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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  • 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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    Thursday, 11 February 2010

    The consumer must not become a wine critic

    The title pretty much explains where I'm going. It follows Beverley Blanning MW's reappraisal of Tim Hanni MW's comments on her blog.

    Now I will make a concrete case against the consumers becoming their own critics.

    1 - I used to hate leeks as a kid, now I love them - I even grow them. This can be the same as wine. Let me illustrate: has anyone seen the film Big Night Out? No, well it's about two competing Italian restaurants in an American town. One gives the diners what they want: meatballs in tomato sauce, lasagne, etc. and is wildly popular and successful; the other cooks beautiful, traditional Italian cuisine with a hugely talented cook, but is failing because no one understands it. It feels like a terrible shame.

    Now, I'm not saying that a wine bottle in the hand of shopper is like an iPhone in the hand of a chimp, I'm simply saying that critics can lead us to a better understanding of wine (like a bone in the hand of a chimp - with the 2001:A Space Odyssey music to boot).

    Put simply, if we let the consumer decide what's what, the already fragile bottom of the Fino Sherry market will drop out comprehensively. Seriously, find me a wine lover who loved Fino at the first taste (I thought I was going to throw up, but now I love the stuff).

    2 - As I've said before, who gains? Yes, we all love a bit of power to the people (not least me - but we wont get into my voting preferences here), but in this guise of returning wine to the people, who is going to influence the consumer if no wine writers can? I'll tell you: people like wine merchants (ask yourself who Hanni has developed his personal tasting gizmo with), wine marketeers, supermarkets and the writers of the back label.

    Why are wine companies now offering so many win-a-week's-winemaking-and-blog-for-us competitions? Because it does just this: it takes the power away from the wine writer (the 'subject supposed to know' if you like Lacan) and more or less ensures a malleable voice that will promote the winery in an entirely positive light.

    3 - THE MOST DANGEROUS ASPECT: the argument doesn't make sense. The fundamental mistake that we are making here is to equate personal enjoyment with personal choice.

    Hanni is telling us to be our own critic, assuming this means we can choose our own wines. Herein lies the problem. Imagine a film critic saying: 'you be the judge, and then go and see the film' can you judge it without seeing it? You'd have watch every single film available (or made) - by which time, I'd probably rate you quite highly as a film critic.

    The same is true of wine. Unless, of course, the consumer is allowed to try any wine before they buy it - something I am entirely in favour of. But you see the issue, right? It doesn't make sense. By the time you've bought it to assess it, the cash register has already sounded, and everyone (bar the wine writer and possibly the consumer) is happy.

    So there you go. Sure, the consumer can become a wine critic, but let's do a test - let's allow him or her to taste any bottle on the shelf before they buy it...

    Then they'd be a real critic. Until then, we must not allow the marketeers and wine merchants to take over the realm of recommending wines.

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    Wednesday, 10 February 2010

    Why Malcolm Gluck is wrong

    When he wrote for wine trade mag Harpers many moons ago, Malcolm Gluck was one of those people I loved to hate. Harpers probably realised that there were many people like me who used to tear open the plastic around the magazine, plop it open, flick past the news, the serious columns and read Malcolm's, expecting, nay knowing, I would find something to be annoyed about. It was like purposefully going out to buy the Daily Mail in order to read Amanda Platell's column, purely for the purpose of working oneself up into a fury. Funnily enough, Malcolm has got himself into the Mail too.

    He has joined the Hanni crowd, saying, among other things, that wine critics talk rubbish. I can understand this but I have my reservations too. Like I said in yesterday's news blog, the wine talk is the mystique is the 'crap' is the enjoyment of reading about wine. What role would Malcom have critics take? Just publish a list of scores like Robert Parker's latest Wine Guide? What would that reduce critics to?

    And why the bloody hell is it that Hanni and Gluck, two people so immersed in the wine trade, feel they represent and understand the perception of the general public? Of course some wine writing is going to represent gobbledy-gook to some people - so would a Brian Sewell column. And Sewell gets on TV.

    And of all the quotes Gluck uses to criticise critics, we get this: 'strange hermaphrodite sherry' for Palo Cortado. Which is exactly what it is - a Fino with the added organs of an Oloroso. I admit this needs explanation, but it makes sense.

    But then to quote himself saying a wine is 'reminiscent of a sumo-wrestler's jockstrap' and say that he was merely illustrating that it wasn't worth drinking destroys his argument. It shows that being frivolous in a tasting note is what it's all about. How can Gluck not see this?

    And then we get onto the additives question. As I have said before, there are issues here, but I think we're trying too hard to find many of them.

    As part of this he mentions Bentonite, and makes the link with cat litter.

    Malcolm, FFS. Bentonite is a fining agent used in wine. I've used it in my wine. It's clay. White wine that hasn't been Bentonite-filtered looks more like the actual product of a cat than bentonite looks like kitty litter. The most galling thing is that you know this, Malcolm.

    There are greater debates, such as the notion of Terroir that Malcolm also looks at - and rightly so. I am also more than prepared to admit that there is huge snobbery and obfuscation and fraud and backhanders in the wine world - there is a lot that needs to be changed.

    I am not arguing that this should be witheld from wine's wider audience - it's important that much of this is addressed.

    But, like I said, I think that when wine professionals criticise wine writing, they are fundamentally (or deliberately - ask yourself why Hanni is promoting the 'listen to your own taste' line...something to do with his 'budometer', perhaps?) being short-sighted. Would anyone read a film critic who simply said: 'go and see this film, it's very good'? Of course not, as a reader we are implicitly demanding to be entertained.

    There are many 'unpalatable' things in the wine world, and I'm sure Gluck's book will expose many of them. But deliberately using short-sighted, shock doctrine to sell a wine book is also one of them.

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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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    Friday, 13 November 2009

    The future of wine writing (part two)

    I've surfaced from the online coverage of winefuture hoping that no-one else has been listening to it. This is because I'm steadily coming to the conclusion that if things continue, wine writers won't matter and the ones that do matter might not be able to get themselves heard.

    The main problem: we've all got to be friends.

    Many people on Twitter (a self-selecting bunch, I admit) kept banging on about how all these new web tools would bring wine into a glorious new age. Everyone, from writer to marketer kept harping on about it. One person even talked about 'developing the future for the common good'. What does that mean?

    Well it means that the all-encompassing power of the internet and its tools, such as the aforementioned Twitter, will be able to bring wine lovers into a great global community.

    We'll just have one big chat about wine.

    So who's got the most important voice? Well, whoever's got the best statistics. It's all 'hits' and 'unique users', which only shows that some wine websites have good search engine rankings. Although a good search engine ranking means more relevance to the subject in hand, it doesn't mean the writing is (a) any good or (b) objective. Because if wine estates got their websites right, their website should rank top in google when someone types in their name. Relevant? Yes. Friendly? Yes. Impartial? Probably not.

    If I wanted to blow the dream that we can all be a happy, sharing community with wine in common, I'd haul up the example of Jancis Robinson. And she might well be more canny than most wine writers. Refusing to put the all-inclusive '#winefuture' sign in front of most of her Twitter posts, she ensured that anyone looking for (her) coverage of winefuture had to go to her Twitter page and did not participate in the general discussion. Assuming she had an audience it bizarrely restores some of my faith in the future of wine writers and their willing readers.

    Some people really do have an audience. With producers like Randall Grahm leading the way on Twitter (he has a quarter of a million people following him) the idea that wine writers can use social media to communicate with consumers is, to all intents and purposes, over. If corporately applied, producers using Twitter will be able to jam the airwaves with endless, self-congratulatory dross (imagine it: "Lafite RT @MichelRolland Just put the microx bulb 2cm too deep in the Cabernet tank ROFLOL").

    Talking of 'bigging yourself up', another theme was the importance of 'the human story' behind the brand, or the 'personal content' of its website. The subtext here is twofold: the product itself (what's in the bottle) is merely a cipher. What is important is the story that goes with it. If you think some of the dross on back labels is bad, brace yourselves - it's going to get worse. Wine may well be on the brink of entering the vacuous world of the cult of personality.

    So if the quality of the product is of less importance, that everyone's voice is getting mixed up, and we're all trying to be friends, where does that leave (a) the future quality of the wines we drink, (b) those whose job it is to assess them and (c) how on earth we communicate about wine?

    What's the solution? Well, I have to be honest here - there isn't one. If anything, winefuture perfectly illustrated the future of wine. In a mix of voices, some were good (interesting), some were bad (self-promoting), it was just impossible to tell which was which from the program.

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    The future of wine writing (part one)

    I'm not even at winefuture in Rioja and I feel I can contribute to the debate. For starters, this is both a good and a bad thing. Good in that it shows the usefulness of social media (two words I hate - it's like calling a text message a conversation), and bad in that, well, I really should be there.

    Firstly, Gary Vaynerchuck of winelibrarytv fame had all the bloggers and twitters in raptures. Which is fair enough: he's very good. I'm also sure his contribution to the discussion was the most valuable. But we all seem to suffer collective myopia when it comes to Vaynerchuck because, after all, he's actually a wine merchant.

    Odd, then, that he's up there on a podium with a bunch of journos, telling other journos how to communicate on the web. If that's the future (which if more producers and salesmen were more canny, it would be), then I'm sorry folks but objective wine writing has died.

    But, I hear everyone cry, his heart's in the right place. And this heralds my second point:

    There seems to be this unspoken, collective idea that because we're all on social media (staring blankly into a screen with a glass of wine by the keyboard, blogging, twittering, etc) we are collectively nice with each other. We're facebook friends with PRs; our twitters are re-tweeted by producers; and our blogs are commented on by 'rival' journalists.

    How can the volume of information (from all sources, be they PR or journalist) that these social media sites provide make the future of independent, clear-sighted wine writing any more secure?

    Because, as Gary Vaynerchuck has shown, the content (or the context) doesn't matter, it's the delivery that counts...

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