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Wine writer? Historian? Blogger? All the above–and more

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When Merry Edwards asked me to introduce her at her induction Feb. 18 for the Vintners Hall of Fame, my first question was “Why me?” I was obviously honored, but really had no idea why Merry selected yours truly.

Her reply: “Because you’re an historian.”

Well, my reaction was, “I’m a wine critic.” I didn’t say that, but the thought instantly rose in my head. Somehow, Merry calling me “an historian” seemed to cast my role as a wine critic into a secondary light. And I take being a wine critic very seriously: rating and reviewing wine is the essence of what I do for a living.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized how silly that thought was. After all, Merry knows me, not just as someone who reviews her wines, but as the author of A Wine Journey along the Russian River and New Classic Winemakers of California, in which she has her own chapter. So to Merry, I’m as much an historian as I am a critic.

And then it occurred to me: Why do we pigeonhole ourselves into categories anyway? Critic–historian–writer–journalist–blogger–these are all part and parcel of what I do. They’re just words for the totality of my love for, and interest in, wine and writing.

Actually, in terms of which came first, Merry’s right: I was an historian of wine well before I was a wine critic. I mean, in the sense that I’d made reading about the history of wine a consuming interest in my life by the late 1970s, ten years before I was ever paid to write about wine. I’m glad that, by the time I took wine writing on as a career, I’d built up a very extensive knowledge of wine history through the reading of books. That gave me a basis later on for making qualitative judgments about wine. I was able to understand that wine is (among other things) a hierarchy. There is nothing fundamentally democratic about wine, other than the fact that anyone can drink it. (Thank goodness.) Wine always has been about elitism: if you were wealthy you could afford to drink better wine than a poor man, because it costs money to produce a quality wine. It did when the Caesars had their favorites (which presumably few others could buy), and it still does. In fact, the history of Western civilization can largely be told through the spread of wine from its ancestral homeland somewhere in the Caucasus up the river valleys of Europe and, thence, to the New World.

It frightens me to think that there probably are wine “critics” out there right now–blogging away–who don’t possess a single good book on wine. Worse yet: it frightens me that there are wine writers whose chief resource is Google. I can’t imagine anything more contrary to the spirit of wine to have someone send you a sample of, say, a Muscadet, and then Google it in order to know what you’re drinking. This isn’t because there’s anything fundamentally wrong with a quick Internet search. I use Google all the time. But I use my library more. Why is a real library “better” (in every sense I can think of) than Google? Because I have inhaled my wine books until their information informs my DNA like genetic code. The patient acquisition of detailed knowledge, lovingly and painstakingly assembled over many years, can’t possibly be compared to a quick Google search. That is an insult to all great wine writers, living or dead.

And so I gratefully acceded to Merry’s request. To put her contributions in wine into historical perspective (and let us hope Merry’s career extends as far forward into the future as it does into the past), one must know the history, not only of California wine, but of world wine in general. One must understand, also, how Merry sees her own place in history (which is the purpose of the pre-interview). The history of wine involves elements from almost every aspect of human study, from anthropology to chemistry to religion to gender studies. It’s so much more than “Here’s what I think.”


Bloggers and wineries: strange bedfellows

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READERS: I return from New York today and will resume new posts tomorrow. This is a repeat posting from Nov. 2008.

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WineDiverGirl is a California blogger who specializes in (as her blog says) “Wine Life and Social Media Coverage.” As such, she’s passionate about the convergence of the wine industry and social media, and writes provocative posts on how wineries and bloggers might work in tandem to help the industry move forward.

I’m all in favor of that, but the question is what, precisely, ought to be the relationship between bloggers and wineries. Last summer, in the Rockaway-gate dustup, I called for bloggers to keep their distance from wineries. When a reporter/critic gets too close to her subject, there’s too great a chance for a conflict of interest or, at least, the appearance of one. I recognized, at the height of the tempest, that it’s flattering for a blogger to be given special treatment by a winery, but it’s vital to resist the temptation to succumb to flattery. Wineries don’t love critics because we’re warm and fuzzy. They pretend to love us because we can help, or hurt, them economically.

Well, in her latest post, WineDiverGirl says she’s “looking for all the ways wineries and bloggers are currently connected (if at all) and new and improved ways for them to evangelize the beautiful power of wine.” She offers a number of ways for bloggers and wineries to work together, nearly all of which are wrong-headed and, in some instances, dangerous. Here are her suggestions:

1. “Host a guest blogger for a month: either pay them or the charity of their choice for them to write about your winery, winemaker, wine, vineyards, etc.” Can we agree that this is a terrible idea? If a winery pays a blogger, then that blogger can have no credibility whatsoever about anything he writes concerning the winery. Even if the winery donates money to the blogger’s favorite charity, it suggests a quid pro quo that makes the blogger suspect. If a winery wants to boast online about how great it is, it can start its own blog.

2. “[S]ponsor or offer scholarships to various wine tasting events to help bloggers get there.” Now, this isn’t as bad as #1. Wine writers are notoriously underpaid and sometimes it’s necessary to accept some help to cover travel expenses. I’ve done it. But as a rule, having your expenses paid by a winery is a bad idea. It’s better for a regional winery association to pick up the tab, so that you’re not perceived to be beholden to anyone in particular.

3. “Host a guest blogger to pour in your tasting room for a day.” This is bizarre. A tasting room staffer should know all about the winery, its wines and vineyards, its owners and winemaker, the area in question, wine in general, and so on. Why would a winery be interested in having a blogger be its public face in the tasting room, unless it expected to get some good publicity — which brings us back to the conflict of interest issue.

4. “Include bloggers in focused research or think-tank like conversations about planning your year, events, marketing.” Bloggers are now supposed to be marketing managers and event planners for wineries? I don’t think so. This crosses so many red lines, it’s hard to know where to begin.

WineDiverGirl concludes by reassuring wineries that bloggers “know consumers better than almost anyone…because they are the wine industry’s BEST consumers.” I would have thought the industry’s best consumers are ordinary working women and men looking to drink a nice glass of wine for dinner.

“What do you think?” WineDiverGirl asks. “How do you see wineries and bloggers working together for everyone’s benefit?” With all due respect to WineDiverGirl, who means well, I don’t see wineries and bloggers working together, if “together” means becoming strange bedfellows. Bloggers should be very careful about getting mixed up in the business of wineries, and wineries should be very careful about trying to influence the independent blogosphere.

 


Whose blogs are relevant?

32 comments

READERS: Here’s another blast from the past, originally published late in 2008. I’ll resume regular posting when I come back from New York, this Friday.

* * *

I had coffee yesterday with M., a highly regarded North Coast winemaker (actually, he had tea) who’s been in the business for a long time. What did we talk about? Blogs, of course. I wanted to know how he (and, by extension, his winemaker colleagues) view wine blogs, and did he think they hold value for him in publicizing his brands.

Yes, M. replied, but… There’s always a “but.” M. put it this way: In determining the value of any particular blog, he wanted to know if it was relevant.

Hmm, I wondered. How do you determine if a blog is relevant? So it was a bit of serendipity this morning to surf through my usual morning mush of blogs and stumble across this one from Caveman Wines, which asks the question, “How do we as wine PR professionals determine which wine bloggers are legitimate or not?” To answer that, the blogger, Michael Wangbickler, a P.R., account manager at Balzac Communications, turned to a guy named Kevin Palmer, who runs an outfit called Social Media Answers. According to Caveman, Palmer came up with a list of 5 metrics by which he measures the value of a blog. Quote:

1. Alexa/Compete – Good for painting a general picture of the strength of traffic to their blog.
2. Quantcast – Most won’t have the tag installed necessary to register with Quantcast. Those that do may be a little more serious about their blogging.
3. Age of blogs – There is high turnover on blogs. An older blog may indicate that the blogger is here to stay.
4. Average Number of posts per month – The more frequently a blogger posts, the greater likelihood that their audience will be larger.
5. Other Social Media channels – Does the blogger have a good following on Facebook, Twitter, etc.? It may indicate that their readership is larger than implied by visits to the blog.

By this method, Caveman writes, he can figure out whom to send review bottles to, because “We can’t just send wine samples to every Tom, Dick, and Harry who happens to say they have a blog.”

I can’t quibble with Palmer’s 5 metrics, although I believe there are additional ways to evaluate a successful blog: the blogger’s breadth of knowledge and experience; number of visits; demographics of the blog’s readership; the blogger’s reputation in the industry (although not all of these are readily quantifiable). I agree with Palmer’s conclusion, taken from his website, that wine blogging currently “seems really fractured and disorganized.” Palmer referred to a Twitter discussion that gave him the feeling “that a lot of bloggers weren’t being respected or included by wineries or PR people. They felt slighted, a little angry” at not being sent samples and not getting invited to events. Well, that gets me back to my conversation with M. With 1,000 wine blogs out there, there’s no reason why a winery should reach out to every one of them. As M. said, he’s happy to play ball with a blog, as long as it’s relevant. Turns out, he couldn’t really define what makes a blog relevant; he just had a feeling which ones are and which ones aren’t.

Blog relevance may be difficult to precisely measure, but, to misquote the late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, you know it when you see it.


Happy birthday to you, Vinography!

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I want to congratulate Alder Yarrow and his Vinography blog on the occasion of its ninth birthday. That’s quite an achievement—to keep a blog going for that long. (By contrast, my blog is only 4-1/2 years old.)

When Alder started blogging, the concept of “the wine blog” must have been practically non-existent. I certainly never heard of blogs until around 2005-2006, when I was asked by Wine Enthusiast to write an article about them. I looked into the matter and found a bunch of silly, amateurish drivel—with an oasis here and there, among which Vinography was one. (Another was Tom Wark’s Fermentation and Jo Diaz’s Juicy Tales.

These early blogs changed the face of wine writing, of the way readers communicate with writers, and and of how wineries reach out to critics. In the old days, everything was top down: wealthy publishers owned print publications, hired writers to (more or less) hew to their philosophies, and the only way readers had of becoming part of the process was to write a letter to the editor that might or might not get published in 4 months. Not exactly the stuff of dialogue.

Now, through platforms like WordPress, bloggers can self-publish, without interference or influence from anyone except their own conscience. Readers have the opportunity for instant feedback (in my own case, once I’ve approved your first comment, all subsequent comments are published as soon as you send them in. No censorship on my part). This fundamentally changes the way wine writers operate.

For instance, it puts our activities under a magnifying glass—or maybe an electron microscope is the better analogy. I’ve been forced by my readers to explain every aspect of everything I do related to my job—to my pleasure, I might add. In this respect, blogging has demystified wine to a greater extent than ever before. By its very nature, blogging echoes wine’s essence: sharing, communication, involvement, collectivity.

The one thing neither Alder Yarrow, nor any other blogger, has yet figured out how to do is to make their blog profitable. This isn’t their fault: it’s an inherent limitation of the entire social media sphere, which simply doesn’t seem to lend itself to pecuniary purposes. This could change someday, but it’s hard to imagine. If smart people–and Alder, who lives in San Francisco and whom I know, is smart—can’t figure out how to take all their visibility and renown and translate it into dollars, then it may not be possible.

Which leads to the question, why continue to blog? Alder himself answered it: “Frankly there are probably better things to do with my time, but I enjoy it so much, and a large part of that enjoyment is knowing that other folks find it useful, entertaining, or simply just a reasonable way to pass the time.”

This may be hard for some people to believe, because they, themselves, have little inclination in their own lives to do anything for altruistic purposes. For some people, it’s all about the scramble for money, power, prestige. They miss out on the simple pleasure of doing something nice for others, without demanding to be compensated. Very sad.

I think that’s the best thing about the wine blogosphere as it is today. It’s really a very pure space. Not everybody’s blog is worth reading, and not every post on each blog that is worth reading is particularly insightful. But wine blogs have become the global village McLuhan envisioned decades ago, a place where everyone is more or less equal, where decisions are taken collectively, and where understanding is shared by the group in truly democratic fashion.

So thank you, Alder, for starting Vinography, and for helping usher in a great era!


Social media can be retail AND real

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“2013 will be the year that big brands and advertisers can finally expect to start making money from social media sites,” is the hopeful prediction of a company, Millward Brown, an international advertising and marketing company specializing in “brand equity.

They say there’s been a big psychological turnaround in how we use social media. “[S]hoppers are now not only open to being targeted through intelligent digital advertising, they expect it.”

Really? I suppose I do “expect” to get pitched 24/7 to buy stuff, by telemarketers on my phone, by ads on Facebook, and everywhere. I also “expect” to occasionally step in doggie doo-doo after some idiot doesn’t clean up after his/her mutt. But that doesn’t mean I like it!

And what does “open to being targeted” mean, anyway? Do we have a choice in the matter of how Facebook figures out what to advertise on our pages? Nobody asked me for permission to search through everything I do on the Internet and then decide what I’m in the mood to buy. I’m not “open” to (in Millward’s words) “new, richer advertising opportunities,” they’re being foisted on me by forces against my will. The word “open” therefore is bunk, although Millward did get it right with that word, “targeted,” as in seeing us Facebook users through the crosshairs on a rifle.

They have a newish term for the marriage of “retail” and “social media” and it’s called, appropriately enough, “retail social media.” Sounds like an oxymoron to me. Check out the colorful graphic on this site that purports to explain how “community hubs – conduits for people with similar interests to gather” – such as Facebook – can now be used as digital billboards. In the graphic, you see symbols for the following conceptual parts: Staff, HR, Marketing, Operations, Merchandising, Products, Events, Stores, Tactics, Analytics, Strategy, and Business Goals, with arrows showing how all these moving parts are interrelated. But nowhere in the graphic will you see the Facebook user—you and me, the human being at the center of the whole thing. That’s because, from a “retail social media” perspective, the human being has ceased to exist. Instead, there’s only a transactional purchaser with a credit card, a demographic, a, yes, customer whose exclusive function is to buy.

Mind you, I’m not against advertising on websites, per se. I understand that the people who work to give us a free Internet have to make a living. Zuckerberg isn’t doing this for charity. We’re free to ignore the ads if we want to, which is exactly what I do. I’m just increasingly concerned that advertising is going to move from something on the fringes of our social media to something dominant.

It’s sad for me, as a lover of social media, to see it getting hijacked in this way. I guess it was inevitable. But I wonder how the heart of social media—the free, communal spirit in which it has thrived up until now—will survive this assault by the forces of marketing, which are so antithetical to authenticity, transparency and sharing—the traditional pillars of the social use of the Internet. I said as much in my remarks a couple of weeks ago at U.C. Davis’s class on P.R. and Social Media for Small Wineries, although some people didn’t want to hear it.

You know how wine geeks talk about the “True” Sonoma Coast, as opposed to the formal AVA? I see social media the same way. There’s “true” social media in which individual, real people express themselves to other real people and engage in dialog. Then there’s “formal” social media, something that looks and behaves like “true” social media, but isn’t. Instead, it’s a Trojan horse designed to trick people. It’s probably asking too much for big corporations to be authentic (although they can pay people to make them appear to be authentic). But authenticity is what small family wineries do best. I hear over and over again from them that they don’t have the time to do social media, or they don’t know what to say. I tell them over and over again: You do have the time. Facebooking or tweeting only takes a few seconds. As for what to say, Say whatever is real at the time you’re saying it. “Hated to get out of bed this morning cuz it was freezing, but needed get out into the vineyard.” That’s real and authentic and interesting.


Wall St. Journal got lots wrong in their Wine Advocate/Parker reporting

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13 tweets and counting in the last 24 hours from Robert M. Parker, most of them seemingly designed to correct statements made by Lettie Teague, of the Wall Street Journal, in her article about “The Big Shake-Up” at the Wine Advocate.

Lettie apparently got so much wrong that Bob felt the need to correct the record as fast as he could, before the misinformation becomes embedded into popular consciousness (as these things tend to; even the New York Times’ Eric Asimov passed along some of Teague’s incorrect information).

Lettie: “the fiercely independent publication…will start accepting advertising, though none that is wine-related.”

Parker: “The Wine Advocate print edition will never take on ads.”

Lettie: “The company’s headquarters, an office just down the driveway from Mr. Parker’s home in Maryland farm country, is also moving to Singapore.”

Parker: “headquarters REMAINS [sic] in Monkton but a second office…in Singapore.”

Lettie: “Mr. Parker said the print version might disappear before the end of 2013…”

Parker: “no plans to eliminate the print edition…”

If Bob’s tweets have an air of weariness about them, it’s understandable. He even provided a link to a report on his sale of the Wine Advocate in Bloomberg News, which he apparently feels is more accurate. The Bloomberg reporter pointed out that the facts “contradicted a Wall Street Journal story, which said the Wine Advocate may phase out its print version by the end of 2013.”

In so many respects this story has been blown out of proportion, not just in the Wall Street Journal and other popular media but especially on the wine blogs, which are going nutso. Not much has really changed at Wine Advocate nor do I expect much to change anytime soon. Parker will “continue to focus [as he tweeted] on Bordeaux, Rhone, retros of CA & the big picture…”, just as he does now. My take: good for him. He’s worked his tail off for decades and now deserves whatever he got.

Far more interesting, to my way of thinking, is this paraphrase, from The Drinks Business, concerning Wine Advocate’s new editor-in-chief, Lisa Perrotti-Brown: She “hopes [the move] will give her more control over wine reviews.” Granted, this wasn’t a direct quote, but we have to imagine Perrotti-Brown said something to that effect. Will the current writers, including Antonio Galloni here in California, be content to “become full-time employees of The Wine Advocate, rather than independent contractors,” as The Drinks Business article said? And what does “more control over wine reviews” mean anyway? Danger, danger, when management says they want more control. Parker’s correspondents have some deep thinking to do: report now to a bunch of Singapore businessmen via Perrotti-Brown and lose the freedom of being an indie contractor? Risk being told their reviews need, uhh, editing? Or hold onto their ethics and lose their precious positions as writers for Wine Advocate, with all the perks it brings? As an indie myself, I can tell you these are difficult decisions for a writer to make.


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