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The Role Of The Blame-Throwing Wine Writer, 1980s Style

Vinted on November 12, 2013 under commentary

Okay… so… we stirred the pot a bit with last week’s lament on the state of wine writing. To the tune of a couple of hundred overall reactions in comments, emails, and social media.

One of the emails I received was from wine biz alumnus Les Hubbard. Les had happened to read that post, and almost simultaneously (while doing some house cleaning in his files) stumbled upon something nearly thirty years old that he thought was related to the topic of wine writing, and what we can hope to achieve from it (if not being able to achieve green-tinged paper with drawings of previous U.S. presidents on them).

In that email, Les recounted the main themes from a talk on wine writing given by John Frederick Walker in November of 1985 (I would’ve been all of thirteen at that time, and so more qualified to write about orange juice…).

Walker’s themes are eerily resonant today; in fact, they sound as if they could’ve been written last week, let alone twenty-eight years ago. Les gave me permission to share his email, for which I’m quite grateful; I desperately wanted to share them with the 1WD readership, because they feel so pertinent to the craft of wine writing, and because they comprise a fairly awesome exclamation point of sorts to last week’s discussion in the comments section about what it means to be a (underemployed) wine writer.

And so, courtesy of Les, here are Hubbard’s own words paraphrasing what I would consider some of the key points that are still at the heart of good wine scribing, as delivered back in the `80s. So dust off your Jams, Swatches, big-rimmed glasses, skinny ties and Galaga-playing skills and join us for a trip in the dialectical Way Back Machine…

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On The Death Of Sommelier Journal (Or “The Nigh Impossibility Of Building Wealth As A Wine Writer”)

Vinted on November 5, 2013 under commentary, wine news

By now many of you will have heard that Sommelier Journal is ceasing publication.

The news came to me via SJ editor David Vogels, who several days ago issued an email to those writers who had contracted work with the magazine. I happen to be one of those writers, having only weeks ago completed a featured story / regional overview on Crete, an article that was to appear in SJ’s November issue. Here’s what Vogels wrote in the email:

“I regret to inform you that Sommelier Journal has suspended publication. We are currently negotiating with a group that hopes to purchase the title and resume publishing the magazine at some point within the next year. In the meantime, we have arranged with Wine & Spirits Magazine to complete the terms of our current paid subscribers with the same number of issues they have remaining (whether in print or online-only).”

The news is sad for several reasons. Sommelier Journal was a bright light among wine publications over the last six years, as any long-time 1WD reader is already well aware. It was probably the only publication that catered specifically to sommeliers, beverage directors, and others in a similar vinous vein who actually cared deeply about building a taste profile for their clientele.

But among the reasons for why the shuttering of SJ’s glossy covers totally sucks, the reason vying for number one in line for the suck-a-thon as far as I’m concerned is the fact that I’m now not going to be paid for the article I wrote for them. That’s work I sweated and bled, based on a journey I took to the region under the auspice that I was on assignment (I’ve reached out to World of Fine Wine about taking it up, but they seem to move pretty slowly, unless they have something they’d like me to promote to you, of course!).

I’d like to say that this development is probably a fluke, but I think it’s actually indicative of a larger issue, which is that paid content in any form is a tough sell, period. Paid content for a niche is even tougher. And as a result, building wealth by writing content about a niche topic like wine is a bit like talking about unicorns or the Easter bunny (or about Easter bunnies riding unicorns): fun to discuss, but ultimately a figment of our collective, wine-soaked imagination…

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Did We Just Win A Battle In “The War Over Wine?”

Vinted on October 15, 2013 under about 1winedude blog, commentary, wine news

This is the kind of thing that probably gives major wine critics apoplexy.

James Conaway, the talented writer and author of the excellent novel-with-a-wine-soaked-plot Nose, recently penned an article for Worth titled The War Over Wine. It’s cogent, well-conceived, deftly written and fiercely opinionated. In other words, it’s the kind of writing that fills borderline-hacks like me with a burning jealous rage hot enough to turn our faces the shade of a slightly aged Moulin-a-Vent.

Now, normally I don’t pat attention to Worth, mostly because I do not need reading material to fill my time below deck while my yacht is piloted to my own private dessert (whoops!) desert island. Just perusing the Worth.com website is like stumbling upon the remains of some lost civilization that used the same words we do to communicate, but put them in sequences that no longer have any meaning for us. It’s how Shakespeare appears to the high school student, or how Wine & Spirits appears to mortal wine drinkers, or how Umberto Eco appears to everyone who can read.

Seriously, topics can be found there such as Mutual Fund Strategies in the Aftermath of the 2008 Financial Crisis, the ever-popular Where Is the Best Opportunity in the High-End Luxury Space?, and my personal favorite, 10 Questions for Your Chief Innovation Officer (‘cuz I only had eight questions for mine, so I am clearly a 99-percenter slacker!)

Anyway… Conaway’s piece seems somewhat out of place in Worth in that context, but it’s the kind of article that makes me want to take up arms and shout from the rooftops, in the hope that it’s less a tempest-in-a-teapot and more a topical-sh*tstorm-about-to-explode (as The Tick might have shouted, “from the mighty butt checks of wine media justice!”)…

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California Winemakers May Routinely Use Formulas To Achieve Certain Scores

Vinted on September 24, 2013 under commentary

During one of my many recent Left Coast jaunts, I had a rather disturbing conversation with a California winemaker over dinner. It’s a conversation that haunted me for weeks afterward, until I could catch up with that particular winemaker (who needs to remain anonymous for reasons that should become obvious very quickly) and get more detailed information on the topic that we’d discussed.

The short version of the story is that the winemaker with whom I spoke referenced a matrix he’d developed that set qualitative and quantitative targets – for color, extraction, sugar levels, tannin, taste profiles, etc. – for achieving specific scores from specific U.S. wine critics.

Not a wide ranges of scores, but in some cases, targeted score ranges that were quite narrow (between three or four points).

While the matrices began innocuously enough – as reference points for achieving certain styles or quality levels of wines more quantitatively – in some cases they morphed into tools meant to target specific scores from certain critics for marketing purposes. And this winemaker hinted that such matrices / formulas were and are fairly common tools in terms of fine winemaking in California.

Apparently, certain characteristics are almost guaranteed to get you a better chance at a particular score from particular critics. There are companies that will do similar analysis and – for a fee that is apparently not unsubstantial – will tell you when (harvest timing, etc.) and how (extraction, manipulations, etc.) to make your wine, based on that analysis, complete with target score ranges in major wine publications…

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