You’d think they wouldn’t give a hoot. Wouldn’t they rather hear about the toast level of barrels, the composition of the soil, the angle of the slope with respect to the rising and setting of the sun, the type of crusher-destemmer, and the all-important details of pH and acidity?
Well, actually, no. On these trips I occasionally go on, buyers routinely let me know how happy they are to leave all that geek speak behind and get down to what they really like: gossip!
Oh, I don’t mean who’s doing what to whom, behind whose back. That can be delicious, but it’s best postponed for the afterparty, when everybody’s half tanked. The lunches, dinners and inbetween tastings I do feature wine, and wine is certainly the rationale for our gathering, and I can usually talk with some degree of specificity about them. But often enough, what people really want, when you get right down to it, is good conversation about this industry we all love and are lucky enough to work in: Wine!
Look, these wine buyers spend half their days being pitched by salepeople. Most of them are pretty knowledgeable already about the wines, wineries, regions and so on. There may be some divots in their understanding, and if there are, they’ll let me know; if they request specific information, hopefully I can provide it, and if I can’t, I always have my trusty computer with me, and can look up the precise percentage of Semillon in that blend.
But—and this is simply my impression—restaurateurs and wine merchants who care enough to take three hours of their day to come to an event Steve Heimoff is hosting want more than technical stuff. I can’t tell you how often they tell me me how boring they find techno-sessions to be—a recital of geeky trivia. Yes, they want and need a certain amount of it. It’s necessary for them to have some technical foundation they can pass on to their own buyers—customers—as part of the story. But, like I said, most of them already have a ready store of knowledge, and if they don’t, they know they can find it online. So why would they happily spend the better part of a business day with yours truly? Because they want good conversation.
They want good back-and-forth, and not just about Jackson Family Wines. They want to talk about their jobs: the challenges, the complexities, the ironies. They want insider information about what really goes on behind the scenes at wine magazines: not just the P.R. but the facts. They want my opinions—and I always stress, in no uncertain terms, that these are my OPINIONS, although in most cases the circumstantial evidence for my opinions is substantial—about stuff like: is there a relationship between paid advertising and scores? Are wine critics paid off by producers? What will happen when Parker dies (which God forbid won’t be for a very long time), et cetera. And I get it: When I started blogging, in 2008, I didn’t even know what the word “transparency” meant. I didn’t know how untransparent we critics were: lordly autocrats, dwelling in ivory towers, who allowed our reviews to flutter down to the masses in the streets, who had to accept them without question. Thank goodness the early commenters on my blog taught me the lessons of transparency: tell us everything about how you review wines, every single last detail, or run the risk of one of us finding out that you’re a liar and busting you on social media.
Because, after all, restaurateurs and merchants—many if not most of them, anyway—still have to figure in the ratings and reviews of wine critics in order to sell wine. A few, here and there, don’t, and I applaud them. But many others do need to cite a score on a shelf talker, bottlenecker or newsletter, because that’s what customers want, and the customer is always right. So they—restaurateurs and merchants—have a natural curiosity about how the process works, and moreover they have a right to know.
I never give away information so confidential it could compromise me. I tell the truth. I explain how the commenters on my blog, and other wine bloggers, taught me about transparency, and how grateful I am that they did, and how happy it makes me to tell them everything I can, without violating confidentiality agreements that could land me in a lawsuit. What I think I bring to the table, when I’m on the road helping Jackson Family Wines’ sales force to sell wine, is something unique: anyone can talk about technical data. Anyone can give his or her impressions about the wine. What few others can do is to talk about wine from the perspective of a former famous wine critic who’s been there, on the playing fields, at the center of the action, and who moreover—and by happy serendipity—started a little wine blog eight years ago that dragged me into the wonderful weirdness of social media. I don’t always tow the J.F.W. P.R. line. I told my employers when they hired me that they knew who I was, that I wasn’t going to turn into somebody else—at my age—and that, if they could live with that, I would be happy to represent J.F.W., a winery company I had admired and respected for twenty years, founded by a man whom I loved and revered. They said, “Fine. That’s what we want. Go out there, be you,” and that is what I do. So, bottom line: There is no job I can imagine that is more satisfying than to be paid to visit with these wonderful restaurateurs and merchants and relax, over great food and great wine, tell them what I can about the wines, describe my admiration for Jess, and discover areas of conversational interest that engage us. My biggest challenge on the road is to stick to a schedule: We tend to talk so much and so interestingly that, before you know it, we’re thirty minutes behind schedule for our next visit, and in L.A. or S.F. traffic, that’s a haul! Professionally, that’s a problem. Personally—for me and the restaurateurs and merchants I’m with—it’s a delight.
Anyway: I’m back in Oakland tomorrow (today, as you read this) after two weeks in Texas and Southern California. I will be reunited with Gus, the mere thought of which beings me comfort and joy. Have a fabulous weekend.
Some years ago, around 2011 or 2012, Jo Diaz, the winery publicist, set up an event at U.C. Davis that featured a showdown, of sorts, between me and Paul Mabray, who had created VinTank in 2009. VinTank has been described in this article as “the wine industry’s most powerful social media monitoring and data distribution platform…designed to help revolutionize the wine industry through monitoring and analyzing blogs, social media, and tasting note platforms and distributing that information to those in the wine and restaurant industries.” The idea behind Vintank, I gathered, was Paul’s strongly-held belief that social media was becoming, or already had become, a very important tool for wineries to sell wine, something VinTank could help them achieve, and that wineries had better hop onboard—at the risk of missing the boat.
By that time, I had acquired the reputation, mainly through this blog, of being something of a social media skeptic, although those who portrayed me as such tended to exaggerate the degree of my skepticism. I myself always took the position that social media’s ability to sell wine was limited. As I looked around, I saw an entrepreneurial explosion of social media consulting firms, all making inordinate claims about social media’s power, backing those claims up with Powerpoint-illustrated statistics, and, of course—so far as I could tell—hoping to be hired for the expertise they said they could bring to their clients, who all too often were hopelessly befuddled as to what they should do with this new-fangled gimmickry.
I never said social media was worthless. Far from it: I was a player myself, active not only on my blog but also on Facebook and, to a lesser extent, Twitter. In fact I advised every proprietor I talked to that they should practice social media to the extent of their ability to do so. At the same time, I said that social media was not, and could not be, the be-all and end-all for wineries: that it was but one tool in the toolbox, and wineries had best not forget the other tools, namely, good sales and marketing done the traditional way (not to mention making high-quality wine!).
Well, you know the media loves a good story of heroes and villains, so I got portrayed as this social media hater, and that was the point of Jo’s event at Davis. Jo thoughtful person she is, knew I didn’t hate social media. She knows me as well as anyone in the industry. At the same time, she thought it would make for good P.R. to present Steve vs. Paul as a gunfight, and I agreed to go along.
Things did get testy that day. I remember thinking that Paul’s claims for social media’s effectiveness were hyperbole, or at least unproven, and his comments about me went beyond objectivity towards the personal. Perhaps he felt the same way about me. At any rate, we parted in a friendly way, and, more importantly, gave the U.C. Davis V&E students “a good show,” which is always what these things are all about.
I largely lost track of VinTank after that. I knew that last year it was acquired by something called the W2O Group, when Paul told Forbes that, with the acquisition, “We can truly catalyze the industry into meaningful and healthy change in how they understand and relate to their customers.” But, like I said, I didn’t follow VinTank or W2), until yesterday, when Wine Industry Insight reported on developments with the headline, “Vintank dead? Vin65 customers left in lurch. Signs point to quiet euthanasia by private equity.” (VinTanke and Vin65 had previously partnered in 2013.) The article went on to quote from the Vin65 website that VinTank, “recently rebranded as TMRW Engine, will cease operations as VinTank…” and…”will no longer be supporting clients in the wine industry effective July 31, 2016.”
The actual details of VinTank’s complicated deals of recent years are hard to follow, and it’s not clear to me, at this time, if VinTank will continue to operate in one form or another, or what Paul’s role will be. (I reached out to him via Twitter, but didn’t hear back.) However, I think we can agree that social media has not turned out to be the savior of wineries, particularly smaller ones, who might have looked towards it for its supposedly miraculous abilities. If it’s true, as Wine Business Insight, reported, that VinTank is tanking, I feel bad for Paul, but I haven’t changed my position in nearly nine years. Social media is fun, it can be helpful for wineries, they should do it if they can, but it’s simply not as vital as some people initially portrayed it.
ED. NOTE: This version has been slightly edited from an earlier version.
Ever since around the time I began blogging (May 2008), a dominating part of the conversation has been whether or not online content providers can make enough money to make their endeavor worthwhile.
Early in that time period, there were hopeful prognosticators—mainly younger bloggers themselves, and a handful of would-be consultants who hoped to make money advising them about the ins and outs of social media—who believed, earnestly, that sources of income would open up to online content providers, even if it wasn’t entirely clear how that would happen.
This was a kind of magical thinking, of course, but it could be forgiven in light of the immense difficulties print journalism was then undergoing. Newspapers and magazines were facing the severest financial crunch of their lifetimes, as revenue from advertising—always a print publication’s biggest source of income—fell off the cliff. The promoters of online content argued that this was because print publishing had reached the end of its useful lifetime: peering into a cloudy future, they claimed that print would go the way of gaslight lamps, horse-drawn buggies and slide rulers. And because print was about to go extinct, they said, all that advertising money, added to by additional revenues brought in by subscriptions, would flow to online content providers.
I replied, in this blog and elsewhere, that this was unlikely to be the case. Print journalism was indeed suffering, but it wasn’t because of the rise of blogging, it was because of the Great Recession. Advertisers pulled back, not because they were casting an adoring gaze upon online publishers, but because they were struggling to stay alive: they had first to cover the basics, like salaries and rent, before they could lavish money on page ads.
Well, print is coming back, isn’t it? But what remains a conundrum for online content providers is how to make money. Consumers have proven over and over that they do not want to pay to see things online. They feel that they’re already paying enough to get online in the first place, and besides, there’s such an infinitude of websites that, if one of them gets greedy and starts charging a per-view fee, there are always a billion others that remain free.
In the world of wine, there admittedly are a few sites that get away with charging money, Wine Advocate, Wine Spectator and Vinous among them. But these are outliers—peculiarities of the wine industry, which has enough ardent consumers and trade members who are willing to pay $100 a year for access. As for the rest of the bloggers, theirs remains a labor of love, not one of potential profit.
Some bloggers as a result have turned to accepting ads on their sites. Ads don’t bring in a lot of money, but they bring in some, and if the blogger can increase his numbers, the amount of money might go up. But the same consumers who refuse to pay money for access to online content also don’t like advertisements on the sites they go to. This is the reason behind Tivo, which “eats commercials” (in their own words), and it is also the rationale behind services such as Adblock, which allows users to “surf the web without annoying ads.” This is great news for web surfers, but it’s a disaster for content creators: they finally figured out how to make a little money, and along comes this company that prevents their ads from being seen. It’s also a disaster for the companies that advertise; a honcho from the Interactive Advertising Bureau called ad-blocking sites “an unethical, immoral, mendacious coven,” extreme but, under the circumstances, understandable language.
Ad-busting companies such as Adblock certainly don’t want to kill the goose that lays the golden egg. That would not be helpful to their own bottom lines. What to do? In a really interesting development, Adblock just announced they will integrate Flattr, a Swedish company that calls itself “a social microdonations service” by which content consumers can make voluntary “donations” to websites they like. This eliminates the need of the provider to accept advertising (which most providers don’t like to do anyway), and also increases the depth and complexity of the relationship between provider and consumer. Users would set up a “PayPal-like account,” put money into it, and from those funds providers would be paid, using a special Flattr algorithm based on things like the duration of the user’s stay on the site.
Will the Adblock-Flattr model work? Flattr co-founder Peter Sunde said, on Fast Company, that the new model promises “to help artists, creators, journalists, everyone, to earn a fair living from their work. Not to be abused.” That sounds pretty good to me.
If you’ve been reading me for years, you know that I was arguing in 2009, 2010, 2011 that (a) print newspapers and magazines are NOT dead (as so many bloggers were predicting and hoping) and (b) social media was NOT the be-all and end all for wineries. Well, I was right on both scores! USA Today has an article out, “Why People and Companies Are Lining Up to Buy Newspapers” that explains how newspapers are hot-hot-hot, which is why the paper’s owner, Gannett, has offered to buy Tribune Publishing.
I’ve always subscribed to newspapers. I’m going on 30 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, and I’ll frequently pick up an Oakland paper and the New York Times as well. Yes, I’m a Boomer, and old habits die hard; everyone my age says they like to wake up in the morning and have their coffee and breakfast while reading the paper. But all those years when the bloggers were guaranteeing that “print journalism is dead, it’s all online now,” I was saying, Not so fast.
As for social media, I always had my doubts, especially about Twitter, which never appealed to me (although Lord knows I tried). I’m a huge Facebook fan, but Twitter’s abbreviated limits just didn’t allow me enough space to express what I want to say. Well, now we see the trouble Twitter’s in—and how fantastically well Facebook is doing. The same issue of USA Today has another article headlined “Facebook defies tech earnings gloom.”
Anyhow, I’m on an extended trip back east on behalf of Jackson Family Wines, and loving it. Washington D.C. is really one of the most beautiful cities in America, and yesterday I got an up-close-and-personal experience of Baltimore, a city I’d never been to but have read much about, particularly their downtown revitalization, and what a great sports town it is. Fantastic architecture: some of those buildings are showstoppers. We’ve been going to some great restaurants, and yesterday went to the Maryland Club, the kind of place that barely exists anymore: a private club for locals, where you have to be vetted to be admitted. There were some gray-hairs (like me) but also some Millennials, so the blood is being refreshed at this 1857-founded social institution. They are very serious about their wine, and we had a great seminar and tasting. I also have been meeting some of the most interesting people, including the leaders of the soon-to-be-opened Trump International Hotel, here in D.C., and a young guy, Jason Larkin, who is the wine expert for Secretary of State John Kerry, over at the Department of State. I hope to arrange a Q&A with Jason here on the blog, and to learn more about his fascinating job.
I am fascinated by Washington culture. I know little about it, except through movies and House of Cards and political thrillers. Coming from a very distinct culture myself (San Francisco and the Bay Area), I understand how easy it is for outsiders to have stereotyped views. As we walk and drive the streets of the District I look at all those other people and wonder what branch of government they work in and what secrets they hold. Probably they’re just normal people like everybody else. Someday, on my bucket list is to spend a week here in the nation’s capital and do all the usual sightseeing. Maybe next Spring.
Lots of rain today in D.C. but it isn’t dampening anyone’s spirits, especially mine. We have another big day and night planned. More tomorrow.
Since by now it is obvious that anyone can write and publish a wine review via social media, we need to seriously address the issue of whether “Anyone can become a wine taster with a little practice.”
That, at least, is the contention of Anna Harris-Noble, a Brit who runs a company called Taste Exchange. She rejects the notion that any special palate is required, arguing instead that “Wine tasters are no different to [sic] anyone else, they’ve just had more training in identifying tastes and smells, so the good news is that anyone can become a wine taster with a little practice.”
Is this true, or does a real taster need special talent?
We’re all familiar with the concept of the “supertaster.” As developed by Linda Bartoshuk, it argues that some people perceive tastes more intensely, due probably to genetic factors; some famous critics, including Robert Parker and Ron Washam, might conceivably be supertasters.
But what is tasting ability, anyhow?
Whenever somebody reviews anything—movie, car, wine—and writes about it, the public inherently trusts that the person knows what he’s talking about. It’s human nature. “So-and-so wouldn’t be reviewing the thing, if he weren’t qualified.” This is particularly true if the review appears in a respected source, such as a well-known magazine or website, which almost guarantees credibility.
But the Internet and social media have begun eroding the trustworthiness of magazines in recent years; the public seems almost as likely to believe a self-published blog as a magazine with a circulation of hundreds of thousands.
Setting aside for the moment the question of “What is tasting ability?” we first encounter the reality of many people reviewing wine online. That is a fundamental truth: there may be upwards of 1,000 of wine blogs in the U.S. alone. They’re tasting wine, they’re writing about it, they are presumably thinking seriously about it, they are presumably being taken seriously by others. Therefore, from one point of view we have to assume that they have tasting ability because their behavior exhibits all the external parameters of a tasting professional.
But we think of tasting ability as more than the ability to publish a tasting note, right? So what is it? Is Harris-Noble right—wine tasters are no different than anyone else? Or do professional wine tasters have some sort of special gift that the rest of us don’t?
Harris-Noble suggests that it’s training and practice, not inherent ability, that makes for a professional taster. I think that begins to address the issue, but it’s only a beginning. Because, let’s face it, you don’t become a wine taster—a good one—solely because you get your hands on the occasional bottle of wine and write up some notes.
What else does it take?
I don’t think there are any absolutes, but if I were in charge, I’d want credible wine tasters to
- Taste as widely and broadly as possible. You can’t taste everything, of course, but you can taste as much as you can.
- Determine whether you will be a specialist or a generalist. A specialist focuses on a single country or region. I was a specialist. A generalist focuses on the world. Jancis Robinson is a generalist. One is not better than the other. You also should visit the places you’re writing about as often as you can.
- Develop a certain craftsmanship in writing. The best tasters/writers consciously seek a personal style. Think of it as the terroir of your writing.
- Read, study, learn. The knowledge of wine—its history, methodology, geography and so on—is a lifetime pursuit. Understanding, for example, the history of oak influence in Chablis wines will make you a better taster and writer.
- Continuous self-evaluation, which depends on self-knowledge. If you’re not getting better as a wine taster all the time, then you’re getting worse. And you have to be honest with yourself about it.
By the way, I saw a news report the other day about a man born without arms who became a world-champion archer. He trained himself to use his legs and feet, and even invented a new type of bow. So can anyone at all be a good taster? Yes. But some have to work harder at it than others.