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Whither wine writing? Hosemaster’s post makes me think



The Hosemaster has a pretty good spoof up on his blog. It’s a little harsh, even for him, but that’s Hosemaster for you, unsparing and direct, whose unblinking eye sees all and tells it like it is (and never with malice. Well, maybe a little…). But he does hit on some truths about the state of wine writing that require further comment.

Like Hosemaster, I peruse many of the wine blogs out there and in general stay abreast of the latest wine books. And like Hosemaster, I’m bemused by the quality of what I read. It’s not that these wine writers are stupid or unambitious or untalented, it’s that wine writing itself has undergone a sea change that makes traditional approaches to it anachronistic, and so these wine writers and bloggers are trying to do something that, fundamentally, has already been done, and better than any of them will ever be able to do it.

The problem is that wine writing implies wine readers, and we have a problem, Houston, when it comes to the latter. There are basically two kinds of wine readers in America: older ones and younger ones. (Let’s set an artificial boundary at 40 years of age.) The older readers, most of them Baby Boomers, already have read widely and deeply on the topic of wine. If they’re serious winos, chances are their bookshelves contain numerous books and handbooks and guides. So they neither need wine blogs to tell them what to think, nor do they have any other reason to read, much less trust, blogs, unless they’re on the marketing and P.R. side of the business, a thankless place where you have to read everything, even the dullest blather, and make nice to the dullest people, on the off-chance that someone, somewhere, will say something nice about your wine which you can then use in your promotional efforts.

The younger readers, on the other hand, are famous for not reading anything at all! They acquire their information (such as it is) from other sources. And to be frank, I do not have the impression that even the most ardent younger wine drinker these days has been possessed of the “demon” that drove their parents and grandparents to plunge deeply into the intellectual and literary side of wine. Younger drinkers, bless their hearts, seem content to see wine, not as something to be studied and understood, but as something to drink at the end of a day’s work. And clearly, there’s nothing wrong with that! I mean, isn’t that what we’ve all been urging since, like, forever?

So where does that leave wine writers? Nowhere, alas—between the devil and the deep blue sea, so to speak, or perhaps “a rock and a hard place” is more apropos. They have no audience to whom to speak, or for whom to write penetratingly or passionately. No one follows them. They know, or sense, that almost no one is likely to read what they write, and so why should they take the time and effort to write deeply when they can write conveniently and get away with it and maybe even win an award?

These are harsh realities and they underscore what Hosemaster was saying. He sums it up with “Wine writing is running out of energy,” an apt metaphor in that you can compare wine writing with the consumption of fossil fuels. American industry was built on the use of oil, coal and gas, but we all know that fossil fuel’s day has come, and gone, even though it might be 100 years before we’re fully weaned off it. Wine writing is in the same boat. Like the use of fossil fuel, there’s something hopelessly retro about it—reading a blog post about the Finger Lakes or somebody’s latest 400 reviews is like seeing a ’55 Cadillac chugging along with giant tail fins, filthy exhaust coming out the rear end, and getting 8 miles per gallon. The driver’s having fun, that’s for sure, but it’s not something that benefits anyone else, and certainly isn’t a template for the future of driving.

Should we mourn this crossroads in the history of wine writing? Well, whom and what you mourn depends on where you sit. For myself, I don’t, because I recognize that change is in the nature of the Universe, and you can’t hold onto the past no matter how pleasant you thought it was. We’ve come through a Golden Age of Wine Writing in the past century, but all Golden Ages—Greece’s, Britain’s, television’s, rock and roll’s—have their natural lifespans. They just run out of steam. Besides, there’s no reason why a healthy wine industry even requires wine writing in the first place. People love their cats and dogs, and yet America has no overwhelming pet writing industry; what few pet magazines are out there don’t have any influence on what breeds we buy, nor are there American Pet Writing Awards, nor is there a history and tradition of great pet writing, nor are pet writers showered with perks, or invited to stay at kennel guest houses with all expenses paid, or sent free samples of kibble, or in general as fussed over and pampered by pet stores as wine writers are by wineries. It’s easy to imagine America being a fabulous wine-drinking country without any wine writing at all.

Nonetheless, and despite the natural shrinking of consumer interest in wine writing, it’s likely to continue for a while, for two reasons: One, blogging is free and simple, so people will continue to do it regardless of how few others read them. And two, wine advertising will continue to underwrite wine writers, especially print ones, because that’s what advertisers do: they’re given money by wine company owners and then are expected to spend it somewhere, even if they can’t prove any return on the investment. The logical (although far from the only) place for wine advertisers to place their money is in wine magazines and, to a far lesser extent, on wine blogs. In this sense, there’s a direct linkage between wine advertising and wine writing—although one would hope that every wine publication has a firewall between the advertising and editorial departments. But that’s an entirely different story for me to tell one of these days.

  1. “People love their cats and dogs, and yet America has no overwhelming pet writing industry; what few pet magazines are out there don’t have any influence on what breeds we buy, nor are there American Pet Writing Awards, nor is there a history and tradition of great pet writing, nor are pet writers showered with perks, or invited to stay at kennel guest houses with all expenses paid, or sent free samples of kibble, or in general as fussed over and pampered by pet stores as wine writers are by wineries.”

    Surely this must be fact. Who in their right mind would write a blog about their pet? So, used the trusty Googler to do a bit of research. Lo and behold, there are lots of pet blogs! There are top pet blogger lists! There are both the Petties and the Nose-to-Nose pet blog awards!

    Who knew! I guess the state of pet blogging isn’t as dire as I was led to believe…

  2. But seriously, I wonder what the editors of Cat Fancy and Tropical Fish Hobbyist think of all the pet blogs? What is the reputation of I suppose the same question could be asked of other industries’ blogs. Parenting, fitness, and technology all are industries with traditional media that review products and discuss trends. Likewise they all have blogs that are popular and well-read. Is wine really different? I’m not so sure…

  3. Bob Henry says:

    Excerpt from The Wall Street Journal “Opinion” Section
    (July 8, 2009, Page A15):

    “To Rake It In, Give It Away”


    Book review by Jeremy Philips

    [Link to book cover art:

    The Future of Radical Price”
    By Chris Anderson
    (Hyperion, 274 pages, $26.99)

    It is easy to see why free is an appealing price for consumers, although how companies make money by giving stuff away is less obvious. In “Free: The Future of a Radical Price,” Chris Anderson, the editor of Wired magazine and the author of “The Long Tail,” sets out to explain why free is an increasingly compelling business model.

    Mr. Anderson explains how the underlying economics of digital services make free business models far more widespread than they were in the analog world. Central to the new “free economy.” he says, are the “near-zero ‘marginal costs’ of digital distribution (that is, the additional cost of sending out another copy beyond the ‘fixed costs’ of the required hardware).” . . .

    Free business models, whether purveying digital products or tangible goods, are based on cross subsidy . . . In the digital realm, the “freemium” model offers the elusive free lunch. . . . The free service is a loss leader (and cheap marketing) for premium paid services.

    Advertising is plainly the best known free model. You don’t pay for Web searches, any more than you pay for network television, because in both cases ads are attached to the product you are getting free. As Mr. Anderson notes, though, advertising can’t pay for everything online. IF YOU HAVE A BLOG, “NO MATTER HOW POPULAR,” THE REVENUE FROM ADSENSE — a Google service that places ads on Web sites – WILL PROBABLY NEVER “PAY YOU MINIMUM WAGE FOR THE TIME YOU SPEND WRITING IT.”

    [CAPITALIZATION used for emphasis. — Bob]

    Of course, that’s fine for bloggers more interested in fame or influence than in money or for blogs (like Mr. Anderson’s own) that are loss leaders for more lucrative endeavors, such as writing books or making speeches. BUT IF YOU HAVE TO EARN A LIVING FROM THE WEB, “FREE” CAN BE A PROBLEM. Even Eric Schmidt, Google’s chief executive, doubts that free can work for everyone. “The problem with Free,” he allows, “is that it eliminates all the price discrimination texture in the marketplace. . . . It tends to be winner-take-all.”

    Or nearly all. There are still opportunities online for businesses, even with the loss of “price discrimination texture.” As Mr. Anderson says: “It’s not hard to compete with Free: simply offer something better or at least different.” People will pay for digital products and services that are genuinely distinctive and sought after. Yesterday’s economic data are widely available and can be had for nothing, but traders will pay thousands of dollars for scarce real-time financial information and analysis that might help them anticipate future prices. In between such extremes is a range of content with varying degrees of value and revenue potential.

    It is true that consumers now expect that what is online will mostly be free . . .


  4. Steve, I realize you write every day and topics are hard to come by, but it’s a little egotistical for you to proclaim wine writing over now that you have left the building.

  5. Aside from Ron’s fans who always comment, this topic has been roundly ignored save for a few bloggers who think their profession has been dissed.

  6. Bob Henry says:

    Regarding this observation:

    “The younger readers, on the other hand, are famous for not reading anything at all! They acquire their information (such as it is) from other sources.”

    Excerpt from Wall Street Journal “Opinion” Section
    (June 26 2013, Page A15):

    “The Young and the Bookless;
    Many of my college students hadn’t read for fun since Harry Potter.”


    By Danny Heitman
    [a columnist for the Baton Rouge Advocate]

    As I start another summer reading season, I’m worried that few of my recent students will be joining me in reading for fun.

    This spring, in addition to my primary job as a journalist, I taught my first college writing course. It was a class of 16, most of them freshmen. They were sharp, engaging and curious students, but I quickly noticed that much of their writing didn’t display the kind of familiarity with English that comes from reading a lot.

    For my first quiz, I included a bonus question asking my students to name the last book they had read for fun. More than half of the students listed one of the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling, titles most popular with middle-school youngsters. The answers suggested that most of my students hadn’t read a book for pleasure in nearly a decade.

    I was saddened to learn this, although I shouldn’t have been surprised. A landmark 2007 study by the National Endowment for the Arts noted a sharp decline in reading for pleasure among young people. The number of 17-year-olds who never read for pleasure increased to 19% in 2004 from 9% in 1984. According to the report, almost half of Americans between ages 18 and 24 never read books for fun.

    When the NEA study appeared six years ago, I convinced myself that the young nonreaders identified in the report were probably mediocre students with little aptitude for language arts. But meeting my own students — smart young people who were trying to write English without reading much of it — made me realize that the grim numbers about America’s reading habits have real faces among some of the best and brightest members of the next generation.

    . . .

  7. Bob Henry says:


    Excerpts from the Los Angeles Times “Business” Section
    (October 10, 2005, Page C1ff):

    “Black & White and Read by Fewer”


    By James Rainey
    Times Staff Writer

    In a recent e-mail chat about the future of their business, several young New York Times reporters concluded with dismay that most of their friends don’t subscribe to the newspaper.

    . . .

    A Media Management Center study reached an even more alarming conclusion regarding younger readers — estimating that by 2010, only 9% of those in their 20s will read a newspaper every day.

  8. Bob Henry says:


    Excerpt from the Kaiser Family Foundation
    (January 2010):

    “Generation M2 [M-Squared]:
    Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds”


    By Vivian Vahlberg

    Out of the 458 minutes the average young person [8-to-18-year-olds] spends with media every day, only THREE MINUTES A DAY are spent reading newspapers — a drop of three minutes from an average six minutes in 2004.

  9. doug wilder says:

    As a curious observer, I am always surprised to see little in the way of remarks even on the top wine blogs (with the exception of this one). I wonder how, short of writing and selling freelance articles some writers measure the impact of what they are producing. That isn’t to say some are not well written, but when a blog post about the importance of mommies having the right Hermes bag on the UES has 195 comments, it does make one wonder who really cares about wine writing that is given away for nothing.

  10. Well doug wilder, of course you’re right about wine writing that’s given away for free. I don’t know if anyone really cares about what I write. I seem to have a cadre of “fans” (if that’s the right word) but I’m sure they’d survive if I stopped publishing. The reason I continue is for me — not for readers. It’s something I demand of myself. When my interest stops, so will this blog.

  11. Dan Fishman says:

    As someone who falls on the “younger” side of your two categories of wine lovers, allow me to offer a thought.

    When I first got into wine about 10 years ago, I bought all the classic books, and read as much as I could about the classic wines. Then I went shopping, and realized the simple fact was that I was never going to be able to afford to buy any of those wines. First and second growth BDX is simply out of the question, GC burg is attainable, but only mediocre producers in off-vintages, and the wines of the Rhone and much of Italy are likewise priced such that all but occasional consumption is impossible.

    The allure of reading about wine 30 years ago was that you might use that knowledge to obtain the classic wines and have new (and hopefully enlightening) taste experiences. Once you remove the possibility of actually drinking the wines, a lot of the writing on “classic” wines becomes pretty irrelevant.

  12. Bob Henry says:

    Tomorrow’s news today . . .

    From Wine Lovers
    (May 29, 2015):

    “Pursuing Balance? Or Anti-Flavor Wine Elite?”

    By Robin Garr

    [Bob’s “full disclosure”: Robin is a friend and former Los Angeleno, who shared in winning a Pulitzer Prize for investigative newspaper journalist. Not an uncompensated “amateur” / “hobbyist” wine blogger.]

    It is hard not to think of Shakespeare’s aging King Lear as the wine world begins moving past the era of Robert M. Parker Jr., the powerful American wine critic who popularized the 100-point scoring system and who once wielded such market-moving power that his taste for big, ripe and alcoholic wines altered the world’s style of wine making from France to California to Australia and beyond.

    There has always been a quiet murmur of resistance to the Parker style, of course, but the murmur has begun swelling in recent years, famously rising at least briefly to a roar after Parker belatedly discovered Twitter in 2010 and famously posted a rant declaring opponents of his favored style “The Anti-Flavor Wine Elite.”

    I joyously took the side of the AFWE in a February 2010 column, “The anti-flavor wine elite,” in which I wrote, “Whoa! Wine elites? This bore an eerie resemblance to a vinous Teabagger. It was red meat for a lot of people … it stung a bit to have our tastes dissed as ‘anti-flavor’ and ‘elite.’ Some online wine geeks have actually begun labeling themselves with the tongue-in-cheek acronym, ‘AFWE.’ I like that …”

    [Click here if you’d like to read it all:

    Two years after that brouhaha, Parker stepped down as editor-in-chief of Wine Advocate, a position he had held since 1976, selling the magazine to a group of investors in … wait for it … Singapore. He remains on Wine Advocate‘s board and continues contributing tasting notes, reported The Los Angeles Times; and he speaks at wine-trade conferences, sometimes controversially, presumably commanding respectable honoraria for doing so.

    Suddenly Parker seems to be only one more voice in a growing generation of younger sommeliers, bloggers, and social-media wine geeks of all ages in a changing world where everyone can have a voice but where it’s difficult for one voice to stand out, particularly if that voice is older, graying, overweight, slowing down a bit, and increasingly cranky (a definition, I might add, which also fits this humble critic reasonably well, except perhaps for the “cranky” part.)

    Which brings us to a fascinating, long story by Bruce Schoenfeld. which will appear Sunday in The New York Times magazine, is already online.

    [You can click this link to read it in full, and I highly recommend that you do so:

    The gist of it, however, is incorporated in these three paragraphs:

    “If ripe wines are considered good, many California producers reasoned, those made from grapes brought to the brink of desiccation, to the peak of ripeness (or even a bit beyond), should taste even better. That logical leap has created a new American vernacular for wine, a dense, opaque fruitiness well suited to a nation of Pepsi drinkers. More sweet fruit, more of the glycerol that makes wine feel thicker in the mouth, more alcohol. And by extension, more pleasure.

    “Pleasure is a matter of opinion, of course. But for three decades, the tastes of mainstream American wine drinkers have been shaped by the personal preferences of one man, Robert M. Parker Jr. A 2013 inductee of the California Vintners Hall of Fame — as a reviewer — Parker has been anointed by The Atlantic Monthly as ‘the most influential critic in the world,’ all genres included. As it happens, he has made a career out of championing exactly the style of wine that Parr and his colleagues disdain. In my conversations with them, no phrase elicited more derision than ‘Parker wines.’ It was shorthand, fair or not, for wines they deem generically obvious and overblown.

    “Until a few years ago, if you wanted to drink a wine with a European sense of proportion, you bought a European wine. In 2011, in reaction to an American marketplace that they perceived to be dismissive of California wines made in anything but the superripe style, (Sommelier and wine maker Rajat) Parr and Jasmine Hirsch of Hirsch Vineyards in Sonoma County began soliciting members for a loose confederation of pinot-noir producers called In Pursuit of Balance.”

    That sounds an awful lot like the Anti-Flavor Wine Elite to me, and I’d like to believe that this emerging trend marks the beginning of a return to normalcy as the Parker era moves on into history. I seriously suggest that you go read the rest. I think you’ll enjoy it.

  13. Bob Henry says:

    Dan wrote:

    “When I first got into wine about 10 years ago, I bought all the classic books, and read as much as I could about the classic wines. Then I went shopping, and realized the simple fact was that I was never going to be able to afford to buy any of those wines. . . .”

    Do what I did: enroll in a wine appreciation course, strike up friendly acquaintances/friendships with fellow classmates, and volunteer to assist in organizing BYOB winetastings drawn upon participants’ wine collections.

    Those who own impressive wine collections are always looking for appreciative “fellow travelers” to open and savor bottles with.

    (There are never enough “special occasions” to plurge on opening great bottles.

    And solo drinking is so unsatisfying. Who wants to be “Miles” drinking Cheval Blanc out of a Dixie cup?)

    Those tasting get-togethers might include noteworthy Bordeaux and Burgundies.

  14. Dan Fishman says:


    No offense but based on your comment history here you are 60 years old at least. The days of the deep-cellar philanthropist are long gone. Unless you are offering…

  15. Bob Henry says:


    Your “deep-cellar philanthropist” is your community’s fine wine merchant.

    Good ones take advantage of their liquor license to buy wines at wholesale for their own private collections.

    Get to know them by shopping at the stores, attending their in-store wine bar tastings or winemaker dinners. Through them you will meet fellow collectors.

    And volunteer to work with them on organizing “offline” tastings.


  16. Bob Henry says:


    A follow-up query.

    What metropolitan area do you work and/or reside in?

    How would you characterize the caliber of the wine merchants in your community?

    How active are wine enthusiasts/collectors in organizing/patronizing “offline” gatherings of the wine tribe?

    Are there any meritorious wine appreciation courses taught by wine educators?

    I am blessed to come from two hotbeds of wine enthusiasm: the San Francisco Bay Area (during my college years), and Los Angeles (where I pursue my vocational and avocational interests).

    I empathize with folks who hail from small markets — handicapped by a lack of diversity in both wine merchants and fellow wine enthusiasts/collectors populating the local wine community.

    (And I doubly empathize with friends like Joe “1WineDude” Roberts, who rails against the restrictions imposed by state-controlled wine stores in his home state of Pennsylvania.)

    We have it very, v-e-r-y good here in The Golden State: lots of passionate wine merchants, competitively low retail prices, low or waived corkage fees in fine dining restaurants, active “offline” tasting groups, and frequent consumer tastings at night that piggy-back on afternoon scheduled wine industry trade tastings.


  17. Dan Fishman says:

    Hi Bob,

    Well, we are really far afield from the original post here, but why not.

    The point I was making is a general one about why people my age have lost interest in a lot of the so-called “classic” wines. Personally I have been to hundreds of tastings of various types and sizes, and tried most of the “benchmark” wines. But tasting a wine is like watching the movie and pretending you read the book, and attending a big walk-around tasting is like strolling through a bookstore reading dust jackets.

    You will note that in my original post I wrote about “the possibility of actually drinking the wines” — that is, buying a bottle or six, and consuming them over time the way they were meant to be experienced. Wine is for drinking, not for parsing out in one or three ounce pours to be dissected out of context. So, naturally I think, people have gravitated toward wines they can actually drink. There are other reasons too, I think, but one of the major ones is that the benchmark wines have reached prices that make them unattainable for the vast majority of wine enthusiasts.


  18. Bob Henry says:

    From today’s newspaper . . .

    Excerpts from The Wall Street Journal
    (June 13-14, 2015, Page B3):

    “Is Huffington Post Worth $1 Billion?;
    While the site is an operation of undeniable scale, it hasn’t produced an operating profit”


    By Dennis K. Berman
    “The Game” Column

    Coaching legend John Wooden put it best: Never mistake activity for achievement.

    There is no disputing the activity of online news site Huffington Post. Some 214 million people a month read the website. It says it is the most-read publisher on Facebook.

    This is why speculation has begun, at least in the New York Times, that the publisher might fetch $1 billion in a sale. Its parent, AOL Inc. was itself just sold for $4.4 billion to Verizon Communications Inc., and many suspect Huffington Post won’t stay around for long.

    So, as the late Mr. Wooden might ask us: What results come from all that activity? We finally have real answers to the question, as two people shared some Huff Post financials — the ones viewed by AOL’s own board — directly with me.

    The numbers reveal an operation with defensible digital revenue and growth. They also show A DECADE-OLD OUTFIT WITH A KNACK FOR NOT MAKING MONEY. Is Huffington Post worth $1 billion? As you’ll see, that depends on execution, lots of assumptions, and the just-out-of-reach future.

    Here are the big-picture numbers:

    2014 Revenue: $146 million

    2014 Earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA): $0 [Zero.]

    2015 Revenue projection: $168 million

    2015 EBITDA projection: More than $10 million

    Let’s talk about the positive elements here first. These numbers show that by the meager standards of digital media, Huffington Post is an operation of undeniable scale. Few publishers, if any, are bringing in that amount of money each year. And this year’s projected growth, especially at this size, is 15%.

    Huffington Post’s ad rates are actually increasing, according to the internal numbers, because of higher-priced video ads. In 2014, its ad rate per 1,000 “views” was $10.33, higher than what many media people I spoke with anticipated.

    In all, not bad on the revenue line.

    “The Huff Post has a consistent track record of contributing to the growth of consumers, revenue and profit for AOL’s Brand Group, and we expect it to continue to do so in 2015 and beyond,” said AOL spokesman Eoin Ryan.

    There is still no denying THE REALITY of things. The 850-person operation SO FAR HASN’T CREATED SUFFICIENT MARGINS TO PRODUCE EVEN AN OPERATING PROFIT.

    “We couldn’t figure out how to get this thing to make money,” said one person familiar with its operations.

    . . .

    BEGS THE QUESTION: if the Huffington Post can’t generate an operating profit in the online media world, then who can?

    And what chance do wine blogs have in generating a profit?

    Recall this observation from The Wall Street Journal book review of “Free: The Future of Radical Price” By Chris Anderson:

    “As Mr. Anderson notes, though, advertising can’t pay for everything online. IF YOU HAVE A BLOG, ‘NO MATTER HOW POPULAR,’ THE REVENUE FROM ADSENSE — a Google service that places ads on Web sites – WILL PROBABLY NEVER ‘PAY YOU MINIMUM WAGE FOR THE TIME YOU SPEND WRITING IT.'”


  1. The Golden Age Of Wine Writing? Sorry, Wrong Question! | 1 Wine Dude - […] Fast-forward to last week, and we have Tom taking umbrage with a satirical piece by Ron Washam, a.k.a. The…

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