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What do readers really want?


The header refers, of course, to Freud’s famous question (which he was never able to answer), “What does a woman want?” The question should be of utmost concern to every wine writer, because–unless we write only for ourselves, like poor Emily Dickenson, so alone and dreadful in her little Northampton house–we must constantly ask ourselves if we’re delivering what our readers want and, if so, can we do it better?

The answer for me is complicated, because I write in two rather different venues. People sometimes ask why my blog isn’t more wine geeky. There’s a simple answer for that: I save my geekiness for my work in Wine Enthusiast, where just in the past few weeks I’ve written in depth on the Cabernets of Atlas Peak, coastal Chardonnay and the 2010 vintage. That’s not to mention my reviews and news stories. So it’s in the pages of the magazine you can get my hard-core analyses of what’s happening in California wine.

This blog is a different story, and for various reasons. For one, I don’t want to compete with my own work in the magazine, so I keep a fairly bright line between the two outlets. You won’t find reviews of new wines here. That’s one thing that distinguishes my blog from many others.

There’s something else I do in this blog that I don’t, and can’t, do in the magazine, and that’s to reveal intimacies of my winetasting practices, my personality and attitudes and beliefs, that would be inappropriate for a wine magazine article. (You won’t get much personal politics here, although Lord knows if you’re interested in that, you’ll find plenty of it on my Facebook page.)

But this brings me back to my question in the header: What do readers really want? Do you want to know all kinds of stuff about me, or could you care less? I mean, Parker, Jancis and the rest of the gang never write anything about their personal lives. They keep the subject to wine. Jancis may introduce a little more personality into her writing than, say, Jim Laube, but they’re still very careful about separating their wine identities apart from the rest of themselves, and walling off the latter from public scrutiny.

I’m not that kind of writer. I’ve tried (and failed) numerous times to write novels. I’ve been in two writers groups. I used to write a lot of short fiction that I sent out to magazines; I still have a rejection letter from The New Yorker in which the editor wrote, in his own hand, that my story was pretty good and to keep trying. (I didn’t.) I love literary writing, which is as far away from magaziney-journalistic writing as you can get. I was influenced by Tom Wolfe (The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test) and Hunter S. Thompson (Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail) and their style of “New Journalism” that did not shy away from introducing personal elements, often strongly expressed, into “objective” reporting.

So that’s what I like about blogging. But if I didn’t think my readers liked it, I wouldn’t do it anymore. That’s the difference between a log and a web log: the former is not intended, in most cases, to be read by anyone, while the latter is, by definition, launched into the universe for any and all to see.

I’m not entirely certain why some people want a more personal peek into their wine writers than they used to. Nobody seemed to care what Michael Broadbent did when he went home, or if the Tories drove Professor Saintsbury crazy, or if Haraszthy tasted blind. But that was then; this is now. Even before blogging and the Internet, we found ourselves in a People Magazine era, where readers wanted to know everything that famous people did behind the scenes. I’m not saying I’m famous, but I have some visibility. When I first started blogging, my subject matter was pretty repertorial: Grenache, Happy Canyon, the Ascentia deal, the Calistoga AVA flap. Somewhere along the way, the personal crept in, side by side with objective reporting. It wasn’t a conscious decision, but one that, I think, was driven on to some degree by my readers. The more personal I wrote, the more the numbers went up. So I figured, that’s what readers want.

Still, the nature of writing, and of blogging, is continual change. A writer risks everything if he stays static, never reinventing himself. This blog will change, in interesting and unpredictable ways, as you, the readers, push, prod and poke me into new directions.

  1. Hey Steve,

    Firstly, thanks for the great blog. I really enjoyed your latest post and it started me thinking, Why do I keep coming back to your blog?

    I have come to realize that it is exactly this kind of personalization that I have come to enjoy. It adds a very real dimension to your wine writing on the blog, somehow making it seem as if we were having a conversation and not a lecture.

    I think that an expression of opinion opens the door to proper discussion and it is these discussions on your blog that keep me coming back.

    I look forward to seeing the changes and directions that you go with the blog. Keep up the good work!

  2. Hi Steve,

    I stumbled upon the “New Journalism” quite recently, and I’m using it as the style for a novel I’m writing right now. Kind of a novel-style-used-for-feature-writing-used-for-a-novel approach. If that makes sense.

    I’d heard of Tom Wolfe and Hunter S., of course. Even read their stuff (Electric Kook-Aid Acid Test was about 20 years ago for me; Bonfire of the Vanities, as we speak). But it wasn’t until after I started writing the novel that I found out about the whole movement. Which is extremely weird because (a) I’m usually in tune with that sort of thing and (b) it is very much my writing style, right down to the “whoooooshes” and the made-up words. I’ve done many newspaper pieces over the years, and found myself reigning in that side of me to be more “objective”.

    Since discovering that it’s a whole “thing”, I’ve invested some research time into it (there’s a whole article by Tom Wolfe on the birth of New Journalism you may be interested in:

    I’ve come to the conclusion that “traditional” journalism is almost more subjective than New Journalism. Or at least, it is counter-productive. To purposefully take the story out of context and put it into an “objective” vacuum is almost unnatural in a way. Not to mention, to pretend that the filter that is the journalist is in no way subjective is ludicrous too.

    I see the place for traditional journalism, and I’m not really suggesting change. But I think there is room on the shelf for both stories.

    Anyway, not sure what this has to do with giving the reader what he or she wants. Except that New Journalism was born of finding a new way to tell a story, to connect with readers and to give them context.

    Perhaps that’s the same thing bloggers need to find today: that context that brings writer and story and reader together.

    (Luckily, that’s a fun thing to learn as you go…)

    What’s your context? All I can say is that personally, in my short time reading this blog I’ve enjoyed hearing about the “background” of Steve as a wine writer. It doesn’t have to be extremely personal, like whether you had Cornflakes or grapefruit for breakfast (though it could, I suppose).

    I think there is at least a third layer, the personal in terms of your work habits. Hearing about wine tastings, events, etc. that you wouldn’t put into your “traditional” articles, but give life to the story behind the story. In other words, personal in terms of how you feel and what you’re doing in your public life as a writer.

    Of course it’s your blog. Which is the great thing really, because where better place to experiment with reinventing yourself?



  3. Raley Roger says:

    I think the challenge for you, Mr. Heimoff, will be balance your obvious love of the industry and many of the people in it, with objectivitiy, so that you can maintain your credibility. More than other wine writers and wine critics, you actively go to the mat for the industry in your blog; historically, you have championed various brands, regions and winemakers in a way that is deeply enthusiastic. Because you deliver your blog in an easy, conversational style, folks view it more as a diary entry or personal blog than a strictly industry-oriented blog, in my estimation. Therefore, it’s imperative that you still obtain some objectivity so that when you do score wines for the WE, conversely, those scores still mean something.

  4. Raley, thanks for an astute comment. Credibility means a lot to me.

  5. Just like a great wine, great writing will have balance. A little professional, a little personal and little something else (humor, politics, something with spice!). That is what most of us want.

  6. Graham, thanks so much for writing such a long, thoughtful comment. I don’t know where this blog is going but it’s an adventure for me and, I hope, for readers as well!

  7. lori narlock says:

    Dear Senator Heimoff, (no need to even change your monogram!)

    As a woman and a reader (and sometimes writer), I love your blog. I like that the content is a mix of personal and business, but more than anything I love that it always feels heartfelt–or dare I say authentic. It’s like having a great conversation with a friend.

    I really enjoy your fictional posts and strongly encourage you to pursue publishing more non-wine writing.

    And, I have to add one final comment: it’s more than admirable that you write everyday. That in itself is a rare achievement.

    All the best to you and may 2011 be your best writing year to date!


  8. Steve,

    I very much side with Bertus and Lori. I keep coming back because of the mix of good writing with authenticity and relevance. I do not think anyone can give you a complete answer to what your average reader wants. Besides, I think that if you knew exactly what the average reader wants you would be less inclined to take risks. The risks you are taking here, on facebook and in other writings are a big reason why I keep coming back. Here is a great wish for 2011: I wish you won the Lotto and did not depend financially on income from any publication. Can’t wait to read the stuff you’d publish then!

  9. I started my blogspot last year and decided against wine tastings — particularly the poetic proclamations of fruit and flowers that I may have perceived. I decided on a rather offbeat, rather personal approach that had a kernel or two of wine thoughts. I send it to friends, who in turn send it to other friends, and as of now it is remarkably unsuccessful….but I write because I like to write, and that why you should write.

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