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Your questions anwered, here, now


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.

Summer meeting, Wine Enthusiast, Day 2


I believe many of my readers are wine bloggers, who write for themselves, alone, sans editors or art directors or other members of a staff. Which is all well and good. But tonight, after a long day of meetings (actually a very long day) followed by a long night of eating a fabulous dinner at a great restaurant, with–naturally–plenty of great wine, I want to offer a few words on the pleasures and advantages of writing about wine in a team setting, namely, at Wine Enthusiast.

To plan out 14 issues for 2013 is a terrifically hard feat. So many things have to be taken into account, too many to mention here, except to say that there’s never enough room in the magazine for even a fraction of what deserves to be covered. Which means that a sort of triage system has to be worked out. What’s absolutely vital for readers to know next year? We can’t predict the future, of course, but a great advantage of having seasoned editors at their posts (which the magazine does) means that each of us is in a better position to suss out what will be vital in, say, June, 2013, than perhaps someone who hasn’t labored in the vineyards of a wine region like Tuscany or Port or Australia or Chile or California for a long time, and thus hasn’t earned (yet) the broad view that long work earns. That’s not a diss toward younger writers. But it is to say that planning out the “book,” or editorial calendar for the period from January 2013 through December 2013 takes some doing.

It’s such a demanding process that it not only took a good part of today, but will occupy us tomorrow, and even then, an editorial calendar is never really complete. I have articles set to appear later this Fall of 2012 that weren’t even a gleam in my eye last summer. Things happen that are important, couldn’t be foreseen, but must be covered…now. That means previously scheduled articles have to get bumped. That’s just the way it is.

If we didn’t have a team that liked and got along with each other, this could lead to difficulties. Someone gains an article; someone loses one. We all want to get published as much as possible; that’s the ego of the writer, who pours her blood and sweat onto the page with the ultimate hope that readers–unseen and unknown, out there is the world somewhere–will like what is written. To lose an article hurts. But we’ve all been through it, and our senior editors in New York do their utmost to even everything out. In the end, knowing that fairness reigns in your workplace is a great thing, indeed.

But of course the camaradie wouldn’t be complete if it didn’t include serious eating and imbibing, and at Wine Enthusiast, it does. Often, and together, with combined restaurant bills I wouldn’t want to pay. But that’s part of keeping a team united and letting them known they’re valued. For the record, I didn’t keep track of all the wines we had tonight. Each was selected by our Tasting Director, Lauren Buzzeo, and was among the best of our regions from all over the world. We’re lucky to be in that position. Afterward, we discussed and argued about and agreed about and disagreed about the wines, and while people’s positions generally are predictable–the Europhiles in our crowd tend to find Cali wines too sweet, fruity and simple, while I tend to find the European wines austere and acidic–it’s far from always; and it gratifies me when a great European taster like Roger Voss loves a California Cabernet, like Ovid 2008, as much as I did.

I think I write better for being part of a team, having to defend my theses among very smart people. The best wine writing, I firmly believe, must be edited. Blogging by yourself can be fun, can make for a good read, can be instructive and entertaining–but the guidance of impartial others, who want only to make your writing better than you can do it on your own, is imperative.


Asking questions about social media is not “bashing”


For some reason I’ve been tagged as a social media basher. Every time I turn around, somebody, somewhere, is blogging or tweeting or something that Heimoff hates social media, Heimoff can’t stand social media, Heimoff doesn’t “get” social media, Heimoff’s afraid of social media. But the most common characterization is that I’m a basher.

“Bash.” Pretty strong word. A verb, apparently derived from the Old Norse, meaning “to strike with a violent blow; to smash.” (Those old Norsemen were a pretty violent bunch, I’ve read, Vikings whom TIME magazine once called “Ravagers, despoilers, pagans, heathens” who would “sweep in from the sea to kill, plunder and destroy” their hapless victims, who had no effective means of resisting.

Does that sound like me? Little old me, as peaceable as a songbird, as unaggressive as a daisy? Of course not. Why would anyone call me a “basher”?

To answer that, let’s take a step back and see what I’ve actually said. All that I’ve ever written about social media is to point out that it has limitations. In one form or another, I’ve said that

- social media isn’t the be all and end all of selling wine
- wineries should have social media as part of their marketing mix but not bet the farm on it
- social media has yet to prove itself across the board when it comes to ROI
- some people with a vested financial interest in promoting social media tend to talk it up
- consumers should examine statements made in social media carefully to make sure they’re truthful
- the ease of publishing in social media means that some people with few credentials can make sweeping judgments

Now, could anyone object to any of that? I don’t see how they could. Each statement is patently true.

It is fair to say that I haven’t jumped on the “social media is the greatest thing for wineries since the invention of barrels” train. If you believe that it is, fine. Tweet away. I don’t think most winery owners believe it, though. If they can afford to, they’ll hire someone to run their social media programs, and if they can’t, they won’t. I don’t think there’s any proof that not having a social media campaign equates to economic failure for a winery. As a matter of fact, I’ve told dozens of winery proprietors (including Bill Harlan) who don’t have a social media footprint, or who have only a small one, to get on with it already. I think every winery ought to have a blog (well maintained), a Facebook page and a Twitter account, at the very least.

Is that bashing? I don’t think so. I myself spend a lot of time on social media, either managing my own sites or visiting others (although I’ll confess to not being as interactively chatty as some people). If I was really bashing social media, I’d write stuff like “Twitter is a stupid waste of time. So is Facebook. Don’t get me started on Google+. Blogging is digital masturbation. Get away from your @#%*& computer, tablet or smart phone, haul your butt into the gym and lose some weight!”

But I’m not saying that. So I really think it’s time to stop the “Steve is a social media basher” thing.

The deeper question is, Why have some people taken such offense? They seem to get genuinely upset by my writing, centrist and tempered as it is. Are they so deeply committed to social media, ideologically, intellectually, physically, emotionally and financially, that they can’t bear to have its limitations pointed out? Can they not bear a little constructive criticism? It’s like the Taliban. Tell them they should be nicer to their women, and all of a sudden they’re planting IEDs under your car.

So look, my critics: Find another word for “basher.” Or better yet, understand that complex issues can’t be reduced to a single word. Instead of calling me a “basher,” deal with my specific statements. I think you’ll find we’re more in agreement than you think.

The pitfall of social media: the Yelp Conundrum


We all know that Yelp isn’t entirely trustworthy (what, you thought it was?).  Any business, product or service that wants great reviews can simply ask all their friends and relatives to weigh in with a good word. Seems you can even outsource glowing reviews from other businesses, in exchange for a little mutual backslapping.

“As many as 4 out of 10 online reviews are phony or biased in some way,” according to a professor cited in the above article. But even though you and I, an educated public, instinctively or objectively know that Yelp reviews may be biased, we listen to them anyway, in a conscious act of self-persuasion, because the concept of “peer reviewing” is so powerful. We figure that, scattered amidst the bias, are golden nuggets of truth.

Peer reviewing, also known as word-of-mouth, always has been a powerful recommender. It’s seemingly the opposite of authority recommending, wherein a specialist or expert (that would be people like me, in the world of wine) tells other people what’s good, what sucks, and everything inbetween. These days, of course, the authority of experts is on the decline, maybe justifiably. The power of peers has seen its ultimate expression on the Internet, and specifically in what’s been dubbed “social media,” wherein you, me, and that gal behind the tree all have equal opportunity to opine, and then publish our opinions to–ta da!–the entire world. The Internet becomes the Great Leveler, diminishing the power of so-called experts, heightening that of novices and ordinary people.

That’s good. Every advancement in publishing technology brings the human race a step upward on the ladder of progress and enlightenment. The invention of movable type helped usher in the Renaissance from the dismal depths of the Dark Ages, when religious superstition dominated Europe and the church controlled publishing, censoring everything that did not conform to doctrine. But just as movable type led to problems (the rise of mass media, for example, which can be owned by corporations with biases), one has to point out the limitations of the Internet.

The problem with this ease of instant universal publishing is precisely what we can now call the Yelp Conundrum: just as you can’t believe everything you read on Yelp, you can’t believe everything you read in social media. More than that: Even if you know that you can’t believe everything you read in social media, you don’t know exactly what’s accurate and what isn’t. It’s sort of like Doublethink, in Orwell’s 1984. Any word can mean whatever the speaker or writer intends it to mean. Dictionaries are constantly in a state of revision to keep up with the shifting meaning of words. The written word, in 1984, no longer has value as a means of the transmission of truth. Instead, it becomes either a form of entertainment, or a mechanism to sell something, whether it be a product or government-sanctioned idea. The only way to really know what the written word means, in 1984, is to understand the context. Unfortunately, in that totalitarian dictatorship, it’s impossible to know the context of anything.

Context is similarly lacking in today’s social media reviews and analyses of wine. Another word for context is transparency. If a claim is transparent, then it cannot be “phony or biased in some way,” as 4 in 10 Yelp reviews are. Or, more correctly: it may be biased, but it is transparently biased, so that the reader is armed with sufficient information to ignore it.

Each form of social media has different ways to game the system. Yelp’s are perhaps the most obvious; but everything can be rigged. Blogs may be corrupted by the “mommy blog” phenomenon whereby the blogger is paid (secretly) to hawk certain products or services. Twitter is entirely capable of being hijacked by special interests, to judge by my feed, which routinely includes tweets by wineries touting their own stuff.

Until it’s possible to know who’s getting what, who’s in whose pocket, who’s simply ignorant, and who’s transmitting whatever message their controllers want them to, social media should be viewed with skepticism by wine consumers seeking truthful information. What is needed is an absolute way for the consumer to know the context of the information he or she receives. What is needed is transparency. But transparency is exactly what seems impossible to confirm on the Internet. The obviously phony emails from Nigerian widows should warn us all to beware the Internet’s pitfalls. But self-persuasion, or self-hypnosis, keeps us believing we can avoid them, ourselves.

The essence of wine blogging: a conversation


It’s been four-plus years since I launched this little corner of cyberspace, and my attitude towards it–towards blogging–has undergone some changes. I point this out not merely because it says something about me, which would be uninteresting, but because it says something, I think, about wine blogging in general: the transformation it’s undergone, and where it might be going.

One thing we all can agree on, I believe, is that the blogosphere has settled down. It was the Wild West in 2008-2009, filled with gunslingers looking for a fight. An exciting place: Dodge City, dangerous, adrenalized, edgy, where anything could happen. Wine blogging was new; everywhere you went (in cyberspace) you had the sense of being in on something revolutionary. Nobody knew where the train was going, but everyone (writers and readers alike) wanted to be on it, for if you missed the train–well, then you wouldn’t go wherever it was going, wherever that was. And nobody wanted to miss the train.

Today, a kind of ordinariness has settled over the wine blogosphere. It’s not revolutionary anymore; it’s become a routine part of our lives, like the morning paper sitting peacefully at my doorstep (hopefully, not in a puddle). I blog everyday the way I brush my teeth: it’s part of what I do. You read everyday because it’s what you do. We do it together, you and I: part of the same community (wine), we reach across the desolations of distance and time to find each other and share.

This sharing is why I keep on blogging. It’s the communication I have with you, my readers, that drives me to get 600 words up by 7:30 a.m., California time, five days a week. I grant you that the communication isn’t always pleasant, coming from your end. Some of the comments here are pretty insulting to me, but I like them anyway, because hearing from people is better than not hearing, no matter what they say. Sometimes, when the comments are personal attacks, I bristle for a minute; but then I think that the purpose of journalism–and my blog is journalism, albeit of a different kind–is to stimulate thinking, even to be controversial.

I’ve written before that I don’t set out to be controversial, but I suppose I do have something in me that likes a good row. It’s the New Yorker I am, I guess. I have strong opinions and I’m not afraid to express them. It’s only fair, then, that my readers should have the opportunity to express their strong opinions, in the Comments section. I like that. I like a dinner table where people are arguing vociferously. I don’t mean fighting: I mean voicing their opinions about things, and disagreeing with others. It all ends happily, of course: no thrown plates, no wine dumped over anyone’s head, no stabbings with the fork.

I can’t see you out there as I sit here, at my desk in Oakland, in the peace of a summer morning. There are some birds chirping, and I can hear the far off rumble of rush hour traffic on the freeway, a mile away. Otherwise, all is silent, except for the click-clack of my fingers pecking at the keyboard. But I can feel you, in San Francisco, in St. Helena, in Manhattan, in London, in Mumbai, in Beijing, wherever you are. You are a vibration that circles the world. Most people will not feel you at a distance because they’re not seeking you, but I am, and do, everyday. It’s an invisible thread that unites us, whether you’re angry at me for something I said, or agreeing with me, or just taking it in for a moment.

I’ll keep on writing as long as you keep on reading: that’s my bond. And that is what wine blogging has become: it’s not an earth-shattering new development that will change anybody’s life forever. It’s not the end of print. It’s not the revenue-generating engine people hoped it would be, four years ago. What wine blogging is, is exactly what this space has become: a digital conversation in a family that just happens not to be related by blood. In that sense, wine blogging is less than anyone thought, four years ago; but on the other hand, it’s precisely what we all expected the Internet to be, fifteen years ago: the final expression (for now) of McLuhan’s global village, “contracted…by electronic technology [at] electric speed,” as Wikipedia puts it.

From that perspective, then, wine blogging–this blog, anyway–has little or nothing to do with that other primal topic of conversation, “Can wineries increase revenue through social media?” Maybe yes, maybe no. That’s a whole different thing. Through all the commotion and hubbub, this blog, like the mighty Mississippi, just goes rolling along.

Lets face it, the “social media revolution” has stalled


A few years ago, following the Murphy-Goode “A Really Goode Job” contest that the inimitable Hardy Wallace won, the Big News throughout wine country was wineries hiring Social Media Directors.

The idea, near as I could tell, was to bring someone onboard who was young, social media savvy, creative and hard-working, who would give the winery a strong presence on platforms like Facebook and Twitter as well as the winery’s own website. From there, the theory went, sales would soar as engagement with consumers took off.

Well, as far as theories go, it was all right–a good and necessary first step–but in retrospect I think we can all agree that the reach exceeded the grasp. Perhaps that’s why we began hearing less and less about Social Media Directors, as that function was transitioned either upward, as a rather small part of the Technology Officer’s or Human Relations manager’s duties, or downward, to a mere intern’s (or maybe a son’s or daughter’s) responsibilities.

The turnabout was to be expected. Social media arose so quickly in the U.S. that, not only did few see it coming, but even when it got here few knew how to use it. As usual, the adults thought it was just something for the kids. And the kids, well, they just liked it and didn’t over-analyze it or try to figure out how they could make money off it. (Okay, Mark Zuckerberg did, but you know what I mean.) It was like the Internet itself: when it came of age, in the 1990s, nobody knew what to make of it. Everybody said it was revolutionary and would change the world–but exactly how that was supposed to happen, no one knew. If you go back to the early and mid-1990s, you’ll remember the search for “the killer app.” It turned out to be search engine (well, actually, it was porn, but we’re not supposed to talk about that). And then after search it was social media. One-eighth of the population of the world has a Facebook account!

I suppose there could be even more “killer apps” in the future as the technology improves (keep in mind Moore’s Law), but it’s hard to wrap my mind around that, since we haven’t fully absorbed the lessons of the social media we already have. The focus so far has been on what used to be called B2C: the business-to-consumer use of social media. Given the temporary (let us hope) hiatus that so many wineries are experiencing in this area, some companies are starting to think of social media in terms of B2B (business-to-business). For example, Brian Margolies, the CIO of Allied Beverage Group, New Jersey’s largest distributor of wine and spirits, wrote last week that his company has spent the past year researching how to use social media to facilitate relationships with its clients (“liquor stores, bars, and restaurants”). As hard as they’ve worked it, Margolies writes, “[W]e’ve seen little discernible effect on sales, demand, brand awareness, usable business intelligence, or even facilitation of community.” He’s savvy enough to realize that this doesn’t necessarily mean social media is useless for B2B purposes. Maybe it was something Allied did wrong, or didn’t do right. “Have we missed something in our approach or not given the program sufficient time to evolve? Have we overlooked something obvious, or is our target community already too defined?” Good questions, and a good posture of self-examination.

That’s where the wine industry is at: the bloom is off the social media rose, but it’s impossible to shake off the feeling that it really, truly could be something incredible, if only…what? We still don’t know, which is why Margolies’s questions are so vital.

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