Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Of wine writers and idiots

A few days ago, I read something that both puzzled and impressed me. Steve Heimoff wrote a rambling article about the Alma Wine Academy and orange wines. What caught my attention was that Steve professed his ignorance of this rather unusual, and small category of wines. Orange wines actually have a long history, but they have seen an increased awareness in the media (and not just no-name bloggers like me but big hitters like Ray Isle and Eric Asimov) for more than a few years. Sure, these skin-macerated white wines, often aged in clay amphora, are not the next-big-thing in the wine world that even my mother knows about, but they're not a new, unknown phenomenon.

I figured, and so did a lot of other readers, that a "fairly well-known, a big fish" like Steve would be in the know. However, I was even more impressed that Steve was willing to share his ignorance with his readers. It is not too often that the biggest names in the wine writing world admit that they don't know something. It takes a lot of confidence to undermine one's expertise. If only more critics would admit when they get something wrong or don't know something, we'd all trust them a bit more. Well done, Steve.

But then Steve had to go and call all of his readers that were surprised to hear he didn't know about orange wines "idiots who criticize me." To be fair, Steve gets criticized more than the average wine blogger. Steve is not the average wine blogger. Steve has worked hard to become the California editor for Wine Enthusiast. By rising to the top of the wine writing pyramid, he deserves to be scrutinized. After all, a lot of people spend valuable time and money to read what Steve has to say. Maybe unjustly, Steve's readers expect Steve to be all-knowing.

Is Steve infallible? Of course not. He is allowed to make mistakes and be unaware of certain trends, especially when they're not centered on his California beat. Should Steve drink and read more outside of the Golden State? Probably, but he has a lot to cover in just his half of the state. He should focus on getting California correct first.

Case in point: his recent "big story" on Pritchard Hill had some pretty big errors. I know because I wrote an article on the area for Sommelier Journal (see the upcoming Nov. 30 issue). I spent the past 5 months visiting almost every winery and talking directly to those I didn't make it to, save one that hadn't responded to me. I don't have a reputation to fall back on, so I wanted to make sure I got everything right. Steve spoke to about half of the wineries and visited only a few. He incorrectly labeled estates with misspelled or even wrong names. Sure, he got that misinformation from someone else, but it was his responsibility to confirm the identities and spellings of all the estates. He also failed to mention the predominant soil series found in the area. Now, don't get me wrong, the article was informative and a good read, just not 100% accurate. The wineries were pleased with the high scores he bestowed (even the ones that refused to participate, so Steve had to go buy them at retail).

Accuracy and expertise are something consumers expect of the top wine critics. That is why a few of his readers criticized Steve for not know about orange wines. We understand they don't know everything and make mistakes every once in a while, but we don't expect to be called names when we hold them accountable. Steve is slowly learning that social media (his blog is part of that) is about building relationships. Name calling does not help build relationships. Steve should definitely not call his readers idiots. When Steve is all-knowing and 100% accurate in his writing, then he may do so. But hey, maybe it is a good move. I've written about him, ten of my Twitter followers with nothing better to do will read about him and I suppose I'll keep reading his blog. Sigh.

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