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Talking about wine talk

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Back when John F. Kennedy was President, Helen Thomas, the White House correspondent and, at the time, the only woman to hold that post, asked JFK what he was doing to help women.

“Not enough, I’m sure,” smiled Kennedy, in his wry, bemused way. The implication was that, of course, no American President can ever do enough when it comes to the great issues, like women’s rights. All he or she can do is to try and make things better.

I thought of that long-ago incident when I read The New Yorker’s latest article on wine, called “Is there a better way to talk about wine?”

My answer? Borrowing from JFK, I’m sure there is a better way to talk about wine. I’m just not sure that I, or anybody else, knows quite what it is, or how to get there.

The New Yorker article breaks no new ground for readers of my blog, who are thoroughly familiar with these complaints about “extravagant tasting notes” that ooze “overwrought and unreliableflowery, elaborate flavor descriptions” aimed at “wealthy men.” Familiar, too, are my readers with the various forms of experimental subterfuge of recent years, wherein studies report on how wine consumers, even educated ones, can be bamboozled if the wines are tasted blind, or if the labels are switched, or if information about them is deliberately distorted. The New Yorker article refers to these studies to bolster its case, and then reiterates that overblown wine vocabularies contribute to the “confusion” experienced by so many consumers. (You can almost hear the writer, Bianca Bosker’s, joy as she quotes a Wine Advocate descriptor: “liquefied Viagra.”)

It is of course easy as falling off a log to criticize anything in the world, as long as the person doing the criticizing doesn’t have the responsibility for coming up with something better. Bosker’s deconstruction of “minerality,” and the near impossibility of defining it, testifies to this fact: Just because something is hard doesn’t make it silly. She toys with the alternative of a “chemistry”-based descriptive vocabulary (fat chance) rather than an “obfuscating” one of poetry and metaphor. She even turns to Matt Kramer’s new book, True Taste, but completely misses Matt’s point: he’s not saying (as Ms. Bosker writes) that “only six [sic] words [actually seven] are necessary to evaluate a bottle’s essential attributes.” Matt himself writes that his book “is not, of course, about a mere seven words. Instead, it’s about those values that involve actual judgment,” and “is about tasting wine with discernment.”

Well, who could be against judgment and discernment? Matt, who has made a living of being a wine wordsmith (same as the rest of us), was looking for a new angle for a new book, and came up with True Taste: it’s a little frothy, but no harm, no foul, and plenty to think about. There’s nothing wrong with talking about “insight, harmony, texture, layers, finesse, surprise and nuance”—Matt’s seven words. But am I wrong in thinking that those concepts, if not explicitly spelled out then at least broadly described, have underlain good wine writing forever? They certainly lubricate the writing I know, from my own books and articles to Parker’s, Oz Clarke’s, Jancis Robinson’s, Steve Tanzer’s, Antonio Galloni’s, Benjamin Lewin’s, yes and Matt Kramer’s, and so on. If writers want to add things about raspberries and peppercorns, so much the better. I think Matt,  who enjoys an adroit pen (can we say that anymore?), would be the last to condemn metaphorical wine descriptors. His grudge—mine, too—is when they go over the top.

But where is the line? Nobody really knows, and this is where Ms. Bosker’s article is so frustrating, in the way these “on-the-one-hand, on-the-other” New Yorker articles can be. The title seems to imply that, if the reader will just wade through the 2,098 words of text, he or she will be enlightened, and discover that there truly is “a better way to talk about wine.”

Alas, nothing of the sort happens. And, if you think about recent attempts to make wine writing “better,”–I’m talking to you, Twitter, and to a big part of the blogosphereyou’ll have to admit that failure is no success at all.

But perhaps I am too harsh on Ms. Bosker, for at the very end, she seems to change tone and switch over to a belief that “a little mystery” in winespeak is not such a bad thing. She even wonders “what a Baryshnikov in a glass might taste like.” Now, that’s good wine writing—and a good way to think about wine–but it’s also exactly the kind of “overwrought, flowery” metaphor that critics, including Ms. Bosker, came out swinging against. Happily, by the end of her article, Ms. Bosker apparently has undergone an intellectual metamorphosis in which she realizes that her initial concept was, if not erroneous, at least hopelessly incomplete to describe the challenge of talking about wine. As a writer myself, I’m familiar with that evolution: Writing makes you think, makes you analyze simplistic thoughts so that you realize they’re not as simple as they might have seemed at first blush. You end up, in other words, in a different–and better–place from where you started. This is a very good thing.

So is there a better way to talk about wine? I suppose there is, although I don’t think the best wine writing, from any era, including ours, needs improvement. But I welcome this chit-chat, if for no other reason than that it stimulates this sort of discussion.


There are no great wines, just great bottles

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When Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gregory Pardio hears “Bennie and the Jets”, something comes over him.

“I’ve always associated the song with abundant sunlight and clean-house smells and security,” he told the Wall Street Journal, explaining that when he was a little boy, his mother would clean their house “with the Elton John single playing.”

Now, I love “Bennie and the Jets” as much as anyone, but when I hear it I don’t smell Pine Sol and see sunlight streaming through Venetian blinds. Nor would my mother (who was not much of a house cleaner) have listened to Elton John under any circumstances. (Guy Lombardo was more to her taste.) But I take Gregory Pardio’s point that “Bennie” appeals to him on some highly personal level that ultimately is impossible to explain, even to himself. As he puts it, he adores the song “[e]ven if [I] don’t know the words or what they mean.”

We all have “our songs,” I suppose. Or, to put it another way, we all have songs that strike a particular resonance with us, for reasons that usually occur on an unconscious or subconscious level involving memory, emotion, nostalgia. And I think it’s the same with wine. It’s a cliché to point out how travelers to some little Ligurian town discovered the best wine they’d ever had in a trattoria as the sun set over the sea. Would anyone else like that wine quite as much? Probably not. Same with “Bennie and the Jets” for Gregory. His fond memories of his mother and his childhood wonder set him up for that song to impact him every time he hears it.

What about a “great” wine, like a Grand Cru Burgundy, a First Growth Bordeaux or a cult Napa Cabernet? Do they have some kind of objective greatness that makes them instantly revered by anyone with any sort of understanding of wine? I don’t think so. Most people, even wine lovers with considerable experience, wouldn’t swoon over them if they tried the wine blind, with no context whatsoever. There might be a few people who “got it,” who even when tasting the wine blind experienced something so soulful that they had to stop everything and just experience the reverie. But I don’t think most people would.

There are rock songs that the majority of critics put on their top ten lists. Most reviewers would include Stairway to Heaven, for example. For me, Brown Sugar always does it, but then so does Pink’s You + Your Hand, or Superstition by Stevie Wonder, or almost anything early Beatles, for that matter. I’d be hard pressed to prefer one over the other and would hate to have to declare which is the best.

This is why I say that there are no great wines, just great bottles. Each bottle means something different to each of us, when we sip it. It may mean different things on different occasions. This is why so many wine aficienados say that, while they can appreciate an expensive, critically-acclaimed wine, they’d really prefer to drink something else (cost aside), that means more to them. They want, in other words, a “Bennie and the Jets” wine.

I’ve been in the business of declaring one wine to be greater than another for many years. I still basically stick to that concept. Whenever I have a tasting of wines, one of them always sticks out above all the others. At the same time, I can’t help but be influenced by the amazing revolution I’ve been privileged to be part of, wherein several new generations have arisen that question the pronouncements of “experts,” and share their views over social media. For me, the Big Question going forward isn’t whether or not we’ll still have a handful of “Great Wines” dominating the landscape, but if they’ll be the same “Great Wines” that have dominated it in the past. With everyone having his or her own “Bennie and the Jets” wine, I wonder if we’ll have room for “Great Wines” at all.


What social media does really well

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Last week, after The Donald unleashed his tirade against Mexicans, I posted a petition on my Facebook page urging Macy’s to “fire” Trump by cancelling their sponsorship of his clothing line.

Lo and behold, the very next day, Macy’s announced that they were doing exactly that: they dumped Trump.

Much as I would love to take personal credit for that, I can’t. Hundreds of thousands of people signed the petition, which Macy’s apparently took very seriously. And so Donald Trump is learning that words, even hastily uttered, have consequences.

That was an example of what social media does best: galvanizing popular outrage and channeling it in effective ways. Another example is this issue of the confederate flag in South Carolina. We know how that turned out: they decided to remove the flag from their statehouse. Certainly, South Carolina’s governor, Nikki Haley, had a lot to do with the outcome, with her brave personal reaction; but in reality, it was “social media, not businesses or politicians, [that] drove [the] flag removal,” in the words of this perceptive San Francisco Chronicle piece.

Almost as soon as the dreadful Charleston church shootings were over and it was learned that the shooter fancied the confederate flag, activists began a concerted campaign to force major corporations, such as Walmart and Sears, to stop selling confederate flag-related products. Those companies responded quickly. Anti-confederate flag sentiment went viral on Twitter and other social media, and voters besieged South Carolina lawmakers, who also responded quickly, by voting to remove the flag.

I saw this power of social media to politically stimuate huge numbers of people as early as 2011, when tens of thousands of Egyptians, communicating via Twitter, mobilized in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to protest against then-President Hosni Mubarak’s repressive regime. The dictatorship responded in exactly the wrong way: by attempting to suppress Twitter and Facebook, “a grave mistake” that was “the beginning of the end” for the regime. The author Wael Ghonim has called this spectacular continuation of the Arab Spring “Revolution 2.0” in his book of the same name.

This is what social media was designed for: it encourages communication and sharing, empowers and amplifies the voiceless, and can bleed over into the mainstream media when things go viral—thus influencing the course of history. I could cite instance after instance of social media’s political muscle, from the people’s overthrow of Filipino President Joseph Estrada and the similar overthrow of Spanish prime minister Jose Maria Aznar to the Catholic Church’s troubles with pedophile priests.

I celebrate social media for these reasons—and I keep in mind that social media also has a less spectacular but no less wonderful use: that of merely allowing us to stay in touch with friends (both real and digital), to learn from them and be amused and inspired and make our lives less disconnected from each other. That is a fantastic thing, McLuhan’s global village writ digitally. What is far less clear is whether social media can play a strong role in the prosaic business of selling things. That is, as Dorothy noted, a horse of a different color.

Horse


Bloggers: stop the insults, now.

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There used to be sexism in the wine business. I know, because I know some wonderful women winemakers who began their careers in the 1970s and told me their stories. Even though they had winemaking degrees, they couldn’t get hired anyplace but the laboratory, because the white men who owned the wineries thought they’d be incompetent as winemakers.

Well, we don’t have sexism anymore, thank goodness. But we have another form of prejudice that’s just as pernicious: ageism.

Read, for example, this piece, from Snooth, that refers to “old white guys.” The author of the Snooth piece, James Duren, is quoting Jeff Siegel, the proprietor of a wine blog called winecurmudgeon.com. In the Snooth piece, Duren is writing about the demise of the point-scoring system (yes, again…yawn), and apparently came across something Siegel had written on his blog (I tried to find it but couldn’t, so I will trust that Duren is quoting Siegel accurately). Siegel was going on about how social media is changing wine is such fundamental ways that the entire sales and distribution chain is being upset, which, he claimed, is “something the old white guys can’t even begin to understand.”

Okay, let’s break this down.

First of all, Siegel isn’t exactly some cool young dude. Here’s a picture of him from his website

SiegelPhoto credit: winecurmudgeon.com

that makes it clear his younger self is fast disappearing in the rear view mirror. So words of wisdom, Mr. Siegel: Be careful whom you disparage. What goes around, comes around, in this world of karma.

But even worse than Siegel’s uncalled-for rudeness is its absolute incorrectness. I’ve worked with plenty of “old white guys” in the wine industry who are a lot smarter and more successful than Mr. Siegel will ever be. In fact, the winery owners and executives I know understand precisely how social media, online buying and all that is rocking their world. They’re trying to deal with it the best they can, the same as everyone else: the problem, as I’ve pointed out for years, is that there are no easy solutions.

Look: When you’re a little blogger, it’s easy to pontificate. That’s what some bloggers do: From the ivory tower of their desktops they type the most vapid absurdities into their computers, then hit the “Publish” button and think they come across like Einstein declaring the Theory of Relativity.

But not a single one of these bloggers actually runs a wine business! (If I’m wrong, let me know. But I don’t think I am.) They’ve never sold a damn bottle of wine, never had to hit gridlocked roads visiting with on-premise or off-premise accounts, never had to come up with a marketing campaign, never had to develop a winery website, never sent a wine sample off to a critic, never lived with the fallout of a bad review, never hosted a winemaker dinner, never had to meet a payroll for field workers and secretaries, never had to fix a tractor on a cold rainy morning, never stayed up for three days and nights doing a harvest. None of that, nada, zero, zilch. And yet they think that being a blogger puts them in a position to criticize older winery owners and tell them how to run their business.

Chutzpah!

What is this fear and loathing these not-so-young bloggers have for “old white guys” anyway? Their psychological hangup obviously is connected to their hatred of point scores, and of wine reviewing in general, which they claim is elitist. But then these same bloggers turn around and review wines (from free samples, of course), just like older critics do—and yet without the experience, without the chops, without the context.

Perhaps they’re just acting out subconscious frustrations they feel towards their own parents. Whatever the cause, their anger, rudeness and vitriol is not only ugly, but will hurt them in the long run, because one thing that doesn’t change about the wine industry is that it’s a small town where everyone knows everyone else, and people value respectfulness and kindness. You want to succeed in this business for the long run? Do your homework, learn your stuff, play nice in the sandbox, and wait your turn. You don’t have to tear others down to boost yourself up.

And as for social media completely disrupting the traditional sales model and replacing it with a bunch of “friends recommending to friends,” if you believe that, I’ve got a bridge to sell you. Ain’t gonna happen anytime soon. Social media has become a useful tool in the overall tool kit with which to market and sell wine, but it’s just that: a tool, and not even a very good one, if we’re going to be brutally honest. We’ve been having this conversation now for eight years and social media still hasn’t displaced traditional marketing and sales approaches. If it worked as well as people like Mr. Siegel claim, don’t you think proprietors would have dismantled their sales and marketing departments—thereby saving tons of money—and simply depended on social media? Of course they would have. But they know something that Mr. Siegel doesn’t: Social media doesn’t work as advertised by its adherents. Are these proprietors simply “old white guys who can’t even begin to understand” how the real world works? Or are they savvy businessmen who require proof, not simple, self-serving assertions, that something works? The latter, methinks. No, meknow.


Twitter’s shifting winds. Dead Social Media Walking?

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I never was much of a Twitter fan. Years ago, people whom I respected for their business savvy told me I had to start using it.

“But I don’t want to,” I responded. “It seems so pointless. ‘I had scrambled eggs this morning.’ Who cares?”

“You don’t understand,” my career-advising friends told me. “You have to, if for no other reason than to build your brand.”

Well, I hadn’t known I had a brand, but apparently I did. But why did I have to build it? And why through Twitter?

Yet I dutifully did as I was told. I signed up for Twitter and started tweeting, although I never liked it. Before long, I had thousands of followers.

That was success of a sort, I guess. But I never did figure out what to say on Twitter. Facebook was totally different. It felt freer, more open, more wide-horizoned. Twitter by contrast felt as confined as a procrustean bed.

And then of course there was this blog, which afforded me all the opportunity I really wanted to communicate instantly and intelligently with others through social media.

Apparently, I wasn’t the only one who didn’t love Twitter. There’s been a spate of media reporting in the last few days about the company’s problems. On June 11, CEO Dick Costolo, under fire recently for Twitter’s failing to hit revenue and profitability targets, resigned (or was pushed out; who knows?).

On June 12, Twitter’s stock price was at $35.90, its lowest in more than a year despite a surging stock market. On June 14—yesterday (and coincidentally my birthday)–one of Twitter’s biggest shareholders, Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, told the Financial Times than Twitter’s next CEO, whoever he or she is, “has to have tech savviness, an investor-oriented process and a marketing mentality.”

Things have gotten so bad that a Harvard professor recently called Twitter “the BlackBerry of social media.” (Ouch!) BlackBerry’s stock has basically flat-lined for the last three years.

What’s the problem? It was described well on the Washington Post’s Wonk Blog: It’s virtually impossible to separate the wheat from the chaff. And on twitter there is a lot of chaff…up to 90% of a typical twitter feed is basically a waste of everyone’s time.”

I’ve been a big advocate of social media for wineries for years, although I never drank the Kool-Aid that some people apparently did, who thought that social media (and especially Twitter) was the greatest marketing tool ever. My attitude was, social media can’t hurt. If you have a few minutes during the day, you might as well do something on Twitter or Facebook or Instagram or Pinterest. Who knows? You might actually drum up some sales. But I never thought social media should be anyone’s fulltime job, unless the winery is so well-heeled that they don’t care.

I think these latest travails of Twitter represent a tipping point of sorts. Social media flared up in the mid- and late 2000s like a wildfire sweeping across a drought-stricken plain. It seemed for a while that everyone in the world was going to abandon traditional forms of communication and go digital.

But perhaps the wildfire has now consumed much of the fuel that gave it breath. We in California understand the behavior of wildfires. They rage only for as long as the dry offshore winds drive them. But the wind always shifts; once an onshore pattern kicks in, the wind sends the fire back over land it has already consumed; and the fire, deprived of fuel, dies.

What wind is blowing social media now, and in which direction? We may have only to look at Twitter to discern the answer. And the lesson for wineries (there always is one)? Be smart in your choices of which social media to use, and how often, and at what cost. There is, and always has been, lots of chatter out there to convince you of its value. While this chatter has been enthusiastic, it has not always been accurate.


Is social media losing clout?

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There’s a running joke on the great HBO series, Silicon Valley, to the effect that the only tech company that’s worth investing in is one that’s losing money.

If that’s true, then social media companies must be doing really well. However, in the case of Twitter, LinkedIn and Yelp, that doesn’t appear to be the case. The stock value of all three has gone down significantly lately, causing the San Francisco Chronicle to headline an article, “Is social media losing favor? Stocks dive on weak results.”

The issue, says the report, is “whether social media companies can keep their growth rates vigorous enough to justify their valuations.” Underlying that problem is the continuing challenge for these companies of how to maximize revenue, when their basic services are free for everyone to use. Yelp, for example, reported that ad sales have slowed down, making it harder to make money; Yelp’s CEO said the company is responding by “seek[ing] ways to increase engagement and drive awareness” in order to boost “local advertising.”

Well, “seek and ye shall find” may be basic Biblical advice, but it doesn’t always work in the real economy. I think what we’re seeing in social media is the same sort of consolidation that every other industry has experienced, with smaller firms getting driven out or gobbled up, as the giants expand their power. Facebook’s stock, for example, has been on a tear for the last three years, more than quadrupling, thanks to continued growth, including from Instagram, which it bought in 2012.

Twitter is an interesting example of a social media company, perhaps the prima facie one, whose actual financial performance consistently lags behind the weltanschauung it has created for itself in the popular culture. “Early hopes of rapid user growth were rapidly dashed,” reports the online news site, Fusion.

As a result, the company decided to concentrate on other metrics, like ‘audience’, which would count not only people using the service directly but also non-users and logged-out users who encounter tweets in any number of different contexts.”

This sleight-of-hand reminds me of the numbers game some bloggers were playing a few years ago, with sites competing with each other based on metrics like hits, unique visits, page views and so on. I was always asking the question, What difference does it make how many hits you have, if you’re not making any money? And I was always told not to be silly, because the big-number sites would eventually make money, and plenty of it, so I should keep my mouth shut.

Well, here we are, with some of the biggest big-number social media sites in America still struggling to make money, with no apparent solutions in sight. This is why the Fusion article suggests that Facebook buy Twitter, in order for Twitter “to remain relevant over the long term.” The theory is that Facebook, which has figured out how to make the Facebook experience “personal,” could transfuse that personality into Twitter, which—however much you may like and admire it—is about as personal as a classified ad.

Still, even if it were, would that make Twitter profitable? It couldn’t hurt. But figuring out how to create a revenue stream remains the single greatest obstacle to social media sites. If they can’t figure it out, they’re going to have to change direction and become something else, if they want to survive. There’s evidence this is already happening. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that Instagram is making money from an industry not usually associated with the personal warmth and fuzziness of social media: “the commercial real-estate brokerage business,” with real estate giants like Cushman & Wakefield “using photography-intensive Instagram for branding purposes.”

I suspect my young friends in Oakland, who love Instagram and are part of the cadre that made it popular, will continue to put up pictures of their tattoos and dogs on Instagram, but you have to wonder if their dedication will survive Instagram’s transition to what they may interpret as a rapacious corner of entrepreneurial capitalism and hype. How Instagram, and by extension social media in general, straddles that stool is going to be interesting to watch.


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