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A wine critic and blogger answers the tough questions


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?


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


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.

Jason Calacanis: You gotta love this guy


“Web 1.0 was the first stage of the World Wide Web linking webpages with hyperlinks,” says Wikipedia. That’s when everyone was wondering what the web’s “killer app” would be.

“Web 2.0 was the Age of Interactivity…where people who may not have had a voice before could publish whatever they want…Add the ability to comment on stories and then share them through social media” and that was Web 2.0. This is from Read Write Web, a tech blog that offers interesting daily analysis of the industry.

And now, here’s Web 3.0. It’s “the age of Expertise,” in which people who don’t know what they’re talking about will be winnowed out of the hyper-democratized blogosphere, which will be reshaped as “an interactive discussion engine of experts.” That’s from Jason Calacanis, an L.A. blogger, web startup guy, and entrepreneur, whose Facebook page lists Gary Vaynerchuk–a kindred soul–as one of his friends. More to the point is Jason’s take on how “Blogging is largely dead…There are a lot of stupid people out there .. and stupid people shouldn’t write.”

Far be it from me to resurrect the blog wars of 2008-2009, so I’ll leave it to Jason to fight that fight for me. “There needs to be a better system for tuning down the stupid people and tuning up the smart people,” he told writer Dan Rowinski in the Read Write Web Q&A. “You have to have a deep understanding to be a blogger…It is not enough to be a writer. You need to be a writer and an expert.”

I said the same thing 3-1/2 years ago and everyone jumped on me for being an elitist who was trying to prevent a new generation from horning in on the monopoly I, and other aging Baby Boomers, had imposed on the genteel field of wine writing. When I suggested that the ability to say anything you wanted, no matter how vapid, and then self-publish on the Internet was not a great step forward for the concept of expertise, I was lacerated for being a paranoid dinosaur, protecting his turf like a mother weasel snarling in her lair. (Apologies for the mixed speciological metaphors.) “People and their blogs will continue,” Calacanis predicts. “Yet, that doesn’t mean that anybody will be paying attention.”

Indeed, when I mull over the current state of the wine blogosphere, it seems to be just on the line between Web 2.0 and Web 3.0. There are still 1,000 wine blogs, and while there’s nothing prohibiting people from blogging for as long as they like, we are seeing an illustration of the old saying, Many are called but few are chosen. More and more blogs are going defunct, or publish only intermittently, because they fail to attract readership, which makes their authors dejected. The top wine blogs have peaked in readership [mine included], to judge by various metrics. I don’t know how Web 3.0 will affect wine blog traffic–if it will stimulate it in one direction or another. But I do welcome it, if for no other reason than that it will sharpen the research and writing abilities of the bloggers who remain, making the wine blogosphere a more professional platform. If wine blogs are to have a future in Web 3.0, it will be because the best ones take it to the next level: accurate reporting and intelligent analysis, and above all good writing, with more color and personality than traditional journalism has allowed.

I interview myself


The blogger Fast Company yesterday ran this interview with Nicholas Kristof, the New York Times columnist who also was that newspaper’s first blogger. It’s a good read. I thought it would be interesting to take the interviewer’s questions and answer them myself. Of course, some of his questions wouldn’t be relevant to me, so I dropped them.

In your columns and online posts you encourage reader dialogue and response. What kind of responses do you get?

It depends on the particlar post. Some topics elicit a lot of response: anything about Parker, the 100 point system, blind tasting, social media, ethics. For some other topics, I won’t get more than a handful of comments. Some people have accused me of deliberately writing about provocative topics in order to generate heavy response, but that simply isn’t true. I really go by whatever I’m thinking about that day, or if there’s something in the news I have to write about. I often write about things knowing full well that I won’t get more than 3 or 4 comments.

How do you think about your social media interaction?

I love it. I don’t reply to every comment, because quite often, there’s really nothing to say, except maybe “thank you for writing.” Also, some bloggers reply to every comment because that doubles their number of comments, which in turn might move the blog higher up on some popularity lists. That’s a little phony, so I don’t do it. When I read a comment that really needs for me to reply, I know it.

Is this a revolutionary shift in journalism or a more natural progression?

Great question. The answer is: a little of both. There’s clearly something radically different about social media. People all over the world can talk to each other, more or less instantly. It’s very difficult to censure. You can do it on your cell phone or pad: you don’t even have to be sitting at your computer anymore. I think social media has turned out to be revolutionary in certain areas, such as politics, where we see regimes being toppled (Libya, Egypt) with the help of Twitter. In other areas, like sales and marketing (including wine), the jury’s out how “revolutionary” social media is. At this time, I’d call it more of a natural progression that combines aspects of the telephone, the U.S. mail, television and a town meeting. I haven’t yet seen anything in the wine industry being revolutionized by social media. Indeed, I can’t even envision what that would look like.

There’s a lot of debate about the role of social media in journalism, especially on the part of the major print news institutions. While [Wine Enthusiast] was developing strategies and policies, you just started doing it. Why?

Because I wanted to jump into this blog thing and explore its possibilities. I am a writer at heart. Few things in life give me more pleasure than pecking away at the old keyboard and watching my words magically appear onscreen. In May, 2008, Wine Enthusiast was going through their initial deliberations in blogging. I was just too impatient to wait.

Is there a more problematic side with the journalism in the digital age? Do you worry that citizen journalism diminishes overall credibility, for instance?

“Citizen journalism” has always been around. After all, journalists are citizens too. What’s different is the speed and access that people have to publish anything they want. And of course, this does raise issues of credibility. I don’t “worry” about it–there are too many more important things for me to worry about. But I do recognize it and have been stung by it on occasion, when irresponsible people make false charges. However, I take it in stride. And I will say that the positives of social media and “citizen journalism” far outweigh the negatives.

One of the other big changes in journalism we’ve seen in recent years is the rise of advocacy journalism. That’s different than what you do. Take Fox News for instance.

I don’t do “advocacy journalism” on my blog, if you take Fox and MSNBC as the prime examples today on TV. However, I can express my personal opinions a lot more candidly and colorfully in my blog than I can in the traditional journalism we practice at Wine Enthusiasm. That’s one of the pleasures of blogging. It’s on my Facebook page that I do true advocacy journalism. But I try to keep my politics out of my blog.

How do you negotiate the line between activism and journalism?

At the magazine, that line is kept rigorously bright by our New York-based editors, who impose strict journalistic standards that might be a little old-fashioned by today’s social media standards, but are very important nonetheless. Somebody has got to make sure that statements are based on fact and not just made up. On my blog, the standards are looser, I freely confess. However, there’s an enforcement mechanism that I would argue is every bit as powerful and effective as an editor: my credibility. If I was slinging unsubstantiated trash around on my blog, readers would long ago have lost respect for it.

Happy 2012!


Steve! will be back tomorrow.

Winery P.R. tools embrace much more than social media


I’m unable to participate in Rusty Eddy’s class on Winery P.R. at U.C. Davis this year, because I have to be–no, make that want to be in Santa Barbara on Dec. 2, but I promised Rusty I’d give the class some promo, so here it is: It’s this Friday, from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. You can sign up online here, for a cost of $190. Worth it!

Participants in the class, at which I’ve guest lectured for years, are winery P.R. people, or those who want to be. They’re looking, I suppose, for any additional insight in how to be better at their jobs. Four or five years ago, there was barely a mention of social media in the class. Instead, attendees wanted to know about stuff like how to prepare a press kit, write a press release, and how to pitch an article to a wine writer. They also wanted to know about the 100 point system and the more arcane aspects of wine criticism.

All of a sudden, around 2008, it began to shift. Suddenly, blogs, Twitter and Facebook were all the rage. It was as profound a paradigm shift as you could ask for.

I wonder what the students will want to know about this year. My own feeling–and that’s all it is, a feeling, because I have no empirical evidence to support it–is that the social media thing may have peaked when it comes to winery P.R. I just don’t sense the excitement, the breakthrough gee-whiz breathlessness that accompanied social media 2008-2010. In that little window of time, social media seemed to be the be-all and end-all of winery P.R. and marketing, the magic bullet that would overturn traditional forms of publicity and replace it with an online revolution in which anyone could participate, more or less for free. Heady stuff, for a winery on a budget.

Looking back now, during this winter of economic and social discontent, it’s hard to believe how naive everyone was. Did people really believe that social media could sell out a warehouse of SKUs, with a single keystroke? They did. But that’s what happens when you have stardust in your eyes: you don’t see things clearly.

Yes, there always were voices of reason arguing that social media was but a single arrow in the quiver, and possibly not even the one that went the furthest or sank the deepest. But those voices were all but drowned out by competing views that social media had changed everything, was destroying traditional P.R., and would reward those who hopped on its bandwagon while punishing everyone who stayed off.

Be honest now. Does anyone still make that claim?

I think a couple things combined to make social media less of a star than it purported to be. One was inherent in the concept itself: social media is merely a way for people to mass-communicate. That’s good, but what does it have to do with selling wine? Not much. People said social media would replace other sorts of sales techniques with peer-to-peer recommendations. Actually, that happened all too well. The peer-to-peer space is shared by an expanding universe of sources. A million peer-to-peer networks result in a million different wines being recommended, each for about 15 nanoseconds of fame.

Another reason the social media revolution failed was because of the Recession. Funny how an event that seemed historic at the time can be vaporized by another event that has truly Historic with-a-capital-H ramifications: namely, the collapse of the global economy. Maybe, just maybe social media could have been more helpful for wineries, if there hadn’t been a meltdown and people actually had the disposable income to buy wine. But that’s a hypothetical situation we can dispense with.

Everything feels like it’s in stasis these days. Black Friday and Cyber Monday aside, nobody’s buying, nobody’s spending, nobody’s hiring, nobody’s lending. If I were a young grad student wanting to move into winery P.R. and attending Rusty’s class, I think my first question to his guests (Sara Schneider from Sunset and Paul Mabray from VinTank) would be: Now that we’ve seen the limitations of social media for winery P.R., what traditional approaches do you believe will work? If I had to answer that question, I’d say that in addition to (not in place of) social media, a winery should have someone representing it who is ultra-skilled at captivating the media. That person might come from internal P.R. or external P.R., or it might be someone like Robert Mondavi, Gary Pisoni or Jayson Woodbridge, none of whom needed P.R. agents at all because they were such dynamic geniuses on their own. Of course, not everyone has that level of flash, which is why God invented public relations. As to the exact form of P.R. that works, impossible to say. It depends on the winery situation. If there were a formula, everyone would know it by now. Obviously, there isn’t.

Anyhow, like I wrote, I’ll be in beautiful Santa Barbara this week, reporting for Wine Enthusiast, doing a big blind tasting of local wines and, hopefully, coming up with interesting posts for my blog!

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