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On blogging as freedom of speech

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I should probably have pointed this out long ago, but it’s worth saying now: Everything I say on this blog is my own, Constitutionally-protected opinion, and does not reflect in any way the viewpoint of my employer.

Such a simple statement, such a complicated topic.

I understand that people occasionally get confused. “Is he speaking as an employee or for himself?” The answer is, I speak for myself alone: my thoughts, my opinions, my conclusions. If I’m brilliant, it’s me. If I write something unutterably stupid or erroneous, it’s me.

The Internet, and the rise of blogs and social media with all its self-publishing power, has made these issues incredibly challenging. For me, my freedom to express myself publicly, without censorship or prior restraint, is one of the most important values I hold. My ancestors—yours, too—fought and died for this freedom. America is based on this freedom. Our Constitution enshrines it; our tradition upholds it; it’s a value I am willing to defend with my life, my liberty and my sacred honor.

Have a lovely weekend!


Thursday throwaway: wine bloggers, aging wine, and a brand new AVA

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More “aren’t they special” plaudits for young wine bloggers in this op-ed piece from the online edition of beveragedaily.com. The author lets us know that—at long last!—bloggers are “telling the story” that presumably has not been told before: wine lovers now have “real” people, AKA wine bloggers, to help them in their quest to find good wine. Not “technical” academics, not “corporate” hacks, not dinosaur Boomer critics, but “real persons” who can “provide a crucial link between the industry and consumers” and who understand, as never before, the “passion” of winemakers.

Finally! After centuries of being hectored, lectured and bullied by wine snobs ranging from Thomas Jefferson and Professor Saintsbury to Dan Berger, Parker and (ahem) me, consumers are being spoken to by their peers, people they can trust to not bamboozle them. I wrote the other day, concerning National Drink Wine Day, that apparently anybody can declare a National Something Day, so I’m going to propose that the fourth Thursday of each February now and henceforth forever be #National Wine Bloggers Day. I created that hashtag on Twitter. I’m urging my Congressional representatives to make it a national holiday. No work, no school, fly the wine flag high and let the nation celebrate wine blogging by, well, wine blogging. Remember what Jefferson immortally said: “A nation of wine bloggers will be a bloggy nation.”

* * *

Speaking of Dan Berger, I associate myself entirely with his remarks the other day in his column, in which he cast considerable doubt on the ability of wines to age—even wines that are very expensive and that you think, for perfectly valid reasons, have the capacity to age well.

Dan writes, I have long noted the utter failure of some expensive reds to taste better with even as little as a year of age.” He adds that, as a reviewer, “It is one reason I am reluctant to assert wine has potential when I cannot be certain it does.” Consumers should take note: Dan Berger has tasted more old wines than most people ever will. I completely agree with his assessment. I’ve stored a lot of wine, mainly red, mainly California Cabernet Sauvignon, in various storages (small fridges, big wine units, professional wine lockers) and I can’t tell you how often I’ve been dismayed at the results. The wines become, not splendidly aged as one would hope, but “tired,” to use Dan’s word.

I believe that critics make far too much of aging wine. Bigtime “name” critics do it first, and then small wannabes mimic them. Consumers are left confused and frustrated, believing they have to age wines but not knowing which ones to age or for how long. I have my own theory how this all started: In France, a long, long time ago, winemakers did not know how to manage tannins. This was a problem compounded by often poor vintages caused by the Little Ice Age that struck Europe. The result was wines that really were “undrinkable” when they were young. Britain was the main buyer of French wine: Bordeaux and Burgundy, and for a while, when Britain was at one of her frequent wars with France, she turned to Portugal for wine, especially vintage Port: another wine impossibly tannic when young. What to do?

Turned out that many British consumers of wine, being wealthy, had large castles (ah, the good old days); and these castles had underground cellars where the temperature never warmed up much beyond the mid- to high 50s. Since these men bought their wines in enormous quantities rather than by the bottle (no corner wine store in those days), they stored the wines in these cold cellars, where they discovered—voila!—that after many years, even decades, the wines finally shed their tannins and became sweetly mellow. In this way there developed the custom of laying down wine for one’s children’s or grandchildren’s 21st birthdays, a custom we still see here in America.

But somewhere along the line arose the modern practice of tannin management, and lo and behold, most wines are perfectly drinkable upon release. They’re riper and softer than ever before in history, which makes them great to drink the first six years or so. My advice: Cellar stuff if you want to. But be prepared to be disappointed, especially with California wine.

* * *

CALIFORNIA’S NEWEST APPELLATION

As far as I can tell, most of the wines from Lamorinda (just approved by the Feds as an A.V.A.) are backyard hobby efforts. The name “Lamorinda” is an concoction of Lafayette, Moraga and Orinda, three very wealthy suburban towns just on the other side of the Caldecott Tunnel from Oakland, in the county of Contra Costa, so named by pioneers because it lay on the “opposite coast” of the Bay from San Francisco. I have long known men of wealth in that area who planted grapevines in their backyards, on slopes of the East Bay Hills; I’ve tasted some of their wines over the years, and they’re not bad. I don’t think anyone really knows if any one variety or family of varieties is best suited for Lamorinda. People grow everything from Pinot Noir to Zinfandel and, of course, Chardonnay. They even make sparkling wine. I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for Lamorinda wines to pop up on store shelves or restaurant wine lists. Maybe some local restos, but not otherwise. Nor do I expect the somm community to discover and promote the red-hot wines of this new appellation. But good luck to my through-the-tunnel winemaking neighbors, and congrats on getting your appellation! I know what it takes, because I’m going through the process myself, up in Oregon.


Pffft! That’s the sound of the wine blog bubble bursting

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Kudos to Tom Wark—the original wine blogger—for doing research showing how interest in wine blogs has been waning now for a good six years …”.

Tom ran the numbers to prove his contention. And there it is, in his first graph: interest in wine blogs, as indicated by Google Trends, peaked in 2009, and has been falling steadily ever since.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. We live in an age of bubbles: Wine blogs had their own bubble, an era of super-popularity that seemed like it would continue to expand forever until wine blogs, like The Blob in the 1958 movie, would take over the world. Of course, nothing expands forever: that which expandeth eventually bursteth: That is the definition of a bubble. (Okay, enough with the old English word endings.)

When blogs were young, they were the hippest, sexiest thing in wine writing. That’s the main reason why I myself started blogging, in 2008. I saw the rocket ascending towards the heavens, and I wanted a front-row seat to go along for the ride.

But all the while, I doubted the glowing predictions on the part of many wine bloggers that wine blogs were the journalistic and reviewing wave of the future. I knew that was false. I said as much—and got body-slammed by the wine bloggers who didn’t like my message. Hey, hate the message, not the messenger!

And now here we are. It’s been evident to me for years now that wine blogs don’t have the energy or momentum they once did. A year or so ago, I considered giving up this one, until my readers persuaded me not to. I continue for them—for you–and also because it’s not that hard to crank out a blog everyday, and it gives me immense enjoyment.

Where I disagree with Tom Wark is in his contention that the reason for the diminution of interest in wine blogs is because those who had been showing interest in blogs, including wine blogs, have migrated to social media.” I don’t see any evidence of that. Or, to put it another way, I don’t think people feel they have to choose between reading wine blogs and participating in other forms of social media. It isn’t either/or: You can do both; they’re not mutually exclusive. If wine blogs offered wine consumers enough reason to keep on reading them, then consumers would continue to seek them out.

The problem, let’s face it, is that they don’t: most wine blogs are really boring. The ones that just spurt out reviews are unreadable, except by P.R. types who “Search” through the blog for their winery’s name. I mean, does anyone else besides a publicist care that some blogger somewhere reviewed their Cabernet?

I’ve thought from this blog’s inception that the only way to succeed to motivate viewers to click on it is to have creative writing that is interesting, and that’s what I’ve tried to do. I know there are blogs that are way more popular than mine. I can’t compete with them, nor do I want to. I want to continue to write about things that are on my mind, about issues of relevance to the wine industry, especially in California, and I want to continue to hear comments from my readers. Lots of those comments don’t appear on my actual blog. Many are on Facebook, which runs my daily blog, and quite a few people email me directly with their comments. So I know this blog is still reaching lots of minds. Tom referred to Julie Ann Kodmur’s theory that people today are “silo-ing” their blog reading; instead of looking at “a number of wine blogs, today they stick with and are loyal to only a few and perhaps even one wine blog.” I think that’s true.

A REVIEW

Zaca Mesa sent me this wine, so I’m reviewing it.

Zaca Mesa 2014 Estate Vineyard Viognier, Santa Ynez Valley, $18. I’m not a huge fan of California Viognier, which can be blowsy. The variety has a naturally strong flavor that makes it difficult to pair with food. This particular wine has potent apricot jam, peach pie, pineapple and honeysuckle flavors, with exotic hints around the edges: papayas, guavas, nectarines. It was aged in a little oak, not too much; in fact, all the barrels were more than eight years old. Just enough to soften and mellow the wine. The alcohol is a refreshing 14.1%; the acidity is okay, but the wine does feel a little soft. The blend includes a few drops of Grenache Blanc, which perhaps contributes a taste of tangerines. I can see drinking this wine next summer as a late afternoon aperitif, with little finger foods: egg rolls, chips and guacamole or hummus, prosciutto-wrapped asparagus spears, sliced watermelon, fried shrimp. It’s not terribly complex, but it is a nice sipper, and deserves a score of 89 points.


Still relevant after all these years? I guess

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I suppose I should be happy to have made #31 on this list of the Top 100 Most Influential Wine Bloggers.

To tell you the truth, when I stopped working for Wine Enthusiast in March, 2014 and went over to Jackson Family Wines, I was perfectly aware of the fact that I had lost a great deal of whatever “clout” I formerly possessed. That clout was entirely due to the nature of my job as the coastal California critic for one of the nation’s top wine magazines. I never fooled myself that the “love” wineries gave me was because of my wonderful personality! It was entirely impersonal; I knew that it was for my position, which entailed a certain degree of power—the power to give high scores and to include wineries in my articles. And so, when I quit Wine Enthusiast to go to JFW, I knew that that power would quickly ebb.

And it did. Which was fine with me. I had had a great time as a “famous wine critic” for many years, and it eventually reached the point where I was ready for something else. I’m glad I made the move. I love working with the Jackson family, with CEO Rick Tigner and all the other amazing people that make up this great organization. I don’t miss being a wine critic one bit.

But when I took the new job, it did raise questions about this blog. Should I continue it? I floated the idea of ceasing it and asked people to weigh in, and man oh man, did they ever. Overwhelmingly my readers asked me to keep blogging. And since I feel an inordinate amount of respect towards my readers, their loyalty towards me inspired me to continue to blog.

But immediately the question presented itself: About what? I no longer had a gazillion wines to taste. I no longer traveled to every nook and cranny of the coast as a wine writer. I no longer trafficked in the 100-point system, or went to many industry events, or met “new faces” to promote. So I couldn’t write about those things and from that perspective. Instead, I found myself involved in a fascinating world far different from the one I had formerly known, namely JFW. That changed the subject matter about which I wrote, and I worried that my posts would become boring, or too focused on the industry, and that people would drift away from reading my blog.

But I persevered. And for some reason, people still seem to like their daily dose of steveheimoff.com. Yes, every once in a while somebody complains about something or other. But they have for the 7-1/2 years I’ve been at this, so I just let it go.

I try to post five days a week, successfully for the most part. Sometimes the topic comes easily: a gift from the gods. Sometimes, it doesn’t, and I have to think what to write about. Almost always, when I really focus, I can come up with something that means something to me and that, hopefully, means something to my readers. One never actually knows how receptive people are to one’s writing, but this award, coming out of England, is reassuring, in that it tells me that I’m still more or less relevant after all these years.

Yes, I know these “awards” are next to meaningless. But still! I’ll continue to plug away at it, as long as people seem to enjoy reading me. That’s all I need by way of compensation. Of course, if you feel like it, you can always send me a $1 million bill and I’ll guarantee you a lifetime subscription!


Another dark side of social media, especially blogs

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Hardly a day goes by when I, as the author/owner of this blog, don’t get at least one pitch from someone selling a product or service. The pitch usually begins with the writer telling me how much they enjoy reading steveheimoff.com, and then they identify themselves, tell me about the product or service they’re selling, and add that they’re convinced that my audience—my readers—will be interested in said product or service. This is followed by an invitation to me to be sent a free sample of the product (it can be a bottle opener or an aerator or whatever), or, if it’s a service, the writer will sometimes offer to pay me a fee of some kind.

Well, I don’t even bother responding to these pitches; into the Trash bin they go. I’m a fairly polite person when it comes to replying to personal communications (and Lord knows I hate it when somebody doesn’t respond to mine), but these pitches don’t feel like they were written expressly to me. They feel like templates that just happen to arrive in my in-box, but really the identical email could have arrived (and probably did arrive) in 1 Wine Dude’s in-box, or Jo Diaz’s, or any of hundreds of other bloggers who are perceived to have some impact in the wine industry.

I suppose there’s nothing legally or morally wrong with such an approach. But it does raise, to me anyway, questions about transparency. If I were to blog about some sensational new aerator, would it be incumbent upon me to let you know that the owner of the aerator company sent me a few of the gizmos? If I told you that, would it color your perception of my review? Or let’s take it a step further. This morning I got this article in my in-box detailing “marketing strategies that don’t involve social media.” One of them suggested that bloggers might be asked to host a giveaway on his or her site by collecting email entries you can add to your newsletter.” The way that would work, I guess, is that I, the blogger, would announce a contest on my site in which you, the contestant, would send me your entry via email, which I would then “share” with the manufacturer of the thing to be given away. Now, that would pretty much make me a marketing agent of the manufacturer, not an independent blogger, wouldn’t it? And what would I get out of it? A quickie post, for sure, but also the author of the “marketing strategies” article adds this: “Understand that you may have to give them [the blogger] a freebie of your product and/or a fee to be featured or reviewed.”

Wow. I have a lot of problems with wine blogs, but this non-transparent collision of editorial independence and paid shilling takes the cake.

It is very, very important for readers to thoroughly know if a blogger is benefiting in any way, shape or form from the content of a post. Ideally, the blogger will volunteer that information upfront (and the Federal government has taken and is taking steps to ensure such candor). Still, there are ways for bloggers to hide indirect forms of compensation. I would never do that; neither would most bloggers I know, but some would; and the problem extends beyond blogs to other forms of social media, such as Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, where a positive word or image about a product or service can be advertising. If somebody sends me that aerator, and I praise it on Facebook, do I have an obligation to inform my “friends” that I got a freebie? Just asking.


Are there any standards anymore for wine quality?

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We are at a very strange time in the wine industry, a time of relativity and disappearing standards. Haven’t you noticed? It’s as if all the rules you thought you knew about wine—concerning quality standards—have been thrown out the window, to be replaced by an “Anything Goes” ethos.

What else are we to conclude from a headline called “There is no right or wrong” in one of the standard bearers of wine journalism and critique, the esteemed magazine Wine & Spirits? It used to be that we turned to wine writers and wine critics to tell us what was right and wrong. We trusted Mr. Parker, or Ms. Robinson or Mr. Laube or Mr. Olken, to inform us concerning which wines were better than others, which ones were worse, which we ought to covet and which we ought to ignore. We assumed, as had our parents and their parents before them, going back for generations, that there was an inherent quality hierarchy in wine. It began at the top with, say, Grand Cru Burgundy and filtered down to little village Burgundies, or with First Growth Bordeaux trickling down to Médocs. In the New World, in places like California, we were assured that the First Growth equivalents were the tiny boutique wineries whose owners had carved out pieces of terroir perfection, as opposed to the mass-produced supermarket wines of the giant producers in the Central Valley. We were able to rest secure in the knowledge that wine, vast and complicated as it is, can at least be explained to the rest of us by experts who took the time to study it, and thence to pass their wisdom down to us, who were so sorely in need of it.

But now? “There is no right or wrong.”

I need a wine magazine to tell me that???

Admittedly, the Wine & Spirits article doesn’t stop with the headline. It goes on to tell us that—while there may be no right or wrong—there are standards that the W&S tasters look for: “balance and harmony,” “profound expression,” “sustainable beauty,” “sensitivity.” Well, if those are the parameters that experts as experienced as the W&S tasting panel seeks, then I would think those same parameters would be standards of “rightness” and “wrongness.” A wine that, by common consensus, is adjudged to be “balanced, harmonious, profoundly expressive and sustainably beautiful” should then, by definition, be the most “right” wine—the most correct, the best, the top, the Grand Cru—while a wine that lagged behind in all those parameters would be considered common, rustic plonk.

But this is not what the W&S tasters are telling us. Instead, they’re advancing an argument, all too common these days, that claims that nobody’s personal sense of like and dislike is better than anyone else’s. It’s a form of egalitarianism that has spread like a virus throughout the wine writing world, and I think it’s because of the rise of social media. As soon as a million bloggers began contributing their opinions to the wine blogosphere, insisting that they had the same right to self-expression as the most professional critics, the old standards began to get whittled away. Few were the professional critics who chose to defend themselves, lest they sound elitist; witness what Parker went through when he had the nerve to remind bloggers that just because you have the ability to write something and publish it on the Internet does not make you a wine critic.

But the bloggers did succeed in something: they undermined the concept of credible wine criticism. Because their collective voices were so loud and insistent, and because they were speaking to a younger audience that didn’t really care about older wine critics, they launched a meme that was egalitarian and democratic—that appealed to the anti-elitist sentiments of their cohort group–exactly the same sentiments that were sweeping the Middle East leading up to the Arab Spring.

What happened in both cases—the Arab Spring and the rise of the bloggers—resulted in the same thing: chaos. For when you sweep away the old order, it creates a vacuum, and when nothing is in place to fill that vacuum, you have a more or less complete discombobulation of the old order. This may or may not be good—history will determine that. But it does leave us, in the wine business, in the place I began my first sentence with: relativity and disappearing standards.


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