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The state of the wine blog

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I go to the 2014 Wine Bloggers Conference next month, for which we (the organizers and myself) already are deep in the planning stages. I’ll participate in three panels, and each requires a great deal of forethought in order to maximize the chances that the audiences will be happy they came, which is what we all want.

Aside and apart from, and perhaps above, those immediate considerations, I’ll be looking for any evidence concerning the State of the Blogosphere. Having been deeply involved in wine blogging since 2008 (late, by some standards, but six years after all is a pretty good tenure), I’m in some position to weigh in on blogging’s evolution. And it seems to me that things are a bit static.

We saw initially a great deal of excitement with wine blogs. In the period 2007-2009, not only was the wine blog a new, shiny toy, but traditional print journalism was going through its most arduous and tumultuous times in recent history, what with the recession and the subsequent loss of advertising experienced by so many magazines and newspapers. Thus, it sounded almost reasonable when wine bloggers pronounced that “Print is dead, long live wine blogging!”

I, myself, never bought into that theory. I was aware that (a) recessions, no matter how severe, never last forever and (b) as soon as the current recession was over, advertising would return, and print publications would be back on track. At the same time, it would have been unduly credulous for me, or anyone, to suppose that print periodicals would return to the robust health they had enjoyed for so long in the twentieth century. Change certainly was upon print—but of what kind, and how and when it would arrive, no one could say.

Here we are now, the recession having ended, print having bounced back, and the 2014 Wine Bloggers Conference upon us. My sense is that blogging has lost some steam. That heady rush of excitement of four and five years ago isn’t there anymore. We’ve seen some well-known blogs go by the wayside and some new ones pop up, while the mainstays (including this one) keep on keeping on. We ought at least to give credit to blogs like Vinography, Dr. Vino, Fermentation and 1WineDude for longevity, or perhaps “stick-to-it-tiveness” is a more apt description.

Yet with the recovery of print publications has come the corresponding diminution of the wine blog. It was inevitable; it is a zero-sum game, this business of writing about wine, for there are only so many eyeballs out there who care to read about wine, and they have only so many hours in the day in which to do so. Besides, one senses (dare I say it?) a certain fatigue in the wine blogosphere. So much of what was so captivating five years ago has now become, well, the online equivalent of vin ordinaire. Of course the newer blogs still have the sense of awesome discovery that budding wine aficienados have displayed always, but their readers, such as they are, may be forgiven for being less than thrilled by yet another recitation of Argentine values or the best wine to drink with pizza. (I might say the same thing about wine magazines. They endlessly run the same cycle of articles over and over and over. Next November it will be “what wine to drink for Thanksgiving.”) At the same time, winery proprietors must take the blogs into consideration, regardless of what they personally feel or think about them (and believe me, in many cases, it’s not much), because you never know whose blog will help you move product. So that is where we are: a strange place, no doubt, and one that is evolving.

It was against this conceptual backdrop that I read that “Making an emotional connection with consumers, and creating personalized, shareable and useful content, is vital to selling wine.” This was the conclusion of “experts from major wine retailers” who gathered at the recent London Wine Fair, as reported in Harper’s.

Blogging would seem perfectly positioned to express “personalized, shareable and useful content.” Blogging is, by its very nature, personalized, in the sense that there is real connectivity, almost intimacy, between blogger and reader, the way there isn’t in print. This is especially true when readers can instantly comment on a blog, which certainly isn’t the case with a magazine or newspaper. I write Letters to the Editor of the San Francisco Chronicle with some frequency, but 95% of them never are published, which distances me from the paper and makes me wonder if my opinions are truly valued. Not so at many blogs; you can comment on steveheimoff.com, and your comment will instantly go up, with no prior approval from me, as long as I’ve previously approved a first comment from your computer. That is truly personalized service, and shareable, too. (I leave it to my readers to decide if my content is “useful.”)

But blogging has not yet achieved the gravitas of newspapers or magazines. Perhaps it’s that very personalized, easy-breezy quality that makes a blog feel like, well, just a blog—a fancy email–while a newspaper or magazine has the weight of authority and tradition and all the labor and costs that go into the production process. That may never change; the low bar to entry works against taking individual blogs too seriously, or investing your energy into them (not to mention your money). Still, I have to say that wine blogs have been the most innovative development in wine writing of the 21st century.

At any rate, that’s the view from where I sit!


My early career as an amateur wine buff

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I remember it as if it all happened yesterday instead of 35 years ago. I was newly arrived in San Francisco, had no money and needed a place to live. So I answered an ad on the S.F.S.U. housing board for a house sitter. It was for a dilapidated old four-room cottage in the southwestern neighborhood known as Top of the Hill Daly City, although in this case, it was at the bottom of the hill. The owner for some reason had the electricity shut off throughout the place, except for my bedroom. There was no heat. Because it was such a hardship case, the owner charged me only $15 a month–although he should have paid me for tolerating such a crummy place. It was wintertime, which can be very cold in San Francisco, and that, added to the location near the ocean, made it really damp and uncomfortable. My only source of heat—and cooking—was a hotplate. But I didn’t care. I was young, strong and adventurous, and, hey, I was living in San Francisco and having the time of my life!

I’d started getting into wine, mainly by buying those little handbooks that were so popular back then: Olken, Singer & Roby’s “The Connoisseurs’ Handbook of California Wines” and Bob Thompson’s “The Pocket Encyclopedia of California Wines.”

handbooks

Since I couldn’t afford to buy much I also depended on local critics’ reviews in the various newspapers. Here’s a photo from my little notebook of that time where I kept track of their reviews:

winebook

 

W. is Wilfred Wong, RH is Richard Paul Hinkle, H.S. is Harvey Steiman, J.M. is Jerry Mead, W.B. was something called the Wine Buying Guide, B.G. is the Bay Guardian, ADB is Anthony Dias Blue and the Best Buys were from the San Francisco Chronicle.

After a couple years I could finally afford to start buying some nice bottles, so I began to keep my Tasting Diaries. Here’s a page for a 1978 Lytton Springs Zin I reviewed in late 1984.

mynotes

By now, I had developed a tasting template: date, occasion (“Thanksgiving at Maxine’s”), and the standard color-nose-taste three-pronged approach. As you can see, I was already beginning to appreciate that some wines need age (“Disappointing; too young”) and also had come up with a rudimentary rating system of stars (to be replaced by the 100-point system when I started doing that).

This Montelena 1979 Chard, which I tasted in 1983, is interesting for three reasons: I was blown away by the price ($12, so expensive at the time. Today it’s $50), I included a food pairing, and,, via the “NOTE” section, I began to introduce more subjective commentary into my reviews. I was much fascinated back then by the French word goût (as in goût de terroir); it shows up a lot in those early reviews.

montelena

 

I wish I still had the first note I ever wrote. It was in 1979 in that awful, cold, barren house at Top of the Hill Daly City. It was for an Almaden Cabernet Sauvignon with a Monterey County appellation. I recall with crystal clarity sitting in the freezing cold at the little table off the kitchen and making my notes. I cannot remember a word of what I wrote, but I know that I concentrated on it very carefully. I think I liked it; at that time I was not aware of the issue of “Monterey veggies.”

It’s hard to know with any precision why a person gets hooked onto something virtually overnight (I don’t mean drugs, I mean hobbies). In 1979 I knew no one at all who cared a thing about wine. My family and friends were oblivious to it, although they were increasingly having to put up with my blather about the latest bottle I’d enjoyed. Looking back, it blows my mind that I was so feverishly making all these notes (my Tasting Diaries eventually filled five hard-cover volumes, amounting to thousands of wines). Why was I doing all that work? For whom? For nobody; for myself. There was no payoff. I never expected anyone to care about what I thought about wine.


When quality isn’t enough: the “lightbulb of recognition”

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The standard meme for marketing wine is: Ours is better than theirs. In just about every wine advertisement you read, this quality argument is there, whether implicit or explicit. Producers claim that their wine is rounder, smoother, more mellow, more delicious, better balanced, cleaner, more fulfilling, more [fill in the adjective] than the competition. The hope is that consumers will be swayed, for, after all, when you’re spending money on a product, you want the highest quality, right?

As it turns out, the quality factor may not be the best way of promoting wine anymore. From ProWein, the big international wine trade event held last month in Germany, came mixed messages concerning the value of using quality claims to sell wine.

The reporter asked attendees from different countries (Russia, Brazil, South Africa, Italy, China, etc.) what they thought of the pushing-quality approach to selling wine. The answers were remarkably similar: “the excuse that your wine is top quality does not work anymore.” “Quality is not a competitive advantage anymore.” “Far too many wineries appear to rely on wine quality alone.”

Ouch. So if quality isn’t the message to be sending consumers, what is?

Well, let’s begin to answer this by assuming that the 50 people queried were all on the young side; they are described as “students from the Masters programme at the School of Wine & Spirits in Burgundy,” so they’re probably Millennials. The question therefore becomes, What are Millennials looking for in wine marketing?

For starters, they’re not “looking for” anything, if by the action verb “looking for” you mean a pro-active search. Marketing and its hand-maiden, advertising, are by their nature insidious: they come at you from the sidelines, entering your consciousness by osmosis at a time when your guard is down. That’s why marketing works [when it does]: it captures your imagination.

How it does so is complicated. Here are some of the things the students said wineries should be doing to market their products, instead of stressing quality:

 

“start telling a different story.” We know all about “the importance of the story line.” It’s easy, however, for an outsider to say this to a winery, but much harder for the winery to actually do it. What “story” should the winery tell?

“producers need to ensure that their brand’s representative is up to scratch.” This comment, by a South African student, referred to the actual employees who represented the various brands at ProWein. It was echoed by an Italian student who asked for representatives “with an easier and friendlier outlook,” by a Russian who found many representatives “simply boring,” and by a Brit who complained of “too many [representatives] sitting on stools behind their stands using wine bottles as a barrier.” An Italian was positively scathing in his critique of reps, particularly from his own country. “Everyone was thinking just for themselves—creating a sense of fragmentation and confusion.”

Clearly, what these young students were looking for was engagement. They wanted to feel like they were interacting with representatives who were fully human and alive, not a bunch of bored-stiff zombies giving off the vibe that “If it’s March, it must be ProWein.”

We all can relate to this. I was chatting with a friend the other day about how, when I take a cab ride, I like to have a little conversation with my driver. (This is why my friend recommended Lyft and Uber.) But I’ve been on the representative side of the table at wine events and know that it can be hard to always be chipper and put on a good face. You get tired, bored, cranky, especially at multi-day events when you’re expected to be “onstage” all day long and into the night.

This sort of bravura performance requires a certain type of personality—outgoing, extroverted, friendly. This may not have much mattered in decades past. But clearly, the rules have changed. Younger consumers understand that 99% of all the world’s wines are now faultless and drinkable. They also suspect that too much has been made of the famous “cult” wines their fathers and grandfathers worshipped; they feel no need to genuflect at that altar. But they are, after all, consumers; and nowadays consumers want to feel some sort of personal connection to a company whose brands they buy.

I sometimes think that wineries don’t pay enough attention to these rules of the road: When you send someone out to represent you, that person needs to have certain skills of charm and engagement. A winery’s representative, after all, is part of its “story.” If this hasn’t been immediately obvious until now to marketing managers and sales directors, it long has been to those of us on the receiving end of pitches. Just yesterday, Forbes’ food & drink columnist, Cathy Huyghe, in a piece called What Makes a Wine Sell, and What Doesn’t, wrote that “a producer’s story trumps any detail about a wine’s technical profile or even their numerical rating,” arguing that “tablestakes”—the technical details of the wine—“aren’t a point of differentiation” because “Everyone has them.” Huyghe described her interviewing approach to winemakers: after “the preliminaries—the…logistical data—are over with,” she looks for “the lightbulb of recognition…that illuminates what it is that makes that particular wine and that particular producer unique and different…”.

That “lightbulb of recognition” is something wine marketers hope to ignite in the minds of consumers. Wine itself, unidentified and without a human connection, cannot do that; the winery’s frontline representative is the spark that lights the bulb.


The internationalization of style is no friend of blind tasting

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The embarrassment of mistaking a California Pinot Noir for Merlot, or a Merlot for a Zinfandel or Petite Sirah, or a Malbec for Cabernet Sauvignon, can be acute, for someone known as a wine critic. Surely a person of that stature should be able to tell the difference between major varieties!

Well, not necessarily. When I was reviewing 15 wines a day, blind, I would sometimes include different varietals in the lineup and try to figure them out. My success rate was good but not great, although I will say that I had a far easier time discerning the wine’s inherent quality, regardless of what grapes constituted it.

Why do we think we ought to be able to identify varieties blind? Who put that idea into our heads? In my case it came from reading the books of the great, primarily British wine writers of the last 100 years. They made such a fuss of the differences between, say, Saint-Estephe and Margaux, or Musigny and Nuits-Saint-Georges, not to mention the Rhône Valley which was a bit of a mystery to them, that one such as I, who had aspirations of my own, felt compelled to develop that unerring palate of detailed perspicacity.

It helped to fuel this ambition to taste with vintners who crafted different wines from neighboring vineyards, or even from blocks within the same vineyard. They would tell me of the huge differences between the wines—differences which I found, often as not, to be less than huge. Counter-balancing this was the occasional blind tasting in which vintners could not identify even their own wines! But overall, by the late 1980s I had the thought firmly lodged in my mind that a writer ought to be able to distinguish between different varieties, and, at a higher order of magnitude, between different terroirs of the same variety.

At the same time, for going on thirty years now writers of greater stature than I were expressing the opinion that, in California at least, everything was starting to taste like everything else. This was especially true of red wines. Gerald Asher was one such. In the Preface to his 1986 “On Wine,” a compilation of articles he’d written for Gourmet magazine, Gerald noted that the “universal sophistication” of winemaking technique—“stainless steel, cultured yeasts, temperature-controlled fermentation and clarification by centrifuge” [he might have included picking the grapes riper]—had “imposed the dominant grapy fragrance that brings out similarities in modern wines rather than the bold differences we knew.” He sounds here wistful for a gauzy past (in his case, it would have been the late 1940s and 1950s) when distinctions between appellations were clear and distinct, a situation that apparently had passed by the mid-1980s, when “We find red Graves…that taste like tannic Beaujolais.” !!! As anecdotal proof of this phenomenon of sameness, Gerald cites a Spanish winemaker who told him that “Liebfraumilch was his criterion in making and judging his white Valdepeñas,” an eyebrow-raiser Gerald said was “the inevitable result of marketing wine instead of selling it.”

(Gerald himself wrote self-mockingly about mistaking a Petrus ’64 for a Rutherford Cab, admitting that he should have—but didn’t—wonder who could possibly have been making Napa Cabernet in that style at that time! But then, logic is seldom able to penetrate the fortress-walls of preconception.)

Whether it’s due to marketing, or something else, there can be no doubt that wines from anywhere and everywhere resemble each other more than they used to. Thus the writer/critic may be excused for failing to correctly nail all the contestants in a blind tasting! He can always attribute this to the internationalization of style.

I therefore years ago stopped playing the guessing game in blind tasting, arguing with myself that it was a parlor trick. Far more important than identifying varietal tastes and flavors, for me at any rate, is assessing a wine’s balance. This is why I never criticized a wine for being varietally “incorrect.” Who cares if a Merlot is not particularly Merlot-like as long as it’s luscious? I’ve drank and enjoyed Pinot Noirs that were dark and fruity as Grenache. I’ve sipped Sauvignon Blancs that were oaky and creamy and fruity in the finish that might have been Chardonnay. I’ve had Cabernets as peppery as Syrah, and Petite Sirahs that were as smooth as Cabernet. If the wines were balanced, they were good, and I said so in my reviews, always wondering why this atypicity bothered some critics so much.

Which raises, of course, the question, What then is the difference between a 95 point wine and an 88 point one? Writers have tried for centuries to describe what lifts one wine above another to which it might bear a close resemblance. In fact the Writer’s Full Employment Act is predicated on this very challenge. It has to do with a quality of mouthfeel; the only way to explain it is through analogy. It’s the difference in the fabric of a fine Italian suit and one you buy at Sears. The difference between a weed and a bonsai. It’s the difference between Beethoven played by the San Francisco Symphony as against a high school student orchestra. It’s an experiential quality, intellectual in its most basic form, and it requires experience on the part of the taster to learn to recognize it. (This sounds snobby but isn’t really.)

Is it difficult to reconcile the twin facts of an internationalization of style with degrees of quality? I don’t think so. Styles come and go, but fundamental quality always remains, whether it was the wines of ancient Greece and Rome, the Bordeaux of the 19th century or the wines of modern California. As Jamie Goode writes in his current blog, “Balance is important in wine, and it’s a style call,” which makes it, in his words, “quite personal.” Of course, it was easier in past decades and centuries, when all the important tastemakers agreed on what was “balanced” and what wasn’t; there were just a handful of them (mostly in the English wine trade), and no one would have thought to challenge them. Today, of course, we have a proliferation of wine writers, so ambitious, which makes things more confusing than ever. If someone says something, someone else ridicules it, and the debate goes viral. This is hardly the way to arrive at reasonable conclusions. The anchor of authority regrettably is getting lost, in favor of the flotsam of the masses. Whether this is a good or bad development has yet to be determined.


Comparing the wine cultures of Japan and the U.S.

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Ned Goodwin, said to be the only MW living and working in Japan, has written a thought-provoking piece that’s worth reading in full. For me, his essential take-home point is that Japan is experiencing what he calls “the Galapagos effect,” an “isolation dynamic” that takes its name from the island chain, off the west coast of South America, where species that went extinct elsewhere somehow stayed on, or developed exotic new features, because the islands are so remote.

Ned, whose love of Japan is evident, nonetheless is critical of certain aspects of its culture: “an inability to see what’s going on elsewhere, and a closed-mindedness that’s steeped in ignorance and grounded in the tired old us-and-them mindset.” I personally have never been to Japan, and so I can’t say whether he’s right or wrong. But he made a point that compels me to compare Japan’s wine culture, as he describes it, to that of California, and America in general.

Japan has been through a lot lately: their “lost decade” of economic stagnation, leading to perpetual recession; the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, and an overall “drudgery” that comes from their work-work-work ethic. Lately, of course, has also come some trepidation of the Chinese. The result of all this, Ned writes, is that the Japanese, insecure and isolated on their home islands, see wine “as a token motif of status or face” and—in a beautifully written phrase—“something to dissect forensically while tasting with the eyes instead of the nose and mouth.”

Well, one could of course make the identical accusation against certain American connoisseurs who simply must have the latest cult fave, but I’m not thinking of them today. I’m thinking of the masses of younger Millennials, whose approach to wine, and alcoholic beverages in general, seems to be the opposite of the conservatism Ned finds in Japan.

We too, in America, have been through a lot. Depending on when you trace the beginning of our tsouris, the 21st century thus far has been one of difficulties both emotional and financial. We had the dot-com bubble and resulting collapse of 2000-2001, followed closely by the contested 2000 election that threw the country into political chaos. Then of course there was Sept. 11, as wrenching an experience as anything America’s ever been through; the launching of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and, finally, just as things were beginning to look up, the Great Recession that began in 2008 and whose ill effects linger with us still. That’s a lot for any nation to go through in such a short period of time.

But kudos to our young Millennials, for instead of retreating into an isolationist, “close-minded elitism” (in Ned’s words), our new wine drinkers are the fairest and most internationalist-minded in history. Perhaps my view is prejudiced from living in the San Francisco Bay Area, but never before can there have been this enthusiastic embrace of all things alcoholic: wines from every nation on earth, a myriad of beers, and cocktails, cocktails, cocktails!

Ned writes that “the wine scene [in Japan] is essentially moribund,” which also is part of the Galapagos effect: evolution seems to have ground to a halt. How different are things here in America, where “the wine scene” is evolving so quickly, no one quite knows how to get their arms around it! That makes it infinitely more difficult for wineries to market themselves, but it also makes our “wine scene” that much more vibrant and exciting.

Maybe the reason why is because America is a far younger country than Japan. We’ve always been open to new experiences; trying new things is in our national DNA. We may go through periodic bouts of isolationism and chauvinism, but by and large Americans embrace change. For older wineries, that means more or less a constant reinvention of themselves. This is a challenge , to be sure, but also an opportunity, for who wants to rest on their laurels?


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!


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