughts into words, so I refrained, except in a few private exchanges. But Joe, bless his heart, who perhaps has garnered some credibility in the world of Millennial bloggers, let ‘er rip. The comments on his blog—104 and counting, as I write this—make for fascinating reading on their own. My fave: did the panelists (those accomplished online/print writers that happened to be middle-aged white dudes) miss an opportunity, or, did we bloggers miss the opportunity?” Joe deserves credit for his courageous, truthful expression of the facts.

* * *

Some of us were talking the other day about how a new winery/brand reaches “the tipping point,” in terms of popularity and success. One suggestion was that, to a certain extent, this can be stage-managed, through smart, creative marketing, promotional and sales efforts—although admittedly, that can be expensive. Another point of view is that tipping points occur serendipitously. You can’t make them happen, no matter how much money you spend (as any number of billionaires who have run for California governor over the years, and embarrassingly lost, well know). All that the expenditure of money (on media events, etc.) can do is increase the winery’s chances of being noticed by “the right people.” That is indeed important—but beyond that, there’s still the element of magic. Moreover, a winery can “hit it” for a brief period of time—Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame—but staying relevant is a lot harder. If there was a formula, or template, for reaching “the tipping point,” everyone would know it. But there isn’t.

* * *

Finally, a link to another blog, today’s edition of “Juicy Tales by Jo Diaz,” in which she expresses points of view I pretty much agree with. And with that, I’ll wish you all a good day!


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