Saturday, 27 March 2010

Steve Heimoff makes me lose control

Normally, I would have posted a response to Steve Heimoff's awful blog on the non-relationship between film and wine criticism at the bottom of his literary meanderings but I've tried it before (from what I understand, the process involves posting a response and then waiting a few days for it to be approved - while the man himself concocts a dismissive counter-response to be posted alongside). So I'm doing it here.

His kind of blog drives me insane. The more so knowing that Steve Heimoff is clearly aware of what he is doing.

If I had written about wine bloggers the way Armond White wrote about film critics, there would be armed militias of bloggers marching on my house, carrying pitchforks, packing lead, and hoisting “Wanted!” posters showing my face in the crosshairs...

Then Heimoff goes on to say about online wine critics just what White said about film critics. Go read the blog.

To precis his blog it goes like this: 'If I did what White did, I'd anger a lot of people. This is what White did. Imagine applying it to wine. But I'm not applying it to wine. We just need to think about the essence of what White is saying. But what White is talking about is very different to wine. Wine won't be the same as White's subject. But our subject is still inspiriational.'

That's it.

If we read Heimoff's blog as it stands, without accepting that there might be a parti-pris on his part, the above is exactly what he is saying. In other words, he's not saying a lot - essentially, it's sheer provocation.

Another reading is to assume that Heimoff is simply saying that film criticism is a more important domain than that of wine criticism. An argument I'd have some sympathy with.

I presume that was Robert Joseph's reading of it when, on Twitter, he linked to Heimoff's piece saying, 'Thoughtful Steve Heimoff piece about relative importance of film and wine criticism'.

But if this is the simple focus of the piece (that wine will not attain the cultural importance of film), why is there any need to do this:

Now, if you wanted, you could substitute the word “wine” for the word “film” in White’s speech, and what you’d get would be an older wine writer’s blast at a younger generation of wine bloggers whom he deemed totally incompetent. Try it yourself.

This is the most cynical of provocation, especially when he has the gall to say: 'Bloggers! I am not saying these things! So put down your pitchforks and, please, don’t be stalking me'.

And all of a sudden we find ourselves in a head-spinning world wherein Heimoff is saying 'I wrote the message but don't shoot the messenger' while additionally complaining about message-writing nowadays. In fact, the premise of the whole piece makes my brain want to kick itself out of my skull.

I am so so tired of seeing people write blogs that say something controversial or interesting but then finish with the writer distancing him or herself completely from the subject in hand. It has become very fashionable, not least because it generates a big response (which means increased page impressions for your blog) without the blogger having an opinion of their own (thus not alienating a readership).

On the other hand, we might accept that Heimoff has a hatchet to hone. Therefore we assume that he is appropriating White's attack on 'film critics' and applying it to wine; that he believes, as White does, that the internet is nurturing a lot of poor or questionable criticism. If only we knew.

Sorry Steve, but I am going to pick up the pitchfork, I'm going to hound you and I'm going to drag you into the village square and make you tell us what you really think.

  • Film critics wishing to be more popular could do well to look at the model used by Mark Kermode on the BBC. Fully embracing social media his hugely entertaining podcasts alongside Simon Mayo are massively successful, not just in the UK.

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  • 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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  • 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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