The traditional firewall between editorial and advertising–a staple ethical and practical tenet of publishing for at least a century–is being breached, and Ground Zero for this incursion is online.
This leakage never, or only extremely rarely, would have happened in traditional print media, where the guardians of the firewall, including editorial staff but also ombudsmen and even publishers with a sense of moral rectitude, would not have permitted it.
However, online, the traditional rules are being dissolved. Experiments are taking place: website owners and online publications are seeing how much they can get away with (in breaching the firewall) before critical blowback goes nuclear.
But the question is, will it? Do the people accessing the digital world and getting the majority of their information from their smart phones and tablets–mainly younger people–know, or care, who writes the content they read? As long as they’re getting [free] information they find useful and/or entertaining, are they fussy whom it comes from?
All indications are that the answer is no.
Will this integration of editoriai and advertising become the new reality? Have we reached that point on the slippery slope where the only way forward is down?
These questions need to be asked.
Experts in the field–usually consultants selling their services–suggest a win-win: content that helps readers and viewers, but that also fulfills advertisers’ needs. Sounds good, but can this win-win actually be achieved? If it can, then why did generations of publishers and journalists labor so long and hard to create the firewall to begin with? Was their concern simply an unjustified fear that “truth” (that elusive quality) would be compromised by the profit motive of advertisers? Did they simply suffer from a phobia, like fear of flying, that had no basis in reality? Or did they know something that we’re in danger of forgetting?
I can’t answer these questions. But what concerns me–and should concern all writers who wish to make a living through journalism–is that the very nature and substance of journalism, as the West has understood it for 400 years, is under dire threat. It may be that what is in the best interests of consumers and providers of digital content is actually a death sentence for writers, who may be the gas lamp lighters and ice delivery truck drivers of the 21st century–anachronized out of existence. In fact, we already see this occurring now, with “customized content” delivered to your inbox by software whose creators or users have proprietary, for-profit relationships with advertisers whose “articles” are thinly disguised pitches that don’t even bear the warning “advertorial” label. (If Facebook knows that you’re into fly fishing, you may find yourself getting articles that look interesting but whose purpose is not only to inform, but to lure you to sponsoring resorts or fishing equipment.)
This revolution is happening faster than any layperson can possibly suspect. I mention all this not to point fingers, or to put things into blunt black-and-white terms when, in reality, things are more complicated. But we are entering a world in which discerning consumers of information must ask themselves a few questions:
1. Where is this information coming from?
2. Who wrote it?
3. Why is it being sent to me?
4. What was the motive of the person or organization who is sending it to me?
5. Has there been an attempt to influence my behavior?
6. Has this attempt been camouflaged in such a way as to suggest that the sender is not being transparent?
Informed consumers will demand these answers. There’s some evidence that this demand for greater transparency already is occurring (e.g. the fears of government intrusion into our phone and online conversations; the resistence to Facebook ads popping up in our feeds). However there may be considerably more evidence that, in the end, consumers, and especially young ones, don’t give a damn.
What this means for the world of wine writing is clear and ominous. Readers need to understand whether they’re getting untrammeled information and opinion from reputable, reliable sources they know and trust. Or, they need to understand if those sources are picking and choosing the information they offer based on payment. It’s that simple.
I’m in New York at Wine Enthusiast’s annual summer editorial meeting, where the days are long and so are the nights, and everyone ends up a little sleep-deprived. But that is the cost of intense creativity, which is how I would characterize these rites of planning out the next year’s magazine calendar.
From around the Web:
“There’s no reason for you to buy expensive wine.” That’s the headline on this article from Slate. Well, of course there’s no reason–unless you actually want good wine! I’m here to tell you Heimoff’s Axiom: Not all expensive wine is great. No all inexpensive wine is bad. But more expensive wine than inexpensive wine is great, just as more expensive clothing or cars or cookware is generally better than cheaper versions of same. You just can’t get around it.
I haven’t been closely following this China-France dispute concerning Chinese claims that the French are dumping wine onto their market. It seems an odd accusation considering the prices the Chinese are willing to pay for Bordeaux, but maybe it’s true. It’s funny that wine would be the source of friction between two major countries. But why would the Chinese object to cheap European wine for their thirsty masses, if they weren’t thinking they have a domestic wine production industry they need to protect? So they must be thinking that. How long do you think it will be before the first Chinese cult wine hits the West?
Speaking of the Chinese, the “Communist Party has disciplined or scolded several officials for holding lavish wedding banquets, drinking wine at lunch and other extravagances as it tries to show progress on a frugality campaign aimed at addressing public anger.” I don’t know about the wedding banquets, but wine at lunch is the mark of a civilized society. Don’t forget that other group that’s down on alcohol: the Taliban.
This is a big deal: Now you can take BART–the Bay Area Rapid Transit subway system–all the way from downtown San Francisco through to the Napa Wine Train. True, there’s a shuttle bus involved–and no one likes shuttle buses. Still, this is a significant step forward for the Wine Train, which almost everyone in Napa Valley hated when it was first proposed.
Is the guy who paid $41,500 for that case of 1998 Petrus “a moral monster”? The WaPo’s Wonk Blog thinks so. Here’s his take: “If you are about to drink a $3,500 bottle of wine, you have to think for just a minute about this option instead: Drink a $100 bottle of wine that is about as good, but from a less renowned chateau. And deploy the other $3,400 to pay for malaria-preventing mosquito nets in Africa that, by one charity’s calculations, would be enough money to save about 1.5 human lives.” Hard to argue with that.
I enjoyed Christopher Watkins ‘tribute to J.J. Cale on the Ridge blog, in which he compares the songwriter’s purity to Paul Draper’s decision to list ingredient’s on Ridge’s labels. It’s a good read.
Okay. Early Wednesday morning here in New York. Time to hit the shower, then back to Wine Enthusiast Boot Camp for the 2014 Wine Star Nominations. Always an interesting experience.
At Tuesday’s Petite Sirah Symposium, there was plenty to talk about: viticulture and enology best practices, and lots of personal history, but one question overrode all else: How can we make Petite Sirah a “hot” category?
That’s what people asked me. Generally, it would take place privately: they’d approach me, do their introductions, and then graduate to the main point. “Say, in your opinion, what do you think we have to do” or “How long do you think it will take for…” and similar inquiries along those lines.
Well, I’m not the Oracle of Delphi. But here’s what I think. Petite Sirah is not going to be the Next Big Thing. I don’t believe any new varietal from California will be. The market and cultural forces are such as to mitigate against the rise of a new wine. True, we’ve had Moscato, but that had several things going for it. It was cheap, it filled the niche of a crisp, sweet white wine, and there was plenty of it to go around (at least, once the giant companies saw the handwriting on the wall and quickly grafted over hundreds of acres of Merlot to Moscato, which they then could quickly push out with no bottle age!).
Petite Sirah, obviously, is none of those things, beginning with cheap. There are inexpensive Petite Sirahs, but very, very few of them: in the last two years I’ve reviewed only about a dozen below $20 (of well more than 200 tasted), and of those half-dozen, most were execrable. The best, from the likes of Envy, Turley, Grgich Hills, Sean Thackrey, Frank Family Retro, Rutherford Grove, Chiarello and Summers, all cost between $32-$75, making them rather costly for the average American (although certainly less than Cabernet Sauvignons that had similar point scores). Most of these high-scoring Petite Sirahs, by the way, were from Napa Valley, which is hardly a surprise. The climate (warm and dry) is right, the soils are well-drained, and vintners can afford the viticulture to get things right.
Nor does Petite Sirah fill any particular niche that currently is unfilled. I said in my remarks to the Symposium that Petite Sirah is a distinctive wine, and it is; but it fundamentally is a full-bodied, dry red wine, which tends to have highish alcohol and considerable oak, and in those things, it’s hardly alone. So are Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot and Zinfandel. So it’s not as if the consumer is forced to buy Petite Sirah if she’s looking for something to drink with the barbecue. There are plenty of other choices.
Finally, there is not yet a great deal of good Petite Sirah to go around. Most of the top examples are produced in the hundreds of cases (which partially accounts for their relatively high prices). You’re not going to find good Petite Sirah at the 7-Eleven. Along these lines, however, I was struck by this article, from the July 5 “The Drinks Business,” to the effect that Santa Rita, the giant Chilean producer, just released its own, first Petite Sirah, called Bougainville. The interesting quote comes from the winery’s technical director, who said, he “had originally intended to buy Syrah [for the new line]. However, he praised the results now being achieved with Petite Sirah” in Chile. So they’re making progress there, too, just as are the Californians.
Well, that won’t hurt to raise Petite Sirah’s visibility, assuming Santa Rita exports Bougainville to the States. Still, Petite Sirah is unlikely to erupt positively onto the consumer’s radar to the extent that everyone will be wanting some this Christmas. But that’s not the point. The way to build a category is one step at a time. Let individual wineries establish their own reputations, among sommeliers, merchants and selected consumers. Let word of mouth spread the message. Let critics praise the wines (as we already are) until consumers, here and there, start thinking, “What is this ‘Petite Sirah’ I keep hearing about?” Curiosity has launched many a trend.
But to expect Petite Sirah to explode like Pinot Noir post-Sideways? Nope. Not until George Clooney and Ryan Gosling make a buddy movie about it.
My social media friends who think I hate the stuff will only receive confirmation of that misconception from today’s post. But really, this is something they have to think about.
Yesterday’s San Francisco Chronicle reported that there’s been a sharp falloff in venture capital funding for social media companies, which received “only 2 percent of the venture capital headed to Internet enterprises last quarter.”
That was down sharply from the 6 percent (at least) of all venture funding social media companies received in each of the quarters in 2010-2012, with the peak occurring in the third quarter of 2011, when Twitter launched.
Here’s the interpretation from a tech investment guy quoted in the article: “We are certainly in another bubble.” In fact, the article’s reporter, who writes for Bloomberg, compares this slowdown with “the deflating of the Internet bubble of the late 1990s” which led to the dot-com collapse.
No one is saying this defunding of social “bleedia” is going to result in a stock market crash. But it does seem to me that it represents a turning point in the evolution of social media: the moment when the investment community realized that social media–big and important as it is–isn’t as big, and won’t be as big, as some people had hoped.
Where the smart money now is going is to business intelligence, analytics and performance management, advertising, sales and marketing, and anything to do with the cloud.
Having said all this, it’s important to point out that the drop-off in social media funding applies only to new startup companies. It may simply be that the social media field is now mature, stocked with existing companies, leaving no room for new ones. But if use of social media was continuing to skyrocket as it did in 2008-2012, you’d think there would be continuing opportunities for savvy young entrepreneurs to enter the field. But apparently, that’s not what investors think.
It’s true that use of Twitter and of Facebook continues to rise. But both of these companies face revenue and earnings issues, and it’s not clear that they’ll be able to increase income without resorting to some kind of premium service that will turn off millions of current users (as YouTube is experiencing right now), or without getting deeper into advertising, which also is not without problems: Facebook, at the very least, is seriously annoying people with these new popup ads that appear in our feeds, and it’s not clear to me how much more users will take before they revolt.
You would think that these existing problems and challenges confronting Facebook, Twitter and YouTube would encourage young entrepreneurs to come up with alternatives. But I think the venture capitalists have realized that these revenue and earnings problems are endemic to the Internet, and not specific weaknesses of individual companies. Any social media startup will face the same problems.
Which gets us back to where I started: the problems inherent in the social media model seem unsolvable, at least by any means that are now apparent, even to Silicon Valley’s top angel investors. Social media companies can’t figure out reliable ways to earn profits because end users can’t figure out reliable ways to use social media to make money. The great investment bleedia is a clear sign that social media has hit its first significant speed bump, forcing it to slow down.
What’s the killer social media app for a winery?
I can remember back in the early 1990s when the Internet, or the World Wide Web as most of us called it, was so new that nobody knew precisely what it could be used for. The search was on for “the killer app,” the thing that everybody would want to do, which would therefore earn its users a great deal of money.
As it turned out, some young guys, like Sergei Brim and Larry Page, realized that a search function–the ability to find anything amidst the vast (and growing vaster) hoard of information–was the classic example of a killer app: they created Google and got rich. A little while later, Mark Zuckerberg realized that social networking was the most natural thing in the world for a World Wide Web to do. He created Facebook and also got rich.
(A lot of porn site entrepreneurs also got rich. Enough said about that.)
So those were at least three things the Internet could do (aside from obvious B2B functions that are boring but crucial to companies, not to mention email). The question of the last 5 or 6 years has been, what is the killer app on the Internet for small businesses, and particularly for small wineries–the thing that will help them make money?
I’m not prepared to say, because I don’t know; but yesterday I asked my Facebook friends how they use social media at their wineries, and the overwhelming response was typified by this: “As a tool, FB, Twitter, Pintrest, WEM , are all wonderful ways to connect to your clientele” and this: “I rarely use FB/Twitter for promo and sales. Mostly just to reinforce the simple ‘voice’ of [the winery] and stay in front of my ‘likers’.”
In other words, communication. Several people warned that, as soon as the winery is perceived as trying to sell stuff, it turns friends and followers off. This remains the irony and contradiction within social media.
Central Coast Wrap-up
The Central Coast wine industry seems to be booming, according to this report from the Pacific Coast Business Times. Indeed, you can feel this buzz everywhere you go in wine country. Such a contrast to a few years ago, when a gloomy atmosphere pervaded. I’ll be heading down to Santa Barbara next week for the Chardonnay Symposium, and am stoked by the thought of seeing all the winemakers and tasting their wines.
Blind tasting the cults
Interesting article by my old editor and colleague, Jim Gordon, in Wines & Vines, where he writes of an event at the Culinary Institute of America in which winemakers tasted each other’s wines blind, something they “rarely” get to do.
Winemakers really should do it more often. In fact, they should do it all the time. I know certain cult winemakers who’ve never tasted their own wines blind, much less tasted them against competitors. They might be surprised to find less expensive wines out-performing their own–according to their own palates! But then, that potential danger in blind tasting is probably why more winemakers don’t do it. And anyhow, when it comes to sales, it’s about image as much as it’s about quality. Along these lines, yesterday my sister emailed to ask why some bottles of wine are so heavy. She wanted to know if they cost more than lighter bottles, and, if so, how do the wineries make up for the difference? I explained to her, of course, that some wineries package their wines in heavy bottles in order to make the consumer think the wines are more important. This works very well, and the consumer is willing to pay more for a heavy bottle than for a light one. My sister was surprised, but she needn’t have been. P.T. Barnum spelled this out more than a century ago in his famous dictum about suckers.
I almost did a spit-take on reading that the organization that oversees the 1855 Bordeaux classification is applying for UNESCO World Heritage status.
UNESCO is the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, which is sort of the U.N.’s kumbaya wing; and part of it is the World Heritage Centre, which recognizes world sites of great historical and cultural importance and seeks to protect and preserve them. Among the 962 recognized World Heritage sites are Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, the historic center of Vienna, the Magao caves of China, the Acropolis, Israel’s Masada, the Pyramids of Egypt and, here in the States, Mammoth Cave, Yellowstone and the Statue of Liberty.
And now–let me get this straight–the Bordelais want to include a list of wineries? What am I failing to understand here?
The Classification was drawn up, let us remember, by wine brokers, who had been asked by the Emperor Napoleon to choose wines to display at a Paris exposition. It was nothing more nor less than a price list. True, it has assumed far more importance over the decades, but it’s hard to see how a “classification” can be included on a list of World Heritage sites. I suppose I might have more sympathy with the nomination if they had suggested Bordeaux itself as a region, rather than the 1855 Classification. But then, Bordeaux already received World Heritage status (in 2007), so what is it that the nominators are looking for, beyond that? All we have to go by is the Decanter story; I could find no additional information on the Internet. Here’s how the magazine quoted Phillippe Castéja, president of the Conseil des Grands Crus Classés, in explaining his group’s nomination:
The 1855 classification is the fruit of both natural and human factors and it has only gained in importance over time. Its value lies not just in the excellence of the wines, but the architectural richness its chateaux have brought to Bordeaux, the artisanal trades that it supports, from hand-picking of grapes to traditional vine pruning skills, to the renown that it has bought to France across the world.
This is true, as far as it goes, but Bordeaux’s architectural heritage already was honored in that 2007 World Heritage status, and it’s not clear to me (from an admittedly inadequate but nonetheless fairly closely scrutinized review of the existing list) that there are any other World Heritage sites that are devoted to “trades” and “skills,” as opposed to places. Nor is it clear from the Operational Guidelines whether such recognition is even possible.
It may be that the Bordelais are seeking recognition, not as a “natural heritage” (such as Mammoth Cave) but as a “cultural landscape,” which is allowed. The Guidelines define “cultural landscape” as, briefly, “the combined works of nature and man,” and as “illustrative of the evolution of human society and settlement over time.” But it’s very hard to see how the 1855 Classification would qualify as a “cultural landscape” the way, say, the Honghe Hani Rice Terraces of China (which is currently nominated for Heritage status) are. It looks to me like the Bordelais, having achieved their World Heritage status six years ago, are looking to gild the lily.
Maybe I’m wrong. But if the 1855 Classification is worthy of World Heritage status, then so are the U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence. I therefore officially nominate our founding documents.