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11.05.2009

The Great Wine Writer Migration of 2008-2009?

empty_chair.jpgSomething unusual is happening in the world of wine writing. While not surprising given the disastrous conditions in the market for those who want to make a living writing about wine, this phenomenon prompts some reflection.

In short: I'm beginning to notice folks who have heretofore made their living as journalists, wine writers, or wine critics are now taking jobs as PR and communication pros in the wine industry.

Two moves that recently caught my eye were Lettie Teague's appointment as Director of Communications at the Italian Wine Merchant [she's since moved back to journalism - see comments below], and Alan Goldfarb's identical role at the Tudal Wine Group. Last year W. Blake Gray ended up at a Newton Wines for a time after taking a buyout at the Chronicle. I'm sure there are more.

On the one hand, as I said, this is hardly surprising. Wine writers need to eat, too. When magazines are folding, newspapers are laying off, and budgets are being cut, the publishing industry is not really in much of a position to offer many wine writers gainful employment. And of course, the wine industry needs the kind of skills that these folks possess (have you noticed it's getting harder to sell a bottle of wine, these days, too?).

Yet, I must admit, I continue to be somewhat taken aback when I see names I normally associate with bylines followed by fancy titles and the names of wineries, wine retailers, or distributors. My reaction is completely irrational, and I know it, but I haven't yet managed to suppress the initial gasp of surprise at these folks "crossing the line" to "the other side" like they've left the world of "objectivity" and entered the world of spin and marketing.

Never mind that many wine writers got their start on the industry side and then made the transition to journalism. And of course, plenty of wine writers fill the gaps between journalism gigs (those that still have them) by writing copy for winery labels, winery newsletters, and other industry marketing needs. We all gotta pay our rent.

But it still feels a little weird to have the folks we're used to cutting through the spin be serving it up.

My surprise is no doubt fueled in part by some regret at the state of affairs that the wine writing world finds itself in. We're losing (I hope only temporarily) some great voices in the world of wine journalism, and some measure of quality as well.

We're far from the end of this migration from journalism to the commercial world in my opinion. While the publishing industry will recover some, it will be a long time before it even begins to approach its former self. And when it comes to wine writing, the future is definitely not going to look anything like the past.

Comments (87)

Arthur wrote:
11.05.09 at 11:03 PM

Great post! I was just thinking the same thing. So I'd like to take this opportunity to announce my appointment as PR Liaison for the newly-formed Rancho Cucamonga Vintner's associations.

I think this point in time will be viewed as a turning point where wine journalism changed dramatically.

Tom Wark wrote:
11.05.09 at 11:17 PM

It's a pretty common thing for writers and PR people to move between the line that divides them. You see it a lot among political reporters too.

KGlass wrote:
11.06.09 at 12:16 AM

A parallel development (if that's not a euphemism too delicate for this point): formerly honored sommeliers become commercial apologists. Two prominent examples: Joe Spellman (of many venues in Chicago) now working comfortably for the Terlato group; and Larry Stone (formerly of Rubicon in San Francisco) now full-time promoting Francis Ford Coppola's brands. Wine, like water, flows toward economic security.

Lettie Teague wrote:
11.06.09 at 5:06 AM

Alder,
As always, you have provided an interesting read on a thought-provoking topic. But I'm afraid that I might not be the best example of the trend: I actually left Italian Wine Merchants about a month and a half ago to return to writing my column for Food & Wine as its contributing wine editor. I'm also working on a book and a few other projects as well. While Italian Wine Merchants is a terrific company, I missed the exciting (!) life of a journalist far too much. Cheers, Lettie

1WineDude wrote:
11.06.09 at 5:06 AM

Those that cut through the spin are probably capable of writing the best spin...

11.06.09 at 5:33 AM

Tom Wark is right when he says that it's common for writers and PR people to move between the line that divides them.

It may be the reason that journalism enjoys such low esteem these days.

Just yesterday, I received a Tudal PR email from Alan Goldfarb, whom I've never met but with with whom I've shared writing space in Wines and Vines Magazine. For a few seconds I was confused and then, like Alder, I felt worried not by the line crossing (although I do worry about that some) but by the fact that conditions dictate it.

Corie Brown wrote:
11.06.09 at 6:48 AM

Alder,
All journalists, not just wine journalists, have to regroup. A collection of us -- myself, Patrick Comiskey, Peter Liem, Jordan Mackay, Elin McCoy -- have joined with a couple of dozen food writers, including celebrated cookbook authors Clifford Wright and Martha Rose Shulman to create a site called Zester Daily.

We talk about journalism dying. It's not. The media companies we came to rely on to support journalism are dying. Journalism will be reinvented, we just don't know how yet. Rather than wait to be told how the story ends, hoping for Prince Charming to ride to our rescue, those of us working on Zester Daily have chosen to save ourselves. We believe that there is plenty of advertising support for top shelf journalism.

When you and I shared a panel at the Wine Writer's Symposium last February, Zester Daily was just a germ of an idea. I had to muster up the courage to mention it publicly. I called it "the Huffington Post of food and wine" and I don't think there was a soul in that room who thought I had the slightest chance of making such a thing fly. In the months that followed, I found myself smiling as I remembered that day.

As the founder and chief cook and bottle washer, I am only now finding the time to get back to writing. This week I wrote about high-end vintners scaling back production with the 2009 vintage, dumping grape contracts at the last minute in an effort to avoid the devastating discounting that has been the rule for the last year and a half. Increasingly, it looks like a permanent price adjustment for the California wine industry.

Turns out journalists aren't the only ones who are having to regroup these days, Corie Brown

Blake Gray wrote:
11.06.09 at 7:03 AM

Alder: Let me point out to your readers that I'm not selling anything but myself.

I'll take this opportunity to plug my monthly column in Wine Review Online, and my semi-regular articles for the Los Angeles Times, as well as my own blog, The Gray Market Report. Publications seeking articles on wine may contact me there. And if you read Japanese, please check out my Japanese-language guide to California wine country.

Now is that less disturbing than a former wine writer peddling wine?

Because one thing I hate about the new media environment is that you have to sell yourself all the time. I find myself spending time writing pitches that I used to spend on writing articles. But that's not unique to wine writers. Not all of us have 6-figure incomes from other businesses.

I do know one occasional wine writer who, when I was at the Chronicle, told me he wouldn't write for us anymore because he didn't like our editing. I wondered how he would support himself. He married a countess.

11.06.09 at 7:18 AM

Interesting post. As someone who has worked in PR and Marketing in my 6 years since college, I recently discovered a love for both food and wine writing and have been looking for PR positions in the field. It has been difficult without industry specific experience, and I guess the migration of seasoned wine writers into these positions just adds to that! Cheers to the economy improving sometime soon?!:)

11.06.09 at 7:57 AM

Blake,

Did your occasional writer leave a countess list lying around somewhere?

My success going that route simply never paid off, but I'm willing to retry...

I agree with you about the constant need to sell oneself. Too often, online writers sell their talent short--or give it away, and that makes it even more difficult for experienced writers to stay alive.

Dylan wrote:
11.06.09 at 8:36 AM

I always knew the "marry a countess" plan was a good one. On the bright side, these writers can be great at PR. They not only have the ability to craft a great story related to wine, but they have the knowledge to back it up. I know the state of affairs is troubling, but I guess I've already accepted that.

Mark wrote:
11.06.09 at 9:11 AM

Alder,
In my opinion, it only "crosses the line" to "the other side" when one wakes up in the morning and can't look at oneself in the mirror. I don't blame any of the talented writers that have commented on your well written post for looking for ways to pay the bills in an industry that they know and love and have made many key contacts in.

As long as moral conduct, ethics, professionalism and integrity are still in check, it shouldn't matter what hat they are wearing to help promote the industry and get people excited about wine again. This economy is making a lot of people do or try things differently in order to make ends meat.

Steve Raye wrote:
11.06.09 at 9:27 AM

I question one of the basic presumptions about this discussion...that "traditional" or "legitimate" journalism is good, and commercial speech is bad or tainted. I think you have to separate the function from the value judgement. We all (add in bloggers which are sort of in the middle...no formal editor, but not paid by a company either) have a role to play and are perceived by consumers as legitimate sources for information. Because at the end of the day it's information...and opinion... that they're consuming, and apparently with an unending thirst.

This is a discussion that transcends the wine industry and touches on the larger issue of the role of traditional journalism and media in our society. To quote Clay Shirkey, "the idea that professionals broadcast messages to amateurs is slipping away. In a world where media is ubiquitous, global, social and cheap" we're witnessing a sea change in communications. Traditional journalism and all that it represented has irrevocably changed. And we're all part of creating the new world of communication simply by our participation.

I majored in journalism in college and never had a job as a traditional journalist. But I object to the idea that my thoughts and words are somehow of less intrinsic value simply because a client may be paying the bills.

Alder wrote:
11.06.09 at 9:45 AM

Thanks for the comments. I don't think the discussion is at all one of "good vs tainted" though. The question is outsiders vs insiders, and I'm making no moral judgement about one versus the other in any way. What I AM doing, though is acknowledging my own unspoken and unreflected upon preconceptions of there being such a stark line between the two.

Corie Brown wrote:
11.06.09 at 10:12 AM

It doesn't take away from the value of enthusiast/bloggers to say that they aren't journalists. Journalists have a different mission. The world needs professional journalists. When we can't find work, or when the financial support for that work disappears, the world ends up less informed.

Joel Burt wrote:
11.06.09 at 10:28 AM

Who needs good wine writers when you have gary vaynerchuk.

In all honesty, wine readers have more variety than ever in where they choose to read about wine. It has to be a pretty tough world for writers. I have no qualms about wine journalists hustling to survive; in fact, I applaud them for keeping in the game.

11.06.09 at 10:41 AM

Alder, I read a statistic on Monday that there are twice as many publicists as there are journalists and that is across all genres of media. I think we're having a media evolution and there is sadly a lot of fall out from that. It's hard for a publication to maintain integrity when advertisers vote with their dollars, and it used to be a lot clearer boundary between church and state, editorial and advertising, not so much now. I think some publications have folded because they're irrelevant to today's world, some were never run well as a business but offered great content and being able to do both while keeping the publishing side from crossing over into editorial will remain a challenge in the years to come.

One bone I would like to pick with you, and you know I value your insights greatly is that you simply posit that you're either a writer with objectivity or a publicist with an agenda. I'd like to put forward that the line between a great writer and a great publicist can be a very thin one. The best in their filed understand what the other has to do, what their frame of reference is and rise to the top because of their integrity, knowledge base and sensitivity. One of my favorite lines about the world of press is, "A good publicist is a frustrated journalist."

Gotta stand up for the upstanding ones.

Thanks, Kimberly

Alder wrote:
11.06.09 at 10:52 AM

Kimberly,

I don't think that's a bone between us at all. I think EVERYONE has an agenda, and I'll be the first to question the so called "objectivity" of the bastions of journalism, especially in the wine world. I don't see the world as so black and white, but I guess one of the points of my little ramble is that I sometimes react to things as if that's true, hence my surprise at seeing some of these bylines in the past couple of months.

Corie Brown wrote:
11.06.09 at 10:54 AM

Kimberly, so right. I am indebted to many of the thoughtful publicists who have helped me gather information and gain access. If they are able to exercise excessive influence over my work, then shame on me for being lazy.

There is nothing wrong with journalists becoming publicists. It's just sad when they do so against their will because they have no choice. Everyone is struggling to pay the bills.--Corie

11.06.09 at 11:32 AM

I must tell you all that I appreciate the thoughtful discourse on this subject; on which I dwelled for years before crossing over.

The only thing I ever possessed in my nearly 20 years as a wine journalist was my integrity. I always attempted to maintain it.

While my move to Tudal Winery/Cerruti Cellars was a pragmatic one -- my industry is drying up, blah, blah -- I'm approaching my new assignment in the same manner. That is, integrity, despite some rather notorious spinmeisters who came before me, is still something to be maintained. (See Dan Soloman at Gallo and Harvey Posert at Mondavi).

My skill set as a writer will help me in my new job, as will the contacts and relationships I've forged with my now-former colleagues over the years. My new company also values my wine education skills, as well as my palate (which I wanted integrated as added value to the company before accepting the post).

Forty and 30 years ago, the training ground for flackdom came from print. And so it seems once again, as our economic paradigm is changed.

Good luck to my print brethren and sistren.

11.06.09 at 12:11 PM

Loving the thoughtfulness on this post...thanks Alder for the clarification of the point. I still feel one can just have a genuine interest in the trends, goings on, and craziness of this wine world and not always be tethered to an agenda...maybe that's why I'm not the White House Communications Director :)

11.06.09 at 12:22 PM

Alder,

Great post, it has been interesting to watch how wine journalism has evolved (or devolved) over the past few years. Many things have changed and your own rise to power is an excellent example of that changing dynamic. It is the relative easy of entry to into what was once a more hallowed field that has allowed many more voices to be heard (for better or worse) which has then in turn created the situation which now exists in your post. But like you said they gotta pay the rent. In this day an age it is clear that as a wine writer you are going to need to adapt to maintain relevance or you will be crushed under the machinations of the blog-o-sphere and its brethren.

Cheers

Bruce Schoenfeld wrote:
11.06.09 at 12:29 PM

What an interesting discussion! As a professional journalist -- i.e., that's all I do -- I've always rebelled against the idea that the wine industry and I were somehow all in this together. I chose not to join the ASWE because I don't consider myself a wine educator; my loyalty is to my readers, not the industry, and I actually don't care whether wine thrives or doesn't thrive because my mission is to impart news and tell interesting stories to my readers. (You can see why I've never been asked to do PR.) In that sense, I feel like many wine writers crossed over some invisible line long ago, in a way that sportswriters (I do that too) would never dream of doing. So I guess I don't see the latest developments as so surprising.

I'd also like to add that, though a PR/marketing person, Kimberly Charles (above) is as clear-eyed and forthright as any journalist. And she also happens to writes better than most.

11.06.09 at 12:31 PM

Oh and here I thought you meant folks like me traversing the country to live in Oregon instead of Ohio ;-)

11.06.09 at 12:54 PM

I think most of the comments got it right: There's nothing wrong with going through the revolving door. Writers have done it forever. Once upon a time it wasn't even viewed with suspicion. I think that whatever your job is, if you do it with dignity and talent, you should be proud.

11.06.09 at 1:07 PM

Steve,

There's still the sticky point: that writers are being forced to go over the line by circumstance.

Is anyone evaluating why that is so? I mean, print is dying--ok, we know that. But the Internet is flourishing. Why do wine writers have to leave journalism and go to PR to keep writing?

Anyone want to tackle that?

I have my theory, which I hinted at in my comment to Blake above.

Alder wrote:
11.06.09 at 1:15 PM

I'll answer your question Thomas: the online advertising revenue model doesn't produce enough revenues to employ the same volume or kind of talent that the offline publications did. Period. And consumers, as a rule, don't want to pay for content online. So every major ad supported property online pays their writers much less than most of the major magazines or newspapers ever would.

Consequently even if all the media goes online instead of print, the economics won't work out the same way until everyone gets convinced to pay for good content online, which may or may not ever happen.

Corie Brown wrote:
11.06.09 at 1:44 PM

Alder, I disagree. Advertising is migrating to the web, albeit slowly. When the recession ends, assuming it does, advertisers will have figured out how to make the web work as a way to sell their wares. Will it work well enough to support the over-leveraged, under-inspired media companies of today? No. But there will be enough to support smaller, nimbler operations.

Wine writers in the meantime face the problem of too many people are willing to work for too little. There seems to always be someone willing to lower their price to get a gig. Newspaper editors with shrinking budgets have no choice but to go with the cheapest guy on the block as they struggle to fill their pages and make it through one more day.

Being high-minded was easy at the LA Times. I had an expense account that sent me around the world. I wasn't allowed to go on junkets. Heck, I couldn't accept a free hamburger. Will there be enough advertising support to allow web publications to return to those glory days? Sadly, I doubt it. Which means questions about integrity and ethics will continue to dog journalists. -- Corie

Alder wrote:
11.06.09 at 1:57 PM

Corie,

I hope you're right. But "smaller, nimbler" online properties have been trying since about 1998 to make it work with very little success to show for themselves unless they've actually gotten people to pay for content. Those that are actually making REAL money online from advertising, like Gawker, etc. do it by first having massive readerships that are nearly impossible to get today in the crowded marketplace of free content, and then second by paying wages that no self respecting journalist like yourself would ever work for. There are, as you point out, way too many young aspiring folks who are happy to work 16 hour days cranking out blog post after blog post for pennies a word and a refrigerator full of free soda.

Corie Brown wrote:
11.06.09 at 2:04 PM

Navigating new world is daunting, that is for certain.

11.06.09 at 2:10 PM

I agree with Corie's take--all the way round.

It seems that somewhere along the way, Internet outfits changed the business model from, let's start up and operate on our dime to, let's start up with pennies and operate on the content-providers' dimes. And, as Alder says, there are many out there who fall for it.

So, while the print media dries up, the Internet media takes the slack and then some--for pennies. Does make the "other side" look more attractive, doesn't it?

Corie Brown wrote:
11.06.09 at 2:48 PM

Some of us have no choice. We were born to be journalists, which would be a curse if it didn't make me so happy.

Bruce Schoenfeld wrote:
11.06.09 at 2:57 PM

Thomas, I've berated Alder several times for not charging at least $79 a year for Vinography. How are any sites supposed to make money if people such as Alder do what he does as a labor of love? This is our day job!

Dennis Schaefer wrote:
11.07.09 at 12:20 AM

I've been blessed to have written about wine for the same newspaper for 17 years. But my longevity has to do with being "permanent freelance" instead of on staff. If I was on staff, I would have been 86'd a long time ago. Very few print wine writers make a living from just that source anymore. Mostly agree with what Corie, Kimberly, Alan and Blake said. It's a tough wine writing world out there right now.

Bruce Schoenfeld wrote:
11.07.09 at 7:00 AM

Not to be blasphemous here, but maybe the concept of a wine writer as a discrete occupation is a bit of a reach. It happened that journalism in the 20th Century evolved that way, but there are no full-time coffee writers or meat writers, so perhaps this is a market correction that is an accurate reflection of wine's status with the masses.

I've always felt that the vast majority of people were interested in wine only as it intersected other disciplines, georgraphy or sociology or finance or whatever. And there's still plenty of room for those stories in mainstream publications (though, admittedly, outlets are dwindling.)

But pure wine writing, like we all care about, is a topic for the margins. Seems to me the Internet is perfect.

Corie Brown wrote:
11.07.09 at 9:02 AM

Bruce, you make a very good point. I think you may be right.

11.07.09 at 9:02 AM

I suspect that reports of the death of winewriting are greatly exaggerated. It is an industry that grew like topsy with the explosion of the interest in wine, and there is some evidence that perhaps it grew too fast and exploded beyond the means available for its support, especially in an era of falling print profits.

The combination of the worst economic downtown in decades and the growth of the Internet has changed the landscrape, and not just for winewriting. How far back it will come in an economic sense is not clear, but I do believe that Bruce Schoenfeld is right on when he observes that the Internet, and thus free wine journalism, are meant for each other.

As for the need for some folks who publish on the Internet to make money in order to keep at their craft, that is a less clear picture. Corie Brown and that august assemblage may make a go of it. So might Palate Press. But, it would surprise me if paid advertising was going to be the enabler for such efforts. And, if in the long run, they need subscriber support, then the question of the value proposition comes into play. What do you offer that folks will actually pay for in this new medium?

The thoughtful comments on this topic have made a great read on a Saturday morning. Alder, thanks for bringing them to us.

11.08.09 at 12:43 PM

Surely wine blogs and new social media are taking over from traditional magazine wine journalism?
Not sure how many wine journalist are totally independent when there are so many spin merchants and PR firms active in the wine trade.

Bruce Schoenfeld wrote:
11.08.09 at 3:46 PM

How are those two things -- the number of PR people and the number of independent wine journalists -- connected? Do you think we're so easily influenced that a PR onslaught would alter our opinions? Or what? I don't see what those two things have to do with each other.

11.08.09 at 4:38 PM

When I first read this, I was taken aback. Years ago I flacked for Seagram; it would never occur to me to then seek a job with Beverage World. It wasn't a matter of personal integrity; it was a conflict of interest: I'd be expected to cover a company I'd once worked for.

But things are different now. We are all free agents, and the people who hire us know this.

I make my living now as a retailer. I write a blog because it is a way for me to scratch my itch to write, and because it provides amusement for a few people. Yeah, I'm giving it away, but on the other hand, I can't believe any professional wine writer would consider what I do to be competition.

Jim Caudill wrote:
11.08.09 at 5:11 PM

I started as a journalist and had drilled into me the kind of integrity and point of view I think is appreciated. When I joined Carl Byoir years ago, it was a requirement that you had worked as a journalist before you could join the agency. The first thing they told me was not to change, that being a terrific PR person was only really achieveable is you were a terrific journalist, no matter who you were representing. Kimberly and others have already made the point that many of us work hard so that people think of us as valuable resources first, maybe even as good writers, and not as a stereotype spinmeister. It's really no surprise to me that while I'm between PR gigs right now the thing I have been asked most to do (and have been doing) is writing for magazines again. For better or worse, I value my personal integrity above all else. I've always found that if I take care of my own "brand" that I have a far better chance of representing my company or clients because I have a far better chance of engaging in a meaningful conversation.

rs wrote:
11.08.09 at 8:18 PM

I know this is primarily about writing, but Alder wrote "(have you noticed it's getting harder to sell a bottle of wine, these days, too?)." And yes we have. My wife and I are wine lovers and consumers, NOT in the business. We tasted along the Silverado Trail today, Silver Pass event. Gorgeous day, all the excellent, good and ordinary wine and some very good food you could eat and drink. Except for Pina, most of the half dozen or so wineries we visited had very few visitors/customers. We were told that this event which used to be bi-annual is now annual.

11.08.09 at 9:29 PM

Alder,
Your points are always thought provoking, thanks. The "divide" between the wine trade and wine journalism is recent in vintage, I think. I recall not that long ago, less than 30 years ago, when members of the English wine trade were wine writers at the same time and no one batted one eyelash. It was in fact the norm. All this changed around 1982 when American wine journalism took the lead from the English (Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator, as examples and leaders) and brought American ideas regarding "conflict of interest" to their trade. The results, frankly, have been mixed. Wine, now detached from its reality as a beverage or luxury commodity is, often, tasted by itself in the company only of journalists and producers; no trade allowed! And no real world discussion of pricing. The journalist has, in these cases, become de facto the customer as the producer now "sells" his wines to the journalist rather than to his agent or importer. But the journalist is free from the obligation to buy or sell the product. This is very common now in Bordeaux. And this is a distortion wrought from dividing the wine trade from the wine press or from setting each in opposition to the other, like warring armies. Please allow: my points are not meant to be read as condemnation; I am just observing and musing after reading your excellent column and the comments of readers.
All best,
Martin Sinkoff.

11.09.09 at 5:40 AM

Martin and Jim,

You are aware that there is a difference between "assessment" and "advancement."

We in the wine PR and general wine writing businesses are aware of it.

The issue is how the consumer is supposed to determine the difference if the same byline shows up on an assessment as well as on an advancement.

Bruce Schoenfeld wrote:
11.09.09 at 6:53 AM

And, Martin, with all due respect, let's make sure we understand the difference between wine journalism and wine criticism. Wine journalism is journalism -- news, features, profiles, etc. -- as applied to wine. Wine criticism is doing what a movie or restaurant critic does for wines, i.e., judging them from a personal perspective. They're not the same thing.

11.10.09 at 6:09 AM

Martin
I got what you were talking about. They gents above are part of the catechumen hazing crew. I reckon you can now consider yourself baptized into the mysteries of the bloggy-blog world.

Thanks, amigo.

Joseph Spellman wrote:
11.10.09 at 6:43 AM

Alder,

Thanks for the this stimulating and thoughtful discussion. There are indeed potential conflicts of interest strewn about this field, as with any. Smart and creative and energetic people will succeed (Kimberly, Bruce, Corie, et al.), and hacks will be exposed. One cross of "the line" too many, and the bridge may be burned (please excuse the sorrily mixed metaphor).

To KGlass: As a point of accuracy I should point out that I left Terlato Wines (then known as Paterno) in early 2005 to represent Joseph Phelps Vineyards; I departed Phelps in late 2007 and joined Justin Vineyards in early 2008. All three companies have supported my commitment to the Court of Master Sommeliers as an independent educator. But my "journalistic" wine writing days are long behind me. Still, I see it as all of a piece.

Indeed, many a Master Sommelier is fully employed by a wine selling entity while still involved in sommelier education. (BTW Larry Stone is General Manager of Rubicon Estate.) But few of us cross the line that Masters of Wine do in, say, Decanter, even while fully employed by wine selling entities.

11.10.09 at 10:57 AM

"All this changed around 1982 when American wine journalism took the lead from the English (Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator, as examples and leaders) and brought American ideas regarding 'conflict of interest' to their trade."

I seem to recall that '82 turned out to be a watershed year for a certain wine critic from Maryland who was out to free wine criticism from venality and hypocrisy. As you say, the results have been mixed.

Rob wrote:
11.10.09 at 2:59 PM

There are many wine writers (many of whom I respect and have read regularly) chiming in here, with very few PR people. In fact, in my experience I have found that few PR people enter most of these conversations. I am a PR person and after falling in love with working with wine, I started my own blog.

@Charlie Olken - I think wine writing is exploding. I can now find hundreds of opinions, each of which I weigh different depending on my experience with the writer and my understanding of their wine expertise. I also take into account the fact that they may be selling themselves for wine samples. I think the core group does not write for samples, but there are a few who spoil the barrel.

@hamish - The print journalist (or currently formerly print journalist) is still more respected than an online journalist (with very few exceptions) in the consumer world (the people who actually buy the wine). I mean absolutely no disrespect to Alder, but I would say look at the people who have commented here: journalists (both professional and amateur), members of the wine trade, and one consumer. And in my opinion, Alder is one of the top online journalists in the wine category.

Wine journalism has not and will never go away. However it has become a conversation (much like this one) with many points of view. No longer will one person's opinion be as effective without healthy credibility, an engaged audience, charismatic rhetoric, and access to information. As a PR person, the number of people I give information to (for them to distill) is increasing exponentially, which leads to more of a demand for PR people, which draws experienced wine writers who can define a point of view from the perspective of a winery or wine region.

Bruce Schoenfeld wrote:
11.10.09 at 3:27 PM

I hate to keep beating this dead horse, but Rob (or Charlie -- I can't tell where the quote is from) is confusing wine writing and wine criticism. There are plenty of different voices on the web critiquing wines. There are very, very few web entities willing to pay wine *writers* to visit wine regions and wineries and write stories about places and producers under their own auspices. These are different categories, and conflating them into one makes it more difficult to clearly see the current reality. I write for Travel + Leisure, which pays me to go places and write about the wines and wine personalities there -- and doesn't allow me to accept free trips. For 12 years, I wrote the same kind of stories for Wine Spectator under the same rules. Objectivity aside, that gives readers a vastly different resource and reading experience than someone tasting a wine and writing "Around 9.5 out of 10. Nice intensity, long finish."

11.10.09 at 5:16 PM

Bruce, the quote is from neither of us. You will find it earlier on from Martin Sinkoff, and the meaning of his post taking as a whole is unclear.

But, I am more intrigued by the notion of plenty of voices on the "web" critiquing wine. I frankly see only one "free" site that offers comprehensive wine reviews with full-on tasting notes.

Alder rates a lot of wine, but he writes very few tasting notes, and almost all the wine he reviews is tasted in large public tastings with the labels showing. There is a certain value in that, but I doubt that it is $79 per year when you can pay that for a half a dozen sources, including your former employer, and get full-blown or almost full-blown tasting notes and more of them for the same money.

I have no doubt that an internet only vehicle is possible. Steve Tanzer has just converted to one, for example, and Parker, WS, WE and Connoisseurs' Guide all have online editions for which people pay to subscribe.

Will someone come along, offer up 5,000 plus tasting notes a year, send its writers all over the world and be able to give that away for nothing? I would be surprised, but, hey, the world keeps changing, and I suspect that all of the existing subscription pubs that want to stay in busines will keep incresing the robustness of their online pay-for-access offerings.

To put it another way. The cost of entry to write on the Internet is minimal. But the cost of publishing something for which thousands will pay is very high, and, as yet, no new subscriber wine pub has emerged even as the existing pubs migrate faster and further into the digital era.

11.11.09 at 5:43 AM

Put another way Charlie, the cost of having an opinion is zip. The cost of having an informed opinion is much higher.

Bruce, thanks for once again pointing out the separation between writing and criticizing. It apparently needs to be said over and over, in an effort to keep the increasingly blurred lines from total obscurity.

11.11.09 at 5:48 AM

It's also interesting that while we are having this discussion, a fellow named Wilfred Wong is being discussed elsewhere for his "reviews" of wines sold by his employer, BevMo which is in trouble for allegedly unethical business practices.

Is this a case of hype meeting information in the flesh?

11.12.09 at 12:20 AM

I like this quote from the excellent wine journalist Andrew Jefford taken from a presentation in Australia two days ago:
'Wine writing must often look to outsiders like a vast parade of puffery. Hard-edged, Naderist consumer criticism was certainly part of Robert Parker’s early project, and helped make his reputation, but the trashing of inflated reputations has been less in evidence in The Wine Advocate in recent years. Most wine writers spend the majority of their time distinguishing between the good and the excellent via adjectival enthusiasm and often minutely nuanced differences in uniformly high scores. They all know that the truly bad exists, but comprehensive demolition jobs on bad wines or bad ranges of wines is rare. Individual wine writers ignore them; magazine tasting write-ups simply list them as also-rans. It’s death by polite hush.'

tom merle wrote:
11.12.09 at 12:30 AM

While there is much commentary here on the interplay between journalism (reporting and critiquing) and flacking, and between traditional journalism and online "citizen" journalism, no one has mentioned what seems to me to be the most signficant impact of Web 2.0.

We are seeing a shift not to those who give it away in blogs, but to those who "use" the product and comment on their experience. User commentary is replacing expert commentary. Heretofore, consumers turned to columnists, now they turn increasingly to peers. The world has gotten much more horizontal. Zagat Guide has spawned Yelp and Chowhound. Travelers turn to Trip Advisor. Book readers and gizmo buyers spend time reading the personal comments of purchasers on Amazon.

Sure, Wine.com and other large Internet and bricks and mortar stores cite the ratings of WS, WE, and RP etc. With apologies to Charlie O for riding my hobby horse once again into a forum--they should add or soon will be adding some new initials: CT for CellarTracker which offers over a million evaluations of wine drinkers and collectors and aggregates the ratings of their members.

11.12.09 at 5:43 AM

Tom,

Understood, but now I find myself even more firmly in the camp of less is more: cacophony is usually just noise and it has a way of lessening the quality of life rather than increasing it.

Simona wrote:
11.12.09 at 7:24 AM

That's an interesting debate, especially here in Italy, where, much before crisis (I would even say all along), wine journalists often cooperate with wine producers as pr, copywriter, guests of honor during events organized (and paied) by wine producers, speakers at workshops organized (and paied) by wine producers, etc
Is this a conflict of interest? How can they be impartial? Can a review/wine guide/article written by someone paied in some way by a wine producer be authorative? But at the same time, isn't the same with advertising on wine magazines? Or Christmas gifts to journalists?

Alder wrote:
11.12.09 at 2:59 PM

Simona,

Do real journalists get christmas gifts in Italy?

Cellartours wrote:
11.13.09 at 4:52 AM

Absolutely! Is it not like that in US?
Every winery (or at least the main part of them) sends Christmas gift to journalists (mainly to "real" press, less to websites) to thank them for the attention they paied to the company. It is something everybody knows and it is not hidden. We are not talking about big, expensive presents, mainly they are wines the wineries produce (from 1 bottle to several cases, if the journalist is important in the wine business or strategic for the winery, or wrote a lot about it). And also US journalists based in Italy get them! As far as I know, only one journalist years ago sent a message to all wineries asking not to send Christmas gifts.

Simona

11.13.09 at 5:39 AM

The only Christmas gift I get is a coffee mug or pen and pencil set from the publisher of a newspaper in which I have a weekly wine column.

I have never received a Christmas present from wine producers. Now I'm thinking that maybe I should include my birth date with my byline...

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