Browse Tag


A real teat

romulusSo here’s the pitch. The name of the writer, included in a letter that its author has cast hither and yon into the wine trade sea, isn’t important, so I’ve left it out.

I would love to be added to your mailing list for sample bottles. I can GUARANTEE an online review of any bottle you send me. I realize that there are many wine bloggers out there and you must be inundated with requests, but I don’t know how many bloggers can guarantee a review (along with any descriptive info you send along). If a bottle is flawed or oxidized I will email you before I write anything about it. […] I can guarantee a review on a website that is almost always on the first page of natural search results on Google when someone searches for a particular wine.

I have to say, I admire the shine on those giant brass balls; this is like taking a full-page ad in Variety announcing that you intend to prostitute yourself and giving the exact dates and times at which you are available for whoring. It’s not just anyone who lacks sufficient shame to attempt something like this. And so, from that perspective: kudos.

Then again, the pearl-clutching horror with which this message has been received by some is awfully naïve. Years ago, when I started typing about wine, there were innumerable writers – even a fair number publications – for whom this was the entire business plan. Some of both are still around. And let’s be frank: it was, and is, one of the surest paths to (monetary) success. One of the absolute best at it back in those days, a local colleague who never once met a press release or one-off tasting that couldn’t be rewritten for publication, is now an editor for a venue for which I have repeatedly been asked to write…for free, of course. (And probably should anyway, in these dim-venued times.) The wheel turns, and Astroglide helps ease its passage. Nothing new under the sheets the sun.

So is this elephantiasic pitch actually problematic? In one sense, absolutely yes. It has nothing to do with brazenly soliciting samples. It’s not even really the promise of coverage, as long as the promise doesn’t pre-characterize the tone of that the coverage. It’s the explicit deal whereby the subject of the “review” can vet said review before publication.

The issue isn’t that such prior consideration is unethical by journalistic standards. The writer of this fantastical pitch isn’t (to my knowledge) claiming to be a journalist…one hopes…so those standards don’t apply. The issue is that if one is going to claim authorship of content (and he is), one must be its final arbiter. But in this case, he’s ceding a measure of control over both to the subject of commentary. That’s inherently untrustworthy…which is not, please note, the same thing as claiming that it doesn’t happen all the time. It does, but it’s called marketing or public relations. Anyway, the other side of this transaction – managing relationships with content providers to get the coverage a client wants – is exactly what many PR agents do, and if they didn’t succeed frequently enough to achieve their clients’ aims, they wouldn’t exist.

In any case, what he’s attempting to do will create inevitable limitations and restrictions. Good and/or small-production wineries are probably not going to be making their product available for his consideration unless he becomes spectacularly famous and powerful. Which seems unlikely, though it’s true there are some pretty blatant panderers and panhandlers who’ve done quite well for themselves. This, incidentally, is no different from how wineries usually parcel out their limited quantities of free product to “real” journalists: a judgment is made as to popularity, then filtered through a stylistic assessment (only the overcapitalized will send an oaked-up fruit bomb to someone who mostly writes about natural wine). Our pitchman will only acquire a certain type of wine with this approach – mass-market, industrial – and his audience will, in turn, be limited by the same stylistic restrictions.

On the other hand, I just can’t bring myself to care all that much, no matter how distasteful or naked the appeal to quid pro quo. I’ve written endless commentary on the difference between the appearance of ethics, actual ethics, and real trustworthiness, so I won’t revisit all of it here. The précis is this: it’s much better, from the perspective of a consumer of information, that a writer be right, good, or useful than to say high-minded things in the fine print yet produce incorrect, poor, or useless work.

A bit of amplification: not long ago, some folks on one wine forum wondered why (now former) Wine Advocate critic Jay Miller was being criticized for doing something that his colleague David Schildknecht did without public condemnation. Yes, from the standpoint of rigid universal ethics that’s patently unfair. But the actual answer is completely obvious: the people offering the criticism trust the content of Schildknecht’s work more than they trust Miller’s. Were Miller’s work beyond reproach to those critics, he could act with greater impunity. But it’s not, and so he can’t. (Well, couldn’t.)

Or look at it this way: wine is, among other things, a product. Whose product criticism is considered ethically pure and nearly beyond reproach? Consumer Reports, certainly. And they’ve actually done some wine criticism over the years. Does anyone respect it? Does anyone who knows anything about wine find it anything other than laughable? Not that I’ve noticed. And the reason is not that CR struggles with ill-considered ethical lapses, it’s because ethics are not only not the same as skill or utility, they don’t even function as a fair replacement, either.

So if ethics don’t make one a good critic, what does? How about being a good critic? You can replace “critic” with “writer” or “journalist” and the statement remains true. Being a good critic requires knowledge, it requires skill in both assessment and communication, and it can be argued that it requires an audience. Note: ethics were not on that list.

This isn’t to argue that ethics don’t matter. They do. The reason they matter, however, is not their self-referential importance, but in how they – or their lack – affect the quality of the work. If unethical behavior leads to untrustworthy or useless work, then ethics matter, and that’s why attention must always be paid. If the work is poor despite pristine ethics, however, then they didn’t matter at all. Again, what really matters is the work. The rest is worthy of consideration, but it’s a secondary consideration.

“Oh,” someone is now objecting, “but with far more wine commentators than anyone can actually follow, it’s necessary to judge ethics to help sort them out.” Really? If that’s the case – if we’re filtering critics by their ethical practices – then we’re back to a wine world in which Consumer Reports sits atop the pyramid of utility. Do they? Again, I know of no one who thinks so. We can (and should) talk about ethics, but in the end our primary consideration is always going to be the quality of the work. It’s similar to how one may have all the admiration in the world for a winemaker’s overwhelming swellness as a human being, but the decision to buy his or her wine is based primarily on its quality.

All that said, I can understand wariness on this point from consumers. With so many voices, most of them largely unknown, and limited money to spend on what is, after all, a liquid frivolity, doesn’t a precondition of apparent trustworthiness help? Sure, of course. Consumers are wise to at least wonder about ethics. Further, the existence of as-pure-as-possible commentators acts as a necessary check against those more compromised, because they can shine a light on the worst (or the best-hidden) practices.

But the thing is, a lot – probably the majority – of the carping about ethics these days isn’t coming from consumers. It’s coming from the trade. This would be laughable were it not so hypocritical.

vultureCan’t – in this age of the hyper-fragmented, many-to-many marketplace of information – wineries, importers, and retailers bypass what used to be the gate-keeping press filters and funnels, and just put their own message out there? Yes, absolutely. Many are in fact doing exactly this, and well.

After all, who knows more about a wine than its maker? Who knows more about a peer group – wines of a single region, wines of a certain ethos, and so forth – than importers with a point of view (of which there are now many)? Who knows more about what their customers actually want than retailers? No journalist, no matter how ethical or skilled, can hope to provide information of this granularity at better than second-hand, once-removed distance. Third-party commentators have other skills and freedoms, and there are ways they can contextualize and criticize that are not usually open to those in the trade, but what they offer is a view of the source material, not the material itself.

In other words, what makes a winemaker’s or importer’s words valuable has absolutely nothing to do with ethics (except in the case of an unalloyed charlatan). No, it has everything to do with their inextricable connection to the product. In fact, they cannot be “ethical” by journalistic standards because they cannot separate themselves from personal and financial interests in the subjects on which they are commenting.

It seems to me that someone in the trade who wishes their own voice to be heard, yet complains about the ethics of writers, is trying to have it both ways. If a writer is compromised by a lack of distance, certainly that writer is far less compromised than the person selling the product. Wouldn’t we, by that standard, be much better off ignoring anyone who makes or sells wine? Or if this very lack of separation is why we should listen to those who make and sell wine, why is a lesser version of same still unforgivable from a writer? One cannot have it both ways.

There are those in the writing cohort who beat a “the trade is inherently untrustworthy” drum, and have for many years. I’ve said before that I think this is ludicrous, because it stupidly ignores some of the greatest potential sources of knowledge and insight about wine. Moreover, most often this mantra is chanted by those who stand to gain, financially and in terms of reputation, from consumers turning their eyes and ears from the trade and towards the commentator doing the complaining. It’s mercenary at its heart, though no less so than a tradesperson leveling a similar charge against a commentator.

Or maybe, despite the hypocrisy, the trade thinks they have something to gain by shouting down the commentariat with charges of inethics. Let me suggest to them that they’re being dumbasses, if so. In case no one’s noticed, traditional media aren’t doing so well. A lot are already dead and buried. It’s not impossible that the rest are doomed. Which, if so, means that the old ways of getting one’s wines noticed are awfully thin on the ground. One does not have to view that which is replacing traditional journalism with love and respect to see that it is, at least for now, close to all there is.

So there are three paths the trade can follow. They can embrace the current state of affairs, and in fact it doesn’t much matter if they do it with arms wide open or while holding their collective noses. They can ignore the whole thing, and trust that the winds of fate, chance, and word-of-mouth will put food on their table…which, given a sufficiently small amount of wine to sell, can actually work under certain limited circumstances. Or they can whine, cry, and stamp their feet, demanding an ethical purity that they cannot actually produce themselves.

The funny thing is, they could actually have that last thing, if they really wanted it. So could we all. If…

if we were willing to pay for it. Not directly, as in the sort of wine-for-coverage deal in the nakedly avaristic pitch above But…well, an example. Allow me to quote an importer (one I like and respect) on this very subject:

There is a journalist I sometimes drink with who won’t take a single thing. He insists on paying for every little thing, even if you only offer him a taste. I doubt there is a single blogger out there who can claim the same thing.

I don’t know if that’s true, but it probably is. Let’s posit it’s so. It is, frankly, almost unique even among actual journalists operating under actual corporate-imposed ethical strictures. I’m pretty sure I know who this is, and while I’m going to mention neither his nor the importer’s name (because it’s not germane to my point), I do hope our unnamed importer helps pay our unnamed journalist’s salary by subscribing to his publication and going out of this way to patronize its advertisers. If he doesn’t, then he’s being a leech, and a self-entitled one at that.

Look, I know it’s a confusing time. A few somewhat compromised but familiar voices have given way to a hurricane of unknowably compromised voices, and it’s hard to know who to trust anymore. The average wine communicator is less informed and less experienced than ever, though there’s an inverse gain in niche expertise. We know there are paid shills working the commentary and social media circuit, but openly and in the shadows. And while all this has been going on, the contraction of the bulk of wine commerce into a few mega-corporations has produced the inevitable backlash: a luxuriant and largely unexplored jungle of personality-driven sources and outlets, who – in the face of the marketing power of the megaliths – need every bit of coverage they can get.

But some limitations are built into the system. To spread news about a wine, a person must taste said wine. One way or another, the wine has to get from the trade’s hands to a communicator’s glass. Someone is going to have to pay for that transaction. Either the trade does it directly, as used to be the norm, or they do it indirectly, as paying consumers of information; “free” all too often being worth what was paid for it. The alternative is that all communication is left, as it was long ago, to merchants. The most thoroughly compromised entity possible.

It’s an imperfect and probably imperfectible system, to be sure. But it’s not one that benefits from thoroughly self-serving hypocrisy any more than it benefits from undisclosed compromise. Flaws are a part of wine, but they’re also a part of those who make, sell, and write about them.

An ether/or situation

No one needs a brief respite from the ongoing (and no-end-in-sight) assault of the living barberas more than me, so why not dive headfirst into the current cri de courriel * of the oenosphere? It’ll be a nice change of pace.

*I know email doesn’t have anything to do with blogs, but the multilingual wordplay was too enticing, and I’m very weak in this regard. Very, very weak.

…wait, hang on. I’m supposed to write about why no one reads wine blogs? A title that comes very, very close to begging it’s own implied question, but instead merely leads to one: for whom am I supposed to write a response, given that we’ve concluded that no one is reading this?

I suppose it’s worth dispensing with a little typically bloggish nitpicking right from the start, since some of the comments there and elsewhere are casting a jaundiced peeper at the data. Tom Johnson (whose autograph is on the cannon that fired this broadside) writes:

[…] the top 100 wine blogs combined would be the 280th most popular blog in the country. […] There are 40 million regular wine drinkers in the United States, and the aggregate audience for wine blogs is maybe a couple hundred thousand people. […] Assuming that people who visit wine blogs visit more than one, even within our self-declared niche, we’re reaching less than 0.5% of our target audience.

OK. So in a general interest newspaper (remember them?), one that might have a wine column (remember those?), what percentage of the total subscriber base is actually reading that column? I’ve been the byline on a fair assortment of same, and my recollection is that the numbers were always pretty discouraging…something that may have come up once or twice during negotiations over freelance rates. As bad as a mere half percent? No, maybe not. But not a whole lot better, either.

Without this keystone, the statistical foundation for Johnson’s argument is showing signs of substandard contracting. Presumably, more people read Andrew Sullivan than Cory Cartwright for the same reasons that more people read Maureen Dowd (shudder) than Eric Asimov…whatever those reasons might be.

But I call this a “nitpick” because, numerical justifications aside, I actually agree with the crux of Johnson’s column.

Let’s first move away from a dull milieu of twisty little tasting notes, all the same? (No one under 40 or who has ever had a girlfriend is going to get that reference.) Yes, indeed. There’s a reason I shuffle the reportage on my weekly glass recycling to another blog, after all. Tasting notes have a utility, and they can be an essential staging ground for insight, but they’re neither the most interesting thing to read nor a facet of wine communication at which blogs or their descendants are ever going to be particularly good, for reasons that Johnson identifies.

More linking to one another? Sure. I don’t think this is a very important problem, though. Wine is not the same sort of collaborative pursuit that the really popular blog topics – politics, parenting, semi-literate cats, sneezing fetishes – are, and while a conversation is more suited to an increasingly social media universe than an endless series of Riedel lecterns, the future isn’t mere linking. It’s actual collaboration, which is going to require all of us to come out of our mothers’ basements for a spell. Hopefully we’ll put on fresh pajamas. GrapeStories is one form that this necessary collaboration will take, but there are other possibilities.

More stories, more insight, more writing? Yes, please. But I’ve already been heard (though apparently by almost no one) on this point.

Significantly, this call n’allez pas aux barricades also happens to dovetail neatly with the other recent snittery of the wine bloggers, Stephen Tanzer’s allegedly inflammatory suggestion that some people have more expertise than others. Yes, Tanzer could have put that a good measure more elegantly, though if his purpose was rabble-rousing-as-free-publicity, I congratulate him on a hand well-played. But I just don’t see that what he said (rather than how he said it) is particularly controversial.

It stands to reason that fewer, but better, voices help focus attention in any field one would like to identify. It’s also completely obvious that enthusiasm is no substitute for experience. (Though: the reverse is both true and worth considering.) That said, I don’t think a proactive culling is necessary, nor is it likely to be effective. Darwin will, eventually, point his Beagle at the survivors, and this will require no help from bloggers or their external critics.

Also, there’s this. The greater percentage of consumers are not yet ready to listen to “us” (meaning blogs), because even the most obsessive cannot possibly keep up with the current torrent of information, and the non-obsessive would neither wish to try nor know where to begin. Until such time as natural selection works its winnowy magic, we are and almost inherently must be a niche talking to a niche. And that’s OK. That is, after all, what this whole public internet thing has been best at since long before there was a web, and the overstuffed toolbox with which the modern publisher must go to work has not changed this truism.

There will be a time when the apes – that’s us in this odd little primate analogy, you know – rise up and take over. Though hopefully with not quite so much violence or overwrought speechifying as Caesar employed in the just-linked movie:

Where there is fire, there is smoke. And in that smoke, from this day forward, my people will crouch, and conspire, and plot, and plan for the inevitable day of Man’s downfall. The day when he finally and self-destructively turns his weapons against his own kind. The day of the writing in the sky, when your cities lie buried under radioactive rubble! When the sea is a dead sea, and the land is a wasteland out of which I will lead my people from their captivity! And we will build our own cities, in which there will be no place for humans except to serve our ends! And we shall found our own armies, our own religion, our own dynasty! And that day is upon you NOW!

(Yeah, that reads like an enraged wine blogger, alright.)

But that day is probably not today. Wine blogs will find their audience, in their time. Or they won’t, and they’ll die out, and some post-Twitter content stream entitled “S%$# My Dad Drinks” will rise above the fields of the fallen. And maybe even get read by more than a half-dozen people.

Speech, broad & bent

[the billionaire’s vinegar]Brewer-Clifton isn’t the only entity that would like you, the consumer, to just shut up. (Note the lack of a “please” in that request.) Oh, no. It gets much worse.

(A bit of background is necessary here, for non-obsessive followers of titillating wine gossip. I’ll try to make it brief.)

Once upon a time, there were these bottles of wine that were, allegedly, owned by Thomas Jefferson. They were auctioned for an awful lot of money to the rich and famous, who either seemed to do desperately stupid things with them, or display them as the (undrinkable) jewels of their collection.

Except it turns out that they might have been fakes. There’s a lot of that going around the high-end wine world now, but that was a more naïve time, and people may not have been as wary as they should have. Most of the current attention has focused on the alleged sources, but a little has soiled the collars of their facilitators: collectors and auctioneers. One luminary thus tainted by association was the very, very famous writer, taster, and auctioneer Michael Broadbent, whose self-described friendship with one Hardy Rodenstock – the source of the Jefferson bottles – is now as much a liability as it was a benefit, in those earlier days.

The guilt or innocence of the various parties isn’t what I’m interested in here, and so I’ll leave a discussion of lawsuits and investigations for another forum. What matters to this backgrounder is that a book on this very subject, entitled The Billionaire’s Vinegar, was written by a guy named Benjamin Wallace.

It turns out that Michael Broadbent didn’t much care for his portrayal in the book, for reasons I’m still not going to adjudicate here. So he sued for libel (in the U.K., where such matters have a much easier standard of evidence to meet than they do in the U.S.), and the case was settled out of court by the publisher…who paid Broadbent some money, issued an apology, and so forth. It was a “victory” in a very limited sense, as it only applied to the U.K., and unquestionably brought more attention to the book’s contents elsewhere in the world than there had previously been. Nonetheless, I presume Mr. Broadbent got what he wanted, the publisher and the book weren’t adversely affected outside the U.K. market (if anything, the opposite), and post-settlement life should have gone on as before.

Except that it didn’t. Michael’s son Bartholomew (who I have met on more than one occasion, and have liked very much on those occasions) decided that it was in his father’s best interest for Bartholomew to engage mid- and post-trial discussions of the case around the internet, something most lawyers probably would have told him was a little unwise on the face of it. Broadbent fils got in a few snippy exchanges with the author of the book in various locales, and perhaps this added to his understandable feelings of agitation over the state of his father’s reputation, but on Jamie Goode’s blog, he went much, much too far in addressing some commenters in the case. Emphasis mine:

[name redacted] doesn’t know the specifics of the case and clearly his views are a reflection of nothing more than reading the book. My father won the case and they will not hesitate to win damages from further defamatory remarks made by others who continue to ignore the ruling. [name] would be better off accepting the court’s decision and the Publisher’s apology. He has no idea about the true facts and his statements show incredible ignorance. However, his views are precisely the reason that this case was won. [name] is actually setting himself up to be sued too, if he continues to repeat such defamatory views which have no basis on truth. As Jamie’s Blog is published in the UK, it and its commentators fall under the same defamation and libel jurisdiction.

The thing is, Bartholomew was probably right: were his father especially litigious, he could have gone around suing anyone who continued the debate, and may even have won. Thankfully, and to Broadbent père’s credit, this does not appear to be happening. But the threat issued by Bartholomew was at best distasteful, at worst a reprehensible way to quash debate, and in practical terms an entirely unhelpful way to “help” clear his father’s name. And it was one more instance of someone – this time in the trade, which Bartholomew most certainly is – trying to squelch online discussion of topics they do not wish to have discussed, or at least not in the manner in which they are being discussed. As with Brewer-Clifton, my personal interest in supporting the wines he sells with my purchases is diminished as a result.

In any case, it could have ended there, too. But it didn’t. The discussion, inevitably, roiled across the U.S. wine scene, where similar legal threats wouldn’t have carried much weight given the very strict legal standards for proving libel. Something not everyone was happy about:

here’s a vote for libel laws in the USA as strict as they are in the UK

Who said that? Before I answer, it’s the same person who said the following (NB: the following quotes have had to be edited for grammar, spelling, and readability, though the words are unchanged):

bloggers…or should I say blobbers since they are the source of much of the misinformation, distortion, and egregious falsehoods spread with reckless abandon on the internet


[bloggers’] passion can be a great asset, but it can be dangerous as well…the Taliban has passion is just one example…

That’s right. Bloggers are analogous to the Taliban

(No, he didn’t call bloggers the Taliban. But unfortunate-yet-revealing analogies extend well beyond those covered by Godwin’s Law, and here is one more example of same.)

Who is this paragon of free discourse, this defender of the right to speak against entrenched interests? The same person who endlessly crusaded against the established writers he supplanted. And the same person that wrote the following:

It has been said often enough that anyone with a pen, notebook and a few bottles of wine can become a wine critic. And that is exactly the way I started…

Yes, joining Brewer-Clifton and Bartholomew Broadbent in a heartfelt desire for all you rabble to just stop your bloody contradictions so they can be accorded the respect they deserve: your Wine Advocate himself, Robert M. Parker, Jr.

The Brewer’s art

[pig’s rear end]Grapes can be thin-skinned. So can critics. To their great credit, winemakers usually aren’t. As with any other producer of a critique-able product or work, they’re the constant recipient of feedback, both good and bad. The good can go to one’s head, the bad to one’s heart, but the majority of winemakers take it pretty much in stride, accepting the fundamental truism that taste in all things is personal.

Oh, there are some exceptions. Angry rebuttals in the press, lawsuits, dogs set upon visiting critics as they exit their rental car. I’ve had a few run-ins myself. And even the most mild-mannered winemaker can be pushed beyond their limits by what they perceive to be a particularly egregious slight.

But at least critics know to expect this sort of thing, given what they do. Consumers don’t. It didn’t used to matter, but in this evolving age of many-to-many communication, the consumer who voices an opinion becomes as much of a potential target for retribution as any critic. Perhaps even more of one; a winemaker may not wish to burn a bridge to a powerful critic, but an everyday consumer might be dismissed without a second thought.

Not long ago, the denizens of one of the web’s various wine fora got into a discussion about Brewer-Clifton, a well-known producer of pinot noir and chardonnay from California. As with any robust discussion, there was both positivity and negativity, and a full range of opinions was aired. But I’m sure no one expected what happened next.

“You have received this notification from Brewer-Clifton because you are a registered user or you or some other registered user requested some information for you from our store.

Dear [name redacted],

Your profile at Brewer-Clifton has been deleted.”

This reads as it looks. Step one: criticize Brewer-Clifton in public, or at least appear to do so. Step two: get dropped from their mailing list.

Putting aside the dubious sensibility of shedding customers in a flailing economy, Brewer-Clifton had three choices when faced with public criticism. One, ignore it (the path chosen by almost everyone in the wine world). Two, respond to it (a path with its time-sucking and image-destabilizing dangers; only those with quick wits, faster fingers, and a taste for the arena usually survive this sort of thing unscathed). Or three, punish their critics.

Did they choose wisely? Not in the view of some of those dropped, some of whom hadn’t even criticized the winery or the wines, but instead had been critical of the scores accorded the wines by famous critics. As one dropped customer objected:

“Of course, I was not referring to BC or their wines as ‘a complete joke’ but rather referring to The Wine Advocate’s lazy review [of] their wines.

It’s important to note, after the fact, that those deleted have reportedly been reinstated. But what went on here is worth examining a little more closely, because it has fairly profound implications for the open and collaborative world of wine commentary into which we are decisively moving.

What was behind Brewer-Clifton’s move? Simple pique. Read for yourself (both excepts edited for clarity):

So I decided to call Steve Clifton to see if this was the case. He returned my call about ten minutes later and indeed confirmed that my post was the reason. Steve went on to explain to me that these kind of posts on wine boards are extremely hurtful, and that because it’s a bottle of wine doesn’t mean that there aren’t real people behind the scenes, and if I don’t like the wines why should I be on the list?

“A complete joke” is what led Greg Brewer to terminate me from Brewer-Clifton’s mailing list. He felt like if I, or anyone really, thought the wines of Brewer-Clifton were a complete joke then why would that person want to be, or deserve to be, on the mailing list?

As pointed out by some, including one of the above-quoted victims, everyone was within their rights here. People were free to say anything they wanted about Brewer-Clifton, short of actionable defamation. Brewer-Clifton was free to drop anyone from their mailing list, for any reason they could come up with. And in an earlier world of wine communication, that’s where the story would have ended. Except, of course, we’re no longer in that world.

As it turned out, everyone else knew what Brewer-Clifton was up to while it was happening. Some, even those that counted themselves fans of the winery and their wines, weren’t too happy, and their relationships with both soured. In the end, despite the reinstatements, the move counts as a minor PR disaster for the winery, for they have now set as an apparent condition of receiving their wines that one may not engage in public conversations that the winery principals find disagreeable.

I, for one, reject that standard, and while I don’t enjoy Brewer-Clifton’s wines, I do appreciate wines from the related Palmina label. This new situation calls my support into question, and I am most certainly less likely to choose those wines in the future. The winery is free to act as they will, and so am I, by my lack of future support. (As a consumer only; a critic’s responsibilities are somewhat different.)

But all these personal acts of retribution and counter-retribution are insignificant in the face of the greater danger they pose to the very nature of many-to-many wine communication. The new paradigm has positives and negatives, but one of the of the unquestioned benefits is the free flow of a wide stream of information. Whether for good or ill, someone with information is going to bring it in front of the public.

In the world that Brewer-Clifton apparently seeks, this flow of information can no longer be trusted. People may post their experiences with Brewer-Clifton’s wines (or the winery itself), but they may now only post positive reports, lest they risk losing their access. The information stream is tainted. It is no longer reliable, which is always a danger, but in fact it is now worse: it is actively untrustworthy.

Think about what this means for an entity like CellarTracker, which trades on its community of tasting notes and ratings. Think anyone who values their presence on the Brewer-Clifton mailing list is eager to post a negative review or score now? Don’t count on it.

The effect will be no different than if one of the winery principals or their hired guns were to “spike” the database with hyped-up notes and ratings…an action which I suspect few would endorse. But in a sense, I suppose Brewer-Clifton has done something awfully clever here. Because rather than fouling the waters themselves, and paying the price, they’ve gotten their customers to do it for them.

Which makes it all the more important that they, and any other winery that tries the same trick, suffer equivalent public shaming. It’s the only defense the consumer has against such practices.

Blue note

[retreating sheep]Anthony Dias Blue apparently didn’t get the memo. The one that says: do not, under any circumstances, pick a fight with your competitors and successors if they have a bigger podium. Some excerpts:

The latest assault on the establishment media by blogger barbarians […] And who are these bloggers anyway and, more important, what is their motivation? […] But the image that presents itself is of bitter, carping gadflies who, as they stare into their computer screens and contemplate their dreary day jobs, let their resentment and sense of personal failure take shape as vicious attacks on the established critical media.

…and so forth, along similarly tiresome and unoriginal lines.

Criticizing the blogosphere, Twitter, etc. is nothing new from the establishment side of wine writing; at least Dias Blue, unlike Robert Parker, didn’t compare bloggers to the Taliban just because they pointed out a few inconvenient truths. And it’s usually a bad idea even when the criticism is justified, because the online world can be rather unforgiving as it piles on. Dias Blue’s complaints were particularly silly, and so he probably deserves everything he’s been getting. Worse, he’s contributing to the very problem he’s attempting to identify (albeit poorly) by helping turn the next generation of consumers of wine information against the self-entitled establishment he’s defending.

But lets not be too hard on the guy. Granted, he has some odd enthusiasms that do deserve opprobrium, but truth be told he’s only saying what an awful lot of wine writers – and in fact journalists across disciplines – are thinking: how, in this emerging world, am I going to make a living?

As I’ve noted before, the way forward isn’t paved with loot for the wine enthusiast who wants to do something other than sell or move boxes around. Not that it ever was, except for a very few top writers, but the future is grim indeed. The bottom (that supported burgeoning writers looking for the first step towards a career) has already fallen out, and it’s taking the intermediate tiers with it. Where will tomorrow’s stars come from? It’s not that we don’t know who the good new writers are – actually, we’re better at identifying them than ever before, thanks to the internet – it’s just that there’s not a whole lot for them to do that’s more than anecdotally compensated. And there’s less opportunity each year. Developing a writer from a level where they’re good enough for a self-published blog to a level where they’re good enough for paid, edited media requires not just practice, but also professional feedback. Successful bloggers probably don’t want to hear this, but it’s the case. And it’s not that many of them wouldn’t pass that test – in fact, the quality of many the new writers is far more impressive than their critics realize – but that they’re not likely to be given the opportunity as venues for those opportunities fall away.

Lacking those avenues for development, the sources for compensation that used to come with advancement remain as problematic as they are in the rest of the failing mediasphere: advertising, as-yet-ephemeral for-pay content, or outright sponsorship. The latter is anathema unless it’s a non-wine entity, and thus we’re back to advertising. How many wine bloggers or deliverers of content in other media don’t have “real jobs” that pay the bills? Ten? Five? Fewer? I hope for change sooner rather than later, and I wouldn’t rule it out, but it seems a long way off.

The best path forward seems to be collation, which is a function of the mass media that is only newly-arrived to the online wine world. But who makes the money in the collation business? Not, as a rule, the creators of the content…which also replicates the mainstream media model, and still doesn’t help the next generation of writers very much.

So amidst the admittedly justifiable savaging of Anthony Dias Blue’s poorly-considered column, lets spare a kind thought. Not for him in particular, but for the onrushing crisis of compensation that he represents. Blogging, tweeting, vlogging, making a little loose change from running ads…this is all well and good for the skilled hobbyist. But professionalism is not to be dismissed, and that’s a stage that will remain largely unreachable unless someone, somewhere, opens a wallet.

The meme remains la même

[biking sculpture]The future of wine writing is not blogging.

OK, so now that I’ve pissed off just about everyone likely to be reading this, let me explain…

The world of wine, and especially the world of wine writing, benefits from a multitude of voices. There’s no doubt of this. One of the least important but still sad effects of the ongoing (though long-inevitable) decline and fall of newspapers is the loss of the wine coverage that usually precedes their demise. Winemaking regions derive special benefit from vibrant, locally-focused coverage, but there’s plenty of value to be found elsewhere. In my own market of Boston, for example, there’s barely any wine writing to be found. Nationally, Food & Wine no longer has a wine editor. (Why not just call it Food?) I could go on…

Many think the “2.0” version of the web, long in ascendance if not always in fulfillment of its hype, will replace what’s been lost. There are reasons to doubt this, which I’ll iterate in a moment. But more importantly, this lays the burden of hope on the wrong recipients. Blogs (or tweets, or whatever else that might follow) aren’t going to replace newsprint wine writing. But bloggers might.

Confused yet?

In terms of creating a collaborative, multi-directional wine experience – the promise usually trumpeted by proponents of Wine 2.0 – bloggers are actually rather late to the party. Wine fora have played in this realm for a long time:, the wine communities on CompuServe and Prodigy, the original Wine Lovers’ Discussion Group, the Mark Squires forum (now part of the all-powerful eBob empire), and on and on.

Over the many years of their existence, a few things have been learned about the potential advantages and disadvantages of much-hyped 2.0 era. For example: while some of the fora were “communities of equals,” others worked on the expert model. The latter proved to be the stickier of the two concepts. The former are especially prone to splits, offshoots, declines, and all the normal trends and lifespans of online communities, while the latter provide a consistent draw, even as participants come and go. It’s now clear that to hold a community together over the long term, it helps to have a draw aside from the community itself. For while a community can provide great value (especially given quality contributors), the seemingly inevitable human desire for authorities has remained more powerful. This is a slightly dismaying outcome, but the numbers don’t lie.

Corollary to this, both types of forum tend to attract and/or develop their own authorities, and from this a second lesson can be drawn. Authorities are a mixed blessing, because while they bring elevated value to a community’s knowledge, they skew the discourse of the community from many-to-many towards several-to-many or one-to-many. Moreover, they’re especially prone to lead an exodus as that authority grows, for reasons both good (a desire to monetize their utility) and less so (conflict between competing authorities). People point to blogs and other, newer media as an exercise in social communication, but what’s the actual draw of a successful blog? First and foremost, it’s the authority or authorities that helm it. Without them and the audience they create, the community that coalesces and participates would form elsewhere. And were the community uninterested in authorities, they’d be on a community-of-equals wine forum. Since the numbers show that they’re not, there’s good reason to believe that, whatever they say, they’re still interested in some sort of authority…maybe not as the entirety of the meal, but at least as the centerpiece of the dish.

Additionally, while the value of fora is often professed to be the collegiality of its participants, their actual success or failure relies more on the more tangible benefits it provides (which, in the case of wine communities, means information about specific wines, regions, producers, and businesses). Collegiality is unhelpful when no one can answer a question, and as a result people naturally gravitate towards communities of greater expertise. That swell of numbers is followed by an increase in tangible value, which in turn attracts greater numbers, and so forth. Similarly, a decline in information leads to a decline in participation, and vice-versa. Wine fora have not proved immune to Darwin. Again, the lesson that can be drawn by blogs and other divergent forms is that while collegiality, community, and population matter, it’s the quality of information that matters most.

But the success of a blog is not measured by its population, at least not in the way a forum’s success is. Yes, success is measured by traffic – and comments matter – but the physical format of a blog places far greater importance on an original post than the comments that follow. Most of the really successful blogs are one-person shows, more or less. In comparison to a wine forum, then, a blog is actually less egalitarian by its very design, whatever the intent or motivation of the host. (Twitter is a little different, but comes with certain inherent limitations of its own.) So again, we return to the essential element: the blogger him- or herself. As Johnny Carson once said regarding the success or failure of late night talk shows, it’s not about the style or the guests, “it’s about the person behind the desk.” He could have been talking about blogs.

[man blowing glass]The trajectory of successful bloggers is, largely, a common one. From tentative and overtly humble beginnings, with success and greater access comes greater authority, a willingness to take risks and be controversial (or a deliberate choice to do so; controversy is always good for traffic) from the perspective of an outsider, and finally an assumption of authority and controversy from the perspective of an insider, as an acknowledged authority. (Sometimes, this leads to problems, but not always.) The progression from voice-in-the-wilderness to authority and leadership is a change that happens to the blogger, not the blog, and will be reflected in an historical survey of the posts. For those whose primary publication outlet is a blog, it’s nearly always true that early entries will be modern, blog-style posts (pithy, link-ridden), but that later entries look an awful lot more like traditional print columns. They’re longer. They’re more authoritative and declarative. They educate or provoke, but at greater length, and yet with less elaborate justification for each point of potential controversy; authority is assumed by the writer. Sometimes, actual journalism – research, sourcing, fact-checking – creeps in, born of both desire and necessity.

This is all to the good, by the way. There’s a place and a future for the sound bite format, to be sure, but as a different kind of webslinger once learned, with power comes responsibility. This is no less true for bloggers than it is for journalists in other media. In fact, the maturation of the wine blogosphere demands this evolution if it is to supplant or be coequal with, rather than aspire to, the power of other forms of media.

These days, the most successful bloggers of all get to move on. Not that they abandon their blogs (though some do), but rather that they gain access to other media. Newspapers (such as they are in these times), magazines, even books…the final step in new media success is often measured by joining the old.

Or at least, that has been true up until now, and may continue to be true for a while yet. In the future? It’s hard to say, especially given a rapid rate of technological and societal change. My suspicion – and it’s based on little more than a hunch, though one founded on several decades of experience in different forms of new media – is that it will change. New media will develop its own measures of success that render irrelevant those of the old media. (This, I hasten to add, is hardly an original thought on my part. Though it may be an overly optimistic one.)

So why, then, do I say that the future of wine writing is not the blog, but rather the blogger?

As noted earlier, there’s hardly a difference between the most successful wine blogs and the most successful print wine columns; other than the physical format, they look and act pretty much the same (and of course, most print columns are read online anyway). The one major difference is that almost all blogs lack an editor. Editors can be a mixed blessing, to be sure, but as the format continues to mature, the lack of them is going to be an issue for someone. Controversy is all very exciting, but inaccuracy (and worse, defamation) can be permanently damaging, and sooner or later someone’s going to pay a price for doing something that a good editor would never have let them do.

But the thing with professional editing is that it costs money. As, it’s important to add, does wine blogging. At the very least, someone has to pay for server space and traffic. Then, as authority and success brings their accordant responsibility, the need of a blogger to explore their subject more deeply and/or broadly increases; this, too, is not without cost. Ads help, but as everyone in new media knows, they’re rarely remunerative enough to support the rigor of actual journalism. Until that changes, blogging remains primarily a hobbyist’s pursuit…which, incidentally, is exactly the situation print wine writing has found itself in for some time. Only a tiny, tiny number of bloggers and print wine writers can actually support themselves by writing about wine. However, there’s a difference: as more and more print writers disappear, things actually improve for the few that remain, but as the number of bloggers increases, competition for already-insufficient ad money will only escalate.

[sagrada familia detail]For any new media to take that last step to dominance of a category, someone’s going to have to pay for it. For now, a combination of ads and crossovers to old media are the patchwork covering the problem. That won’t continue. Will bloggers continue or improve their work, even if they’re losing money? Maybe some will, out of altruism or thanks to a hefty personal supply of otherwise-sourced funds (a/k/a a “real job”), but the lack of remuneration is no less damaging to the category than it is in the print world. First because it makes valuable authority available only to the otherwise wealthy (the effects of which can be seen rather clearly in the world of print wine criticism; just count the number of lawyers and doctors), and second because it reduces the quality of discourse by putting a cap on the necessary breadth and depth of knowledge that brings enlightenment to wine writing, whatever the medium. Authority matters. Knowledge matters. Experience matters. None are free.

The success of the blogs-and-beyond world of wine coverage has been presaged by the fractalization we’ve already seen among critics. What started with just a few voices entrusted with the vast general-interest audience has become a growing chorus of focused coverage from dedicated enthusiasts: Allen “Burghound” Meadows, Peter Liem, Parker’s new gang of hires, and so forth. This will continue, and more importantly will broaden to include writers, rather than just critics. Blogging in particular is ill-suited for comprehensive criticism of the type to which we’ve become accustomed, but it’s perfectly-suited for writing. Which is, by the way, what most of the best wine bloggers do, in lieu of standard criticism.

That said, blogs aren’t comprehensive. In fact, they can’t be; no one authority can, in our dizzying modern world of wine. A fanatical single-subject blogger may be able to provide quality coverage of that subject (whether it be a region, a grape, or some other field of interest), but it’s more likely that a subject of interest to a given audience must be surveyed across a wider selection of blogs. And if, as is even more likely, the audience has other interests than that single subject, this task increases. A connection must be made between blogs and their potential audience, but – like editing – marketing costs time and money. It is one thing to read Peter Liem’s blog for interesting Champagne commentary. It is a very different thing to read fifty blogs in search of similar information. And it is yet another thing to read 100 blogs in search of commentary on the full range of wines and subjects that interest an audience. Almost no one has that sort of time, especially – as noted earlier – as the content in which they’re interested broadens, deepens, and lengthens thanks to the ever-increasing skill of the bloggers.

This is why blogs themselves aren’t the future. The success of old media wine journals and most of their new media successors is intimately connected to their one-stop-shopping format, in which all available content is presented in a single location (be it physical or digital). But the necessary and desirably-expanding cloud of bloggers, all with something interesting to say, is – from a practical standpoint – impossible for anyone but the unemployed to find and follow, even with the best aggregators and filters.

Choices will have to be made. And those choices will be made based on the interest and authority commanded not by the blog format, nor by the appeal of new media or 2.0-era community coalescing around content, but by the source of the content: the bloggers themselves. In fact, the very expansion of authoritative blogging that leads to this revolution will act in opposition to its collaborative aspects, for given that time is inherently limited, a reader that chooses to participate is giving up an opportunity to read something else, and vice-versa.

In other words, the larger part of the audience will flock to authority, just like they’ve always done, and the focus will be more on that authority than on communitarian corollaries. The ever-evolving network provides interesting and worthwhile tools that old media lacks, but it does not change this fundamental principle. Fully collaborative environments exist and are of unquestioned appeal – at the very least, they’re better than their lack – but people still want their gurus. As before, the numbers don’t lie.

Or, as I believe someone may once have said: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.