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When the critic rants: a defense

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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.


A wine critic and blogger answers the tough questions

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Peter Mondavi, Jr., of Charles Krug Winery, was interviewed on the Fox Business online site, and the interviewer asked him four open-ended questions that allowed him to free-range his answers. Read the interview, then come back here. I’ll ask myself the same questions.

What is your death row wine?

Champagne, always. My desert island wine, my honeymoon wine, my go-to toast wine, my birthday wine, the perfect wine for any festivity. I can’t think of any other wine that even comes close. We shouldn’t even call Champagne “wine.” It’s beyond wine. (I include the world’s best sparkling wines in this category, not just real French Champagne.) Calling Champagne “wine” is like calling Thomas Keller’s Mon Poulet Rôti “a chicken dish.”

What region produces the best wine?

You might think I’d say “Champagne”–in France–and I’m tempted to, but I don’t want to offend my California friends, so I’ll just keep my answer to California. It depends on the type of wine. Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux blends? Easy: Napa Valley. Chardonnay? The narrow coastal strip extending from the ocean to about 30 miles inland, from Santa Barbara County in the south to Anderson Valley in the north. The accidental fact that geopolitics has sub-divided it into different counties doesn’t mean Mother Nature has been trumped. This is all one region, courtesy of the constancy of the temperature of the Eastern Pacific Ocean, which is cold all year round. Pinot Noir? Ditto for Chardonnay. Everything else can be made well in a lot of places.

What is the best wine and food pairing you’ve ever had?

I like that Peter Mondavi picked one of the simplest dishes: bread, olive oil and goat cheese, drunk with–what else?–Sauvignon Blanc. I suppose Champagne would work with that; it works with everything. But Sauvignon Blanc and goat cheese are so perfect, why would you tinker with it? I’ve had so many memorable combinations. One was beef tacos that Kathy Joseph, from Fiddlehead, fixed for me at her house. She paired them with one of her Pinot Noirs, and it was a revelation. I’m not saying it was the greatest pairing I’ve ever had, but somehow, it has stayed in my head. Oddly enough, I remember few of the foods I ate with the very greatest wines I ever drank (most of which were served to me). That’s probably because the wines were the stars of the show; the food stayed in the background. The best pairings allow both food and wine co-equal roles in the drama (or comedy, as it were). By the way, if you open the Kathy Joseph link, above, you’ll see that Kathy asked herself some questions and then answered them. I’m going to add her questions to this post. But first, the fourth Peter Mondavi question:

What will the U.S. wine industry look like in 10 years?

I don’t know, but acting in the belief that things in general don’t change that much in a mere decade, I’d say pretty much like it does today. More corporate takeovers at the top, more proliferation of little wineries and brands, often via negociant, at the bottom. As more Americans drink wine, the industry will experience growth, so there will be room for increased competition. If I get all this wrong, come back in 2022 and sue me.

The Kathy Joseph questions:

If you had $10, what would you buy?

Cold-smoked salmon and crême fraiche.

What would your mother say is your most attractive feature?

My honesty.

What’s your favorite indulgence?

Not gonna say.

When you grow up, what do you want to be?

Independent.

Biggest time waster?

Watching T.V.

What are 3 words to describe yourself?

Physically fit [all right, that’s two words, but only one concept]. Polite. Inquisitive.

What are your 5 favorite places?

Cuddling with Gus, my dog, anywhere. Any good restaurant. The gym. Lakeside Park, in Oakland. The fifth, I ain’t gonna tell you. Even wine bloggers deserve a little privacy.


The State of Blogging in America, as seen by the French

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Paul Mabray, from VinTank, sent me this study, from Institut du Management du Vin, in Burgundy, on wine blogging in China and America, two opposite ends of the world and also, as the study says, one from a mature market and the other still developing.

The study examined 308 American wine blogs (out of perhaps 1,000). It’s an interesting snapshot of the current wine blog scene. Here are some key findings:

- “wine bloggers are getting younger every year,” quote.

- At the same time, “out of our 308 blogs, we have 94 bloggers aged between 26 to 40 and 93 between 41 to 55.” That adds up to 187. Since the study emphasizes “The dearth of contributors in the under 26 group,” we are forced to conclude that the remaining 121 bloggers (of the sample of 308) are over 55! That doesn’t seem likely, and is impossible to square with the statement above.

- Of the 308 bloggers, 62 are “non-wine professionals”, followed by 33 who are “journalist/writers.” (That would be me, I guess.) Ten are sommeliers. Eight are wine store owners.

- In America, California has more wine bloggers (15% of the total) than any other state, followed by New York. The study found 105 active wine bloggers in California.

- The motives given for blogging are not entirely clear. The study cited everything from “documenting the blogger’s life” and “improving writing” to  “making money, attracting clients and hoping to get published.” A “new and interesting category” of bloggers, the study found, is people “writing about their own wineries or the winery they work for.”

- Of the types of blogs, the majority are wine reviews. Next is wine and food. Wine and culture, wine business and “other” are further down the list. I wonder how the study’s authors would have stereotyped my blog.

- Thirty-eight percent of the wine bloggers post daily (which I assume means 5 days a week).

- Concerning monetization, “very few bloggers are making a living out of their blog or even making any money out of it. The only type of bloggers earning a salary are ‘corporate’ bloggers–working for a company.” However, some bloggers make some money taking advertising.

- Of the 308 U.S. bloggers, about half maintain both a Facebook page and a Twitter account. (I do.) However, most of these have very few followers or friends. (I’m in the minority in that I have thousands of both.)

That’s it for the American wine bloggers. You can get info on the Chinese bloggers by studying the review. I’ll just cite this interesting conclusion: “Americans tend to blog for pleasure and by passion when Chinese are still very much educating themselves and their readers.” From my perspective, that is certainly true. I don’t try to “educate” my readers in the basics of wine because I trust and assume they already know. I do try to share my pleasure and passion.


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