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Good Grape Goes on Hiatus

“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans” said a very wise John Lennon and that’s exactly what has happened with me.  My life has kept apace, even as I’ve made plans to be a respected wine writer.

By most standards, 2011 has been a very good year.  I was a three-time finalist in the Wine Blog Awards, earning notice in the Best Overall Wine Blog, Best Industry Blog and Best Writing categories.  I started contributing a wine column to Forbes.com.  This site was named the 2nd most influential blog (and most influential wine blog) out of 4,000 blogs in a 2011 Wine, Beer and Spirits study by eCairn, a software company specializing in community and influencer marketing.  I was a panelist at Vino2011 in New York City, I won a scholarship to the Wine Writer’s Symposium in Napa Valley, and I turned down enough worldwide wine trip offers to fill a two-month calendar.

Yet, wine writing has exacted a toll.  I approach anything I do with a zeal and fervor that ensures me the success that I want and I’ve treated my wine writing as a full-time second job, to go alongside the job that I already have that requires 50 + hours a week.

Balance isn’t something that I’ve ever been very good at—possessed of an unassuming mien, a Midwestern work ethic, and a mental make-up whereby I cast myself as the underdog means that I am continually trying to prove something to myself, often times at the expense of real, true priorities.

Even more challenging is the fact that my standards for myself have been raised even as I’ve honed my writing chops.  Instead of figuring out a system to find time shortcuts, the amount of time it takes for me to write has become more deliberate and expansive while my interest in writing has become more professional in nature – less blogging and more credible journalism requiring more work to exceed the bar that I’ve set for myself.

The net result of this, after full-time job plus wine writing, is the rest of my life has received scant attention for nearly seven years and I’ve created a nearly untenable situation for myself, a set of internal expectations that I can’t live up to, requiring a time commitment that I can’t manage.

However, most importantly, the expectations and time commitments that I have assigned to my wine writing isn’t fair to the other people in my life – notably, my incredibly supportive wife, Lindsay.  She has been a saint the past six years, my blogging encompassing nearly the entire duration of our 6.5 year marriage.  But, she is long overdue a husband that takes the trash out without prompting!

I’ll be around the Internets – commenting on wine blogs, doing the Twitter thing, staying connected on Facebook and I’ll probably start engaging more actively on CellarTracker and on the WineBerserkers message board, but I’m taking a hiatus from wine writing to recalibrate, shifting my time to the things that are the most important to me:  Family and career.

Jeff


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Old World vs. New World in More Ways than just the Wine

In the increasingly close quarters of our global village, Europe is responsible for bringing at least three different substantive and prodigious professional wine journals to market over the last several years.  Each is written by a ‘Who’s Who’ of wine experts.  Meanwhile, stateside, the U.S. has experienced an explosion of pithiness with amateur wine writers writing online.

This juxtaposition becomes relevant after reading a recent post titled, “Are wine blogs going tabloid” by professional wine critic and writer Steve Heimoff.  In his brief post, with a decidedly American point of view, Heimoff summarizes his thoughts with the rhetorical query, “Why do certain bloggers revert to sensationalist stories that don’t, in the long run, matter?”

Good question.  The easy conclusion suggests that controversy and hyperbolically bombastic articles lead to attention and traffic. 

Certainly, two recent books that I’ve been reading bear out this discouraging notion:  Newsjacking:  How to Inject Your Ideas into a Breaking News Story and Generate Tons of Media Coverage and Celebrity, Inc.

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Both books cover similar ground in examining how brands can subvert the 24-hour news cycle for business benefit and how the 24-hour news cycle has been subverted by celebrities using easy technology while leading our news culture into tabloidesque territory.

When considered with Heimoff’s point, it is an easy deduction to suggest that 1 + 1 does in fact equal 2 – the sensational does sell and, by proxy, online amateur wine writers are a reflection of our larger media culture.

However, in suggesting this, there is at least one bigger contextual point being missed as well as a caveat.  First, it’s an exclusive view that doesn’t take in the totality of the global wine media village and second, while sensationalism may sell, the lascivious isn’t always what’s shared.

No, it seems our schadenfreude and more primal instincts are kept private, while our shock and awe comes to the fore, at least according to one study.

The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania recently examined the most emailed articles on the New York Times web site in March of this year (link initiates a PDF download), looking for the triggers for what causes somebody to share an article, what makes one thing more viral than another?

Their conclusion?  Positive content is more viral than negative content, but both, in general, are driven by “activation” – the notion that high arousal (emotive pleasure or outrage) drives shareable content.  According to the research abstract:

Content that evokes either positive (awe) or negative (anger or anxiety) emotions characterized by activation (i.e. high arousal) is more viral.  Content that evokes deactivating emotion (sadness) is less viral.  These results hold (dominance) for how surprising, interesting, or practically useful content is, as well as external drivers of attention.

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This brings us back to my earlier mention regarding the European wine journals that have come to market in recent years.  Simply, they’re an antidote to the U.S. proclivity for the vapid.

The World of Fine Wine, the family of Fine Wine magazines based in Helsinki and Tong based in Belgium all represent an Old World counterpoint to what can be deemed as the extemporaneous and superfluous coming from the New World.

As Tong publisher Filip Verheyden notes in the Tong manifesto (link initiates a PDF download) :

We live in times of “instant” gratification.  If we want to talk to someone, we pick up our mobile phone wherever we happen to be.  If we want to know something, we click an internet button.  We’re going at 200 km per hour. 

What we seem to forget in this race against time is the trustworthiness of this quickly-acquired knowledge, and that is something we have to find out for ourselves.  But who takes the time to do it? 

…The articles that appear in Tong demand the reader’s attention.  You can’t read them fast and put them away; you have to take the time to understand.  I’d say it takes an evening to read and think about each article.  These are not issues to put in the recycling bin.  Even after five years or more, each will continue to convey the essence of its theme…

The World of Fine Wine and Fine Wine magazine are both similarly endowed with length and verve.

My takeaway based on the Wharton research and the stunning dichotomy between what we’re seeing in the U.S. vs. European wine content is two-fold:

1)  The sometimes sensational aspect of online wine writers, especially domestically, should heed the research and focus their pot-stirring ways on matters that provoke an emotional response from readers, ideally with a positive consequence – like HR 1161 for example instead of tired, lame attempted zingers aimed at Robert Parker.

2)  In addition to a legacy sensibility about the nature and style of wine, the Old World is also drawing a culturally defining line in the sand in how they view and report on wine – it’s with substance, permanence and integrity.

The conclusion is anything but.  However, as the world becomes a smaller place and the U.S. and our wine media becomes a part of the world chorus, losing lead vocal, I would hate for our place in the gallery to be rendered completely voiceless based on a lack of substance which is the seeming trajectory that we’re on. 

It’s just a thought…

If you’re interested in seeing an example of Tong’s long-form think pieces, you can see examples here, here and here.


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Australian Wine:  The Once and Future King?

You’ve never heard of Campbell Mattinson:  He’s a young, urbane Australian wine wordsmith who forsakes the academically erudite and plaintive wine writing style of legends past for a muscular writing style that is jocularly loose yet incisive, showing every bit of the wunderkind talent of his global English-language contemporaries, Jamie Goode and Neal Martin.

Likewise, you probably haven’t heard of Mattison’s *new* wine book, Thin Skins: Why the French Hate Australian Wine first published in Australia in 2007 and now just released in America.

Seemingly stillborn upon its October publishing date in the states and updated with a scant epilogue where the author notes, “The headiness described in the early passages of this book is now long gone,” the book formerly offered in situ context on the boom and looming bust of the Australian wine landscape and is now something of an ipso facto think piece on the manifested reality. 

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With recency in absentia as one negative checkmark, Thin Skins as a body of work brooks no favors for itself either.  Even when first published four years ago, it represented a compendium of articles and profile pieces, individually quite good, but collectively never quite transcending its constituent parts, especially one that supports the premise of the title.  And, unlike its subject matter, time has not aged the book into cohesion.

Worse still, brought to the U.S. market by publisher Sterling Epicure, the book is likely supported with little more than the gas it takes a truck to drive a meager allotment of books to an Amazon.com warehouse and the dwindling number of Barnes & Nobles that still populate the landscape, a veritable line item in an editors’ fourth quarter publishing spreadsheet under the header, “wine.”

Thin Skins seems destined for a hastened half-life and quick retreat to the remainder bin at Half-Price Books…it’s an ignoble fate heaped upon by my damnation.

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But, I’ve feinted purposefully, misdirecting by caveat because, despite everything I’ve mentioned having some inherent truth(including the author being very talented), Thin Skins is a wildly entertaining book that delivers on providing a teasing glimpse into a distinctly Aussie viewpoint on the factors that led to the Australian wine boom (Parker points, market forces, greed and drought) and in so doing the author makes three key points worth repeating:

1) The Aussie wine industry, save for its Gallo-like equivalents, is NOT happy about their country’s production being viewed globally as syrupy supermarket plonk

2)  Our U.S. perception IS NOT reality regarding Australian wine; their wine industry has an abundance of refined, terroir-based wines from small vintners

3)  The Aussie wine business will rise again on the international scene (in an entirely different form).

One key takeaway for me from the book is that Australia is remarkably similar to the U.S. 

In the U.S., some reports indicate that 90% of the wine sold is “corporate” wine, the kind found at supermarkets across the country.  However, what IS different is that 90% of our national conversation about wine focuses on the 10% of the wine production that ISN’T in the supermarket i.e. everything non-corporate – the boutique, artisan and interesting.

Yet, when it comes to Australian wine, we don’t continue our conversation about the small and beautiful.  Instead of talking about the superlative, we view their entire country production through the lens of the insipid, the Yellowtail and other critters that cost $6.99 at Safeway.

American wine consumers would be rightfully indignant if the world viewed our wines not as we do, a rich tapestry, but as industrialized plonk from the San Joaquin Valley.

This is where Australian wine is at today—a ‘perception is reality’ mistake of colossal proportions.

While offering an abundance of stories from small producers along the way, Mattison suggests that while it may take time, with Australia having 162 years of winemaking history, the day will come, sooner rather than later, when Australian wine forsakes its near-term reputation and is viewed on the world stage as a wine producing country that can proudly stand next to its New World peers.

I wrote recently that I’ve noticed a slow change in tenor from American influencers regarding Aussie wine, they’re becoming more sympathetic, they’re starting to speak less dismissively and more optimistically and holistically about Australian wine, discussing the merits and great diversity in the land of Oz.

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Recent Symphony IRI sales data bears this out as well.  According to a Shanken NewsDaily report from this week, Australian wine in the $15 - $19.99 category rose 23% in September.  In addition, growth is coming from varietals not named Shiraz (see also syrupy supermarket plonk).  Instead, Semillon, Riesling and Pinot Noir are showing growth.

Still, it’s not the land of milk and honey here in the states for Aussie wine, as it once was.  Overall sales are down by volume and dollars, but as Mattinson alludes the correction in the U.S. market isn’t going to be pretty, but it will be healthy and it’s quite possible that Australia will decrease in overall volume and dollar sales from persistent decline at the low-end for years to come as the high-end grows, but not at a rate to replace what was lost.

The net sum of that doesn’t balance a spreadsheet, but it does balance mindshare.

Pick-up Thin Skins if you want to get turned on to a great wine writer while also enjoying a greater understanding of Australian wine – where it has been and where it’s going—perhaps not as a future King, but definitely not in its current role as court jester.

Campbell Mattinson’s Wine Site:  The Wine Front


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Shut the Front Door: A Vinsane, Pay-it-Forward, Drinks 4X the Price Wine Recommendation

The problem with sleuthing out good wine under $10 is the recommendations usually come with provisos like, “This is pretty good for the price,” or “This isn’t bad for the style of wine.”  Rare is the time that a wine recommendation for vino under $10 is just, “This is a fantastic wine.”

Who can blame the wine recommender for their caveats and written sleights of hand when they’re left to tout the middling amongst the insipid; the redemptive within the felonious?  It’s like the back-handed compliment from the parents of an axe murderer who note plaintively from the front stoop, “He has a good heart.”

Adding insult to this injury, it seems like nearly all domestic wines under $10 are manipulated to appeal to a demographic.  Far too often, they are oak chipped to a formula, softened, vortexed and plumped back up into a wine beverage complete with a label that screams, “Benignly vague and blandly appealing.  I am inoffensive to a large group of people.”

And, forget about pairing under $10 bottles of vino with food.  Do so only if your idea of wine pairing centers on condiments with artificial coloring and HFCS, so duotone are the wine flavor profiles.

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When it comes to what should be reliable international value wines, forget about it – most of them aren’t even has-beens, they never were.  France and Italy – I’m talking to you.  For a sawbuck, these are sad, middling, barely potable wines evocative of an athlete whose entire identity is wrapped up in jockdom, but for whom life’s fate never provided him acclaim beyond the local playground. The fact that these wines often taste like a sweaty gym sock may, in fact, be no small coincidence.

Harrumph. 

What I want is what most wine consumers want: A non-spoofulated wine with quality that stands on its own—a good wine at $9.99 that is a good wine, period.  No half-hearted caveats associated with it.  If the wine pairs with dinner, instead of being a digestif, all the better.  Tie me up, spank me and call me Shirley if this mystical and elusive under $10 wine also has any of the following characteristics: Organic, old vines, unfiltered, native yeast, judicious oak, and complexity whilst being food-friendly.

I’m pretty sure I won’t have to have any dalliances in the wine S&M dungeon save for one emerging country.

Recently, I started to see glimpses of where quality, inexpensive wines might be coming from in the future when I tasted through a sampling of wines from the Navarra region of Spain. One $5 bottle of wine was so screamingly good it defied the law of reason. 

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And, then, I received a recommendation for Masia de Bielsa’s 2009 Garnacha, a Spanish wine from the Campo de Borja area in the Aragon region of Spain, southeast of Navarre and La Rioja.  Adam Japko, a wino friend and author of Wine-Zag, and I did some horse-trading on bottles and he threw in a bottle of wine in a wine shipment to me and noted, “Curious what you think of this…”

What do I think?  I think I owe you favors to last a month of Sundays for turning me onto a beauty.

Of course, wine recommendations don’t happen in a vacuum and the Masia de Bielsa 2009 Garnacha is no different even if it follows a certain circuitous Internet-borne dynamic that seems unusual even in this day and age of “brand vs. land, there are no secret wine values anymore…” online battle.

Jose Pastor is a wunderkind (30 years old) wine importer with a fast growing reputation amongst wine insiders for his portfolio of Spanish wines that are typically natural in style – producers who farm organically when possible, emphasize terroir, use ambient yeasts, filter sparingly and use minimal oak.  In other words, his wines, and especially his inexpensive wine selections, are the anti-brand.  Or, should I say, “They’re the antidote to brand wines.”  The good stuff. 

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Jose’s wines won’t have an end-cap in stores with promotional materials, nor will they follow you on Twitter or ply you with faux-flattery for a “Like” on Facebook. Ditto that for Pastor playing the points scoring game.  He doesn’t do it. The wines and wineries in his portfolio simply represent something good and honest and rely on smart trade buyers who know good juice when they taste it and are interested in paying that forward to consumer’s one bottle at a time.

This formula isn’t a recipe for getting rich, but it is a recipe for long-term, slow-burning growth based on a purity of vision.

When Richard Schnitzlein, a longtime wine buyer in the greater Boston area, took over the wine section at Ferns Country store in Carlisle, MA in early 2011, he started to remake the selection of wines on offer and that meant much more diversity, spreading the selection from two distributors to 14 over a seven month period.

A part of that remaking was to engage Genuine Wine Selections, a wine distributor in Massachusetts, who carries the Jose Pastor portfolio.

When Genuine Wine Selections partner Dennis Quinn showed up at Ferns in the spring with samples to taste, the ’09 Bielsa was a part of the mix.

Enamored, Schnitzlein started stocking the wine.  “Initially (the Bielsa) was a hand sell, but (it) soon became a wine that people were asking for,” he noted.

Japko was turned onto the Bielsa from Schnitzlein and mentioned the Bielsa on his site in June.  A September Ferns promotion dropped the price on the Bielsa from $11.99 to 9.95 and that yielded 15 cases of the Bielsa moving through the door for Ferns including a stock-up from Japko.

Within a week of receiving my bottle from Japko, I had taken to the Internet to find this wine and I bought a ½ case online from Marketview Liquor in New York state who sells it for $7.99 a bottle.

I’ve gifted a bottle to a friend at work, and, well, I’m writing extensively about this vino, too – my own pay-it-forward juju for having been tipped off to this wine.

The moral of this story?  Finding a gem of a wine for $10 or under isn’t a hopeless process, but you do have to sift a lot of muck to find the gold nugget.  In my opinion, you’re more likely to find a gem by keeping your ears open for word of mouth recommendations from wine-inclined friends or a local wine shop then to take to the wine aisles of your supermarket wine section playing brand roulette.  Here, the internet and Wine-searcher.com is your friend, as well.  In addition, Spain is a country that is producing some excellent wines across all price tiers, and my very recent and very anecdotal track record at the lower-end has been very good.  And, finally, it pays to know people.  It pays to know what Jose Pastor is all about, and it pays to know the Richard Schnitzlein’s and Adam Japko’s of the world who freely share where to find the good stuff, even if finding the good stuff requires an Importer in California, a wine buyer in Massachusetts, a generous friend and internet ecommerce.

2009 Bielsa Vinas Viejas Garnacha

Huge, pure nose with mulberry juice, black cherry, orange peel, earth and a meaty savory quality that gives way to an expressive palate with plum, black cherry, spice and fresh squeezed orange juice.  The finish lingers with plum, pepper and earthiness.  This is a varietally correct, gorgeous, natural, unfiltered wine that screams for food and would be a bargain at 4X the price.  Highly recommended.  At under $10 a bottle, you’d be foolhardy not to find this wine.


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Palate Tuning and the Permanent Record

I’m aware that there are at least three strata of consumers who use wine reviews (and likely many more). 

1)  People that calibrate their palate to that of a critic so they can make very informed purchase decisions.  These people are few and probably most closely aligned with Robert Parker or niche critics like Allen Meadows of Burghound or Charlie Olken of the Connoisseurs’ Guide to California Wine.

2)  The broad swath of consumers who use scores, perhaps with some deference to the score-giver, to make retail purchase decisions.  With these folks, all things considered equal while balanced against price, a 91 is better than an 88 so they go with the higher score on the shelf-talker.

3) Online armchair wine researchers are an emerging category of users. Searching for a wine presents a sort of blotter file like the dreaded “permanent record” of school days gone by.  Consumers use search to research wines, validate a thought, sway indecision and incent action, sometimes in conjunction with #2.

This is linked, but separate from a recent working study presented under the banner of the American Association of Wine Economists called, “The Buyer’s Dilemma – Whose Rating Should a Wine Drinker Pay Attention to?”  For a well-considered post on this topic, see Joe Roberts post at 1WineDude.

For my part, I’ve done very little wine reviewing on this site preferring instead to make any specific wine the context for bigger ideas or points I want to make (no pun intended).  However, as I’ve gotten into the groove with my Forbes.com column, where there is a much broader audience, a wine-of-the-week column does have merit and I’ve started reviewing wines with more regularity.

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Doing so is fun, but the most that I hope for is to be a part of the permanent record as noted in item #3.  I certainly don’t have visions or a desire for anything more, but just the same, doing any sort of reviewing does open a can of worms, particularly in the case of the 2009 Red Car “Trolley” Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, a wine that I recently reviewed and gave four stars to – which equates to a generalized “90-94” score.  I don’t give precise numeric ratings.  If I had to, I would have given the Red Car a 92, I liked the wine – it was earthy, nuanced, layered, balanced and it required some thought to figure out, all hallmarks of a good wine.

So, consider me SHOCKED when I saw the Wine Spectator review for this very same wine and Jim Laube gave it an 81.  I was less shocked, but slightly curious when I saw that Steve Heimoff at Wine Enthusiast gave it an 86 and Stephen Tanzer gave it an 88.

Can you imagine somebody searching online for the Red Car and seeing search results that present a disparate spread along the lines of Spectator’s 81, Heimoff’s 86, Stephen Tanzer’s 88, CellarTracker’s average score of 89 and a score under the Forbes masthead of 90-94?

It would be a real WTF moment that creates more confusion instead of the consumers desired order.

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This disparity in scores brings me to my point, which is the point of the Wine Economist working paper – whose score should you listen to?  Well, Joe Roberts, rightfully so, says listen to your own palate.  However, with the preponderance of existing and emerging wine reviewers out there, combined with an ever burgeoning tsunami of information about wine online, that’s easier said than done.  The real need is for meta-aggregation of scores, a sort of super wine review database.

Neil Monnens and his Wine BlueBook represents this on some level with his monthly newsletter that aggregates wine scores for individual wines from three or more critical scores giving it a QPR rating, but this is just the tip of the iceberg compared to where information is going.

Methinks that if a stats wonk can assign a Quarterback rating to NFL quarterbacks, and Sagarin ratings for college football, there has to be a way to create a meta-rating database based on regression analysis that accounts for palate preferences across a wide diversity of reviewers to create a super score for a wine that acts as the ultimate arbiter.  And I won’t be surprised if, in the near future, this emerges. 

Ultimately, the ongoing debate about wine scores is for naught.  The horse has already left the barn.  A better conversation might be around shaping the future and the fact that the best answer to, “Whose Rating Should a Wine Drinker Pay Attention to?” might be, “Trust your palate,” but it might also be, “Tune your palate against the database.”


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