in which we consider Elaine Chukan Brown’s (Hawk Wakawaka) contention that social media “has…created…a revolution in what it means to sell wine.”
Hawk Wakawaka is one of our finest wine bloggers. She is absolutely correct to state that “social media has dramatically changed how information is shared” and that “Wine experts and consumers alike now more often share information about wine via social media channels such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and wine blogs.” She may even be right when she says that, due to social media, “consumers today are swayed far more by the influence of their online peers rather than expert authority,” although that is an allegation and a belief, not a fact, and I don’t see any way to prove it.
But, even allowing that social media is this big, important phenomenon in communication, I don’t think she’s right when she implies (but doesn’t come all the way out and say so directly) that social media actually can sell wine—to a degree where it actually matters, and not just a few bottles here and there. The closest Elaine gets to expressing that is when she says “[social media] engagement can lead to consumer consideration and review of wines that otherwise might not have been seen by the traditional wine critic.”
Can’t argue with that. Yes, if you tweet the heck out of your wine, you’ll get it in front of eyeballs that might not otherwise have seen it (and, by the way, getting seen by lots of eyeballs is not a guarantee of the wine’s quality!). The question is, is social media a reliable way for a winery to actually sell wine? Is it worth the cost? Does it offer a good return on the investments of time and money? After all the rah-rah chatter about social media (most of it on social media), what does it actually accomplish for wineries when it comes to bringing in the bucks?
To begin to answer these important questions, consider that, if you compare a list of the 30 biggest U.S. wineries in 2004 compared to 2014 (and thanks to WineBusiness.com for doing such a fantastic job), it’s amazing to consider that the list practically hasn’t changed at all in eleven years, which is to say: pre-social media and post-social media. Gallo topped the list both years. Constellation and The Wine Group jockeyed for second and third, Bronco veering between fourth and fifth. Also at the top were Trinchero, St. Michelle, Delicato, Jackson Family Wines, Diageo, Treasury, and so on. To quote WineBusiness.com, “Though there are now  8,287 wineries in the U.S., WBM 30 companies represent nearly 90 percent of the domestic wine sold annually in the U.S. by volume.” In fact, “The three top companies by themselves represent more than half of U.S. case sales.”
I don’t think these top 30 wineries consider social media as the most important of their “how to sell” strategies. Rather, they focus on such traditional things as a trained sales force, pricing strategies, paying attention to consumer trends, forging good relationships with distributors and key accounts (on-premise and off-premise), courting wine writers (including bloggers) and a host of other proven best practices that social media has had barely any impact on. Yes, these wineries practice social media—but the people who run them and are responsible for their bottom lines have always understood that social media—for all the nice things it accomplishes—is not the magic bullet for sales that so many proponents of social media claim it is.
I think Elaine also is misled when she claims that social media has “led to fewer wine critic positions” and to “the near demise of print media.” Those are charges we heard in 2009 and 2010, but we shouldn’t be hearing them today because we now know they’re not true. I don’t know how you would take a census of “wine critic positions” in America: many small papers seem to have a local gadfly, while many of the leading writers are widely syndicated, and just about every regional magazine I’ve ever seen has a wine section. There have never been very many paid wine critics in America, simply because the market for them has been small; but I don’t think there are fewer today than there were in 2004. (And, if you consider all the wine reviewing blogs, you could argue there are more wine critics than ever. Well, actually, there’s at least one fewer critic today than in 2004: Me.)
As for the “near demise of print media,” what’s the evidence for that? Print media did come disastrously close to falling off the cliff in 2009-2010 but that wasn’t because of social media (although social media adherents said it was), it was due to the Great Recession which caused advertising revenues to plunge; and advertising, not sales or subscriptions, is what pays the bills at print publications. Last time I checked, magazines like Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, Food & Wine, The Tasting Panel, Wine & Spirits and others seemed to be doing quite well.
Look, the importance of social media has never been questioned by me on this blog. But I have wondered, and I continue to, just what impact social media has on sales, especially for smaller wineries—the 8,200 that will never make the WBM 30 list. It can’t hurt them; it can help around the edges. It’s fun, and can enable proprietors to think differently about their wineries. It may be helpful in promoting customer loyalty (but so were old-fashioned wine clubs, tasting rooms and newsletters). But social media cannot replace sales teams and all the other traditional best practices I described above. To believe in it so uncritically is to believe in the Easter bunny, Santa Claus and the tooth fairy.
“A lot of mediocre wine is being sold on the basis of a story.” That’s a quote from a New York somm, Jason Jacobeit, cited in Lettie Teague’s latest column in the Wall Street Journal.
To whom is this “mediocre wine” being sold? None other than “Millennials,” who, according to sommelier Jason, “are more interested in the narrative of the wine rather [sic] than the wine.”
That’s scary, but it wouldn’t be the first time in the history of capitalism that the sizzle, not the steak, is what was sold, which is why the Latins, inventors of the concept of caveat emptor, realized, two thousand years before P.T. Barnum, that there’s a sucker born every minute.
Ms. Teague, who seems to agree with sommelier Jason, cites a few other instances of obscure wine that has had or is having its moment in the Millennial sun: “orange wine or Slovenian Chardonnay [and] Pét-Nat,” in addition, of course, to the wine that may have started this whole Millennial-social media thing, Moscato. Each seems to be the product of “rebellious tastes” that “lead [Millennials] into trouble” due to their “enthusiasm for the obscure.” Ms. Teague quotes another young wine director, Taylor Parsons, of the L.A. restaurant Republique (a very good restaurant), who observed that this obsession is due to “Millennials’…incessant search for the next cool thing…”.
How did we get here?
You know, when I was 17 years old, in my first semester at college, my parents drove up from New York to visit me, and my father was shocked by me wearing my white button shirt untucked. I mean, that’s not exactly the most rebelliously outrageous fashion statement in the history of teenage angst, but from my father’s point of view dress shirts were meant to be tucked inside the belt, not fluttering below the waist like a skirt. Boy, was he pissed—and I vowed to myself never, ever to get old and grouchy and complain about “this younger generation.”
To a great extent I’ve avoided that booby trap. But sommelier Jason and wine director Taylor are onto something. The biggest change, wine-wise, that’s occurred, in my judgment, between the Millennial generation and all that preceded them is that, as sommelier Jason points out, “few of his [Millennial] generation peers [take] the time to understand why certain wines are greater than others.” Champagne is better than Pét-Nat, and this is why Pét-Nat is likely to have the lifespan, in terms of popularity, of Moscato; I mean, does anyone even drink Moscato anymore?
But we have to understand why this fundamental shift has occurred. Partly it’s because (as Ms. Teague points out, citing a Wine Opinions poll) “Millennials regard the 100-point scale as the creation—and the provenance—of their older wine-drinking peers.” Actually, Millennials probably wouldn’t even call those of us who are members of older generations “peers”; Ms. Teague was no doubt being kind to avoid more offensive terms. Now, there’s nothing wrong with a new generation kicking over their parents and grandparents and exploring and discovering things on their own. It’s the way Life proceeds. But this tendency, which has occurred throughout human cultural development, has been greatly exacerbated, as never before, by another modern phenomenon: social media.
We used to have, here in America, some sort of social consensus. It extended from our values and practices all the way to our choice of wines. People tended to believe in the same things (the American dream, the Presidency). They went to the same movies, listened to the same music, ate the same kinds of foods, dressed similarly and more or less lived their lives in similar ways. You can criticize this as group-think if you want, and point out, rightfully, that this system harbored all kinds of social injustices: but one thing it got right was that it united us, as a people, so that we weren’t always quarreling over the smallest trivialities.
Not so today anymore, as our smart phones and tablets let us hang out, digitally, with those who really are our true peers: people who think just like us. Trouble is, there are so many sub-groupings, more all the time, and it’s so easy to find them and then to plug yourself in, that we are well on the way to living as much in the digital or virtual reality of online as in the “real” world. It’s McLuhan’s “global village” gone amok, not a “village” anymore but a series of isolated neighborhoods.
But how to account for this obsessive drive for novelty, for “the next cool thing”? I trace it to the pre-Internet media sensations of, first, People Magazine, and then MTV. Both shortened America’s attention span: People’s articles were short, pictorial, celebrity- and freak-oriented and addictively readable (the opposite of the New Yorker), while MTV was famous for never allowing a scene in a music video to last longer than three seconds. A generation that grew up watching those constantly-changing videos developed a craving for novelty, for incessant change—they wanted to be entertained with something new and more interesting than the previous thing, ten or twenty times a minute—think about that!—which suggests something evolutionarily radical and destabilizing. Throughout human history we—our forebears—were required to live with, and be satisfied by, an external reality that hardly ever changed at all. The walls of the cave were the same as they always were, the ground beneath your feet was the same ground you had trod all your life, the people who surrounded you were the same family and tribal members you were born into. Change was non-existent; you found value, meaning and joy, if you found them at all, in the actual world around you.
Because of this continuity, the human race developed the notion of the wisdom of the elder. Life was nasty, brutish and short; the only way to survive was to learn the tricks of the trade from the elders. You could rebel, but at the risk of getting into trouble. Now, I’m very proud of the fact that my generation, the Baby Boomers, did rebel against the stultifyingly uncreative, unconscious, environmentally stupid, racist, homophobic and anti-feminist culture of our parents. We really moved this country, and the world, forward. But maybe, in opening up Pandora’s box, we created a Frankenstein’s monster: Millennials have taken our independent streak and so boosted it up on steroids that, functionally, there is no unifying stitch to American culture anymore. It’s an everyone-out-for-himself world of tribes, cults, peer groupings and associations.
And so we come to the cult of excitement, the lust for novelty that characterizes the Millennial approach to wine. And we come, also, to the concept of “the story” that can be so annoying and misleading. Most of the stories wineries convey, so far as I can tell, are ersatz fairy tales that seem to have little connection to the actual wine. As a wine writer who really, truly loves wine, its history and culture and place in the world, I find it appalling that a winery could hire a P.R. firm to invent a story they thought would sell their wine, instead of focusing on quality; I have nothing against stories, but the phony, predictable ones that routinely hit the media are so trite, so boring. And because of this fractionalizing of our realities into millions and millions of separate spheres, experienced through our portable devices, the world of wine has shrunk to momentary entertainment—to a quickie–to a world where spin and hype and process are more important than the wine itself.
Hardly a day goes by when I, as the author/owner of this blog, don’t get at least one pitch from someone selling a product or service. The pitch usually begins with the writer telling me how much they enjoy reading steveheimoff.com, and then they identify themselves, tell me about the product or service they’re selling, and add that they’re convinced that my audience—my readers—will be interested in said product or service. This is followed by an invitation to me to be sent a free sample of the product (it can be a bottle opener or an aerator or whatever), or, if it’s a service, the writer will sometimes offer to pay me a fee of some kind.
Well, I don’t even bother responding to these pitches; into the Trash bin they go. I’m a fairly polite person when it comes to replying to personal communications (and Lord knows I hate it when somebody doesn’t respond to mine), but these pitches don’t feel like they were written expressly to me. They feel like templates that just happen to arrive in my in-box, but really the identical email could have arrived (and probably did arrive) in 1 Wine Dude’s in-box, or Jo Diaz’s, or any of hundreds of other bloggers who are perceived to have some impact in the wine industry.
I suppose there’s nothing legally or morally wrong with such an approach. But it does raise, to me anyway, questions about transparency. If I were to blog about some sensational new aerator, would it be incumbent upon me to let you know that the owner of the aerator company sent me a few of the gizmos? If I told you that, would it color your perception of my review? Or let’s take it a step further. This morning I got this article in my in-box detailing “marketing strategies that don’t involve social media.” One of them suggested that bloggers might be asked “to host a giveaway on his or her site by collecting email entries you can add to your newsletter.” The way that would work, I guess, is that I, the blogger, would announce a contest on my site in which you, the contestant, would send me your entry via email, which I would then “share” with the manufacturer of the thing to be given away. Now, that would pretty much make me a marketing agent of the manufacturer, not an independent blogger, wouldn’t it? And what would I get out of it? A quickie post, for sure, but also the author of the “marketing strategies” article adds this: “Understand that you may have to give them [the blogger] a freebie of your product and/or a fee to be featured or reviewed.”
Wow. I have a lot of problems with wine blogs, but this non-transparent collision of editorial independence and paid shilling takes the cake.
It is very, very important for readers to thoroughly know if a blogger is benefiting in any way, shape or form from the content of a post. Ideally, the blogger will volunteer that information upfront (and the Federal government has taken and is taking steps to ensure such candor). Still, there are ways for bloggers to hide indirect forms of compensation. I would never do that; neither would most bloggers I know, but some would; and the problem extends beyond blogs to other forms of social media, such as Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, where a positive word or image about a product or service can be advertising. If somebody sends me that aerator, and I praise it on Facebook, do I have an obligation to inform my “friends” that I got a freebie? Just asking.
It’s amusing when a blogger hauls my name out for snarky commentary. I always think it’s in order to drive traffic to his blog. The major bloggers wouldn’t stoop to fulminating against me (or each other) because they have far more important things to write about, and also because there’s a certain respect at the higher level where one just doesn’t stoop to dinging other bloggers. It’s called professional courtesy. But at the low level, well, I guess some people just have no manners.
The latest is some dude who calls himself the blue collar wine guy, who dropped my name in his very first sentence, and then just had to add the gratuitous slap that I’m working for Kendall-Jackson so I “don’t have time for research.” This was in response to my post the other day, “18 tips for wineries on better communication.”
What’s so silly about his post is that, immediately after rejecting my premise that wineries should do a better job at providing information (and who could possibly disagree with that?), he turns around and agrees with it! In fact, his entire second paragraph is an observation, along the same lines as mine, that—as he says—“wineries have some problems with dissemination of information.”
Why not just agree with my post and leave it at that? Because otherwise he wouldn’t have any controversy to stir up.
For years, I’ve taken the position that I don’t reply to brickbats from grouchy bloggers and tweeters, because to do so is (a) a waste of my time and (b) only serves to bring attention to people whom nobody cares about anyway. But let me tell you, it does get tiresome being a punching bag.
The good news is that wine blogging is growing up. It’s a lot less negative than it used to be. Bloggers who have been around for a while are learning their craft: they are understanding that they won’t be read by serious people unless they get serious about writing—and that means generating respectable, high-level content, not gratuitous slams of better-known writers. But the bad news is that the slamming still pops up every once in a while. Like Dracula, just when you thought it’s been stabbed in the heart and left for dead, it arises. Or maybe a better metaphor than Dracula is the cockroach. Just when you thought the exterminator has gotten rid of them, out crawls one across your bathroom floor.
Hey, blue collar wine guy, what did I ever do to you? We’ve never met (if we did, I don’t remember). I’ve never insulted you. I never even heard of you. I write a quality blog, which is the reason it’s been around a long time and is still widely read. If I can give you advice (which you’re perfectly free to reject), it would be to stop thinking that you can attract readership by attacking another blogger. That is so 2008. You seem to be a reasonably intelligent person. Use your brain to stay positive and creative. Ad hominem crap won’t get you where you want to go.
P.S. I don’t work for Kendall-Jackson, I work for Jackson Family Wines. I’m happy to explain the difference to you.
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 unreliable…flowery, 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 blogosphere—you’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.
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.