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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  • Wednesday, 17 March 2010

    The rise of the traditional wine

    "The only shocking stance now is to be traditional," said UK writer Alain de Botton on Twitter the other week.

    And oh so applicable to the wine world, is it not?

    I believe it probably started with the release of Mondovino back in 2004 (Jonathan Nossiter's interesting but overly long and indulgent wine film which was the very embodiment of de Botton's statement). Nossiter's film, while exposing many important issues in the wine world today - which includes exposing the Antinoris as fascist sympathisers - had as its conclusion this idea that the 'traditional' was to be defended.

    [Nossiter may well disagree with my interpretation: after the film's release, he had the ultimate intellectual arrogance to not state his position. This was a commendable stance only in the sense of letting the film speak for itself.]

    But now it seems the 'traditional' is gaining over the 'modern'. In fact, there is less and less talk of new oak, extraction times, micro-oxygenation, 'Parkerised', and more of 'hand-harvested', 'manual', biodynamics (the ultimate in traditional), 'organic', and so on.

    From this we might tackle a few things.

    Firstly, it is becoming increasingly clear that Robert Parker (an unwitting advocate of the 'modern') is being overtaken by the times. I think his influence, especially in Bordeaux, will continue for a good while. But, whether it is through his support of a 'modern' style or through the simple fact that internet wine writers will become the new Robert Parker (history is repeating itself) or both, I think change is in the air.

    Secondly, what does this tell us about progress in the wine industry? For instance, is it possible to get any more new oak into a wine? Is it possible to make anything more labour-intensive than hand-harvesting and manual destemming? Can we find a wine that has more alcohol/extraction than went before? No. In a certain sense we've reached the boundaries of 'innovative' winemaking (progress if you wish) and thus, perhaps, we are seeing a return to craftsmanship.

    As a sub-clause, this stance enables us to question what 'progress' really is. For instance, when we say so-and-so have 'made progress' in the last few years, what exactly are we talking about?

    Thirdly, the economy may well have something to do with it. Remember, overheads drop considerably when one does not vinify Cabernet in 200% new oak. It makes business sense to be 'traditional'.

    Lastly, wine is a traditional beverage in itself. How many people worry about traditional winemaking becoming a thing of the past in Barolo? OK, maybe not a lot - Italy seems to have a healthy quota of opinionated winemakers - but you see my point?

    But, if we are, in essence, re-acquainting ourselves with the traditional, what of 'progress' in the wine world? Should we perhaps not be a little beware of this 'traditional' trend?

    Perhaps we should. While I wholly embrace a multitude of wine styles, some of which many people might find appalling, we have to remember that whatever his faults, Robert Parker did start out with one criteria: the wine had to be good.

    Personally, I don't think wine has to be 'good', but in the last 30 years, the wine industry has grown hugely and as we start to immerse ourselves in the traditional, perhaps we should not forget our 30 years of 'progress'.

  • The start of the return to the 'traditional' could go back to Bordeaux's 2003 vintage. In itself a polarising vintage, but it was the Parker and Robinson spat over Chateau Pavie that could been seen as the high-tide mark of the 'modern'. Who wrote that article, I wonder...

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  • Friday, 19 February 2010

    Online wine writing and ethics

    'It's easy to have ethics when you've got lots of money,' was the oft-quoted, ironic call of the Wine Writers' Symposium session on wine writing and ethics. At least it was on Twitter. It's an ironic comment aimed, more likely than not, at the likes of Robert Parker who can afford to buy-in thousands of bottles a year and taste them while keeping to his high ethical standards.

    These very standards were questioned after it emerged that two of his writers at the Wine Advocate had taken trips as guests of affiliations that might have an interest in promoting their own region. Hence the ironic nature of the quote.

    The line also blatantly states that those without the means (ie many bloggers and independent wine writers) don't have the levels of cash that allow them to pay for weeks in New Zealand or South Africa or Chile as research trips. There's a hint of envy in there, but it's essentially saying 'most of us can't afford to be distanced from gifts and press trips because otherwise our coverage would be severely limited'.

    And yet it also seems that a lot of vitriol is poured by bloggers on magazines for what is seen as dubious practice: they take advertisements, thus they are compromised. In fact, most magazines run with ad departments in separate rooms to the editorial staff to avoid just such issues. I'm not saying the issues don't occur, but there is a gulf between the two.

    Contrast that to a blogger, often self-employed, who will take advertising directly to her or his telephone, and possibly while writing a blog, and you find potentially more conflicts of interest than at a magazine.

    It doesn't stop there. Online advertising revenue (in a similar fashion to print) depends on hits or unique users. Thus if you wish to keep writing and make money from your passion, you are almost compelled to please the widest possible audience (or at least the reader demographic you have established) and keep them coming back for more. This in itself raises ethical questions - why should writers be forced to please their readership? It is a form of censorship. And until the Revolution comes, sometimes even I will find myself doing it.

    As this debate was going on, a lot of people linked to a blog by Tina Caputo on just this subject. The blog concluded thus:

    Larry Walker sums up the ethics debate with this amusing anecdote. “In the 1960s there was a Speaker of the House in Sacramento, Jesse Unruh, who was well known for taking every perk offered by lobbyists - then voting however he wanted,” he relates. “When asked how he could do that, he said: ‘If you can’t drink their whiskey, eat their dinners and screw their women, and still vote for the best interest of your constituents, you don’t belong in the California legislature.”

    And to that, I raise a glass of (sample) wine and say: Here’s to those who can partake of the occasional job-related perk and still take the high road.

    In short (leaving Unruh's own very dubious ethics aside): 'yes, there are ethical issues, I am part of the problem, but you can trust me to stay above it all'. This seems to be the trouble with the debate at the moment in that, after 1,400 words of saying that the 'wine industry is full of ethical ambiguities', the only conclusion we get is that it will remain that way and we just have to trust the writer.

    And I can't find any evidence to the contrary. Jamie Goode also brought up this bizarre situation on his blog recently by posting about a press trip and at the same time raising this issue - with predictably inconclusive results.

    [Interestingly, Jamie Goode also once made the excellent point to me that trips and perks take away from a blogger's daily work, and remember, time is money. It might sound a bit haughty and let-them-eat-cake, but it rings true. If you view blogging as a business, it makes no sense to be out of the office for a week swanning around New Zealand if there's nothing to show for it at the end. You might as well be taking a holiday - which is just poor business sense.]

    But ethics issues don't stop with wine. Do we not think PR agencies are at work in other fields? The fashion and automotive press have similar, if not more dubious ethics, and yet there is a massive market for their magazines.

    Perhaps the answer lies in stopping this navel-gazing on the part of us wine writers and get on with trying to make wine writing popular again.

    But how do we stop obviously poor ethical practises? We can't wholly do so, but I would suggest trial by peer: it's up to us to call a writer out (not strictly to duel, although it could be a step on the way to making wine writing more appealing to a broader audience) when something they've written has all the hallmarks of a kick-back.

    And that's where the blogging community has a problem: sometimes we're all a bit too chummy to each other to be critical.

    As Oscar Wilde said: 'true friends stab you in the front'. Knives out, people.

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    Tuesday, 9 February 2010

    Do wine critics really talk bunk?

    Not much by way of preamble: if you haven't seen this or this where have you been?

    The only point that everyone seems to have missed in the discussion about the need (or not) for wine critics is this:

    If you pick up a bottle and, after scanning the front label, immediately check to see what’s on the back label, you have, in that easy gesture, proved the need for wine critics and wine writers.

    Because the back label can, in almost every circumstance, stand for wine writing. It tells us how the wine was made and what to expect. It fulfils a desire to know more. Unfortunately, it is unlikely to have a bad word to say about the wine in the bottle. Which is why, perhaps more than ever, wine writers and critics should be asserting themselves.

    It’s also worth asking who gains from the demise of the wine writer. Well, without the independent critic, you’re left with getting your information from those in marketing and promotion. Retail outlets that sell bad wine (not simply a synonym for supermarkets) also have no reason to worry.

    Another point scored for the humble and down-at-heel wine writer.

    Now that we’ve concluded that the wine writer is indeed an indispensable part of the wine world, let’s look at another of the criticisms raised by Hanni and the Guardian – that wine writing is bunk, aimed at fellow wine writers and initiates.

    Well, let’s look at the reasons one might have to read tasting notes:

    Firstly, there’s the recommendation part – people get wine recommendations for the simple reason that they are looking for something good to buy for dinner this evening. Here, you have to admit that, barring a few helpful terms like ‘fresh’ or ‘big’ or maybe ‘fruity’, most floral wine writing is redundant.

    Secondly, we are looking at a rarefied world where wine critics are merely talking to each other in a sort of code, an esoteric mumbo-jumbo that only they and a few initiates can understand. Wine buying on the back of En Primeur comes to mind. Here, indeed, wine writing does not speak to the average man or woman.

    But thirdly, we have to admit that some people read wine writing to be entertained. This is the field of wine writing that will become the most important over the next few years. If it has not already done so. It's also the field where points one and two cross over. Some people are already very good at this (and they are mainly online). However, they are in a minority and, more often than not, they are perhaps less independent than they ought to be.

    Nonetheless, the future is there. Wine writing can indeed be a snobbish craft – but then so can film and book reviewing. Critics must listen to their readers and try to hit the right note, but in a world which is obsessed with 'cutting the crap', sometimes it's worth remembering that the 'crap' is the entertainment.

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    Thursday, 28 January 2010

    Why wine prices must be capped at both ends

    To begin with, I was appalled by this interview. Firstly, it tells a readership of students that a great way to do business is to make the world's priciest Champagne (it costs nearly £1,000 a bottle) and flog it with the help of a superstar. Secondly, don't bother getting an expert to taste it guys (Anthony Rose writes for the Indie, at the very least he could have stepped in) or ask if its value-for-money, because that's not interesting is it? Why let the quality of the product get in the way when you can slap a whopping price tag on it and find a celebrity as an ambassador? I've written similar here.

    And then a wave of apathy slopped over the bows of HMS Indignant. I admit I have a lot of sympathy with the make-money-from-the-dumb-rich school of thought. If someone somewhere thinks that a Mariah Carey endorsement and a price tag the size of a charity cheque makes a good bottle of bubbly, fair enough. Go for it. Empty your wallet. You certainly won't hear much protest about the pricing coming from Champagne because, let's be honest, our reply is likely to contain the words 'pot', 'kettle' and 'black'. Remember who's Moet & Chandon's 'brand ambassador'?

    But then I steadied the tiller, rang the ship's bell, and set a different course.

    Now, imagine you're that gifted of breeds: a winemaker. You've made your wine, it's all labelled and ready to go but you can't decide on the price. Filled with a sense of socialist values, you want to make great wine accessible to the masses, so you consider pricing it at about £6 a bottle. But you're also proud of your wine and it becomes clear that at £6 a bottle, no one is going to take you seriously. Sure, someone might give it the 'good value' or 'good QPR' moniker, but you'll never make a name for yourself. You'll never achieve greatness or cult status, even if your production is tiny.

    So you price it at £25 a bottle and people will start to take note.

    Now I'm prepared to accept that there are some holes in that scenario: it's always possible that a wine critic might see you as a £6 genius, or that your £25 bottle will be forced down by the market. But, be honest, it holds true.

    A perceptive comment on my last blog inferred that there are two different markets - the lower echelon (Jacob's Creek, Yellow Tail, etc) and the more serious wines at a more serious price for more serious people. I might make a case for the middle ground (a third way, perhaps) in wine but I'll let it stand.

    Both come in for attack. One is the embodiment of wealth, colossal fortunes and wine collection. This is lambasted by many, especially Robert Parker, because wines are not meant to be collected, they're meant to be drunk.

    The other is the exceptionally low-priced wines found in supermarkets. So low that they are the focus of attacks by health groups saying this increases binge drinking. Personally, I never got wasted on cheap wine, but that's another blog.

    So my conclusion is thus: wine prices should be capped at both ends. Make a bottle of wine a minimum £10 ($15) spend and make the highest £100 a bottle (perhaps with allowances for experimentation so that if the winemaker can prove he spent, say, £150 per bottle on overheads, he is allowed a decent, but not excessive, profit margin).

    Not only do you start to tackle the problem of wine abuse, you tackle the problem of price abuse.

    And once you take the motivation of money out of the winemaking equation and out of the satisfaction equation, everyone can get on and enjoy wine for what it is, rather than be concerned about who endorsed it or how many thousands of pounds, dollars or yen it cost.

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    Tuesday, 12 January 2010

    Robert Parker, Tyler Coleman, Atto and tomorrow

    In the Ridley Scott film Black Hawk Down, General Garrison interrogates a captured Somali arms supplier, Atto. In the dialogue, Atto talks about the 'civil war', America's attempts bring peace, and says this:

    I do know something about history. You see all this? It's simply shaping tomorrow. A tomorrow without a lot of Arkansas white boy's ideas in it.

    That's the line I think of every time I read a Tyler Coleman (Dr Vino) blog on Robert Parker (not that Parker's from Arkansas, of course).

    Coleman has obviously set his sights on Robert Parker and the Wine Advocate. For which I don't blame him - if you're a journalist, it is your job to monitor the centres of power (as Amira Hass or Robert Fisk might say). And Robert Parker is undoubtedly the centre of power in the wine world.

    The latest Coleman attack questions how much Robert Parker spends on his wine samples. Coleman says that, from statements and an extrapolation of wine prices in one Wine Advocate issue, Parker must spend $700,000 on wine samples per year, a figure he goes on to query.

    This piece follows the Jay Miller/Mark Squires exposé of last year, in which it was revealed that both men (contributors to Parker's Wine Advocate) had taken trips as guests of wine countries/regional wine bodies - strictly at odds with Parker's credo.

    So what will happen now? Well, Parker and his followers will have already guessed that Coleman has his sights on the man in Maryland. Whether this item makes it to discussion on the Parker bulletin board is unlikely, especially given the latest lets-just-all-be-friends drive on the site. But Parker's manifesto, printed at the front of every issue of the Wine Advocate, will continue to haunt him, as will Coleman.

    Because, you see, what you are witnessing is the fight for tomorrow. No matter how much Parker pads out his team with international names, he is still the only person who really counts. Who will be there when Parker is no more? Well, some of the ones with the most profile in the wine world will be the ones who have kicked up the most stink.

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    Monday, 4 January 2010

    Can we put an end to 'hedonism'?

    As a new decade pops over before we've had time to usher the last one out of the door, perhaps we can also take the oppotunity to say goodbye to a few words. Like that abberation designed to denote those last ten years: 'the naughties'. Sounding like a cross between an age of vacuous indolence and a 70s soft porn film, hopefully it will be chucked into the word incinerator.

    And the use of the word 'hedonistic' (if it is even a word?) in tasting notes. Using it to describe a wine is hyperbole at its best. Additionally, I hate it because I think the person writing is attempting in some way to imply that they might be a hedonist. Like a stamp collector trying to join the gang. A wine is not 'hedonistic', just as someone who drinks it is not a hedonist.

    Hedonism is watching 15 naked prostitutes eat nuts off the floor while snorting two lines of coke drawn on a glass-covered Mona Lisa as Mozart plays in the background. It is not a bloke, with a thin beard, lingering on the aftertaste of a Cab-Merlot blend.

    And yes, I know Robert Parker publishes 'The Hedonists Gazette' on his website. Robert, happy new year and all that, but can you please put an end to this?

    Happy new year to you all.

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