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A writer and his voice

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It’s been six years since I started steveheimoff.com. I had no idea what I was getting into back in those pre-Recession days. But I knew that blogging was something I wanted to do.

People sometimes ask me why I started blogging. After all, I already had a pretty good job, was rather well-known in the wine community, and I didn’t envision blogging as a career move, as apparently others did.

The truth is, I wanted to develop my writing skills further—to push into new areas of creative expression, in a way that had previously been denied me. As California editor of Wine Enthusiast, my writing style was severely restricted by the formal norms of the genre: 40 words per wine review, “Voice of God” tone, avoid the first person singular, stay away from emotional or political content, etc. etc. True, in my books for University of California Press, there was more leeway. But still, a part of me that felt essential—the first consciousness I’m aware of when I awake in the morning, the “me” that I tune into when I meditate—seemed unable to find a place in my writings. That’s what I wanted to capture in my blog.

It turned out to be not so easy. There are many pitfalls in capturing that essence. What writers call “the writers voice” isn’t immediately discernible, drowned out as it often is by other voices in one’s head. These other voices clamor for attention, can be sulky or petulant or angry, and of they are expressed, they lead no one to enlightenment, for they are false voices. Good writers struggle for years to find their authentic voice, which is why avid readers seek good writers: No one wants to hear a false voice.

It took me a few years to find my proper blogging voice. I tinkered here and there, trying on this persona, then that persona. Of course, they were all “me,” in the sense that all came from my mind. But it wasn’t until the summer of 2008 that I found it: the voice that came from my deepest, most seamless place, and one moreover that connected with readers.

Finding your voice as a writer is very similar to finding your palate as a wine professional. In both cases, you have to do the same thing over and over again (writing or tasting) before the pieces begin to fall into place. You begin to see the forest for the trees. It might be, say, Raj Parr developing an appreciation for lower alcohol wines, or Bob Parker falling in love with the big Napa style. I doubt that either of them knew, in advance, what wines they would come to appreciate, and which in turn would help to formulate their reputations in the industry. This is good, and as it should be. What we want, in our writers and in our critics, is authenticity: to find a voice that’s been around the block a few times, knows what it’s talking about, and knows how to express itself. Now, this isn’t to say that all strong and self-confident voices are equal. There is a regrettable tendency in wine blogging for shouters to drown out reasonable conversation. Like yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theatre, these voices certainly are heard—but it’s the wrong thing to do.

The nice thing about finding your voice as a wine blogger is that even when you have nothing in particular to write about, you can crank out a readable post, like this one. It’s like they say about the First Growths of Bordeaux: Even in an indifferent vintage, they make wine that’s interesting.

See you tomorrow!


Is there a “glass ceiling” when it comes to scoring certain wines? (Hint: yes)

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The blog Gargantuan Wine has an interesting post, “Dark Secrets of the 100 Point Wine Scale,” that identifies a “pair of endemic faults” the author says are not only “shameful” but “which are seemingly never discussed.”

Well, never mind that they are constantly discussed, in blogs, newspaper columns and the like. The first “endemic fault” is what the author calls “glass ceilings for certain wines.” He points out that certain varieties never seem to get high scores, no matter how good they are. He cites the example of Beaujolais. He asks: “Why can’t a flawless vin de soif, or ‘quaffer’ — even if that very term conceals an unfair stigma — park itself in an upscale, 90 point neighborhood, without a stop and frisk? For some reason, we relegate even exceptionally tasty, inexpensive wines to an 86-88 point ghetto.”

This is true enough. There’s are reasons for it, which I’ll get to shortly, but first, I’ll point out that even when I was a working wine critic, I wondered about this. I myself gave comparatively few ultra-high scores over my career, but it is true that Chardonnay trended far higher than Sauvignon Blanc, and Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir trended far higher than Zinfandel, say, or Barbera or Sangiovese. Since I reviewed California wine, I didn’t have the pleasure of reviewing Beaujolais, Sancerre, Alsace, Hermitage or any of the other fabulous French wines I like. But I totally “get” Gargantuan Wine’s criticism, that a great Beaujolais seems to max out at 88 points regardless of how wonderful it is.

I said there are reasons for this. Here are two:

  1. In every sort of contest in which there are winners and losers, there are certain parameters. They may be spelled out explicitly, or they may be tacitly understood, but either way, they’re there. In the Academy Awards, comedies almost never win Best Picture. Why not? Don’t ask me, ask the members of the Academy who do the voting! But I can infer that most of them feel that drama has more importance, more classic virtues, than comedy. This may be unfair to a film like Tootsie, which lost out in 1982 to Gandhi; Gandhi was Cabernet Sauvignon, Tootsie Beaujolais. I personally think Tootsie is a better movie and will stand the test of time. But there you are. Like Tony Soprano always asked, What are you gonna do?
  1. The second reason is just as arbitrary: Generations of wine experts have determined that some varieties are inherently “noble.” These include Cabernet, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling, and possibly Syrah. Everything else, no matter how good the wine might be, is less than noble. This, too, is unfair: it’s based on outmoded European systems of royalty and class. But again, there you are: it’s how the system works. No critic is going to give a Beaujolais 100 points (or 5 stars, or whatever), because no critic, in his heart of hearts, believes that Beaujolais is capable of that sort of perfection.

Of course it’s unfair, and Gargantuan Wine is well within his rights to be upset. When he asks, “Can’t a simple rosé…be scored properly for what it is?” I feel his pain. A few nights ago I drank a rosé that was so good, at that particular moment (a warm, muggy night, and I was tired after a long day), that I wouldn’t have traded it for anything else. But had I been reviewing and scoring it, which I wasn’t, I don’t think I would have scored it above 90 points. So I’m not defending the point system, so much as trying to explain why it is the way it is. Perhaps when a younger generation of wine critics takes over (which already is happening), they’ll get away from the “glass ceiling” and we’ll start seeing 100 point rosés and Pinot Grigios. That would be fine with me.

I don’t have much to say about Gargantuan Wine’s second “endemic fault,” what he calls “the deleterious effects of moderation drinking rationale.” It’s an interesting take, but when all is said and done, it’s just another version of the “alcohol levels are too high” critique, which frankly is getting a little stale.

Anyhow, I like Gargantuan Wine as a blog. It’s smart, witty and informative. But I do wish the “About Me” section contained more information. The author’s name, location and employment may be hidden somewhere, but I couldn’t find it. I don’t like “blind reading” blogs; I want to know who the writer is.

Have a great weekend! I’m having an adventure tomorrow: working in the tasting room at Kendall-Jackson. I’ve been in a zillion tasting rooms over the years, but this will be my first time on the other side of the bar. Will report on it this Monday.


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!


LIVE! From #WBC2014, it’s the Wine Bloggers Conference

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It starts today. Although I’m not one of those FWCs (famous wine critics) anymore, the WBC people nonetheless invited me down to do a series of panels on wine writing, apparently because I’m still a wine writer! There are actually two related panels: One on the art of wine writing itself, and in the second, each of us panelists has been assigned to read 13 essays pre-submitted by WBC attendees, in order to critique them. I haven’t read my quota yet—will tomorrow (today, as you read this). Don’t know what to expect; heard from another panelist the submissions are pretty dreadful; hoping for the best.

I’m also moderating a panel sponsored by my employer, Jackson Family Wines, on “How the pros taste.” On that one, my co-panelists are Joe Roberts AKA 1WineDude and Patrick Comiskey, senior correspondent for Wine & Spirits Magazine. I’ve known Patrick for many years, mainly because he’s always at the same San Francisco tastings I am. I met Joe through this blogging gig, and I always thought, from the very beginning, that he was talented and weird enough to make it (yes, you have to be weird to be a successful wine writer). We’re going to explain to the audience how we taste. The particular wine I’m using is the Cambria 2012 Clone 4 Pinot Noir, an interesting wine that, in my opinion, shows off the qualities of Santa Maria Valley very nicely, and also illustrates the earthy, mushroomy quality of that clone, also called the Pommard clone, which so many people find “Burgundian.”

Well, you did ask. We’ll also be doing a blind tasting of a mystery wine.

My own feelings toward blind tasting are well known to readers of this blog over the years. At the magazine, I tasted single blind: I knew the general scope of the lineup (e.g. Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon) but not the individual wines. I believe in single-blind tasting. I want some context to the wines. It helps me frame, in my mind, what to expect. Also, because I’m tasting in flights of similar wines, single-blind tasting is a great way to compare and contrast the wines, which is how the scores are arrived at.

But there are many ways to taste.  I don’t believe in wine writing for its own sake. I believe in getting paid to write about wine, because getting paid makes you a better writer. But each job is different, and mandates a different approach to tasting as well as writing. MWs like to taste double-blind; they don’t know where they’re going to end up working, so they have to have a wide knowledge of all the wines in the world, and double-blind tasting is a good way to get that. Many of them will end up working the floor of a fine dining establishment that may offer everything from Mount Etna to South Africa to Greece to Napa Valley, so the MW has to have her pulse on everything.

Other wine careerists will gravitate to different jobs. My own brought me to be a specialist in the wines of California. I’ve tasted 100,000-plus California wines over the last quarter-century and not that many wines from elsewhere. I try to get to international trade tastings as often as possible, but every employed wine person has to recognize his or her limitations. I wish I were stronger on international wines, but it is what it is. Parker probably wishes he was stronger on the wines of Italy; Laube probably wishes he was stronger on the Loire. You can’t be all things to all people because there’s only 24 hours in the day. Such is life.

So like I said, I believe in getting paid to write about wine, and not every job entails a worldwide knowledge of wine. My first panel at the Bloggers Conference, after all, is about wine writing, not tasting. Not all of these bloggers are going to end up working the floor of a restaurant. MWs may be able to double-blind identify a Ribera del Duero, but they may suck when it comes to writing, and writing, to me, is the essence of wine communication, especially if you’re reaching out to a wide audience, and especially if you’re trying to do the kind of writing I’m trying to do, which is great writing, memorable writing, writing that people like to read, not just now but for generations. That was my driving ambition with A Wine Journey along the Russian River. Sorry to sound self-serving, but I want that book to be read 100 years from now, not just make Eric Asimov’s next Christmas list and then disappear forever. So that’s what I mean when I say how you taste depends on your job. My job is to be a great wine writer (and a credible California taster), not the guy in the room who gets the gold medal for Best Identifier.

Still, I acknowledge that the times are different from when I started. Today, anyone and everyone in the wine biz seems to need some kind of diploma so they can put some letters after their last name. There’s a clamor for a certain kind of academic expertise that’s a product of our current career-driven environment. My friend Ron Washam, the Hosemaster of Wine, is famous (infamous?) for signing himself H.M.W., a conscious act of parody (but not sarcasm: Ron, as do I, recognizes the tremendous amount of work that goes into acquiring an M.S. or an M.W.). But he likes to poke fun at what he perceives as the snobbery that sometimes goes along with those titles. And I pretty much agree with The Hosemaster.

If I have one lesson to teach to the #WBC2014 participants, whether they’re in the writing breakout or the tasting breakout, it’s this: Be yourself. Learn your chops, yes; memorize the rainfall patterns in Beaujolais in 2009, if you want to, and be able to explain how all that acidity got into Pommard, if you have to: but ultimately, that won’t differentiate you from the pack—and the pack is growing bigger every day.

Here’s what you have to do to make a living these days:  develop your own sense of style. The 21st century likes individuality. Develop your own way to describe wine. Be confident: you don’t have to slavishly adhere to anyone’s rules. You’d be amazed at the group-think mentality of the M.W. and M.S. communities., which gets boring even to them, believe me because I know what I’m talking about. Don’t be afraid to march to the beat of a different drummer. Extremely technical wine knowledge used to be the province of wine brokers only; it still is, but this time it’s brokers with many different sub-specialties. On the other hand are the poets, interpreters, chroniclers, historians, enthusiasts, balladeers, amateurs (in the Latin sense), dancers and diarists of wine; they know something above and beyond wine’s technical details . Who do we read, twenty, forty, sixty years after they wrote? The poets and romancers, not the lab technicians.  I hope today’s bloggers never lose sight of that essential truth.


Does your content pass the “So what” test?

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That’s the headline on a little article from Rachel Luxemburg, a “social media strategist” at Adobe, who defines the “So what? test” this way: “Ask yourself, ‘Is this something my fans / friends / followers are truly going to care about or will they shrug and say ‘So what?’”

The “So what? test” is something every blogger understands. Or, this blogger, anyway. I realized early on, when I started blogging more than six years ago, that no one would care about what I wrote, unless I gave them a guarantee of two things: (a) the writing would be as good as I could possibly make it, and (b) I’d change the post five times a week, so that people could look forward to something fresh Monday through Friday.

I knew that you can’t assume people will come to your site unless you offer them a reason to come—and to return on a regular basis. It’s hard work, and I knew that I’d better not even begin, unless I meant to follow up and do what had to be done. After all, I don’t want to do anything unless I can do it really well. That was my approach to karate when I studied it; it included being a professional wine writer and critic for 25 years, during which I deferred to no one; and so by extension I applied that same exacting standard to steveheimoff.com.

From a marketing point of view, the “So what? test” also is important for wineries. As I’ve written many times in the past, having a presence on social media, including blogs, is fine and dandy, but I would argue that my two criteria—good writing and frequent updates—mark the difference between mediocre, ho-hum social media, and social media that attracts eyeballs. People are busy; no one has the time to go to an online site that’s boring, with the same content it had yesterday, and last week, and last month, and—gasp!—last year. But we all know winery sites that are fossilized; they’re the walking dead, zombies that look alive but aren’t.

Rachel, the Adobe strategist, suggests three simple ways a social media site can attract viewers: is “what we’re sharing…actually interesting, useful, or just plain fun?” It doesn’t have to be all three. What’s interesting may not be useful, although what’s useful generally is of interest. And fun need not aspire to any standard higher than simply giving people a few moments of enjoyment. It’s not rocket science, this business of making online content “interesting, useful or just plain fun,” which makes it all the more surprising when you see how many wineries don’t seem capable of doing it.

Well, in fairness, a winery can’t do it, if there’s not somebody at the helm who cares about social media, and has the time and resources to pull it off. Again, not all wineries have such a person, and it’s a pity, because it doesn’t take a tremendous amount of time or effort to do it reasonably well. I think the uppermost thing to keep in mind, for a winery social media person, is to find a “voice” that’s natural, human and communicative. Too often, winery social media is written and managed by public relations people who—for all their positive virtues—aren’t always the best communicators. They tend to take refuge in hyperbole and clichés, thinking that giving a stale old marketing message will engage readers. Unfortunately, that’s not true. Today’s consumer has seen it all, heard it all, and isn’t in the mood for another commercial disguised as a conversation. They want to be engaged as intelligent adults. They have finely tuned B.S. meters that can detect falsity a mile away.

Social media has evolved a lot since I started blogging, but in some fundamental way, it has remained the same—and will continue to. The rules of authenticity, transparency and respect for your readers and viewers still apply.

 


The state of the wine blog

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I go to the 2014 Wine Bloggers Conference next month, for which we (the organizers and myself) already are deep in the planning stages. I’ll participate in three panels, and each requires a great deal of forethought in order to maximize the chances that the audiences will be happy they came, which is what we all want.

Aside and apart from, and perhaps above, those immediate considerations, I’ll be looking for any evidence concerning the State of the Blogosphere. Having been deeply involved in wine blogging since 2008 (late, by some standards, but six years after all is a pretty good tenure), I’m in some position to weigh in on blogging’s evolution. And it seems to me that things are a bit static.

We saw initially a great deal of excitement with wine blogs. In the period 2007-2009, not only was the wine blog a new, shiny toy, but traditional print journalism was going through its most arduous and tumultuous times in recent history, what with the recession and the subsequent loss of advertising experienced by so many magazines and newspapers. Thus, it sounded almost reasonable when wine bloggers pronounced that “Print is dead, long live wine blogging!”

I, myself, never bought into that theory. I was aware that (a) recessions, no matter how severe, never last forever and (b) as soon as the current recession was over, advertising would return, and print publications would be back on track. At the same time, it would have been unduly credulous for me, or anyone, to suppose that print periodicals would return to the robust health they had enjoyed for so long in the twentieth century. Change certainly was upon print—but of what kind, and how and when it would arrive, no one could say.

Here we are now, the recession having ended, print having bounced back, and the 2014 Wine Bloggers Conference upon us. My sense is that blogging has lost some steam. That heady rush of excitement of four and five years ago isn’t there anymore. We’ve seen some well-known blogs go by the wayside and some new ones pop up, while the mainstays (including this one) keep on keeping on. We ought at least to give credit to blogs like Vinography, Dr. Vino, Fermentation and 1WineDude for longevity, or perhaps “stick-to-it-tiveness” is a more apt description.

Yet with the recovery of print publications has come the corresponding diminution of the wine blog. It was inevitable; it is a zero-sum game, this business of writing about wine, for there are only so many eyeballs out there who care to read about wine, and they have only so many hours in the day in which to do so. Besides, one senses (dare I say it?) a certain fatigue in the wine blogosphere. So much of what was so captivating five years ago has now become, well, the online equivalent of vin ordinaire. Of course the newer blogs still have the sense of awesome discovery that budding wine aficienados have displayed always, but their readers, such as they are, may be forgiven for being less than thrilled by yet another recitation of Argentine values or the best wine to drink with pizza. (I might say the same thing about wine magazines. They endlessly run the same cycle of articles over and over and over. Next November it will be “what wine to drink for Thanksgiving.”) At the same time, winery proprietors must take the blogs into consideration, regardless of what they personally feel or think about them (and believe me, in many cases, it’s not much), because you never know whose blog will help you move product. So that is where we are: a strange place, no doubt, and one that is evolving.

It was against this conceptual backdrop that I read that “Making an emotional connection with consumers, and creating personalized, shareable and useful content, is vital to selling wine.” This was the conclusion of “experts from major wine retailers” who gathered at the recent London Wine Fair, as reported in Harper’s.

Blogging would seem perfectly positioned to express “personalized, shareable and useful content.” Blogging is, by its very nature, personalized, in the sense that there is real connectivity, almost intimacy, between blogger and reader, the way there isn’t in print. This is especially true when readers can instantly comment on a blog, which certainly isn’t the case with a magazine or newspaper. I write Letters to the Editor of the San Francisco Chronicle with some frequency, but 95% of them never are published, which distances me from the paper and makes me wonder if my opinions are truly valued. Not so at many blogs; you can comment on steveheimoff.com, and your comment will instantly go up, with no prior approval from me, as long as I’ve previously approved a first comment from your computer. That is truly personalized service, and shareable, too. (I leave it to my readers to decide if my content is “useful.”)

But blogging has not yet achieved the gravitas of newspapers or magazines. Perhaps it’s that very personalized, easy-breezy quality that makes a blog feel like, well, just a blog—a fancy email–while a newspaper or magazine has the weight of authority and tradition and all the labor and costs that go into the production process. That may never change; the low bar to entry works against taking individual blogs too seriously, or investing your energy into them (not to mention your money). Still, I have to say that wine blogs have been the most innovative development in wine writing of the 21st century.

At any rate, that’s the view from where I sit!


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