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FRIDAY GETAWAY DAY
07/31/2015
The Future of Winewriting: Is It Yesterday’s News?

By Charles Olken

It used to be that writing about wine was an art reserved for the very few—both as to the number of writers and the number of readers. Sure, all the “big” newspapers had someone writing for them—usually part-time and engaged at some other profession. There were a handful of folks like Dan Berger and Jerry Mead whose columns were syndicated, but, in reality, the number of writers and their remuneration was small.

And then the wine boom happened and not only was wine appearing more regularly in all kinds of places like GQ and Playboy and airline magazines but some newspapers had multiple columns showing up on more than one day a week. Such was the great and growing interest in wine.

Today, that trend has been reversed. Not only has real estate in the print arena become very expensive, but wine is a bit of boring topic when all of the usual avenues have been explored ten times over. Who in their right mind could stand another article about Tuscany or the Napa Valley or Chardonnay the world over?

So with newspapers in decline for reasons of their own and the wine world not exactly alive with new news, and that is a good thing by the way, the demand for wine writing has fallen at both the reader level and the available print outlet level.

Into that void, and partially by coincidence, but also partly because it is one of the larger reasons for the demise of daily print outlets, has rushed the Internet and the resultant explosion of wine blogs like this one. Where once, guys like Steve Heimoff and the CGCW duo of Eliot and Olken were heard from every month or two, now we are like bad pennies—you can’t get rid of us. And bloggists are everywhere.

The larger body of those who blog will tell you that they are the future of winewriting because they have democratized the space, and there is some truth in that view. After all, a thousand voices does represent a dramatic increase in the number of available words and opinions.

But, what has become of the blog space. Reader counts are down along with numbers of comments. And while the Internet will never disappear as a place for wine commentary, it will also never be a place for important and continuing content because nobody works full-time for nothing.

That leaves us with a handful of slick paper magazines like the Spectator and the Enthusiast et al, and the newsletters like Parker, Tanzer and Connoisseurs’ Guide et al. Those rags are going strong because the deeply committed enthusiasts, of which they are a large number that is not likely to go away, wants some guidance in sorting through the tens of thousands of wines available to them. They cannot taste them all, visit all the far-flung winedoms, know about every next big thing as it is emerging.

I have been at this stand for four decades now, and I hope not to be accused of thinking that the golden era of winewriting is over just because I (along with Parker, Laube, Heimoff and company) will leave the scene in the next decade, but it is sad to see that the bold growth era of wine appreciation and wine writing expansion has come to an end of sorts. No death knell here, but also not much expansion of quality coverage. The Internet and the loss of well-paid journalists over time has already seen to that.

There will always be winewriting. We winelovers will see to that. It is just that the growth era has ended and we have arrived at a new maturity in which there will be lots of chatter but less light being shed because there is less light to be shed.


 

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Comments

WineWriting vs. WineReviewing
by TomHill
Posted on:7/31/2015 11:43:30 AM

Charlie sez:"the deeply committed enthusiasts, of which they are a large number that is not likely to go away, wants some guidance in sorting through the tens of thousands of wines available to them. They cannot taste them all, visit all the far-flung winedoms, know about every next big thing as it is emerging".

Charlie,

   I think one of the things you are missing here in this discussion, ignoring the tension between print media vs. the blogosphere, is the change in the nature of wine writing over the yrs.  And that change has been vastly significant....a shift from wine writing to wine reviewing. That shift has been enormous over the yrs since I started reading wine stuff in the early '70's.

   This was particularly driven home over the last few months as I have been "cleaning out" and going thru some of my old issues of WineWorld, Vintage, Friends of Wines, WineSpectator, and, yes, Connoisseur's Guide. Back then as I was learning about wine, I was reading the wine writers of then in order to learn more about wine. Those articles of yore were educational...I would actually learn something new.

   Now...whattya get in the way of wine writing?? Publications that are top-loaded with wine reviews and scores.....and very little in the way of informative/educational wine writing...something I can learn from.

   As you know, I'm sure, I was a charter subscriber to CGCW. And I looked forward to reading every issue that you & Earl penned because there was a lot of informative information being imparted from which I could learn. You have no idea how many new wineries I learned of from reading CGCW. Sure, I'd read thru the reviews and note what wines deserved three meadow muffins and which ones up-side down glasses (which I believed you used at one time??).

   And, as I'm sure you know, I no longer subscribe to CGCW. Why?? Because I didn't think your three puffs were accurate anymore?? Nope. Because the amount I was learning from CGCW was greatly diminished. The informative/educational writing I used to find in CGCW shrank to near-nothing. As one of your favorite writers described it.."drinking from the firehose of wine scores". So now I "learn" that the '13 Rombauer Chard gets a 92 and the Folie a Deux Chard gets an 89. That is NOT the kind of stuff I'm interested in "learning" from a wine publication. I'm not the least bit interested in reading wine stuff to "sort thru the tens of thousands of wines available to me". I can drink pretty well on my own w/o having to make sure a get the very best Chardonnay from the NapaVlly, based on some score someone has awarded the latest StonyHill.

   Parker's Wine Advocate became successful because it was, by and large, little more than an endless string of wine reviews written in florrid prose. Apparently there was a market out there for that kind of stuff. But I found the WA was not terribly informative and never did suscribe (though I have read nearly every issue of a friend's). And, so, the WineSpec & CGCW and all the other wine publications I used to eagerly read segued into publications that primarily did wine reviewing instead of informative/educational wine writing.

   As far as "knowing about every next big thing as it's emerging"...yeah....I'd very much like to learn about that. I'd re-subscribe to CGCW or WS or WA in a heart-beat if that were the case. It doesn't even have to be a BIG thing, little things are OK as well. I don't know if CGCW did anything with RibollaGialla but I would have been very much interested in what you and Steve had to say about them...even though they clearly are NOT the next BIG thing.

   But, to me, the paradigm shift we've seen in wine writing from educational/informative wine writing to the emphasis on wine reviewing, following the Parker model,  is responsible for the very sad state of wine journalism we see these days. We need more wine writers...not wine reviewers. Alas...that's not the trend these days.

   Sorry for the lengthy blather, Charlie. But something to thinkj about & I know you will have a thoughtful response for me.

Tom

 

First Thots
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:7/31/2015 1:10:05 PM

Tom--

More later. Just taking a break from tasting Rieslings for the latest bunch of scores.

Much of what you say about the change in winewriting is true, but there has also been a big change in you and in the wine-consuming public as well. You have lots left to learn and are eager for it, but you also have a big base of knowledge and the practiced ability to apply that knowledge. And no publication, including ours can be sufficiently avant garde to feed your level of need.

For us, there was a second point, which I tried to make in the text above. The big "discovery topics" have now been covered ten times over. We no longer need to "discover" whether CA Cabs age. We proved that long ago. It was exciting stuff then, but not now. It is fascinating to taste those older wines, and we have intentionally held back rafts of them, but those tastings prove far less than they used to because of the "been there, done that" principal.

More on you may thought-provoking ideas later. And thanks for remaining a friend all these years.

Say Whot???
by TomHill
Posted on:7/31/2015 4:32:24 PM

"but there has also been a big change in you"

Say whot, Charlie?? Why...I'm the same fuzzy-cheeked, freshly-minted PhD, niave kid that you & Earl first met at TadichGrill many a yr ago!!  Not changed a bit. :-)

   What you say is indeed true that I've changed in my interests over the yrs. Still...the bottom line is that when I want to read something about wine, I still want to be edumacated & informed...and I can find plenty of stuff out there that does that. But, save for the Wine&Spirits magazine and an occasional article in WineSpec, the print media has badly let me down. I remember when I eagerly awaited the arrival of Vintage & Wine World and, yes, CGCW showed up in my mailbox, I immediately dropped everything and read them cover to cover, which didn't go over well on the domestic scene.

   But I just have zero interest in reading an incessant stream of wine reviews. There's plenty of topics and ideas I have for interesting articles that I'd like to read..and I've suggested them to any number of wine writers I really like. But they take some effort to research the topic and get out of the house to do the footwork. It's just much easier to sit down and taste a bunch of wines, assign some scores, and write up some reviews. Which many of the wine writers I used to know & love seem to prefer to do.

Tom

 

There's Alwas
by Paul Moe
Posted on:8/3/2015 10:16:43 AM

That Washam dude.

Tasting Notes and Other Nonsense
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:8/3/2015 10:34:15 AM

Wow. On opportunity to praise Ron Washam, The Hosemaster of Wine. Have not done that here for a few weeks.

Aside from being the funniest writer on the wine scene, he is also a brilliant observer, who, like Randall Grahm, is always inventing new ways to serve the thirsty world.

Take his brilliant way of dealing with the 100-point rating system He invented the 1,000,000 point system. No two wines ever get the same score. When asked how he could justify the difference between 775,804 and 775,805, he responded "It means I like the second one a little more than the first"--or was that Frank Prial?

I think that even Tom Hill would appreciate the brilliance in that--right up there with 10,000 new grape varieties.

But, to be at least a little bit serious about Mr. Hill's comments, yes it is true that tasting notes have become the center of the newsletter trade these days.

It was not always thus, but the confluence of so many wines (6000 CA wineries and thousands more in OR and WA, whereas there were about 600 total in those places when CGCW began) and the emergence of the two-hundred page slick paper magazines has meant that the newsletters have had to play to their (our) distinct advantage.

We are independent, mostly taste blind (we all should but some do not always) and have no interest in advertising or "experiences" or goods to pedal to support our businesses. We help people find wines so that they do not have to sift out good choices among the tens of thousands of options. And we are beholden only to our readers faith in our evaluations. 

As much as I miss Mr. Hill, still a good friend by the way, I am okay with our role as helpers, arbitors, gatekeepers or whatever else it is that we do on behalf of our readers.

A rose is a rose is a ...
by doug wilder
Posted on:8/3/2015 1:09:46 PM

Charlie,

I agree there are few compelling subjects to write about in the world of wine that have not been thrashed already. Rose, for instance... This issue is further compounded when several writers take a sponsored trip and write about the same subject. One of the things that needs to be recognized is a trend of consolidation of talent. Earlier in your post you mention Tanzer along with Parker and CGCW. As I am sure you know, Tanzer's publication has been absorbed by Vinous, just as Jeb Dunnuck's Rhone Report went away when he became a critic for Wine Advocate. That has cut down the number of independent, subscriber supported wine review publications (all of which are niche specialists) with well-defined readership preferences. I imagine you and Stephen do this too, but when I survey my subscribers, they overwhelmingly respond they prefer short, 40 - 50 word reviews with a numerical score. I have no issue with those who write wine essays, or top lists as long as they are well researched, fresh, balanced and add a new perspective.

No era is "golden"
by Randy Caparoso
Posted on:8/3/2015 1:17:13 PM

The "Golden" era of wine writing.  I hope we didn't just live through that!  

While I must say that I've always appreciated the intelligence and peception of magazines like CGCW and Decanter, I've always felt almost the opposite about magazines like WS and WA.  

But mostly, I've always felt that the source of wine information during the decades when print publications ruled the roost was far too narrow. The danger has always been that consumers get an extremely limited perspective on what constitutes "good" or worthwhile wine.

The internet and blogosphere has opened wine coverage exponentially; and while obviously a lot of it is tripe (especially bloggers who are merely imitating peoole like Parker, thinking that this is what "wine writing" is all about), the overall result is that it is still all for the better.

Consequently, I see a lot more appreciation for wines that were once considered out of the "mainstream." I see more consumers expressing certain tastes in wine that would never jive with a Parker, CGCW, Decanter, or even (if they were still around, slinging away) Robert Lawrence Balzer or Robert Finegan.

And that's the way it always should be. Long ago I grew sick and tired of just a few writers being arbitrars of taste. Spending most of my career (over 25 years) in the restaurant wine business, you can say that I spent over 25 years fighting against a myopic view of wine. It was a huge pain in the butt, all those years, trying to convince guests that certain wines can be great -- especially with certain dishes -- even if they didn't make the cover of WS, come with 3 puffs, or 90-point score.

And it's a shame that during all those years, people were drinking wines that they would eventually discover they really didn't like -- they were only drinking those wines because that's what the limited press (or store shelf talkers) were telling them they should like.  I truly feel bad for consumers!

As Andre Simon once put it, "we can all have good taste, but not the same taste." To me, that statement is "golden," because it's forever.

wine writing vs drinking
by Donn Rutkoff
Posted on:8/3/2015 3:01:25 PM

Another reason, and one to celebrate, is that there is much higher quality wine across the board for little $.  Consumers can safely, without much risk of spoilage, brett, or other faults, buy wine all over the place, from all over the world, for $10 or $15 and get good stuff.  So the local communication among friends and local wine retail partly negates the need for 3rd party recommendations. 

AuContraire...
by TomHill
Posted on:8/3/2015 4:51:47 PM

Doug sez:"I agree there are few compelling subjects to write about in the world of wine that have not been thrashed already"

   If you replace "compelling" with "interesting"...I guess I'd have to disagree, Doug. There are a lot of subjects in the world of wine that I'd love to read and be educated by.  Two of my favorite writers are PatrickComisky and DavidDarlington, both of whom write for JoshGreene's W&S magazine, one of the better ones around. A few yrs ago, I sent David a list of 5-6 ideas that I thought would make for interesting/educational articles. Nothing came of it, alas.

   As for CGCW, Charlie & Steve have taken it in a different direction from what it was in the mid-'70's. A direction of  "as helpers, arbitors, gatekeepers or whatever else it is that we do on behalf of our readers". As my tastes and interests have evolved over the yrs, I rely less & less on a need for that sort of information.  And, in the end, you have to decide what best serves your readership...and they have a much better feel for that than I have. In that role, for Calif wines, I think they do it the very best of any publication out there. I have tremendous respect for Charlie's & Steve's palates and what they do. Charlie & I both grew up together w/ Calif wine and I consider him one of my very best of wine friends. We have a history together.

   But, at the end of the day, when I sit down to dinner   and decide what to drink, it is way more likely that I'll reach for a NapaVlly Schioppettino than a great Rutherford Cabernet...no matter what the $$'s involved are. My tastes have just evolved in a weird tangent that doesn't overlap much w/ Charlie's anymore. So be it. Don't make either one of us right or wrong.

Tom

 

Amen
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:8/3/2015 5:01:09 PM

Can I get a witness? Mr. Hill, you have spoken with wisdom.

There are very few wine folks who can get ahead of you for inquisitiveness, and, because of that, very few writers are going to serve your needs anymore.

You are the one who ought to be doing the writing on the topics that now whet your intellectual appetite. You know more about them than almost any writer I know.

You may consider that an invitation, which I would be happy to explore with you via email if you would care to follow up.

chasolken@aol.com

Yup...
by TomHill
Posted on:8/3/2015 6:00:48 PM

"very few writers are going to serve your needs anymore."

Yup, Charlie....therein I think lies the crux of the problem and my current dislike for the state of today's wine journalism. Ahhhh...for the days of PhilipSeldon and HankRubin and BobThompson and....

There are dozens of wine articles I have in my mind that I would love to research and write about. Alas, they are probably so esoteric that no wine publications would touch them w/ a ten-foot pole..including CGCW and they would appeal to so few readers.And living way out here in the boondocks of Northern NM doesn't help much.

 

Thanks for hearing me out and allowing me to waste bandwidth in your little corner of CyberSpace here, Charlie. It's a good discussion.

Tom

 

wine industry
by Thomas Kruse
Posted on:8/5/2015 1:12:43 PM

What no one has taken into account in the commenst I have read so far is the vast proliferation of wineries in the last 40 or 50 years. There has been a forty fold increase in them. I believe this has suffused the "specialness" of wine. The internet has changed the way the world operates and thinks. What used to be special is now commonplace. People still try to be "one up" on folks and that has been easier and less expensive. The story is no longer about the wine or the people it is about what someone has experienced. The constant bombardment of stimuli has diminished everyone's attention span. I have no idea of how things will progress. People need to work and eat and sleep. Just getting their attention, however, is the hard thing. 

 

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