Why are some people so (anonymously) nasty on the Internet? It’s really the saddest aspect of a digital community that, aside from that, is a pretty nice place to hang out.
My old friend Wilfred Wong posted on Facebook an unsigned email he got, (you’ll have to scroll down on Wilfred’s feed to the post that begins “Today was a day of mixed blessings”) from a person who obviously has (a) anger management issues and (b) too much time on his or hands or (c) both. Now, Wilfred, for those who don’t know who he is (and I would assume most of my readers do), is the Cellar Master at BevMo, the big liquor chain with a gazillion outlets in the Far West. His primary job, as he writes, “is researching wines (and now beer and spirits) for their quality.” I’ve known Wilfred longer than anyone else I know in the wine industry. We met around 1982. I was a novice: he already was knee-deep in wine, literally. So Wilfred’s had a lot of experience.
Which gets to the point. Why do so many people in the wine social media world think that experience is bad? It doesn’t make sense. Throughout all of human history, societies have respected their more experienced members, whether they be shamans, healers or hunters. These are the members who hold the society together–who constitute its collective memory–who form a living link between Now and The Past. Yes, every now and then there are revolutions–none more noteworthy than our own American–but even when we won, we respected older traditions of honesty, integrity, fairness. Those were not American values; they were human values.
But now, especially in the wine blogosphere and on Twitter, we have arrived at a period of incivility. People feel free to insult others with far more accomplishments than their own–and they do it all too often anonymously. Perhaps even more appalling is when they reveal their identities: then their attacks are done with impunity.
Here’s my message to the coward who emailed Wilfred: You try doing what he’s done. Try lasting 30-plus years at the top of your profession, earning not just good money but the love and respect of your peers throughout the industry. (If you want proof of that love and respect, read through the comments on Wilfred’s post.)
By the way, trashing a big box store like BevMo is the height of arrogance. It’s like the people who only drink expensive wine and think average-priced wine is for “the little people who pay taxes” (as Leona Helmsley once described us). For one thing, BevMo has some very fine wines, but that’s beside the point: What’s important is that BevMo gives value in wine to millions of Americans. What’s wrong with that? And Wilfred, through his service, makes their shopping experience a lot easier and more delightful than it would otherwise be.
So please, you harpies out there taking aim at Baby Boomer writers and critics, chill. You won’t get anywhere just hurling spears. If you want to achieve a career in the wine industry, I suggest you do exactly what Wilfred has done: hunker down, work hard, make friends and be respectful. That’s always been the way success comes.
Today I’m headed up to Santa Rosa to speak at Adam Japko’s Multifamily Social Media Summit. Here’s a summary of what I’ll say. First, I’ll welcome the guests to Sonoma County, and try to describe a little bit about what makes it such a great home to wine. I’ve long thought of Sonoma as “California’s winiest county” (which is how I described it in A Wine Journey along the Russian River), and I think it’s fair to say that no other county has the breadth and depth of varieties and types (including sparkling wine) that Sonoma does.
Adam also asked me to talk a little about how I got into wine, so I’ll describe the way I fell head over heels in love with vino in 1978, getting deeper and deeper into it until I moved to San Francisco, in 1980, and became a denizen of the city’s better wine shops (which back then you could count on the finger of both hands). I’ll describe my career thus far and how I landed the job of reviewing California wine for Wine Enthusiast.
Since this is a social media event, I’ll talk about my own experiences in this sphere–about how and why I started my blog in 2008. (I can hardly believe it’s been that long.) Adam’s main thing, of course, is to promote the use of social media as a tool for busy professionals (this particular event is for apartment complex managers who want to learn how to use social media to make their jobs easier and better). I’m not particularly in a position to advise them on that, but what I can do is describe how my blog has made my life easier and better, and also how it’s contributed to my “brand.”
Now, I don’t really think of myself as a “brand,” but I know that some people do, because they tell me so; and Adam himself sees me that way. (Of course, he also sees me as a human being and a friend, which is how I want to be seen!). However, I’m objective enough to understand that there is a sort of branding process going on with me, in terms of having a reputation, and Adam wants to know how my reputation (or the way I perceive it) has been impacted by my blog.
I suppose–and, again, this is based on what people tell me–that my reputation has been enhanced by it. I don’t mean “enhanced” in terms of people thinking better or more highly of me, but in the sense that more people have heard of me because of my blog. It’s quantitative enhancement, if you will, not qualitative enhancement. I think Adam is eager for the apartment complex managers to hear from someone who started out as a total ignoramus when it came to blogging, and ended up with quite a successful little blog–not financially, for this gig doesn’t make any money, but in terms of being popular.
Here are tips I’ll give the apartment managers for a blog (and many of these tips can be extended to other forms of social media as well:
1. post frequently.
2. post with passion.
3. personalize your posts. Don’t write like you’re some anonymous automaton. Let people feel your humanity through your words.
4. provide links, where appropriate, to off-site pages that bolster your arguments or otherwise amplify your message.
5. provide photos and/or videos.
6. don’t take criticism too seriously. I doubt if apartment complex managers will get the same kind of slamming I sometimes do, but if they do, they should laugh it off.
7. don’t expect an immediate return on your investment. In fact, you might never see ROI, measured as dollars. The point of blogging, and social media in general, is brand building. Which leads to my final discussion
What is “brand building”? I would argue it’s none other than forming relationships. In the case of social media, they’re digital relationships, but that’s all right, they’re still relationships. You have conversations with others that are real-time, and this allows readers to feel that they’re part of your life. Or, more correctly, that both of you are part of a bigger social life. Partners, in a sense–co-participants in something grand and lovely. That’s how it seems to me: my biggest gripe with winery social media (including web pages) is that the content often seems grudging. It’s like they feel they have to put something up, but it’s not grand or lovely, not personal, not selfless. Selfless? Yes. You can’t be holding onto something and be successful at social media. The late sports writer Red Smith was said to have replied, in response to whether writing a daily column wasn’t hard, “Why, no. You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.” He didn’t mean that literally, obviously, and he didn’t mean that it was an incredibly difficult thing to do. What he meant by “bleed” is what we might call “letting it all hang out.” Putting all your cards on the table–being genuine. Social media types call it being “authentic” and “transparent,” and it’s hard to explain; you just have to learn how to be that way (and you can’t be that way online if you’re not that way offline, in real life).
Does that sound a bit esoteric? I suppose it does. But it’s what I’m going to tell the apartment complex managers.
I’m off to ZAP this morning. It’s the first time I’ve gone to the nation’s biggest Zinfandel festival (it is, isn’t it?) in some years. I stopped attending when it was down at Fort Mason, a pretty place but difficult to get to. They had 20,000 people packed into those old piers, and the toilets all broke down, so people were doing what people do
right in the Bay. The men, anyway. It was hopeless to try and get any serious tasting or even talking done, so I gave up on ZAP.
This year, however, one of the ZAP organizers reached out to me to explain about “the dramatic changes” that have been made. Chief among them is that the event (now called The Zinfandel Experience) been moved out of Fort Mason and into multiple locations, spread out over several days. The number of attendees at any given location will thus be considerably reduced. The event I’m going to this morning is at the Four Seasons Hotel, and is called “Flights! Forums of Flavors.” We’ll be tasting wines from historic vineyards, and I’ll report more on this on Monday morning.
Incidentally, I tasted about 350 Zinfandels in 2013, and my two highest-scoring ones were a pair of 2011s from Williams Selyem, the Papera and Bacigalupi. Funny, we were just talking the other day about how Bacigalupi was the source of some of the Chardonnay that went into that famous 1973 Chateau Montelena. Other top Zins I reviewed last year include Dry Creek Vineyard 2011 Somers Ranch, Seghesio 2010 Cortina, Gary Farrell 2011 Maffei and Ravenswood 2010 Old Hill. All from Sonoma County, by the way. There is a Sonoma Zinfandel character across the county’s many appellations: a sort of essence-of-Zin zinniness that’s briary, brambly, peppery, tingly in acidity and stuffed with wild, sun-baked red fruits and berries. I always find something rustic about Sonoma Zin, too, whereas Napa Zins are more elegantly tailored–Armani to Sonoma’s L.L. Bean.
* * *
But before the Zinfandel thing, I’ll stop by the San Francisco Chronicle’s historic old building, at Fifth and Mish (as we say). The publisher has invited me to be part of some kind of subscriber advisory group. This is because I am a longtime subscriber, but also because I write a lot of letters to the editor, and I also gripe to the publisher when I think the paper has done something stupid. So the paper sees me as a loyal fan, which I am, and they evidently think it’s a good idea to reach out to their subscribers, which it is.
I’m big on reading newspapers, a practice that seems to be dying out in America, and that’s a pity. A free, flourishing press always has been a central tent pole in our democracy. Lord knows a big, spread-out place like the Bay Area needs things to knit it together, and what better way to foster a sense of community than the local newspaper?
* * *
While we’re on the subject of my schedule, next Wednesday I’m a speaker at Adam Japko’s “Multifamily Social Media Summit” up in Santa Rosa. Adam, for those who know him, is one of the most brilliant minds in the country when it comes to social media. He does more than talk about it, though; he’s an entrepreneur who puts together social media-themed events. This one is for a group of apartment complex managers who want to learn how to use social media in their jobs. When Adam first asked me to speak, I expressed some astonishment that apartment complex managers would be interested in a wine critic. Adam explained that they would be, that I should just be myself and talk about what I do, how I do it, and how I use social media. So that’s what I plan to do. The other speaker is my friend, Adam Lee, the co-proprietor of the Siduri and Novy brands. He’ll bring some of his wines, so we’ll have good stuff to drink.
Have a great weekend!
Bloggers have long identified themselves as having the same right to express their opinions through reportage as do traditional journalists writing for newspapers, AKA “the mainstream media,” even though they may have had no formal journalistic training, and no editors or fact-checkers are around to make sure they get their facts straight.
Now, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, based here in San Francisco, apparently agrees. In a ruling that hasn’t attracted the attention it should, they threw out most of a lawsuit against a blogger, Crystal Cox, who had been sued for defamation by a investment consulting company, Obsidian Finance Group, after Cox accused them of “fraud, corruption and other misconduct” on her blog, crystalcox.com.
A self-described “investigative blogger,” Cox, who defended herself in the lawsuit, argued [as she wrote on her blog] that “Bloggers have Equality [sic] with reporters such as the New York Times” and that, in essence, if a newspaper like the Times can make allegations against public officials or corporations, so can she, as an “Anti-Corruption Blogger[s], Whistleblower[s], and Citizen Journalist[s].”
That stance is what the Court of Appeals agreed with. The Court determined that “The protections of the 1st Amendment do not turn on whether the defendant was a trained journalist, formally affiliated with traditional news entities.”
No one disagreed that Cox’s blog postings were, in the Los Angeles Times’ words, “rants [to the] extreme.” Rather, the Court ruled that, since Cox did not act with “actual malice,” she had the right to express herself.
I have no idea if Cox is correct or not; that’s not the point. But journalists and First Amendment defenders no doubt will celebrate this ruling. I do; I would not want to see a blogger self-censor herself, out of fear of being sued by a big, wealthy, bullying corporation. But this case does raise troubling questions.
Granted that a blogger has the right to publish her rants, does that give him or her credibility?
Ought the public to believe “investigative blogging” in which no editor or fact-checker is present as a balancing restraint, as is the case with newspapers?
How can the public determine the accuracy of blogs, a medium notoriously devoid of traditional ethical and publishing standards (e.g., the reporter has to have multiple sources for each assertion, and there has to be a bright line between editorial, on the one hand, and opinion, on the other)?
Can the public know for sure that a blogger does not have ulterior motives? Newspaper reporters are much less likely to have hidden agendas precisely because their work is scrutinized by editors, and they ultimately are answerable to (and fireable by) a publisher.
Better yet, how can we educate the public to be discerning when they digest the content of blogs?
These questions become even more poignant when we consider that traditional journalism is being challenged by blogs and other forms of self-publishing on the Internet and “alternative media,” in this post-Citizens United atmosphere. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution mandates that “Congress” [i.e. the Government] “shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…”). “The press” later was defined, by the U.S. Supreme Court, as “every sort of publication which affords a vehicle of information and opinion.” It was this sweeping definition, which obviously includes blogs, that the Court of Appeals apparently subscribed to in their decision.
But we are entering into dangerous waters when we have an increasingly powerful “Press” that is devoid of traditional restraints against unproven and unresearched allegations. I hardly need point out a growing section of the American population that believes nothing the Mainstream Media says–and turns instead to “journalistic sources” (including blogs) that are patently nothing more than mouthpieces for (often unidentified) corporate, political and personal interests, regardless of whatever claims they make of serving the public interest.
The balancing act American journalism must tread is one between First Amendment rights, including the right to self-publish a blog, and the preservation of some standard of truth by which to judge published claims. We should celebrate diversity of opinion, of course, but we also should insist on a strict adherence to facts and their correct interpretation.
No easy task.
I had a couple hours of downtime yesterday so I turned on the boob tube and decided to watch an old movie, Disclosure. The 1994 flick, which stars Michael Douglas and Demi Moore, is fairly dreadful, although it does have its moments of intrigue and suspense. But watching it, I’d forgotten how it made a star out of Pahlmeyer wine.
I suppose some people had already heard of Pahlmeyer, a Napa Valley boutique winery, before Disclosure. Certainly, the fact that the early red wines were made by Randy Dunn was not lost on the cognoscenti. Jayson Pahlmeyer had set his sights on Cabernet–as he says on his website, he wanted to make “a California Mouton.” But it was a white wine, his Chardonnay, that made it to the silver screen, and made Pahlmeyer a star.
Turns out that the Pahlmeyer 1991 Chardonnay (made by now-Harlan winemaker Bob Levy) was integral to the movie’s plot. The details are unimportant, but, as Jayson relates on his website, “the wine’s big role in the battle-of-the-sexes blockbuster helped further the frenzy surrounding Pahlmeyer.” The wine became so famous that Entertainment Tonight described it as “an obscure bottle of Chardonnay” that hit the big time due to its “well-timed toast in the movie ‘Disclosure.’” The Los Angeles Times, reporting on the phenomenon, said the wine’s starring role gave it “the kind of publicity corporate wineries would gladly give big money to a studio to get.”
What does all this have to do with anything today? Glad you asked. The topic of how the media, and particularly social media, can be of assistance in promoting wine has been much discussed in the blogosphere. I think the history of that Pahlmeyer wine can shed a little light on the subject.
Lesson one: If a Hollywood blockbuster, starring two of its biggest movie stars, highlights your wine (in a positive way), chances are good your winery will become famous. Too bad that’s not an option for most winemakers, but it’s true.
So that Hollywood option is off the table. But the idea remains the touchstone of social media’s promise: to create buzz. After all, social “media” is simply that: media. From the Latin medius, “the middle,” meaning in this case “an intervening thing through which a force acts or an effect is produced.” The modern meaning of media, then, refers to television, radio, print publications and movies, all of which act as intermediaries between one thing (a movie star, an advertisement, the news) and another thing (the mass public). In this sense, social media is simply the latest incarnation of mass media.
But it’s somehow more than that–and less. More, in that for the first time in human history everyone can be his own publisher–not only that, but can publish to the entire world, instantly. Less, because where everyone can do it, that act of supreme empowerment suddenly becomes less powerful. Do you remember that old paradox: If everything in the universe suddenly doubled in size, would anyone notice? The answer, obviously, is no, no one would notice, for the very reason that a force acting equally on everything is the same as the absence of a force. The only way to notice change is relative to something that is unchanging.
Put another way, imagine that in 1994, the year Disclosure came out, there were thousands of other movies, simultaneously released, each with big name stars, Hollywood bucks for promotion and mass distribution. And each of those movies showcased a different wine. Would the Pahlmeyer Chardonnay have gotten the play it did if, say (to mention a few other 1994 films), The Shawshank Redemption featured Mondavi Fume Blanc, Pulp Fiction starred Laurel Glen Cabernet, Forrest Gump gave a lead role to Sanford Pinot Noir, and The Lion King featured an animated Talley Chardonnay? You see my point.
It’s far more complicated today, then, for a winery, or a wine, to get the kind of massive publicity that the Pahlmeyer Chardonnay did a generation ago. The media just isn’t concentrated enough anymore. And the public’s attention span is too short (which may or may not be attributable to Twitter and other short forms of social media. Certainly, people’s attention span already was dehydrating before the advent of social media). Today, everyone’s consciousness is stuffed to beyond capacity with details of every kind. This clearly complicates the task of getting messages through to consumers. There are legions of social media experts and public relations and marketing professionals all working heroically to enable their clients to break through the din, but I’m afraid it gets harder and harder to do all the time. One winery manages to break through for 15 minutes and then is eclipsed by another hundred, who in turn are eclipsed by another hundred 15 minutes later.
So short of getting your wine featured in a Hollywood blockbuster, what’s the best way to get huge notice by the public? Get a high score from a well-known critic.
I was busy helping Santa deliver presents all over the world on Christmas Eve, so took the last few days off to rest and recover! It’s nice to be back on the blog.
We (Santa and I) had a lot of time to chat inbetween chimneys, so I asked him what he thought about Social Media.
“Ho ho ho!” Santa chortled. Then he whipped Dancer, Dasher et al. on. “Faster! Faster, you damn beasts!” he roared. Then, to me: “I have more presents than ever to get to all the good boys and girls, and these lazy curs are slower than ever.”
I sensed he was avoiding an answer. “But surely Santa,” I insisted (we were high in the sky somewhere over Pennsylvania), “you have a view on Social Media. You know: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, blogs and all the rest.”
“We didn’t have them in my day,” Santa finally replied, “and the world seemed to go on. In fact, in many ways, it was better.”
“How so?” I pressed on.
“Well, the children were happier,” he said. “They didn’t worry as much. And they minded their manners and listened to their parents. Nowadays, if you say something to a child, they’re more likely to be staring into a blue screen, and not even hear you.”
I thought to myself, Well, Santa’s getting on. He must be, what? 800 years old. He probably thought movable type was bad. So I had to cut him some slack. It would have been wrong to expect the old fellow to be up to date on S.M.
Still, I couldn’t resist plying on. “Santa, have you ever used email?”
Santa snorted. “Email? Now, why the Devil would I do that? I talk the old-fashioned way: with my mouth.”
“I take it you’ve never tweeted?” I asked.
“Tweet? That’s the noise a damn bird makes.”
“Did you know, Santa, that tweeting is considered a necessary part of the skill set that employers look for in new hires?”
“Thank you, young Jedi. I did not know that,” Santa replied. “But then, I don’t intend to ever apply for a job again. This gig”–and he motioned with his hand, to the reindeer pulling us ahead, and to the giant sleigh behind us, groaning under the weight of Christmas presents–“is my last hurrah, believe me. Pretty soon, Mrs. Claus and I are going to retire to our condo in Playa del Carmen. Have you ever seen me in a Speedo?”
“Oh, but who will deliver the presents to all the good little boys and girls when you retire?” The thought made me shudder.
“Maybe those bloggers,” Santa suggested. “After all, they’re just wasting their time anyway. They might as well put their efforts into something that actually does some good.”
As a staunch supporter of the bloggers, particularly the wine bloggers, I felt it necessary to rise to their defense. “Santa, I don’t know why you say that the bloggers are wasting their time. Some of them are very helpful.”
“How is that?” Santa shot me an inquisitorial look. “Name one.”
“Well,” I stammered, “ for instance, there’s ___, who reviews every wine he tastes at every trade tasting he goes to–and he goes to them all, with his little tablet conputer–and then he posts his reviews on his blog for all the world to see. At last count, he’d reviewed more than a million wines, each in less than 140 characters.”
“And does anyone care?” Santa asked, with more than a trace of sarcasm.
“I can’t say that they do,” I had to admit.
“Exactly!” my bearded friend exclaimed triumphantly. Then he yelled to his reindeer. “Rudolf! Donner! Blitzen! Have you ever heard of this wine blogger?” The only response from the animals was Comet raising his right rear leg and emptying his bladder. We got hit with a warm spray of moisture.
“I hate when that happens,” Santa said, wiping his face.
Suddenly he changed tack. “I don’t want you think I’m too old to appreciate Social Media though,” he confided, with a wink. “Actually, it’s a great help to me.”
“I use it to determine which of the world’s children have been naughty or nice,” he said. “That used to be a real challenge, believe me. I have a pretty good network of spies around the world, keeping track of the children–after all, what do you think my Elves do all year when they’re not wrapping presents? I’ll tell you what. They’re hiding under children’s beds, watching and listening to everything they say and do, and reporting back to me. Before the advent of email and Social Media, I had to depend on my reindeer to transport their messages by paper. And you know reindeer. [Here, he leaned in close and whispered in my ear.] Not the brightest bulbs in the chandelier.
“But with the advent of smart phones, my Elves can now report to me directly, through my Intelligence Center which is located beneath the North Pole. It is constantly staffed with new Elves I hire right out of Elf School. In fact, I believe a few of them are ex-bloggers. Of course, that means my reindeer aren’t getting as much exercise as they used to, which is why they’re getting a little plump.” At this, Santa giggled, and, patting his own ample belly, he added, “but I’m hardly one to criticize.”
“Aha!” I said. “So you do recognize that Social Media has its uses!”
“Of course I do!” Santa exclaimed. “It gives the children hope.”
“Hope?” I wondered what Santa meant.
“Yes, hope. It makes them feel that somehow, it will make their lives better. And that is the Spirit of Christmas, isn’t it?”
I had to think for a moment about that. “Well, I suppose it is. But how does Social Media give the children hope?”
“Look at this like this,” Santa began. “The world can be very bleak. You’re born into it, against your will, dragged literally kicking and screaming from a warm, safe place into a cold, noisy one filled with impersonal and dangerous forces. That must be a terrible experience for a child.”
Recalling my own childhood, I considered that, yes, it must be a terrible experience.
Santa continued. “But Social Media, with its promise of connecting us into a circle of friends and followers, breaks that impersonality, and gives people the impression they’re part of a broader family of love and support. That is a wonderful thing.”
I decided to play Devil’s Advocate. “But Santa, this ‘family of love’ you refer to is a complete illusion! As you yourself said, it’s an ‘impression,’ not a reality. There is no family, just images on a screen, most of them from people you wouldn’t know if you bumped into them on the street. And in fact, Social Media actually and ironically is one of those ‘impersonal and dangerous forces’ you referred to earlier. It cuts people off from the real world and pushes them into a make-believe digital one.”
“Perhaps,” Santa mused, rubbing his beard between two chubby fingers. “But who are you to take away from the children that which gives them hope?” Suddenly, his voice sounded angry. “Say, you’re not one of those Social Media haters, are you? I ought to throw you right out of my sleigh!”
“No, no!” I insisted. We were over the North Atlantic. “I don’t hate Social Media. I use it all the time! But isn’t it weird, Santa,” I continued. “When we began this conversation, it was you who was dissing Social Media. Now, you’re defending it.”
“This is the twenty-first century,” Santa said. “You can’t expect me to be consistent.”
“You know, Santa, being of such strong opinions, you should start your own blog. You could go to the Bloggers Conference.”
“What’s that?” Santa inquired.
“It’s where the bloggers all go someplace together, drink a lot and try to get laid.”
“Sounds like my Elves’ break room,” Santa observed.
“And if you’re a really successful blogger,” I added, “it could pay off with a hefty ROI.”
“Hmm,” Santa replied. He seemed to be thinking. “You know, when I retire, my income will fall–and by the way, I don’t have a pension. That’s something Mrs. Claus is concerned with, because she likes the finer things in life. Don’t get me started on her American Express card! Oi. But I don’t know anything about blogging. Would you teach me?”
“Not really,” I demurred. “But Santa, there are many fine Social Media consultants who would be pleased to help you learn the tricks of the trade.” And here, I mentioned Mr. ___.
“Hah!” Santa snorted. “I know exactly who he is. Last Christmas, I delivered a book to him, ‘101 Ways to Make Money At Social Media.’ And #31 was “’Become a Social Media consultant, and then write a book on How to Make Money Using Social Media.’”
“Who sent him the book?” I asked.
“No one,” Santa grinned. “He ordered it from Amazon.” And at that, we both laughed so hard, it threw the startled reindeer off-course, and we found ourselves over Central Africa.
“You know, Santa, for an old guy, you’re pretty cool,” I told him.
“Thanks, young Jedi. For an upstart, you are, too.” And that was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.