The San Francisco Chronicle’s restaurant critic, Michael Bauer, got some heat from his readers in the “comments” section of his blog yesterday after he [Michael] trash-talked a restaurant for selling him a bad bottle of wine at an inflated price.
The wine was a Portuguese rosé that Michael paid $30 for. “I suspect[ed] the bottle was corked,” Michael wrote, explaining that he didn’t return it because, as the most famous restaurant critic in Northern California, he didn’t want to draw attention to himself.
It wasn’t just the bad wine that irked him, it was the service. Waitstaff didn’t even put wine glasses on the table, only “small drinking glasses.” Moreover, “The staff didn’t seem to know anything about wine.” (It should be noted that the restaurant, Mau, is a Vietnamese restaurant, in the red-hot Valencia Corridor of the city’s Mission District, so maybe you have to cut them some slack.) As for the $30 tab, Michael had a friend do some calculating and determined that the restaurant paid about $6.90 a bottle, meaning they marked it up more than four times, which he called “gouging.”
Michael was clearly irked and in ranting mode, and some readers called him out on it. One wrote, “Here is a simple solution Bauer, if you don’t like the pricing at a restuarant DON”T eat there.” Another: “There’s a simple solution to this. Stop wining.” And: “There are people homeless in New Jersey and Staten Island and this guy is fuming over a bottle of Rose instead?” and: “This just goes to show that Bauer either has never worked the books at a restaurant or is bad at writing.” And: “O cry me a river. As a poster mentioned earlier, we don’t see anybody publishing articles about the mark up of popcorn in a movie theater.” And: “You suspected the wine was corked but didn’t send it back? I don’t see how being a reviewer affects the correct behavior in this case.” And: “If you are worried about saving money get a case of cheap Zin at Trader Joes and order a pizza to eat at home.”
Okay, so maybe Michael brought some of this snarkiness on himself. He was in a bad mood, he was venting, and this wasn’t his printed column in the newspaper, it was his blog, where immediacy and emotional transparency come easier and are more appropriate to the medium than in a print publication. But let me tell you, as a critic myself, sometimes you need to rant, and I’ll explain why.
It wasn’t just Michael’s experience at Mau that so distressed him. He’s had that same experience scores, if not hundreds of times, over many years, at many restaurants. Mau just tipped him over the edge. It happens. You see a dereliction of duty and, recalling too many such, you lose your temper and let ‘er rip. Now, you can argue that a critic should always be evenly-tempered and sweet in disposition, and you might be theoretically correct, but that’s not reality. Critics have very high standards of ethical behavior–Michael for restaurants, me for wineries. We bring that high moral code to the industries we report on, and even though we know we’re supposed to remain balanced, sometimes the violations just get to you. You think, These people are idiots. They don’t deserve to be in business! You want and need to get it out of your system–to cleanse yourself–to rant.
As for the snarky comments, I get a lot of those myself, as some of my readers know. They don’t bother me, as I’m sure Michael isn’t bothered, either. Both of us know, before we hit that “publish” button, that we’re going to get snark, and the stronger we feel about something, the more snark we get. It goes with the territory. But intensity, two-way communication, passion, opinionating, strong expression of feeling, even snark–they’re all part of the blogging experience. I’m glad. Readers have been used to being on the receiving end of a one-way communication for a long time, and now that they have the ability to respond, they take full advantage of it.
Joe began his post with “I hate this debate.” I hate it too, young Jedi dude. I really do. It’s the dumbest debate in the world, for the most obvious reasons: it’s not really a debate, nobody really disagrees with anyone else, nobody’s defining terms, and besides, who cares?
Yet like a moth to a flame, or maybe a rubbernecker gaping at a horrendous auto accident, I’m drawn to the flame, to the hideousness of the issue. Joe argues, correctly, that wine blogs are more popular than ever, to judge by the numbers.
But what did Jamie really say? “[T]he golden age of blogging has passed…blogs have never really fulfilled their promise…”. I’m afraid I have some questions for Jamie. How do you define “the golden age” of blogs, or of anything, for that matter? When was the golden age of rock and roll? The Fifties? Sixties? Seventies? Now? A case could be made for any decade. I think a lot more time is going to have to go by before we can define wine blogging’s golden age. As for blogs not fufilling their promise, well, you’d have to say what that promise was before you can declare whether or not it’s been fulfilled. So let’s take a closer look at that.
To the extent there was an implied promise about wine blogs around 2008 (when I started, a relative latecomer to the game), it was this: Print is dead or soon will be. Blogs will take over the field of wine criticism and writing. Of course, that was a silly proposition. Print certainly was suffering, but it wasn’t because of wine blogs, it was because the Recession was killing the advertising upon which print depends. I said back then that print would bounce back when the Recession lightened, and that’s exactly what’s happening.
Implied in the premise, too, was the assumption that a younger generation would be getting all its information digitally, not on paper, but the big mistake the “Print is dead, long live blogs” people made was to assume that print publishing was static. It’s not. All the major print wine magazines are well into the process of going digital, and I doubt that there’s a wine blog in the entire world that can equal the traffic that any reputable wine magazine has. So I would tend to agree with Jamie that “blogs haven’t fulfilled their promise.” But that’s not to say they can’t. As Joe Roberts points out, wine blogging is “about Kindergarten age.” It’s just a pup. Give it time to grow up, and let’s see what it morphs into.
I do totally agree with Jamie that wine bloggers have an annoying habit of “lavishing praise on frankly mediocre wines just because the producer has thrown a blogger tasting, or is keen on social media and attends blogger conferences.” One of the reasons I have so little interest in the Wine Bloggers Conference anymore has to do with precisely that. On the other hand, most wine bloggers can only afford to taste the wines sent to them for free, which tend to be mediocre (not saying all are, and by the way “mediocre” doesn’t mean bad, it means “ordinary,” which is what most wines are).
And I also totally agree with Jamie that blogging is just one instrument in a suite that includes writing books, regular magazine contributions, public speaking and other forms of communication. Joe Roberts agrees with that, too, I’m sure, because it’s the career he’s trying to build. So really, on closer inspection, there’s not much daylight between Joe and Jamie.
It’s time to end these “debates” about whether wine blogging is dead, alive, on life support, growing, shrinking or whatever. It’s beginning to look like navel-gazing.
As social media migrates towards images and away from words, what are the implications for wineries?
We’ve all seen how the rise of photo sharing sites such as Instagram and Pinterest are the breakouts for 2012. I first noticed it earlier this year, when some of my young hip friends here in Oaktown, who really hadn’t been into social media very much (in fact, they took a disdainful attitude toward it, because everyone was doing it), fell hard and fast for photo sharing.
You always could put pictures up on Facebook and then of course YouTube’s been around for a while. But the visual aspect of Facebook seemed secondary to the written content, at least at first. People seemed to use it more for comments. But Facebook seems like it’s trending more toward images. Maybe it’s because, as time passes and Facebook users get more and more “friends,” it’s harder to keep up with a constantly shifting feed, so that we’re more likely, when scrolling through, to stop at an interesting photo than to actually read everybody’s posts (not to mention everyone else’s comments on the posts!).
And now we have Instagram and Pinterest. They seem to represent social media’s next frontier, which means, of course, that businesses (and the consultants who advise them) are eager to exploit the phenomenon. What does this shift toward the visual mean for companies, including wineries?
Well, if your company is selling something with visual appeal (designer fashions, handbags, wallpaper, hotels), it means you can advertise on a potentially huge scale for virtually no cost. That’s the point this article, from Fast Company, makes. “[A] picture really is worth a thousand words,” it says, pointing out that, “as humans became more pressed for time and content became more infinite…we are even skipping words altogether and moving towards more visual communication.”
I suppose that’s true, but we have to define the difference between humans casually interfacing through social media (including photo sharing sites), and the much more complex relationship between buyers and sellers. In the former, two people (who may or may not actually know each other) “share” an experience momentarily. For example, I may put up a cute photo of Gus. That’s usually bound to generate a bunch of “likes” and even a couple “Awww” comments. Nobody is going to take more than 5 seconds on a picture of Gus, though; they’re onto the next thing, and they don’t expect me to reply to their “like” or their comment. That’s the casual side of photo sharing.
But the buyer-seller relationship is vastly different. The seller isn’t simply putting something online casually, on the spur of the moment, because he thinks it’s interesting or cute or noteworthy. The seller is advertising, and his motive is to interest the buyer to reply, either by making a purchase at that time, or by remembering the brand, in the hope that the buyer will make a purchase at a later date.
In this, images can be powerful. If I’m looking for shoes, a hotel to stay at for my vacation, locally made bluejeans–anything at all that has a visual aspect to it–a picture really is worth 1,000 words. In fact I wouldn’t dream of making a hotel reservation without first checking pictures of the rooms, the restaurant, the beach. If they don’t have good pictures, they’re not getting my business.
Wineries, on the other hand, are not selling things with a visual component. Yes, the appearance of the bottle and label are important, and wineries are well advised to pay attention to them (most, in fact, do). But I don’t believe consumers are going to buy a bottle of wine based on the bottle’s appearance. So if we’re now “skipping words altogether,” then how can a winery possibly communicate its message? Consumers want information that can’t be provided in a photo: the cost, some knowledge of the wine’s back-story, its ownership, where the grapes are from, what kinds of foods does it go with, what does it taste like? In this, wine is data-driven, not image-driven. Consumers need information beyond what a photo, no matter how beautiful, can provide.
What they need, in order to close the deal, is assurance.
- that particular wine will improve their lives
- that particular wine will please and delight them and the people with whom they share it
- that particular wine has been approved by trustworthy people who have already had it and loved it
Without these forms of assurance, consumers are far less likely to buy things, especially something discretionary like a bottle of wine.
The end result is that, while it can’t hurt for wineries to jump on the photo sharing train, I don’t think this new shift to the visual is any more of a game changer for wineries than blogs, Twitter or Facebook have been. If the objective is sharing that leads to viral marketing, we have to face the fact that social media so far has been a disappointment for the wine industry. While there have been exceptions (Rodney Strong’s Rockaway project, A Really Goode Job), they’ve been transient in their effects. The wine industry has yet to find the killer app for social media. Let the search continue. And, please don’t call me a social media hater just because I point out the obvious!
is sitting through another panel on “how to monetize your wine blog.” It just happened again–it’s baack–at the recent Wine Bloggers Conference (which I did not attend).
Personally, I’d prefer to be covered in honey and eaten alive by red ants.
How do I know that the WBC monetization panel was boring if I wasn’t there? Because some things are knowable in themselves. I know the sun is shining someplace even though right now Oakland is covered in fog. I know that Jennifer Anniston’s marriage will not last, if it even happens. And I know that the topic of monetizing a wine blog is contentlessly bankrupt. There just isn’t anything more to be said about it, so let’s stop pretending it’s somehow worth an hour of anyone’s time.
Actually, I do have an inkling of what happened at the WBC monetization panel because the great Joe Roberts put up this video of what he said there. I watched and listened. Joe has been exploring the Terra Incognita of the monetization waters like Columbus sailing the ocean sea, in search of new worlds and new riches. He is going where no man has gone before (well, except for Gary Vaynerchuk). Joe’s advice, if I may be so bold as to summarize it, is two-fold: You can monetize your blog by taking advertising, but this will always be limited, because wine blogs will always have limited audiences and so the pay won’t be all that great.
Or you can “monetize yourself.” Now we get to the nugget of making money. ”Be your awesome self. People will start to call you. Producers will ask you to create content on their sites…The more unique your voice, the more likely you are to get those calls and get some of those gigs and charge a higher rate.” Let’s not forget speaking fees as well.
I call this the Paris Hilton or Kardashian phenomenon: Be famous for being famous. (Gary V. pioneered this too.) Your talent, such as it is, consists in the ability to become known. Then it builds on itself. Once you’re known, you become knowner. People call you up, not particularly for your wine expertise, but because they want you to tell them how you became famous, and so you build a lecture series based on…how to become known! Or how to use the tools of SEO to optimize traffic on your blog…which makes you even more known.
Well, this certainly wasn’t how wine writers got known in the past. But who am I to judge? We’re living in new times, which require, I’m told, new tools. I’m trying to master those tools myself. So I take my hat off to Joe Roberts. Really, I do. He said two years ago he was going to make it in this racket and he seems to be doing it. Well done, Joe.
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And speaking of social media, let’s headline this part:
Do you give more than you receive?
The key to success in the social media sphere, it turns out, is the same as it’s always been, from the Bible to the Golden Rule to the Beatles (“the love you take is equal to the love you make”):
His theory is that “authenticity”–that Holy Grail of social media–“comes more from giving, not getting.” If you’re just a consumer, feeding off other people’s tweets, posts and comments instead of giving your followers, readers and friends more content than you’re consuming, then you’ll never “get” social media or succeed at it.
I’ve been accused in certain circles of not “getting” social media, so this message hit me, and made me think. At first I was guilt-struck: Gee, maybe I am consuming more than I’m producing, which would make me a social media parasite.
But then I realized how much I’m actively tweeting–several times a day–and posting to Facebook–ditto–and then there’s this little blog (give ‘til it hurts), and I thought, Just how much more am I supposed to give?
Question: When it comes to social media, how do you know if you’re giving enough?
This is an unusual posting for me, and I did it only after thinking about it all weekend.
A little background: I got an email on Friday from Ron Washam, whom many of you know as The HoseMaster of Wine. In my opinion, and that of many others, his blog is one of the best. And in terms of satirical or parodic wine blogs, it has no peer. Ron’s alert eye catches every pretense and skewers it with laugh out loud mercilessness. He’s never mean or vindictive, though, so even when you’re the object of his parody–which I am with some frequency–you don’t take it personally.
Below is the email he sent me. I asked Ron for permission to run it, and he said sure, go ahead. He didn’t even mind if I mentioned the specific blogs he called “parade[s] of mindlessness.” But I decided to excise their names anyway. The “Poodle” to which Ron refers is a Wine Blog Awards nomination–which he, himself, was nominated for this year, for Best Writing. I hope he wins it; he should.
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So I was stupidly wandering around the wine blogosphere, stupefied at the seemingly endless parade of mindlessness, at [excised] and [excised] and [excised], and too many other hopeless destinations to mention, when I realized what an oasis in the midst of that intellectual desert your blog is. So I wanted to write you a brief fan letter. I know you get your fair share of hate mail. I certainly do. But it’s always a pleasure on that rare occasion someone sends a note of appreciation, so I thought I’d pass that gift along.
It’s criminal that you’re not nominated for a Poodle. I made a point of mentioning that if I do win, it’s less meaningful because people like you are not nominated. You engage people thoughtfully and with great generosity and openness. There’s very little of that in blog land. So much is self-indulgent and emptyheaded (some would say HoseMaster is), which I guess means the blogosphere perfectly mimics reality. Your writing is crisp and articulate, and your voice is strong and clear and reasoned. All of that gives me great pleasure. Thank you.
And thank you for putting up with my occasional japes. I learned a while ago only to aim at the top bloggers, not the ones who think they’re the top bloggers, and I consider you the best. Consequently, my HoseMaster persona feels obliged to go after you now and then. That you take it with grace and laughter speaks volumes about your character. You should see the crap hurled at me by lesser folk.
Anyhow, I appreciate what you do over at STEVE! I know how much work it is to do that five times a week. But to do it at your level, well, that’s an amazing accomplishment.
* * *
Ron’s right about me getting a lot of hate mail, not so much directly as nasty sniping in the social media sphere; and while I’ve learned to develop a thick skin, and have realized that my visibility makes me a target, still, it sometimes gets to me. I’m also used to never getting praised when I’ve done something right, and always being yelled at when someone thinks I’ve done something wrong. So Ron’s email, which came out of nowhere, really moved me. It practically made me weep.
I didn’t get nominated for a Poodle because I didn’t pimp myself out–beg my readers (on my blog, Facebook and Twitter) to vote for me. I’m not capable of such undignified groveling. If I cared more than I do about getting a Wine Blog Awards nomination, I’d have worked for it; but I don’t. I’ve been nominated twice. Enough is enough. Time to move on.
Lord only knows, few fields of human endeavor lend themselves more easily to satire than wine writing. The language is florid to the point of orchidaceous. Some wine writers take themselves far too seriously. The career ambitiousness that lards the wine blogosphere is embarrassing. Content is often mere fluff. Poseurs and posturers abound. Amateurism runs amok. Ron Washam sees all this, and sees through it, and satirizes it with wit, originality and intelligence. When we laugh at his writing, we do so because we recognize its truth, and sometimes, the ridiculousness we see is our own image, reflected back at us, in the mirror Ron holds up to our faces.
So thank you, Ron Washam, not just for the nice things you said about my blog, but for making us laugh.
Some readers asked me some questions yesterday. Here they are, with my answers.
“Would also be curious to hear how the editorial team takes into account the thought, ideas and trends coming out of the blogosphere.”
Tom: I can’t speak for the rest of the team, as these are personal decisions. Speaking for myself, I am not terribly influenced by other bloggers, except in the realm of ideas. For example, I learn from your blog and am often inspired to think about things that you discuss. I enjoy cruising other blogs looking for ideas and concepts that make me think, and perhaps to blog about here on my own blog. However, when it comes to wine reviews, very little of what bloggers write has any interest to me.
Tom Barras: “To what extent,if any, do you take into account what your several magazine competitors and wine journalists have been writing about?”
Tom: Again, it matters very little to me what other writers say about wines, in terms of their impesssions, criticisms, etc. Of course, it’s always nice when I stumble across a critic I respect whose opinions agree with mine! But I’ve been around long enough to understand that reasonable people can disagree. I do have certain writers, both online and in print, whom I follow with some regularity, just as I know there are writers who follow me with some regularity. But I hope they don’t base their opinions on what I say!
Cody Rasmussen: “Steve, I’d love to have you dedicate a whole blog post to the differences in taste among your fellow editors. It sounds as though a 93 point California cabernet for you might score no more than 89 points with Roger Voss? I find that very honest and interesting.”
Cody: This would indeed be a fantastic blog post! However in all honesty it’s not likely to happen, for the following reason: We live in different parts of the country—indeed, on different continents—and we do not often have the opportunity to taste together in a way that would allow for such direct comparisons, except in the most casual way: at a dinner, for example. However, we’ve worked as a team long enough for me to have a pretty good idea how our tastes differ. In general the Europeans prefer their table wines drier and more acidic, while I, with my California or “New World” palate, enjoy fruit and opulence. (That’s a tremendous generalization, and I could come up with dozens of exceptions, but still…). For example, last night, as I previously mentioned, we had the 2009 Ovid, which I scored quite highly. Most of the other editors would have scored it in the low 90s, which is a great but not a stupendously great score. They said it had an enormously attractive aroma and was upfront delicious, but disappointed them a little in terms of complexity and/or finish. Understood. But Mr. Voss, who you reference, liked it quite as much as I did and he, like me, felt it to merit a good long time in the cellar. Roger is the ultimate Bordeaux guy. I was surprised, and so were some of my fellow editors, that he thought as highly of the Ovid as he did. Just goes to show…
Rew Craig: “Why do wine writers so rarely allow someone to tweet or fb their writing? It spreads their name without asking my followers to go to the site and sort through everything.”
I replied briefly yesterday to Rew, but here’s a fuller reply. First of all, on my blog, it’s easy to tweet or Facebook it. I can’t speak to other bloggers. Most of the ones I read also make it easy to shoot them right onto Twitter or your Facebook page. So I don’t know if “so rarely” is a true description of the situation. The more interesting aspect of Rew’s comment concerns “spreading their name.” I have a couple things to say about that! I do think that a lot of ambitious bloggers use every trick in the book to spread their name. Buzz is good! In my judgment, one has to combine good taste with sound tactical thinking. It’s a little tacky when somebody is touting their blog all around the place. For example, when the period for Wine Blog Award nominations was open, I never mentioned it here, or on my Facebook or Twitter pages. I could have asked my thousands of readers, friends and followers to nominate me, and I’m sure many of them would have. But I didn’t, and so I didn’t get nominated. Would I have liked to? Sure. But not at the price of “Please vote for me!,” every day, 24/7. Like I said, tacky. Not the way I was raised.
Happy to answer my wonderful readers’ questions anytime as best I can. If I get enough, maybe I’ll make it a regular feature.