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The real message of social media may be: We are all artists

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Next week I moderate a panel on content creation at the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium. These are some of the things I’m thinking about in anticipation. This is connected to a post I wrote last month, on “Twelve tips for better content creation.”

The first two things I’m thinking about concern “the story” and “authenticity.” The wine industry now has become exquisitely sensitive to the importance of both in communicating with the public. It took a while, but, to judge from everything I see happening in the industry, especially in California, “telling the story” through online portals has become the watchword of the avant-garde winery. And yet “telling the story” may well be the most difficult thing a winery has to figure out how to do. What is the story? It may seem apparent—but too many people fail to see the forest for the trees.

Your story isn’t simply your biography. Oh, sure, your bio may be part of the story. But the truth is, your bio—however compelling it may be to you—may not be of particular interest to the general public. So “the story” has to be something that will amuse and/or educate the viewer, and make her want to come back to your site again. How do you accomplish that? The best way is to consider sites that you, personally, like going to. What is it that brings you back? Do some analysis, and you might learn something.

For example, is it funny videos? Is it great wine-and-food pairings, with recipes, that help you up your cooking game? Is it technical information on the wines and vineyards? Beautiful photography? Any and all of these can be the “draw.” And whatever the “draw” is, there’s your story. The great thing about social media is that our understanding of it constantly evolves: since it’s interactive and participatory, the two parts (poster and reader) are always changing with respect to each other, sort of like the arrangement of particles in a kaleidoscope. And each shift can be more beautiful than the one before.

The second concept I can’t get off my mind is authenticity. Somebody said to me the other day that social media posts should seem authentic. No, I replied, they should be authentic. The difference between the two—between seeming and being—is subtle, but vital. Seeming to be authentic is what Big Oil comes across as when they talk about the environment. I’m not saying they do or don’t do great things for the environment—that’s not what I’m here to talk about. I’m saying that lots of people perceive such stances as inauthentic—pretending to be “green” when you’re really not, just to get people to like you.

Social media is very transparent in the sense that you can usually tell when someone’s being authentic. People enjoy authentic personalities in each other—it’s part of what attracts us to our friends and people we like to be around. Same with social media. Social media isn’t something other than you. It is you. If you’re a fundamentally interesting person, you’ll have no problem creating interesting content.

One of the biggest challenges surrounding social media, though, seems to be how to come up with enough content to keep your platform going. The Internet has a voracious appetite for content, and it can be difficult for someone to come up with enough, day in and day out. Unfortunately there’s no easy answer to this dilemma. Some people seem more in tune with social media than others. I personally have no problem coming up with content across all my platforms, but that’s because I’m a writer. I’ve suggested to recalcitrant posters over the years that it’s easier than you might think to create content. You don’t need some grandiose idea, you don’t need a creative bolt of lightning, all you have to do is sit down and start writing. Once the blocks fall away—and they do, with practice—you start noticing that some creative impulse in you—in all of us—actually loves expressing itself. And that is the foundation-stone of content creation.

If social media accomplishes nothing else in the long run, I hope it will at least have made us all aware of our inner artist! Too many of us are raised to disbelieve in our creativity, which is a great pity. Humans are enormously creative, or can be; it just takes the right inspiration. The Internet, and social media especially, have provided precisely that inspiration. The more I think of the pioneering creators of social media, the more I admire them. They took McLuhan’s global village and gave us all the tools to be artists. How cool is that.


No such thing as the “best” wine

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It’s interesting how different media outlets described the wines that were recently stolen from the French Laundry.

The San Francisco Chronicle’s headline reads “Wine thief with nose for best reaps huge haul from French Laundry.”

Calling the Domaine de la Romanée Conti and Screaming Eagle the “best” grants the highest esteem to these wines, suggesting to readers that no other wines in the world can approach them in quality. KRON Channel 4, one of the Bay Area’s leading news outlets, took a more cautious approach, calling the purloined wines “high-end,” which carries vastly different connotations than “best”: ‘high-end” implies a certain rare desirability that gives the wines prestige, but does not elevate them to the highest category of perfection. The Contra Costa Times took a decidedly neutral approach: They called the wines merely “expensive,” a just-the-facts-ma’am description of reality, for in truth, those bottles certainly are among the most costly in the world. Still, they are not “priceless,” as USA Today trumpeted in a flashy headline.

This may all seem trivial, but for students of the media, who wish to understand how news is actually communicated in this country, it underscores the importance of optics—perceptions that become fixed ideas among the public. Now, the job of the headline writer is different from that of the reporter. Usually, reporters don’t write their own headlines; that is considered a special art and is reserved to editors. But no matter who writes the headline, it can achieve a life of its own. When a criminal killed a bar owner and then forced a hostage to decapitate him in New York City back in 1983, the New York Post certainly was correct to give it full front page coverage. They could have headlined, as the New York Times discretely did, “Owner of a bar shot to death; subject is held,” and then relegated the gory details of the “head in a box” to the fourth paragraph. But that headline never achieved anywhere close to the immortality of the Post’s “Headless body in topless bar,”

 headless

which has become one of the most famous headlines in the history of American journalism. (Its author, Vinnie Musetto, excelled at eye-catching headers. He also penned the Post’s “Khadafy Goes Daffy,” about the former Libyan strongman’s antics.)

Long before there was an Internet or social media, headlines like these went viral: they were repeated in many media outlets, proving that a great headline is at least as important, in terms of popularity, as what is actually contained in the article itself. This is where, however, a sort of Continental drift between the headline and the actual news can open seismic chasms. In the story about the French Laundry theft, it is only natural that some headline writers would decide that the word “best” sounds stronger than “high-end” or “expensive.” High-end, expensive stuff is stolen all the time, but when “the best” is taken, people pay attention.

However, the fact is that Romanée-Conti and Screaming Eagle are not “the best” wines in the world. There are no “best wines” in the world. Any critic will tell you so. What these wines are, indisputably, are among the most expensive wines in the world. But there’s a big, huge difference, and to call these wines “the best” only reinforces the public’s perception that they can’t get really great wine unless they pay really high prices. That’s the biggest myth in all of wine.


A New Year’s Day reflection

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Happy new year, each and everyone!

We’ve been through a lot over the years, you and I—from my rather clumsy but sincere and hopeful introductory post (dated May 15, 2008, and reproduced here) through the awful years of the Great Recession that impacted so many of us, right through to my transition in 2014 from wine critic to Jackson Family Wines. You’ve stayed with me every step of the way, through 1,679 posts, and for that, I salute you. I would never continue this if so many of you didn’t let me know, nearly every day, that you enjoy reading it. And I’m proud to say that, while I was tempted for a while, I’ve still never taken an advertisement nor tried to sell stuff.

In that first Welcome to my blog post, I wrote words I wouldn’t change today, including these: I’d be thrilled if this forum became a place for people to air opinions and debate issues.” And indeed, that’s exactly what it has become. Some people prefer reading the comments to my posts, which delights me. My readers know that this is one of the few wine blogs that doesn’t require approval to post your comment. Here, once I’ve approved your first one, my computer automatically recognizes your computer (I don’t think I phrased that technically correctly, but you get the idea), so your comment goes up right away. I love the immediacy  and transparency of that. I love real conversations. I love edge.

It was a little difficult finding my footing after I went to Jackson. The biggest challenge was that I don’t taste a zillion wines anymore. Instead, that has forced me to write more conceptually, and I must say, agreeably—about issues and such. But then, there’s a ton of wine blogs out there that review wines. I never did like running with the pack.

Among my first commenters that day were Jo Diaz, who continues to run Diaz Communications with her dear husband, Jose; Monica Larner, who went on to become The Wine Advocate’s Italian reviewer, and whom I still love dearly, and Tom Wark, the Godfather of wine blogs, an inspiration to me and many others. I’ve since made many friendships among my commenters, some of them “only” digitally, but friendships nonetheless.

So here’s to a happy, healthy, wealthy and wise 2015 for all of us! Back Monday.


“Social media” is an oxymoron that’s here to stay

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Three articles in yesterday’s S.F. Chronicle caught my attention for the suggestions they make about how social media is, and is not, changing our lives.

(I was finally able to read after days of not being able to, due to the intense flu I had. It was an effort just to focus my eyeballs.)

The first article was on the continuing war between digital cab companies, like Uber and Lyft, and conventional taxi companies. This is a topic San Franciscans have been hearing a lot about. The bottom line is that the conventional taxis were slow to the point of paralysis in understanding the implications of portable digital devices. This was summed up by a CEO who said, “The taxi industry needs to rapidly retool and face the realities of the smartphone.”

Nobody is going to dial up a taxicab number and face all the possible uncertainties and hassles. (Just finding an open taxicab in San Francisco is a feat.) So much easier to establish an Uber or Lyft account, even if it means paying a little more. Uber and Lyft made the news yesterday because they apparently are planning on price-gouging on New Year’s Eve, but that’s beside the point. The point is that they foresaw the conveniences of smartphones and the taxi companies didn’t.

The second article was an examination of one of the East Bay’s new congressman, Eric Swalwell, the youngest member (at 32) of the large California delegation. Swalwell’s a social media guy; he made a point of stressing that in his interview. He tweets so much that there’s a new Twitter hashtag, #swalwelling, which seems to consist of photographing one’s feet as they enter an airplane. (We have “selfies.” Could this be “footsies”?)

These two articles represent green lights for social media. They underscore that we have become a society on the go, go, go, with our feet carrying us while our hands clutch our smartphones and we share our experiences with others. We interact with the world through these devices, and that includes all our interactions: shopping, politics, entertainment, simple personal communications. For wineries, the meaning is clear: Go big, or go home. The winery that does not learn how to take advantage – no, that’s not the right phrase, because it implies a certain cynical, transparently venal misappropriation of social media. Let me start again. The winery that does not learn how to communicate through mobile devices puts itself at disadvantage in this hyper-competitive world. Just as taxi companies learned, to their chagrin, at the hands of Uber and Lyft, the future belongs to the digitally savvy. (Although I will admit that Uber and Lyft have not been particularly adroit in handling the politics of their situations. But that’s another story…).

The third article stands in stark contrast to the others. There’s a new establishment here in Oakland, Plank, down at Jack London Square. It’s in a gigantic space that’s been vacant for years. The new owners decided to open, not just a restaurant, not just a bar, but a bowling alley, pool hall, bocce ball court and video game arcade. They call it an “activity bar.” The concept is, as another activity bar owner put it, “It’s fun, and you don’t have the pressure of sitting across the table talking for three hours.”

Well, I don’t know about the “pressure” of talking with friends and family over a restaurant meal. I mean, if it were really that onerous, people wouldn’t be doing it so much. Still, I get the idea. As the Chronicle reporter who wrote the story mused, “One wonders …whether these bars satisfy a longing for childhood pleasures…in the age of texting, with face-to-face communication.”

That’s more to the point. Yes, we inhabit a digital reality; we’re all nexuses on the World Wide Web. We do more and more things with our smartphones. But my discomfort from the very beginnings of this digital revolution has been connected with the fact that it somehow seems injurious to the social and civil underpinnings that made us human in the first place, and societal beings moreover. To that extent, the phrase “social media” is an oxymoron. “Social” is face-to-face; distant communication, however facile or amusing it may be, is not particularly social.

However, here we are, on a cusp as it were between two opposing forces. As usual with cusps (such as the transition between millennia), predictions, fears and hopes are exaggerated; things continue more or less as usual. Life goes on; we grow accustomed to whatever is new, and somehow manage to keep hold of our humanness.

The lesson, again, for wineries, which I alluded to above, is clear: adapt to the digital, portable realm or be doomed. But do it in a way that’s Zen-like in detachment: with a pure mind, as Buddhists put it. Do not allow yourself to be perceived as having an ulterior motive; in fact, do not have an ulterior motive, except that of humanness. If you’re puzzled by how to achieve this, here’s a clue: If you are yourself, not someone else, you will not be perceived as having an ulterior motive. If you are not yourself, you invariably will be. It’s a strange paradox: by being real, you will succeed. If you don’t know what being yourself and being real mean, then you have your work cut out for you.

Anyhow, have a fine, fun and safe New Year’s Eve! No drunk driving, please.


The flu!

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From the Stygian depths of the flu I write. I caught it, I think, from my cousins, who caught it from East Coast visitors. Thus we are all linked in a sort of viral community.

It is truly an awful disease. On Friday and Saturday I thought I would escape only with a bad winter cold, but Sunday brought lethargy and fever, and on Monday it worsened. I got my flu shot 3 weeks ago at Kaiser and had read articles that this year’s vaccine would be particularly ineffective.

Why is this so? I know a lot of people who will not get flu shots because they don’t trust the doctors. This sort of thing will not encourage them.

And now, this morning, I read that the Centers for Disease Control has officially declared this outbreak an epidemic.

How quickly it has come to California! Two weeks ago we heard nothing of influenza. Now it is widespread.

During the height of my illness I could not abide alcohol in any form, not even my 5 p.m. cocktail IPA. The thought of wine made me cringe. It made me think how the appreciation of wine requires a certain balance of the physical, emotional and intellectual parts of humans. Each of those elements was thrown into chaotic disarray by my flu. Physically I felt at the edge of death. It was emotionally draining; one thinks, “Will this go on forever? What if I don’t recover?” with all the associated thoughts of dread. As for the intellect, well, it failed completely. It was as if that part of my brain had had a spoke thrust into it. When you’re that sick you can’t think straight.

Anyhow, it’s all I can do to grind out this pathetic excuse for a blog post but I do trust you will forgive me! Stay safe, and remember to wash your hands a lot.


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To each restaurant there is a season. Alas, some of San Francisco’s old guard went the way of the dodo in 2014.

As Paolo Lucchesi reports in his article on the biggest closures of the year in the S.F. Chronicle, Fleur de Lys and Fifth Floor shut their doors. They were perhaps the best-known names of now-shuttered restos. Another that’s gone is Daniel Patterson’s Plum, just down the street from me.

As archeologists can tell a lot from digging down into the ruins of an ancient settlement, so too can we glean some hints about the state of our food (and wine) culture by examining who went out of business. It’s not always possible to determine exactly why a restaurant closes, but we can assume that, in general, it’s because the times have passed them by. Whatever pulse they held on the weltanschauung has, for various reasons, gone away.

In the case of Fleur de Lys and Fifth Floor—both of which I was familiar with for many years—it was because our times no longer favor old-fashioned palaces of fine dining, with white tablecloths, snooty servors, and rather predictable food at stellar prices. In a sense, San Francisco simply outgrew that experience. People today want to eat out in relaxed comfort, in a place where the food is exciting and reassuring. True, in the place of Fleur de Lys and Fifth Floor we now have destinations like Saison and Benu, with their prix fixe multi-course extravaganzas. But there’s something different about the latter two that makes them a better fit for today’s ethos. There’s nothing stodgy whatsoever about them. Both places are culinary adventures with a sense of adventure that looks forward, not backwards, as Fleur de Lys and Fifth Floor did. Where Fleur de Lys and Fifth Floor were Paris vacations, Saison and Benu are more Iceland, Antarctica or Myanmar—exciting, off-the-beaten path destinations you’ll remember for a lifetime. Saison and Benu may not last for many years, as Fleur de Lys did (it gave up the ghost at the age of 28 years), but they fill an important niche now for a destination.

Plum, too, offered adventurous cooking from Patterson, a Michelin-starred (Coi) chef. But where Daniel miscalculated was to think that downtown Oakland would support a place of high concept. From the decorative, Warholesque paintings of plums on the walls to the rather austere menu it never caught on. Let’s face it, beet boudin noir with Thai black rice, a sort of faux blood sausage served with caramelized Brussels sprouts and kohlrabi sauerkraut, simply isn’t a combination most Oaklanders can wrap their heads around. It shows once more than a chef makes a fundamental mistake if he serves only food that intellectually stimulates himself. Winemakers, too, must accommodate themselves to the public’s tastes. It’s a balancing act.

Comfort isn’t necessarily the new black; we’ve been through countless comfort food phases over the years, from the taco era to today’s obsession with noodles. But people do want something that reminds them of simpler, happier times, even if the past never was as simple and happy as we like to remember it.


A Special Holiday Post

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HAPPY HOLIDAYS EVERYBODY FROM ME AND GUS!

GusXmas


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