It starts today. Although I’m not one of those FWCs (famous wine critics) anymore, the WBC people nonetheless invited me down to do a series of panels on wine writing, apparently because I’m still a wine writer! There are actually two related panels: One on the art of wine writing itself, and in the second, each of us panelists has been assigned to read 13 essays pre-submitted by WBC attendees, in order to critique them. I haven’t read my quota yet—will tomorrow (today, as you read this). Don’t know what to expect; heard from another panelist the submissions are pretty dreadful; hoping for the best.
I’m also moderating a panel sponsored by my employer, Jackson Family Wines, on “How the pros taste.” On that one, my co-panelists are Joe Roberts AKA 1WineDude and Patrick Comiskey, senior correspondent for Wine & Spirits Magazine. I’ve known Patrick for many years, mainly because he’s always at the same San Francisco tastings I am. I met Joe through this blogging gig, and I always thought, from the very beginning, that he was talented and weird enough to make it (yes, you have to be weird to be a successful wine writer). We’re going to explain to the audience how we taste. The particular wine I’m using is the Cambria 2012 Clone 4 Pinot Noir, an interesting wine that, in my opinion, shows off the qualities of Santa Maria Valley very nicely, and also illustrates the earthy, mushroomy quality of that clone, also called the Pommard clone, which so many people find “Burgundian.”
Well, you did ask. We’ll also be doing a blind tasting of a mystery wine.
My own feelings toward blind tasting are well known to readers of this blog over the years. At the magazine, I tasted single blind: I knew the general scope of the lineup (e.g. Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon) but not the individual wines. I believe in single-blind tasting. I want some context to the wines. It helps me frame, in my mind, what to expect. Also, because I’m tasting in flights of similar wines, single-blind tasting is a great way to compare and contrast the wines, which is how the scores are arrived at.
But there are many ways to taste. I don’t believe in wine writing for its own sake. I believe in getting paid to write about wine, because getting paid makes you a better writer. But each job is different, and mandates a different approach to tasting as well as writing. MWs like to taste double-blind; they don’t know where they’re going to end up working, so they have to have a wide knowledge of all the wines in the world, and double-blind tasting is a good way to get that. Many of them will end up working the floor of a fine dining establishment that may offer everything from Mount Etna to South Africa to Greece to Napa Valley, so the MW has to have her pulse on everything.
Other wine careerists will gravitate to different jobs. My own brought me to be a specialist in the wines of California. I’ve tasted 100,000-plus California wines over the last quarter-century and not that many wines from elsewhere. I try to get to international trade tastings as often as possible, but every employed wine person has to recognize his or her limitations. I wish I were stronger on international wines, but it is what it is. Parker probably wishes he was stronger on the wines of Italy; Laube probably wishes he was stronger on the Loire. You can’t be all things to all people because there’s only 24 hours in the day. Such is life.
So like I said, I believe in getting paid to write about wine, and not every job entails a worldwide knowledge of wine. My first panel at the Bloggers Conference, after all, is about wine writing, not tasting. Not all of these bloggers are going to end up working the floor of a restaurant. MWs may be able to double-blind identify a Ribera del Duero, but they may suck when it comes to writing, and writing, to me, is the essence of wine communication, especially if you’re reaching out to a wide audience, and especially if you’re trying to do the kind of writing I’m trying to do, which is great writing, memorable writing, writing that people like to read, not just now but for generations. That was my driving ambition with A Wine Journey along the Russian River. Sorry to sound self-serving, but I want that book to be read 100 years from now, not just make Eric Asimov’s next Christmas list and then disappear forever. So that’s what I mean when I say how you taste depends on your job. My job is to be a great wine writer (and a credible California taster), not the guy in the room who gets the gold medal for Best Identifier.
Still, I acknowledge that the times are different from when I started. Today, anyone and everyone in the wine biz seems to need some kind of diploma so they can put some letters after their last name. There’s a clamor for a certain kind of academic expertise that’s a product of our current career-driven environment. My friend Ron Washam, the Hosemaster of Wine, is famous (infamous?) for signing himself H.M.W., a conscious act of parody (but not sarcasm: Ron, as do I, recognizes the tremendous amount of work that goes into acquiring an M.S. or an M.W.). But he likes to poke fun at what he perceives as the snobbery that sometimes goes along with those titles. And I pretty much agree with The Hosemaster.
If I have one lesson to teach to the #WBC2014 participants, whether they’re in the writing breakout or the tasting breakout, it’s this: Be yourself. Learn your chops, yes; memorize the rainfall patterns in Beaujolais in 2009, if you want to, and be able to explain how all that acidity got into Pommard, if you have to: but ultimately, that won’t differentiate you from the pack—and the pack is growing bigger every day.
Here’s what you have to do to make a living these days: develop your own sense of style. The 21st century likes individuality. Develop your own way to describe wine. Be confident: you don’t have to slavishly adhere to anyone’s rules. You’d be amazed at the group-think mentality of the M.W. and M.S. communities., which gets boring even to them, believe me because I know what I’m talking about. Don’t be afraid to march to the beat of a different drummer. Extremely technical wine knowledge used to be the province of wine brokers only; it still is, but this time it’s brokers with many different sub-specialties. On the other hand are the poets, interpreters, chroniclers, historians, enthusiasts, balladeers, amateurs (in the Latin sense), dancers and diarists of wine; they know something above and beyond wine’s technical details . Who do we read, twenty, forty, sixty years after they wrote? The poets and romancers, not the lab technicians. I hope today’s bloggers never lose sight of that essential truth.
That’s the headline on a little article from Rachel Luxemburg, a “social media strategist” at Adobe, who defines the “So what? test” this way: “Ask yourself, ‘Is this something my fans / friends / followers are truly going to care about or will they shrug and say ‘So what?'”
The “So what? test” is something every blogger understands. Or, this blogger, anyway. I realized early on, when I started blogging more than six years ago, that no one would care about what I wrote, unless I gave them a guarantee of two things: (a) the writing would be as good as I could possibly make it, and (b) I’d change the post five times a week, so that people could look forward to something fresh Monday through Friday.
I knew that you can’t assume people will come to your site unless you offer them a reason to come—and to return on a regular basis. It’s hard work, and I knew that I’d better not even begin, unless I meant to follow up and do what had to be done. After all, I don’t want to do anything unless I can do it really well. That was my approach to karate when I studied it; it included being a professional wine writer and critic for 25 years, during which I deferred to no one; and so by extension I applied that same exacting standard to steveheimoff.com.
From a marketing point of view, the “So what? test” also is important for wineries. As I’ve written many times in the past, having a presence on social media, including blogs, is fine and dandy, but I would argue that my two criteria—good writing and frequent updates—mark the difference between mediocre, ho-hum social media, and social media that attracts eyeballs. People are busy; no one has the time to go to an online site that’s boring, with the same content it had yesterday, and last week, and last month, and—gasp!—last year. But we all know winery sites that are fossilized; they’re the walking dead, zombies that look alive but aren’t.
Rachel, the Adobe strategist, suggests three simple ways a social media site can attract viewers: is “what we’re sharing…actually interesting, useful, or just plain fun?” It doesn’t have to be all three. What’s interesting may not be useful, although what’s useful generally is of interest. And fun need not aspire to any standard higher than simply giving people a few moments of enjoyment. It’s not rocket science, this business of making online content “interesting, useful or just plain fun,” which makes it all the more surprising when you see how many wineries don’t seem capable of doing it.
Well, in fairness, a winery can’t do it, if there’s not somebody at the helm who cares about social media, and has the time and resources to pull it off. Again, not all wineries have such a person, and it’s a pity, because it doesn’t take a tremendous amount of time or effort to do it reasonably well. I think the uppermost thing to keep in mind, for a winery social media person, is to find a “voice” that’s natural, human and communicative. Too often, winery social media is written and managed by public relations people who—for all their positive virtues—aren’t always the best communicators. They tend to take refuge in hyperbole and clichés, thinking that giving a stale old marketing message will engage readers. Unfortunately, that’s not true. Today’s consumer has seen it all, heard it all, and isn’t in the mood for another commercial disguised as a conversation. They want to be engaged as intelligent adults. They have finely tuned B.S. meters that can detect falsity a mile away.
Social media has evolved a lot since I started blogging, but in some fundamental way, it has remained the same—and will continue to. The rules of authenticity, transparency and respect for your readers and viewers still apply.
I go to the 2014 Wine Bloggers Conference next month, for which we (the organizers and myself) already are deep in the planning stages. I’ll participate in three panels, and each requires a great deal of forethought in order to maximize the chances that the audiences will be happy they came, which is what we all want.
Aside and apart from, and perhaps above, those immediate considerations, I’ll be looking for any evidence concerning the State of the Blogosphere. Having been deeply involved in wine blogging since 2008 (late, by some standards, but six years after all is a pretty good tenure), I’m in some position to weigh in on blogging’s evolution. And it seems to me that things are a bit static.
We saw initially a great deal of excitement with wine blogs. In the period 2007-2009, not only was the wine blog a new, shiny toy, but traditional print journalism was going through its most arduous and tumultuous times in recent history, what with the recession and the subsequent loss of advertising experienced by so many magazines and newspapers. Thus, it sounded almost reasonable when wine bloggers pronounced that “Print is dead, long live wine blogging!”
I, myself, never bought into that theory. I was aware that (a) recessions, no matter how severe, never last forever and (b) as soon as the current recession was over, advertising would return, and print publications would be back on track. At the same time, it would have been unduly credulous for me, or anyone, to suppose that print periodicals would return to the robust health they had enjoyed for so long in the twentieth century. Change certainly was upon print—but of what kind, and how and when it would arrive, no one could say.
Here we are now, the recession having ended, print having bounced back, and the 2014 Wine Bloggers Conference upon us. My sense is that blogging has lost some steam. That heady rush of excitement of four and five years ago isn’t there anymore. We’ve seen some well-known blogs go by the wayside and some new ones pop up, while the mainstays (including this one) keep on keeping on. We ought at least to give credit to blogs like Vinography, Dr. Vino, Fermentation and 1WineDude for longevity, or perhaps “stick-to-it-tiveness” is a more apt description.
Yet with the recovery of print publications has come the corresponding diminution of the wine blog. It was inevitable; it is a zero-sum game, this business of writing about wine, for there are only so many eyeballs out there who care to read about wine, and they have only so many hours in the day in which to do so. Besides, one senses (dare I say it?) a certain fatigue in the wine blogosphere. So much of what was so captivating five years ago has now become, well, the online equivalent of vin ordinaire. Of course the newer blogs still have the sense of awesome discovery that budding wine aficienados have displayed always, but their readers, such as they are, may be forgiven for being less than thrilled by yet another recitation of Argentine values or the best wine to drink with pizza. (I might say the same thing about wine magazines. They endlessly run the same cycle of articles over and over and over. Next November it will be “what wine to drink for Thanksgiving.”) At the same time, winery proprietors must take the blogs into consideration, regardless of what they personally feel or think about them (and believe me, in many cases, it’s not much), because you never know whose blog will help you move product. So that is where we are: a strange place, no doubt, and one that is evolving.
It was against this conceptual backdrop that I read that “Making an emotional connection with consumers, and creating personalized, shareable and useful content, is vital to selling wine.” This was the conclusion of “experts from major wine retailers” who gathered at the recent London Wine Fair, as reported in Harper’s.
Blogging would seem perfectly positioned to express “personalized, shareable and useful content.” Blogging is, by its very nature, personalized, in the sense that there is real connectivity, almost intimacy, between blogger and reader, the way there isn’t in print. This is especially true when readers can instantly comment on a blog, which certainly isn’t the case with a magazine or newspaper. I write Letters to the Editor of the San Francisco Chronicle with some frequency, but 95% of them never are published, which distances me from the paper and makes me wonder if my opinions are truly valued. Not so at many blogs; you can comment on steveheimoff.com, and your comment will instantly go up, with no prior approval from me, as long as I’ve previously approved a first comment from your computer. That is truly personalized service, and shareable, too. (I leave it to my readers to decide if my content is “useful.”)
But blogging has not yet achieved the gravitas of newspapers or magazines. Perhaps it’s that very personalized, easy-breezy quality that makes a blog feel like, well, just a blog—a fancy email–while a newspaper or magazine has the weight of authority and tradition and all the labor and costs that go into the production process. That may never change; the low bar to entry works against taking individual blogs too seriously, or investing your energy into them (not to mention your money). Still, I have to say that wine blogs have been the most innovative development in wine writing of the 21st century.
At any rate, that’s the view from where I sit!
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.