Every wine critic, or wannabe, has to face the truth sooner rather than later: Since you can’t taste every wine in the world, you have to pick and choose what you can.
Circumstances compel it. There are, broadly speaking, two ways to deal with this situation. You can be a globe-trotting generalist, like Jancis Robinson, who can fly anywhere in the world and be welcomed with open arms by the most famous wineries in that region. (All right, if you detect a teensy weensy note of jealousy there, I’ll own up to it.) Or, along similar but less celebrated lines, you can be a Joe Roberts/1WineDude. He has, I suspect, fewer options than Jancis (at this point in his career, anyhow), having to depend on junkets or whatever comes across his transom (archaic metaphor). But he’s still a generalist: a little Italy, a little California, a little Spain, a little whatever, here’s what I think.
Being a generalist has its advantages. You get, over time, a grounding in the world’s wines. But generalism has its drawbacks. You can never really get to thoroughly understand a particular region; and if you can’t do that, then you can’t help your readers do it. Another drawback of generalism is that the peripatetic wine critic tends, most likely, to pay attention only to the best known wines of whatever region she’s covering at any particular time. New wineries, younger winemakers, innovative producers tend to be ignored by the generalist.
On the other hand are the specialists, like me in California, Paul Gregutt in the Pacific Northwest or, for that matter, all of Wine Enthusiast’s regional editors. I’d also include Lenn Thompson, at New York Cork Report, Alfonso Cevola’s On the Wine Trail in Italy and HaKerem: The Israeli Wine Blog as examples of specialists.
The neat thing about specializing is that you get a top to bottom understanding of your region, which you can then share with your readers. But I can see both sides of most things, including the specialist-generalist spectrum.
There are hundreds of wine blogs of both types, more than anyone can keep track of. To get just a taste, check out Alltop, a source that many bloggers go to every day to see who’s saying what about whom. I celebrate this diversity. It’s so different from when I started, when your choices were limited to 3 or 4 American critics with any credibility, and a handful of English writers whose knowledge of California wines was woefully inadequate, and limited to what they thought were the “important” wineries. It was all top down. New wineries didn’t have a chance of being discovered, unless they had a friend somewhere.
At the same time, this diversity puts the consumer in a bind. Whom to believe? That’s what’s so interesting about the Alltop website (which itself represents only a fraction of all wine blogs). There never have been so many choices, so many opportunities for consumers to obtain information and opinions on wine. That’s good, I suppose; but it’s also an unstable situation in need of resolution. This proliferation of sources reminds me of a Rube Goldberg machine, an overly complicated, irrational way of getting something simple accomplished.
Which is why wine critics have to make their choices. This chaotic situation will resolve itself, probably within the next few years. There will be a winnowing out. Who survives the coming shakeout cannot be known in advance; but, in retrospect, we’ll be able to look back and understand why “many were called, but few were chosen.” The chosen ones will be those who made the right choices, and stuck to their game plan.
I don’t know why it’s controversial anymore that some of the better wine blogs can be effective in driving sales. Didn’t we have that conversation in, like, 2010, and decide the answer is Yes? I thought it was over. But then somebody writes something that gets the whole issue percolating again, and we find ourselves knee-deep into another faux controversy.
That’s my considered reaction to reading this Vintank posting that purports to tell the “wine industry” that they’re “looking at wine bloggers all wrong.”
There’s something really retro when the pro-blogging community (of which I obviously count myself as one) gets all defensive about themselves. Go on, read the Vintank post. It’s entirely correct in its claims that some blogs drive sales, that wineries should reach out to them, etc. No argument there. What sets me off about these kinds of articles, though, is the underlying sense that it’s bloggers versus people like me: mainstream wine critics, as if I were in the mixed martial arts octagon with Joe Roberts, battling it out for supremecy. See the old guy get his ass whipped by the hot young blogger! See print journalism go down for the count! Oh, my word, the blogger just gave a mawashi geri to the print guy’s head, then followed it up with a driving punch to the chudan! [Sound track: riotous cheers and applause from the blog fans, boos and moans from the few print people still alive.]
No, no, no! The pro-bloggers have got to get over this bruised sense of having been hurt or disrespected by the print critics. Can’t we all get along? Yes, I’ll take the author’s word (which Alder Yarrow modestly confirms in the comments section) that a good Vinography review moves product. That’s great. I’ll accept the author’s claim that a good Joe Roberts review sells wine. That’s good, too. But so does a good Steve Heimoff review in Wine Enthusiast, and I would wager that a high score from me, printed in the magazine’s Buying Guide, and reproduced as a shelf talker at Costco, sells a heck of a lot more wine than a good 1WineDude or Vinography score.
The Vintank post argues that “WE [i.e. wineries] FAIL if we don’t use [bloggers’] tasting notes, scores, badges, or whatever, not only on our sites, through social media, and in email and other communications with our customers, but also distributed to our retail partners on our sell sheets.” I couldn’t agree more with this (although if I were a winery I wouldn’t be sure which bloggers to send samples to).
The Vintank posting makes a number of statements I don’t agree with, though, because I think they’re based on false premises:
1. It’s “unfair” to hold bloggers to the same traffic standards as “mainstream critics” like me. Why? If I reach 1,000 times as many eyeballs through the magazine than a wine blogger can, why disregard that fact? Wine sales people understand that eyeballs is the correct measurement for a wine writer, be she a blogger or a print person. And wait until Wine Enthusiast hits the China market, in June. Our little local wine bloggers will be as dust in the wind.
2. Print writers are declining in power because “the decades of stories that have already been written about wineries, regions, and varieties make it a struggle [for them] to generate new and interesting content.” Well, I don’t think there’s anyone better than me to reply to that! Let me assure you that generating “new and interesting content” is no harder (or easier) for me today than it was 20 years ago. And even if you think it is hard for me, why would it be easier for a blogger?
Before the hate mail starts coming in from the blogging crowd, let me repeat that I firmly believe blogging is an integral part of the wine writing community. At the same time, the pro-blogging people really have got to stop complaining about “the mainstream media.” Honestly, they’re starting to sound like Sarah Palin.
And with all due respect to Alder Yarrow, let me answer the question he asked in the comments section:
Q: “What are all your new customers over the next five years more likely to do when they hear about your brand or one of your wines and want to know whether it’s any good or not: a) Go to the store and buy a copy of the Wine Spectator or b) type the wine name into Google?”
A: Yes, of course they’re going to Google it. But what does that have to do with the continued popularity of Spectator, Enthusiast or other wine magazines? This is a straw-man issue: Alder poses two hypothetical behaviors, the first obviously absurd, the second having little to do with the premise that wine bloggers will “win” some kind of Google search contest over “mainstream” writers. If you Google a winery brand looking for reviews, chances are the first several hits will take you to the winery’s website and to their “Reviews” link, if they have one (which they should). And which critics will most wineries publicize first? What Vintank calls “the power critics.” Would it hurt for the winery to also link to 1WineDude? Of course not; I hope they do; I hope Joe Roberts is making a ton of money by the time he’s 50.
Meanwhile, the mainstream media isn’t going anywhere. Look, we’re all one wine writing community, whether it’s print, blogging or whatever. We all should respect that fact, and quit the subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle trashing and resentment of print.
I’m always surprised by how negative the reaction of some people is to the field of wine writing/journalism/reviewing. If you read through the “Comments” section from yesterday’s blog, you’ll see what I mean. Why do these people get so upset to the point of almost losing their minds?
I wrote “wine writing/journalism/reviewing” on purpose, because a “wine writer” does all three. There’s a difference, you know, although the critics of wine reviewing tend to conveniently overlook it, preferring instead to focus on the 100-point system and what they perceive as the critic’s “elitism.” So let me explain to these people, most of whom are not legitimate wine writers as far as I can tell, just what the job entails.
Wine writing: I define this is the artistic or esthetic side. It’s what I tried to do in my first book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River, and, to some extent, what I try to do here on the blog. It’s literature, nicely defined in my Webster’s as “writings considered as having permanent value [and] excellence.” When you do “literature” you really exercise the art of writing. It borrows from literature you’ve loved in the past (my writing is heavily indebted to Churchill but also will dip its toe into whatever book I fancy at the moment. I went through a Hemingway phase of short, snappy sentences). But you also develop your own style.
Wine journalism: This is good, old-fashioned reporting. You interview somebody, or do research on something, then you write it up, answering all those “w” questions: who, what, when, why, where (and, in wine, “how” and “how much?”). Journalism is not literature: it’s too truncated, too formulaic, which is why so many journalists like to stretch their wings and try actual literature.
Wine reviewing: Well, we all know what that is. It’s one of the things I do and in fact pays most of my bills.
I’ve never met an actual, employed wine reviewer who was upset by wine reviewers, or who thought that the act of wine reviewing somehow is elitist or evil or arrogant or condescending or any of the other epithetical terms anti-reviewers toss around. Oh, before you object that there are people in the blogosphere and in the social media who review wine but who criticize wine reviewers (there are), I’ll add that, as wine reviewers, they’re not particularly influential. I mean, anyone can scratch out some wine reviews and put them up on a blog, but it’s the proverbial tree falling in a forest with no one around: Does anyone know or care? There is some jealousy out there, on the part of the have-nots for the haves.
Ambitious wine writers who haven’t yet made it in their chosen career would do well to put aside reviewing and take up wine writing and wine journalism, in the sense I described above. I ask them: When’s the last time you wrote something that glowed, that you were proud of? When’s the last time you really had to dig for a story, chase down the facts, get people to say things they didn’t want to, go through archives, search through the indexes of old books, spend an hour on Google to find a specific quote, make a scientist explain something in plain English, walk through the woods to hear what walking through the woods sounds like, lie on your stomach on the forest floor and bury your face in the dead leaves and dirt to smell what it smells like, transcribe a long tape, look through an almanac, use a calculator to figure out the rate of increase or decline of a particular grape variety in a particular region…I could go on all day. I do all of those things, too, not just rate wines, and all of those things make me a better wine reviewer, in the mysterious alchemy of that task. Antonio Galloni expressed it well when I talked with him the other week: We live surrounded by wine, by the lore of wine, by its traditions, by the business of wine, in the culture of wine. It fills our brains as it fills our bellies. When we’re not tasting it–not reviewing–we’re thinking about it, about the people who make and sell and write about it, about the next story we’re working on, the deadline, about the question we forgot to ask during that interview, about what time to leave for tomorrow’s appointment to avoid rush hour, and what time to try to get home so we can do a flight. And inbetween everything else, we’re going back and re-reading that draft, refining it, throwing out a clunky phrasing for a more pleasing one, replacing a misleading adjective with the correct one, and maybe even buying a Meyer lemon to see how it smells and tastes different from an ordinary lemon. Yes, all of those things. And reviewing, too.
It must drive wineries crazy to read stuff like Joe Roberts’ post today at 1WineDude.
Winery owners are doing everything they can to keep afloat in this dour economy. Most of them are tinkering with social media to some extent; some of them even have dedicated employees for it, if they can afford it. Inbetween buying corks and capsules, hoping the bottling line doesn’t break down, filling out employee forms, patching up hoses, worrying about drought or swamps in the vineyard, pruning, staking, riding the mule around the vineyard, topping off, racking, tinkering with valves and dials and switches, deciding on blends, driving to the hardware store, going on the road to sell wine, meeting with distributors and wholesalers, having staff meetings, and, oh, trying to find an hour to spend with the wife and kiddies, here’s Joe telling them they need to “just start using that time on social media to connect with customers already.”
What time? You mean those few hours between midnight and dawn when everyone’s entitled to a little sleep?
I pity these poor vintners. Everybody’s telling them to do social media, “to reach younger wine consumers” through the Twitter machine, to check their Facebook feed every three minutes, to blog, to make YouTubes and put them up on Oinga-Boinga or Diddly-Squat or whatever the hot new social platform is that’s about to go public. And those vintners are just sitting there, like, What? What are you talking about? It’s easy for someone who doesn’t have a real job to tell them to hang out on social media all day long, as that will magically solve all their problems. It’s also easy for that same blogger to tell winemakers “But if I were a small-production winery, I’d be worrying a hell of a lot more about how to reach, engage, and keep customers I had (as well as engaging new ones) than trying to get a crazy-good review with critics.” Why would a blogger tell winemakers not to be concerned with the critics? That’s crazy talk. And it must drive winemakers nuts (like I said) to think that they’re not doing enough to “engage and keep” their customers. When you accuse a hard-working vintner of being lazy when it comes to engaging customers, it’s like asking a guy when he stopped beating his wife. There is no answer that’ll get him off the hook. If he admits he’s not reaching out enough to potential customers, he subjects himself to feelings of guilt and suffering, because he knows that, no matter what he does, it can never be enough.
I agree that winemakers or owners should play around with social media, if they want to and like it. I spend a lot of time at it myself. But I don’t think it’s helpful to tell them that they’re bad if they’re not living online. When Joe (whom I like a lot, I really do and he knows it) says, “Honestly, I’ve got no idea what producers (especially smaller wine producers) are waiting for when it comes to outreach,” he’s really doing a disservice to the people he says he’s trying to help. How does he presume to know that producers are “waiting for” something? He doesn’t know the myriad ways that each producer is reaching out and engaging, whether it’s through a wine club, or working the tasting room, or hitting the road for a winemaker dinner, or writing thank you notes to valued colleagues, or visiting Wine Enthusiast’s headquarters in New York and tasting with the staff. Winery people work really hard, long hours. Telling them they have to put social media at the top of the list of things they’re already overwhelmed with is really no help at all.
“Web 1.0 was the first stage of the World Wide Web linking webpages with hyperlinks,” says Wikipedia. That’s when everyone was wondering what the web’s “killer app” would be.
“Web 2.0 was the Age of Interactivity…where people who may not have had a voice before could publish whatever they want…Add the ability to comment on stories and then share them through social media” and that was Web 2.0. This is from Read Write Web, a tech blog that offers interesting daily analysis of the industry.
And now, here’s Web 3.0. It’s “the age of Expertise,” in which people who don’t know what they’re talking about will be winnowed out of the hyper-democratized blogosphere, which will be reshaped as “an interactive discussion engine of experts.” That’s from Jason Calacanis, an L.A. blogger, web startup guy, and entrepreneur, whose Facebook page lists Gary Vaynerchuk–a kindred soul–as one of his friends. More to the point is Jason’s take on how “Blogging is largely dead…There are a lot of stupid people out there .. and stupid people shouldn’t write.”
Far be it from me to resurrect the blog wars of 2008-2009, so I’ll leave it to Jason to fight that fight for me. “There needs to be a better system for tuning down the stupid people and tuning up the smart people,” he told writer Dan Rowinski in the Read Write Web Q&A. “You have to have a deep understanding to be a blogger…It is not enough to be a writer. You need to be a writer and an expert.”
I said the same thing 3-1/2 years ago and everyone jumped on me for being an elitist who was trying to prevent a new generation from horning in on the monopoly I, and other aging Baby Boomers, had imposed on the genteel field of wine writing. When I suggested that the ability to say anything you wanted, no matter how vapid, and then self-publish on the Internet was not a great step forward for the concept of expertise, I was lacerated for being a paranoid dinosaur, protecting his turf like a mother weasel snarling in her lair. (Apologies for the mixed speciological metaphors.) “People and their blogs will continue,” Calacanis predicts. “Yet, that doesn’t mean that anybody will be paying attention.”
Indeed, when I mull over the current state of the wine blogosphere, it seems to be just on the line between Web 2.0 and Web 3.0. There are still 1,000 wine blogs, and while there’s nothing prohibiting people from blogging for as long as they like, we are seeing an illustration of the old saying, Many are called but few are chosen. More and more blogs are going defunct, or publish only intermittently, because they fail to attract readership, which makes their authors dejected. The top wine blogs have peaked in readership [mine included], to judge by various metrics. I don’t know how Web 3.0 will affect wine blog traffic–if it will stimulate it in one direction or another. But I do welcome it, if for no other reason than that it will sharpen the research and writing abilities of the bloggers who remain, making the wine blogosphere a more professional platform. If wine blogs are to have a future in Web 3.0, it will be because the best ones take it to the next level: accurate reporting and intelligent analysis, and above all good writing, with more color and personality than traditional journalism has allowed.
The blogger Fast Company yesterday ran this interview with Nicholas Kristof, the New York Times columnist who also was that newspaper’s first blogger. It’s a good read. I thought it would be interesting to take the interviewer’s questions and answer them myself. Of course, some of his questions wouldn’t be relevant to me, so I dropped them.
In your columns and online posts you encourage reader dialogue and response. What kind of responses do you get?
It depends on the particlar post. Some topics elicit a lot of response: anything about Parker, the 100 point system, blind tasting, social media, ethics. For some other topics, I won’t get more than a handful of comments. Some people have accused me of deliberately writing about provocative topics in order to generate heavy response, but that simply isn’t true. I really go by whatever I’m thinking about that day, or if there’s something in the news I have to write about. I often write about things knowing full well that I won’t get more than 3 or 4 comments.
How do you think about your social media interaction?
I love it. I don’t reply to every comment, because quite often, there’s really nothing to say, except maybe “thank you for writing.” Also, some bloggers reply to every comment because that doubles their number of comments, which in turn might move the blog higher up on some popularity lists. That’s a little phony, so I don’t do it. When I read a comment that really needs for me to reply, I know it.
Is this a revolutionary shift in journalism or a more natural progression?
Great question. The answer is: a little of both. There’s clearly something radically different about social media. People all over the world can talk to each other, more or less instantly. It’s very difficult to censure. You can do it on your cell phone or pad: you don’t even have to be sitting at your computer anymore. I think social media has turned out to be revolutionary in certain areas, such as politics, where we see regimes being toppled (Libya, Egypt) with the help of Twitter. In other areas, like sales and marketing (including wine), the jury’s out how “revolutionary” social media is. At this time, I’d call it more of a natural progression that combines aspects of the telephone, the U.S. mail, television and a town meeting. I haven’t yet seen anything in the wine industry being revolutionized by social media. Indeed, I can’t even envision what that would look like.
There’s a lot of debate about the role of social media in journalism, especially on the part of the major print news institutions. While [Wine Enthusiast] was developing strategies and policies, you just started doing it. Why?
Because I wanted to jump into this blog thing and explore its possibilities. I am a writer at heart. Few things in life give me more pleasure than pecking away at the old keyboard and watching my words magically appear onscreen. In May, 2008, Wine Enthusiast was going through their initial deliberations in blogging. I was just too impatient to wait.
Is there a more problematic side with the journalism in the digital age? Do you worry that citizen journalism diminishes overall credibility, for instance?
“Citizen journalism” has always been around. After all, journalists are citizens too. What’s different is the speed and access that people have to publish anything they want. And of course, this does raise issues of credibility. I don’t “worry” about it–there are too many more important things for me to worry about. But I do recognize it and have been stung by it on occasion, when irresponsible people make false charges. However, I take it in stride. And I will say that the positives of social media and “citizen journalism” far outweigh the negatives.
One of the other big changes in journalism we’ve seen in recent years is the rise of advocacy journalism. That’s different than what you do. Take Fox News for instance.
I don’t do “advocacy journalism” on my blog, if you take Fox and MSNBC as the prime examples today on TV. However, I can express my personal opinions a lot more candidly and colorfully in my blog than I can in the traditional journalism we practice at Wine Enthusiasm. That’s one of the pleasures of blogging. It’s on my Facebook page that I do true advocacy journalism. But I try to keep my politics out of my blog.
How do you negotiate the line between activism and journalism?
At the magazine, that line is kept rigorously bright by our New York-based editors, who impose strict journalistic standards that might be a little old-fashioned by today’s social media standards, but are very important nonetheless. Somebody has got to make sure that statements are based on fact and not just made up. On my blog, the standards are looser, I freely confess. However, there’s an enforcement mechanism that I would argue is every bit as powerful and effective as an editor: my credibility. If I was slinging unsubstantiated trash around on my blog, readers would long ago have lost respect for it.