Perhaps we should start calling it “The Wine Hadvocate,” as in the past tense. Now that Antonio Galloni has quit that sinking ship, there’s little question the Beginning of the End is here for Robert Parker’s once vaunted newsletter.
That stomping sound you hear is hundreds of wine bloggers dancing on Parker’s grave. That other sound, like a miasmal wind blowing through a dead forest, is the groaning of all the snobby cult winery owners who gave Parker majesterial permission to pimp their wines, and who now have to wonder if they backed the wrong horse.
Answer: Yup, you did.
I personally wasn’t surprised by Galloni’s decision. After Parker sold the Advocate off to its new Asian owners, I thought that move must have come as a kick to Antonio’s gut. I’m sure he didn’t know anything about it until after the fact, just as I’m sure Parker knew he was going to be divesting even as he hired Antonio. That is Machiavellian politics, my friend. Poor Antonio. He didn’t anticipate reporting to some Singapore-based bureaucrat named Lisa Perrotti-Brown, and must have been frantically considering his options since last December. Now we know what his decision is.
What he says he’s doing with his new website looks a lot like what James Suckling did on his website, which seems to be less of a success than James hoped it would be. It’s not so easy to remain famous and influential when you leave the employ of the periodical that put you there. Not to say it can’t be done, just that it’s hard. Can Antonio remain “an authoritative voice in what is now a very big and very verbose world wine conversation,” as Eater New York wondered?
I hope so. I met the man once (last year, in fact, at Premier Napa Valley) and he was kind enough to give me a very long interview and pose for pictures. But it’s not Antonio I’m thinking so much about right now, as those snooty winery owners who lived and breathed by Wine Advocate’s blessing to the exclusion of almost anyone else, and who now have to figure out how to make their overpriced Cabernets sound exclusive when the bastion of exclusivity, The Wine Advocate, they were addicted to has been battered beyond the point of recognition. I always warned them (the winery owners) not to put all their eggs in that one basket but they did anyway. Well, maybe they put their eggs into two baskets, but the other basket isn’t what it used to be either, with the result that they now have only one basket for all those expensive, rather fragile eggs, and it’s looking a little tattered.
I’m here for you, brothers and sisters up Napa way. Here to help you in your time of need. No hard feelings. Life goes on. In a few months, you’ll get over the Advocate, over Parker, over Galloni, like your first husband or wife. It will all seem like a bad dream. One of these nights, maybe over drinks at the Rutherford Grill, you’ll be able to laugh about it, and wonder how you could have been so gullible for so long.
READERS: I return from New York today and will resume new posts tomorrow. This is a repeat posting from Nov. 2008.
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WineDiverGirl is a California blogger who specializes in (as her blog says) “Wine Life and Social Media Coverage.” As such, she’s passionate about the convergence of the wine industry and social media, and writes provocative posts on how wineries and bloggers might work in tandem to help the industry move forward.
I’m all in favor of that, but the question is what, precisely, ought to be the relationship between bloggers and wineries. Last summer, in the Rockaway-gate dustup, I called for bloggers to keep their distance from wineries. When a reporter/critic gets too close to her subject, there’s too great a chance for a conflict of interest or, at least, the appearance of one. I recognized, at the height of the tempest, that it’s flattering for a blogger to be given special treatment by a winery, but it’s vital to resist the temptation to succumb to flattery. Wineries don’t love critics because we’re warm and fuzzy. They pretend to love us because we can help, or hurt, them economically.
Well, in her latest post, WineDiverGirl says she’s “looking for all the ways wineries and bloggers are currently connected (if at all) and new and improved ways for them to evangelize the beautiful power of wine.” She offers a number of ways for bloggers and wineries to work together, nearly all of which are wrong-headed and, in some instances, dangerous. Here are her suggestions:
1. “Host a guest blogger for a month: either pay them or the charity of their choice for them to write about your winery, winemaker, wine, vineyards, etc.” Can we agree that this is a terrible idea? If a winery pays a blogger, then that blogger can have no credibility whatsoever about anything he writes concerning the winery. Even if the winery donates money to the blogger’s favorite charity, it suggests a quid pro quo that makes the blogger suspect. If a winery wants to boast online about how great it is, it can start its own blog.
2. “[S]ponsor or offer scholarships to various wine tasting events to help bloggers get there.” Now, this isn’t as bad as #1. Wine writers are notoriously underpaid and sometimes it’s necessary to accept some help to cover travel expenses. I’ve done it. But as a rule, having your expenses paid by a winery is a bad idea. It’s better for a regional winery association to pick up the tab, so that you’re not perceived to be beholden to anyone in particular.
3. “Host a guest blogger to pour in your tasting room for a day.” This is bizarre. A tasting room staffer should know all about the winery, its wines and vineyards, its owners and winemaker, the area in question, wine in general, and so on. Why would a winery be interested in having a blogger be its public face in the tasting room, unless it expected to get some good publicity — which brings us back to the conflict of interest issue.
4. “Include bloggers in focused research or think-tank like conversations about planning your year, events, marketing.” Bloggers are now supposed to be marketing managers and event planners for wineries? I don’t think so. This crosses so many red lines, it’s hard to know where to begin.
WineDiverGirl concludes by reassuring wineries that bloggers “know consumers better than almost anyone…because they are the wine industry’s BEST consumers.” I would have thought the industry’s best consumers are ordinary working women and men looking to drink a nice glass of wine for dinner.
“What do you think?” WineDiverGirl asks. “How do you see wineries and bloggers working together for everyone’s benefit?” With all due respect to WineDiverGirl, who means well, I don’t see wineries and bloggers working together, if “together” means becoming strange bedfellows. Bloggers should be very careful about getting mixed up in the business of wineries, and wineries should be very careful about trying to influence the independent blogosphere.
READERS: I’m still buried in meetings at Wine Enthusiast for our annual winter conference. Please enjoy this post, originally published in July, 2008.
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There’s been a lot of chatter out there lately about the 100 point system. (Even my colleague at Wine Enthusiast, Paul Gregutt, has written skeptically about it.) While I might have thought this was a bit of a dead horse, the issue does shed light on, not just how some of us rate wine, but how we think about wine.
As a person of interest at Ground Zero of the 100-point scoring system, I’d like to offer my thoughts. What I meant by the debate shedding light on how we think about wine is this: Wine is something that people rank (consciously or not) on a qualitative basis. Other things we rank are films, automobiles and politicians. Things we don’t tend to rank are those we take for granted. Probably no one ranks paper clips.
We know all wine isn’t the same and even if we’re not wine drinkers we’re aware that some wines are better and more expensive than others. Once you get into the ranking game, you’re opening the door for experts to come in and decide what’s best, what’s better, and what’s not so good.
So the concept of wine critiquing works for me. As to how it’s done, it’s important to keep in mind that people want visual symbols to reference, not just text. A few years ago, the San Francisco Chronicle stopped using visual symbols in their wine reviews and went to text only. Readers revolted, and the paper had to restore the icons.
I guess there’s fundamentally no difference between a numerical score and puffs, stars, glasses or any other symbol, and so I can’t make an argument on logical grounds that the 100-point system is inherently better. I can only say why it works for me at Wine Enthusiast.
To begin with, it’s not really a 100-point system, it’s a 20-point system. We only publish wines with a rating of 80 or above. Everything else is given a code number, “22,” and consigned to the database’s bowels, where the public will never see them.
Since I work with a 20-point system, not a 100-point one, I don’t have to defend the extraordinary practice of giving a 67 to something instead of a 66 or a 68 or for that matter a 71. How you can slice the baloney that thin is a mystery to me and a little spurious.
So what’s the difference, you ask, between 82 and 83, or 91 or 92? It’s something you feel in your bones, head and heart. The bones are your first instinct. The head is your considered opinion based on further tasting and reflection, and the heart is when you’re sure you’re right and have nothing to be ashamed or afraid of, but can hold your head high and say, “This is what I believe.”
All this raises profound questions, which may be summed up by Alder Yarrow’s query at his blog, a few days ago: When it comes to wine critics, “whose perceptions and emotions do we trust?”
I’m not sure that this period of the public’s reliance on critics will be seen kindly by future generations (assuming there are any). We may one day be viewed as the equivalent of soothsayers or snake charmers or seers who read the entrails of beasts. But for now, wine critics are a vital part of the industry, along with the 100-point system. As for the who-do-you-trust part, I’ll leave that for others to decide.
READERS: I’m in New York for Wine Enthusiast’s Wine Star Awards and editorial meetings. This is a repeat of a post I wrote in May, 2008, shortly after I began blogging.
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Badmouthing wine critics is a parlor game anyone can play. Why not? The first guy who talked about “legs” put a Mark of Cain on the rest of us for all time. Ever since then, we critic types have been walking around with a big target on our butts that says “Kick here.”
I’ve learned to laugh at it and roll with the punches, but every once in a while somebody says something snarky about me and my collegues that makes me want to defend our occupation of wine criticism. This time around, it’s a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, Joel Stein. Now, I don’t know Joel, and he didn’t mention me, or anyone else for that matter, although he did quote Gary Vaynerchuk, who name-dropped Jancis Robinson, Spectator and Parker.
Joel seems to cover the culture beat at the Times. His online biography says he’s appeared on Comedy Central’s “Reel Comedy” and E! Entertainment’s “101 Hottest Hot Hotties’ Hotness,” so I guess we should take him seriously.
The object of Joel’s ire (I hope he doesn’t mind my calling him by his first name) is winespeak. Like I said, this is always an easy one for a columnist to knock, especially one who’s on deadline and can’t come up with anything more germane.
Joel’s hard-hitting column gets right to the point. He likens people who talk about “notes of cherries, tobacco and rose petals” to “a whole lot of jackass. The language of sommeliers, winemakers, sellers and writers,” he goes on, “has devolved into nothing besides a long list of obscure smells that tells me nothing.”
Well, hold on a gosh-darned micro-minuto here. As one who’s used “cherries, tobacco and rose petals” to describe more than one wine over the years, I feel as if the Hand of Destiny has tapped me on the shoulder as the Poster Boy to stand up and defend us over-worked, underpaid, and too-often mocked Wine Writers!
Here are the hard, brutal facts, my friends. Wines really do have very complex aromas and flavors of flowers, herbs and fruits, and other things as well: spices, minerals, animals, vegetables, and organic chemicals. The reason for this is that there are thousands of different kinds of molecules in wine, and many of those molecules are found in flowers, herbs, fruits, etc.
Now, Joel says he doesn’t care about these aroma and flavors descriptors (although, obviously, a lot of people do). He says, “I want to know if a wine is rough, balanced, acidic, sweet, simple, tannic, soft, hot with alcohol, mineraly [sic], watery or has a long finish.” Well, the better critics I know (and I know many of them in the U.S.) do tell their readers these things, as a matter of routine. A critic can say a wine has notes of cherries, and also say it’s rough, or balanced, or tannic, or hot, or whatever. No mutual exclusion there!
Joel also quotes Vaynerchuk saying this about critics: “[T]here’s a lot of people who suck at communicating…Nobody has guts.” Well, I’ll drop the names of some wine critic friends of mine who have guts and are damned good communicators. Alan Goldfarb. Dan Berger. Steve Pitcher. Eric Asimov. Jim Gordon. Jim Laube. Karen MacNeil. Kathy Marks Hardesty. Wilfred Wong. Laurie Daniel. Alder Yarrow. Harvey Steiman. My colleagues at Wine Enthusiast: Roger Voss, Monica Larner, Paul Gregutt, Michael Schachner and Joe Czerwinski. And, ahem, me. I could go on and on. Maybe Joel Stein is a wine critic manqué. He wouldn’t be the first.
I think Joel just woke up on the wrong side of bed and was feeling a little meow. I forgive him. Next time I’m tasting a great Pinot Noir with notes of cherries, tobacco and rose petals — and maybe even hints of licorice, mocha and green tea — I’ll lift a glass to Joel. L’Chaim!
Readers: Please enjoy this re-broadcast of the original Aug. 26, 2008 post. It generated more comments than anything else I ever wrote, and, for me, inaugurated what I now call “The Blog Wars,” which, hopefully, are now over. Back on Monday with new material.
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I found myself in a bit of a flap this morning. Yesterday, I made a comment on Mike Duffy’s blog, The Winery Web Site Report. He’d written about Rodney Strong sending preview samples of their debut 2005 Rockaway Cabernet Sauvignon ($75) to “a select group bloggers” in advance of sending it the usual way to paper-based wine reviewers like me (although obviously I’m a blogger too!). I didn’t know about the program, not having been contacted, although I did know about the impending Rockaway launch because Rodney Strong has been aggressively touting it through press releases for quite a while. Over the past week or so, during my routine web cruising, I’d seen a spate of glowing tributes to Rockaway on various wine blogs. These were almost universally positive and had phrases like “Making History” and “bold and prescient” and “cool and revolutionary.” As I saw more and more of these postings, I thought, WTF? But I let it go until I came across Duffy’s blog. That’s when I wrote this comment:
“Maybe the early release to bloggers will prove to be a good move on Rodney Strong’s part. But when I started seeing all these online reviews of Rockaway I really had to wonder. Why did all those bloggers give it free publicity? Don’t they get free wine every day? So why write about Rockaway? I haven’t had the wine (plan to review it tonight) and I have no idea if it’s any good, but it shows how easily some parts of the blogosphere can be manipulated into providing free publicity to wineries.”
That comment stirred up something of a s**tstorm. One person said it “smacks of some old media arrogance…” Another asked, “How exactly is this any different from WE or any other glossy getting samples and writing about them? Isn’t that ‘free’ publicity for the winery?” 1WineDude, who participated in the launch, wrote: “I did ask RS why they decided to do this, and my take on their response was that their PR / Marketing dept. was the driver behind it…” while Jeff, at Good Grape blog, said my comment was “misguided” and “made in something of a vacuum.”
So let me spell out my discomfort with Rodney Strong’s approach, even while I concede it was clever marketing. Rodney Strong for years has been trying to get the High Scores and the resulting attention for their wines. Nothing wrong with that. My impression has been that, while their reviews (at least, from me) have been quite good, it’s never been enough for owner Tom Klein. I figure the order must have gone out to the marketing and PR people (just as 1WineDude surmised) to figure out a way around the mainstream wine media and garner some attention in a new way. And guess what? It worked! The problem from my perspective is that those who participated were manipulated, and happily embraced their manipulators. I don’t blame any of the bloggers for reporting on Rodney Strong’s unique marketing strategy, but the glowing, gushing and self-referential “Aren’t we special?” quality is, for me, a turnoff. As for WE getting samples, yes, I do all the time, but I don’t write headlines or columns or special blogs about them, I just review them along with everything else. And I note that quite a number of well-known bloggers, who must have been approached by Rodney Strong, evidently declined to participate. I think they saw the potential for themselves to be used and decided, wisely, not to allow it.
Update (Aug. 27) Apparently, the participating bloggers agreed in advance to write about the wine. If a winery told me they’d send me a wine only if I agreed to write about it, I’d strongly refuse.
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!