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Saying goodbye to the Golden Age of Wine Writing

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I was talking yesterday with my old friend, Andy, who lives in Northampton, an area of Western Massachusetts I have close ties with. Andy told me that John Wolfson, the son of another friend of ours, is Editor of Boston Magazine, which makes me proud of the kid. At the same time, Andy’s wife, Jan, has gotten a contract to write a book about art, but it’s going to be a digital book. This led to a conversation about the future of print journalism versus digital publishing. I told Andy that the roadblock so far to the success of digital publishing has been the reluctance of advertisers to pay anything close to the rates they pay for ads in print publications. Since advertising is the lifeblood of publications, that means that publishers can’t pay their writers as much for digital contributions as for print articles. I don’t know what the overall average is nationwide, but I’d guess that print pays at least five times, maybe ten times as much as digital.

I also pointed out to Andy that this situation not only bodes ill for people who wish to make their living doing journalism, but also for the American people. If a reporter can’t make a living reporting, then who’s going to report on the shenanigans of the local City Council (or, in Andy’s New England case, Board of Selectmen)? The heart and soul of American democracy is tied to an independent press, investigating and reporting without fear. This vital issue is at stake in the new reality.

Finally, I told Andy how grateful I am that I got into this wine writing gig during what I think of as The Golden Age of Wine Writing, which I estimate to have occurred over the last 30 years or so. Before that, nobody made much of a living writing about wine in the U.S., for the simple reason that not enough people cared about wine to buy and read a wine magazine. There were a few wine writers at big newspapers–Frank Prial at the N.Y. Times, Nate Chroman at the L.A. Times–but that was pretty much it.

However, with the growing up of the Baby Boomers and their (our) amazing, historic embrace of wine and wine culture, all that changed. Wine magazines started popping up all over the place, and while wine writing has never been a way to get rich (with a few exceptions: Jancis Robinson, Hugh Johnson), it was at least a way to practice an honorable career, one moreover that afforded the writer quite a bit in the way of perks.

All that is changing. Nobody knows what publishing is going to look like in five years, much less 25. But I think we all have the feeling that something revolutionary, and possibly destructive, has occurred. Was publishing, in the traditional way we think about it, simply a phenomenon of the Age of Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution that is now fading away, in the Age of Digital Information? Nothing lasts forever. People need and want information, but do they care where it comes from, or what the motive of the information provider is?

As for wine writing, there are a lot of really talented young writers out there who would just love it if they could make a decent living at it. My fear is that they won’t be able to. But maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe future generations won’t need wine writers anymore than we need soothsayers. After all, with Wikipedia and Google, all the information in the world is right there with the click of a button. Right?


The “debate” over the usefulness of tasting notes is the biggest non-issue in the wine industry

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My Tasting Director at Wine Enthusiast, Lauren Buzzeo, who has a hard job but carries it off with aplomb, sent us reviewers a link to this article yesterday. It’s a defense of tasting notes by a Washington State guy who runs the wine department in a grocery store.

He begins by postulating that “Most of the stuff I have read lately suggests that tasting notes are a complete waste of time, and most people do not even pay attention to them.” He then proceeds, logically and patiently, to demolish this theory. Then, based on his own experiences with his customers, he concludes that “Tasting notes have an important place in the wine world. They give the consumer some insight into what they are to expect out of a wine.”

I’ve written endlessly about this topic on steveheimoff.com. As the Washington State writer noted, the issue of whether or not tasting notes are irrelevant “seems to be the hottest debate on most of the wine blogs or wine related blogs and websites these days.” As I’ve repeatedly pointed out, the fact is, quite obviously, that consumers do like to read tasting notes. As the writer stated, his customers love them–and by extension, that means that customers around the country feel a need and desire for expert tasting notes, for why would Washington State wine consumers be any different from those elsewhere?

But that’s not the point I want to make…again. Instead, I want to answer this question the Washington State guy posed: “Why are so many wine writers taking a negative stance towards tasting notes?” He himself posited a few possible reasons: (1) these critics don’t actually sell wine, so they don’t get the kind of positive feedback about tasting notes that he does; (2) the critics simply aren’t very good at writing tasting notes, so they prefer to just sit back and make fun of them instead of trying to do it themselves.

Both of these are completely true, but I’d like to offer a third reason for the continual bashing of reviews by certain writers: Jealousy. They can’t stand the idea that some wine writers actually make a living at writing wine reviews. If you look at who the review-bashers are, they’re mostly bloggers, and you know what that means: They’d love for somebody to pay them to be professional wine writers, but no one will, so their only outlet is their blog. I sometimes think the fierce attack we published critics come under is also motivated by the hope by these bloggers that somehow their criticisms will tarnish us so much that we’ll eventually fall, and guess who would take our places? The bloggers!

So I’d like to propose an end to this silly non-debate about whether or not tasting notes are useless or irrelevant. It is the biggest non-issue in the wine industry today. The only reason it gets any play at all is because the Internet is free and immediate, so anyone can make any idiotic claim they want, and launch it around the world with the push of a button. I will end simply by quoting the Washington State guy: “I write [tasting notes] for the consumer. I could care less what another columnist thinks about my notes and I certainly don’t agree with their criticism of the notes themselves.”


Being kind to mediocre wine

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What should a critic do when he’s confronted with a wine he himself would never consider drinking, yet isn’t so awful as to be undrinkable?

I come across this problem all the time. I’ll pour myself a tasting sip from the bottle, which is in a brown paper bag. The color seems all right. I smell: an immediate reaction of negativity. It can be boiled vegetables, like mushy asparagus, or it can be the nostril-pinching mold of botrytis (rather more common these days, as the 2011s come out). It can be exceptional amounts of oak, or some oak-like smell, heavily toasted and caramelized. It can be many things, but my first reaction to the “nose” is Uggh.

Then I taste, and the wine is no better in the mouth. It’s thin and simple. Yesterday I reviewed a round of Chardonnays that were so watery, your palate had to frisk them up and down to find any trace of fruit. Or certain red wines can transfer the vegetativeness or mold of the aroma into the mouth. Such wines, too, elicit an “Ugh!” factor in me: I conceivably might drink them, but only were I stranded on a desert island and they were the only wines available.

So how do I deal with them, in terms of a score and a text review?

Well, for starters, there’s a big difference between an undrinkable wine and one I personally loathe. Granted, the line between them can be blurry: it’s not the same as the difference between two adjacent squares on the checkerboard, with a strict delineation between red and black. It’s more like the edge of a shadow: fuzzy, inchoate. It’s hard to tell exactly where the line of the shadow is, because, due to the scattering of atoms, there is no line, just an interference pattern that is “Heisenbergian” in indeterminacy.

That makes the choice between a score of 22 (absolutely undrinkable, under Wine Enthusiast’s rules) and 80 or 81 (barely drinkable) a difficult one. On Tuesday the wine may be 22; on Wednesday, 80. So we have to admit there’s a certain arbitrariness here. But the important thing to keep in mind is that my own personal preference or reaction to a wine ought to be irrelevant to my review of it.

This really can’t be emphasized enough. In general you can say that any wine I review that scores between 80-84 points is not one I would wish to drink; yet such wines are drinkable, often eminently so, and, if priced right, can be bargains that receive the highly coveted “Best Buy” special designation the magazine lists in the wine’s formal review in the Buying Guide. (Producers love it when their wines get “Best Buys” as they can use this in their marketing.)

I will often think, when writing a review of an 82-point wine that costs, say, $9, that millions of consumers will like it and consider themselves lucky to have gotten something so good at so affordable a price. This leads to the question of the critic putting himself in the shoes of the people he imagines himself to be writing for. In my case, this is an “average” consumer, one looking for value, as well as one who wants to enjoy his wine and have fun with it, preferably with companionable food. Since I have friends and family members to whom this description applies, I’ll often visualize them in my mind as I review, in a sort of version of “What Would Johnny Think?”

However, as a wine critic, I’m aware that people of a higher order of wine appreciation, more akin to my own, also read Wine Enthusiast and will be curious about my reviews of rare and expensive wines. And so I wish to do a good job of reviewing those wines as well. And I think I do. This illustrates the balancing act that Wine Enthusiast tries to accomplish: to be the magazine (and website) of the “masses” as well as the source of high-class information about the world’s greatest wines.

Most magazines and wine review newsletters do not do this. Some cater exclusively to the upper end. Others, who do not have access to the upper end, exclusively review what I call “supermarket wines” (and I’m sure you know what I mean). Few straddle the entire spectrum, at least in terms of the sheer numbers Wine Enthusiast does.

I’m very proud of the fact that, despite my preference for reviewing the greatest wines in California, I also have the opportunity of reviewing the commoners. Is it my favorite thing to do, to taste through 15 California-appellated Chardonnays that all cost less than $15? I’d be lying if I said it was. But I take that tasting to be as great a challenge as going through 15 high-level coastal Pinot Noirs or Napa Cabernet Sauvignons. Yes, I’d probably take two or three or even four times as long to taste through the latter as the former (because they’re vastly more complex wines that require more time to understand). But if I can give a Best Buy to an inexpensive wine–even one I’d never drink myself–it makes it a happy camper.


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.


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