Thursday, 18 March 2010

Social media and wine

Many people in the (it must be said) print domain of wine journalism belittle bloggers and website runners who write about wine. Many established bloggers also call into question their counterparts with less pedigree, and in this blog I'd like to tackle some of the issues they address and to explore other avenues or upturn a few more stones.

The first is the example of Stephen Tanzer, an established wine critic in his own right (ie before the digital revolution), who holds the opinion, like many of his breed, that part-timers do not hold the same value as full-timers ('the 10,000 hour rule' he quotes) for the consumer looking for informed opinions about wine.

Most bloggers who have day jobs that do not involve wine tasting are simply not in a position to offer this kind of context. They are engaged in another form of wine writing.

But when Tanzer posits that (a) full-time wine writing/tasting and (b) in-depth knowledge of the wineries and regions is required, half of his argument is off.

Saying it is paramount that wine writers (to be taken seriously) have 'visited the wineries they are reporting on, often several times, [and] have tasted their wines annually for many years,' leads us to one conclusion: namely that the best people to comment are the winemakers, not the journalists. For it is the winemaker who invariably has a knowledge of older vintages, of the winery, and of the land, that easily surpasses that of almost any experienced journalist or taster. Undoubtedly the winemaker as critic is an unwanted situation but I would treat any journalist who says they are unaffected by a winery tour with a great deal of scepticism.

I do agree, however, that experience should count for something.

Nonetheless, having deconstructive sympathies, I am deeply enamoured of the notion that terroir, history, the winery, the label, should all count for nothing. That, essentially, the wine should stand for itself is much as important as its pedigree when assessing it, just as the author of a book should be of no importance to one's interpretation of it.

(The problem we have is that, in many cases, readers and drinkers do want to know more about a wine they like - and who are we to deny them?)

It is also important for people worldwide to understand that while great wine critics always tell the truth in their tasting note, they never tell the whole truth (to paraphrase Lacan). Just because Robert Parker does not smell the gentle fragrance of tamarillo and coconut fronds on a wine does not mean it isn't there.

Thus, I believe, there is no real need of authority, or of any great understanding of the conditions behind the bottle of wine you, I, or Steve Tanzer tastes. It is, in this land of merit, merely the expression of your analysis that counts.

Attempting to stem this by implying that these blogging upstarts are part-timers would be akin to to telling Robert Parker not to bother with the Wine Advocate in the late 70s. Indeed people will vote on this with the click of their mouse (a reason, perhaps, why many established wine writers are frightened of the internet, for they have not the backing of an editor but rely solely on themselves).

And this is where we meet two distinct branches in social media (which are often combined). The first is to be informative - namely to publish something useful for whoever is reading you. Robert Parker is a relatively good example of this, often only publishing recommendations and tasting notes on Twitter.

The second branch within social media will be, I think, it's biggest problem and it's biggest draw. That is the notion that social media should entertain, or at least engage, its readership.

This takes several forms, including 'what I'm doing' updates. Much of it, I believe, runs the line between entertainment and supreme bragging. For instance, is Neal Martin telling me that he is comparing Petrus and Le Pin over lunch entertaining or is he showing off?

Another aspect of this (which Martin's comment might well fall into) is to create discussion as part of the entertainment. The wonderful thing about discussion for those who engender it, is that it creates noise around your brand - the same is true of print journalism (why should newspapers have a letters page?). Discussion on your domain pulls people in (and online this increases your advertising revenue). However many would argue that discussion is the essence of social media.

But in many cases it seems discussion is created by an authority that is unwilling to take a side themselves. This is either cowardice or arrogance, but I believe many people who respond to them are still naive to the ruse.

Let me quote two examples of this starting a discussion without entering it oneself (the second is a reaction):

James Suckling: 'Is the world as excited as some say over 2009 Bordeaux? I think I will sleep on this question. Thoughts?'

Daniel Posner: 'Why does Robert Parker ask questions here and never respond to anyone? It cracks me up! "Talk amongst yourselves while I go take a crap!"'

In cases like this, we should always ask ourselves which way is the conversation going. Personally, I'm sceptical of the underlying tenets and connotations of 'social media' but I may yet be proved wrong. Indeed, open and frank discussions about wines on the internet is perhaps something to be wished. Just mind who hosts those discussions.

Moving on, the notion that blogging does not have to be of any practical use to a potential consumer - that it should only entertain - is also dangerous. If bloggers react to criticism by saying 'well, I'm just living my passion' they should perhaps not get so upset when the wine authorities belittle their cause.

But, I believe, entertainment may well be one half of the key. Tanzer is partly correct when he says online wine writing 'will succeed or fail on the quality of its content', but he should add 'and entertainment' after the word quality. The issue, as I'm sure most people are well aware of, is that wine writing as it was does not communicate as well as it should to the general public. Tanzer's own sign-off 'Wino-in-Chief' is tacit admission of this (namely that there are two levels of discourse among wine lovers - see, for instance, many of the sign-offs at the bottom of posters' thoughts on wine bulletin boards: "Rien ne me semble délectable que le vin que je trouve à table...", "Buon Vino, Buon Cibo, Buoni Amici", "Let him drink, and forget his poverty, and remember his misery no more" - all unconcerned with the minuitae of their posts yet eager to show they stand on common ground).

But the moment print journalists and wine authorities bemoan the internet as a wine publishing platform because it is amateur, is the moment they have lost because:

Firstly, if they cared that much, they would meet the enemy on the ground of the debate - online - and proceed to better him/her.

Secondly, why did a magazine or a publication give them their job in the first place? Surely, when they started out, there were thousands of people the world over with the same credentials as them. Wine blogging is simply new wine writing starting out. Where it differs is that no one needs to worm their way into print and while there are strong arguments to say that that is a good thing, I would be happy to debate the point.

Thirdly, and the biggest problem, is that, as many wine writers well know, while they might be able to taste very well, their communication can be lacking.

While paper publications will, I believe, remain - albeit with a much more well-off and 'hardcore' audience, it is becoming increasingly clear that the internet will be the place where everyone else goes to get their information on wine. We might all have to take it that bit more seriously.

  • If you've got this far, well done and I'm sorry. I admit this post breaks my self-imposed rule that blogs should be of a digestible size and I am willing to concede the final line is a bit wet. Hopefully the journey up to the front gate was more enjoyable than the tea and biscuits waiting in the kitchen.

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