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Beyond blogging: Teaching real journalism to younger wine writers

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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.


A note to new readers, and old ones too

14 comments

 

With readership of my blog exploding, I thought this would be a good time to let newcomers know a little more about me and my background.

First, some numbers. (All of the following statistics are reported by my web host, Newtek Web Hosting, a company I’m very happy with. I know that their numbers vary, sometimes significantly, from numbers reported by other third party sources that purport to count metrics (such as Google). I’ve never been able to account for these discrepancies. Maybe some smart tech-oriented person out there can explain it to me!)

– Over the past year, daily visits to my blog have risen from around 4,000-5,000 to 7,000-12,000 and occasionally as high as 14,000.

– In the same time period, monthly unique visitors have gone from around 55,000 to 135,000, and continue to rise.

– My readers also are increasingly international. While 61% of page views are from the U.S., the remainder are mainly from, in descending order, China, Brazil, the Ukraine, France, the United Kingdom, Russia, Germany and Canada.

 

Following my recent nomination for Best Overall Wine Blog, I’ve been getting comments and private emails from lots of new visitors. It’s to them–to you–I’d like to introduce myself.

I began blogging in May, 2008, because I wanted to join this important new chorus of voices in a free, independent and dynamic format of communication. I had no idea how to blog, what to say or even if anyone would bother reading my blog. But I figured that if I could write strongly and honestly, people would like it. (“If you build it, they will come.”) I think I found my “voice” (as writers say) early on, and once I did, I became comfortable with it. I like to think that readers appreciate the opportunity to get inside my head in a way that may not be possible with other well-known wine writers who take a more ivory-tower approach and who may feel that being transparent and real somehow jeopardizes their reputations.

I don’t do wine reviewing here, because that’s what I do at Wine Enthusiast Magazine. There is no direct connection between my writing here and at the magazine. They don’t compete; each venue lets me express myself in a different way.

Longtime readers know that I fell in love with wine when I moved to the San Francisco Bay area to go to grad school in the late 1970s. I quickly became involved in the wine scene, which was largely an underground one: Even in San Francisco, wine was not as popular as it is now, and one had to seek out like-minded wine lovers. Very early on, I began hosting tasting seminars for friends and co-workers, and what I lacked in formal knowledge I more than made up for in passion. I learned a great deal from reading. Hugh Johnson, Michael Broadbent and Harry Waugh–all Brits–were my favorite writers. Their style (however you want to describe it) influenced my own, which I think of as formal yet relaxed, intimate yet thoughtful, friendly and non-intimidating–and certainly, well-written. I can sometimes bring in an element of good old American snark, a tendency I have to watch.

My “beat” at Wine Enthusiast is the California wine scene, mainly the coastal areas from Napa-Sonoma in the north down through the Central Coast to Santa Barbara. I have been stunned to watch the progress these regions have made, in the quality of their wines. It’s been tremendous to witness this over the last 20-plus years, and it remains a privilege today to visit these places and see so many hard-working, dedicated people determined to make their wines ever greater, even as a new generation supplants an older one.

I fell into blogging quite by accident, but in retrospect it’s one of the most wonderful things I could have done. The blogosphere and social media in general have exploded in recent years, and being part of this burgeoning revolutionary movement stimulates my intellectual and creative juices. I feel lucky to have one foot in this brave new world and another in the more traditional world of print journalism. I’ve never been one to believe it’s an either/or situation. I think print and digital can happily co-exist, and will co-exist alongside each other for many years. (It’s kind of like the way radio and T.V. co-exist. T.V. didn’t kill radio, like many predicted, any more than it killed the movies.) I don’t think paper is going away. A younger generation is discovering the joys of turning actual pages in the magazines they read, and there’s mounting evidence that the 24/7 addiction to all-things online is fading.

A big thanks to my readers, old and new. Every time someone tells me they start their day with coffee and steveheimoff.com, it feels like a blessing.


DTC, SEO and loyalty

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(This post was inspired by a “Viticulture Brief” that appeared in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat yesterday.)

My blog is just over five years old now, and what a crazy five years it’s been. In 2008 the wineries-and-social media arena was like the Wild West, filled with danger, opportunity, chaos, confusion, rattlesnakes and gunslingers. It was a bold proprietor who dared to jump in. Most held back, unsure of what to do, not wanting to make blunders. Like good businessmen, they preferred to let others blaze a path into terra incognita they could then follow.

Now it’s 2013. It would be sweet to say that the formula’s been figured out, but unfortunately, it hasn’t. There still is no template for wineries to trek the social media landscape–although social media consultants claim otherwise!

So what do we know now that we didn’t know in 2008?

In a way, nothing. The only difference is that what we knew then was obscure. Today, the outlines are clearer. We know for sure that direct-to-consumer (DTC) is just as important as we thought it was, and even more so for small wineries who find it hard to get distributed post-Recession. Whether it’s through a tasting room or a wine club, DTC remains the lifeline by which the family winery avoids being cast adrift and drowning.

We know, however, that DTC doesn’t happen all by itself but must be developed. There are several elements to this. One is for the consumer who’s Googling her way through the world wide web to come across your winery’s website. And not just come across it as, for instance, being #37 on a search result, but being one of the first hits, and having a provocative headline that will prompt the searcher to click on it.

For example, I just Googled “best Napa Valley Cabernet” and two of the first three hits are from me. (Yes, I was surprised, but not entirely.) Number one is an article I wrote for Wine Enthusiast, number two is Schrader’s website, and number three is a post from my blog.

Finding myself with such high visibility on such an important search topic is gratifying, of course; but the question for wineries is how they can do it. Schrader did; so did Robert Mondavi and Napa Cellars, albeit on page 2, and by the time we come to page 3, nobody’s reading anymore. This tells me that Napa Valley wineries are not doing a good job at search engine optimization.

Let’s suppose they were, through the usual tricks: Google+, key word use, extensive hyperlinks as well as linking all of your online presences to each other, and so on. But a key to landing in a top search result is frequency of online publishing. You can’t update your blog or website once a month and expect anyone to find it. It’s got to be everyday. That’s why people come back to steveheimoff.com Monday through Friday. They know they’ll always find something new (and not just some rehashed reviews).

This raises the issue of loyalty. Ask a brand manager what’s the best thing a brand can have and she’ll tell you customer loyalty. You can’t buy it (although it often money to establish). You can’t force the consumer to be loyal or do it with some gimmick. There’s magic how it happens. Jordan and Silver Oak have earned customer loyalty; their examples stand as inspirations to other wineries. This blog has earned reader loyalty. My readers never feel pandered to, or spoken down to (I would hope). They don’t get the feeling I slap-dashed some fast food together for them. Instead, they get something that appeals to their intelligence–they feel engaged. Engagement: that’s the soul of social media. Don’t talk at me, talk with me, and let me talk with you. Together, we’ll have a conversation.

Admittedly, it’s easier for me to have a conversation with readers than for a wine company. A company has too many levels of management. Everyone gets a veto; creativity is stifled in favor of white bread. But people don’t want mush; they want something substantial. Give them something real to chew on, and they’ll come back. Withhold it, and all the social media consultants in the world can’t help you.


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.

* * *

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?

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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.


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