Ever since around the time I began blogging (May 2008), a dominating part of the conversation has been whether or not online content providers can make enough money to make their endeavor worthwhile.
Early in that time period, there were hopeful prognosticators—mainly younger bloggers themselves, and a handful of would-be consultants who hoped to make money advising them about the ins and outs of social media—who believed, earnestly, that sources of income would open up to online content providers, even if it wasn’t entirely clear how that would happen.
This was a kind of magical thinking, of course, but it could be forgiven in light of the immense difficulties print journalism was then undergoing. Newspapers and magazines were facing the severest financial crunch of their lifetimes, as revenue from advertising—always a print publication’s biggest source of income—fell off the cliff. The promoters of online content argued that this was because print publishing had reached the end of its useful lifetime: peering into a cloudy future, they claimed that print would go the way of gaslight lamps, horse-drawn buggies and slide rulers. And because print was about to go extinct, they said, all that advertising money, added to by additional revenues brought in by subscriptions, would flow to online content providers.
I replied, in this blog and elsewhere, that this was unlikely to be the case. Print journalism was indeed suffering, but it wasn’t because of the rise of blogging, it was because of the Great Recession. Advertisers pulled back, not because they were casting an adoring gaze upon online publishers, but because they were struggling to stay alive: they had first to cover the basics, like salaries and rent, before they could lavish money on page ads.
Well, print is coming back, isn’t it? But what remains a conundrum for online content providers is how to make money. Consumers have proven over and over that they do not want to pay to see things online. They feel that they’re already paying enough to get online in the first place, and besides, there’s such an infinitude of websites that, if one of them gets greedy and starts charging a per-view fee, there are always a billion others that remain free.
In the world of wine, there admittedly are a few sites that get away with charging money, Wine Advocate, Wine Spectator and Vinous among them. But these are outliers—peculiarities of the wine industry, which has enough ardent consumers and trade members who are willing to pay $100 a year for access. As for the rest of the bloggers, theirs remains a labor of love, not one of potential profit.
Some bloggers as a result have turned to accepting ads on their sites. Ads don’t bring in a lot of money, but they bring in some, and if the blogger can increase his numbers, the amount of money might go up. But the same consumers who refuse to pay money for access to online content also don’t like advertisements on the sites they go to. This is the reason behind Tivo, which “eats commercials” (in their own words), and it is also the rationale behind services such as Adblock, which allows users to “surf the web without annoying ads.” This is great news for web surfers, but it’s a disaster for content creators: they finally figured out how to make a little money, and along comes this company that prevents their ads from being seen. It’s also a disaster for the companies that advertise; a honcho from the Interactive Advertising Bureau called ad-blocking sites “an unethical, immoral, mendacious coven,” extreme but, under the circumstances, understandable language.
Ad-busting companies such as Adblock certainly don’t want to kill the goose that lays the golden egg. That would not be helpful to their own bottom lines. What to do? In a really interesting development, Adblock just announced they will integrate Flattr, a Swedish company that calls itself “a social microdonations service” by which content consumers can make voluntary “donations” to websites they like. This eliminates the need of the provider to accept advertising (which most providers don’t like to do anyway), and also increases the depth and complexity of the relationship between provider and consumer. Users would set up a “PayPal-like account,” put money into it, and from those funds providers would be paid, using a special Flattr algorithm based on things like the duration of the user’s stay on the site.
Will the Adblock-Flattr model work? Flattr co-founder Peter Sunde said, on Fast Company, that the new model promises “to help artists, creators, journalists, everyone, to earn a fair living from their work. Not to be abused.” That sounds pretty good to me.
Years ago, during the heyday of Sex and the City, the San Francisco Chronicle ran a spoof piece on what “the girls” would be doing if they lived in the “cool gray city of love.” Samantha, you’ll recall, had her own high-end P.R. firm in Manhattan, where she represented restaurants, celebrities, clubs and so on.
In San Francisco, the Chronicle’s writer determined, Samantha would still be in P.R.—only it would be winery public relations. When I read that, I remember thinking that wine had finally and definitely come to dominate the zeitgeist. It was the cool-hot thing to do, the field everybody wanted to work in, whether in PR, writing or production.
(Sidebar: When I started out, nobody, but nobody, wanted to be a wine writer. I sometimes wonder, if I was beginning my career today instead of in 1989, if I’d even be able to get a writing job at a magazine, much less Wine Spectator. The field has become that competitive.)
Wine remains a highly coveted field for young people to work in, maybe hotter than ever, according to this article in the drinks business, which claims that winemaking and beer brewing are “among top dream jobs” for young people just starting their careers or thinking of changing. (The study was done in Britain, but there’s no reason not to think attitudes here in America are any different.)
So desirable are these winemaking and beer-making jobs that “over a third (35%) of people said they would consider quitting their job to re-train in their chosen profession – regardless of money.” That’s good, because these types of jobs typically don’t make a ton of money. Funnily enough, “Security guards (95%), IT consultants (91%) and accountants (87%) were by far the most eager to pack in the typical 9-to-5 and take up a craft career” such as winemaking.
I know people in both the wine industry and craft brewing, and most of them seem to be very happy. It’s true that the pressures can be difficult, but the joy seems to outweigh any of the inconveniences (such as basically having your normal life put on hold during crush). When I look back over my years in the wine biz, despite all the bitching and stress I went through (or put myself through), I consider myself incredibly lucky to have been able to do what I have. Coming up through the Golden Age of wine in America—the boutique era, the rise of the wine print media, the enormous popularity of wine (and beer), and the emergence of social media—has been a privilege, and also a great opportunity to see history being made, close-up, and perhaps to have been a tiny part of it. No wonder people want to work in this industry.
Have a wonderful weekend.
Since by now it is obvious that anyone can write and publish a wine review via social media, we need to seriously address the issue of whether “Anyone can become a wine taster with a little practice.”
That, at least, is the contention of Anna Harris-Noble, a Brit who runs a company called Taste Exchange. She rejects the notion that any special palate is required, arguing instead that “Wine tasters are no different to [sic] anyone else, they’ve just had more training in identifying tastes and smells, so the good news is that anyone can become a wine taster with a little practice.”
Is this true, or does a real taster need special talent?
We’re all familiar with the concept of the “supertaster.” As developed by Linda Bartoshuk, it argues that some people perceive tastes more intensely, due probably to genetic factors; some famous critics, including Robert Parker and Ron Washam, might conceivably be supertasters.
But what is tasting ability, anyhow?
Whenever somebody reviews anything—movie, car, wine—and writes about it, the public inherently trusts that the person knows what he’s talking about. It’s human nature. “So-and-so wouldn’t be reviewing the thing, if he weren’t qualified.” This is particularly true if the review appears in a respected source, such as a well-known magazine or website, which almost guarantees credibility.
But the Internet and social media have begun eroding the trustworthiness of magazines in recent years; the public seems almost as likely to believe a self-published blog as a magazine with a circulation of hundreds of thousands.
Setting aside for the moment the question of “What is tasting ability?” we first encounter the reality of many people reviewing wine online. That is a fundamental truth: there may be upwards of 1,000 of wine blogs in the U.S. alone. They’re tasting wine, they’re writing about it, they are presumably thinking seriously about it, they are presumably being taken seriously by others. Therefore, from one point of view we have to assume that they have tasting ability because their behavior exhibits all the external parameters of a tasting professional.
But we think of tasting ability as more than the ability to publish a tasting note, right? So what is it? Is Harris-Noble right—wine tasters are no different than anyone else? Or do professional wine tasters have some sort of special gift that the rest of us don’t?
Harris-Noble suggests that it’s training and practice, not inherent ability, that makes for a professional taster. I think that begins to address the issue, but it’s only a beginning. Because, let’s face it, you don’t become a wine taster—a good one—solely because you get your hands on the occasional bottle of wine and write up some notes.
What else does it take?
I don’t think there are any absolutes, but if I were in charge, I’d want credible wine tasters to
- Taste as widely and broadly as possible. You can’t taste everything, of course, but you can taste as much as you can.
- Determine whether you will be a specialist or a generalist. A specialist focuses on a single country or region. I was a specialist. A generalist focuses on the world. Jancis Robinson is a generalist. One is not better than the other. You also should visit the places you’re writing about as often as you can.
- Develop a certain craftsmanship in writing. The best tasters/writers consciously seek a personal style. Think of it as the terroir of your writing.
- Read, study, learn. The knowledge of wine—its history, methodology, geography and so on—is a lifetime pursuit. Understanding, for example, the history of oak influence in Chablis wines will make you a better taster and writer.
- Continuous self-evaluation, which depends on self-knowledge. If you’re not getting better as a wine taster all the time, then you’re getting worse. And you have to be honest with yourself about it.
By the way, I saw a news report the other day about a man born without arms who became a world-champion archer. He trained himself to use his legs and feet, and even invented a new type of bow. So can anyone at all be a good taster? Yes. But some have to work harder at it than others.
Every form of description has its own particular jargon. Conversations about baseball are filled with references to ERAs and WARs (“wins above replacement”).
Fasionistas debate the distinctions between lettuce hems and unitards. Here in wine-reviewing land, we talk about cassis or earthiness, and get our heads handed to us by critics-of-critics who find us pompous and pretentious.
For instance, here’s Snooth calling wine critics “old men tasting wine in wood-paneled libraries.” Then there’s the wine writer for a Florida pub writing about the “Top 10 Pretentious Things to Say at a Wine Tasting,” including “I used to live in Napa” and “What percentage Malo?” So relentless has been the assault on winespeak that even some critics, apparently taking it to heart, have publicly wondered if their approach isn’t “too la-di-da,” as Harvey Steiman did in Wine Spectator.
Why is it more pretentious for a wine person to ask about the percent of malo than for a baseball fan to ask about Miguel Cabrera’s on-base percentage? I don’t think it is, but somehow we’ve allowed wine lingo to fall into this disreputable neighborhood of precious effeteness where you practically can’t say anything about it at all without someone wanting to pour their Chardonnay over your head.
It would behoove us, I think, to get to the bottom of this in a thoughtful way, and The Guardian’s wine columnist, David Williams, does a good job in this latest op-ed piece. I like particularly the distinction he makes between data-driven wine descriptions, such as you would find in a laboratory analysis, and an esthetic approach—“the juggling of a random assortment of associations”—that has dominated wine writing from the rise of English critics, in the 1800s, to the Parkers of today. (And I openly concede that my own approach has been the esthetic one.) Williams asserts that connections can, and should, be made between them. For example, a Touraine Sauvignon Blanc, described analytically, might refer to “thiols and pyrazines,” whereas the same wine, in more esthetic hands, would reference “gooseberries and grass.” The writer must, of course, consider his audience: a strictly lay readership will not understand “thiols and pyrazines,” but a good writer might wish to give them a little understanding of wine chemistry and its causative terroir in order to broaden their appreciation: after all, “gooseberries and grass” don’t just appear willy-nilly in the wine, but have specific reasons for being there.
But Williams also catches something that must always make a good tasting note at least semi-esthetic rather than purely analytical; and that is the ability to give “a sense of something more elusive: of the wine’s flow and feel, of how the flavours dovetail both with each other and with the wine’s texture, of its context in nature and the world of winemaking. All the things, in fact, that make a wine worth drinking, and, despite the inevitable ridicule, talking and writing about.”
It is impossible to over-stress the importance of this “more elusive” aspect. Every wine writer who has ever lived and dared to put her impressions into words for the benefit of readers has come across wines that inspire her to the heights of poetic allusion. Indeed, if a writer is incapable of rising to such lofty altitudes, he ought not to be in the business of wine writing! For he would then be a very dreary and boring wine writer, and who wants to read that sort?
How have we come to this pass? Our beer lobby—which is to say, the breweries that cater to the forehead-can-smashers who frequent sports bars—have been partly responsible for creating this impression that wine is not a real man’s drink. From there, it’s only a hop, skip and jump to ridiculing wine, and everything pertaining to it, including wine writing, as insufferably poofy. This is untrue, but it is perhaps not unhelpful for wine writers to be aware of this viewpoint in our culture; such a consciousness of the boundaries that some writers occasionally cross should help to keep the rest of us within the foul lines.
When educators talk about wine at the kinds of consumer events I’m doing this week at Karisma Resort, it seems to me that more than just the hedonistic and technical aspects of the wines should be discussed.
I mean, wine is more than just “cherries” or “limes” and bright acidity or steak-worthy tannins and an AVA. Yes, those kinds of things—its flavors and textures, it’s varietal mix, its appellation—are important, and consumers want and need to know about them. After all, the reason why folks pay to go to these sorts of events is because they’re hungry for more knowledge about wine (and bless them for that!).
But there’s so much more to wine. For example, it’s important for people who are tasting wines from the company I work for, Jackson Family Wines, to understand things like the Jacksons’ commitment to sustainability. It’s one thing to talk about (for instance) Stonestreet Christopher’s Cabernet Sauvignon, but that wine needs to be put into the context of the fact that Jess loved that mountain so much, he’s buried there, his wife, Barbara, lives there, and “Christopher” is the name of their only son. It helps consumers to know about (and I think it’s terribly interesting in itself) how Jess left corridors of pathways open throughout the vastness of the Alexander Mountain Estate, to let the critters who have lived there forever—cougars, bears, deer, wild boars and so on—prowl. These things may not have anything to do with the wine’s flavors, or how it ages, or the way it pairs with steak. But in a funny way, they do. It places the wine into a greater context, one you can call “intellectual” and “emotional” rather than (merely) hedonistic; and it’s in the brain—the seat of intellect and emotions—that wine’s greatest appeal lives.
This putting-wine-into-greater-contexts presents more of a challenge to educators. They have to do more research than to just read a tech sheet and regurgitate it to whatever audience they’re addressing—which is something I’ve seen far too much of (and something I admit to being occasionally guilty of myself). But, after all, in this day-and-age of “the story,” when we’re told that every wine needs something to distinguish itself from every other wine, it does behoove us educators to go beyond the routine and really find out what makes that wine that wine. Especially when the story connected to it is compelling.
Back tomorrow, reporting from this delightful part of the Maya Riviera.
When I was a working wine writer, it seemed like every year the magazine wanted the same story right around this time:
WHAT WINE TO DRINK AT THANKSGIVING
I dutifully handed in my assignments, but I never felt particularly proud of them. These kinds of stories are known in the trade as OMGNAs, as in “Oh, my God, not again.” It’s nearly impossible to do a good job writing them; writers loathe them, because they’re the same, year after year after year. And yet, if you complained, the editors and publishers always argued, “Well, our readers like them, so you have to write them.”
What can you say about Thanksgiving wine? Elin McCoy did about as credible a job as possible yesterday at Bloomberg News, when she gave the standard (and only plausible) advice: “Put out a bunch of highly versatile wines—bubbly, red, white, and rosé…so people can chose for themselves.” I mean, what else is there to say? Nothing. That’s the truth in a nutshell. But a column requires more than 18 words, so you have to take that simple message and spin it out to 600 words or 900 words or whatever your word count is.
What are some other OMGNAs? Well, to some extent the inevitable varietal roundups are. Here in California there are 5 or 6 major varieties that wine magazines have to write about. Zinfandel is one. Every three or four years, they have to do their Zinfandel writeup, and the slant is always something along the lines of “What’s new in Zinfandel?” After all, that’s what the media writes about, right? The news! Problem is, there’s not always something newsy about Zinfandel. You can’t just write an article saying, “If you want to know what’s up with Zinfandel, read the article I wrote four years ago, because nothing has changed since then.” If you handed that in, your publisher would probably fire you, so you have to make it sound like Zinfandel has gone through breathtakingly awesome changes for the better since the last time you wrote about it, which is why such articles are usually headlined something like “Zinfandel’s New Face.” New face, my butt: Zinfandel’s face is the same as it’s been for a long time. (By the way, that’s not a slam. I love a good Zin!)
One of the OMGNAs I dreaded the most came with the arrival of warm weather. That was when we always had to come up with our “Summer Whites” articles. The meme was always the same: “Now that the long cold winter months are over, it’s time to break out the whites to drink by the pool and the beach.” Every wine magazine in the universe has to write that article, which appears in the May or June issue. The article never, ever varies: It’s always about cold, refreshing Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, whatever. You can recycle the same article endlessly, changing a producer here and there, substituting one recipe for another, maybe interviewing a famous hostess for her suggestions on how to throw the perfect backyard party. Writers hate that kind of thing. Well, I did. It’s not really wine writing, it’s entertainment writing. The two genres are totally different.
So what kinds of articles did I actually like? Terroir articles were the best. When I wrote about Cooombsville, I was in my element. Same with my article on Pritchard Hill, which was tremendously enjoyable. I got to dive down deep into issues of soil and climate. I met the major players and picked their brains, learning about their histories and their dreams. I tasted and analyzed the wines. The goal was for me to understand this area of Napa Valley, and so to be able to explain it to readers. That took real investigative reporting. It required the skills I had trained myself in for many years. There was no template: I had to come to my own conclusions and then frame them professionally and, I hoped, unassailably.
Well, I do realize that not every article a fulltime wine writer writes can be that fulfilling. I have some understanding of the way a wine magazine works, and how the bills are paid, and those Thanksgiving and Summer Whites articles are part and parcel of the process. So, I always told myself whenever I had to write them, just grin and bear it. That’s what pays your salary, Steve-o.