Now that I am a recovering wine critic, and one moreover who used to employ the 100-point system, I am perhaps in a unique position to talk about it, with all its pluses and minuses.
I have written time and again that the awarding of a point score is nothing more nor less than my impression of a particular wine at a particular moment of time. Tom Wark, at his Fermentation wine blog, puts this more clearly: a wine score is simply a way of “communicating the momentary impact of a wine on a critic’s mind.” It has always seemed to me that the public understands this (which is the important thing), while a stubborn cadre of writers/critics/bloggers does not. Tom’s analogy with “a ranking of the top 10 Second Basemen” in the history of baseball is perfectly apt, as would be a comparison of wine scores with, say, the Top Ten Movies of All Time–clearly not a scientific measure of precision, but someone’s personal take on film. And to accuse such a listing of being non-scientific is neither to detract from its usefulness nor to make perusing it any less pleasurable.
The 100-point system was not difficult for me to embrace because long before I got my job as California critic for Wine Enthusiast, I had subscribed to Wine Spectator (and worked there for a few years), and so had gotten used to a numerical rating system of 100 points (which, as I always remind people, is not really 100 points, because the different periodicals have different bases below which they don’t go. For example, at Wine Enthusiast it’s 80 points, so theirs is really a 20-point system. I don’t know how low Wine Spectator goes. I’ve heard of scores in the 60s, so theirs would be a 35-point system or thereabouts. Even the blogger Joe Roberts, who goes by 1WineDude, some time ago went to a A-B-C-D-F rating system that includes minuses and pluses, so it’s really a 13-point system (if I’m counting correctly). It’s clear that consumers want (or, at least, critics think they want) some immediate way of appraising the wine, aside and apart from the verbiage; and these various numerical schemes give them just that.
We all know that Robert Parker is justly famous for “inventing” the 100-point system, but in fact he was hardly the first to use point scores. Harry Waugh, whom I’ve been referring to frequently over the last week because I’m re-reading his delightful books, used a 20-point (although sometimes it was only a 10-point) system, but he may have been the first to use the word “plus,” which is a sort of half-point; for example, in a tasting of 1971 Médocs, he scored Haut-Batailley at “17 plus/20.” Why he didn’t score it simply 17 or 18 is beyond me, but in this case we have to infer that his wasn’t actually a 20-point system, but rather a 30-point system (since, if Haut-Batailley could fall inbetween whole numbers, then so in theory could any other wine). I never heard anyone criticize Harry Waugh for assigning meaningless numbers to an essentially subjective, aesthetic experience, but then, Harry had the good fortune to live and write in an era of civility, which is not always the case today.
I won’t miss working with the 100-point system, not at all, although I suspect there always will be a part of me that mentally assigns a number to every wine I taste, even though I’ll mostly keep that to myself. I’ve nothing against just enjoying a glass of wine, providing, of course, it’s a good wine; but I do like putting the wine into the context of all the other wines I’ve had the opportunity to taste in my lifetime. How much more enjoyable it is to be able to single out a wine for special praise than merely liking it, as one has liked thousands of other wines. That’s part of the love of wine, too: having your mind blown. A wine that blows my mind is one that scores in the high 90s, maybe even a perfect 100 points.
I suppose that as time passes I may have some other thoughts about wine scoring but for now, my thinking hasn’t changed from before-Jackson Family to afterward. I still think that wine critics are needed in order to help the general public wade through the tsunami of wine that washes over us every day. I still think that not all critics are equal: Some are more credible than others, and just because someone has the right and technical ability to get their views out there on the Web doesn’t make those views worthwhile. I still think the 100-point system is a pretty good one, at least as good as any other number- or letter-based system, and possibly better since it’s more nuanced. I still think the job or career of wine writing is a noble one whose antecedents stretch proudly back into time. I still think wine is God’s gift to humankind, although a properly-timed vodka martini is not to be dismissed! And I remain grateful that this country has gone from one of woeful ignorance about fine wine when I started out, to a wine savvy nation where quality is the highest it’s ever been.
Why are some people so (anonymously) nasty on the Internet? It’s really the saddest aspect of a digital community that, aside from that, is a pretty nice place to hang out.
My old friend Wilfred Wong posted on Facebook an unsigned email he got, (you’ll have to scroll down on Wilfred’s feed to the post that begins “Today was a day of mixed blessings”) from a person who obviously has (a) anger management issues and (b) too much time on his or hands or (c) both. Now, Wilfred, for those who don’t know who he is (and I would assume most of my readers do), is the Cellar Master at BevMo, the big liquor chain with a gazillion outlets in the Far West. His primary job, as he writes, “is researching wines (and now beer and spirits) for their quality.” I’ve known Wilfred longer than anyone else I know in the wine industry. We met around 1982. I was a novice: he already was knee-deep in wine, literally. So Wilfred’s had a lot of experience.
Which gets to the point. Why do so many people in the wine social media world think that experience is bad? It doesn’t make sense. Throughout all of human history, societies have respected their more experienced members, whether they be shamans, healers or hunters. These are the members who hold the society together–who constitute its collective memory–who form a living link between Now and The Past. Yes, every now and then there are revolutions–none more noteworthy than our own American–but even when we won, we respected older traditions of honesty, integrity, fairness. Those were not American values; they were human values.
But now, especially in the wine blogosphere and on Twitter, we have arrived at a period of incivility. People feel free to insult others with far more accomplishments than their own–and they do it all too often anonymously. Perhaps even more appalling is when they reveal their identities: then their attacks are done with impunity.
Here’s my message to the coward who emailed Wilfred: You try doing what he’s done. Try lasting 30-plus years at the top of your profession, earning not just good money but the love and respect of your peers throughout the industry. (If you want proof of that love and respect, read through the comments on Wilfred’s post.)
By the way, trashing a big box store like BevMo is the height of arrogance. It’s like the people who only drink expensive wine and think average-priced wine is for “the little people who pay taxes” (as Leona Helmsley once described us). For one thing, BevMo has some very fine wines, but that’s beside the point: What’s important is that BevMo gives value in wine to millions of Americans. What’s wrong with that? And Wilfred, through his service, makes their shopping experience a lot easier and more delightful than it would otherwise be.
So please, you harpies out there taking aim at Baby Boomer writers and critics, chill. You won’t get anywhere just hurling spears. If you want to achieve a career in the wine industry, I suggest you do exactly what Wilfred has done: hunker down, work hard, make friends and be respectful. That’s always been the way success comes.
Parker published a column on his website the other day that has raised some people’s hackles.
(“Hackles” are the hairs on the back of a dog’s neck. They rise up when the dog is angry. Since Gus has never been angry, I’ve never seen any on him. Well, he got angry once when a poodle mounted him, but it all happened so fast I didn’t have time for a hackle check.)
I don’t subscribe to eRobertParker.com, and I tried to find the article for free on the Internet, but no deal. (Good firewall, Bob!) So all I know about it is what this opinion piece, from Wine-Searcher, said, and also this opinion piece, from the San Francisco-based blog, Vinography.
I’m here to defend RMP for this reason: Some bloggers have made a living (so to speak) promoting themselves by insulting well-known wine critics. By thus associating their names with famous people like Parker, they get mentally connected with them in people’s minds, and that’s the whole point. It’s free, cheap publicity. It’s also the mark of a small person who can’t figure out a way to achieve something on his own. Instead, he goes after the Big Dogs, hoping to attract attention and controversy that way.
We see this sort of thing a lot in politics, but it’s pitiful to see it in the wine world.
Parker happens to be right about “natural” wines. There’s always going to be a sub-section of the wine community looking for the next cool thing: biodynamique, low alcohol, LEED-certified buildings, natural yeast, minimal intervention, and so on. Nothing wrong with any of that, but to focus on any of them exclusively–to obsess with them–is a mistake. All that Parker is saying (from my read) is that wine doesn’t have to be this, that or the other, in order to be good. So the ideologues (I think the low alcohol crowd has become the Taliban of wine) are not only missing the boat, but misleading consumers.
And is Parker wrong when he says that many wine websites “offer little in the way of content or substance”? No! It’s absolutely true. I’ve been saying it for a long time. I visit a lot of winery websites and believe me, some of them look like they haven’t been dusted for years. As for “Euro-elitists,” can you doubt that there’s an anti-California crowd out there? You know it, I know it, everybody knows it. These are people who bash California every chance they get. And then they bash Parker for giving high scores to California wines. Look, if you don’t like California wine, man up and admit that they’re not to your liking, and don’t bash Parker just because he does like California wine, and he’s more famous than you’ll ever be.
When did wine writing get so personal, so ad hominem? It’s so counter to the gentlemanly (and gentle-womanly) way it’s always been. It came with the rise of the bloggers. Parker calls them “blobbers” and why shouldn’t he? They’re biting his ankles all the time. He’s an easy target and whenever a little blobber attacks Parker, their blog’s readership numbers rise, as they get republished, aggregated, retweeted and all the rest. Is Parker supposed to turn the other cheek all the time? He’s only human. After a while, the constant niggling must get to him. It would get to anyone.
The plain and simple fact of the matter is that success comes from real achievement. You might get 15 minutes of fame by being an angry mudslinger and going after famous writers in a snarky, nasty way. But in 16 minutes, you’re a nobody again. Not a good longterm strategy for making it as a wine writer. My advice to winemakers, winery P.R. folks and others interested in promoting wineries and wines is to stick with writers and bloggers who are professional, fair and polite, and to avoid those whose real agenda is self-promotion.
Today I’m headed up to Santa Rosa to speak at Adam Japko’s Multifamily Social Media Summit. Here’s a summary of what I’ll say. First, I’ll welcome the guests to Sonoma County, and try to describe a little bit about what makes it such a great home to wine. I’ve long thought of Sonoma as “California’s winiest county” (which is how I described it in A Wine Journey along the Russian River), and I think it’s fair to say that no other county has the breadth and depth of varieties and types (including sparkling wine) that Sonoma does.
Adam also asked me to talk a little about how I got into wine, so I’ll describe the way I fell head over heels in love with vino in 1978, getting deeper and deeper into it until I moved to San Francisco, in 1980, and became a denizen of the city’s better wine shops (which back then you could count on the finger of both hands). I’ll describe my career thus far and how I landed the job of reviewing California wine for Wine Enthusiast.
Since this is a social media event, I’ll talk about my own experiences in this sphere–about how and why I started my blog in 2008. (I can hardly believe it’s been that long.) Adam’s main thing, of course, is to promote the use of social media as a tool for busy professionals (this particular event is for apartment complex managers who want to learn how to use social media to make their jobs easier and better). I’m not particularly in a position to advise them on that, but what I can do is describe how my blog has made my life easier and better, and also how it’s contributed to my “brand.”
Now, I don’t really think of myself as a “brand,” but I know that some people do, because they tell me so; and Adam himself sees me that way. (Of course, he also sees me as a human being and a friend, which is how I want to be seen!). However, I’m objective enough to understand that there is a sort of branding process going on with me, in terms of having a reputation, and Adam wants to know how my reputation (or the way I perceive it) has been impacted by my blog.
I suppose–and, again, this is based on what people tell me–that my reputation has been enhanced by it. I don’t mean “enhanced” in terms of people thinking better or more highly of me, but in the sense that more people have heard of me because of my blog. It’s quantitative enhancement, if you will, not qualitative enhancement. I think Adam is eager for the apartment complex managers to hear from someone who started out as a total ignoramus when it came to blogging, and ended up with quite a successful little blog–not financially, for this gig doesn’t make any money, but in terms of being popular.
Here are tips I’ll give the apartment managers for a blog (and many of these tips can be extended to other forms of social media as well:
1. post frequently.
2. post with passion.
3. personalize your posts. Don’t write like you’re some anonymous automaton. Let people feel your humanity through your words.
4. provide links, where appropriate, to off-site pages that bolster your arguments or otherwise amplify your message.
5. provide photos and/or videos.
6. don’t take criticism too seriously. I doubt if apartment complex managers will get the same kind of slamming I sometimes do, but if they do, they should laugh it off.
7. don’t expect an immediate return on your investment. In fact, you might never see ROI, measured as dollars. The point of blogging, and social media in general, is brand building. Which leads to my final discussion
What is “brand building”? I would argue it’s none other than forming relationships. In the case of social media, they’re digital relationships, but that’s all right, they’re still relationships. You have conversations with others that are real-time, and this allows readers to feel that they’re part of your life. Or, more correctly, that both of you are part of a bigger social life. Partners, in a sense–co-participants in something grand and lovely. That’s how it seems to me: my biggest gripe with winery social media (including web pages) is that the content often seems grudging. It’s like they feel they have to put something up, but it’s not grand or lovely, not personal, not selfless. Selfless? Yes. You can’t be holding onto something and be successful at social media. The late sports writer Red Smith was said to have replied, in response to whether writing a daily column wasn’t hard, “Why, no. You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.” He didn’t mean that literally, obviously, and he didn’t mean that it was an incredibly difficult thing to do. What he meant by “bleed” is what we might call “letting it all hang out.” Putting all your cards on the table–being genuine. Social media types call it being “authentic” and “transparent,” and it’s hard to explain; you just have to learn how to be that way (and you can’t be that way online if you’re not that way offline, in real life).
Does that sound a bit esoteric? I suppose it does. But it’s what I’m going to tell the apartment complex managers.
The journalist/entrepreneur Adam Japko wrote this profile of me in his online publication, WineZag. It’s odd reading about oneself from the point of view of another, but I think Adam “got” me. It makes me sound rather like an idiot savant, but I like it. Following are excerpts from his long article:
* * *
While California wines were losing my attention, Steve Heimoff grabbed it. That may sound like an oddity since Steve is known for his sustained and successful career as California Editor at the Wine Enthusiast and, before that, the Wine Spectator. Actually, it wasn’t strange in my world; I study journalists with a knack for integrating new digital media strategies alongside their hardened routines with the level of intense scrutiny you might give to fantasy sports team picks (I would have drafted Steve Long ago). Surprisingly to me, Steve didn’t, nor does he now, not even in the least bit, think about grand strategy. He is driven to write by visceral experience and emotional reward, a refreshing and wholly palatable outlook on regular digital media content creation. This week I was fortunate to have spent three hours in Oakland with Steve, over a latte I wish hadn’t ended, to better understand what makes him tick.
Steve was furiously posting 5x a week at SteveHeimoff.com (admittedly only missing three daily deadlines since 2008, two from hangovers) for an entire year by the time I launched WineZag in May of 2009. It is one of the few blogs I try to read every day. He has something relevant to offer in as authentic and consistent a voice as any. It has become a key read and go-to destination for the California wine trade to tee up their points of view in response to Steve’s volleys. I asked him how many posts he’s published and he told me to do the math; the fact is he does not keep track. Audience size and numbers do not drive Steve. He writes because for him “it’s like sex.” Enough said?
With one of the most popular blogs in the entire wine blogosphere, Steve only has the vaguest idea of who his readers are, where they come from, what his most popular search terms are, or how many real subscribers he has. He’s not even certain what an RSS feed is. I don’t mention any of this to malign him, nor to point out any inadequacies. It’s just contextually interesting how focused so many wine bloggers are on facilitating measurable outcomes from their blogging, and how little Steve cares about anything other than engagement around two things he is most passionate about; wine and journalism. Steve curiously and good spiritedly chided a very high profile blogger, who I won’t mention here, that told him his ultimate goal was to build an asset so Rupert Murdoch could buy it for $1M. The curious part, for Steve, was that it is something he never thought about, could not fathom, nor understood anything about the aspects nor prospects of structuring such a deal.
A couple weeks ago I published a round-up post on Tom Wark’s, Steve Heimoff’s, and Alder Yarrow’s recent thoughts on the wine blogosphere called Wine Blog Confessions. Tom left a comment underscoring the vast variety of reasons people start their blogs, and that when he started Fermentation he “simply wanted a venue to express ideas and thoughts about my industry and try to start conversations. This turned out to be good for my business as a wine publicist and marketer. Interestingly, I had no idea that would be one of the outcomes of me mouthing off in a blog. Who knew?”
Fascinatingly, Steve struggles to talk demonstratively about the benefits SteveHeimoff.com offers his personal brand or other aspects of his career. His brain just isn’t wired that way, so I will speak for him. His value to the Wine Enthusiast has increased exponentially from his blogging…On a personal note, I never paid attention to Steve before I found his blog. Now, I read the Wine Enthusiast to understand more about his perspectives and dual approach to covering California wine and its community.
Having watched Steve work the rigors of daily blogging alongside a non-trivial traditional journalism job for the last three years, I just assumed he figured out ways to save time and create efficiencies between the blog and magazine content creation. No such thing. Steve does not plan his blog topics in advance the way structured calendars are organized at the Wine Enthusiast. Surrendering all research and planning advantages that other working journalists will leverage across multiple related assignments, Steve just hopes he is “lucky and the gods deliver the topic the day before. Otherwise I have until 8am, filled with the anxiety associated with the need to push the publish button.
So why does somebody like Steve Heimoff, cemented as a welcomed and authoritative wine critic in the California wine community submit himself to the hard work of blogging? According to Steve, “because I love it. I am writing about what I want to write about. In a life that can sometimes be hard and cruel, it is a warm safety net. It isn’t about search engines and traffic, it is just the opposite for me. It’s something that I can get emotional about, it is simply a source of great joy.” Hardly sounds like the cunning independent journalist that took to the internet to capture his share of mind, propel his personal brand, or for any other business reason you might think of.
While I was disappointed I didn’t find the agenda driven and tactical journalist I thought I might, I was buoyed by the depth of human decency I discovered instead. This was not the Steve Heimoff I expected to meet. Was this the barking Democrat, instigative blogger, and opinionated writer I followed for so long? I always knew him from his writing as a man to speak his mind and then stand by it, never to be pushed around. His positions are firm, sometimes curious, but always firmly defended when attacked. His voice always reflects confidence and strength. But in the end, he is just a grown boy from the boroughs of New York City like me; a place you learn to work with emotion, value human engagement, and defend your turf with whatever force is required. Next, I will share a brief Q&A from more of my conversation with Steve on blogging and journalism.
This article, from a South African wine website, says how the South African National Wine Show Association (of which the U.S. or California does not seem to have an equivalent) came up with a new contest, the Young Wine Writers Competition, “to enhance the art and importance of high quality wine journalism.”
I wish we in the States could do the same thing. It is true that we have the American Wine Blog Awards, which has its place, and has become (by virtue of being the first and only) the most important wine competition in the country. But that particular contest does nothing to enhance “high quality wine journalism.” That is its chief failure.
In order to avoid this failure, the South African Young Wine Writers Competition has two rigorous rules:
1. Writers must submit “an 800 word article…on one of the following subjects: (a) the role of wine in everyday life OR (b) describe the difference between wines to be enjoyed as ‘quaffers’ and wines that do justice to certain cuisines.”
2. Submit “a blog post of 300 words about the most unusual wine the writer has ever tasted.”
What great challenges for young writers! I wonder how many of today’s American wine bloggers, including some of the most famous, have ever written 800 words on an assigned topic–long-form journalism that requires critical thinking and writing skills, as opposed to a 140-character tweet or slapdash blog post? Such a test in extended writing is more in line with competitions like the Master Sommelier or Master of Wine than the Wine Blog Awards, where a popular vote weighs heavily in the results.
If you have to write 800 words on a topic that will be judged by professional writers, they’d better be 800 pretty good words! For that matter, try writing 1500 words or 2000 words on a specific topic–or a book that’s not some piece of junk no one will care about 15 minutes from now. Those things require journalism, and underlie a wine writer’s true worth.
Good writing consists of correct grammar and syntax, complex layering of sentences and paragraphs, a gradual buildup of tension until the final point has been achieved, and, of course, a tantalizing introduction (to stimulate people to continue reading) and a satisfying conclusion. All that, in addition to a mastery of the subject matter, and having an actual point to make! The trouble with the quick and dirty style of blog writing is that all too often it seems pointless–mere observations or scattered impressions, thrown willy-nilly onto the page, with no organization or intellectual point of view worth the reader’s attention.
Wine journalism, like all journalism, is important only if it maintains high standards of integrity, knowledgeability, factual accuracy and educational value. Yes, there’s a place for lighter-style writing a la People Magazine, but would we ever want People to replace a real newspaper or professional broadcast news program? I don’t think so. For the wine industry and culture, professional wine journalism has been its bloodstream for two centuries, maybe longer depending on how you measure it. With the advent on online writing–its ease and availability for everyone to instantaneously publish to the world–the quality of wine writing has been sinking. How many wine blogs can you say engage in authentic journalism?
So kudos to the South Africans. They at least understand the importance of longer-form writing. Is there some way we can come up with a similar competition here in America, or in California? I’d be willing to lend a hand to its organizing.