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Is the future of journalism “advertiser-driven content”? The advertiser as publisher

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The traditional firewall between editorial and advertising–a staple ethical and practical tenet of publishing for at least a century–is being breached, and Ground Zero for this incursion is online.

This leakage never, or only extremely rarely, would have happened in traditional print media, where the guardians of the firewall, including editorial staff but also ombudsmen and even publishers with a sense of moral rectitude, would not have permitted it.

However, online, the traditional rules are being dissolved. Experiments are taking place: website owners and online publications are seeing how much they can get away with (in breaching the firewall) before critical blowback goes nuclear.

But the question is, will it? Do the people accessing the digital world and getting the majority of their information from their smart phones and tablets–mainly younger people–know, or care, who writes the content they read? As long as they’re getting [free] information they find useful and/or entertaining, are they fussy whom it comes from?

All indications are that the answer is no.

Will this integration of editoriai and advertising become the new reality? Have we reached that point on the slippery slope where the only way forward is down?

These questions need to be asked.

Experts in the field–usually consultants selling their services–suggest a win-win: content that helps readers and viewers, but that also fulfills advertisers’ needs. Sounds good, but can this win-win actually be achieved? If it can, then why did generations of publishers and journalists labor so long and hard to create the firewall to begin with? Was their concern simply an unjustified fear that “truth” (that elusive quality) would be compromised by the profit motive of advertisers? Did they simply suffer from a phobia, like fear of flying, that had no basis in reality? Or did they know something that we’re in danger of forgetting?

I can’t answer these questions. But what concerns me–and should concern all writers who wish to make a living through journalism–is that the very nature and substance of journalism, as the West has understood it for 400 years, is under dire threat. It may be that what is in the best interests of consumers and providers of digital content is actually a death sentence for writers, who may be the gas lamp lighters and ice delivery truck drivers of the 21st century–anachronized out of existence. In fact, we already see this occurring now, with “customized content” delivered to your inbox by software whose creators or users have proprietary, for-profit relationships with advertisers whose “articles” are thinly disguised pitches that don’t even bear the warning “advertorial” label. (If Facebook knows that you’re into fly fishing, you may find yourself getting articles that look interesting but whose purpose is not only to inform, but to lure you to sponsoring resorts or fishing equipment.)

This revolution is happening faster than any layperson can possibly suspect. I mention all this not to point fingers, or to put things into blunt black-and-white terms when, in reality, things are more complicated. But we are entering a world in which discerning consumers of information must ask themselves a few questions:

1.   Where is this information coming from?

2.   Who wrote it?

3.   Why is it being sent to me?

4.   What was the motive of the person or organization who is sending it to me?

5.   Has there been an attempt to influence my behavior?

6.   Has this attempt been camouflaged in such a way as to suggest that the sender is not being transparent?

Informed consumers will demand these answers. There’s some evidence that this demand for greater transparency already is occurring (e.g. the fears of government intrusion into our phone and online conversations; the resistence to Facebook ads popping up in our feeds). However there may be considerably more evidence that, in the end, consumers, and especially young ones, don’t give a damn.

What this means for the world of wine writing is clear and ominous. Readers need to understand whether they’re getting untrammeled information and opinion from reputable, reliable sources they know and trust. Or, they need to understand if those sources are picking and choosing the information they offer based on payment. It’s that simple.


Live from New York: Cabernet, and the changing nature of wine journalism

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When you read this, I’ll be in New York, at Wine Enthusias headquarters, where we’re gathered to plan out the 2014 editorial calendar of the magazine and website.

No easy task, that. There are only so many pages in the print edition; story ideas (“pitches,” in the weird jargon of journalism) vie with each other for space, in a Darwinian struggle that sees some of them triumph as cover stories, while others die an inglorious death (often to be repitched and hopefully resurrected at a later date).

Next year will be my 25th as a published wine writer. I started in 1989 (very much against the odds) at Wine Spectator, when it was still published out of San Francisco, from their old offices on Van Ness Avenue, near the Opera House and Symphony (but before Hayes Valley was hot; back then it was ho’s and drug dealers). I was determined to make a living as a wine writer–which would be pretty audacious today, but wasn’t then; while there were far fewer venues for which to write (and no Internet!), there also were far fewer people who wanted to be wine writers, so there was practically no competition. Still, I doubt that I would have succeeded had I lived in, say, the Midwest, or even in the San Joaquin Valley. It was proximity to San Francisco (I’d moved to Oakland in 1987) that afforded me the opportunity to hang out the Spectator’s staff, and to hand-deliver (yes, in those pre-email days) my hard copy, which entailed a BART trip of six stops (to Civic Center, then a five-minute walk to Van Ness).

The method of transmitting articles these days certainly has changed, from taking the subway to clicking the “send” button on my email. So, too, has the format of articles changed. We used to write long articles (3,000-plus words) on individual wineries; among my first assignments were Eberle, down in Paso Robles, Calera, in the Pinnacles, and Flora Springs, in Rutherford. And even those were short, compared to the example of a 7,000-word article my friend, the late wine writer, Steve Pitcher, wrote for Wine News on California Sauvignon Blanc!

Nowadays, few wine magazines would devote that much space to a single winery or variety. Twelve-hundred words is about tops, broken down into breakout boxes for easier digestion. The Internet (some would say MTV, some would say People magazine) has caused readers’ attention span to shrink; the conventional wisdom among publishers is that no one will read a long article anymore. I’m not convinced that’s true, provided that the article is compellingly written. But there is for sure a fine line between a boring, hard-to-read long article and a scintillating one, the latter being rare; and perhaps publishers, not being quite sure of the talents of their hired writers, prefer not to risk boring readers. Yet too often the short form fails to inspire or educate. This loss of long-form wine journalism ought to worry lovers of wine.

Here are a few things I’m going to be watching carefully in 2014:

-       the 2011 vintage. I’m lowering my expectations of it. The initial hype was, “Great, a cool vintage will result in balanced wines.” But my experience so far is of a lot of unripe wines, and some botrytis problems too. Pinot Noir has suffered, particularly from the coolest places, like the northern Santa Lucia Highlands. Some Grenache and Chardonnay has been iffy. As for Cabernet, well, no important ’11 Cabs have come out yet, so I’ll be waiting for those.

-       The continuing evolution of California cult wines. Have they recovered from the Recession? Will they still be in demand as an older generation fades from the scene? Can the marketplace handle 200 Napa Valley Cabs (my estimate) that all cost more than $100? Will younger consumers who currently spurn these wines eventually covet them, as their salaries increase over time? Or will History look back at the period 1990-2010 as a bubble for cult wines? Stay tuned.

-       And, of course, I’ll always be on the lookout for younger, interesting winemakers who are trying to do new things. If you’re one of them, talk to me.

I will try to post regularly from New York, but with round the clock meetings, it’s hard. Bear with me.


Beyond blogging: Teaching real journalism to younger wine writers

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This article, from a South African wine website, says how the South African National Wine Show Association (of which the U.S. or California does not seem to have an equivalent) came up with a new contest, the Young Wine Writers Competition, “to enhance the art and importance of high quality wine journalism.”

I wish we in the States could do the same thing. It is true that we have the American Wine Blog Awards, which has its place, and has become (by virtue of being the first and only) the most important wine competition in the country. But that particular contest does nothing to enhance “high quality wine journalism.” That is its chief failure.

In order to avoid this failure, the South African Young Wine Writers Competition has two rigorous rules:

1.   Writers must submit “an 800 word article…on one of the following subjects: (a) the role of wine in everyday life OR (b) describe the difference between wines to be enjoyed as ‘quaffers’ and wines that do justice to certain cuisines.”

2.   Submit “a blog post of 300 words about the most unusual wine the writer has ever tasted.”

What great challenges for young writers! I wonder how many of today’s American wine bloggers, including some of the most famous, have ever written 800 words on an assigned topic–long-form journalism that requires critical thinking and writing skills, as opposed to a 140-character tweet or slapdash blog post? Such a test in extended writing is more in line with competitions like the Master Sommelier or Master of Wine than the Wine Blog Awards, where a popular vote weighs heavily in the results.

If you have to write 800 words on a topic that will be judged by professional writers, they’d better be 800 pretty good words! For that matter, try writing 1500 words or 2000 words on a specific topic–or a book that’s not some piece of junk no one will care about 15 minutes from now. Those things require journalism, and underlie a wine writer’s true worth.

Good writing consists of correct grammar and syntax, complex layering of sentences and paragraphs, a gradual buildup of tension until the final point has been achieved, and, of course, a tantalizing introduction (to stimulate people to continue reading) and a satisfying conclusion. All that, in addition to a mastery of the subject matter, and having an actual point to make! The trouble with the quick and dirty style of blog writing is that all too often it seems pointless–mere observations or scattered impressions, thrown willy-nilly onto the page, with no organization or intellectual point of view worth the reader’s attention.

Wine journalism, like all journalism, is important only if it maintains high standards of integrity, knowledgeability, factual accuracy and educational value. Yes, there’s a place for lighter-style writing a la People Magazine, but would we ever want People to replace a real newspaper or professional broadcast news program? I don’t think so. For the wine industry and culture, professional wine journalism has been its bloodstream for two centuries, maybe longer depending on how you measure it. With the advent on online writing–its ease and availability for everyone to instantaneously publish to the world–the quality of wine writing has been sinking. How many wine blogs can you say engage in authentic journalism?

So kudos to the South Africans. They at least understand the importance of longer-form writing. Is there some way we can come up with a similar competition here in America, or in California? I’d be willing to lend a hand to its organizing.


Can a wine be serious and unsnooty at the same time?

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What does it mean when people say Millennials want wines that are “more approachable” and less “snooty”?

You hear it everywhere, especially in the Blogosphere, but also in conversations about social media and in the columns of newspaper writers: for example, “Snooty is no longer where it’s at in the wine world,” and young people are seeking “more approachable and drinkable wines that are suitable for a range of dining and social occasions,” in the words of this article.

The suggestion is that some sort of cosmic alteration has occurred in the way younger consumers view wine, that this paradigm shift is revolutionizing the way wine is marketed (with, for example, Franzia WineTaps appealing to “growing demand [for] intriguing products”), and that “Specialty wines such as sangrias and chocolate wines” are aiming for the “sweeter taste profiles” the under-30s like.

In line with this blog’s continuing struggle to get at the truth, and hewing to its “the more things change, the more they stay the same” philosophy, I now dispel these modern myths with the wave of a hand. Begone!

Let’s break it down.

Of course consumers want wines that are less snooty and more approachable. Nothing new about that. “You certainly don’t have to be a wine expert to drink wine…For wine-drinking is fun. And wine isn’t difficult. Why consider it harder to serve than coffee, soda pop or beer? There isn’t any hocus-pocus, except for the so-called experts who as specialists have fun trying to make things complex and involved.”

That might have been written yesterday by any number of wine bloggers. But no, it was written by Mary Frost Mabon, then the food and wine editor at Harper’s Bazaar, in her 1942 book, ABC of American Wine. I cite it merely to illustrate the fact that more than seventy years ago writers were reassuring “ordinary” Americans that wine wasn’t “snooty” and that “preciosity in a wine connoisseur” (Mabon again) is laughable.

When I read this stuff about “more approachable and drinkable wines” my first reaction is that it’s sheer nonsense. Milliennials aren’t looking for “more approachable and drinkable” wines because these words have no meaning. They sound like they’re describing something real, because they hew to standard English syntax; but just because I can make up a proper sentence doesn’t mean it corresponds to something in reality. (“My unicorn just leapt over the radioactive rainbow.”) How is any wine “more approachable and drinkable” than any other wine that has ever existed? It all depends on what you like, right? Now, if “more approachable and drinkable” really means sweeter, then why don’t we just come out and say that Millennials prefer sweet wines to dry? Because it’s not true, that’s why. There’s no proof of that. The explosion of things like Moscato (and, yes, sangrias and chocolate wines) is indicative only of rising consumption of wine across all demographic groups, some of whom want their wines sweet while others like them dry.

What writers really mean when they say Millennials want “more approachable and drinkable wines” is that they want cheaper wines. This, too, hardly qualifies as a Eureka! moment, nor would it have come as a surprise 70 years ago to a producer (or 300 years ago to a London merchant). People, especially younger ones, always want value in their drinks, which is why The Wine Group, Bronco, Barefoot and so many other companies are doing so well.

So, you ask, is Heimoff saying that nothing ever changes? In a way, that’s exactly what I’m saying. Trends come and go–Moscato will fade back into semi-obscurity someday–boxed wines were inevitable once the technology developed–one day tequila is on top, the next day rum–sweet, fruity wine-based concoctions have been around from the days of Bali Hai through the coolers of the 1970s to today–young people always will like inexpensive wine but usually are willing to spend more as they age and earn more money–the Sun continues to rise in the east and set in the west–lazy or ill-informed wine writers continue to search for “news-like” information they can pass on with seeming authority–well, you get the picture.

I will stipulate the following concerning younger consumers: they want more interesting wines these days, wines that tell them stories and about which they can talk with their friends (and perhaps to the proprietor via social media). And this, they certainly have, in spades, in unprecedentedly open and interactive ways. But this is a double-edged sword for wineries. It makes the younger consumer easily the most fickle consumer in the history of the world. As soon as the story becomes boring–as soon as a more interesting story pops up (and I use the phrase “pop up” deliberately, in its latter-day urban sense)–the consumer moves onto the next thing.

I leave with this word of caution to wineries tempted to stroll down the “less snooty-more approachable” path: you may be headed up the garden path, leading to a cul-de-sac from which there is no escape. It’s one thing to make a wine-in-a-box and be content to sell gazillions of gallons of it (and this is in no way a criticism of such wines; among critics I’ve probably praised them the most, on grounds of quality-price ratio). But what if your ambitions as a winemaker are set higher than a boxed wine? What if you’re a garagiste or terroirist or someone seized with the notion of creating something awesome from your patch of ground? Some writers and customers always will “squint, swirl, sniff, sip, swish and spit” (in Mary Frost Mabon’s alliterative words), meaning in turn that these wines by definition become “more snooty” and “less approachable,” which is simply a way of saying that they become of greater intellectual and conversational interest, at least to those of us who care about such things. Do we really want this appeal to “less snooty and more approachable” to result in the end of pleasant discussions about wine, terroir, technique, varieties, aromas, finishes and all the other arcane topics we geeks love to talk about? I would hope not. Any winery that walks the serious quality walk but talks the “unsnooty and approachable” talk is trying to have it both ways, an unsustainable proposition that ultimately will please no one.


The connection between high scores and ageability

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It’s funny that I never really thought about it until recently, when I was browsing through my reviews in Wine Enthusiast’s database and realized that I had chosen the special designation of “Cellar Selection” for about 80% of my highest scoring wines.

If you’d asked me what parameters form the basis of a high score (let’s say anything above 95 points), I would have referred you to the magazine’s guidelines. They say things like “truly superb,” “great complexity,” “memorable,” “pinnacle of expression,” “complete harmony and balance,” “absolute best,” but the guidelines are silent on the question of ageability.

Had you pressed me to more fully explain a high score, I suppose at some point the “A” word would have arisen. But in and of itself, “ageability” does not equal great wine. Many wines will age, some for a long time, yet are not particularly complex or beautiful, either in youth or in old age.

And yet, my highest scoring wines, from this year alone, include Williams Selyem 2010 30th Anniversary Pinot Noir, Rochioli 2011 West Block Pinot Noir, Freemark Abbey 2009 Sycamore Vineyard Cabernet, Flora Springs 2010 Hillside Reserve Cabernet, Tantara 2010 Gwendolyn Pinot Noir, Matanzas Creek 2010 Journey, Terra Valentine 2010 K-Block Cabernet, Stonestreet 2010 Rockfall Cabernet, B Cellars 2009 Beckstoffer Dr. Crane Cabernet, Jarvis 2007 Estate Cabernet, Von Strasser 2010 Sori Bricco Cabernet, Sodaro 2009 Doti-Sodaro Blocks 2 and 6 Cabernet, and, another Beckstoffer coup, Janzen 2010 Beckstoffer Missouri Hopper Vineyard Cabernet. All 95 points or higher, all Cellar Selections.

What I look for in predicting ageability are two things, or three, depending on how you define them. First is an immediate reaction (from the nose/palate via the brain) of stunned impressionability. It’s a simple “Wow!” factor, although of course there’s nothing simple about it. Now, any wine can possess the “Wow!” factor without being ageable. A lot of it has to do with what Dr. Leary called “set and setting,” i.e. where you are (the external circumstances) and your mindset (subjective factors). A silky Beaujolais, like the one I had the other night, achieved the “Wow!” factor, because it was a warm evening, I had slightly chilled the bottle, and with it I enjoyed a soy-glazed tuna burger (homemade) and the company of someone special to me. But that Beaujolais was not an ageable wine, and if I were scoring it, I would have given it around 90.

The next thing I look for, in determining ageability, is an immature quality that makes the wine, good as it is, undrinkable, this latter word used in the old British sense of “too young to enjoy now” (although I’m always careful to point out that even a California wine that’s “too young to enjoy now” is, of course, enjoyable now, if you like it that way. The Cellar Police will not slap you into Guantanamo). What makes a wine “too young now,” for me, are, usually, dense tannins that numb the palate, but this is not so great a problem as it used to be (in California or in France) because modern tannin management regimes render even the hardest tannins more mellifluous (the adjective “mellifluous” being a good example of its own definition). A greater problem is what I call the unintegrated quality of a young wine’s parts. Those parts include oak, fruit, alcohol, acidity and tannins, and if they feel (in the mouth) like a herd of cats, each going its own way, resistant to corralling, then the wine is unintegrated. A subset of this is that California fruit can be overwhelming in youth, a detonation of jam that makes them too obvious–“Tammy Faye Bakker,” in the words of a Frenchman I know who crafts wines (or seeks to) of greater finesse and control.

The final aspect of determining ageability is the history and reputation of the winery. I make the previous two determinations blind, but this third factor weaves its way in when I take the bottle out of its covering bag. If I’ve already determined that the wine is ageable, that is going to appear in the review; but if I then see that it’s a wine I know for a fact ages well (say, a Williams Selyem Allen Vineyard Pinot Noir), that seals the deal, as they say. In general, I don’t like to stretch the window of ageability too far into an uncertain future (the way RMP does), but if I know the wine has a good history of hitting, say, 10 or 20 years, I’ll say so. (Corison Cabernets are a good example of this.) Which obviously makes it difficult when the wine is a new brand, without history, of which there are many, particularly in those bastions of ageability, Napa Valley Cabernet and cool-climate Pinot Noir. But, going through my highest-scoring wines, I see very few new brands among them. Mostly they are the older, traditional names, which is just as you’d expect.


Let’s talk about journalistic principles and wine writing

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Lunch yesterday (at Ozumo) with Clarissa Nagy, from Riverbench and Nagy, her own label. Clarissa is on my panel for the Chardonnay Symposium, where the topic is clones, so naturally we talked about that a lot.

I’ve thought about clones for many years. I recognize that they’re vital to the winemaker – but that consumers don’t care much about them one way or the other, as long as the wine tastes good — and that the wine writer is stuck in the middle. We don’t need to know anything near as much about clones as do winemakers, but we do need to understand them enough to be able to let the consumer know what we think they need to know. I don’t think that’s necessarily a great deal, because at a certain point, things get bogged down in technical detail to the point of MEGO.

I asked Clarissa what she thinks about clone. She more or less said she thinks clones are more important for Pinot Noir than for Chardonnay. I agree; Pinot is such a transparent wine that it displays the slightest perturbations to its nervous system, whereas Chardonnay is a rather neutral wine much of whose character is imparted to it by winemaker interventions, such as sur lie aging, malolactic fermentation and barrel fermentation and aging. So clones aren’t that important. (I expect to learn more about this through the symposium.) Clarissa said that, in general, older Pinot Noir clones–more properly, selections–such as Pommard and Swan have more “floral” characteristics that the newer clones. I replied that the newer clones seem fruitier than the old selections, which is the criticism some people (including, occasionally, me) have had about these new wave Pinots: that they’re jammy. Clarissa replied she thinks the newer clones aren’t that fruity.

Herein lies the dilemma. These topics become impenetrably complex, with even experts disagreeing over the fundamentals. As a panel moderator, I don’t want my audience to be completely confused. On the other hand, I don’t want to dumb things down and feed them simple aphoristic clichés that break down under scrutiny. A greater and greater part of my journalistic philosophy (which includes wine reviewing) is to break down the conventional wisdom that arises about so many things–alcohol level, crop yields, vine age, clones, terroir–through lazy writing. By lazy writing, I mean that someone writes something that is verifiably arguable on its face. Then another writer repeats it as “fact,” and another, and another, until finally it’s all over the Internet. Along comes the latest lazy writer, who does a Google search, comes across repeated citations that such-and-such is a fact, and then states it herself, thus perpetuating the half-truth. This is bad wine writing. Wine writers, like all journalists, should be the most skeptical people in the world. Their attitude should be, “Just because everyone says it’s so doesn’t make it so. You have to prove it to me.”

What a different world we would live in if wine writers all went by that rule. Instead, afraid of making fools of themselves, anxious to prove themselves as experts, too many of them are content to repeat the same old stereotypes. If there was one thing I’d make every wine writer do if I were King of the World, it would be to take a class in Journalism 101. As the Pew Center for Excellence in Journalism states, the principles of journalism are

Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth

Its first loyalty is to citizens

Its essence is a discipline of verification

Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover

It must serve as an independent monitor of power

It must provide a forum for public criticism and compromise

It must strive to make the significant interesting and relevant

It must keep the news comprehensive and proportional

Its practitioners must be allowed to exercise their personal conscience

The first 3 are the most important. My advice to people reading wine journalism, whether through a print magazine, a blog or whatever, is to ask does the writer seem to honor these principles. If not–read someone who does.

 


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