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I learn so much from my readers

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Some interesting comments from yesterday’s post, in which I suggested that some of these top-scoring Cabs don’t pair all that versatilely with many foods.

If that’s so, a few readers wondered, then why give them high scores?

Fair enough. By way of explanation, I need to put the whole concept of wine reviewing into some historical context. The world always has had wine critics, whether they were poets and physicians in the ancient world who advised Caesars what to drink, Thomas Jefferson who was such a gadfly when it came to French wines, or that amazing crop of American wine writers who came of age after the Repeal of Prohibition to educate a thirsty but ignorant country about the intricacies of wine.

Even with today’s modern sophistication of big publishing, social media and the like, we wine critics haven’t changed all that much. We’re just simple folk with an outsized affection for vino, doing our best to write about it, and lucky enough to have access to a lot more of it than the average Joe or Jane.

Now, I will admit to being an inheritor of a system in which certain wines are routinely experienced as “better” or “superior” to all others. This in itself is anti-democratic (with a small “d”). In fact, it’s downright elitist. And while I personally abhor economic elitism, I do recognize that in other spheres, it has its place. We have elite athletes, whom we love to watch on T.V. We have elite universities, elite clothing and elite technology, elite vacation destinations, elite neighborhoods in our cities, elite rock stars and elites among the intellectual classes. So “elite” is a fact of human existence, no matter how you feel about it.

In this system I fell into, wines like Classified Growth Bordeaux, top-ranked Burgundy, grand Champagnes, Riojas, Barolos, cult Napa Cabernets and so on are automatically granted the top place. Is it fair? Maybe, maybe not. But you have to start someplace in creating a hierarchy if you’re going to judge anything–otherwise, everything is the same, which does no one any good. So it makes it a lot easier if a majority of the world’s critics agree as to the top ranks of the hierarchy (even if we may disagree about individual wines). At least, we’ve created a lingua franca in which we can have a coherent discussion.

Now, once upon a time the top wines of Old Europe might have been more drinkable with food than are today’s Napa Cabs, for instance. In fact, there’s every reason to believe that part of what made Thomas Jefferson like top Bordeaux so much is that it was cleaner and more technically correct than some of its neighbors (and so, by the way, was his food), which may have had actual faults. Today, the situation is completely changed. Few wines have technical faults, at least in California. So what the elite wines have had to do is not only be cleaner and more correct than everything else, they’ve has to become something that the other wines cannot be, whether for reasons of terroir or expense. And that is what we mean by the big, opulent, modern Napa style of cult Cabernet (as well as its high alcohol). When it’s done well, it truly is impressive–but it’s not always done well, and when the job is botched, the result is clumsy.

The problem, of course, is that the big, opulent style is so powerful in itself that it’s practically a food group. That’s what I wrote about yesterday, when I said if I was cooking something at home to go with a huge Cab, I’d probably stick to grilled steak. That doesn’t mean just the steak and nothing else. I might try and steal a beat from Gary Danko and fancy it up, filleting some tenderloin and serving it with potato gratin, Swiss chard, cassis-glazed shallots and Stilton butter. But so many things could go wrong with such a complex dish that I’d probably decide beforehand not to even try, and keep things simple: since I live in a condo and can’t barbecue, I’d sear the steak in a heavy skillet, toss it with some brown butter, salt and pepper, maybe glaze some onions or sauté a Portobello, and keep my fingers crossed that the marriage between the food and, say, the Shafer Hillside Select would be a happy one. On the other hand, if I poured a nice Zinfandel with the filet, I think everyone would be happy, with a lot less at risk. The K.I.S.S. formula is a good one.

The thing to understand is that these elite wines are meant to be understood on their own. I don’t want any producers to get mad at me when I say that, but it’s true: the amount of work and artistry that goes into them is such that they don’t need a whole lot of anything to help them along. In fact, the more you try to help them with food, the more you reduce them to ordinariness. And there’s nothing sadder than opening a bottle of expensive wine, only to find that it performs in a mediocre way at the table.

Some of my commenters fastened on these points and made interesting suggestions. (I don’t want to name names because I don’t have their permission, but you can read them yourself in yesterday’s post.) B.__ suggested I make a note in my reviews that certain wines are “cocktail wines,” rather than food wines. S.___ strongly agreed. G.___ raised the delicate issue of point scores: that wines meant to go with food get lower scores than do “stand-alone wines.”

These are a good points. One problem that comes to mind, though, is that we would have to agree on what is a “cocktail” wine versus a “table” wine. I can see me describing a wine as “cocktail” and raising the infuriated hackles of the winemaker who made it! I don’t think any winemaker in the world thinks of himself as a “cocktail-winemaker.” So we can throw out the “cocktail” word. It’s a non-starter.

No, I think the best way to communicate to people the idea that “with food pairing, the highest scoring wine isn’t always the best” is to say it over and over again, until it sinks into peoples’ heads. Also, to point out in the text of the review (I would hope people read the text, not just the point score!). It’s in the text, with all its word-space limitations, that I try to convey my thoughts about food. I like the word “versatile.” It means a wine (like that Hendry Zin) that will go with just about everything in a particular style (red, white, light and delicate, full-bodied, tannic, whatever, etc.). Happily, more and more restaurants are beginning to divide their wine lists up into helpful categories like that.


A note to new readers, and old ones too

14 comments

 

With readership of my blog exploding, I thought this would be a good time to let newcomers know a little more about me and my background.

First, some numbers. (All of the following statistics are reported by my web host, Newtek Web Hosting, a company I’m very happy with. I know that their numbers vary, sometimes significantly, from numbers reported by other third party sources that purport to count metrics (such as Google). I’ve never been able to account for these discrepancies. Maybe some smart tech-oriented person out there can explain it to me!)

- Over the past year, daily visits to my blog have risen from around 4,000-5,000 to 7,000-12,000 and occasionally as high as 14,000.

- In the same time period, monthly unique visitors have gone from around 55,000 to 135,000, and continue to rise.

- My readers also are increasingly international. While 61% of page views are from the U.S., the remainder are mainly from, in descending order, China, Brazil, the Ukraine, France, the United Kingdom, Russia, Germany and Canada.

 

Following my recent nomination for Best Overall Wine Blog, I’ve been getting comments and private emails from lots of new visitors. It’s to them–to you–I’d like to introduce myself.

I began blogging in May, 2008, because I wanted to join this important new chorus of voices in a free, independent and dynamic format of communication. I had no idea how to blog, what to say or even if anyone would bother reading my blog. But I figured that if I could write strongly and honestly, people would like it. (“If you build it, they will come.”) I think I found my “voice” (as writers say) early on, and once I did, I became comfortable with it. I like to think that readers appreciate the opportunity to get inside my head in a way that may not be possible with other well-known wine writers who take a more ivory-tower approach and who may feel that being transparent and real somehow jeopardizes their reputations.

I don’t do wine reviewing here, because that’s what I do at Wine Enthusiast Magazine. There is no direct connection between my writing here and at the magazine. They don’t compete; each venue lets me express myself in a different way.

Longtime readers know that I fell in love with wine when I moved to the San Francisco Bay area to go to grad school in the late 1970s. I quickly became involved in the wine scene, which was largely an underground one: Even in San Francisco, wine was not as popular as it is now, and one had to seek out like-minded wine lovers. Very early on, I began hosting tasting seminars for friends and co-workers, and what I lacked in formal knowledge I more than made up for in passion. I learned a great deal from reading. Hugh Johnson, Michael Broadbent and Harry Waugh–all Brits–were my favorite writers. Their style (however you want to describe it) influenced my own, which I think of as formal yet relaxed, intimate yet thoughtful, friendly and non-intimidating–and certainly, well-written. I can sometimes bring in an element of good old American snark, a tendency I have to watch.

My “beat” at Wine Enthusiast is the California wine scene, mainly the coastal areas from Napa-Sonoma in the north down through the Central Coast to Santa Barbara. I have been stunned to watch the progress these regions have made, in the quality of their wines. It’s been tremendous to witness this over the last 20-plus years, and it remains a privilege today to visit these places and see so many hard-working, dedicated people determined to make their wines ever greater, even as a new generation supplants an older one.

I fell into blogging quite by accident, but in retrospect it’s one of the most wonderful things I could have done. The blogosphere and social media in general have exploded in recent years, and being part of this burgeoning revolutionary movement stimulates my intellectual and creative juices. I feel lucky to have one foot in this brave new world and another in the more traditional world of print journalism. I’ve never been one to believe it’s an either/or situation. I think print and digital can happily co-exist, and will co-exist alongside each other for many years. (It’s kind of like the way radio and T.V. co-exist. T.V. didn’t kill radio, like many predicted, any more than it killed the movies.) I don’t think paper is going away. A younger generation is discovering the joys of turning actual pages in the magazines they read, and there’s mounting evidence that the 24/7 addiction to all-things online is fading.

A big thanks to my readers, old and new. Every time someone tells me they start their day with coffee and steveheimoff.com, it feels like a blessing.


When the critic rants: a defense

13 comments

The San Francisco Chronicle’s restaurant critic, Michael Bauer, got some heat from his readers in the “comments” section of his blog yesterday after he [Michael] trash-talked a restaurant for selling him a bad bottle of wine at an inflated price.

The wine was a Portuguese rosé that Michael paid $30 for. “I suspect[ed] the bottle was corked,” Michael wrote, explaining that he didn’t return it because, as the most famous restaurant critic in Northern California, he didn’t want to draw attention to himself.

It wasn’t just the bad wine that irked him, it was the service. Waitstaff didn’t even put wine glasses on the table, only “small drinking glasses.” Moreover, “The staff didn’t seem to know anything about wine.” (It should be noted that the restaurant, Mau, is a Vietnamese restaurant, in the red-hot Valencia Corridor of the city’s Mission District, so maybe you have to cut them some slack.) As for the $30 tab, Michael had a friend do some calculating and determined that the restaurant paid about $6.90 a bottle, meaning they marked it up more than four times, which he called “gouging.”

Michael was clearly irked and in ranting mode, and some readers called him out on it. One wrote, “Here is a simple solution Bauer, if you don’t like the pricing at a restuarant DON”T eat there.” Another: “There’s a simple solution to this. Stop wining.” And: “There are people homeless in New Jersey and Staten Island and this guy is fuming over a bottle of Rose instead?” and: “This just goes to show that Bauer either has never worked the books at a restaurant or is bad at writing.” And: “O cry me a river. As a poster mentioned earlier, we don’t see anybody publishing articles about the mark up of popcorn in a movie theater.” And: “You suspected the wine was corked but didn’t send it back? I don’t see how being a reviewer affects the correct behavior in this case.” And: “If you are worried about saving money get a case of cheap Zin at Trader Joes and order a pizza to eat at home.”

Okay, so maybe Michael brought some of this snarkiness on himself. He was in a bad mood, he was venting, and this wasn’t his printed column in the newspaper, it was his blog, where immediacy and emotional transparency come easier and are more appropriate to the medium than in a print publication. But let me tell you, as a critic myself, sometimes you need to rant, and I’ll explain why.

It wasn’t just Michael’s experience at Mau that so distressed him. He’s had that same experience scores, if not hundreds of times, over many years, at many restaurants. Mau just tipped him over the edge. It happens. You see a dereliction of duty and, recalling too many such, you lose your temper and let ‘er rip. Now, you can argue that a critic should always be evenly-tempered and sweet in disposition, and you might be theoretically correct, but that’s not reality. Critics have very high standards of ethical behavior–Michael for restaurants, me for wineries. We bring that high moral code to the industries we report on, and even though we know we’re supposed to remain balanced, sometimes the violations just get to you. You think, These people are idiots. They don’t deserve to be in business! You want and need to get it out of your system–to cleanse yourself–to rant.

As for the snarky comments, I get a lot of those myself, as some of my readers know. They don’t bother me, as I’m sure Michael isn’t bothered, either. Both of us know, before we hit that “publish” button, that we’re going to get snark, and the stronger we feel about something, the more snark we get. It goes with the territory. But intensity, two-way communication, passion, opinionating, strong expression of feeling, even snark–they’re all part of the blogging experience. I’m glad. Readers have been used to being on the receiving end of a one-way communication for a long time, and now that they have the ability to respond, they take full advantage of it.


The Hosemaster’s take on STEVE!

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This is an unusual posting for me, and I did it only after thinking about it all weekend.

A little background: I got an email on Friday from Ron Washam, whom many of you know as The HoseMaster of Wine. In my opinion, and that of many others, his blog is one of the best. And in terms of satirical or parodic wine blogs, it has no peer. Ron’s alert eye catches every pretense and skewers it with laugh out loud mercilessness. He’s never mean or vindictive, though, so even when you’re the object of his parody–which I am with some frequency–you don’t take it personally.

Below is the email he sent me. I asked Ron for permission to run it, and he said sure, go ahead. He didn’t even mind if I mentioned the specific blogs he called “parade[s] of mindlessness.”  But I decided to excise their names anyway. The “Poodle” to which Ron refers is a Wine Blog Awards nomination–which he, himself, was nominated for this year, for Best Writing. I hope he wins it; he should.

* * *

Hello Steve,

So I was stupidly wandering around the wine blogosphere, stupefied at the seemingly endless parade of mindlessness, at [excised] and [excised] and [excised], and too many other hopeless destinations to mention, when I realized what an oasis in the midst of that intellectual desert your blog is. So I wanted to write you a brief fan letter. I know you get your fair share of hate mail. I certainly do. But it’s always a pleasure on that rare occasion someone sends a note of appreciation, so I thought I’d pass that gift along.

It’s criminal that you’re not nominated for a Poodle. I made a point of mentioning that if I do win, it’s less meaningful because people like you are not nominated. You engage people thoughtfully and with great generosity and openness. There’s very little of that in blog land. So much is self-indulgent and emptyheaded (some would say HoseMaster is), which I guess means the blogosphere perfectly mimics reality. Your writing is crisp and articulate, and your voice is strong and clear and reasoned. All of that gives me great pleasure. Thank you.

And thank you for putting up with my occasional japes. I learned a while ago only to aim at the top bloggers, not the ones who think they’re the top bloggers, and I consider you the best. Consequently, my HoseMaster persona feels obliged to go after you now and then. That you take it with grace and laughter speaks volumes about your character. You should see the crap hurled at me by lesser folk.

Anyhow, I appreciate what you do over at STEVE! I know how much work it is to do that five times a week. But to do it at your level, well, that’s an amazing accomplishment.

Cheers,
Ron

* * *

Ron’s right about me getting a lot of hate mail, not so much directly as nasty sniping in the social media sphere; and while I’ve learned to develop a thick skin, and have realized that my visibility makes me a target, still, it sometimes gets to me. I’m also used to never getting praised when I’ve done something right, and always being yelled at when someone thinks I’ve done something wrong. So Ron’s email, which came out of nowhere, really moved me. It practically made me weep.

I didn’t get nominated for a Poodle because I didn’t pimp myself out–beg my readers (on my blog, Facebook and Twitter) to vote for me. I’m not capable of such undignified groveling. If I cared more than I do about getting a Wine Blog Awards nomination, I’d have worked for it; but I don’t. I’ve been nominated twice. Enough is enough. Time to move on.

Lord only knows, few fields of human endeavor lend themselves more easily to satire than wine writing. The language is florid to the point of orchidaceous. Some wine writers take themselves far too seriously. The career ambitiousness that lards the wine blogosphere is embarrassing. Content is often mere fluff. Poseurs and posturers abound. Amateurism runs amok. Ron Washam sees all this, and sees through it, and satirizes it with wit, originality and intelligence. When we laugh at his writing, we do so because we recognize its truth, and sometimes, the ridiculousness we see is our own image, reflected back at us, in the mirror Ron holds up to our faces.

So thank you, Ron Washam, not just for the nice things you said about my blog, but for making us laugh.


Asking questions about social media is not “bashing”

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For some reason I’ve been tagged as a social media basher. Every time I turn around, somebody, somewhere, is blogging or tweeting or something that Heimoff hates social media, Heimoff can’t stand social media, Heimoff doesn’t “get” social media, Heimoff’s afraid of social media. But the most common characterization is that I’m a basher.

“Bash.” Pretty strong word. A verb, apparently derived from the Old Norse, meaning “to strike with a violent blow; to smash.” (Those old Norsemen were a pretty violent bunch, I’ve read, Vikings whom TIME magazine once called “Ravagers, despoilers, pagans, heathens” who would “sweep in from the sea to kill, plunder and destroy” their hapless victims, who had no effective means of resisting.

Does that sound like me? Little old me, as peaceable as a songbird, as unaggressive as a daisy? Of course not. Why would anyone call me a “basher”?

To answer that, let’s take a step back and see what I’ve actually said. All that I’ve ever written about social media is to point out that it has limitations. In one form or another, I’ve said that

– social media isn’t the be all and end all of selling wine
– wineries should have social media as part of their marketing mix but not bet the farm on it
– social media has yet to prove itself across the board when it comes to ROI
– some people with a vested financial interest in promoting social media tend to talk it up
– consumers should examine statements made in social media carefully to make sure they’re truthful
– the ease of publishing in social media means that some people with few credentials can make sweeping judgments

Now, could anyone object to any of that? I don’t see how they could. Each statement is patently true.

It is fair to say that I haven’t jumped on the “social media is the greatest thing for wineries since the invention of barrels” train. If you believe that it is, fine. Tweet away. I don’t think most winery owners believe it, though. If they can afford to, they’ll hire someone to run their social media programs, and if they can’t, they won’t. I don’t think there’s any proof that not having a social media campaign equates to economic failure for a winery. As a matter of fact, I’ve told dozens of winery proprietors (including Bill Harlan) who don’t have a social media footprint, or who have only a small one, to get on with it already. I think every winery ought to have a blog (well maintained), a Facebook page and a Twitter account, at the very least.

Is that bashing? I don’t think so. I myself spend a lot of time on social media, either managing my own sites or visiting others (although I’ll confess to not being as interactively chatty as some people). If I was really bashing social media, I’d write stuff like “Twitter is a stupid waste of time. So is Facebook. Don’t get me started on Google+. Blogging is digital masturbation. Get away from your @#%*& computer, tablet or smart phone, haul your butt into the gym and lose some weight!”

But I’m not saying that. So I really think it’s time to stop the “Steve is a social media basher” thing.

The deeper question is, Why have some people taken such offense? They seem to get genuinely upset by my writing, centrist and tempered as it is. Are they so deeply committed to social media, ideologically, intellectually, physically, emotionally and financially, that they can’t bear to have its limitations pointed out? Can they not bear a little constructive criticism? It’s like the Taliban. Tell them they should be nicer to their women, and all of a sudden they’re planting IEDs under your car.

So look, my critics: Find another word for “basher.” Or better yet, understand that complex issues can’t be reduced to a single word. Instead of calling me a “basher,” deal with my specific statements. I think you’ll find we’re more in agreement than you think.


Lets face it, the “social media revolution” has stalled

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A few years ago, following the Murphy-Goode “A Really Goode Job” contest that the inimitable Hardy Wallace won, the Big News throughout wine country was wineries hiring Social Media Directors.

The idea, near as I could tell, was to bring someone onboard who was young, social media savvy, creative and hard-working, who would give the winery a strong presence on platforms like Facebook and Twitter as well as the winery’s own website. From there, the theory went, sales would soar as engagement with consumers took off.

Well, as far as theories go, it was all right–a good and necessary first step–but in retrospect I think we can all agree that the reach exceeded the grasp. Perhaps that’s why we began hearing less and less about Social Media Directors, as that function was transitioned either upward, as a rather small part of the Technology Officer’s or Human Relations manager’s duties, or downward, to a mere intern’s (or maybe a son’s or daughter’s) responsibilities.

The turnabout was to be expected. Social media arose so quickly in the U.S. that, not only did few see it coming, but even when it got here few knew how to use it. As usual, the adults thought it was just something for the kids. And the kids, well, they just liked it and didn’t over-analyze it or try to figure out how they could make money off it. (Okay, Mark Zuckerberg did, but you know what I mean.) It was like the Internet itself: when it came of age, in the 1990s, nobody knew what to make of it. Everybody said it was revolutionary and would change the world–but exactly how that was supposed to happen, no one knew. If you go back to the early and mid-1990s, you’ll remember the search for “the killer app.” It turned out to be search engine (well, actually, it was porn, but we’re not supposed to talk about that). And then after search it was social media. One-eighth of the population of the world has a Facebook account!

I suppose there could be even more “killer apps” in the future as the technology improves (keep in mind Moore’s Law), but it’s hard to wrap my mind around that, since we haven’t fully absorbed the lessons of the social media we already have. The focus so far has been on what used to be called B2C: the business-to-consumer use of social media. Given the temporary (let us hope) hiatus that so many wineries are experiencing in this area, some companies are starting to think of social media in terms of B2B (business-to-business). For example, Brian Margolies, the CIO of Allied Beverage Group, New Jersey’s largest distributor of wine and spirits, wrote last week that his company has spent the past year researching how to use social media to facilitate relationships with its clients (“liquor stores, bars, and restaurants”). As hard as they’ve worked it, Margolies writes, “[W]e’ve seen little discernible effect on sales, demand, brand awareness, usable business intelligence, or even facilitation of community.” He’s savvy enough to realize that this doesn’t necessarily mean social media is useless for B2B purposes. Maybe it was something Allied did wrong, or didn’t do right. “Have we missed something in our approach or not given the program sufficient time to evolve? Have we overlooked something obvious, or is our target community already too defined?” Good questions, and a good posture of self-examination.

That’s where the wine industry is at: the bloom is off the social media rose, but it’s impossible to shake off the feeling that it really, truly could be something incredible, if only…what? We still don’t know, which is why Margolies’s questions are so vital.


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