I’m always surprised by how negative the reaction of some people is to the field of wine writing/journalism/reviewing. If you read through the “Comments” section from yesterday’s blog, you’ll see what I mean. Why do these people get so upset to the point of almost losing their minds?
I wrote “wine writing/journalism/reviewing” on purpose, because a “wine writer” does all three. There’s a difference, you know, although the critics of wine reviewing tend to conveniently overlook it, preferring instead to focus on the 100-point system and what they perceive as the critic’s “elitism.” So let me explain to these people, most of whom are not legitimate wine writers as far as I can tell, just what the job entails.
Wine writing: I define this is the artistic or esthetic side. It’s what I tried to do in my first book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River, and, to some extent, what I try to do here on the blog. It’s literature, nicely defined in my Webster’s as “writings considered as having permanent value [and] excellence.” When you do “literature” you really exercise the art of writing. It borrows from literature you’ve loved in the past (my writing is heavily indebted to Churchill but also will dip its toe into whatever book I fancy at the moment. I went through a Hemingway phase of short, snappy sentences). But you also develop your own style.
Wine journalism: This is good, old-fashioned reporting. You interview somebody, or do research on something, then you write it up, answering all those “w” questions: who, what, when, why, where (and, in wine, “how” and “how much?”). Journalism is not literature: it’s too truncated, too formulaic, which is why so many journalists like to stretch their wings and try actual literature.
Wine reviewing: Well, we all know what that is. It’s one of the things I do and in fact pays most of my bills.
I’ve never met an actual, employed wine reviewer who was upset by wine reviewers, or who thought that the act of wine reviewing somehow is elitist or evil or arrogant or condescending or any of the other epithetical terms anti-reviewers toss around. Oh, before you object that there are people in the blogosphere and in the social media who review wine but who criticize wine reviewers (there are), I’ll add that, as wine reviewers, they’re not particularly influential. I mean, anyone can scratch out some wine reviews and put them up on a blog, but it’s the proverbial tree falling in a forest with no one around: Does anyone know or care? There is some jealousy out there, on the part of the have-nots for the haves.
Ambitious wine writers who haven’t yet made it in their chosen career would do well to put aside reviewing and take up wine writing and wine journalism, in the sense I described above. I ask them: When’s the last time you wrote something that glowed, that you were proud of? When’s the last time you really had to dig for a story, chase down the facts, get people to say things they didn’t want to, go through archives, search through the indexes of old books, spend an hour on Google to find a specific quote, make a scientist explain something in plain English, walk through the woods to hear what walking through the woods sounds like, lie on your stomach on the forest floor and bury your face in the dead leaves and dirt to smell what it smells like, transcribe a long tape, look through an almanac, use a calculator to figure out the rate of increase or decline of a particular grape variety in a particular region…I could go on all day. I do all of those things, too, not just rate wines, and all of those things make me a better wine reviewer, in the mysterious alchemy of that task. Antonio Galloni expressed it well when I talked with him the other week: We live surrounded by wine, by the lore of wine, by its traditions, by the business of wine, in the culture of wine. It fills our brains as it fills our bellies. When we’re not tasting it–not reviewing–we’re thinking about it, about the people who make and sell and write about it, about the next story we’re working on, the deadline, about the question we forgot to ask during that interview, about what time to leave for tomorrow’s appointment to avoid rush hour, and what time to try to get home so we can do a flight. And inbetween everything else, we’re going back and re-reading that draft, refining it, throwing out a clunky phrasing for a more pleasing one, replacing a misleading adjective with the correct one, and maybe even buying a Meyer lemon to see how it smells and tastes different from an ordinary lemon. Yes, all of those things. And reviewing, too.
I’ve always had mixed feelings about advertising. I like the creativity it elicits from smart, talented and artistic people. Some ads themselves can be minor works of art (Apple’s Super Bowl commercial). And advertising is a huge source of revenue for many hard-working people, from actors and graphic designers to makeup artists, copywriters and photographers.
But there’s a dark side to advertising. Years ago, a friend of mine called it “the evil art,” because the actual intent of advertising isn’t to amuse or educate or entertain us; it’s to persuade us to buy things we don’t need. Advertising appeals to (or tries to appeal to) subconscious levels in our minds, wherein dwell our deepest anxieties, desires and atavistic instincts. We, the manipulated, usually don’t even know we’re being trifled with. But advertisers know. They understand that they’re the Wizard of Oz, behind the curtain, pulling the levers and pushing the buttons of mass consumerism.
That’s pretty scary and depressing, and the only silver lining on this dark cloud is that most people seem to understand advertising and are pretty cynical about it. That doesn’t stop them from being influenced by it, though. Advertisers actually factor cynicism into their equations when designing ads, the same way political strategists know that, when they turn off voters through the sheer negativity of a campaign, it benefits the extremists on their side.
The advent of the social media promised to end this dominance of huge, impersonal forces on the American people. The Millennials said, in effect, that social media would liberate them from being manipulated and influenced–by, for example, newspapers and television–and instead allow them to communicate among themselves in unprecedentedly direct ways. This peer group communication, it was thought, would lead in new and surprising directions, re-fueling democracy, re-establishing independence of thought and action on the part of social media users, and in general revolutionizing the way social intercourse occurs.
Well, guess what happened on the way to the future. Corporate America is now in the process of seizing control of the social media, not in the usual way of overtly taking it over (although they’re doing that, too), but of infiltrating it so that they can control the message, without leaving their fingerprints on the smoking gun. Consider, for example, this report in yesterday’s New York Times that Ogilvy & Mather, one of the world’s biggest advertising agencies (American Express, BP, Nestlé, Barbie, IBM, Dove and scores of others in 120 countries) “is starting practice units that are devoted to helping clients navigate two areas that are rewarding but confusing: social media and youth marketing.”
This should trouble anyone who likes and uses social media, and especially those against whom Ogilvy & Mather’s new strategy is targeted: young people. One of the company’s honchos told the Times, “Social has become such a huge priority. It’s core to the way consumers behave. They talk about you, and they talk about you online, and it’s measurable, and you can get involved in the conversation.” Well, we’ve heard that before, haven’t we–from every defender of social media. I’ve been lectured countless times that “getting involved in the conversation” is the way to break the stranglehold of the elitists who have always dominated communication, whether it’s Big Government, Big Advertising or Big Dinosaur Wine Critics. But what happens when those “getting involved in the conversation” are secretly influencing it in directions they want it to go, using their arcane and largely invisible arts?
One of the new units responsible for penetrating the youth segment of the market is called Ogilvy Youth (which, for those of us of a certain age, brings unpleasant memories of “Nixon Youth,” which had its precursor in “Hitler Youth”). If you go to Ogilvy Youth’s tumblr page, it sounds very idealistic: “We’re a diverse group of Ogilvy and independent experts & collaborators dedicated to sharing and discussing the freshest Youth news, trends, and ideas.” Sounds rather like a party. Let’s have some appletinis and pizza, sit in a circle, play Adele in the background and rap about stuff we “Youth” (with a capital “Y”) care about.
But don’t be fooled: the only thing Ogilvy Youth is “dedicated to” is making you buy the products and services of the businesses that pay them. This is what the social media is being relegated to: just another way to sell stuff.
However, the glass-is-half-empty position I seem to be taking here could have a more positive outcome. We don’t really know where the whole social media trip is collectively taking us, but it could actually increase ethical standards, in a way in which advertising (“the hidden persuaders” in Vance Packard’s immortal phrase) has been notably lacking since, well, forever. Check out this piece on “The Future of Ethics in Branding.” It argues, somewhat counter-intuitively, that society just may be on the brink of “a rise in the importance of ethics” in advertising. The author lists ten bullet points he believes will increasingly come to bear on advertisers. “Be 100% transparent. Nothing less…All your endorsements and testimonials must be real…Every time you launch a campaign, a new product, or a service, secure an ‘ethical’ sign-off from your target group.” That’s powerful stuff. Can you imagine [fill in name of gigantic corporation] taking seriously whether or not its customers think its business practices are ethical? I mean, not just going through the motions of asking us, but actually listening, and then altering behavior as a result? That would make the social media truly what it was meant to be, and still could: a game changer.
I came across this YouTube the other day of Michael Mondavi being interviewed by a guy in Italy about wine blogs. Among other things, Michael said: “… my daughter and her friends do not look at Wine Spectator, Decanter. They get emails from friends…they go to the blog…it’s interactive…and they trust the blogs more than they trust the critics and magazines.”
It’s nice to see a guy of Michael’s age give props to the blogs. It’s not always easy for a Baby Boomer to “get it.” But then, Michael is the eldest son of Robert Mondavi, and nobody in the history of wine better understood just how the intricate mechanisms of marketing, P.R. and technology mesh than Bob. I don’t know how much Robert Mondavi knew about the Internet before he died, in 2008 at the age of 94. He’d been in failing health for some time. But I suspect that, had he been physically able, Bob would have been deeply involved online today, especially in videos. He was deeply photogenic, even into old age, and he had a playful, natural way of interacting with the camera, as this YouTube shows. Michael, in his welcoming video on the website of his Folio Fine Wine Partners, seems a bit more self-conscious compared to his father’s effortless ease. Michael’s younger brother, Tim, shows more of his father’s geniality in videos; check out this YouTube as an example. At any rate, it’s probably unfair to compare the sons to the father. Robert was, literally, incomparable.
What Robert got, and what Michael was referring to, was the importance to a vintner of establishing a personal relationship with his customers. Of course, that relationship isn’t really “personal” the way I have personal relationships with my family, friends and neighbors. You don’t really “meet” anyone through the media. My 2,500 Facebook “friends” are friends only in a strictly defined sense of the word. But Robert Mondavi knew that a bottle of wine that has a face, place and personality associated with it will stand a better chance of being bought than one that floats anonymously in a vast sea of bottles. So much the better once a name becomes branded, and no name in the history of American wine has been more potently or successfully branded than that of “Robert Mondavi.” That the company over-extended its brand, leading ultimately to its demise, takes nothing away either from Robert Mondavi’s astuteness (or our appreciation of it), or from his legacy, which teaches us that branding is the essential cornerstone of business success. It’s not possible, obviously, for every winery to have a face as iconic as Robert Mondavi’s; and I suspect that most winery principles would not want their faces out there, the way Robert’s was. Robert was, in some respects, a performer. He used to remind me of a Vaudevillian, an old trooper whose philosophy could be expressed as “The show must go on.” No matter how he was feeling, when it came time for him (and his wife, Margrit) to go onstage, they squared their shoulders and rose to the occasion.
With all the talk nowadays about whether and how much a winery person should tweet, Facebook, blog and all the rest, I wonder why more winery owners and winemakers don’t become the face of their brands. We humans are above all a visual species; before we had invented reading and writing, we used our eyes to scan what was in front of us, telling friend from foe, truth teller from liar. Humans have not changed, only technology. Which California winemakers are doing the best job of getting their faces out there and symbolizing their brands? I’d like to hear your suggestions.
It must drive wineries crazy to read stuff like Joe Roberts’ post today at 1WineDude.
Winery owners are doing everything they can to keep afloat in this dour economy. Most of them are tinkering with social media to some extent; some of them even have dedicated employees for it, if they can afford it. Inbetween buying corks and capsules, hoping the bottling line doesn’t break down, filling out employee forms, patching up hoses, worrying about drought or swamps in the vineyard, pruning, staking, riding the mule around the vineyard, topping off, racking, tinkering with valves and dials and switches, deciding on blends, driving to the hardware store, going on the road to sell wine, meeting with distributors and wholesalers, having staff meetings, and, oh, trying to find an hour to spend with the wife and kiddies, here’s Joe telling them they need to “just start using that time on social media to connect with customers already.”
What time? You mean those few hours between midnight and dawn when everyone’s entitled to a little sleep?
I pity these poor vintners. Everybody’s telling them to do social media, “to reach younger wine consumers” through the Twitter machine, to check their Facebook feed every three minutes, to blog, to make YouTubes and put them up on Oinga-Boinga or Diddly-Squat or whatever the hot new social platform is that’s about to go public. And those vintners are just sitting there, like, What? What are you talking about? It’s easy for someone who doesn’t have a real job to tell them to hang out on social media all day long, as that will magically solve all their problems. It’s also easy for that same blogger to tell winemakers “But if I were a small-production winery, I’d be worrying a hell of a lot more about how to reach, engage, and keep customers I had (as well as engaging new ones) than trying to get a crazy-good review with critics.” Why would a blogger tell winemakers not to be concerned with the critics? That’s crazy talk. And it must drive winemakers nuts (like I said) to think that they’re not doing enough to “engage and keep” their customers. When you accuse a hard-working vintner of being lazy when it comes to engaging customers, it’s like asking a guy when he stopped beating his wife. There is no answer that’ll get him off the hook. If he admits he’s not reaching out enough to potential customers, he subjects himself to feelings of guilt and suffering, because he knows that, no matter what he does, it can never be enough.
I agree that winemakers or owners should play around with social media, if they want to and like it. I spend a lot of time at it myself. But I don’t think it’s helpful to tell them that they’re bad if they’re not living online. When Joe (whom I like a lot, I really do and he knows it) says, “Honestly, I’ve got no idea what producers (especially smaller wine producers) are waiting for when it comes to outreach,” he’s really doing a disservice to the people he says he’s trying to help. How does he presume to know that producers are “waiting for” something? He doesn’t know the myriad ways that each producer is reaching out and engaging, whether it’s through a wine club, or working the tasting room, or hitting the road for a winemaker dinner, or writing thank you notes to valued colleagues, or visiting Wine Enthusiast’s headquarters in New York and tasting with the staff. Winery people work really hard, long hours. Telling them they have to put social media at the top of the list of things they’re already overwhelmed with is really no help at all.
Twitter as washing dishes
This little snippet from Reuters will probably pass unnoticed, but it’s really terribly interesting and relevant.
“Old media executives too busy, private for Twitter,” the headline says. Go ahead, take 2 minutes and read it.
Any one of the Twitter-phobic quotes could apply to me. My critique of Twitter runs along these lines:
- I’m busy enough with everything else, so I don’t have the actual or mental time to follow a constantly changing Twitter feed.
- Twitter is a very limited form of communication. I’m a writer. I like crafting phrases, sentences, paragraphs. Twitter doesn’t let me do that. This blog does. So does Facebook, to a lesser degree. Not Twitter.
- Most of what I see on Twitter is so superficial as to be ridiculous. I don’t wish to join the chattering classes who apparently have too much time on their hands.
I will gladly concede Twitter’s importance. When students are rioting in Tahrir Square, Twitter gets the news up first. It’s the most awesome media ever invented for instantaneous sharing of breaking events, complete with video. That is truly historic. But I don’t have to tweet in order to “get” Twitter. As one advertising guy said, in a delicious quote, “I understand how to wash dishes. I don’t do it regularly.”
I also understand why celebrities like Twitter. If you’re Lady Gaga, it’s a great way to reach out to your fans and keep them bonded to you (although Aston Kucher apparently grew bored with it). But I’m not a celebrity and I don’t think anyone cares about my every move.
I’ve been predicting a Twitter meltdown for years now. I just don’t think it has legs–at least, to continue its explosive growth. I don’t think it’s just “old media executives” who can’t embrace Twitter. More and more people are discovering that actually living in the real world is better than constantly tweeting to a bunch of “followers” you don’t even know. It’s called “get a life,” and if you’re living on Twitter, you don’t have one.
I’m sure that a younger generation never heard of him, and that’s fine. But he went where no American had gone before, and helped launch the modern era of wine criticism, especially in California. It’s important for today’s new crop of wine writers and bloggers to understand that this stuff didn’t just happen sui generis, like Athena springing full-blown from the brow of Zeus. There are roots. Roots are important. Balzar was roots.
That Jay Miller thing
I’ve refrained from writing about the Jay Miller “payola” allegations in Spain, not through any kindness of heart on my part, but because I don’t know the facts, don’t have the time to dig, and refuse to speculate on matters of which I’m fundamentally ignorant.
But I did read this report yesterday, which contained an interesting paraphrase and quote from Parker himself:
…with Parker referencing the tediousness of tasting mediocre wines that can “burn out the best of us…”
That caught my eye, and I want to explore some thoughts of my own, which aren’t entirely clear even to me. I do taste a great deal of mediocre wine. Vast quantities, you might say, a tsunami of boring wine that comes in every day. It is tedious, and I have wondered what effect this has on my palate. Parker suggests tasting tedious wines can “burn out” the taster. This is a scary thought, because the worst thing that can happen to any professional is to be burned out.
I’ve often fantasized of tasting only the great wines of California, but, of course, that’s impossible. A popular, consumer wine magazine needs to review as widely as possible, and that necessarily involves tasting mediocre wines as well as great ones. Still, I’m of two minds here. I like the fact that I can review inexpensive wines, because that’s what most people can afford, and I feel a great sense of duty toward the average consumer, who’s just looking for a decent everyday bottle. I don’t think Parker has that same motive. He’s more geared to the high-end collector/consumer.
At the same time, I do think that tasting mediocre wines can have a dulling effect on the palate, even for “the best of us.” How do I counter-balance this nefarious effect? I have a method, but as you’ll see, it’s not perfect. I try to arrange daily flights so that (let’s say) inexpensive California reds are tasted only against each other, while another flight might feature only Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons, most of which are necessarily expensive.
Every so often, I’ll throw a ringer into a flight: a cheap wine with a bunch of $100 Cabs, or a $100 Cab with a bunch of cheapos. I acknowledge that my system has flaws, but so does every other system in the world. I also maintain excellent health, eat right, work out religiously, keep my weight under control and get plenty of sleep. Those things help to keep me sharp and prevent palate burnout. But palate burnout always must be something the professional taster guards against.
I’m unable to participate in Rusty Eddy’s class on Winery P.R. at U.C. Davis this year, because I have to be–no, make that want to be in Santa Barbara on Dec. 2, but I promised Rusty I’d give the class some promo, so here it is: It’s this Friday, from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. You can sign up online here, for a cost of $190. Worth it!
Participants in the class, at which I’ve guest lectured for years, are winery P.R. people, or those who want to be. They’re looking, I suppose, for any additional insight in how to be better at their jobs. Four or five years ago, there was barely a mention of social media in the class. Instead, attendees wanted to know about stuff like how to prepare a press kit, write a press release, and how to pitch an article to a wine writer. They also wanted to know about the 100 point system and the more arcane aspects of wine criticism.
All of a sudden, around 2008, it began to shift. Suddenly, blogs, Twitter and Facebook were all the rage. It was as profound a paradigm shift as you could ask for.
I wonder what the students will want to know about this year. My own feeling–and that’s all it is, a feeling, because I have no empirical evidence to support it–is that the social media thing may have peaked when it comes to winery P.R. I just don’t sense the excitement, the breakthrough gee-whiz breathlessness that accompanied social media 2008-2010. In that little window of time, social media seemed to be the be-all and end-all of winery P.R. and marketing, the magic bullet that would overturn traditional forms of publicity and replace it with an online revolution in which anyone could participate, more or less for free. Heady stuff, for a winery on a budget.
Looking back now, during this winter of economic and social discontent, it’s hard to believe how naive everyone was. Did people really believe that social media could sell out a warehouse of SKUs, with a single keystroke? They did. But that’s what happens when you have stardust in your eyes: you don’t see things clearly.
Yes, there always were voices of reason arguing that social media was but a single arrow in the quiver, and possibly not even the one that went the furthest or sank the deepest. But those voices were all but drowned out by competing views that social media had changed everything, was destroying traditional P.R., and would reward those who hopped on its bandwagon while punishing everyone who stayed off.
Be honest now. Does anyone still make that claim?
I think a couple things combined to make social media less of a star than it purported to be. One was inherent in the concept itself: social media is merely a way for people to mass-communicate. That’s good, but what does it have to do with selling wine? Not much. People said social media would replace other sorts of sales techniques with peer-to-peer recommendations. Actually, that happened all too well. The peer-to-peer space is shared by an expanding universe of sources. A million peer-to-peer networks result in a million different wines being recommended, each for about 15 nanoseconds of fame.
Another reason the social media revolution failed was because of the Recession. Funny how an event that seemed historic at the time can be vaporized by another event that has truly Historic with-a-capital-H ramifications: namely, the collapse of the global economy. Maybe, just maybe social media could have been more helpful for wineries, if there hadn’t been a meltdown and people actually had the disposable income to buy wine. But that’s a hypothetical situation we can dispense with.
Everything feels like it’s in stasis these days. Black Friday and Cyber Monday aside, nobody’s buying, nobody’s spending, nobody’s hiring, nobody’s lending. If I were a young grad student wanting to move into winery P.R. and attending Rusty’s class, I think my first question to his guests (Sara Schneider from Sunset and Paul Mabray from VinTank) would be: Now that we’ve seen the limitations of social media for winery P.R., what traditional approaches do you believe will work? If I had to answer that question, I’d say that in addition to (not in place of) social media, a winery should have someone representing it who is ultra-skilled at captivating the media. That person might come from internal P.R. or external P.R., or it might be someone like Robert Mondavi, Gary Pisoni or Jayson Woodbridge, none of whom needed P.R. agents at all because they were such dynamic geniuses on their own. Of course, not everyone has that level of flash, which is why God invented public relations. As to the exact form of P.R. that works, impossible to say. It depends on the winery situation. If there were a formula, everyone would know it by now. Obviously, there isn’t.
Anyhow, like I wrote, I’ll be in beautiful Santa Barbara this week, reporting for Wine Enthusiast, doing a big blind tasting of local wines and, hopefully, coming up with interesting posts for my blog!