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Five Decades of Wine: The Arc of My Career, Part 7: I Go Over to “The Dark Side”

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Years ago, I had a dear friend with a good job. He was the wine columnist for a periodical with considerable influence in Wine Country. One day, he found himself unemployed, because the newspaper he wrote for was downsizing. He took a job doing P.R. for a winery.

He was very upset about it. “I’ve gone over to the Dark Side,” he explained confessionally, as if he’d done something wrong. He meant that, in our little industry, there’s a strong, longstanding perception that a writer who writes for an independent publication, like a newspaper or magazine, is more honest and straightforward than one who spends his days writing for a wine company.

I remember telling my unhappy friend, “Look. There’s no such thing as ‘the Dark Side.’ Wherever you work, and whatever you do, you do it with integrity and honesty. And remember this: Everyone’s got a boss. Like Dylan sang, you gotta serve somebody.”

I meant those words. I’ve worked with public relations, communications and marketing people for decades, and liked and respected the vast majority of them. They don’t “spin” any worse than a winemaker describing his or her wine, and they follow their own ethical principles. We have this belief in the wine industry that independent critics are “honest brokers” who can cut through the hype. That’s true, as far as it goes—but it only goes so far. The wine writer, no matter who he is, always walks a delicate balance, having to take many things into account. There are very few “fearless crusaders” among wine writers, who learn early on how to preserve their relationships, reputations and jobs by understanding where the red lines are, and respecting them.

So it was that, when I took my job at Jackson Family Wines and people made the “dark side” remark, I patiently explained to them that, no, I don’t see things that way. The way I see it is, I’m using the same muscles to do a different sport. In the world of martial arts, there’s much mixing up of different types of fighting: jujitsu, karate, muay Thai. I studied all of them; each is unique, and yet they all require the same skills (strength, speed, awareness). In the case of my career, I utilized my talents in research, writing, wine tasting and public speaking when I worked at wine magazines, and I use exactly the same skills in the things I do at JFW.

So what’s it been like for me? I took the job on March 10, 2014. It’s been a little more than a year now. I work with the company’s Marketing and Communications (MarComm) team, a bunch of smart, young pros whose skills run the gamut from social media to video, event planning and P.R. The kinds of things I do vary widely, and I work mainly from home, in Oakland. As I write these words, I’m in a plane somewhere over the Midwest, on my way to Boston, where tomorrow night (tonight as you read this) I’ll be hosting an Earth Day dinner focusing around issues of sustainability. Next week I’ll be pouring at the Sonoma Barrel Auction, and staging a wine tasting for some people, and reviewing wine for the company newsletter. So the stuff I do is all over the map.

I’ve enjoyed my year at JFW but things are going to be changing. Starting this summer, I’m beginning a new consulting phase. JFW will be my first client; I’m interested in others, provided the work is absorbing. I see this as the cresting of the arc of my career. I’m looking at turning seventy years old next year. While my health is fantastic, I’m thinking of a life beyond wine writing—taking things easier, slowing down a bit to smell the roses (or is it the coffee?). I’ve worked very hard for a great many years, and while I’ve enjoyed 95% of it, there’s also been a lot of stress—as there is in everyone’s life. But I’m just about the only member of my generation in my family who hasn’t retired, and the ones who have tell me the same thing. It’s fantastic, the best thing they’ve ever done. In fact, they’re all in agreement that they’re happier and busier than ever.

Well, I’m not retiring. Call it pre-retirement: I want to do interesting things that call on my talents. (I always liked JFK’s quote about the ancient Greek definition of happiness: “The full use of your powers along lines of excellence.”) But I also want more time for myself, to go to the gym, volunteer at the SPCA, take Gus on long walks, maybe even expand a social life that’s been on hold for too long because of the demands of the job. And I have a bucket list: learn how to bake bread. Study salsa dancing. Maybe even return to the painting I used to love.

And this blog? Well, I don’t know. It will soon be seven years old and, since I’ve already quoted Dylan, I might as well quote George Harrison: “All things must pass.” I haven’t decided whether or not to continue it. I’d like to hear from my readers: Do you still value reading me? Do I still have something to say, now that I’m no longer a F.W.C. (famous wine critic)? When the late, great San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen retired after more than fifty years, due to a deadly illness, he announced it one morning in a column and never published anything ever again. There’s something to be said about unprolonged exits.

 

 


Where do Master Sommeliers actually work?

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A few days ago, the one and only Hosemaster of Wine caused a dustup in the world of sommeliers with his blog post, “The six people you want to avoid in the wine business.”

One of his “six people to avoid” was “the Master Sommelier Working for a Corporation.” It was a good spoof in the best Hosemaster tradition, of course, and—having been the recipient of numerous Hosemaster barbs over the years–I appreciate his wit and am happy when he mentions me. Hosemaster, AKA Ron Washam, is a satirist, in the great twentieth-century tradition of Mort Sahl, Joseph Heller and even Stephen Colbert. But he is never mean-spirited.

Master Somms, like the rest of us, have to work somewhere. They may not choose to work in a restaurant; they might want different sorts of opportunities, and many go through a series of different jobs as their careers develop. So after you’ve invested all the expense and time of obtaining the coveted M.S., where are you gonna go?

Into the business world, as so many Master Sommeliers have done. As you can see if you browse through the membership page on the Court of Master Sommelier’s website,

http://www.mastersommeliers.org/pages.aspx/membership

some go to work for wineries, big and small. (And, yes, Master Somms work for my company, Jackson Family Wines, which by the way is not corporate, but family-owned.) Others work for distributors or in retail trade. Some consult; some are independent wine educators. The latest Master Somm to rock the business world is Ken Fredrickson, whose investment group just took over Brewer-Clifton.

In other words, Master Somms do all sorts of interesting things.

What’s wrong with a Master Somm working an honest day for honest pay? There are only 140 of them in all of North America, and 219 worldwide. With such limited numbers, these men and women are in high demand. They can essentially work anyplace they want. Actually, in going into the business world, they move beyond rarified sommelier circles into networks of on- and off-premise professionals and consumers—democratizing, as it were, the world of fine wine, which is as it should be.

I don’t think Hosemaster actually believes it’s “sad” for a Master Somm to work for a winery. After all, he’s a former sommelier himself and understands the terroir. But for anyone who does think along those lines, let me quote Hosemaster’s own words, on Charlie Olken’s blog, “[G]ood sommeliers…understand that their only job, their ONLY job, is to help assure that the customer has an enjoyable evening.” No matter where they work or what they do, good sommeliers do exactly that: they help customers enjoy their wine.


A New Year’s Day reflection

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Happy new year, each and everyone!

We’ve been through a lot over the years, you and I—from my rather clumsy but sincere and hopeful introductory post (dated May 15, 2008, and reproduced here) through the awful years of the Great Recession that impacted so many of us, right through to my transition in 2014 from wine critic to Jackson Family Wines. You’ve stayed with me every step of the way, through 1,679 posts, and for that, I salute you. I would never continue this if so many of you didn’t let me know, nearly every day, that you enjoy reading it. And I’m proud to say that, while I was tempted for a while, I’ve still never taken an advertisement nor tried to sell stuff.

In that first Welcome to my blog post, I wrote words I wouldn’t change today, including these: I’d be thrilled if this forum became a place for people to air opinions and debate issues.” And indeed, that’s exactly what it has become. Some people prefer reading the comments to my posts, which delights me. My readers know that this is one of the few wine blogs that doesn’t require approval to post your comment. Here, once I’ve approved your first one, my computer automatically recognizes your computer (I don’t think I phrased that technically correctly, but you get the idea), so your comment goes up right away. I love the immediacy  and transparency of that. I love real conversations. I love edge.

It was a little difficult finding my footing after I went to Jackson. The biggest challenge was that I don’t taste a zillion wines anymore. Instead, that has forced me to write more conceptually, and I must say, agreeably—about issues and such. But then, there’s a ton of wine blogs out there that review wines. I never did like running with the pack.

Among my first commenters that day were Jo Diaz, who continues to run Diaz Communications with her dear husband, Jose; Monica Larner, who went on to become The Wine Advocate’s Italian reviewer, and whom I still love dearly, and Tom Wark, the Godfather of wine blogs, an inspiration to me and many others. I’ve since made many friendships among my commenters, some of them “only” digitally, but friendships nonetheless.

So here’s to a happy, healthy, wealthy and wise 2015 for all of us! Back Monday.


Twelve Tips for Better Content Creation

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I recently came across this statistic in an infographic on content marketing: “64% of B2B content marketers say their biggest challenge is producing enough content.” (B2B means business-to-business.)

I would suspect that “producing enough content” also is the biggest challenge for B2C (business-to-consumer) content marketers. Cranking out content, especially in the constantly-changing world of social media, is really hard. I mean, good content. It’s easy to generate what my Grandma would have called dreck. Coming up with high-level stuff is hard.

I should know: In addition to this blog, which I write five times a week, I do blog posts for Kendall-Jackson, La Crema, Cambria and, soon, Byron for Jackson Family Wines. So, even without Twitter, Facebook and all the rest of the writing I do, blogs alone keep me on the hunt for content.

The problem is that I have high standards. I refuse to publish something, even a tweet, until it’s as good as I can make it. For me, a post has to rock. I don’t mean that everything I’ve ever written will be in the Blog Post Hall of Fame. Far from it. But everything I’ve ever written has been conceived and crafted with the utmost care, something that the end-readers may never be aware of, nor should they be. But to the extent anyone actually reads and enjoys what I write—and I think they do—it’s because I have overcome the “biggest challenge”: producing enough content.

Readers can tell when content has been produced by people who are just out to sell stuff, the same way they can tell the difference between a cheap suit and a good one. Bad content is a witch’s brew of spin and hype, the very things consumers hate. They can tell the difference between something meant to help, educate and amuse them—which is an article–and something meant to part them from their money—which is an ad or commercial. If a content creator doesn’t thoroughly understand the difference, he or she will not be a success.

I would suggest to anyone working in the world of content marketing that they decide to get really good at it, or else it’s not worth doing. This is why, if a company is serious about producing quality content on a frequent basis, it should hire talented people, pay them well and let them do their thing. Creating quality content—by which I mean interesting content–is an expertise that stands alone: top quality content producers have insights into the psychology of personality and the consumer behavior of the masses, which themselves require an entire spectrum of understanding, ranging from art and literature to history, politics and popular culture. They also understand their particular niche in the market, which requires a kind of bird’s-eye view of things. High-caliber content creators, especially those working in the social sphere, are always going to be a little weird because their talents are more of an art form than a skill or craft.

My advice for content creators is probably not needed, for they are an iconoclastic bunch, who come up with their own ideas. However, for what it’s worth, here it is:

  1. Be familiar with the product or service you’re writing about, and love it. As the late, great ad man, David Ogilvy, observed, he would never write an advertisement about a product he himself did not use.
  2. Know the people associated with that product. Be friends with them. They are part of the content.
  3. Study writing and literature, and read a great deal—stuff that inspires you. Have dictionaries and Thesaursi by your side, as well as books of quotations and sayings.
  4. Interesting content is informative, yes, but it’s also conversational. Would you rather have a conversation with an interesting person, or with a boring one?
  5. If you can work visuals (videos, photos, graphics) into your content, so much the better.
  6. Be curious, inventive, bold in your writing. Take risks. Great content production isn’t for the lazy or faint-hearted.
  7. Make yourself laugh with your content creation. If you think it’s funny, so will others. Putting your readers in a good mood will make them more loyal.
  8. Never underestimate the intelligence of your audience.
  9. Remember, your reputation and credibility are riding on everything you publish. The only thing separating you from complete irrelevance is the trust of your readers.
  10. But trust yourself first and foremost.
  11. Always tell the truth.
  12. If you experience writer’s block, re-read this list. It will always give you ideas.

P.S. If you use Wikipedia—I do—please consider making a small donation to keep them in business.


Fourteen rules concerning wine blogging

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I hope you had a great Thanksgiving weekend! We were down in Malibu, where we ate all the traditional foods and washed them down with a bunch of great wine.

 My post of Nov 24 elicited 32 comments (not counting the ridiculous spams, which fortunately you don’t have to see!), which is pretty good for a middle-aged blog that isn’t trying to rock the boat, but only thoughtfully observe what I see around me. Evidently, this subject of the relationship between wineries and bloggers (and the rules that can or should govern them) is of interest to many of my readers. It certainly is to me, which is why I address the topic with some frequency (hopefully, not too much!) As the Santa Barbara winemaker Larry Schaffer observes, This topic certainly has been covered before, but it’s always fun to see where folks stand on it.”

Fun, yes…and important, for as blogging (and other forms of online wine writing) become increasingly more important, it’s imperative to understand what these formal relationships really consist of. To my mind, the most important aspect of that relationship is that wine knowledge is becoming more diffuse and subjective. This is a huge game changer because:

  1. Nothing can be taken for granted anymore, because everybody is playing by their own rules (unlike the old days, when everybody played by the same rules).
  2. Bloggers, and younger generations in particular, are less beholden to the traditional way of doing things than their parents and grandparents.
  3. Therefore, there are as many sets of rules as there are bloggers.
  4. Therefore, any specific wine has a much greater chance of a great review or a lousy review than it used to have.
  5. Yet “what goes around, comes around.” What do I mean by this? See #14, below. But first, read #6 through #13.
  6. There’s no reason, in principle, why a lot of bloggers can’t decide that First Growth Bordeaux is too expensive, and is boring to boot.
  7. Thirty years ago, if someone had said “Bordeaux is too expensive and is also boring,” that person would have had zero credibility. Today, to say that “Bordeaux is expensive and boring” is a perfectly credible statement. Why? See #1 and #2, above.
  8. The inverse of this is to say that “Wine X is cheap but great.” It’s no longer necessarily true that a winemaker who selects a few special barrels of a wine, then puts extra oak on it and ages it longer before release, will produce a better wine. (Why? See #1 and #2.)
  9. When enough people agree that a “reserve”-style wine isn’t worth the extra money, winemakers will stop making reserve wines.
  10. I, personally, believe that most (not all) reserve wines are worth the extra money, but I am a Baby Boomer, and (once again), see #1 and #2, above.
  11. On the other hand, I don’t always want a reserve-style wine. We had mashed, baked sweet potatoes with marshmallows on our Thanksgiving table and it would have been ridiculous to drink an expensive wine with it. (Well, maybe Sauternes would have been nice.)
  12. Younger generations are more likely to eat things like sweet potatoes with marshmallows than gourmet cuisine, so they’re more likely to gravitate toward less expensive wines.
  13. In principle, there’s no reason why the age-old template of “everyday” wine versus “reserve” wine should continue to exist. Pace Andy Warhol, “In the future, every wine, expensive or cheap, will be famous for 15 minutes.”
  14. Here’s the irony. Although I believe everything I wrote above, I also believe we’ll continue to have expensive, critically-acclaimed wines forever. Why? See #5, above.

* * *

Today is our big event down in L.A., “A Tale of Sand & Fog.” I’ll be reporting on it in coming days. Meanwhile, please enjoy the rest of your Tuesday!


Do bloggers have an obligation to wineries that wine and dine them?

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When I was a working critic I was very particular about not letting wineries spend money on me. I had the reputation of not going out to lunch or dinner on the winery’s dime. I did it every once in a while, but tried to keep it rare. I also was extremely fussy about letting wineries spend money on me in other ways. This was only partly because of Wine Enthusiast’s policies; it also was because it didn’t seem right to accept favors (food, travel, etc.) from a winery if I was going to say critical things about their wine. That would have seemed rude and ungrateful. On the other hand, if I said nice things about their wine, it might have given rise to the appearance of a conflict of interest. Better, then (in my judgment), to keep wineries and their money at arm’s length (the sole exception being, of course, that I did accept free samples of their wines!).

Now, it appears that the issue of bloggers accepting freebies from wineries, and then not even bothering to write about them, has risen to prominence. Harpers.com, out of the U.K., has written a scathing editorial piece decrying bloggers who accept a winery’s hospitality and then claim that their “freedom of speech” gives them the right to not even write about the winery. One Italian producer told Harpers, “If I invite a blogger to my winery, and after I have paid for all of the costs the blogger still thinks I am not worth a mention, it is his/her right to do so. [But] it is also obvious that I, the producer, will never again pay a cent for his/her freedom not to write.”

The producer’s umbrage is completely understandable, isn’t it? The point I want to make here is that there are certain unstated but widely accepted rules in wine writing that include the notion of fairness. If a writer is to succeed longterm at being a success (not just a flash in the pan), the writer has to build up trust and affability among the wine producers she writes about. A wine writer with a bad name will find herself not accepted into the circle of wineries she hopes to cover. To get a good name in wine writing is the same thing as getting a good name anywhere and everywhere else: You have to play nice in the sandbox with the other kids. And if you take somebody’s money, and then insult them—either through silence, or by excessive criticism—you’re not playing nice, and word will travel, in this small playground we call the world of wine.

My generation of wine writers (whom I exult in running into whenever we’re at an event) understood the etiquette of wine criticism. Nobody had to explain it to us; somehow, we just knew that it was wrong to accept a winery’s largesse and then bite the hand that had just fed us. Since my main objective as a writer/critic was to tell the truth, I found myself decreasingly accepting largesse of any kind, because I didn’t want my hosts to feel that I’d been an ungrateful little so-and-so.

Too many bloggers, however, apparently don’t suffer from these inhibitions. They leave hurt feelings in their wake. This is why the Harpers article calls them “an endangered species” and adds this warning shot fired over their bow: “[B]loggers need to stay relevant just as any professional in the sector, and producers are starting to question whether the wine bloggers is, indeed, relevant.” Finally, the writer states something I personally know to be true: “Wineries are beginning to distinguish the difference [between informed and relevant bloggers and those who are not], and are analyzing closely as to where they should spend their few available euros.” Yes, marketers are drawing up their “A” list and their “Everybody else” list, and the A list is getting harder to get onto.

It’s all about being professional, and not just have power because you can push a button on a keyboard and self-publish. The wine press has always been a place of politeness, decency and respect, and blogging hasn’t and won’t change that.


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