Saying Hello to the Golden Age of Wine Writing

Posted by | Posted in Commentary | Posted on 09-05-2013

Ball_point_pen_writingEarlier this week, Steve Heimoff wrote yet another screed lamenting the invention of the interwebs. Apparently, this newfangled internet machine is “destructive.” And it’s why we’re no longer living in “The Golden Age of Wine Writing.”

Heimoff is dead wrong. We’re living in the golden age of wine writing — and things are only getting better.

Consider our access to information. Almost anything you’d want to know or read about is easily available.

Once upon a time, wine consumers were starved for content — they could turn to Hugh Johnson, Gerald Asher, or Jancis Robinson, but that was about it. Today, consumers can choose from thousands of different outlets. Sure, some wine publications have gone out of business, but the vast majority still exist — and they’ve been joined by publications like Eater, Zester Daily, Purple Pages, Palate Press, Vinography, and countless others that literally didn’t exist ten years ago.

The condition of wine writing should be judged by the facts and stories consumers have access to. Today, more people than ever before have access to more content than ever before.

It’s that simple, and it’s awesome.  

Just as important, the barriers to entry that once existed are almost entirely gone.

Back when folks like Hugh Johnson and Gerald Asher started their careers, quality wine was rarer and more expensive than it is today. So only those who were wealthy could actually write about wine. Today, clean, interesting, delicious wine is available from across the world — and plenty is quite affordable.

Further, there were only a handful of wine publications — magazines like Decanter, newspapers like the New York Times, etc. So there were only a handful of jobs, and landing one of those jobs often depended on holding a journalism degree or somehow proving you deserved entry into the guild.

Today, anyone, anywhere, can write about wine. There are more publications than ever before and it takes nothing more than an internet connection to be a journalist.  

Heimoff is also wrong because, for the first time ever, every wine writer can now reach nearly every human.

Once upon a time, a consumers’ only wine content came from the local newspaper or a subscription to an expensive magazine. Today, consumers can quickly and easily access thousands of publications, videos, podcasts, etc. And thanks to smartphones, consumers can access that content 24/7. Plus, there are more storytelling formats than ever before.

The list goes on.

To quote Matthew Yglesias, Heimoff is guitly of “a blinkered outlook that confuses the interests of producers with those of consumers, confuses inputs with outputs, and neglects the single most important driver of human welfare — productivity. Just as a tiny number of farmers now produce an agricultural bounty that would have amazed our ancestors, today’s readers have access to far more high-quality coverage than they have time to read. Just ask yourself: Is there more or less good material for you to read today than there was 13 years ago? The answer is, clearly, more.”

Comments (14)

  1. I found Steve’s essay to be overly dramatic, heralding the End of the Golden Age of Wine Writing. However, I can also understand his point of view in lamenting the decline in employment for wine writers. True, anyone can publish anything they want about wine online — and some of that material is really worthwhile — but few can make a living that way. Some truly talented and knowledgable writers I know are barely surviving, or worse, taking jobs they don’t want in PR, etc., just to make a living.

  2. Then again, Tina, some of us DO want jobs in PR and marketing. Wine PR is dramatically different than it was 25 years ago when guys like Gerald Asher and Hugh Johnson (and, dare I date myself: Balzer and Chronman) were so important. I agree that anyone publishing anything is generally a good thing…it’s up to savvy wine PR and marketing people to keep up and build relationships with all of the new folks/outlets, while at the same time holding on to the more “Golden Age” writers.

  3. Nothing against PR, Rusty, for those who have the talent and inclination to excel in that world. Just giving an example.

  4. There are more paying wine writing opportunities than ever before. Sure, not every newspaper has a wine columnist anymore, but more people are earning money (not rolling in it, though) than ever before.

  5. Tina,

    It’s important to note that Heimoff bid adieu to the “golden age of wine writing.” Not the “golden age of the marketplace for wine writers,” but the “golden age of wine writing.” As a writer, he should recognize that words have meanings. What Heimoff wrote is unquestionably and absolutely false. Steve may bemoan the end of the marketplace for wine writers. It sure is sad, and I sympathize. But the market is disruptive. Bank tellers have been replaced by ATMs; many roles that physicians once played have been filled by PAs. The future will employee fewer wine writers, and those wine writers that are employed will likely make less money. But the golden age of wine writing? We’re living in it. And it’s only getting better.

  6. David -

    Here’s where you make the winning point:

    “It’s important to note that Heimoff bid adieu to the “golden age of wine writing.” Not the “golden age of the marketplace for wine writers,” but the “golden age of wine writing.” As a writer, he should recognize that words have meanings.”

    Yes. When I read his post, I was lulled into the trap of confusing the two. I will disagree with Kyle about paying opportunities; there might be more writers being paid, but there are very few who can sustain a living doing so. But when it comes to the golden age, yes, it’s hardly passed us just because it’s harder to make a living.

    And goodness, the notion that “unqualified” writers drags down quality? The only thing that drags down quality is poor writing. But that’s not a concern here, because poor writing lands with a thud in the online marketplace. It’s no threat or concern. And you make another strong point when you say that ostensibly qualified wine writers are not immune to utter pablum.

    Thanks for waking us up on this one. Now back to my research. I have two books in the works, even if, damn, I’m an unqualified bloggoon…

  7. David,

    Thanks for an absolutely devastating dismantling of Heimoff’s post. I couldn’t agree with you more, and the only people NOT benefitting from the current golden age of wine writing are those in positions threatened by the paradigm shift.

    His post is the same as dozens I’ve read over the years from sportswriters bemoaning the emergence of bloggers in that domain. It’s interesting that many top sports bloggers have by now eclipsed all but the very top “journalistic” sportswriters, and many make a decent living at it, BTW…

  8. I love the fact that the long tail of the blogosphere is opening up opportunities for disparate voices to be heard in the field of wine writing. And the excitement of the potential of this medium to shine a light on new points of view is obvious in the comments above from David White and Evan Dawson among others.

    As a producer of wine from the overlooked Livermore Valley appellation competing head-on with Napa Valley, it is often the blogger who becomes most enthusiastic about my wines. I certainly have a vested interest in the medium’s success.

    I would disagree, however, with David White’s contention that all it takes is “just an internet connection to become a journalist.” It takes dues paying in the form of tasting thousands of wines in a methodical way, talking with wine makers, tasting from barrel, walking vineyards year after year, etc. – to be able to provide a “true” and authoritative context to what is written. If one is writing as a consumer advocate, it isn’t enough to have an opinion about what you taste from a sample bottle…everyone has that.

    The barrier to entry isn’t the conduit, it is the willingness to do the hard work.

  9. I often refer readers of my humble wine-writing efforts to Mr. Heimoff’s blog as one of the best. He can be a bit overly dramatic and even condescending at times. No one ever described me as overtly sentimental about the great Midwest, but one Facebook post about “above fly-over country, Indiana” certainly didn’t endear me to his opinions.

  10. DAVID,

    THE MEDIA INDUSTRY IS LESS SANGUINE THAN YOU OR MATTHEW YGESIAS ON ITS FUTURE . . .

    [CAPITALIZATION USED FOR EMPHASIS. ~~ BOB]

    Excerpt from the Los Angeles Times “Business” Section

    (October 10, 2005, Page C1ff):

    “Black & White and Read by Fewer”

    [Link: http://articles.latimes.com/print/2005/oct/10/business/fi-newspapers10

    By James Rainey

    Times Staff Writer

    In a recent e-mail chat about the future of their business, several young New York Times reporters concluded with dismay that most of their friends don't subscribe to the newspaper.

    . . .

    A Media Management Center study reached an even more alarming conclusion regarding younger readers -- estimating that BY 2010, ONLY 9% OF THOSE IN THEIR 20s WILL READ A NEWSPAPER EVERY DAY. . . .

    Excerpt from the Wall Street Journal “Markeplace” Section

    (June 24, 2013, Page B2):

    “Gauging Investor Appetites for Print Media"

    [Link: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323300004578559561956424342.html

    By William Launder

    "The Week Ahead" Column

    Not as many consumers buy newspapers as they once did. Several major corporate newspaper deals moving forward this week will test how much appetite investors have left for print media.

    . . .

    Driving these deals, one way or another, is the collapse of the newspaper print ad market over the past few years -- which shows no signs of stopping. U.S. PRINT ADVERTISING FELL 55% FROM 2007 TO 2012, according to the Newspaper Association of America. A FURTHER DROP OF 6.2% IS EXPECTED THIS YEAR, AND A 6.8% DECLINE NEXT YEAR, predicts Magna Global, a division of IPG Mediabrands.

    Another media agency, ZenithOptimedia, expects total ad spending on newspapers to fall 8% annually in the years ahead.

    At that rate, THE TOTAL MARKET FOR PRINT NEWSPAPER ADS WOULD BE REDUCED [BY NEARLY 80%] to less than $10 billion OVER THE NEXT DECADE from $49.3 billion [pre-recession 2006 levels] . . .

    WHILE DIGITAL ADVERTISING IS GROWING, it was just 11% of total ad revenue in 2012, according to Newspaper Association data. Magna sees it rising by more than 14% next year – A GROWTH RATE THAT IS STILL TOO LOW TO FULLY OFFSET THE PRINT DECLINES.

    . . .

    Aside from taking steps to cut costs, publishers are trying to offset the ad declines by boosting subscription revenue, including by raising print cover prices and charging for full access to websites if such “paywalls” weren’t already in place.

    . . .

    Excerpts from The Wall Street Journal “Opinion” Section
    (July 8, 2009, Page a15):

    “To Rake It In, Give It Away”

    [Link: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124701229573408977.html

    Book review by Jeremy Philips

    Free:
    The Future of Radical Price
    By Chris Anderson
    (Hyperion, 274 pages, $26.99)

    It is easy to see why free is an appealing price for consumers, although how companies make money by giving stuff away is less obvious. In “Free: The Future of a Radical Price,” Chris Anderson, the editor of Wired magazine and the author of “The Long Tail,” sets out to explain why free is an increasingly compelling business model.

    . . .

    Free business models, whether purveying digital products or tangible goods, are based on cross subsidy — that’s why you get a “free” mobile phone when you sign up for a long-term service plan. In the digital realm, the “freemium” model offers the elusive free lunch. . . .

    Advertising is plainly the best known free model. . . . As Mr. Anderson notes, though, ADVERTISING CAN’T PAY FOR EVERYTHING ONLINE. IF YOU HAVE A BLOG, “NO MATTER HOW POPULAR,” THE REVENUE FROM ADSENSE — a Google service that places ads on Web sites – WILL PROBABLY NEVER “PAY YOU EVEN MINIMUM WAGE FOR THE TIME YOU SPEND WRITING IT.”

    Of course, that’s fine for bloggers more interested in fame or influence than in money or for blogs (like Mr. Anderson’s own) that are loss leaders for more lucrative endeavors, such as writing books or making speeches. BUT IF YOU HAVE TO EARN A LIVING FROM THE WEB, “FREE” CAN BE A PROBLEM. . . .

    ~~ BOB

  11. Kyle,

    Regarding your comment . . .

    “There are more paying wine writing opportunities than ever before. Sure, not every newspaper has a wine columnist anymore, but more people are earning money (not rolling in it, though) than ever before.”

    . . . I don’t know where you are getting your “numbers” from.

    I am a media industry professional, who plans and buys paid media ad campaigns for clients. (I am also a wine industry marketing professional on the side.)

    The number of newspapers in the U.S. has declined since the Great Recession.

    And with it staff writer/reporter jobs — especially on the subject of wine — have been eliminated.

    Here in Los Angeles, the Times eliminated its Wednesday “Food” section — substituting a catch-all “Saturday” section with occasional wine editorial.

    [Link: http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fiw-times-20120224,0,1301270.story

    One of the Times's restaurant reviewers (doing double duty on the "wine beat") contributed this news report on Antonio Galloni’s departure from The Wine Advocate, and his reported $300,000 annual salary (plus expenses) . . .

    Excerpt from the Los Angeles Times Online
    (March 20, 2013):

    “Wine Advocate Sues Ex-Critic Antonio Galloni for Missing Tasting Notes”

    [Link: http://www.latimes.com/features/food/dailydish/la-dd-wine-advocate-sues-excritic-antonio-galloni-for-missing-tasting-notes-20130320,0,2753202.story

    By S. Irene Virbila
    “Daily Dish” Column

    . . . I remember seeing a tweet sent by someone at The Symposium for Professional Wine Writers at Meadowood Napa Valley in February.

    Only three of the wine writers in the room earned more than $25,000 per year from their writing.

    . . .

    By definition, to be considered a "professional" wine writer, you have to receive compensation for your work.

    Otherwise, you are by definition an . . .

    "Amateur: a person who does something (such as a sport or hobby) for pleasure and not as a job."

    [Source: From Merriam-Webster online dictionary]

    Kyle, there may be wine writer gigs out there (perhaps self-created through personal wine blogs), but the majority of them are paying a “livable wage.”

    ~~ Bob

  12. Erratum.

    Correcting an editing error:

    Kyle, there may be wine writer gigs out there (perhaps self-created through personal wine blogs), but the majority of them AREN’T paying a “livable wage.”

  13. DAVID,

    IN MY COMMENT ABOVE, I CITED THE DISCOURAGED VIEW BY YOUNG NEW YORK TIMES REPORTERS THAT THEIR OWN PEER GROUP FRIENDS DON’T EVEN READ THEIR MEDIUM.

    NOR DO THEY READ BOOKS FOR LEISURE — IF YOU BELIEVE THIS NEWSPAPER JOURNALIST-TURNED-COLLEGE WRITING COURSE INSTRUCTOR.

    A BAD SIGN FOR ASPIRING WINE JOURNALISTS: GOING FORWARD, WHO IN THIS “POST-LITERATE AGE” IS GOING TO BUY AND READ THE WINE BOOKS THEY CRANK OUT?

    ~~ BOB

    Excerpts from Wall Street Journal “Opinion” Section
    (June 26 2013, Page A15):

    “The Young and the Bookless;
    Many of my college students hadn’t read for fun since ‘Harry Potter.’”

    [Link: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323844804578526963222895632.html

    By Danny Heitman

    [a columnist for the Baton Rouge Advocate]

    . . .

    This spring, in addition to my primary job as a journalist, I taught my first college writing course. It was a class of 16, most of them freshmen. They were sharp, engaging and curious students, but I quickly noticed that much of their writing didn’t display the kind of familiarity with English that comes from reading a lot.

    For my first quiz, I included a bonus question asking my students to name the last book they had read for fun. More than half of the students listed one of the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling, titles most popular with middle-school youngsters. The answers suggested that most of my students hadn’t read a book for pleasure in nearly a decade.

    I was saddened to learn this, although I shouldn’t have been surprised. A landmark 2007 study by the National Endowment for the Arts noted a sharp decline in reading for pleasure among young people. The number of 17-year-olds who never read for pleasure increased to 19% in 2004 from 9% in 1984. According to the report, almost half of Americans between ages 18 and 24 never read books for fun.

    When the NEA study appeared six years ago, I convinced myself that the young nonreaders identified in the report were probably mediocre students with little aptitude for language arts. But meeting my own students — smart young people who were trying to write English without reading much of it — made me realize that the grim numbers about America’s reading habits have real faces among some of the best and brightest members of the next generation.

    . . .

  14. David,

    Posted on Colorado Wine Press blog entry titled “Maybe Steve Heimoff was right (I might have lost my mind…)”

    [Link: http://www.coloradowinepress.com/2013/09/maybe-steve-heimoff-was-right-i-might.html?showComment=1379761243217#c7440103855321415122

    ~~ Bob

    Bob Henry (Los Angeles wine industry professional)
    September 21, 2013 at 5:00 AM

    I think Steve was thinking less of Ovid, and more along the lines of 1950s decade “Golden Age of Television (Dramas)” as his paradigm when he composed his blog entry titled “Saying Goodbye to the Golden Age of Wine Writing.”

    Joe at 1 Wine Dude got it right in his blog entry titled “Are We In The Golden Age Of Wine Writing? (Hint: Not Even Close!)”

    [Link: http://www.1winedude.com/are-we-in-the-golden-age-of-wine-writing-hint-not-even-close/

    Wine writers back in the 1970s were better educated than today’s successors in print and online. Better credentialed — coming largely from the ranks of seasoned newspaper and magazine staff writers who had already established their “writing chops” on various reporting “beats.” More graceful stylists and more compelling storytellers. More careful fact-checkers.

    And less opinionated and more humble than today’s successors.

    Not guilty of the narcissism displayed by too many “stream of consciousness” wine writers today who feel the need to express every little observation and opinion that pops into their head. Bereft of restraint and self-censorship.

    Self-styled “citizen journalists” who mistakenly believe they are protected against defamation and libel.

    See this article for their wake-up call . . .

    Excerpts from The Wall Street Journal “Personal Journal” Section
    (May 21, 2009, Page D1ff):

    “Bloggers, Beware: What You Write Can Get You Sued”

    [Link: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124287328648142113.html

    By M.P. McQueen
    Staff Reporter

    Be careful what you post online. You could get sued.

    In March 2008, Shellee Hale of Bellevue, Wash., posted in several online forums about a hacker attack on a company that makes software used to track sales for adult-entertainment Web sites. She claimed that the personal information of the sites’ customers was compromised.

    About three months later, the software company — which contends that no consumer data were compromised — sued Ms. Hale in state court in New Jersey, accusing her of embarking “on a campaign to defame and malign the plaintiffs” in chat-room posts.

    In her legal response, Ms. Hale, 46 years old, claims she is covered by so-called shield laws that protect reporters from suits, because she was acting as a journalist and was investigating the hacker attack while researching a story on adult-oriented spam.

    Bloggers are increasingly getting sued or threatened with legal action for everything from defamation to invasion of privacy to copyright infringement. . . . . There have been about $17.4 million in trial awards against bloggers to date, according to the Media Law Resource Center in New York, a nonprofit clearinghouse that tracks free-speech cases.

    Many lawsuits are thrown out of court or settled before trial, but not before causing headaches for the accused. Though the likelihood of a plaintiff winning a lawsuit is not high, “you could go bankrupt” just from defending against them, says Miriam Wugmeister, a partner at Morrison & Foerster LLP and a privacy and data-security law expert.

    . . .

    SLAPPED WITH LAWSUITS

    Civic gadflies and self-styled watchdogs who accuse local politicians and companies are getting slapped with lawsuits. People who post messages in chat rooms, online forums and blogs can be held liable for invasion of privacy or for making defamatory statements, which are damaging, false statements of fact.

    . . .