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Superstar winemakers, blind tasting and bias

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When I began writing about wine in the 1980s the “celebrity winemaker” had not yet been invented. I use this verb “invented” deliberately, in the sense that it was the media that came up with the concept that the guiding hand behind a great wine or, more accurately, a series of great wines must be a “genius” winemaker, the way Thomas Edison or Steve Jobs was a genius in his field.

It’s odd, because for hundreds of years the world had enjoyed great wine (Bordeaux, Burgundy) whose winemakers were unknown. Credit had used to be given to the winery and/or the terroir. Suddenly, by the 1990s, writers were proclaiming this or that winemaker as “stars” and, the ultimate accolade, “superstars,” almost as though the vineyard and its terroir were irrelevant.

Tom Wark recently opined intelligently on this topic, and included a list of superstar winemakers, from olden times to today, whose names make them as famous (in our little world of wine) as rock stars or movie stars. His theory is that this celebration of the winemaker continues today because “[W]e live in an age of self promotion and elevated promotional opportunities,” which surely is the truth; and, given this current zeitgeist, the media loves nothing more than to elevate someone to the pantheon of “star.” And, after all, a magazine can give a big award to a living winemaker and bask therefore in her glory!

I’ll just add to Tom’s trenchant analysis that I think today people want more of a personal connection with the winery and winemaker. They didn’t used to: Lafite and Latour became famous despite no one knowing anything about who made them. Even here in the U.S. a wine like Beaulieu Private Reserve was famous before many people had heard of André Tchelistcheff. But the advent of the modern media and the Internet in particular has given people the ability to know more about their wines and other things, and they want to know everything about these celebrated vintners behind the brands. Call it the People-magazinization of the industry.

I would think this phenomenon creates some difficulties for shier winemakers who don’t really enjoy all the fuss of public appearances and endless schmoozing with adoring fans. They may find that their reticence has economic consequences. Nowadays it’s so important for vintners to hit the road for winemaker dinners and tastings with important clients, such as sommeliers, merchants, writers and even distributors. These people are called “gatekeepers” or “tastemakers,” for it is they who decide what is sold (on wine lists and store shelves) and what isn’t. This gets us into the intricacies and difficulties of the distribution system, which is so infamously replete with problems; gets us, also, treacherously near to that Holy Grail of the modern wine industry, direct-to-consumer purchasing, through wine clubs and the like. DTC may indeed be the solution for the small winery that finds it difficult to get picked up by the large distributors, but DTC is not the end-all and be-all of sales: winemakers still have to get their faces out there, whether via You Tube, the winery’s blog or what have you.

Once upon a time (I’ll revert back to old Harry Waugh), the gatekeepers traveled to the wineries. These days there are simply too many wineries for gatekeepers to go to, even such well-traveled ones as Jancis Robinson; they can visit only the smallest proportion of properties in any given appellation. So, in an version of the old saw, “If the mountain won’t come to Mohammed then Mohammed must go to the mountain” (attributed to the 17th century statesman and essayist, Francis Bacon), today’s winemakers must go to the tastemakers and show them what they’ve got. This assumes that the tastemakers themselves are fair and honest. The worst thing a tastemaker can do is to be biased, either for a winery they’re impressed by, or against one they assume cannot be top tier. You’d think it was hardly possible for someone in the powerful and sensitive position of being a tastemaker to be biased, but guess what? There is bias out there, ranging from overt to subtle–and sometimes the tastemakers themselves don’t even see the beam in their own eye (Matthew 7:1). If I were writing a Consumer’s Bill of Rights with respect to tastemakers, especially critics, I’d insist that all tasting resulting in a review be conducted under formal blind tasting protocols–or, absent that, that disclaimers be published alongside the reviews!


From the Sayings of Chairman Harry

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I’m still re-reading Winetaster’s Choice, one of Harry Waugh’s wine diaries, this one from 1972. While in Bordeaux he visited the chai, or wine cellar, of Chateau Bouscaut, where the proprietor, Jean Delmas, prepared for him a tasting of the 1970 vintage red wines, presumably still in barrel or perhaps just recently bottled.

Harry was famous for appraising chateaux based on how they actually tasted, not the order in which they had been hierarchized in the famous 1855 Classification of Bordeaux. Thus, reading his many books, one frequently comes across his assessment that a chateau performed above its status, or disappointingly below it. This, he attributed almost exclusively to the owners, since “the soil always remains the same but it is the men who change and even in my lifetime I have seen chateaux, as it were, go up and down the scale.” We certainly have seen the same thing with respect to Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, and although it would be tactless for me to name any that have gone “down the scale,” they certainly are out there, and anyone in the trade knows who they are.

(On second thought, I will mention one: Inglenook used to be a “great growth” of Napa Valley but then went into a long, sad decline when it passed into corporate hands. Francis Ford Coppola has refurbished the brand and promised to elevate it to its historic level. Whether or not he succeeds, only time will tell.)

Being of modest means himself (a fact he frequently alludes to), Harry had perhaps a little more sympathy for the lesser growths of the Médoc than some others had who were possessed of deeper pockets. (I identify with him in that respect.) I feel him always rooting for the little guy, the cru bourgeois, which he calls “a fascinating field.” Why? Probably, mostly, because his company could sell them in England, at a good price; but also because so often, when he tasted these supposedly lesser wines against their classified growth brethren under blind conditions, the bourgeois beat out the greater growths.

For instance, “On several occasion, in blind tastings, I have put Gloria [a cru bourgeois] above even some of the second growths and once again, this was certainly the case with the 1970 vintage.” I did not realize that there were computers at that time that were capable of the feat Harry goes on to describe. “[A] computer-maker…told me that he had put my tasting notes…through one of his machines and that Chateau Gloria had emerged on top,” that is, on top even of the First and Second Growths of the Médoc!

Well, that’s blind tasting (and objective computers) for you. During my time at Wine Enthusiast this truth was hammered home to me repeatedly. There are Cabernet Sauvignons, costing not much more than $50-$75, that consistently give triple-digit priced wines a run for their money. I could mention Von Strasser, Stonestreet, Krutz, Sequoia Grove and Goldschmidt, for example, but I once gave 97 points to an Amici 2007 Olema Cabernet Sauvignon, with a Napa Valley appellation, that retailed for $20! I tasted that wine blind, and believe me it took some courage to publish my notes; I was afraid of being ridiculed. Later, I learned that the fruit came from St. Helena hillsides as well as Merlot and Petit Verdot from Spring Mountain, and that the Amici project benefited by the participation of Joel Aiken (the longtime winemaker at Beaulieu, who mentored under Tchelistcheff), while the official winemaker was the former Flora Springs and Spring Mountain Winery vintner, Jeff Hansen. So I felt better. Who knows how that particular wine came about? All we know is that it did, and lends the lie to anyone who thinks that wine quality can be judged from price alone–either that high price means superiority, or that modest price means averageness.

Harry ended one of his morning’s tastings, of 22 wines, by calling it “a tiring affair, even if one does spit out all the wine…I had to be particularly careful during the forty mile drive back to Latour” [where he was staying]. I don’t think France had DUI laws in 1972. We do, today, in America, and I doubt if Harry were alive today and on another of his pleasant visits to California, he would have driven himself for 40 miles, or perhaps even four miles, after such a big tasting. I myself wouldn’t.


Wilfred and me

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We’ve done a lot of talking over the years, in this blog and throughout the social media sphere, on the topic of careers. The main question–given the rapid influx of wine bloggers–has been how to monetize those blogs. We’ve heard from “experts” of every stripe about SEO and ROI and all that, but the issue never really was resolved. I mean, nobody yet knows how to “monetize” a blog, do they?

And yet it seems to me that, with the benefit of hindsight, we now can see that this question wasn’t the right one to be asking. The right, and bigger, one was, how are the careers of wine critics evolving in the second decade of the third millennium?

To answer it, we need to understand a little history. To have “a career as a wine critic” made no sense at all until sometime in the 1970s and 1980s, when America finally became enough of a wine-drinking country to warrant the emergence of a cognoscenti who had the time and intellectual curiosity to study wine and then present themselves as arbiters of taste to the multitude of consumers who suddenly found themselves overwhelmed by excessive choice.

(I’m talking about here in America. In Britain, you could always go to work for an auction house, the way Michael Broadbent and Harry Waugh did.)

There may have been a handful of critics who actually made a living writing about wine before the late 1970s, but it was primarily limited to reporters in big cities, like New York and Los Angeles. And even then, these reporters weren’t allowed to write exclusively about wine. When Frank Prial was given the “Wine Talk” column at the New York Times, in 1972, he was still expected to–and did–cover the news. There simply wasn’t enough demand for a full-time wine reporter back in those days.

The Golden Age, as it were, of wine writing as a career really began in the mid-1980s, when Wine Spectator was picking up steam and Parker had launched The Wine Advocate. Tens of thousands of newby wine lovers, overwhelmingly Baby Boomers, subscribed, making Parker and Mr. Shanken wealthy men. Other entrepreneurial types, including my former employer at Wine Enthusiast, took note, and launched their own publications; meanwhile, more and more big city newspapers started up wine columns. With all those pages to fill up with content, a hiring spree began, and more and more people, including me, found themselves paid (albeit not much) to write about wine.

This Golden Age probably reached its peak some time ago. Early-warning signs were the Los Angeles Times’ cessation of having a full-time wine writer, the recent decision of the San Francisco Chronicle to scale back its wine and food section, and the tendency at wine magazines to hire independent freelancers to write for them, instead of full-time writers (thus, without healthcare and pension benefits). Making a decent living writing about wine became harder and harder as the 21st century dawned.

We come now to two recent developments that may shed added light on the situation. First has been my own transition, which most of you are aware of. Then came yesterday’s stunning announcement that Wilfred Wong, the longtime Cellarmaster at Bevmo!, has left that company to be “Chief Storyteller” for wine.com.

I’m told that, when the press release announcing my own job switch went out, lots of jaws dropped. Mine didn’t, of course–but it certainly did when I read the news about Wilfred. It immediately started me thinking, what does this mean?

That meaning is inherent in cultural phenomena, no matter how obscure, has been observed by semioticians, including Umberto Eco. Marshall McLuhan and Roland Barthes. For example, we can see, in the movies about invasions by space aliens that thrilled American kids in the 1950s (think “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and “The Day the Earth Stood Still”), direct reflections of the paranoia and xenophobia Americans felt at that early stage of the frightening Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, both armed to the teeth with thermonuclear weapons. The interpretation of such films on a meta-level actually reached the point where some observers perceived analogies between “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and the New Testament.

I similarly see meaning in what has happened with Wilfred and me in the last two weeks, although since we have not yet had the benefit of hindsight, it’s more difficult to parse out its precise parameters. But this much is clear: the wine industry, for the first time ever, seems to be expanding into newer areas in which wine writers are seen, by employers, to possess skills far in excess of “mere” wine writing and reviewing. Over the course of decades of work, a wine writer necessarily is plunged into the complexities of marketing, public relations, brand building, tier construction, image making, understanding consumer behavior, social media, labels, closures, and analyzing such things as why certain new brands soar to stardom while others don’t, why some star brands become eclipsed over time, how an eclipsed brand can re-establish itself (or not), and how a brand that’s doing well can remain relevant in the face of increasing competition, both domestically and from abroad.

These are broad and sophisticated skills. It’s not that a wine writer sets out to study them; it’s that he or she necessarily absorbs them during the course of performing one’s job.

Both Wilfred and I have been doing this for many, many years. In fact, during a conversation I had the other day with a friend, I found myself telling him (to my own surprise) that I feel like I’ve acquired the equivalent of a pH.D. or three, in all the areas I described above. It seems clear that my acquisition by Jackson Family Wines, and Wilfred’s by wine.com, both occurred, at least in part but to a great degree, because those companies appreciated that we have become generalists with a wide degree of knowledge of how this industry works–whereas an employee hired out of business school with an MBA or a degree in marketing or communications lives in a sort of bubble, where the horizon is limited by the contours of her own speciality.

What is the take-home lesson now that writers are being respected for having hard-to-define, but unmistakable, talents, beyond writing and good palates? To me, it’s that the wine industry has entered a new era of sophistication, more akin to industries like high tech and entertainment than to old-fashioned ones, like the wine industry used to be. The 1980s and 1990s may have been a Golden Age for wine writers, but it was (we can see on reflection) a time of some stagnation for the industry at large, which sat by as other industries understood the importance of global communications in the global village. The wine industry, by contrast, was content to depend on an older model that was dissolving right before its uncomprehending eyes.

I don’t know exactly what Wilfred’s duties will be–chances are his new job, like mine, will evolve. But what his title, Chief Storyteller, implies is that wine.com sees him as a generalist-expert, with a solid understanding of the industry in all its aspects, and the ability to connect with people through the written and spoken word. I don’t have a complete handle on what this means, but it surely means something.


Notes on wine writing etc.

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I got a greater understanding of Uber while I used their car service for three days during the World of Pinot Noir. They have a great business model and are looking to get involved in ancillary areas, such as wine tourism, which is a great idea.

I was reminded of Uber again reading yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, where in the Personal Journal section, they have an article called “Race is On: Ride-Sharing Car Services Versus a Taxi.”

The article was largely analytical, comparing Uber with Lyft and Sidecar, its chief competitors, and with taxicabs. The reporter didn’t say if one was better than the others–but you could discern his own personal preference for the private cars, when he used terms like “a safe and courteous ride, with a side of serenity” to describe the experience. That certainly coincides with my own experience. I got to know my Uber driver quite well over three days; we even promised to stay in touch. How often does that happen with a cab driver?

It strikes me that a parallel can be made between the new private car services industry versus the traditional taxicab, on the one hand, and the proliferation of social media sources of information about wine versus the traditional wine critics who for decades have dominated the national conversation about what to drink, on the other hand. Until very recently, I was, of course, one of those traditional wine critics, so I think I have some understanding of them and their milieu. But I also am a consumer of services (such as Uber and taxicabs) as well as a voracious reader of wine blogs. So I’m wondering if Uber is going to put taxicabs out of business, and if the online wine writers will put traditional wine critics out of business.

We’ve had this conversation on steveherimoff.com for years now, with every shade of opinion being expressed in the comments. In general, I’ve been a staunch defender of the established wine writers. My belief was that they may become obsolete, but it’s not going to be for a while, at least until the current batch of famous wine critics retires or dies. Most are in their sixties, and should have many more years of active work.

So it’s not a question of “if” a small cadre of wine writers will be eclipsed, but “when.” It’s also a question of the relationship that readers will have with whomever replaces the famous wine writers. As we’ve seen with Uber, people like having personal relationships with those who provide them with services. I don’t want to sit in the back seat of a cab with a driver who grunts at me and with whom I seem to have nothing in common–not that I can tell, because there’s no conversation between us. With my Uber driver, I sat in the passenger seat. She told me of her life and dreams, and I shared mine. That’s a personal relationship, one that tears down boundaries between “driver” and “passenger” (i.e. between “authority” and “nobody”).

In my own prior career as a wine critic, I tried as hard as I could to tear down those walls. Although I recognized that others perceived me as an “authority,” it was important for me to let them know that I didn’t perceive myself that way. Oh, sure, I understood that I tasted a lot more wine than most people, and that I had studied wine a great deal more intensely, and so that necessarily gave me some greater knowledge of the subject. But I never was comfortable with the gaping boundary between me and others, as if that’s all I was, and I tried to narrow it all the time, by letting people know that–just like them–I’m just a normal guy, with my own insecurities and dreams.

I think that the success of steveheimoff.com was precisely because people thought it’s pretty cool for a bigtime wine critic to get down with them. I never held anything back on this blog, even when my former employer told me to. I stood up for its independence–which was a way of standing up for myself, and also for the integrity of my readers. My past employer learned to live with steveheimoff.com, and I think they eventually got to respect it and understand that the mysteries of symbiosis actually made their own brand stronger.

I guess without even knowing it consciously, I created steveheimoff.com to be the Uber of wine blogs. It’s not a blog where you sit in the back seat, silent and looking out the window, as an anonymous driver impersonally whisks you to your destination (at which point you have to tip him!). I wanted a blog where the reader sat right beside me in the passenger seat, where we could have a conversation and get to know each other.

Surely this sense of two-way communication, transparency and honesty is the essence of social media. It’s also the essence, it seems to me, of the kinds of relationships that wine companies need to have with their customers. It’s the kind of conversation I hope to continue to have here on steveheimoff.com, and with the people I’ll be meeting through my new job at Jackson Family Wines, where I hope to provide “a safe and courteous ride” through the byroads of wine, as seen by me. I know that some, perhaps many, of you will give me a skeptical look. Fine. Please do. Hold my feet to the fire.


Annals of wine descriptors: “Profound”

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What is a “profound” wine?

 Lettie Teague indirectly raised this question in her recent Wall Street Journal profile of Joe Salamone, the wine buyer at Crush Wine & Spirits, which is in midtown Manhattan. Teague’s column was, in part, about the language people use to describe wine; Salamone, referring to a particular Savoie red, liked it “for its freshness and structure, although,” he added, “it’s not a profound wine by any means.”

Whatever does that mean?

The word “profound” pops up time and again in formal descriptions of certain (usually well-known) wines. Someone on Wine Beserkers, writes that “you can sum up [Romanée-St.-Vivant] in just a few words (fruit, five-spice, and satin–there, done)–but it is still a profound wine because its form is beautiful even though it’s not complicated.” K&L Wine, down the freeway from me in Redwood City, uses the p-word in its newsletter with almost profligate frequency: a 2003 Ausone is “profoundly concentrated,” a Branaire-Ducru of the same vintage “profound,” while, on the other hand, quoting Parker, the ’83 Suduiraut is “not as profound as the other 1983s…”. Our friend Matt Kramer has described the Pinot Noirs of the [far] Sonoma Coast as being among “the most profound Pinot Noirs grown in America…” while even a modest Sherry, an Amontillado from Tio Diego, is anointed with profundity in the British financial magazine, Money Week, where it’s described as “iconic and profound.”

These different writers seem to be describing the same thing, but from the consumer’s point of view, it’s hard to know what it is they’re talking about. How can a wine be “not complicated” and yet “profound”? Can a Sherry be “profound” in the same way as Ausone? Are there degrees of profundity? And what is the monetary value of “profundity” in a wine compared to one that’s merely very good without being profound?

No wonder wine shoppers get a little crazy.

I myself am no stranger to the p-word. I called the aroma of a B Cellars 2008 Beckstoffer To Kalon Cabernet “profound in black currants and cassis,” and also described as “profound” the tannins on a 2008 Cabernet, the PerryMore (also from Beckstoffer ToKalon). Clearly we writers are trying to communicate something important when we use this word to describe a wine or some aspect of it. I italicize this phrase deliberately, for it raises another question: Can individual parts of a wine be profound, while others aren’t? If, in fact, a single part (structure, aromatics, tannins) is profound, does that then raise the entire wine (which is the sum of all its parts) to profundity?

You can say that these are just angels-dancing-on-pinheads debates, fit pastime for indolent Jesuits, and in part, that’s right. But it matters, at least to those of us who take the art of wine writing seriously.

We know certain things: to call a wine “profound” is probably the highest accolade you can give it. Writers do not and should not use the word promiscuously. We know, too (or at least we hope), that when a writer calls a wine “profound”, it’s because that writer has experienced a great many great wines over a long period of time, and therefore knows what he’s talking about. If Joe Blow, who’s been writing about wine for a year or two, says a wine is profound, one is entitled to doubts. Perhaps he read an established writer use that word, was impressed, and is trying it out for himself. (By the way, it’s no criticism of young wine writers to say they’re still trying to find a style.) If on the other hand a seasoned professional who’s experienced great wine for decades calls a wine profound, our ears prick up. Mine do, if it’s a writer I respect.

I associate profundity in California wines chiefly with Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir. I don’t particularly want to rehash the debate over what constitutes a “noble” wine, because then we’d have two words–noble and profound–to define, rather than only one, thus muddying the waters even more. But a great Pinot Noir or Cabernet is where I typically (if rarely) find profundity. I have had white wines that were profound, but they weren’t from California. As much a fan as I am of great California Chardonnay, I wouldn’t call it profound. (I hope someone doesn’t plow through Wine Enthusiast’s database in search of one or two times I might have. If you do that, you have way too much time on your hands!) California Chardonnay can be sexy, opulent, dazzling, amazingly rich–but profound, it ain’t.

Last question, re: Salamone’s quote about that Savoie. If you like a wine, a lot, and it goes really good with the food you like, and it satisfies you in every way, but it’s “not a profound wine by any means,” should that bother you? Of course not. I’m reaching for an analogy, but the experience of a profound wine is like going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and seeing all those Rembrandts and El Grecos. That’s not an everyday experience. That’s an experience to heighten your senses and delight you with great art. But you can’t live in a museum, nor would you want to, I should think.


The future of wine writing, redux

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They call it “the gig economy,” a “growing tribe of independent contractors and freelancers who are hoping to transform hardship into opportunity on the sidelines of the nation’s traditional 9-to-5 economy,” in the words of a recent New York Times story.

The article reported on people in their 20s and 30s who, unable to land “real” jobs in this post-Recession economy, opt for the freelance life. Not only writers, but lawyers, website developers and many others, they exist from gig to gig, working out of their homes, or from wi-fi enabled coffeeshops, enjoying the freedom their unemployed lives give them–but worried also about paying the bills, much less saving anything for their retirement.

From the perspective of journalism, including wine writing, the gig economy should worry consumers who want solid, honest reporting. You can argue that a reporter who doesn’t actually work for anyone is all the more independent, because she doesn’t have to be concerned with how her publisher, editors, company CEO or advertisers feel. Instead, she can fearlessly investigate and report the news, and offer opinions (e.g. wine reviews) that are fiercely objective.

True. But there’s a risk in going the independent path. Several risks, actually. They include:

1.   Not having the solid bench of staff a reporter needs to do the job properly. An old-fashioned newspaper had copy editors, fact checkers, librarians, ombudsmen and others who, working alongside the reporter, can ensure the greatest depth and credibility to her stories.

2.   Working a consistent beat. Print reporters generally specialized: you had the police guy, the City Council guy, the science writer, the sports guy, the style writer, and so on. Specializing meant that the writer could get really knowledgeable about his field, getting to know the major personalities and thus offering a value-added perspective. In the new gig economy, it’s hard to get a job that’s consistent, and so the writer is forced to write about whatever he can get paid for at that moment (or whatever wine is coming in, willy nilly). It’s a scattershot way of reporting.

I don’t mean to suggest that wine writers in the gig economy can’t be good. They can. But it’s going to be increasingly hard for them to make a living, because wages in the gig economy just aren’t very high. That’s the whole point of a gig economy: it provides cheap labor to employers, who not only don’t have to pay well, but also don’t have to shell out benefits. And as low as the pay is, it can be even lower when the number of job applicants exceeds the number of job opportunities–as it the case with wine writing today.

What is all means for the future of wine writing is obscure. But it is very hard to escape the suspicion, or dread, that wine writing’s glory days are coming to an end. Not tomorrow. Not in five years. But in twenty? Unless there’s some kind of major shift in the paradigm–and I don’t know anyone who thinks well-paid wine writers are coming back.


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