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Why online wine reviews don’t get more respect

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You’ve probably heard that Ashley Judd, a celebrity I don’t know much about but I like her anyway, is suing people who have been sending her horrendous tweets.

The brouhaha all started when Ashley, apparently, tweeted something derogatory about a basketball team, Arkansas, that was playing against her beloved Kentucky.

Imagine that! A sports fan talking smack about a rival sports team!

Well, that opened the floodgates. Ashley was inundated with some pretty awful stuff, most of which is unprintable on a family blog like steveheimoff.com : )

This raises the whole question of the abuse of social media. People do say the most terrible things—often, I think, while in a state of C.U.I. (commenting under the influence). It can be demoralizing to be on the receiving end of crap: I know, because I’ve been there.

Let’s talk about wine reviewing. A wine critic needs to have the trust of the people who read him or her. Without that trust, he has no credibility—and without credibility, who cares what he has to say? If you look over the history of where and how wine critics have published their opinions, you’ll find that they’ve been in extremely credible publications. Today’s top wine magazines are trustworthy; whether you agree with their reviews or not, whether you like the 100-point system or loathe it, the fact remains that such pubs as Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, Wine Advocate, Wine & Spirits, Food & Wine, etc., are widely perceived to be, like Caesar’s wife, “above suspicion.”

The way for any publication to be above suspicion is to conduct itself respectfully. Professional pubs have internal codes of ethics that prohibit their writers from writing inappropriate things. And not just their writers: they also do not allow foul letters to the editor or slanderous, insulting comments on their websites. Professional publications, in other words, police themselves, in order to keep the conversation civil.

Social media, on the other hand, is pretty much the opposite. Anything goes; all is permitted; eliminating even vile comments is seen as onerous censorship. It was the very freedom of social media that attracted so many of us to it in the first place.

In the last couple of years, we have begun to see the dark side of this openness. When anyone can say anything they want to—no matter how odious or untrue—it is bound to detract from the credibility of the platform as a whole. In fact, that platform can even be viewed as having encouraged odious comments, for the simple reasons that (a) it enabled them, (b) it didn’t explicitly prohibit them, and (c) it didn’t remove them at once. This is the background to the Ashley Judd situation.

And this is why platforms like Twitter, Facebook and pretty much all the rest of them suffer from a credibility gap: If the worst people can use them to spout their stupidity and hatred, this necessarily impacts everybody who chooses to write something on that platform. It’s trickle-down sleaze, and like it or not, it tarnishes everyone.

Am I saying that online wine reviews aren’t accurate and informed? Not at all. I’m not talking about the content of online reviews; I’m talking about the platforms themselves. In the case of any individual online reviewer, you might have accuracy and integrity, but the fact that it appears on a platform that allows untrammeled inaccuracy and untruthfulness to flourish must necessarily make it suspect, or at least keep it from being as credible as it otherwise could be.

What’s the answer? I think we’re seeing something more professional begin to emerge online, with lawsuits like Ashley’s, and with social media platforms in general understanding that they have to do a better job policing themselves. But the problem of stupid, insulting tweeters cannot be solved from above; it has to come from the street. People need to understand that just because they can say something awful online doesn’t mean they should. When the more decent elements stand together to condemn our basest instincts from shouting, social media will advance. Until social media cleans up its act, though, it will continue to have about it the taint of unreliability and unprofessionalism, affecting even the best-intentioned of writers.


“Wine is sold, not bought”

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That’s the word from Michael Brill, who started up Crushpad years ago.

He was commenting on my blog post from yesterday, and when I read those words my brain fired on all cylinders because the phrase is not only pithy, it’s true, and made me think. What does it mean, “Wine is sold, not bought?”

Obviously, wine is bought. But selling precedes buying; you can’t buy something that someone’s not selling. And since everyone is selling these days in the wine industry, you clearly have to sell better than everybody else if you want to sell anything at all!

Well, that’s pretty obvious, isn’t it, but the point I want to make is that selling has become harder than ever nowadays, and so it requires smarter ways of doing it. You have to think outside the box. Everybody’s trying to think outside the box, which means that the space “outside the box” is getting crowded–it’s no longer “outside the box” but inside the box. (A little Zen paradox there…) So you have to get even further outside in order to be truly outside the box. That, in turn, means you have to know where the box is: which implies clear perception. Which implies knowledge, because knowledge is power. This is why the smartest people are generally the most successful in selling wine, and I don’t mean just I.Q. smart, I mean creative, visionary, driven, even a little mad.

Speaking of Mr. Brill, he’s launching a new business. It’s called Cruzu, and here’s how he explained it to me. (Any dumb mistakes I made in taking down his remarks are mine, not his.)

“It’s a crowd-funding source for wine, Kickstarter for wine. Independent winemakers and small wineries can create wines backed [financially] by wine enthusiasts. In exchange for backing, the backers get a combination of a good deal on the wine; they follow the winemakers and create a relationship with them. It’s a little Crushpaddy…”.

As with Kickstarter, Michael will list specific projects on the Cruzu website, projects brought to his attention by the winemakers themselves. If a project gets funded, it goes ahead; if not, it doesn’t. Michael asked me not to mention any names at this point, but I can tell you there will be some very good, high-level winemakers involved, some of them familiar from his Crushpad days.

Cruzu sounds interesting and very apropos for our times. With a recovering economy, people may feel like they have the extra cash for fun stuff like this. And the ethos sparked by social media—of interactivity, of connectedness, of wanting to be heard—is perfectly in tune with Michael’s idea of “creating a relationship” between wine drinker and winemaker.

I wish Michael, who’s always been an outside of the box thinker, well.


Stories, stories, stories at Unified

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Great time yesterday moderating my panel at the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium on “Content is King: How to Craft and Feature Stories that Stand Out.”

We had a good-sized crowd—it filled the better part of a ballroom—which tells me that people really have a desire to master this storytelling thing. For my part, in my opening remarks I made three points I think hold true:

  1. What is a story? What makes a good one? How do you figure out how to tell your own, unique story?
  2. Once you have a story to tell, you need a medium to tell it through. There’s print, of course, but also the whole range of digital. (And, as one of my panelists pointed out, your tasting room staff is part of your story!)
  3. Once you’ve crafted a story and told it through your preferred media, you need a way to see if it achieved the results you hoped for. This is, of course, the famous (or infamous) ROI everybody talks about.

I suppose we could have a seminar on any one of these topics, they’re so complicated and filled with possibilities. As it was, we had only 75 minutes to get through it all, a hopelessly inadequate amount of time. But one must try! I believe the audience got so much information thrown at them from the three speakers (each of whom had a PowerPoint presentation), it must have been hard for them to take it all in. All I ever want, in these sorts of public events, is for folks to leave feeling like they were glad they came, and that they learned a thing or two they can use in the future. In this case, I’m sure they did. They had so many questions afterwards, we didn’t have enough time to get to everyone because we had to leave the room so the next panel could convene. Later, at the bar, I ran into a young guy whose family started a winery. He’d been to my panel. He said they were having trouble figuring out how to sell their wine. He’d come to “Content is King” hoping to learn about some magic bullets. Alas, there are no magic bullets. It’s hard work, selling what you make. Not for the faint-hearted.

I ran into many old friends: Mr. Darrell Corti (such a legend, and such a gentleman), Nicholas Mlller from Bien Nacido, Rick Kushman from the Sacramento Bee, the fabulous Nick Goldschmidt, George Rose (snapping pix all over the place), Nancy Light, Rick Smith from Paraiso, down in Monterey, whom I’ve known and liked for a really long time, and too many others to mention. Rick Smith is one of those salt-of-the-earth guys. He was a founding farmer/father of Monterey viticulture and wine and in particular the Santa Lucia Highlands (whose appellation status he helped create). It’s always a pleasure to meet old friends, but it also makes you feel your age when you remember how long you’ve known some of these guys. But I also made some new friends, including Melody Fuller, who it turns out not only lives near me in Oakland, but is the founder of the Oakland Wine Festival, which I’d never heard of (shame on me), but seems like a great thing for Oakland. My city has become a real hub of excitement, of restaurants and bars and the most interesting people moving in, so it’s only natural for us to have our very own wine festival, which I’m sure will be a huge success.


The real message of social media may be: We are all artists

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Next week I moderate a panel on content creation at the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium. These are some of the things I’m thinking about in anticipation. This is connected to a post I wrote last month, on “Twelve tips for better content creation.”

The first two things I’m thinking about concern “the story” and “authenticity.” The wine industry now has become exquisitely sensitive to the importance of both in communicating with the public. It took a while, but, to judge from everything I see happening in the industry, especially in California, “telling the story” through online portals has become the watchword of the avant-garde winery. And yet “telling the story” may well be the most difficult thing a winery has to figure out how to do. What is the story? It may seem apparent—but too many people fail to see the forest for the trees.

Your story isn’t simply your biography. Oh, sure, your bio may be part of the story. But the truth is, your bio—however compelling it may be to you—may not be of particular interest to the general public. So “the story” has to be something that will amuse and/or educate the viewer, and make her want to come back to your site again. How do you accomplish that? The best way is to consider sites that you, personally, like going to. What is it that brings you back? Do some analysis, and you might learn something.

For example, is it funny videos? Is it great wine-and-food pairings, with recipes, that help you up your cooking game? Is it technical information on the wines and vineyards? Beautiful photography? Any and all of these can be the “draw.” And whatever the “draw” is, there’s your story. The great thing about social media is that our understanding of it constantly evolves: since it’s interactive and participatory, the two parts (poster and reader) are always changing with respect to each other, sort of like the arrangement of particles in a kaleidoscope. And each shift can be more beautiful than the one before.

The second concept I can’t get off my mind is authenticity. Somebody said to me the other day that social media posts should seem authentic. No, I replied, they should be authentic. The difference between the two—between seeming and being—is subtle, but vital. Seeming to be authentic is what Big Oil comes across as when they talk about the environment. I’m not saying they do or don’t do great things for the environment—that’s not what I’m here to talk about. I’m saying that lots of people perceive such stances as inauthentic—pretending to be “green” when you’re really not, just to get people to like you.

Social media is very transparent in the sense that you can usually tell when someone’s being authentic. People enjoy authentic personalities in each other—it’s part of what attracts us to our friends and people we like to be around. Same with social media. Social media isn’t something other than you. It is you. If you’re a fundamentally interesting person, you’ll have no problem creating interesting content.

One of the biggest challenges surrounding social media, though, seems to be how to come up with enough content to keep your platform going. The Internet has a voracious appetite for content, and it can be difficult for someone to come up with enough, day in and day out. Unfortunately there’s no easy answer to this dilemma. Some people seem more in tune with social media than others. I personally have no problem coming up with content across all my platforms, but that’s because I’m a writer. I’ve suggested to recalcitrant posters over the years that it’s easier than you might think to create content. You don’t need some grandiose idea, you don’t need a creative bolt of lightning, all you have to do is sit down and start writing. Once the blocks fall away—and they do, with practice—you start noticing that some creative impulse in you—in all of us—actually loves expressing itself. And that is the foundation-stone of content creation.

If social media accomplishes nothing else in the long run, I hope it will at least have made us all aware of our inner artist! Too many of us are raised to disbelieve in our creativity, which is a great pity. Humans are enormously creative, or can be; it just takes the right inspiration. The Internet, and social media especially, have provided precisely that inspiration. The more I think of the pioneering creators of social media, the more I admire them. They took McLuhan’s global village and gave us all the tools to be artists. How cool is that.


“Social media” is an oxymoron that’s here to stay

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Three articles in yesterday’s S.F. Chronicle caught my attention for the suggestions they make about how social media is, and is not, changing our lives.

(I was finally able to read after days of not being able to, due to the intense flu I had. It was an effort just to focus my eyeballs.)

The first article was on the continuing war between digital cab companies, like Uber and Lyft, and conventional taxi companies. This is a topic San Franciscans have been hearing a lot about. The bottom line is that the conventional taxis were slow to the point of paralysis in understanding the implications of portable digital devices. This was summed up by a CEO who said, “The taxi industry needs to rapidly retool and face the realities of the smartphone.”

Nobody is going to dial up a taxicab number and face all the possible uncertainties and hassles. (Just finding an open taxicab in San Francisco is a feat.) So much easier to establish an Uber or Lyft account, even if it means paying a little more. Uber and Lyft made the news yesterday because they apparently are planning on price-gouging on New Year’s Eve, but that’s beside the point. The point is that they foresaw the conveniences of smartphones and the taxi companies didn’t.

The second article was an examination of one of the East Bay’s new congressman, Eric Swalwell, the youngest member (at 32) of the large California delegation. Swalwell’s a social media guy; he made a point of stressing that in his interview. He tweets so much that there’s a new Twitter hashtag, #swalwelling, which seems to consist of photographing one’s feet as they enter an airplane. (We have “selfies.” Could this be “footsies”?)

These two articles represent green lights for social media. They underscore that we have become a society on the go, go, go, with our feet carrying us while our hands clutch our smartphones and we share our experiences with others. We interact with the world through these devices, and that includes all our interactions: shopping, politics, entertainment, simple personal communications. For wineries, the meaning is clear: Go big, or go home. The winery that does not learn how to take advantage – no, that’s not the right phrase, because it implies a certain cynical, transparently venal misappropriation of social media. Let me start again. The winery that does not learn how to communicate through mobile devices puts itself at disadvantage in this hyper-competitive world. Just as taxi companies learned, to their chagrin, at the hands of Uber and Lyft, the future belongs to the digitally savvy. (Although I will admit that Uber and Lyft have not been particularly adroit in handling the politics of their situations. But that’s another story…).

The third article stands in stark contrast to the others. There’s a new establishment here in Oakland, Plank, down at Jack London Square. It’s in a gigantic space that’s been vacant for years. The new owners decided to open, not just a restaurant, not just a bar, but a bowling alley, pool hall, bocce ball court and video game arcade. They call it an “activity bar.” The concept is, as another activity bar owner put it, “It’s fun, and you don’t have the pressure of sitting across the table talking for three hours.”

Well, I don’t know about the “pressure” of talking with friends and family over a restaurant meal. I mean, if it were really that onerous, people wouldn’t be doing it so much. Still, I get the idea. As the Chronicle reporter who wrote the story mused, “One wonders …whether these bars satisfy a longing for childhood pleasures…in the age of texting, with face-to-face communication.”

That’s more to the point. Yes, we inhabit a digital reality; we’re all nexuses on the World Wide Web. We do more and more things with our smartphones. But my discomfort from the very beginnings of this digital revolution has been connected with the fact that it somehow seems injurious to the social and civil underpinnings that made us human in the first place, and societal beings moreover. To that extent, the phrase “social media” is an oxymoron. “Social” is face-to-face; distant communication, however facile or amusing it may be, is not particularly social.

However, here we are, on a cusp as it were between two opposing forces. As usual with cusps (such as the transition between millennia), predictions, fears and hopes are exaggerated; things continue more or less as usual. Life goes on; we grow accustomed to whatever is new, and somehow manage to keep hold of our humanness.

The lesson, again, for wineries, which I alluded to above, is clear: adapt to the digital, portable realm or be doomed. But do it in a way that’s Zen-like in detachment: with a pure mind, as Buddhists put it. Do not allow yourself to be perceived as having an ulterior motive; in fact, do not have an ulterior motive, except that of humanness. If you’re puzzled by how to achieve this, here’s a clue: If you are yourself, not someone else, you will not be perceived as having an ulterior motive. If you are not yourself, you invariably will be. It’s a strange paradox: by being real, you will succeed. If you don’t know what being yourself and being real mean, then you have your work cut out for you.

Anyhow, have a fine, fun and safe New Year’s Eve! No drunk driving, please.


Twelve Tips for Better Content Creation

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I recently came across this statistic in an infographic on content marketing: “64% of B2B content marketers say their biggest challenge is producing enough content.” (B2B means business-to-business.)

I would suspect that “producing enough content” also is the biggest challenge for B2C (business-to-consumer) content marketers. Cranking out content, especially in the constantly-changing world of social media, is really hard. I mean, good content. It’s easy to generate what my Grandma would have called dreck. Coming up with high-level stuff is hard.

I should know: In addition to this blog, which I write five times a week, I do blog posts for Kendall-Jackson, La Crema, Cambria and, soon, Byron for Jackson Family Wines. So, even without Twitter, Facebook and all the rest of the writing I do, blogs alone keep me on the hunt for content.

The problem is that I have high standards. I refuse to publish something, even a tweet, until it’s as good as I can make it. For me, a post has to rock. I don’t mean that everything I’ve ever written will be in the Blog Post Hall of Fame. Far from it. But everything I’ve ever written has been conceived and crafted with the utmost care, something that the end-readers may never be aware of, nor should they be. But to the extent anyone actually reads and enjoys what I write—and I think they do—it’s because I have overcome the “biggest challenge”: producing enough content.

Readers can tell when content has been produced by people who are just out to sell stuff, the same way they can tell the difference between a cheap suit and a good one. Bad content is a witch’s brew of spin and hype, the very things consumers hate. They can tell the difference between something meant to help, educate and amuse them—which is an article–and something meant to part them from their money—which is an ad or commercial. If a content creator doesn’t thoroughly understand the difference, he or she will not be a success.

I would suggest to anyone working in the world of content marketing that they decide to get really good at it, or else it’s not worth doing. This is why, if a company is serious about producing quality content on a frequent basis, it should hire talented people, pay them well and let them do their thing. Creating quality content—by which I mean interesting content–is an expertise that stands alone: top quality content producers have insights into the psychology of personality and the consumer behavior of the masses, which themselves require an entire spectrum of understanding, ranging from art and literature to history, politics and popular culture. They also understand their particular niche in the market, which requires a kind of bird’s-eye view of things. High-caliber content creators, especially those working in the social sphere, are always going to be a little weird because their talents are more of an art form than a skill or craft.

My advice for content creators is probably not needed, for they are an iconoclastic bunch, who come up with their own ideas. However, for what it’s worth, here it is:

  1. Be familiar with the product or service you’re writing about, and love it. As the late, great ad man, David Ogilvy, observed, he would never write an advertisement about a product he himself did not use.
  2. Know the people associated with that product. Be friends with them. They are part of the content.
  3. Study writing and literature, and read a great deal—stuff that inspires you. Have dictionaries and Thesaursi by your side, as well as books of quotations and sayings.
  4. Interesting content is informative, yes, but it’s also conversational. Would you rather have a conversation with an interesting person, or with a boring one?
  5. If you can work visuals (videos, photos, graphics) into your content, so much the better.
  6. Be curious, inventive, bold in your writing. Take risks. Great content production isn’t for the lazy or faint-hearted.
  7. Make yourself laugh with your content creation. If you think it’s funny, so will others. Putting your readers in a good mood will make them more loyal.
  8. Never underestimate the intelligence of your audience.
  9. Remember, your reputation and credibility are riding on everything you publish. The only thing separating you from complete irrelevance is the trust of your readers.
  10. But trust yourself first and foremost.
  11. Always tell the truth.
  12. If you experience writer’s block, re-read this list. It will always give you ideas.

P.S. If you use Wikipedia—I do—please consider making a small donation to keep them in business.


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