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Happy birthday to you, Vinography!

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I want to congratulate Alder Yarrow and his Vinography blog on the occasion of its ninth birthday. That’s quite an achievement—to keep a blog going for that long. (By contrast, my blog is only 4-1/2 years old.)

When Alder started blogging, the concept of “the wine blog” must have been practically non-existent. I certainly never heard of blogs until around 2005-2006, when I was asked by Wine Enthusiast to write an article about them. I looked into the matter and found a bunch of silly, amateurish drivel—with an oasis here and there, among which Vinography was one. (Another was Tom Wark’s Fermentation and Jo Diaz’s Juicy Tales.

These early blogs changed the face of wine writing, of the way readers communicate with writers, and and of how wineries reach out to critics. In the old days, everything was top down: wealthy publishers owned print publications, hired writers to (more or less) hew to their philosophies, and the only way readers had of becoming part of the process was to write a letter to the editor that might or might not get published in 4 months. Not exactly the stuff of dialogue.

Now, through platforms like WordPress, bloggers can self-publish, without interference or influence from anyone except their own conscience. Readers have the opportunity for instant feedback (in my own case, once I’ve approved your first comment, all subsequent comments are published as soon as you send them in. No censorship on my part). This fundamentally changes the way wine writers operate.

For instance, it puts our activities under a magnifying glass—or maybe an electron microscope is the better analogy. I’ve been forced by my readers to explain every aspect of everything I do related to my job—to my pleasure, I might add. In this respect, blogging has demystified wine to a greater extent than ever before. By its very nature, blogging echoes wine’s essence: sharing, communication, involvement, collectivity.

The one thing neither Alder Yarrow, nor any other blogger, has yet figured out how to do is to make their blog profitable. This isn’t their fault: it’s an inherent limitation of the entire social media sphere, which simply doesn’t seem to lend itself to pecuniary purposes. This could change someday, but it’s hard to imagine. If smart people–and Alder, who lives in San Francisco and whom I know, is smart—can’t figure out how to take all their visibility and renown and translate it into dollars, then it may not be possible.

Which leads to the question, why continue to blog? Alder himself answered it: “Frankly there are probably better things to do with my time, but I enjoy it so much, and a large part of that enjoyment is knowing that other folks find it useful, entertaining, or simply just a reasonable way to pass the time.”

This may be hard for some people to believe, because they, themselves, have little inclination in their own lives to do anything for altruistic purposes. For some people, it’s all about the scramble for money, power, prestige. They miss out on the simple pleasure of doing something nice for others, without demanding to be compensated. Very sad.

I think that’s the best thing about the wine blogosphere as it is today. It’s really a very pure space. Not everybody’s blog is worth reading, and not every post on each blog that is worth reading is particularly insightful. But wine blogs have become the global village McLuhan envisioned decades ago, a place where everyone is more or less equal, where decisions are taken collectively, and where understanding is shared by the group in truly democratic fashion.

So thank you, Alder, for starting Vinography, and for helping usher in a great era!


Social media can be retail AND real

9 comments

“2013 will be the year that big brands and advertisers can finally expect to start making money from social media sites,” is the hopeful prediction of a company, Millward Brown, an international advertising and marketing company specializing in “brand equity.

They say there’s been a big psychological turnaround in how we use social media. “[S]hoppers are now not only open to being targeted through intelligent digital advertising, they expect it.”

Really? I suppose I do “expect” to get pitched 24/7 to buy stuff, by telemarketers on my phone, by ads on Facebook, and everywhere. I also “expect” to occasionally step in doggie doo-doo after some idiot doesn’t clean up after his/her mutt. But that doesn’t mean I like it!

And what does “open to being targeted” mean, anyway? Do we have a choice in the matter of how Facebook figures out what to advertise on our pages? Nobody asked me for permission to search through everything I do on the Internet and then decide what I’m in the mood to buy. I’m not “open” to (in Millward’s words) “new, richer advertising opportunities,” they’re being foisted on me by forces against my will. The word “open” therefore is bunk, although Millward did get it right with that word, “targeted,” as in seeing us Facebook users through the crosshairs on a rifle.

They have a newish term for the marriage of “retail” and “social media” and it’s called, appropriately enough, “retail social media.” Sounds like an oxymoron to me. Check out the colorful graphic on this site that purports to explain how “community hubs – conduits for people with similar interests to gather” – such as Facebook – can now be used as digital billboards. In the graphic, you see symbols for the following conceptual parts: Staff, HR, Marketing, Operations, Merchandising, Products, Events, Stores, Tactics, Analytics, Strategy, and Business Goals, with arrows showing how all these moving parts are interrelated. But nowhere in the graphic will you see the Facebook user—you and me, the human being at the center of the whole thing. That’s because, from a “retail social media” perspective, the human being has ceased to exist. Instead, there’s only a transactional purchaser with a credit card, a demographic, a, yes, customer whose exclusive function is to buy.

Mind you, I’m not against advertising on websites, per se. I understand that the people who work to give us a free Internet have to make a living. Zuckerberg isn’t doing this for charity. We’re free to ignore the ads if we want to, which is exactly what I do. I’m just increasingly concerned that advertising is going to move from something on the fringes of our social media to something dominant.

It’s sad for me, as a lover of social media, to see it getting hijacked in this way. I guess it was inevitable. But I wonder how the heart of social media—the free, communal spirit in which it has thrived up until now—will survive this assault by the forces of marketing, which are so antithetical to authenticity, transparency and sharing—the traditional pillars of the social use of the Internet. I said as much in my remarks a couple of weeks ago at U.C. Davis’s class on P.R. and Social Media for Small Wineries, although some people didn’t want to hear it.

You know how wine geeks talk about the “True” Sonoma Coast, as opposed to the formal AVA? I see social media the same way. There’s “true” social media in which individual, real people express themselves to other real people and engage in dialog. Then there’s “formal” social media, something that looks and behaves like “true” social media, but isn’t. Instead, it’s a Trojan horse designed to trick people. It’s probably asking too much for big corporations to be authentic (although they can pay people to make them appear to be authentic). But authenticity is what small family wineries do best. I hear over and over again from them that they don’t have the time to do social media, or they don’t know what to say. I tell them over and over again: You do have the time. Facebooking or tweeting only takes a few seconds. As for what to say, Say whatever is real at the time you’re saying it. “Hated to get out of bed this morning cuz it was freezing, but needed get out into the vineyard.” That’s real and authentic and interesting.


Wall St. Journal got lots wrong in their Wine Advocate/Parker reporting

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13 tweets and counting in the last 24 hours from Robert M. Parker, most of them seemingly designed to correct statements made by Lettie Teague, of the Wall Street Journal, in her article about “The Big Shake-Up” at the Wine Advocate.

Lettie apparently got so much wrong that Bob felt the need to correct the record as fast as he could, before the misinformation becomes embedded into popular consciousness (as these things tend to; even the New York Times’ Eric Asimov passed along some of Teague’s incorrect information).

Lettie: “the fiercely independent publication…will start accepting advertising, though none that is wine-related.”

Parker: “The Wine Advocate print edition will never take on ads.”

Lettie: “The company’s headquarters, an office just down the driveway from Mr. Parker’s home in Maryland farm country, is also moving to Singapore.”

Parker: “headquarters REMAINS [sic] in Monkton but a second office…in Singapore.”

Lettie: “Mr. Parker said the print version might disappear before the end of 2013…”

Parker: “no plans to eliminate the print edition…”

If Bob’s tweets have an air of weariness about them, it’s understandable. He even provided a link to a report on his sale of the Wine Advocate in Bloomberg News, which he apparently feels is more accurate. The Bloomberg reporter pointed out that the facts “contradicted a Wall Street Journal story, which said the Wine Advocate may phase out its print version by the end of 2013.”

In so many respects this story has been blown out of proportion, not just in the Wall Street Journal and other popular media but especially on the wine blogs, which are going nutso. Not much has really changed at Wine Advocate nor do I expect much to change anytime soon. Parker will “continue to focus [as he tweeted] on Bordeaux, Rhone, retros of CA & the big picture…”, just as he does now. My take: good for him. He’s worked his tail off for decades and now deserves whatever he got.

Far more interesting, to my way of thinking, is this paraphrase, from The Drinks Business, concerning Wine Advocate’s new editor-in-chief, Lisa Perrotti-Brown: She “hopes [the move] will give her more control over wine reviews.” Granted, this wasn’t a direct quote, but we have to imagine Perrotti-Brown said something to that effect. Will the current writers, including Antonio Galloni here in California, be content to “become full-time employees of The Wine Advocate, rather than independent contractors,” as The Drinks Business article said? And what does “more control over wine reviews” mean anyway? Danger, danger, when management says they want more control. Parker’s correspondents have some deep thinking to do: report now to a bunch of Singapore businessmen via Perrotti-Brown and lose the freedom of being an indie contractor? Risk being told their reviews need, uhh, editing? Or hold onto their ethics and lose their precious positions as writers for Wine Advocate, with all the perks it brings? As an indie myself, I can tell you these are difficult decisions for a writer to make.


Old bloggers never die, they just fade away

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I was sad to learn yesterday that Paul Gregutt is ceasing production of his blog. Paul, as you may know, is the longtime wine critic for the Seattle Times as well as my colleague at Wine Enthusiast, where he reviews the wines of the Pacific Northwest. It’s safe to say that Paul is the dean of Northwest wine writers.

Paul cited the pressures of work for “de-coupling from blogging.” Like me, he had decided to post something every day, and after all these years, he found he just didn’t have the time to fit everything (including a life) into a 24-hour window. I, personally, don’t have that problem, no doubt because Paul’s life has more things in it than mine! But I can see where a blogger would eventually reach the point where he just says, “The heck with this.”

I’ve wondered for quite some time when the dozens of wine bloggers with whom I’m familiar would stop. The Hosemaster said he was, a while back, but then he came back. As for the others, they’re still blogging away. Nobody gets much out of it financially. Some of the bloggers with the biggest readerships, like Dr. Vino and Vinography, make a modest amount from advertising (or so I’m told), but apparently, it’s not very much. I will probably begin to take advertising one of these days. Making money at this was never my reason for doing it, but a little extra cash will come in handy in the Heimoff household, where Gus insists on only the best, most expensive treats of duck breast and bacon.

Which leads to the question, Why do the bloggers keep on keeping on? A few, like Eric Asimov at the New York Times, actually get paid for blogging. Some, like Jancis Robinson, are able to charge a subscription. But the others whom I mentioned above (and including the likes of 1WineDude and Catavino) don’t have any direct source of income from their blogs, except maybe a pittance from ads.

I can’t speak for them, but I can tell you why I blog. It’s because I love wine and the wine industry and culture so much, and am so embedded in them, that I want to write about them in ways that don’t fit the traditional journalistic format. Blogging isn’t really journalism, nor is it fiction. It’s more like the “New Journalism” pioneered by Truman Capote and Tom Wolfe, in which facts form the basis of the narrative, but there’s also room for improvisation and opinion. In a sense, the subject of wine lends itself admirably to this style, because so much of wine lies in the esthetic and imaginative sphere.

Speaking of the Hosemaster, he wrote the other day, “What amazes me is how wonderful and entertaining and fascinating wine itself is, whereas wine writing is, with few exceptions, dreary, pedantic, insipid and repetitive.” This statement is both true and exaggerated. It’s true if you think of all those articles that reliably come out before every Thanksgiving about what wine to drink. Pity the poor writer who has to crank out a Thanksgiving column year after year after bloody year, while trying to sound fresh and excited, as if it were all happening for the first time.

This isn’t to blame the writer. She’s only doing what she was told to do by an editor. There’s less excuse, however, for a blogger, who doesn’t have an editor, to engage in this tedious stuff, which I think is what Hosemaster was driving at. Wine blogging does get bogged down in the tendentious, the tiresome, the repetitious. One of the best trends I’ve seen in wine blogging lately, though, is the introduction of personality into the writing. Joe Roberts does a good job of that. The biggest difference between blogging and trad journalism is that the former allows for experimental, creative writing whereas the latter is locked into the dictates of a formal (and often formulistic) style that’s increasingly hidebound. The younger generation doesn’t read newspapers for precisely this reason. It’s too bad, really, because a great paper like the New York Times is essential, but it’s a reality that people are moving away from that format and toward more personal written expressions. That’s what blogging does best. Paul Gregutt had a really creative voice, as well as an informed mind that understood Northwest (and especially Washington) wine like no one else. Wine blogging is poorer for his absence. I hope that, like the Hosemaster, Paul will resurrect his blog one of these days.

 

 

 


When the critic rants: a defense

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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.


Blogging dead? Blogging alive? Can we please stop this nonsense?

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Joe Roberts AKA 1WineDude blogged yesterday that “wine blogging isn’t dead,” in reaction to Jamie Goode, who blogged a while back that “Blogging is dead…sort of.”

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.


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