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Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Maybe Steve Heimoff was right (I might have lost my mind...)

After giving it a week of thought, I'm going to argue something with which, on the surface, I adamantly disagree. Last week, my digital buddy, Steve Heimoff, wrote a blog post titled, "Saying Goodbye to the Golden Age of Wine Writing." His thesis was that with the rise of the "Age of Digital Information" (i.e., wine blogs) wine writers are finding it more and more difficult to earn a living writing about wine. He claims that the world of wine writing is no longer the utopia it was when he got into this profession and made a name for himself (I'd argue he actually has made his name via his blog and not as the California Editor for Wine Enthusiast Magazine). David White penned a great response to Steve's assertions and claimed that things are actually getting better in the world of wine writing. I wholeheartedly agree with David, but I want to take a deeper look into Steve's post.

I started to ponder the phrase "Golden Age." Golden Age is colloquially thought of as a time of peace and prosperity and when great tasks were accomplished. The term originated in writings by Greek philosopher Hesiod and Roman poet Ovid to describe the evolution of civilization. In both Hesiod's and Ovid's lists of Ages, the Golden Age was the first. To further investigate Steve's assertion that we are no longer in the Golden Age, I'm using Ovid's Four Ages of the Metamorphoses because both Steve and I are a fan of Ovid Napa Valley. Ovid, the winery and vineyard, sits atop Pritchard Hill and produces delicious, but expensive, red blends and varietal wines from cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, petit verdot, and syrah. I wish I could continue to afford Ovid's Experiment wines, but with the Experiments going to $125/btl, the Syrah at $150/btl and the flagship Ovid now at $225/btl I am afraid I'm stuck with the few delicious bottles I have already accumulated in my cellar (previously discussed here and here). Completely coincidentally, today is the release day for the 2010 Ovid Proprietary Red and the Ovid Farms Jam 3-Pack of Pluot Cherry, Stone Fruit Medley, White Peach-Raspberry jams (the email popped into my inbox as I was proofing the post).
But I digress...

Ovid, the old, dead dude, described the Golden Age as a time when Man was at peace and without the knowledge of navigation and agriculture. And happy mortals, unconcern'd for more, Confin'd their wishes to their native shore (1:126-127). Man was comfortable without exploring the vast unknown world around, content with what nature provided and did not bicker. Now, that doesn't sound like the world of wine writing that currently exists. Countless writers enjoy exploring the vast world of wine. When Steve started getting paid to write about wine there were no writers focusing on the wines of Argentina or Bulgaria, let alone Colorado and Virginia. Some writers are content with the status quo, but many more are trying to change the profession for the better. There might have been some bickering in Steve's Golden Age, but not like there is today. Steve and Robert Parker and known for the unsympathetic attitudes toward bloggers (ironically as Steve is one of the most popular bloggers and Parker once said he was the original blogger..), and vice versa. No, I would argue that we are no longer in the Golden Age of Wine Writing as Ovid described it.

So where do we stand? Are we at the dawn of the next Age? Following the Golden Age was the Silver Age. In Ovid's Silver Age, seasons appear and Man learned to plow the Earth and take shelter in buildings. Man was still peaceful, but started to differentiate itself from Nature. This doesn't sound like where the current world of wine writing resides.

Subsequently, in the Bronze Age, Man was prone to war, but not yet impiety. Finally, in the Iron Age, Man separated itself into bounded nations, battled amongst itself and impious. Loyalty was nowhere to be found, The son-in-law pursues the father's life (1:187). Wine Spectator, Wine Advocate, James Suckling, Pancho Campo,  Antonio Galloni and who could forget the devilish bloggers. The 100-pt system might be the most revolutionary and impious development for the wine world. Yes, it sounds like we are in the Iron Age of Wine Writing. Or maybe at the beginning of the Giants' War; Nor were the Gods themselves more safe above (1:193).

But that is not to say we are in the worst Age for wine writing. As a reader, would you be content to have a few exalted writers only write about Burgundy and Bordeaux? Would you rather writers not work to come up with new ideas and explore new wines? Sure, we could do without some of the impiety and bickering. I still side with David White in the idea that we are in the most exciting time for wine writing. Consumers have the best access to some of the most interesting stories about wine ever. The Age of Digital Information has made this (impiety and bickering included) possible. Without it we'd all still be happy mortals, unconcern'd for more (1:126).

So today is the best of times, it is the worst of times, it is the age of wisdom, it is the age of foolishness, it is the epoch of belief, it is the epoch of incredulity, it is the season of Light, it is the season of Darkness, it is the spring of hope, it is the winter of despair, we have everything before us, we have nothing before us, we are all going direct to vinous Heaven, we were all going direct the other way. Some of our noisiest authorities insist on its being received like when they began, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only are we lucky to live in the current Age of Wine Writing. Maybe Steve Heimoff was right, but he was also dead wrong.

10 comments:

  1. a great wine communicator doesn't necessarily have to write to tell the wine story. Great communicators will still emerge out of the digital rubble. Thanks for the inspiring article!

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  2. An interesting piece of meta wine writing that in itself says something about the state of wine writing.

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  3. Madeline and Kim, thanks for the kind words!

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  4. Having jousted with Steve (and Charlie O) on several occasions on the SH blog, I don't think he or Charlie are adverse to blogging per se. Rather they consider the democratization of opinion to be mostly ill informed and open to abuse a la yelp. These guys just don't seem to think that the huge expansion of consumer or amateur commentary can rival the more informed commentary of the pros, i.e., those who make a living off their observations.

    We're now in an age where this extreme interactivity can drown out the voices of the 'experts' And this happens among critics viz. Rotten Tomatoes, which also compiles and arrives at a score for movie goers. The day of the individual luminary is over as David White has argued persuasively. Now buyers get their guidance from friends and peers on sites like Amazon.

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  5. Tom, I don't think I would say Charlie falls into that category. Steve isn't against blogging as long as he's the only one doing it. Yes, the mere fact that people are reading and are interested in articles written by a guy in Colorado who writes about Colorado wine is great evidence for the age of democratization of opinion. Steve's, and other experts', opinion is still important, but its importance is on the decline....

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  6. I think Steve was thinking less of Ovid, and more along the lines of 1950s decade "Golden Age of Television (Dramas)" as his paradigm when he composed his blog entry titled "Saying Goodbye to the Golden Age of Wine Writing."

    Joe at 1 Wine Dude got it right in his blog entry titled “Are We In The Golden Age Of Wine Writing? (Hint: Not Even Close!)”

    [Link: http://www.1winedude.com/are-we-in-the-golden-age-of-wine-writing-hint-not-even-close/]

    Wine writers back in the 1970s were better educated than today's successors in print and online. Better credentialed -- coming largely from the ranks of seasoned newspaper and magazine staff writers who had already established their "writing chops" on various reporting "beats." More graceful stylists and more compelling storytellers. More careful fact-checkers.

    And less opinionated and more humble than today's successors.

    Not guilty of the narcissism displayed by too many “stream of consciousness” wine writers today who feel the need to express every little observation and opinion that pops into their head. Bereft of restraint and self-censorship.

    Self-styled "citizen journalists" who mistakenly believe they are protected against defamation and libel.

    See this article for their wake-up call . . .


    Excerpts from The Wall Street Journal “Personal Journal” Section
    (May 21, 2009, Page D1ff):

    “Bloggers, Beware: What You Write Can Get You Sued”

    [Link: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124287328648142113.html]

    By M.P. McQueen
    Staff Reporter

    Be careful what you post online. You could get sued.

    In March 2008, Shellee Hale of Bellevue, Wash., posted in several online forums about a hacker attack on a company that makes software used to track sales for adult-entertainment Web sites. She claimed that the personal information of the sites' customers was compromised.

    About three months later, the software company -- which contends that no consumer data were compromised -- sued Ms. Hale in state court in New Jersey, accusing her of embarking "on a campaign to defame and malign the plaintiffs" in chat-room posts.

    In her legal response, Ms. Hale, 46 years old, claims she is covered by so-called shield laws that protect reporters from suits, because she was acting as a journalist and was investigating the hacker attack while researching a story on adult-oriented spam.

    Bloggers are increasingly getting sued or threatened with legal action for everything from defamation to invasion of privacy to copyright infringement. . . . . There have been about $17.4 million in trial awards against bloggers to date, according to the Media Law Resource Center in New York, a nonprofit clearinghouse that tracks free-speech cases.

    Many lawsuits are thrown out of court or settled before trial, but not before causing headaches for the accused. Though the likelihood of a plaintiff winning a lawsuit is not high, "you could go bankrupt" just from defending against them, says Miriam Wugmeister, a partner at Morrison & Foerster LLP and a privacy and data-security law expert.

    . . .

    SLAPPED WITH LAWSUITS

    Civic gadflies and self-styled watchdogs who accuse local politicians and companies are getting slapped with lawsuits. People who post messages in chat rooms, online forums and blogs can be held liable for invasion of privacy or for making defamatory statements, which are damaging, false statements of fact.

    . . .

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  7. Replies
    1. [Comment removed by the author as redundant of my 5:00 AM posting. -- Bob]

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  8. Bob, yes, Joe did a great job in his writeup about the Golden Age of Wine Writing! All the lawsuits against bloggers supports the idea that we're actually in the Warring Age! Scary stuff. Thanks for the insightful comment!

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  9. ON THE SUBJECT OF WINE MERCHANTS AND THEIR RELIANCE ON SELLING OFF 100 POINT SCALE SCORES (AND THE RISE OF "MILLENNIALS" AND SOCIAL MEDIA).

    ~~ BOB


    Excerpts from Slate
    (posted July 21, 2011):

    "The Greatest Wine Retailer in America;
    How Chambers Street Wines eschewed critic ratings and built a loyal following.”

    http://www.slate.com/articles/life/drink/2011/07/the_greatest_wine_retailer_in_america.html

    By Mike Steinberger
    "Drink: Wine, Beer and Other Potent Potables" Column

    Depending on your circumstances, visiting a great wine shop can be an exhilarating experience or it can leave you feeling like a eunuch at an orgy. I'm on an austerity plan these days, and while I can walk into most wine stores content merely to browse, there is one shop that I actively avoid in the interest of financial rectitude and domestic tranquility. That would be New York's Chambers Street Wines. IF THERE’S A BETTER WINE PURVEYOR ANYWHERE, I HAVEN’T ENCOUNTERED IT; at Chambers Street, temptation lurks in literally every rack and bin, and even just writing about the place makes me want to whip out a credit card. . . . BUT IT IS ALSO THAT RAREST OF THINGS IN AMERICAN WINE RETAILING: A STORE WITH A DISTINCTIVE VOICE. [Capitalization added for emphasis. – Bob]

    . . .

    THERE IS ANOTHER THING THAT SETS CHAMBERS STREET APART FROM MOST OF ITS COMPETITORS: LILLIE AND WOLFF HAVE NEVER USED RATINGS FROM CRITICS TO HELP SELL THEIR WINES. WHEN CHAMBERS STREET OPENED, IT WAS DIFFICULT TO FIND AN UPSCALE WINE STORE THAT WASN’T COVERED IN SHELF TALKERS TOUTING SCORES FROM ROBERT PARKER AND THE WINE SPECTATOR. MANY MERCHANTS HAD SIMPLY STOPPED SELLING WINE AND WERE INSTEAD FLOGGING POINTS. BUT LILLIE AND WOLFF WERE INTENT ON ESTABLISHING A RAPPORT WITH CUSTOMERS THAT WASN’T MEDIATED BY THIRD-PARTY OPINIONS. "We wanted the shop to be completely personal -- to get know people's taste, and to recommend wines we liked and that we thought they would enjoy," Lillie told me. He's quick to note that, back in 2001, the kind of wines that he and Wolff were interested in didn't get much attention from critics, which made it easier to eschew scores. Fair enough, but I still think it took some guts make Chambers Street a points-free zone.

    A DECADE ON, THEIR DECISION LOOKS PRESCIENT. THAT’S BECAUSE RATING SEEM TO BE DIMINISHING IN IMPORTANCE. A VERY SELF-CONFIDENT WINE CULTURE HAS TAKEN ROOT IN THE UNITED STATES: PEOPLE ARE USING DISCUSSION BOARDS AND SOCIAL MEDIA TO FIND THEIR WAY TO GOOD BOTTLES, AND THE INFLUENCE OF CRITICS IS WANING, ESPECIALLY AMONG YOUNG DRINKERS. ... RAMPANT GRADE INFLATION COULD BE HASTENING THAT DECLINE. High ratings help merchants sell wines, and being cited on shelf talkers and in email offers is free publicity for critics, who thus have an incentive to bump up their scores. But big numbers have now become so prevalent that they've turned the 100-point scale into a farce. I THINK RETAILERS ARE GOING TO HAVE TO LEARN TO SELL WINE AGAIN, and in that sense, Chambers Street has a big jump on a lot of other stores.

    . . .

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