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My Conversation With Santa About Social Media

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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.”

“How so?”

“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.

 

Santas-wink


There are at least two different “wine communities”–and they don’t talk to each other

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We often speak of a “wine culture” or “the wine consumer” but of course these phrases are wildly inaccurate. They imply that all American wine drinkers are part of one big, happy, thirsty family, when in fact just the opposite is true. There are at least two wine communities–and they couldn’t be more different from each other.

On the one hand, we have the Occupy movement’s version of the one percent: Extremely wealthy people who keep the Colgins, Harlans and Screaming Eagles in business. This community largely lives among, and associates with, its own kind. The own their own homes, usually large, well-appointed ones, golf at country clubs, spend their vacations on tropical isles and live lives of opulence. Price means little or nothing to them: if they want something badly enough, they go out and get it.

On the other hand, we have the 99% of consumers who have to think of their budget every time they buy something. To them, there’s a big difference between a $15 bottle of wine and a $12 one. That differential would be meaningless to the 1%, assuming, of course, that the 1% would even deign to buy a $15 bottle of wine. But to the 99% consumer, saving $3 on a bottle of wine mounts up; if she buys 100 bottles of wine a year–not an unreasonable quantity–that’s $300 she saves, or doesn’t. These are the sort of financial calculations that drive the 99%, and they’ve become more profound since the onset of the Great Recession, in 2008.

As a wine writer/critic/journalist, I have to take cognizance of these two communities. I need to understand both of them, which involves different sorts of analysis and empathy. In this, I feel that I, and Wine Enthusiast, have taken an independent approach, one that not all wine publications have chosen.

For example, some critics cater to the 1%; I’d put, say, Antonio Galloni and James Suckling in that category. Nothing wrong with that. It’s perfectly honorable. But it’s important for readers to understand that their approach is necessarily geared toward the desires and motives of the 1%. By that I mean that they are dealing almost exclusively with luxury products, and they bring a certain attitudinal exclusivity to their reviews that by and large discounts any appreciation of everyday wines. By way of an extended metaphor, it’s analogous to those art critics whose esthetic is concerned only with “museum-quality” art. To them, street art–graffiti–isn’t true art, it’s vandalism. This is not a viewpoint that is shared, however, by street artists themselves, who take their pursuit  very seriously, and for whom its freely distributed, populist nature is precisely the point: for them, it is art of and for “the people,” not the uber-wealthy.

The appreciation exclusively of expensive wine has never been my thing. I’ve never drawn any severe distinctions between cult wines and very good ones that are “merely” affordable. For example, a $625 Yao Ming is clearly a very great Cabernet Sauvignon–but so is a $50 Sequum, and for that matter a $45 Terra Valentine might beat them both in a blind tasting on any given day. By the same token, it pleases me to no end to be able to review, say, a Benziger 2010 Cab, or a Katherine Goldschmidt 2011, both of which retail for $20, and give them high scores. What could be better than that?

Producers have to figure out which end of the great divide they wish to appeal to. Some larger wine companies, like Kendall-Jackson and to some extent Gallo, can span the gamut, with something for everyone. But for the most part, wineries can’t do that. The ones who cater exclusively to the 1% or the 99% seem to be doing well; they’ve defined their markets. But some other wineries fall into the squishy center. They’re not expensive enough for the 1%, and they’re too expensive for the 99%. This is where sales tactics and strategies enter the picture, but that’s another story.

By the way, before you start telling me that social media is the key to these tactics I’m referring to, read this blog post from Tablas Creek, which appeared yesterday. In it, Jason Haas discusses the new Facebook policy “would be reducing the organic reach of pages and requiring those pages that wanted to reach a significant percentage of their fans to advertise to do so.” By way of illustration, he writes, “an average [winery] post to a page with 5000 fans will be seen in the news feeds of just 600-700 of those fans,” unless the winery pays for a more extensive reach.

I did not know that, but this trend doesn’t bode well for the continued [free] use of social media. It seem to me that the ability of wineries to use social media will increasingly by threatened, or neutered, as these social media companies increasingly force everybody to pay up; and the less you pay, the less of a reach you’ll have. In other words, the social media companies–having gotten us hooked on the use of their products–will now jack up the price, which, in accordance with the free market theory of capitalism, will send users away, in search of cheaper competitors. Am I reading this wrong? I’m sure my social media-savvy friends will be happy to explain to me my utter misinterpretation of reality.


From that Winery P.R. Class at U.C. Davis: a few of my remarks

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Yesterday’s Winery P.R. class, led by Rusty Eddy at the University of California, Davis, was a great success. I’ve been a speaker there for many years, and always enjoy interacting with the students, who for the most part are aspiring or actual winery public relations agents, or winery owners, or even social media consultants.

This year Rusty asked me to address some questions. Here are five, with my summarized answers:

How important to you is a good/unique winery story?

The conventional PR wisdom is that the winery needs to tell a “good story” or a “unique story” in order to capture media attention. That’s partly true, but I’m here to tell you why there’s less to this than meets the eye. I get pitched all the time about “stories” and to tell you the truth, they all start to sound alike. “Bill was a great success in [fill in the blank: investment banking, high tech, selling widgets] but one day, he and his wife, Sally, were visiting [fill in the blank, Napa Valley, the Russian River Valley, Santa Barbara] when they came across a [fill in the blank, lovely piece of land, gorgeous house, vineyard]. They decided to radically change their life, and…”. Etc. etc. So for me, personally, a “good story” isn’t terribly important. There’s something else, too: I’m a writer. My task when interviewing someone is to look for the most interesting aspects of their life, and then explore them. It doesn’t matter what official “story” the P.R. advisor has devised in advance: the story will become what I find in my autopsy of the subject’s life, achievements and character.

How important to you is a good/socially adept winery spokesperson?

I’d rather deal with a socially adept spokesperson than an incompetent one! The truth is, the vast majority of winery spokespersons are cordial and smart. I don’t really want a winery spokesperson to do anything for me, except assist with my needs [getting info, samples, arranging a visit]. I don’t particularly like it when a PR person sits in on an interview or tasting with me and the winemaker. The winemaker isn’t comfortable being scrutinized, and may be so guarded in his remarks that it effectively kills the chance for a good interview.

How has winery public relations changed in practice over the last ten years

I don’t think winery PR has changed much. Obviously the tools are different [social media] and this necessitates different skills. But the actual practice remains the same. Get your clients out in front of the media. Get good coverage, if you can. Be active, not passive.

How have wine media people/writers/news outlets changed over the last ten years?

The biggest change, again, is obvious: there’s a new generation of Millennials in the wine critic/writing business. This shouldn’t come as a shock! Every 15 or 20 years, it happens, and it’s happening again. As for new news outlets, obviously the existence of a thousand wine blogs means that wineries have vastly more opportunities for publicity. On the other hand, most of these blogs have little influence with the buying public. So if you’re in charge of that sort of thing at a winery, you have to do your homework and know which blogs are the real thing, and which ones aren’t.

What is the one most critical part of a successful small winery PR effort, assuming excellent wine quality to begin with?

When I look back over recent years, the most successful winery PR efforts have been those that involved social media, and then went viral, like Murphy-Goode’s “A Really Goode Job” contest. Another effort that comes to mind is Lisa Mattson’s work with Jordan Winery and their YouTubes, which have given the winery widespread visibility. The challenge with these efforts, especially single-episode ones like A Really Goode Job, is to maintain the momentum as time passes. That can be very hard. It’s not easy coming up with brilliant social media ideas.


Here I come, rest of the week

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I travel to U.C. Davis this week once again for my old friend, Rusty Eddy, with his winery P.R class. He’s done this for years, and it’s always great fun.

This year, for the first time, the class spans over two days, Thursday and Friday. Friday, when I won’t be there, is devoted to what Rusty calls implementation. This is where the rubber hits the road. Instead of just telling these students what to do, Friday’s session will instruct them in the nuts and bolts of how to do it. I don’t know about you, but I myself need hands-on guidance when it comes to learning how to do stuff. For example, I’m getting better at recording on my new Yamaha P155 digital piano, but I find the manual useless. I need someone who knows his way around that piano to stand right next to me and tell me exactly what to do.

I won’t be there for the Friday class, but I’m sure that Paul Mabray wishes I was. : >  Last year, we were both there on the same day, and some people were billing it as some kind of mixed martial arts smackdown: Ladeez and Gents: Step right up this way to see the most sensational, knock-down, drag-out battle in the history of social media-dumb. In this corner, the old dinosaur, who’s been around for a long time but still has a few tricks up his sleeve. In this corner the new pheenom, who came out of nowhere and is anxious to kick butt. Place your bets, ladeez and gents!

Well, of course that’s not how it was last year. Although there were some tense moments, overall it was a respectful exchange of ideas. Paul was frustrated that I tend to question some of his basic premises having to do with the efficacy of social media for wineries. And so the energy level in the room rose to a certain level, but it was nothing that grownups can’t handle.

But this year, no Paul and Steve in the same room! Instead, my co-panelists are Virginie Boone, my wonderful “other half” here in California for Wine Enthusiast, whom Rusty is also billing for her roles at the Santa Rosa Press Democrat and the new Sonoma Magazine (what a great portfolio); and someone I don’t know, Steve Boone, of O’Donnell Lane, which calls itself a lifestyle company specializing in strategic planning, marketing and communications for the wine industry. As someone who has some skepticism about consultants like that (their job, after all, is to persuade potential customers that they, the consultants, have something the potential customer desperately needs, which may or may not be true), I’m all ears to hear Steve’s presentation.

My own presentation will be to describe the world of winery P.R. into which these Davis students are entering as realistically as possible. As someone on the receiving end of countless pitches, I feel I have some insight into what works and what doesn’t. Of course, that’s just me. A pitch that bores me might turn someone else on. On the other hand, it does seem to me that it would be pretty valuable for someone to successfully pitch me for a spot in the magazine, since that is very expensive real estate. An article, even a small one, in Wine Enthusiast will bring a winery vaster coverage than a hundred blogs ever could.

I do plan on taking a few minutes at the end of my presentation to tell the students my views on social media: the good, the bad and the ugly. As some of you may know, I routinely come under some pretty fierce attack on twitter and in blogs for failing to be a 100% card-carrying social mediaist. Sometimes these attacks are pretty ad hominem–you know, when you can’t debate someone’s points, then attack their personality. Alder Yarrow the other day–a fellow I’ve always tried to be nice to–called me a Chihuahua. Now, I am not offended. My family is not offended. But Gus, who is part Chihuahua, has taken this hard.

Alder’s rather sad remark shows how the conversation about the value of social media can really deteriorate into childish name calling, when its proponents lose their moorings and hit that “send” button before they’ve had a chance to sober up and be reflective. Alder claims to be “infuriated” by the questions I ask about social media. I wonder why. That’s such an extreme, irrational emotion. Infuriated? I mean, really…the Taliban gets infuriated. Adult Americans don’t. And Alder’s not the only one. Maybe someday someone will explain to me why these social mediaists have so much personal pathology bound up in it, and why they can’t tolerate even well-meaning, constructive criticism from a simple, likeable guy like me.


Style and eccentricity in wine

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Two articles struck me this week, in publications that, you might say, are diametrically opposed to each other: The New York Times and Playboy. While the topics are different, I hope to be able to draw a connection between them, as concerns our current wine culture.

The Times article was about a fashion designer, Isabella Blow, whose glory years were the 1970s-1990s, and who now is the subject of a retrospective in London. Isabella was certainly a couture eccentric: the author, Andrew O’Hagan, describes her wearing “giant mink antlers” and “a sneering mouth so red with lipstick that it was like an open wound.” (Blow is Lady Gaga‘s spiritual grandmother.) She had a “phantasmagoric sense of fashion [and] beauty” that O’Hagan says is missing today, when too many people are mere “imitators” of fashion, “publicity scavengers…who think it’s merely about fame or attention.”

IsabellaBlow2
Isabella Blow

Other style setters whom O’Hagan admires are the famously infamous writer Quentin Crisp, Anna Piaggi, who wrote for Vogue, and the recluse Edith Bouvier Beale, Jackie Kennedy’s cousin, who lived and died alone in a falling down mansion filled with garbage, even as she dressed as outrageously as anyone in the Hamptons.

O’Hagan’s point isn’t necessarily a new one: celebrate style. Be yourself, and unafraid to show the world who are are.  He quotes another of his muses, Elsie de Wolfe: “Only those are unwise who have never dared to be fools.” When I read that, I immediately thought of those California vintners who are daring to march to a different beat from today’s consumer favorites. Not for them another oaky Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay.  No, they want to split off from the crowd and explore niches that interest them. I think of someone like Marimar Torres. True, she makes great Pinot and Chardonnay, and could easily get by with only them, but instead she pops out of the envelope with such interesting blends as her Chardonnay-Albariño and Syrah-Tempranillo. There’s Cambiata, whose Tannat is at the top of the list in California, even though most consumers wouldn’t know Tannat if it walked up to them and punched them in the nose. Or ONX’s Reckoning, which daringly combines Syrah, Petite Sirah, Zinfandel, Tempranillo and Grenache in a wholesome way. These are wines of a certain eccentricity, perhaps not for everyone: but they are wines of beauty and artistry.

The Playboy article, Talkin’ ‘Bout Your Generation, is funny and trenchant. The writer skewers every generation born during the 20th century (including mine, the Baby Boomers) right through Generation Z (born after 2000). You have to smile as you read his descriptions. Here’s a snippet from “Generation Y, AKA The Millennials”: “They’ve earned the nickname the Me Me Me Generation for a reason: They’re three times more likely than Boomers to have narcissistic personality disorder. Materialism and a lofty sense of entitlement–minus the means to realize their caviar dreams–have contributed to breathtaking delusions of grandeur. Generation Y is arguably the most medicated on record, their hazy state and sedentary social-media lifestyle contributing to a rise of obesity and its BFF, diabetes.” As for their obsession with social media: “Millennials who tried to quit social media showed the same symptoms as drug addicts in withdrawal.” Ouch.

I’ve tried to live my life in a way where I didn’t much care what anybody thought of me. And I like people who feel the same way. People of style are generally people of honesty and integrity. You can’t have integrity if you follow the herd, because having integrity takes guts. You have to be willing to take risks, to split off from the mainstream and explore new, and sometimes unpopular, dimensions. When I was in grad school, I’d take BART (the San Francisco subway) to S.F. State, outbound from downtown, and look at the mobs of people on the platform across from me, heading to the office towers of downtown. They all looked the same, dressed in severe business attire (men and women; we called it Financial District drag), with their little leather attaché cases and bored faces. I didn’t scorn them so much as feel sorry for them. They were just doing what they thought they were supposed to do–what everyone else was doing–what they hoped would bring them money and happiness.

Perhaps as a child of the Sixties I tend to romanticize the outlaw view, that people who “celebrate diversity” (to use that phrase) contribute more to humanity’s spectrum and upward spiral than those who remain confined within narrow limits. (I think of Steve Jobs in that respect, a hippie if ever there was one.) My sense of style tends to conform to O’Hagan’s; as he writes, “the true eccentric gives us more mystery, more wonder about being human, a new side to beauty…”. Wine is like that, too. There aren’t very many eccentrically mysterious wines being produced today in California, because most proprietors are too concerned with the bottom line to take risks. But I sense that may be changing. As for those Millennial social media addicts, I suppose the ultimate risk would be a Digital Sabbath: put the smart phone down and connect with the real world.

I’m off to Seattle today to celebrate Thanksgiving with my “northern” family. I’ll try to post something every day this week. Meanwhile, here’s wishing you a happy, healthy and safe Thanksgiving!


What today’s social media means for tomorrow’s wine industry

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The advent of the Millennials and social media is said to be revolutionizing consumer behavior in wine to such an existential extent that the Old Order is in dire threat of imminent demise.

From this historical vantage point, some people say that the wine world has gone through two major eras and is now entering a third. Wine 1.0, which lasted for a millennium, saw a few European regions dominating that continent; wine was virtually non-existent in the rest of the world. Wine 2.0, which began roughly in the late 19th century and continues today, saw the emergence of the New World, but that, in reality, was actually (and merely) an extension of Wine 1.0, because the New World mostly meant the former colonies of England (Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, America), who carried English traditions to the farthest points of the globe, resulting in the continuation of the domination of Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, etc. This continuity of English tradition, with its focus on rank, privilege and status, also guaranteed the public’s ongoing fascination with the Great Growths/Grand Crus of France, as well as their equivalents (decreed by cognoscenti) in the New World (Penfolds Grange, Harlan Estate, for example).

Now, according to the new historians, we see the nascent parameters of Wine 3.0. These are clear and distinct. One is that the world has shrunk so that ideas are now global rather than regional. Another is that technology has made the spread of ideas instantaneous. For the first time in history, an idea does not need a physical mode of transportation to convey it to the farthest reaches of the planet: the mere click of a mouse now does that. A third leg of this analysis is that a new generation (Millennials) is fundamentally different from its forebears, if for no reason other than that they grew up in a reality in which the first two parameters (a shrunken world and instantaneous transmittal of information) were taken for granted. The result, says this new interpretation, is that wine has been liberated from the shackles that bound it for centuries.

This is an attractive analysis for those who argue for a more liberal interpretation of history–such as, for example, the one governing a view of America that sees our country continually spiraling upward and outward in recognizing the human rights of all its inhabitants (notwithstanding that the reality of this view is not always consonant with the theory). Thus, the democratization of human society both anticipated and parallels the democratization in consumer wine preferences. According to this view, wines of any variety, style or flavor now may be permitted to stand beside glorious Bordeaux/Cabernet Sauvignon or Burgundy/Pinot Noir: younger consumers don’t care anymore about those old paradigms, nor do they care about Authority. Tannat, Furmint, Rkatsiteli, Welschriesling, Savtiano–Millennials happily embrace them all, perhaps all the more exuberantly due to the fact that they were formerly under-appreciated by those very Authorities whom they reject as arrogant and irrelevant.

This certainly is a viable, even compelling way of looking at things; the fact that it accords well with our own American experience in democratization adds vigor to it. (White male property owners at first had all the rights. Then came non-property owners, women, 18-year olds, African-Americans, the handicapped, the GLBT community; PETA is hoping animals may be next. If white male property owners were Bordeaux, the GLBT community is Rkatsiteli.) The argument becomes even more enhanced when critics of the old school embrace it, as Jancis Robinson did last week, when, in Washington, D.C. to promote her new book (“The World Atlas of Wine,” co-written with Hugh Johnson), she declared that “This democratization of wine is great.” 

Jancis might have been reciting the talking points of the blogging community when she added, “No longer are wine critics and reasonably well-known wine writers like me sitting on a pedestal, haughtily handing down our judgments.” This is if-you-can’t-beat-‘em-join-‘em-ism at its most resilient, although I do wonder if Jancis really thinks of herself (much less Hugh Johnson, God forbid) as “haughty.” At any rate, you can hardly blame a critic these days for going over to that side of the fence.

But I would like to segue now into history to make my point, which is that (as your financial statements constantly remind you), “past performance is not necessarily indicative of future results.” If the study of history proves anything, it is how utterly useless it is in predicting the future. We in the West like to assume that history proceeds according to some kind of orderly, predictable template, like the unfolding of a computer program, so that a proper understanding of the past can result in a fairly accurate knowledge of the future: not necessarily in detail, but in general outline. This philosophy was most famously summed up in Santayana’s slogan that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” We study history in order to more perfectly align with its forward direction.

Alas, reality has the unpleasant tendency to throw curveballs at us, upsetting the best-laid plans of men. (Heisenberg understood this tendency toward the erratic in the realm of the sub-atomic.) I referred earlier to Wine 1.0, which was totally dominated by Europe (“Old Europe,” Donald Rumsfeld contemptuously called it.) So, too, has the long political history of the West been dominated by events in Europe (and, after the year 1000 A.D. or so, the entire planet: when Europe coughed, the World caught cold). We saw this appalling phenomenon with the two World Wars, and then with the advent of the Cold War, which quickly spread to every continent on Earth.

As a result, my generation–the Baby Boomers–was obsessed with Europe. As a history buff, I’ve read about Europe all my life, and can tell you that, before 9/11, there was hardly a serious history book that even mentioned Islam. The Muslim world was seen merely as an adjunct of the great Western powers (subsequently joined by China, hardly a Muslim nation). The study of Western history tended to be about the causes and aftermath of World War II and the Cold War, and how those continuing power politics were shaping the political and economic realities of the world.

Suddenly, 9/11 occurred–and now Europe, with all its past problems and glories, seems almost irrelevant. If you know history at all, you will find that shocking. And yet, it happened: Europe was wiped out of global historical calculations overnight. History threw a curveball at the world, which didn’t see it coming. And the world now is scrambling to catch up.

I say these things simply to point out the uselessness of predictions based on prior assumptions, that how things appear today is necessarily prescriptive of how they will be tomorrow. We do certainly have a spike of interest in this social media phenomenon–an interest pushed by a media eager to report on “trends”. But one cannot extrapolate from this any conclusions concerning how wines will be described, popularized, marketed or sold in the future, much less what kinds of wines the people of the world will demand. A fundamental truth of human experience is: For now, we see through a glass, darkly. Paul’s conclusion from that is that mankind ought to be charitable. Mine is that proprietors of wineries ought to be skeptical.

Could the Internet itself be the curve ball that history has tossed at the world? Yes. But the outcome of that phenomenon is no more predictable than that of the world’s current situation vis-à-vis the rise of militant Islam. Nobody knows where that is going, and to make any predictions whatsoever based on what has happened in the past is futile and possibly dangerous.

My friend Rajeev, whom I mention here from time to time because he is emblematic of so many other small business owners, just enrolled in a social media course in Palo Alto, which he will attend next week. He has been reading and hearing so much about how entrepreneurs like him should be diving into social media that he’s finally decided to tackle something he’d been avoiding for years. He told me of his hopes and expectations: that mastering the intricacies of Foursquare, Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn will help him make more money. Rajeev even used the metaphor of exploring a new land. I listened sympathetically but with (I must admit) some inward humor, and thought of Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream, in which the singer meets the captain of three ships sailing toward America, as the singer is heading in the opposite direction. “He said his name was Columbus,” the singer sings, “[and] I just said, ‘Good Luck.’”

 


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