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Wine bloggers have to make choices

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Every wine critic, or wannabe, has to face the truth sooner rather than later: Since you can’t taste every wine in the world, you have to pick and choose what you can.

Circumstances compel it. There are, broadly speaking, two ways to deal with this situation. You can be a globe-trotting generalist, like Jancis Robinson, who can fly anywhere in the world and be welcomed with open arms by the most famous wineries in that region. (All right, if you detect a teensy weensy note of jealousy there, I’ll own up to it.) Or, along similar but less celebrated lines, you can be a Joe Roberts/1WineDude. He has, I suspect, fewer options than Jancis (at this point in his career, anyhow), having to depend on junkets or whatever comes across his transom (archaic metaphor). But he’s still a generalist: a little Italy, a little California, a little Spain, a little whatever, here’s what I think.

Being a generalist has its advantages. You get, over time, a grounding in the world’s wines. But generalism has its drawbacks. You can never really get to thoroughly understand a particular region; and if you can’t do that, then you can’t help your readers do it. Another drawback of generalism is that the peripatetic wine critic tends, most likely, to pay attention only to the best known wines of whatever region she’s covering at any particular time. New wineries, younger winemakers, innovative producers tend to be ignored by the generalist.

On the other hand are the specialists, like me in California, Paul Gregutt in the Pacific Northwest or, for that matter, all of Wine Enthusiast’s regional editors. I’d also include Lenn Thompson, at New York Cork Report, Alfonso Cevola’s On the Wine Trail in Italy and HaKerem: The Israeli Wine Blog as examples of specialists.

The neat thing about specializing is that you get a top to bottom understanding of your region, which you can then share with your readers. But I can see both sides of most things, including the specialist-generalist spectrum.

There are hundreds of wine blogs of both types, more than anyone can keep track of. To get just a taste, check out Alltop, a source that many bloggers go to every day to see who’s saying what about whom. I celebrate this diversity. It’s so different from when I started, when your choices were limited to 3 or 4 American critics with any credibility, and a handful of English writers whose knowledge of California wines was woefully inadequate, and limited to what they thought were the “important” wineries. It was all top down. New wineries didn’t have a chance of being discovered, unless they had a friend somewhere.

At the same time, this diversity puts the consumer in a bind. Whom to believe? That’s what’s so interesting about the Alltop website (which itself represents only a fraction of all wine blogs). There never have been so many choices, so many opportunities for consumers to obtain information and opinions on wine. That’s good, I suppose; but it’s also an unstable situation in need of resolution. This proliferation of sources reminds me of a Rube Goldberg machine, an overly complicated, irrational way of getting something simple accomplished.

Which is why wine critics have to make their choices. This chaotic situation will resolve itself, probably within the next few years. There will be a winnowing out. Who survives the coming shakeout cannot be known in advance; but, in retrospect, we’ll be able to look back and understand why “many were called, but few were chosen.” The chosen ones will be those who made the right choices, and stuck to their game plan.


On to the Wine Bloggers Conference!

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I’m flying up to the American Bloggers Conference tomorrow early. It’s in Walla Walla, a part of Washington I’ve never visited, so I’m looking forward to this trip.

I’m a little nervous. I’ve spoken to big groups before, but this will be my biggest — 300 strong, I’m told. This is for the Friday keynote address. When I asked the organizers what they wanted me to talk about, they said, “Focus on this rift between some wine bloggers and some print writers.” I guess they want controversy. I also guess they chose me because I’m a print writer and a wine blogger, so that one-foot-in-both-worlds gives me good straddle.

We talk and talk and talk about the future of print, the future of social media, the future of wine writing, until we’re all hoarse. I can’t count how many panels I’ve been on or moderated that were devoted to these topics. And here I go again, not just in the keynote speech but in a panel on the future of wine writing they want me to be on. I think the plain and simple truth is that nobody knows the answers to any of these questions, because there are just too many unknowns.

I’ll talk about a lot of this in my speech, which I assume WBC will put online, and when they do, I’ll link to it here. So I don’t want to steal my own thunder by blogging about it today. I’ll just draw a couple broad brush strokes.

I think there will always be influencers when it comes to wine. I don’t know if there will just be a handful of them, the way it is today, or if there will be lots and lots of Parkers, maybe even in China or India. I doubt that anyone will ever out-Parker Parker, although maybe Gary V. will prove me wrong.

I also don’t know if there will still be important print magazines around, although I obviously hope Wine Enthusiast will be. A lot of bloggers say print is dead, but I don’t see how they can know that. It sounds like wishful, not realistic, thinking. When you look into the future, all you can see is what you can’t see (which sounds like a Yogi-ism). And I don’t know if there will be important blogs that influence vast numbers of consumers. There aren’t any today, discounting Gary, if you call him blog, which I don’t.

I don’t know if wineries will still be obsessed with having “social media directors,” but I’m willing to make a prediction: No. I think social media, or whatever it evolves into, will become a part of marketing, not a division in itself. I think social media experts will report to marketing directors.

I’m also a little nervous about going up to Walla Walla because, as many of you know, the bloggers and I haven’t always had the most cordial relations. I think most of the unpleasantness is in the past; at least, I hope so. I won’t know very many people at the conference, aside from some bloggers and a few P.R. folks who are supposed to be there. And I’m sure I’ll embarrass myself once again by forgetting the names of people I should know. That’s a lifetime bad habit I just can’t shake. So if I forget your name, forgive me in advance.

There’s a lot of talk already on the blogosphere and other online places about how the kids are going to be staying up all night, partying and drinking until dawn. Not me, unless something very unusual happens. I won’t define what “something very unusual” means, except to say it lies in the realm of fantasy, and in 22 years of wine writing and traveling, it hasn’t happened yet. It almost did, once, and that was also in Washington State, in Seattle; but it didn’t, and I still wish it had.

I’m sure there will be surprises. One of my fellow co-panelists, Ken Payton, from Reign of Terroir, already is talking about “a surprise announcement.” Whatever it is, you can bet that all those bloggers will be live-blogging and tweeting and everything else, every chance they get.

By the way, the Hosemaster of Wine recently blogged about me concerning my WBC panel. In it, he called me “the Justin Bieber of the wine blog world.” I’m sure that’s a reference to my boyishly handsome good looks and sparkling personality, not to mention the legion of teenaged girls who constantly follow me around. It’s a hassle, and so are the paparazzi, but hey, it’s the price of fame. And I love the money.


Wine Bloggers Conference: the repercussions just keep on coming

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There were so many issues swarming around the WBC that it’s going to take time to sort through them all or even identify them with specificity.

One way to figure out the emergent issues is to read the posts that the bloggers themselves put up, to see what they’re talking about. I like this one from Wilma’s World. Her observations are right on, including that some wine bloggers have grey hair (ahem) while others are young and edgy. “Nearly all would also like to make money from their blog but few will actually do so,” she writes, echoing my belief. She adds, “Blogging isn’t for the faint of heart. It takes a commitment and it can NOT be a transparent attempt to sell a product,” which are points I stressed in my breakout session on credibility.

I also liked the Napa Valley Wine Blog and especially the point that some heavy hitters (Gallo, K-J, Ste. Michelle and — at my table — Brown-Forman) attended “to observe and find out just what influence bloggers might have on the wine industry.” Nobody knows if wine blogging is a temporary blip on the radar, the future of wine writing and criticism, both, neither, or will mutate to something unpredictable. But the smart people understand they’d better be on the train if it somehow decides to barrel out of the station.

Then there was this blog from Caveman Wines, run by a guy who works for a well-known California winery P.R. company. He attended my credibility breakout session, and I’m glad he pointed out that “After this summer’s kerfuffle over Rockaway-gate, I was expecting things to get ugly, but they actually remained very civil.” (I had similar fears.) My buddy Lenn Thompson, from Lenndeavors, has commented (in a comment he made to my Wine Enthusiast blog) that I “held my punches” and “played nice” co-moderating the credibility seminar, but I think The Caveman understands the value of civility in an uncivil world.

Credibility, civility, making money, commitment, the role of blogging vis a vis the biggest wineries in America — clearly the WBC opened a Pandora’s box of gigantic issues, whose repercussions are far from being understood.

Oh, I also have a new fiction story, immediately below. Enjoy.


Do bloggers have an obligation to wineries that wine and dine them?

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When I was a working critic I was very particular about not letting wineries spend money on me. I had the reputation of not going out to lunch or dinner on the winery’s dime. I did it every once in a while, but tried to keep it rare. I also was extremely fussy about letting wineries spend money on me in other ways. This was only partly because of Wine Enthusiast’s policies; it also was because it didn’t seem right to accept favors (food, travel, etc.) from a winery if I was going to say critical things about their wine. That would have seemed rude and ungrateful. On the other hand, if I said nice things about their wine, it might have given rise to the appearance of a conflict of interest. Better, then (in my judgment), to keep wineries and their money at arm’s length (the sole exception being, of course, that I did accept free samples of their wines!).

Now, it appears that the issue of bloggers accepting freebies from wineries, and then not even bothering to write about them, has risen to prominence. Harpers.com, out of the U.K., has written a scathing editorial piece decrying bloggers who accept a winery’s hospitality and then claim that their “freedom of speech” gives them the right to not even write about the winery. One Italian producer told Harpers, “If I invite a blogger to my winery, and after I have paid for all of the costs the blogger still thinks I am not worth a mention, it is his/her right to do so. [But] it is also obvious that I, the producer, will never again pay a cent for his/her freedom not to write.”

The producer’s umbrage is completely understandable, isn’t it? The point I want to make here is that there are certain unstated but widely accepted rules in wine writing that include the notion of fairness. If a writer is to succeed longterm at being a success (not just a flash in the pan), the writer has to build up trust and affability among the wine producers she writes about. A wine writer with a bad name will find herself not accepted into the circle of wineries she hopes to cover. To get a good name in wine writing is the same thing as getting a good name anywhere and everywhere else: You have to play nice in the sandbox with the other kids. And if you take somebody’s money, and then insult them—either through silence, or by excessive criticism—you’re not playing nice, and word will travel, in this small playground we call the world of wine.

My generation of wine writers (whom I exult in running into whenever we’re at an event) understood the etiquette of wine criticism. Nobody had to explain it to us; somehow, we just knew that it was wrong to accept a winery’s largesse and then bite the hand that had just fed us. Since my main objective as a writer/critic was to tell the truth, I found myself decreasingly accepting largesse of any kind, because I didn’t want my hosts to feel that I’d been an ungrateful little so-and-so.

Too many bloggers, however, apparently don’t suffer from these inhibitions. They leave hurt feelings in their wake. This is why the Harpers article calls them “an endangered species” and adds this warning shot fired over their bow: “[B]loggers need to stay relevant just as any professional in the sector, and producers are starting to question whether the wine bloggers is, indeed, relevant.” Finally, the writer states something I personally know to be true: “Wineries are beginning to distinguish the difference [between informed and relevant bloggers and those who are not], and are analyzing closely as to where they should spend their few available euros.” Yes, marketers are drawing up their “A” list and their “Everybody else” list, and the A list is getting harder to get onto.

It’s all about being professional, and not just have power because you can push a button on a keyboard and self-publish. The wine press has always been a place of politeness, decency and respect, and blogging hasn’t and won’t change that.


Bloggers and wineries: strange bedfellows

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READERS: I return from New York today and will resume new posts tomorrow. This is a repeat posting from Nov. 2008.

* * *

WineDiverGirl is a California blogger who specializes in (as her blog says) “Wine Life and Social Media Coverage.” As such, she’s passionate about the convergence of the wine industry and social media, and writes provocative posts on how wineries and bloggers might work in tandem to help the industry move forward.

I’m all in favor of that, but the question is what, precisely, ought to be the relationship between bloggers and wineries. Last summer, in the Rockaway-gate dustup, I called for bloggers to keep their distance from wineries. When a reporter/critic gets too close to her subject, there’s too great a chance for a conflict of interest or, at least, the appearance of one. I recognized, at the height of the tempest, that it’s flattering for a blogger to be given special treatment by a winery, but it’s vital to resist the temptation to succumb to flattery. Wineries don’t love critics because we’re warm and fuzzy. They pretend to love us because we can help, or hurt, them economically.

Well, in her latest post, WineDiverGirl says she’s “looking for all the ways wineries and bloggers are currently connected (if at all) and new and improved ways for them to evangelize the beautiful power of wine.” She offers a number of ways for bloggers and wineries to work together, nearly all of which are wrong-headed and, in some instances, dangerous. Here are her suggestions:

1. “Host a guest blogger for a month: either pay them or the charity of their choice for them to write about your winery, winemaker, wine, vineyards, etc.” Can we agree that this is a terrible idea? If a winery pays a blogger, then that blogger can have no credibility whatsoever about anything he writes concerning the winery. Even if the winery donates money to the blogger’s favorite charity, it suggests a quid pro quo that makes the blogger suspect. If a winery wants to boast online about how great it is, it can start its own blog.

2. “[S]ponsor or offer scholarships to various wine tasting events to help bloggers get there.” Now, this isn’t as bad as #1. Wine writers are notoriously underpaid and sometimes it’s necessary to accept some help to cover travel expenses. I’ve done it. But as a rule, having your expenses paid by a winery is a bad idea. It’s better for a regional winery association to pick up the tab, so that you’re not perceived to be beholden to anyone in particular.

3. “Host a guest blogger to pour in your tasting room for a day.” This is bizarre. A tasting room staffer should know all about the winery, its wines and vineyards, its owners and winemaker, the area in question, wine in general, and so on. Why would a winery be interested in having a blogger be its public face in the tasting room, unless it expected to get some good publicity — which brings us back to the conflict of interest issue.

4. “Include bloggers in focused research or think-tank like conversations about planning your year, events, marketing.” Bloggers are now supposed to be marketing managers and event planners for wineries? I don’t think so. This crosses so many red lines, it’s hard to know where to begin.

WineDiverGirl concludes by reassuring wineries that bloggers “know consumers better than almost anyone…because they are the wine industry’s BEST consumers.” I would have thought the industry’s best consumers are ordinary working women and men looking to drink a nice glass of wine for dinner.

“What do you think?” WineDiverGirl asks. “How do you see wineries and bloggers working together for everyone’s benefit?” With all due respect to WineDiverGirl, who means well, I don’t see wineries and bloggers working together, if “together” means becoming strange bedfellows. Bloggers should be very careful about getting mixed up in the business of wineries, and wineries should be very careful about trying to influence the independent blogosphere.

 


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