Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Throwing up a roadblock for certain cars... (Why Wine Spectator's change in policy is bad for the industry)

The Wine Spectator has never been a big proponent of regional American wines. This is not news. In the past few years, New York wines started to get more coverage, but that was due more to the hard work of the Finger Lakes Wine Alliance and its former executive director Morgen McLaughlin than an inherit interest from the Wine Spectator. The occasion review of wines from Arizona, Colorado or Virginia would appear at times in the past few years as well. But for the most part, coverage of wine from the other 46 states was virtually non-existent.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Sommelier Journal suspends publication

The world of writing has lost one of the best outlets for current, interesting and useful information pertaining to wine. Minutes ago, Sommelier Journal announced that it has "suspended publication." Perhaps the magazine is not completely dead as David Vogels, former editor and publisher of Sommelier Journal, said in the letter sent to its contributors (which includes yours truly), that his team is "currently negotiating with a group that hopes to purchase the title and resume publishing the magazine at some point within the next year." Subscribers will have the remainder of their subscriptions fulfilled by Wine & Spirits Magazine.

I contributed four articles (see other articles) and had several more scheduled for 2014, so this news comes as a shock and a disappointment to me personally. Though the magazine's intended audience was industry professionals, I thought many of the stories and profiles were great for general consumers and knowledgeable enthusiasts. Sommelier Journal wasn't beholden to advertisers (perhaps why it struggled economically) and that showed with its diverse stories on all things wine, spirits and beer. No region or wine was too small, unknown or unheralded to warrant attention. I think that openness is what made Sommelier Journal one of the better wine publications for learning something new rather than hearing the same thing repeated annually.

I can only hope that it is sold and rebooted, and I think the industry will be a better place if that were to happen. I can only speculate that Wine & Spirits is involved (based on the fact that they are honoring remaining SJ subscriptions and that Vogels recommends contacting Josh Greene at Wine & Spirits or Neil Beckett at The World of Fine Wine for pitching stories that were promised to SJ), but do not know for sure. If they are, it would be interesting to see how Sommelier Journal would fit into a roster of wine publications a la M. Shanken Publications. Again, that is only speculation.

The main matter of concern with the loss of Sommelier Journal is that it decreases the number of voices. One of the best parts of the wine writing world today is the shear number of diverse opinions, voices and opportunities for spreading information. Fewer paying, print publications is a bad thing for writers and readers. Sommelier Journal recently tried to take the leap digitally and expand services online, but apparently the the lack of advertisers and the small subscription base was not large enough to support the operation. Perhaps this was the reason that Wine Advocate (which did not accept paid advertisements) took on investors. Wine Enthusiast and Wine Spectator both must obviously make a fair profit from their advertisements. I'm not claiming that Sommelier Journal was as large or as influential as those major publications, but it was no less important and that is something to be sad about.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Wine Curmudgeon's Guide to Cheap Wine

Just like becoming an expert in wine–you learn by drinking it, the best you can afford–you learn about great food by finding the best there is, whether simply or luxurious. The you savor it, analyze it, and discuss it with your companions, and you compare it with other experiences. - Julia Child

This quote by the chef that brought French cuisine to America in the 1960s and 1970s perhaps perfectly sums up a book by a man trying to bring cheap wine to the world of wine writing. Jeff Siegel, aka The Wine Curmudgeon, doesn't need to bring cheap wine to Americans because, outside the sphere of connoisseurship to which you and I belong, cheap wine is what regular Americans drink. The average amount spent on a bottle of wine in the United States is somewhere around $6-$7 per bottle. Wine doesn't have to be luxurious, expensive or from a famous region to complement a meal, a date or just an evening by oneself. It is through these, often, simple wines that Americans experience, savor and learn about fermented grape juice.

The Wine Curmudgeon's Guide to Cheap Wine offers a look into the world of cheap wine, a world often ignored by those of us that write about wine, and why cheap wine matters. The book started as a Kickstarter project and is a natural extension of Jeff's wine blog, The Wine Curmudgeon. Jeff is a true consumer advocate. He doesn't care about offending wineries, receiving samples or making a name for himself. He doesn't concern himself with assigning points to wine or telling his readers what they should like. He truly cares about suggesting wines that consumers should spend their hard-earned money on and reaffirms them to trust their own palates. He knows his wine and is a fan of well-known and expensive wines (if what's in the bottle is high quality). But Jeff's passion is cheap wine. Wine that doesn't cost an arm and a leg, but over delivers on the quality front.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Why wine reviewers should be more like book reviewers

Yesterday, Tom Wark wrote about the differences between wine and book reviewers. The article was insightful, but I took exception to his basic premise that "it doesn’t take much time to produce a wine review." It doesn't take much time to produce a review of anything. I can look at a car for 30 seconds and estimate how fast it is, what kind of fuel efficiency you should expect and tell you if I like its lines. But how much time a critic takes to conduct a review is related to the thoroughness of the assessment. Thirty seconds with a car does nothing to explore the comfort or practicality of the automobile. A thorough assessment is not a guarantee of a quality assessment, but it does make an thoughtful review more likely.

It is an industry standard that wine reviewers spend 5-10 minutes (at most) swirling, sniffing, sipping and spitting wine in a sterile (not in the medical sense) setting. Yes, most good critics will also visit the regions and meet with the producers they critique to develop a context for the wines they assess. Yet, the official reviews come from relatively short periods of time spent with the actual wine and in the presence of dozens of other wines also being assessed. The resulting wine reviews are meant to assist consumers with their purchase decisions. I am not ardently against tasting notes and despite my disdain for the 100-pt system I understand its purpose and relative usefulness.

The thing that irks me about the standard system for wine reviews and pointed out by Tom Wark, is that there is no need for a wine critic to spend more than 10 minutes with a wine. Most consumers I know do not spend only 10 minutes with wine swirling, sniffing, sipping, spitting and repeating. They consume the wine. Often with food and rarely in the presence of other wines. There may be no need to spend more than 60 seconds with a wine, but there is a benefit to the consumer when a critic gives a wine the attention its users give it. As I commented on Tom's blog, [t]asting a wine with food can be important. Tasting wine at different points in its lifetime can be important. Spending 2 minutes with 20 wines is like reading the prologue of 20 books and stating definitively what happens in the last chapter of each and proclaiming which book is the most well-written!

Yes, an experienced book reviewer can probably give a good estimate of what's a book about by looking at the author's name, the publisher and reading the prologue or first chapter. That is exactly what wine critics do. Some do it quite well, but none are perfect. I understand this process because I often do the same thing. For those of you (if any) who have read my blog from its inception will know that wine reviews have become increasingly missing from my posts. Sure, I still write about specific wines, and sometimes I tasted them in the way I am critiquing here. But most of the few reviews I post are of wines I drink at home, over the course of a few hours, with and without food. That's how most wine consumers drink.

I really like Tom's suggestion of the long-form wine review. I know that is not going to happen with the major wine publications because they depend on volume. More reviews equals more points. More points equates to more readers. More readers means more revenue. But perhaps alternative critics might be able to utilize Tom's suggestion. In fact, more writers/bloggers are adding in the story of the vintner or the land in lieu of lists of aromas and flavors that you may or may not be able to detect in a wine.  Two of my favorite writers doing this are Alder Yarrow, of Vinography, and RH Drexel, of Loam Baby. They both tell the story of wine differently, but each does so with enthusiasm and interesting writing. They add value to their writing when they spend more than 60 seconds with a wine or winemaker (despite Alder also having a tendency for many short reviews from mass tastings...).

Wine reviewers should spend more time with wines they are reviewing just like book reviewers spend hours, if not days, with the books they review. They should aim to be more than just reviewers, but actual writers. Just as with a book, not all the subtleties of a wine are noticeable at first. Consumers could benefit from the greater insight and context of a wine gained from more thorough assessments. Wine reviews don't need to be longer, but they should be!

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Guest post from my extern

I've turned this post over to my friend and psuedo-mentor, Harry Oldman.

Dr. Oldman has been in the wine business for decades. He used to be a computational physicist at a national laboratory in New Mexico, involved in computational fluid dynamics of wine. But after getting sidetracked on a trip to California by Randall Grahm, he has never been the same.

He shares his thoughts and opinions on wine and wine writing on various online wine boards, but I of course don't listen to what he has to say (you know, with me being a Millennial and all).

Since 1WineDude and The Hosemaster of WineTM have occasionally handed their blogs over to their interns, I figured I’d open my blog to this extern. Plus, this will allow me to put in extra hours on social media and get my beauty rest all at the same time.

So, with out any further ado, here is Dr. Oldman:

Monday, October 7, 2013

Regional Wine Week, version 2013...

Yesterday marked the beginning of the 2013 edition of Regional Wine Week. This sixth annual event was started by DrinkLocalWine.com, a non-profit organization dedicated to "wines from lesser known areas — not because we don’t like California, Oregon or Washington wines, but they get plenty of coverage in the major wine magazines." Regional Wine Week is a chance for writers, bloggers or just regular consumers to share their thoughts and experiences on regional wine with the world. Accompanying Regional Wine Week this year is a photo contest. You can participate in the contest by sharing a picture, or three, on DLW's Facebook page. It can be a photo from a visit to one of your favorite local wineries or a bottle of regional wine you recently enjoyed with a good meal. Just take a picture, describe it in less than 100 words, and post it to their Facebook wall for all of their friends to see, like, share, and comment on. Include the hash-tag #DrinkLocalWine with each entry so everyone can easily find your post.

I'd also ask you to do two things for Regional Wine Week. First, share a bottle of wine from one of your favorite local wineries with someone that might not be familiar with it, or even familiar with that region. Recommendations from friends can be very powerful. It doesn't take a positive critical review from Wine Advocate or Wine Spectator to make a wine worth drinking. In fact, those reviews might be harder to come by for regional wineries as Wine Spectator recently changed its policy on sample submissions and will no longer accept wines without prior approval from the tasting department. This means wines that aren't widely available across the country (i.e., small, family-owned regional wineries) won't as easily get in front of James Molesworth to be reviewed. This may not seem like a big deal, but it is another impediment for regional wineries to join the mainstream wine industry. If you have a local wine that you think your friends might enjoy, they'd probably take your recommendation over Molesworth's anyway.

My second request is to try a new wine from a local winery or from a region which you may have not yet tasted. There are always new wineries starting up, so finding a new winery might not be as difficult as you think. However, finding the wine might be. Today's no-name winery could be tomorrow's Screaming Eagle. Go to your local wine shop and ask for something local. If they don't carry any, suggest that should and tell them you'll be back to buy some when they do. Or better yet, look up wineries near you. You might be surprised to see a winery just down the street. Go in and visit them in person. Small wineries love to meet their local customers. Also, don't be afraid to try a unusual variety or blend. Many wineries not bordering the Pacific Ocean make different wines than you'd find in traditional wine country. If the wine is good, let them know by buying a few bottles. If the wine isn't so good, let them know as well. Be nice about it, but constructive criticism is the only way some wineries will be pushed to improve their product. Too often people do not let winemakers know when their wine isn't up to par. Also, never feel obligated to buy a bottle of wine that you don't like.

If enough people do these two little things (share a bottle with a friend and try a new wine or winery) it can make a real difference to regional wine as a whole. All 50 states have wineries and half of the country's wineries are located in a place other than California. These wineries just need a little encourage and support to make a name for themselves. And that is what Regional Wine Week is all about.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Using social media to get laid.... or something like that!

People who use social media to make sales are like people who go to bars to get laid. It's a crude picture, but you probably aren't going to have a great experience. You may, but basically in both cases actually starting a relationship is what it's about. What social media is about is starting relationships, long-term ideally, with consumers who are actually going to listen to you and you're going to listen to them. - Robert Joseph during "The role of social media and traditional communication" at Savour Australia 2013.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The most interesting, imaginative and intelligent wine publication...

There are lots of wine publications floating around, both in paper and digital formats. Decanter, Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast and Wine Advocate are probably considered the most influential and most dominant wine glossies aimed at consumers. Though they all contain articles about people, places and various lifestyle topics, their raison d'ĂȘtre is reviewing wine and distilling the wine down to a numerical shorthand (all now use the 100-point system) that supposedly corresponds to quality. The editors may claim that the score is secondary to the actual review, but those periodicals are most cited by consumers and retailers in connection with just the ratings, often times with the actual arbiter of the score detached from his or her decree.