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Summer meeting, Wine Enthusiast, Day 2

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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”

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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

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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

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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

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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.


A wine critic and blogger answers the tough questions

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Peter Mondavi, Jr., of Charles Krug Winery, was interviewed on the Fox Business online site, and the interviewer asked him four open-ended questions that allowed him to free-range his answers. Read the interview, then come back here. I’ll ask myself the same questions.

What is your death row wine?

Champagne, always. My desert island wine, my honeymoon wine, my go-to toast wine, my birthday wine, the perfect wine for any festivity. I can’t think of any other wine that even comes close. We shouldn’t even call Champagne “wine.” It’s beyond wine. (I include the world’s best sparkling wines in this category, not just real French Champagne.) Calling Champagne “wine” is like calling Thomas Keller’s Mon Poulet Rôti “a chicken dish.”

What region produces the best wine?

You might think I’d say “Champagne”–in France–and I’m tempted to, but I don’t want to offend my California friends, so I’ll just keep my answer to California. It depends on the type of wine. Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux blends? Easy: Napa Valley. Chardonnay? The narrow coastal strip extending from the ocean to about 30 miles inland, from Santa Barbara County in the south to Anderson Valley in the north. The accidental fact that geopolitics has sub-divided it into different counties doesn’t mean Mother Nature has been trumped. This is all one region, courtesy of the constancy of the temperature of the Eastern Pacific Ocean, which is cold all year round. Pinot Noir? Ditto for Chardonnay. Everything else can be made well in a lot of places.

What is the best wine and food pairing you’ve ever had?

I like that Peter Mondavi picked one of the simplest dishes: bread, olive oil and goat cheese, drunk with–what else?–Sauvignon Blanc. I suppose Champagne would work with that; it works with everything. But Sauvignon Blanc and goat cheese are so perfect, why would you tinker with it? I’ve had so many memorable combinations. One was beef tacos that Kathy Joseph, from Fiddlehead, fixed for me at her house. She paired them with one of her Pinot Noirs, and it was a revelation. I’m not saying it was the greatest pairing I’ve ever had, but somehow, it has stayed in my head. Oddly enough, I remember few of the foods I ate with the very greatest wines I ever drank (most of which were served to me). That’s probably because the wines were the stars of the show; the food stayed in the background. The best pairings allow both food and wine co-equal roles in the drama (or comedy, as it were). By the way, if you open the Kathy Joseph link, above, you’ll see that Kathy asked herself some questions and then answered them. I’m going to add her questions to this post. But first, the fourth Peter Mondavi question:

What will the U.S. wine industry look like in 10 years?

I don’t know, but acting in the belief that things in general don’t change that much in a mere decade, I’d say pretty much like it does today. More corporate takeovers at the top, more proliferation of little wineries and brands, often via negociant, at the bottom. As more Americans drink wine, the industry will experience growth, so there will be room for increased competition. If I get all this wrong, come back in 2022 and sue me.

The Kathy Joseph questions:

If you had $10, what would you buy?

Cold-smoked salmon and crême fraiche.

What would your mother say is your most attractive feature?

My honesty.

What’s your favorite indulgence?

Not gonna say.

When you grow up, what do you want to be?

Independent.

Biggest time waster?

Watching T.V.

What are 3 words to describe yourself?

Physically fit [all right, that’s two words, but only one concept]. Polite. Inquisitive.

What are your 5 favorite places?

Cuddling with Gus, my dog, anywhere. Any good restaurant. The gym. Lakeside Park, in Oakland. The fifth, I ain’t gonna tell you. Even wine bloggers deserve a little privacy.


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