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09.20.2006

What is The Wine Spectator Afraid Of?

Ladies and gentlemen, I would like August 31, 2006 to go down in modern wine publishing history. This is officially the day that the Wine Spectator (grand poobah of the wine publishing world) officially acknowledged the existence of wine blogs (aside from the ones they started that you can't read without paying).

Just for the record, while every major food magazine that has wine coverage, and every major lifestyle magazine that has wine coverage, and every major newspaper that covers wine has provided their readers with information about wine blogs, not a single major dedicated wine magazine has ever mentioned a specific wine blog. Not the Spectator, not Decanter, not Wine Enthusiast, not Wine & Spirits. Someone please correct me if I'm wrong here, but that's a little fishy, dontcha think?

Anyhow, back to Kramer and the Spectator. Even though to my knowledge Matt Kramer had technically used the phrase "wine blogs" once before in the magazine and once in a column for the New York Sun, in the August Issue of the Spectator Kramer spends three whole paragraphs in an essay entitled "You Can't Get It, but That's OK" talking about wine blogs.

There is a slight problem however.

1. Everything he says is completely wrong.

2. He again fails to mention a single individual wine blog.

This is so preposterous and laughable that I hope you'll excuse me for quoting at length:

"The latest phase in writing about wine is blogging. Now I like blogs. For too long, wine writing was pretty much like sending messages to Voyager II. We writers held forth and, apart from the odd letter (usually asking if an old bottle of Blue Nun that the reader found in his mother's utility room is worth any money), we never heard anything back...."

"One thing is constant, though: Scratch a wine writer or blogger -- a good one, anyway -- and you'll find an evangelist. No sooner do you taste a terrific wine than you're on the horn by phone, fax, e-mail, chat board, or blog telling all your friends.

It's all about finding, and heralding, really good wines to try. But this is not as easy as it sounds. Because really Good wine is not that easy to buy...."

"Bloggers freely tout wines that are great but elusive. This is why I envy them. As a longtime newspaper wine columnist, let me tell you that newspaper readers don't want to hear about some goofy wine with production levels measured in the high two digits. They'll turn to the sports section so fast that the resulting wrist sprain will put them on the disabled list.

Indeed, even Wine Spectator, whose readers can be relied on to have more than a passing interest in the subject regularly receives complaints after recommending one wine or another whose total number of cases made wouldn't suffice to build a small igloo..."

"Just getting the news that new wine life forms are being discovered is a legitimate, even inspirational, part of today's wine gratification. And that, at least, is easier to get than ever before."

Seriously. How much of a joke is this?

I want to be clear that I don't see this article as an attack on wine blogs. Certainly Kramer seems to like them (though he won't tell you which ones). But he's totally off his rocker to suggest that one of "the problems" with wine blogs is that they end up recommending wines that no one can get.

If anything, it's quite the opposite. Most wine blogs, frankly, write about pretty mainstream wines that their owners are buying in local stores all the time. Vinography is probably the worst offender of the wine blogs out there, and I'd estimate I'm writing about sub-1000 case production wines only about 20% of the time.

I don't want to be snippy, but compare that to the Wine Spectator where quite often their highest rated wines are made in quantities between 50 and 150 cases, and Kramer doesn't have a leg to stand on with this argument. The top rated wines in the very same issue where his article appears are all roughly sub-1000 case production and of the collectible European wines some are only imported in quantities of less than 30 cases !!

Now, to my second point. Isn't it just a little bizzarre that Kramer talks about how he loves wine blogs, mentions that there are even "good ones" out there, and closes his entire essay with a statement that could be interpreted as saying that he finds wine blogs an "inspirational" source of wine information that's "easier to get than ever before" yet he fails to mention a single actual wine blog??

Stupefying.

Yes, of course this is a self serving rant on my part. But I would have been just as thrilled to see ANY of my fellow wine bloggers' sites in print in this article as I would have my own.

Come on, Kramer. Come on, Spectator (and the rest of you big wine publications). What are you afraid of?

Comments (45)

bb wrote:
09.20.06 at 3:56 AM

I don't recall The Chicago Tribune ever acknowledging the existance of the Chicago Sun Times unless there is some dirt to toss around. I doubt that anyone at any of the wine oriented print magazines view bloggers as anything but competition.

09.20.06 at 4:04 AM

Afraid of:
1. Commitment only with quality?
2. Independence of criteria?
3. Writing only about you want to write because you want to do that?
4. The end of a monopoly?
5. Having readers absolutely all over the world?
and...and...and
Once again, Alder, perfect!
Joan

Alfonso wrote:
09.20.06 at 4:51 AM

Be careful what you ask for. They will eventually get to the blogs, they just will have to find a Rachel Ray or Katie Couric. Someone that can "simplify" the message, make it "easy" for the "casual" enthusiast. It will happen and then the golden days of wine blogging will be in the rear view mirror.

mike wrote:
09.20.06 at 5:20 AM

I love you reviews Alder, but I must say that I can rarely find wines that you review. Granted I live on the East Coast and you are typically reviewing local wineries, but it is true.

Andrew wrote:
09.20.06 at 6:04 AM

The market and the wine trade is different in the UK - wines can be shipped though out the country and the major chains/supermarkets are everywhere so there should be no problem in sourcing wines reviewed. Of course the article isn't at all interested in/referring to the UK. Also as most bloggers purchase the wines they review themselves you seldom see such exclusive/expensive wines written about.

Melanie wrote:
09.20.06 at 6:12 AM

I also have a hard time finding wines you blog about. I grew up in California but am now living in North Carolina; let me tell you, I cannot wait to go back to California. I am trying to be open minded enough to try local things, but the quality is simply lacking. I can't say that I've found anything I really like, so far. Then again, I only try 1-3 a month.

David wrote:
09.20.06 at 6:21 AM

Alder- I am right with you on the thoughts. I believe that most institutional writers/publishers are concerned about recognizing bloggers because they have a great deal to lose if bloggers gain credibility.

I, personally, never read institutional writers, I believe they are all pimping for bucks.

Unfortunately bloggers are beginning to do the same.

I am not concerned, as Alfonso, about the RR of the moment considering the current "wine culture", or lack of it, in the US - Anything that helps the masses understand is all good for me - I am somewhat concerned about having to discern between the paid bloggers and the passion bloggers.

sam wrote:
09.20.06 at 6:59 AM

apart from 'Food & Wine' where I prefer to look at the recipes, it has never occured to me to read a magazine dedicated to wine in my entire life. Just as well by the sounds of things.

I love to read the odd wine blog or two though - it makes me feeling I am learning more about wine in friendly places. Blogs seem to share real wine experiences by real people which I can relate to.

If the Wine SPectator is so narrow minded, you should stop reading it. I am worried about your blood pressure!

Alder wrote:
09.20.06 at 7:38 AM

I recognize that some readers (especially those on the East Coast or internationally) have a hard time finding wines that I blog about, but sadly that has way more to do with the @#$5!ed up distribution laws in this country than the production level of the wines.

I have found that even some of the more mainstream California wines (which I write about more often than any other location) are difficult to source in NJ, NY, and Chicago, and nearly impossible to source in Atlanta and the South.

One of the things that I am proud of is that after every individual wine review I almost always can provide you readers a link to purchase the wine on the Internet from some retailer, somewhere.

That's something I've always found missing from the magazines and newspapers.

Sam. Don't worry about my blood pressure. I only sound like an angry young man when I want to.

Jack wrote:
09.20.06 at 8:06 AM

Oh Alder, don't you know that the Wine Spectator tries to keep this whole wine thing as mysterious as possible? (...And the only thing you need to know about ANY wine is it's WS rating.)

Just like you'll never see Bose speakers demoed with a competitor's, you'll never see the Wine Spectator acknowledge that you might get good wine information from a newspaper, a blog or another magazine.

I, too, thought that was a pretty bizarre column by Matt Kramer. Is he feeling threatened by them? (Or why write what he did?) Perhaps he's afraid that wine bloggers will make his own column irrelevant, so he has to associate them with Blue Nun, goofy and evangelist.

John wrote:
09.20.06 at 8:29 AM

I'm terribly afraid I'm the offending blogger from whom Kramer took his cues. Mostly I write about my own wine, and except in the instance of my 05 chardonnay (4 whole cases) my production is very limited and availability is pretty much non-existent. I had not considered how infuriating this must be for the everyday blogreader.

Sincere apologies to everyone.

St.Vini wrote:
09.20.06 at 9:06 AM

Great rant.

"...but compare that to the Wine Spectator where quite often their highest rated wines are made in quantities between 50 and 150 cases..."

My exact thoughts. Hypocritical and one of the reasons WS is increasingly marginalized and obviously the other reason why free blogs are a threat and will not be mentioned in its pages.

Its sort of like when Netscape was still charging for its software and IE came out for free.....do you think Netscape put up a link to Microsoft?

V

Alder wrote:
09.20.06 at 9:56 AM

That ZinGuy is ruining blogging for the rest of us! Someone needs to put him in his place by making a 99 point 2 case production wine and blogging about it.

Doug wrote:
09.20.06 at 1:36 PM

I like Kramer's columns better than any others in WS. Also, keep in mind that his work probably passes in front of an editor before it's published.

Actually, I think he should blog about wine. His columns are usually filled with more insight and analysis rather than just reporting tasting notes and ratings like other columnists.

All of print media is going through this migration to online media. It started with the technology-focused media, and now it's moving into other industries. For instance, check out www.chow.com and www.chowhound.com. It's only a matter of time before a similar site wholly dedicated to wine with its own bloggers shows up (or maybe it already has).

Natester wrote:
09.20.06 at 2:38 PM

Nice one Alder.

As for those having trouble finding certain wines: I thought we solved this problem long ago with the internet and specifically wine-searcer.com?!

SobreVino wrote:
09.20.06 at 2:40 PM

The whole publishing industry is completely disoriented regarding the digital media. They just don´t understand the internet. They don´t want to assume that a huge communication mass is emerging and building a new way to access information and get recommendations. Communication power has always been a huge asset. Some might be trembling about what is happening to it…

Regards,

SobreVino

ali wrote:
09.20.06 at 4:30 PM

The whole fact that anyone is ranting, praising or expressing their opinion at all about wine blogs makes me smile. Kramer should have researched wine blogs a little deeper to see all the diveristy. I mean, jeez, Alder you list how many now on your site?!! Viral marketing is only in the beginning stages of the wine industry for certain.

My little blog is a solid mix between entrepreneurship in the wine business and wine education about producers I truly believe in & that are actually available in the Texas market ...someone recently called me the "Carry Bradshaw" (from Sex & the City) of the wine biz in Texas. If I only could afford her shoes! ha.

Keep up the passion Alder, I explain to old school wine buyers daily what a blog is and to never under estimate its power of reaching far and wide. Fired up! Ali

Christopher wrote:
09.20.06 at 4:48 PM

I'm new to wine.

Without your blog--a couple years down the road--I'd probably still be new to wine.

Some of the wines you discuss may be hard to find, but in searching for them, I've found shops in the area I never knew existed (Dallas/Ft. Worth, Texas). Wines I can't find locally...you provide links where the wine can be purchased.

Even if I had an extremely hard time finding the wines you discuss, if I found and bought just one bottle you've recommended, you'd have done more for getting me interested in wine than any glossy magazine.

09.20.06 at 5:21 PM

Alder, nice job, I completely agree. Wine Spectator reviews lots of hard to get wines. Kramer in fact writes in the Oregonian newspaper a column that regularly recommends wines that take a little work to find. So much so, he even admits as much and not only gives you the distributor's name to help in the search, he tells you exactly how to approach your wine retailer to get him or her to special order the wine for you. His column is almost like a blog, minus the comments. He's jealous of bloggers?

And so what if you can't find the wines you read about? Do we expect to visit all the places we read about in travel magazines? Wear all the clothes mentioned in fashion mags? Meet the characters in your favorite novel or play? It's perposterous. Why can't great wine writing be enough? Is wine writing only a means to an end - acquiring the wine in question? How depressing.

Alder wrote:
09.20.06 at 5:27 PM

Doug,

I like Kramer's column more than all the others in WS too. In fact, he's one of the reasons I'm still a subscriber to the magazine. I really enjoy his approach to most things wine.

fred wrote:
09.20.06 at 6:41 PM

While I think the WS column in question is braindead, I wouldn't paint Kramer with the same brush that the Spectator deserves. He is an exceptional writer, as evidenced by his "Making Sense Of" books. The Spectator, on the other hand, suffers all the ills of mainstream media. Alder, this kerfuffle is beneath you.

09.20.06 at 8:57 PM

Nice commentary. As a specialty wine shop in Post Falls, Idaho, we try to find wines that have low case production, not just because they're low case production, but because they tend to be better tasting wines! That's part of the fun isn't it? Getting ahold of something that nobody else has or can get? The great thing about great wine is it's not in a McDonalds wrapper and can't be mass-marketed like so many hamburgers. We make a point of investing in the great wines early so our cadre of North Idaho wine lovers can enjoy limited edition wines! Blogs or no blogs, the best place to go for wine information on wine you can actually buy is a specialty wine shop, or a local wine tasting event, so you can "try before you buy."

Thanks for your enlightening posts,

Russell Mann

Stephen Trask wrote:
09.20.06 at 9:46 PM

I love reading your blog and I love your rants against the Wine Spectator. But I can't agree with this one. Someone above pointed out that newspapers rarely, if ever, mention their competitors and then usually to criticize or poke fun. But as much as I love this blog (its the only wine blog I come back to and will always be greatful for learning about JC Cellars from you) I also love WS. As a wine neophyte that magazine was crucial in my education about wine, has enriched my enjoyment of it, and is an important part of my wine purchase decisions, although by all means not the only part. Their recommendations and reviews run the gamut from massive scale production to boutique wineries so that there is something in every issue for every consumer.

Again, I love this blog and read it more than once a week. But these sorts of rants might be better emailed to yourself and left in your inbox.

Scott wrote:
09.20.06 at 10:23 PM

At least someone out there is acknowledging that more voices is better. I posted to a WS "blog" in the wake of the Jancis accusation a few months ago to that effect and several other readers wrote in saying that they appreciated the expertise that only someone who had many years of experience tasting in a given region could provide. I do like having reviews make informed comparisons and there are subtleties for the truly enlightened I cannot yet approach, yet I found that attitude to be somewhat stupifying. Which do you think is more useful and honest: one "expert" or a few experienced amatuers with far fewer conflicts of interest?

Oh, I forgot: WS is the only publication that tastes blind, so there are no curiously low or high ratings for certain wines. WHATEVER!!!!!

Not that all bloggers are pure.

For WS to remain remotely relevant amongst people who have any degree of clue, they might review fewer wines by larger panels of people. It would be more educational and more interesting. But then, point-seeking automatons might have to contend with a wine being recommended by a merchant sans points consensus, and then they might have to face the greatest spectre of all: confidence in their own tastes.

And that, to me, is the great threat that blogs pose to WS and it's ilk -- they help demystify wine by showing former amatuers who grew into reliable sources... if Alder can do that, why can't I? Blogs prove that wine credentials (e.g. a column in WS), like a lot of so-called authorities in non-science fields, are credentials of bullshit artists, whose reviews, 80%+ of the time, could be written by anyone.

Alder wrote:
09.20.06 at 10:51 PM

Frederic and Stephen,

This isn't an objection to Kramer, only to this column of his, and perhaps the sort of editorial point of view for the magazine which it might represent. I don't have anything against the Wine Spectator (I've been a subscriber for some time and still am) nor do I have anything against Kramer (He's one of my favorite wine writers, as I have said many times). But I know an illogical and hypocritical argument when I see one, and one of the pleasures of having a blog is being able to call a spade a spade when you need to, without the editorial oversight that Kramer is no doubt subject to.

Rather than being beneath me, I believe this sort of thing is precisely what blogs are good for -- voicing opinions that run counter to the "establishment view" which is certainly what Kramer is espousing in this article, regardless of the fact that he isn't normally known for toeing the "corporate" line. I expect more from him, and I'm saying so.

Bertrand wrote:
09.21.06 at 3:38 AM

Well said, Alder !
As a poster wrote above, I can understand that wine blogs can be seen as a threat to many established glossy magazines :

They are free of charge, choose independantly they stories, have access instantly to a readership all over the world, and are unhindered to occasionally address issues which could embarrass some interests in the wine industry.

You're doing yourself a great job with Vinography in exploring the wine world without the elitist and commercial styles that affects some of the wine magazines (including in the old world).

Not citing a single wine blogs allowed them to say they have addressed the issue (wine blogs) without taking the risk to see some of their readership (the ones who are not familiar with exploring the internet, because the others will find the blogs easily) flee.

David Murray wrote:
09.21.06 at 3:57 AM

Great blogg Alder. I don't think Kramer gets the point. Many of us are frustrated wine Journos who want to vent about everything grape related, but also enjoy hearing passion from like minded people. Even when this is about wines we'll never see, drink or even be able to pronounce. I'm a big fan of the US wine podcasts such as A Boy, A Girl and A Bottle, and especially 3 Wine Guys. They are often talking about small production wines of California, however the passion and the knowledge makes up for the fact I'm unlikely to taste any of them.

Winesmith wrote:
09.21.06 at 5:38 AM

Nicely put, Alder. I'd wager that they're afraid of losing readers and advertising dollars. But you'd think they'd put their brands (and resources) to work to be a leader in the wine blogophere.

I'm lucky that my local paper, the Washington Post, has embraced blogs. And they're one of a small number of newspapers that seem to have a good shot at surviving in the Internet era.

I'd also guess that there's some sort of elitism happening, but that's hard to prove without knowing any of these writers.

Carter wrote:
09.21.06 at 5:57 AM

Hi Alder, Great post. Kramer's attitude is tied to whole cozy wine industry that includes the three-tier distribution oligopoly set up after Prohibition. Luckily, blogs are opening up info about wines and the Federal Courts are starting to sweep away antiquated laws that make it difficult to get access to wines in different markets.

Anonymous wrote:
09.21.06 at 6:13 AM

Fascinating stuff, Alder. I have to wonder if the decision not to mention specific blogs came from up high(er) in the Spectator editorial dept. We'll never know, of course, but one of WS's classic means of maintaining its 800-lb gorilla grip is simply not acknowledging other wine media. To do so would be to elevate the status of those "other" outlets, be they blogs, newsletters or major critics at other magazines. It's all very unnatural, and time will prove blogs' collective (and growing) influence.

fred wrote:
09.21.06 at 11:47 AM

I am struck by the number of posters who confuse Quality with Commercial Success. Of course the Spectator is flawed -- it's advertising-driven. It serves commerce first, consumers second. That's why we read Vinography: to get a fresher, broader perspective. To learn something. Unfortunately, this particular post has been something of a let-down.

DINO wrote:
09.21.06 at 6:30 PM

I think Matt Kramer’s message is threefold:
First, he wanted to alert loyal Spectator subscribers that there is a “new” phenomenon on the internet, called wine blogs. Second, he wanted to assure them that these blogs were nothing to worry about (hence none were cited), because while they may be entertaining, they were too esoteric to be of value to Spectator subscribers. Third, (and perhaps most important) he wanted to warn the bloggers to stay off the Spectator’s turf, that is, the arbiter of taste in all things relating to wine, champion of the up-scale lifestyle and, thus, the defender of the civilized life.

PhilaFoodie wrote:
09.21.06 at 6:39 PM

Brilliant analysis, Alder. Keep on ranting.

Terry Hughes wrote:
09.22.06 at 3:58 AM

Let's face it, the old media are dying a death, namely a death of their critical monopoly, their raison d'etre, and their financial death is beginning.

Bloggers, continue as you were.

"Let a thousand flowers bloom."

Ryan Scott wrote:
09.22.06 at 4:04 AM

My personal wine blog is focused on local tastings here in Colorado (for people who can't always make it to a tasting), and it focuses on Colorado wines, there are few, if any, sources for Colorado wine reviews, and now that Colorado wine can be shipped all over, it's a good thing to be one of the few reviewing our young and blossoming wine industry, even if the wines might be "obscure."

Mary Baker wrote:
09.22.06 at 9:24 AM

Matt Kramer's column was also my favorite--in fact the only thing I enjoyed reading in WS. We own a successful small winery, but we don't even subscribe anymore--the issues just sat around un-read. I have three years' worth of back issues stacked in our winery bathroom. I was hoping people would take them home, but--I kid you not--we've had more rolls of toilet paper disappear than issues of the Wine Spectator.

The sad thing is that they could view blogs as a 'free' extension of their services. Winery blogs and some wine bloggers don't accept advertising, so the WS would be doing their readers a service to provide references to other 'free' articles and stories. Service. Readers. It seems to be a concept that the WS has left behind long ago.

Jathan wrote:
09.22.06 at 9:50 AM

The growing pains faced by the Used Auto industry are similar to what the Wine Industry is facing. For years, the dominate publications were free or cheap rag papers you read while having a cup of coffee at the donut shop. Autotrader.com was an unknown, now, it is the defacto source for finding your next pre-owned vehicle. However, Knight Ridder Media is Autotrader's parent company, and made the transition into the online world.

The folks at Wine Spectator aren't stupid. They have an ever expanding list of online subscribers and don't have much to worry about from wine blogs, so why didn't make mention of any? Why give anyone an inch in a competitive world?

Dorian wrote:
09.22.06 at 11:44 AM

I'm totally on the same page when it comes to the Wine Spectator. I actually started my own cheap wine review blog because I was so sick of the Spectators reviews.

Ben wrote:
09.22.06 at 8:01 PM

Wow, Alder. You should write about writing about blogs more often. It gets more comments than biodynamics.

Jason wrote:
09.24.06 at 7:18 AM

Alder, for the record, Decanter did a full page feature on the Stormhoek blog in the May 2006 issue. So, at least they are a bit more open, but at the same time, they have far less to lose than the Spectator.

The fact is that the US 'wine information business' is owned primarily by The Spectator. Though I suspect that they would never admit it, blogs are a real threat to them as blogs provide varied, interesting and FREE information on wine that is available to all. Blogs subvert the Power Hierarchy that feeds their business.

Ultimately Cluetrain principles will prevail and there will be a democratization of wine information, reviews, etc. It is a trend that the entire publishing business has to deal with, not just The Spectator. However, the issues are more acute in wine as there are have historically been so few communication channels.

Jason

Alder wrote:
09.24.06 at 8:43 AM

Jason,

Thanks for the comments. Somehow I missed that article. I'll have to go back into my stacks and check it out. Call me pedantic but I still don't think that counts as a mention of wine blogs. Your blog could never be considered "competition" for a wine magazine as it's essentially a marketing and customer relationship vehicle for the winery, as opposed to an editorially driven source of objective/subjective wine information.

But good to know they at least used the word blog.

Lenn wrote:
09.25.06 at 4:27 AM

Not much that I can add to this conversation...I think you, and most of your readers, are right in questioning the WS.

But, I have to admit that I'm probably more guilty than any wine blogger of writing about wines that are hard/impossible for the average reader to find.

Many of the Long Island wines I write about never leave the Island...with super-low production (just reviewed a 75-case run malbec) annoying shipping difficulties and awful (and I mean awful) marketing on the part of the region...these wines just don't get far.

Of course, many of my readers ARE New Yorkers...but the fact remains...some bloggers are guilty of what Kramer suggests.

Not that I'm defending the rest of the story in the least mind you.

Diva Dahling wrote:
11.03.06 at 11:20 AM

I found a link to your blog when I Googled Wine Spectator. You are dead on with your assessment of their elitist attitude. I do like reading their wine reviews, but can only do so at Borders or the library. Who can afford a subscription to their rag?

I am bookmarking your site and passing it along to my friends. Thank you so much for the links to other wine blogs!

Arthur wrote:
12.26.06 at 3:52 PM

I read that column and I was not sure what Kramer was getting at. What went through my mind was that maybe he was dancing around the “anyone-who-thinks-they-know-about-wine-can-have-a-blog” theme. Certainly, outside of a M.W. or M.S. behind your name, there is no official blessing of your credibility. But then again, someone was able to get around that with a J.D. after their name….
The “we all have a mortgage to pay” reasoning (a-la: "Thank you for smoking”) may be only partially right.
If you focus on esoteric, cult, small-lot producers then your readers (in how many countries for each of those publications?) will loose interest because they won’t be able to get the wines you write about. If you write only about mass produced wines, then just how cutting-edge and in –the-know are you?.
The Spectator and the Advocate did not become behemoths in the world of wine by stumbling around like Forrest Gump. I think it's probably erroneous to think of the large wine publications as oblivious to trends and currents in how people get their information about wines. Sure it can be said that these ‘dictators of taste’ may be afraid to die from a thousand paper cuts in the form of wine blogs, but fear is a motivator.
However, I am eyeing few clean and crisp sheets of paper in my hand…

JohnFrangerson wrote:
02.01.07 at 10:02 AM

Nice Post.

That was well said. Always appreciate your indepth views. Keep up the great work!

John

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