The Golden Age Of Wine Writing? Sorry, Wrong Question!

Vinted on June 3, 2015 binned in commentary, wine blogging

Almost four (holy crap!) years ago, I wrote on these virtual pages a response (ok, rebuttal) to a claim by the thought-provoking PR maven Tom Wark that we were in a “golden age” of wine writing.

Fast-forward to last week, and we have Tom taking umbrage with a satirical piece by Ron Washam, a.k.a. The Hosemaster of Wine, in which wine writer Karen MacNeil delivers a keynote address to the Wine Bloggers Conference in which she offers the helpful advice that most wine bloggers ought to hang it up: “Your prose is like box wine—a collapsing plastic sack of crap.” Steve Heimoff, formerly of Wine Enthusiast, also got in on the discussion, essentially wondering aloud if wine writing is doomed.

With me so far?

Tom’s rebuttal essentially restates his position from 2011; that we are in a golden age of wine writing, particularly online: “The list of very good writers who are or have started as wine bloggers is long and undeniable.

At first blush (see what I did there?), it would seem that we have moved not one iota in the nearly four years since we first aired this friendly debate across our respective corners of the Global Interwebs. And while that may actually be the case, I am not here to offer a rebuttal to Tom’s rebuttal (despite the fact that, while I love the wine blogging community, I largely agree with Ron’s position and would extend it to include the vast majority of wine writing found in print).

No, I am here to tell you that asking (or debating) if we are in a golden age of wine writing is effectively asking the wrong question

The more pertinent question is whether or not we’re in a golden age of wine media.

And the answer to that question, I think, is “yeah, maybe we are; or at least, we’re getting closer.”

When talking about online, holding wine writing up as the penultimate form of wine coverage is probably a stance espoused primarily by wine writers. Take a step back, and the idea that quality of wine coverage ought to be debated around the context of writing alone seems embarrassingly antiquated, like  Caractacus Potts showing up in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at the Indianapolis 500, or me showing anyone under the age of 27 my current “smart” phone.

While it’s undeniable that what most educated wine consumers and pros would consider “excellent” wine is made up of a tiny percentage of those attempting it, that is almost certainly true of any niche. Combining the disciplines required in niche coverage (for example, writing, editing, tasting, etc.) into real craft takes real time and real effort.

Fortunately for all of us, with the barriers of entry being so low, one can find those 0.5% of higher quality outliers – those aiming for real craft – quite easily, and the increase in volume of coverage overall makes the size of the 0.5% a larger pool than at any other time in history.

But this coverage does not always come in the form of writing, and while at 43 (holy crap!) I am not exactly young enough to casually dismiss the written word (or even the printed word!), I am not anywhere near old enough to ignore how many other forms niche media takes these days (I’m guessing that I might never be old enough – at heart, anyway – to ignore that).

With very little effort, one can find wine coverage in the form of writing, photographs, videos, audio, cartoons, and infographics. Yeah, most of them suck. But the ones that don’t? They’re reeeaaallllyyyy good, folks.

So, are we in the golden age of wine media?

By volume, no. By just about any other measure? Yeah, maybe we are; we need only broaden our perspectives enough to truly see it.

Cheers!

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    Comments

  • Adam Lee


    Hmm, I can see your point, but I might look forward a bit and be more concerned. I talk with a number of people in the wine media sphere and I hear a number of things:

    1) (if they’ve been in the business awhile) — “I’m not making as much money now as I once did..”
    2) I have to have another job (wine buyer for an account, writer of other works) to get by.
    3) I don’t know that I have a future in this business.

    If that all is true, then the golden age will quickly tarnish.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

    • 1WineDude


      Adam, we’re about to have a rare case in which we disagree ;-) The explosion of niche media is predicated on volume, talent, low barriers to entry, and passion. Those don’t necessarily require compensation.

      • Adam Lee


        Says the man with 5 advertisements on his home page. :)

        Sure, the explosion of niche media starts that way, but folks gotta get some chedda eventually. They grow up, want a house, have families, etc. They…well, they start writing for Playboy because they want a check.

        Adam Lee
        Siduri Wines

        • 1WineDude


          Adam, like I said, we’re disagreeing. My case is an exception, it’s not statistically the norm.

  • mjgraves (@mjgraves)


    Ah-men, Brother Roberts!

    Could not agree more. Further, if we take a broad view, this transition of sorts has happened throughout the history of all forms of all media across generations.

    For example, cast your thoughts back to the early 1990s. Consider how the mighty Apple Macintosh, Quark Xpress & laser printing revolutionized publishing. I was on sabbatical from my mainline tech trade and working for a small hobby magazine in Baltimore. We transitioned from physical paste-up of each issue to all-desktop-published. We did it with the style and sensibility of a publisher with decades of experience.

    At about the same time I heard someone offer that “you can’t fire a cannonball down a main street without killing a desktop publisher.” Everyone started to have a newsletter, and most used excessive numbers of desperately gaudy typefaces.

    A decade later WordPress replayed that very transition in the online realm.

    As Theodore Sturgeon so wisely observed, “Ninety per-cent of everything is crap.”

    Therein lie the value of curation.

    • 1WineDude


      Thanks, mj. Great summary.

  • Michael Brill


    I think you’re on to something. The TL;DR threshold for wine content keeps lowering. Images, short videos, tweets – these, in aggregate, tell stories in easy to consume, bite-sized chunks.

    The question is whether the world needs intermediaries to tell these stories.

    To your quote: “The explosion of niche media is predicated on volume, talent, low barriers to entry, and passion.” Adam Lee runs one of the 500,000 wineries in the world. He has a phone that takes awesome pictures and 15 second videos. His life is filled with informal moments that may be banal to him, but are fascinating to others. Enough of these shared moments tell a story the same way your Facebook feed tells a story. Aggregate and machine-curate video and you now have instant exposés on vineyards, winemaking techniques, lifestyle, food, etc. … all the stuff wine enthusiasts care about.

    Of course what he lacks right now is the channel/tool for that. This will change.

    So while there’s been so much hand-wringing over wine critic vs. blogger vs. consumer content, we’ve kind of forgotten the people with the best stories and the most compelling economic incentives of all.

    • 1WineDude


      Michael, great point. In some ways what we’re saying here is that our definition of media/coverage/story is too limited and parochial. Stepping back and using a bit of imagination, we see a potentially much broader definition of those things, and personally I find that both liberating and exciting.

  • doug wilder


    “… Karen MacNeil delivers a keynote address to the Wine Bloggers Conference in which she offers the helpful advice that most wine bloggers ought to hang it up.”

    This is essentially what Gary V. said in his 2008 WBC keynote. I recall it was phrased something like “90% of you should just go home, now.” Has anyone bothered to compare the list of wine blogs then to see which ones are still around?

    • 1WineDude


      Doug – no doubt there’s attrition. Same for blogging on any topic, everywhere.

  • Tom Wark


    Joe,

    You wrote that you believe “the vast degree” of wine writing on blogs and in print amounts to “—a collapsing plastic sack of crap.”

    Can you tell me who in particular you are referring to? Eric Asimov? Bruce Schoenfeld? Jon Bonne? Dan Berger? Paul Franson? Patrick Comiskey? Virginie Boone? Andrew Jefford? Joe Czerwinski? Will Lyons? Karen MacNeil? Lettie Teague? Ray Isle? Sara Schneider? Bill Daley? Andy Blue? Elin McCoy?

    I read on occasion how shitty wine bloggers are at writing. And here I read that the “vast majority” of those who write about wine in print amount to a “collapsing plastic sack of crap.”

    But I never see names named. That’s a pretty darned big brush.

    • 1WineDude


      Tom, pick up most any local publication of any kind that has wine coverage in it from the last twenty years. The names you provided have risen to the top, with good reason. Same goes for the top wine bloggers, I think. It’s the almost innumerable amount of the rest that includes people who will never rise to the top because they either have talent but not drive and interest, or lack the talent altogether.

  • gabe


    Interesting read, Joe. While I agree (in theory) that wine podcasts or online videos are opening up brand new avenues of wine writing, I have to admit that I am not familiar with any. Are there any you would suggest?

    As for writing, my take is that the rise in online media and the decline in print media seems to be happening in balance with each other. I would imagine that the quantity and quality of wine writing online is probably pretty similar to what you would have found if you read every local newspaper wine section across the country 15 years ago. I’m sure there was tons of crap, but there were also some great wine writers (in the Oregonian, we had two of my favorites – Matt Kramer and Katherine Cole). The main difference is that we now have easy access to all of those writers, which (as you noted) means a larger pool of writers in general, including the good, the bad, and the ugly.

    • 1WineDude


      Thanks, Gabe!

  • gabe


    Interesting read. While I agree in theory, the quality of wine videos or podcasts still seems like its lagging behind the quality of wine writing. It’s possible that will change, and it’s possible that I’m now in my 30’s and don’t know what is new. But it is also possible that the introspective experience created by wine is still best represented by the written word.

    Regardless, I wouldn’t necessarily say we are in a golden age of wine writing, because lots of great newspaper writers are no longer employed. Aside from the (in)famous Jon Bonne, we lost two great wine writers from the Oregonian, who once featured Matt Kramer and Katherine Cole. I would guess that the large amount of wine bloggers are a wash with the lost generation of Newspaper writers.

    • 1WineDude


      Gabe – certainly we’re not in the golden age from the standpoint of employment. Not even remotely close.

  • Ron Washam, HMW


    Hey Joe,
    I am happy to have sparked some debate. I would, however, simply like to point out that my “controversial” piece was satire. Exaggeration is one of the founding principles of satire. So there’s that. Also, I was pretending to write as Karen MacNeil, a woman I suspect, and thus imagined, has little patience for how tired and dull the Sturgeonesque 99% of wine blogs are. Tom, as ever, feels the need to defend wine blogging. And why wouldn’t he? He created the Wine Blog Awards, and spends a lot of time marketing wines to wine bloggers. To answer his question where he lists wine writers (none of whom are actually “Citizen” bloggers), “Yes, for the most part.”

    I’d venture to say that most wine bloggers do it for the simple fun of expressing themselves and imagining an audience that hangs on their every word. I know I do. That doesn’t require talent, or defense. Furthermore, “Golden Ages” are defined in hindsight. Will historians agree one day that the early days of the Intergnats was a Golden Age of Wine Writing, or a Golden Age of Wine Media? Luckily, we’ll all be dead when those questions are answered.

    • 1WineDude


      Thanks, Ron. I attempted to make similar points (about your work being satirical) in the comments that I left on Tom’s website. But I think Tom and I ended up talking past one another.

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