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Palate or Opinion?  Why The Future of Wine Writing is P.I.S.S.’ed

Last week, Tom Wark, wine PR pro and champion of wine shipping rights, added to his already busy year by releasing the 2010 American Wine Writer Survey, the first such survey he has completed since 2004, practically the Mesozoic era as compared to today.

Wark, at his own blog Fermentation, highlighted several of the key findings from the survey of wine writers nationwide (here and here) including the value divide in between wine writers and wine publicists as well as a credibility gap in between well-established wine writers and upstarts.

If you haven’t downloaded the full report and read it, I encourage you to do so (link here).  Anybody who reads about wine online or offline will confirm a hunch or glean an insight.  And, glean an insight I did, but first, some background.


When I started this blog, from the very first day, I took a columnist-style approach.  800 – 1000 words with a beginning, a middle and an end, hopefully with a point.  Good Grape has nearly been a wine blog outlier from the get-go; I’ve heard for five years that much of what I write is, well, different, and loooong.  Sometimes this has been framed positively and often times negatively.  Yet, perhaps, this site is different and long by blog standards, but it’s in line with print standards and online journalism.

Why did I choose this style?  For a couple of reasons:  It was partially based on the enjoyment I get out of writing about the intersection of culture, business and wine in a first person essay style (being a part of the story, but not THE story), partially because I don’t get too fired up to write boiler plate wine reviews or winery stories, and mainly because having grown up reading the newspaper every day I know that the glory position at any newspaper or magazine is the writer that has a column along with a picture.  And, columnists are the writers most often syndicated to other media outlets across the country.  If I was going to start writing a blog perhaps a column-style had the most long-term upside?

With that as background, before I hit the “publish” button for this blog, I pass the column / post through a mental filter that I’ve developed—my P.I.S.S. filter.  It’s a cheeky acronym that represents what I want my writing to be:  Pithy, Insightful, Stylish w/ Substance.

I’ll let you be the judge of whether I accomplish that aim, but I’ve never once regretted taking the approach that I have and I feel validated every time I hear somebody referencing a columnist opinion on sports talk radio or, especially, when somebody name-checks wine writer Matt Kramer and his column at Wine Spectator as being singularly worthy of the magazine subscription price.

In my opinion, columnists and the writers that write them drive today’s mainstream journalism, offline and online.

News matters, but news in context matters more and that’s what columnists do.


Back to the Wine Writers Survey, I was keenly interested about the topic of wine writing subject matter.  Wark noted in his survey results:

“Interestingly, no matter how you look at and filter the survey results, every subcategory of survey takers choose(s) “reviews of wines” most often as the subject matter they most often write about.  However, it is interesting to note that if you look at the responses to this question by those who also say they maintain their own blog, these folks are much more inclined to identify “Commentary or Opinion” as a subject matter they most often engage.”

The survey noted that 32% of surveyed wine writers do commentary / opinion as a part of their writing. This becomes an important point when juxtaposed against the largest response – wine reviews at 63%—while also being viewed within larger wine writing trends.

First, wine reviews on the 100 point scale are the equivalent of the cockroach that survives the apocalypse, but with the increase in available reviewers online along with tasting notes services combined with popular wine critics aging, the day is not far off when a score is but a score.  Net-net, the score isn’t going away, but there is a point of diminishing return and a level of commoditization based on the trend of sheer quantity of scores coming from all directions.  Eventually, nobody’s going to give a shit when a score doesn’t come from one palate and, equally so, the impact is going to be blunted when a score doesn’t come from a masthead like Wine Spectator.  An aggregated score from CellarTracker will be equally valuable.

Second, the online wine scene has longingly, lovingly and achingly decried the mainstream wine media that serves them as being out of touch with their desires … lifestyle shtick being what it is …

And, by most rationale analysis, the amount of people seeking information online is growing at a pace equal to or greater than new mainstream wine magazine subscribers.


To put a fine point on it, I’ve heard rumor that Wine Spectator is opening up their site from the previous pay wall.  Wark’s wine writing survey indicates even wine writers see the handwriting on the wall when only 7% prognosticate that in 10 years’ time will print be a primary source for wine information.

So, taken together, an increase in op-ed style commentary driven by blogs, a commoditization of the very wine reviews that currently predominate, a growing online wine community that can’t hack the lifestyle reacharound and a manifest destiny date with the internet being the principal delivery of wine information means what?

It means that if you’re a wine writer, or somebody who likes to read about wine, you should now be able to answer the question about what will be important in wine writing in the future.  Palate or Opinion?  I’ll go with opinion, a P.I.S.S’ed opinion.


Posted in, Good Grape Daily: Pomace & Lees. Permalink | Comments (19) |


On 12/01, Thomas Pellechia wrote:

What primary source of information can that 9% other be? 

Whatever it is, I want in…

Jeff, mark my words: in ten years you will all know that the main force behind prevailing wisdom is that it prevails, and not that it is wisdom. I predict that by ten years out wine writing in any form will have fully exposed itself and then die wink

On 12/01, 1WineDude wrote:

Sh*t!!! Once again we write about the same topic on the same day!

Thomas - seems to me your prediction is a bit too dire…

On 12/01, Thomas Pellechia wrote:


Dire? Nah, just that wine writers will run out of adjectives as well as arguments…

On 12/01, Jeff wrote:


I’m putting you on payroll.  A dollar a post for comments.  Thank you. 

Joe, great minds ... or simple minds, one of the two.

Are you doing the Wine Writer’s Symposium in Feb.?  I saw you comment to Heimoff about CA in February.


On 12/01, Thomas Pellechia wrote:

Is that dollar a post up for negotiation?

Maybe I should offer that to people over at my blog—I’d not be giving away much money at all.

On 12/01, Sam D wrote:

Some will hate me for saying this, but it’s hard for me to get excited about basic wine reviews unless they come from one of the major critics. The reasons are 1. I know these critics palates; 2. Top critics taste a lot of wine which provides context and meaning to their reviews; 3. These critics reviews can have major implications for a wine’s success in the market. For the other 99.9% of the world’s wine writers, wine reviews should also provide commentary, tell a story, share a food pairing, or do something more than a just list a tasting note and score.

On 12/01, Thomas Pellechia wrote:

Well Sam, for a guy who’s in the business of seeking fro clients “’s success in the market” you certainly should focus on what works.

Interesting to me, though, that you delineate between critic notes/scores and information. It points to the vacuous nature of the former as merely a tool for hucksters.

Not blaming you or anyone; just pointing out what your comment seems to point out.

On 12/01, 1WineDude wrote:

I am indeed doing the WWS in Feb. in Napa (I’m going as a speaker, actually - part of two panels), and very much looking forward to it!

On 12/02, The Sediment Blog wrote:

Well, I don’t think that we fall into ANY of the categories of wine writing that the survey covers! Entertainment, humour and lifestyle are the satellites around our wine writing; yes, you might find a review buried somewhere in there, but surely wine writing can be different, original and entertaining?

(As we hope we are…)

On 12/02, Evan Dawson wrote:

Jeff -

Your intuition is beginning to look more prescient as time goes on and the aimless blogs scuffle. You came in to this field focused and determined to offer something valuable and unique. For my money, you do that every week. Now, speaking of money, how the hell do we monetize…

I am decidedly more optimistic about the future of wine writing than Thomas. I am also more optimistic about humankind, despite my recalcitrantly cynical alter-ego. People still want substance. They can not only handle depth, but they crave it when it’s presented cleanly and articulately. Content still wins.

Excellent post, per usual.

On 12/02, Thomas Pellechia wrote:


Just to be clear: optimism and pessimism are human traits—realism is the result of human activity.

My interest has always been and remains in results.

See you Sunday, where we can continue the philosophy lesson wink

On 12/03, Australian wine wrote:

Hi.. I read your post and I want to say that it is not like that the future of wine writing is going to be PISSED. I saw your analysis and notification on the graph you placed. I appreciate you for your hard work.

On 12/04, Charlie Olken wrote:

Gee, sorry I missed the discussion.

One thing is clear. There will continue to be words about wine. Some of them will be opinion and some of will be story. Some of them will be in print and some of them will be print on some form of digital device.

But there will be words, there will be opinions about wine, there will be single, respected voices and there will be aggregate voices, there will be ratings in points, in
stars, and in chopsticks if needs be.

There will be free wine journalism just as there has always been in various print places. And there will be forms of paid journalism at some level—some of it in print because folks like the WS and WE are too big to go away and their business models rely on print in order to sell advertsing.

The non-advertising paid publications, the newsletters, have been migrating to digital and that will continue until only Parker is left, and if his subscription numbers ever fall, he will migrate to online only as well.

But two things will not change. There will be levels of journalism, some of which will be sufficiently valuable as to encourage people to pay for it. And secondly, the much-heraled PISS standard, which has always been the standard for good wine writing, will continue to be.

On 12/06, tom merle wrote:

“An aggregated score from CellarTracker will be equally valuable”.  No, it will be more valuable.  Charlie Olken, as much as we’d like him to, can’t live forever.  Nor can the other single source evalulators. Crowdsourcing will only grow in its importance, with wine journalism focusing on the many dimensions of context. Rod Smith has it right: call him a wine writer not a wine critic

On 12/06, Charlie Olken wrote:

Ah, Mr. Merle. With your good wishes, I may yet live a long time. And the tasting premise behind my publication, Connoisseurs’ Guide to California Wine, of seasoned professionals tasting no more than sixteen wines blind per day with lengthy consideration, inquiring discussions and educated conclusions will always have a place.

It will have a place because we are consistent, early in the process, thoughtful and well-written. Our voice is known, trustworthy and reliable. And yes, some decade(s) from now when I am no longer writing, I expect others to take my place. Judging by the long line of suitors who keep asking when I am going to retire, I assume that CGCW will have a long and continuing life so long as the quality of its content maintains.

On 12/06, Jeff wrote:

Ah, Thomas Pellechia, Charlie Olken AND Tom Merle in the same comment string—this is like the holy trinity of wine commentary, no?

I’m not sure who is the Father,  who is the Son and who might be the Holy Ghost, but I think both Tom and Charlie are correct.  Wine is a niche and within that niche will live many other niches, but I do tend to skew towards the power of CellarTracker as a future power vehicle for wine marketing.

thanks to all for the robust commentary and thanks for reading my site.


On 12/06, Charlie Olken wrote:


This is pretty easy. Tom is the father because he is the oldest and the most curmudgeonly. I am the son because I have the energy to show up everywhere. Merle is clearly the ghost because you never know when he is going to blow in.


On 11/03, wrote:

Thank you dear.

On 12/20, BC133 Netbook wrote:

the Find 5’s screen is certainly capturing plenty of attention.


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