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The Golden Age of Wine Writing

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Feeling nostalgic, I have been re-reading the Wine Diaries of the late Harry Waugh that I have in my library. Harry, a Londoner and a very great wine man, greatly influenced my own writing style, and I was fortunate enough to accompany him on a tour of Washington State (around 1996) when he was already in his 90s, so I consider him sort of a mentor.

I was lucky to become a wine writer and critic at a time in the history of this country when it was possible for a young person, starting out with no experience or even connections, to succeed at such a career. The field was dominated by a relatively small number of individuals, but perseverance and (I hope, in my case, some talent) allowed me to penetrate their little club.

Today, there are so many people weighing in on wine that nobody needs a few ivory-tower critics anymore to tell them what’s good. With the rise of the Internet and social media, people have endless opinions available to them, to help them make buying decisions. There also are endless opportunities to learn about wines, grapes, regions and techniques: at the click of a Google search, you have entire libraries available to you.

But when I started, in the 1980s, there was obviously no Internet. There were only a very few people with national reputations who could influence great numbers of consumers, through the publication of articles and reviews in a tiny clutch of wine magazines, newsletters and newspaper columns. Americans needed such critics, to help guide them through the growing welter of wines in the wine aisle of the market; otherwise their senses would have been overwhelmed. It was also a time when the Baby Boomers—my generation—were finally getting wealthy enough to be able to afford the discretionary purchase of premium table wines on a regular basis. They wanted help; where demand is on the rise, supply responds appropriately, and the result was the creation of an industry and class: the professional wine writer and critic. I became a member of this restricted aristocracy.

I have made a distinction between wine “writers” and wine “critics” for a reason, for they are two different beasts. I used to know a lovely man, Rod Smith (who sadly died recently). He was a local guy, from the Russian River Valley, and a fine writer, who wrote for prestigious magazines and also penned some books. We were once at a tasting of Cabernet Sauvignons made from grapes grown in the various Beckstoffer vineyards of Napa Valley. At one point, I asked Rod how he was rating the wines (I certainly was), and he snapped, “I’m not a wine critic, I’m a wine writer!” His point was that the written word was important to him, not some snappy review, accompanied by a number.

But I chose to be both a critic and a writer. I exercised the critical part through my job at Wine Enthusiast Magazine, where my ratings, based on the 100-point system, were welcomed by consumers and trade alike (not to mention the winery owners who sent me their wines for review!). But I exercised the esthetic, writerly part of my passion through long articles in that magazine, and others, as well as books for the University of California Press and, after 2008, my wine blog. I took both parts of my job equally seriously, and like to think that I was successful at both.

How many members were there of the exclusive fraternity I was a part of? When I began, there were at most a dozen men and women in the entire country who had a national platform. (In my state of California, there were others who were important regionally, but who lacked that national exposure.) With such a small number, each of us was quite visible. We had clout, influence, reach: each word I wrote, each score would, I knew, be read with interest by large numbers of people. It was a heady feeling, but also underscored the grave responsibility that rested on my shoulders: to do a good job and be honest and scrupulous about it.

By the time I left the Wine Enthusiast, in 2012, there were literally thousands upon thousands of people reviewing wine and publishing articles in this country, not to mention the rest of the world. Some worked for a burgeoning number of wine, or wine-and-food, periodicals. Many more published online. There was even a Wine Bloggers Conference that attracted hundreds of ambitious, eager young (and not-so-young) people every summer. This meant that, although the number of wine consumers also was on the rise, each individual writer/critic’s influence was diluted, due to their sheer numbers. I used to say that, had I started my career in 2008 rather than 1988, I doubt that I would have achieved even one-tenth as much as I did: by 2008, the competition was just too intense. I was extremely lucky to have begun at a time when few young people gave any thought to being a wine writer and critic. In those Reagan years, most young people seemed to want to be MBAs!

So, today, a young person probably can’t “make it” anymore as wine writer or critic, that is, if they start from scratch. We do have a small number of individuals, such as Antonio Galloni and James Suckling, who apparently have achieved great success in the last ten years or so, but neither started from scratch: Galloni was launched to fame through Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, while Suckling arrived at his reputation through his years at Wine Spectator. I thus came of age during a Golden Age of wine writing, a time that no longer exists, and probably never will again, at least in America. Perhaps there are young men and women in places like China, Brazil or South Korea, where there is still an opportunity to forge a good career.

As for the 100-point system, I stoutly defended it all the years I used it. Now, I think it’s kind of passé. It will probably stick around for a while longer because it’s so entrenched. But, to be honest, in the last years of my career, it made less and less sense to me, and I would have abandoned it, had my paycheck not depended on it.


A rant on B.S. wine “reporting”

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I Googled “wine news” and here among the hits were these scintillating headlines:

Expert reveals 3 things you need to know about drinking wine on planes

Never spill your wine again with the __ wine glass and its metal stake

Eva Longoria’s wine goals for T-shirt designs

Delta pays a sommelier to pick wine for its flights—here’s her wine tasting advice

Extreme heat can taint the wine

Does the color of your wine influence your hangover?

Pour It Up! 9 Times a Glass of Wine Was Rihanna’s Favorite Accessory!

Well, I admit to being terribly behind the curve on cultural issues. Yesterday, a Facebook friend referred to something called “Ween,” and it wasn’t until I asked what a “Ween” was that I became educated in the fact that Ween is a major rock and roll band I had never heard of!

So perhaps there are burning wine-related issues of which I’m equally unconscious. But I don’t think so, which makes me regret all the more the vulgarity that has invaded what has now become “wine writing.”

Throughout the history of the English-speaking people writing about wine was reserved to the smartest, most literate among us. Wine—the beverage of our ancient Greek texts, and of the Bible, Old and New Testaments—was regarded as something too special to make light of. Generations of wine writers going back hundreds of years, of which I consider myself a recent incarnation, reserved their finest journalistic skills to writing about wine. Today, the Internet has made writing about wine not only common but promiscuous, with the result that people can headline their writing with the kinds of B.S. I listed above, and actually get others to read it.

Do we need tips on how to drink wine on planes? I don’t think so. You have to take the wine the airline is selling, and drink it from the glasses they give you. What other choices do you have? When there are no choices, there’s no need for advice, which doesn’t stop some people from offering it anyway. Next!

“Never spill your wine again.” I wasn’t aware that spilling wine was a major issue in America. I almost never spill my own wine, and as I am not a particularly well-coordinated person, I doubt that there are many people who spill their wine more than I do. So I have absolutely no need for any device or technique to prevent me from doing so. Next!

Eva Longoria and T-shirt designs. I barely know who Eva Longoria is, nor do I care. Since I don’t care about her, I certainly don’t care about whatever chotchkies she’s selling. Next!

Delta’s sommelier. Well, isn’t that special. It makes me feel so much more hopeful about my next Delta sardine can. Next!

I did not know that extreme heat can taint a wine. I thought you could heat wine up to, oh, I don’t know, a gazillion degrees, and it would be as fresh as a can of tuna fish. Thank you for that advice. Next!

Does the color of your wine influence your hangover? Now we’re getting down to matters of substance! I’ve been trying to figure this particular question out for decades, and after extensive personal experimentation, still haven’t arrived at a conclusion. My advice: Don’t be a schmuck to begin with and drink so much that you risk getting a hangover the next morning.

As for Rihanna’s favorite accessory, I’m already choking, as are you, on this celebrity-forced-fed diet we’re being fed by the media. Next! (Or not.)

Have a great weekend!


Wednesday Wraparound: Wine as intellectual delight, and a new Freemark Abbey

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Wine writer Gus Clemens must be a man after my own heart. In this lovely column he wrote for the San Angelo [Texas) Standard Times, he writes of wine’s “intellectually challenging” dimension—a dimension I love.

All too often, in our industry, we reduce wine to its objective components. Master somms analyze it to a degree unmatched in rigor, winemakers themselves analyze it for technical flaws and blending opportunities, and wine critics (ahem…) analyze it for its hedonistic attractions. We give scores and numbers and puffs and stars to wine, we talk about raspberries or currants or lemongrass or vanilla, about attacks and finishes and ageworthiness—in short, about every physical dimension of the wine we can possibly say anything about. But we too seldom talk or write about its intellectual component, which is to say: we ignore wine’s appeal to that part of ourselves that is distinctly human, distinctly thoughtful, distinctly divine.

Gus Clemens touches on this component, but it’s really worth volumes. I stand second to no one in falling in love with a gorgeous wine, a “100-pointer,” if you will. I’ve had my share; when you experience a perfect wine, the top of your head blows off, your taste-memory explodes, you want to shout about it from the rooftops. But imagine how much richer your experience would be—not only of a perfect wine, but of all wines—if it included the context of history, geography, politics, economics, philosophy, invention, human boldness, notions of the godhead, the presence of the spirit–the entire panoply of conscious adventure we call the human journey. When I think about wine from this perspective, wine turns Biblical: the ancients believed it was a gift from God, or the gods. Perhaps it really is. I will not apologize for “reducing” wine to a point score, but I will hope that it never becomes only that.

* * *

I want to bring to my readers’ attention the fact that the newly refurbished Freemark Abbey Winery is now open for business. As this article from the St. Helena Star explains, the Jackson Family has invested heavily in the 100-year-old-plus winery, restoring the old stone buildings, building a new restaurant, and launching a museum-style exhibition space, whose content I was honored to help devise. Ironically, Freemark Abbey was the first winery in Napa Valley I ever visited, in 1979, so it has a special place in my mind and heart. I was just getting into “important” wine and wanted an “important” Cabernet Sauvignon to cellar, and so I asked for one in the tasting room. The lady suggested I buy their Cabernet Bosché. In my ignorance, I said I didn’t want “Cabernet Bosché” but Cabernet Sauvignon. The lady told me that Cabernet Bosché was Cabernet Sauvignon. I didn’t trust her; alas, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and I had just enough knowledge to think that I knew what I was doing. Clearly, I didn’t. I have often recollected that incident to remind myself of an important lesson: when it comes to wine knowledge, everybody starts from the beginning. There are no stupid questions. No one of us should ever be impatient with anyone for not knowing what we know. (That is the basis of snobbery.) Besides, what we think we know today may be what future generations call ridiculous. So take things in context; don’t be ideological; be generous, and realize you’re not the measure of all things in wine! And I hope you’ll drop by Freemark Abbey to check out the new digs.


Can wine bloggers make money through reader financial donations? Maybe…

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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.


Why wine is cool

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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.


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