Ξ October 3rd, 2008 | → 3 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Interviews, Technology, Wine History, Winemakers |
It is difficult to over-estimate the importance of Jack Keller. Veteran, historian, web and wine writing pioneer, he began posting his lucid vinous insights well before the net’s potential was clear to wine writers. Jack has been providing constructive advice and instruction to home winemakers for years. I myself have used his website for hard-to-find info on the crowberry. Wonder what crowberry offers? Wonder what the deal is with fruit wines? Need info on vitus vinifera? Well, visit Jack Keller’s Winemaking home page.
In this two part interview he offers his considered opinion on a wide range of subjects.
Read and enjoy.
Admin You have been writing a wine blog continuously since April of 2003, all posts are well archived. But on your home page, next to the ‘visitor number’, is the date April 4th, 1997. To what does this date refer? When did you begin posting about wine? And is it fair to say Jack’s Wine Blog was the first blog on the net?
Jack Keller I started posting things on 400 kilobytes of server space my ISP gave me back in 1995 or 1996. The first page I built was the “Glossary of Winemaking Terms” and the second was a hydrometer table using forced spacing rather than table coding. These were really learning exercises for me – to learn HTML. It occurred to me early on to consolidate the material into a web site, but I didn’t have the space to do it until I discovered GeoCities. I slowly built a very fundamental site and uploaded it on April 3rd, 1997 and registered it with a couple of search engines. The next day I put a counter on the site and use that as the day I “went public.”
Last year I was reading a number of wine blogs and noticed that some were congratulating others for being around for two years or three years and I thought that wasn’t really all that long. Then I noticed that a group of bloggers all had links to each other and some had links to scores of wine blogs, but only a handful had links to my blog. So I wrote to a few and simply asked that they consider linking to my blog.
I was quite surprised to get an email response from Alder Yarrow of the blog Vinography. He said that based on the date of my first WineBlog entry, he had determined that mine was the first wine blog on the internet, ever. I don’t know if this is true because I’ve never researched it, but when I was asked to write the blog I went looking for examples and couldn’t find one on wines or winemaking.
Your first post on Jack’s Wine Blog, April 7th of 2003, mentions being asked by Brian Smyth of the excellent resource, Homebrew Adventures, to write about wine. Why were you contacted?
JK You would really have to ask Brian, but I would think his answer would reference my website and other writings. Had I started the WineBlog when he first asked, the date of first entry would have been in May of 2002.
How long did it take for you to build up a following of readers?
JK That is really difficult to say. I’ve had several counters on both The Winemaking Home Page and Jack’s WineBlog, and the darned things have crashed, hosting companies have gone out of business, and once I had a counter that was adding about 22 million hits a day – not possible. I do know that years ago I got 1 or 2 emails a day and now I sometimes get 40, even though I have a clear warning on my site that emails may never be answered. In 2003 I went to the top 14 search engines and typed in “winemaking” as the only search term and my Home Page came up as the first unpaid listing on 13 of them. The WineBlog is less well-traveled.
Today we have an assortment ’stat counters’, services that reveal to a website modest particulars about those who visit their sites.
When, if ever, did you begin to use one? And, if yes, what about the make-up of your readership has surprised you? And does such a ‘tracking’ technology raise internet security issues?
JK I looked at traffic stats since the end of 1997. My original interest was which browsers were being used. Back then Netscape had something like 95-96% of the browser market, and it was free. Internet Explorer, which you had to buy, probably had less than 2%. Microsoft’s decision to make it a freebie probably saved IE from being a memory. On the other hand, Netscape’s foot-dragging in implementing HTML 2.0 standards probably doomed it.
As far as readership, I logged stats daily for a long time – until a system crash wiped them out – and recall when I verified that readers from 150 countries had opened the Home Page. That impressed me, but what really amazed me was how many hits I got from countries where drinking alcohol is either not permitted or is discouraged on religious grounds.
As for the tracking issue, I’ve thought about it quite a bit in the past. I only think about it now when someone asks me to register to access a free site; you know that comes at a price called “spam.”
It is hard to over-estimate the quality and abundance of the wine-making info your website offers. From your early blogging days did you ever imagine your writings would prove to be so encyclopedic?
JK You make me blush. The answer to your question is “no.” I simply set out to explain how to make wine and then explain certain processes that contribute to the whole. Along the way people asked questions or brought certain problems to my door and more often than not I could simply point them to a page on the site where the topic was already covered. But occasionally it became evident that something wasn’t explained clearly enough or covered in sufficient depth. And so I worked on it some more. The cumulative result is a rather huge body of work.
With the WineBlog, I originally tried to cover two or three mini-topics per entry, but somewhere along the way it started getting a bit lengthy. I have no problem with that but don’t want to set a length standard I then have to meet. Sometimes time is simply at a premium.
A few years ago someone wrote a program that stripped all the superfluous stuff out of the pages (headers, navigation bars, repetitive copyright notices, ads, etc.) and put my entire website and blog into a huge Word document. It was over 450 pages back then, so I imagine it’s around 600 now. I really don’t know.
Your academic training in history and historiography well-prepared you for the discipline required to be a reputable, dependable source of accurate information. Do you have a wine-blogging ethic? Do you have any advice for the current crop of young wine bloggers?
JK Ken, I like to think that college and university equipped me with the research and validation skills required to sift through enormous amounts of information and pull out the most accurate and relevant. Certainly they helped hone the writing skills that have served me well. But I also have decades of experience in a professional discipline where I was required to read scientific and technical literature, study various data collected by technical means, and apply what I learned to the study of laymen’s accounts of events that seldom were straightforward or strictly accurate. Divining the reality behind the latter required a very disciplined analysis based on an understanding of the fore-mentioned literature and data studies.
If this sounds cryptic, I apologize, but the work was in an intelligence field and I really can’t be more specific. But the point is that I have used the skills developed in college and university on a daily basis, so applying them to writing about winemaking and wine science is habitual.
Simply doing the research to accurately write was challenging enough when we were only dealing with books, articles, research notes, scientific studies, personal anecdotes and direct experience as references, but it became much more difficult with the exponential growth of the internet. Not only are there thousands of websites out there that at least discuss winemaking and wine science – I Googled “winemaking” last night and got over a quarter of a million hits – there are many very popular discussion boards, use groups, e-groups, participatory blogs, and chat venues that do the same.
Unfortunately, when anyone can state an idea or opinion as fact and no one corrects it, these popular forums become risky places to gain your knowledge and unreliable as references. I try to point out inaccuracies where they reside when I can and I encourage others to do so as well, but we have become so politically correct that no one wants to tell the emperor he is naked.
Beyond that, I think the responsible blogger has an obligation to expose his or her readers to an expanding body of knowledge and resist the temptation to espouse opinion based solely on bias.
Take the cork versus screw cap debate. Joe Snobgrass might snidely remark that screw caps are best used to adorn bottles of Thunderbird, but this only tells the reader that Joe is a close-minded ass. If Joe were at all serious, he might read the Australian Journal of Grape and Wine Research once in a while and discover that the Australians have been conducting the longest trials anywhere on the efficacy of the cork versus the screw cap and the screw cap clearly is a superior bottle closure for fine wines.
Stepping away from wine blogging for a moment, could you tell us a bit about your youth in Southern California? Your parents?
JK My father is Cajun and my mother a Southern Belle. Truly. We migrated from Louisiana to Texas and then to San Bernardino, California in 1956. It was a good time and place to grow up, and we lived in a rural neighborhood. The X-15 rocket plane from Edwards Air Force Base frequently rattled our windows going back and forth through the sound barrier. There was Sputnik, so you knew it was serious business. I was an Eagle Scout, played football and ran track but wasn’t good at either, got decent grades, was in student government, wrote a column in the high school newspaper, and graduated with a scholarship in journalism.
I went to a local dance called “the Canteen” every Friday night, and it was there, at the age of 15, that I met my future wife, Donna. She was my first true love and still is. She grew up on a ranch about a half-mile from a nudist colony. I swear it’s true. You couldn’t see any nudists from the ranch or the road, but I still looked in that direction whenever I went past it. Before I had a driver’s license the only way I could get up to see her was to hop the freight trains struggling up Cajon Pass and then jump off near the ranch. She was then and still is the finest, most decent person I know and I am blessed every day by her presence. She is an incredibly beautiful person.
But it was during those years in San Bernardino that I developed an early love of history from exploring the surrounding area. I might have done this wherever we lived, but Southern California is where the spark caught. We would go camping in the mountains or on the high desert and there would be these ghost towns, or boarded up mines, or the remains of old stamp or lumber mills, or a walled-in hot spring, or abandoned railroad cars in the middle of nowhere. I just had to know what had happened there, who made it happen and when and why they threw in the towel and left. I was just curious and some very kind librarians steered me in the right directions. I got to look in several collections of private papers at various libraries and in the local histories that students and local historians had compiled over the decades. But sometimes there were blanks and I let my imagination fill them in. It was a fun way to spend idle hours, and I had a few of those.
Had we lived 45 minutes closer to the beach (it was an hour and a half away) and 45 minutes farther from the mountains (they began about 8 miles from our door), it might have all turned out differently for me. The beach has a lure to it. I knew kids who spent their weekends there, and 30 years later they were still beachies. They weren’t interested in ghost towns and probably didn’t know any history. I could have ended up like that, but the beach was just a tad too far away for me. So I did my thing and really did enjoy my teens.
You retired in 1994 as a Lieutenant Colonel, USAR. Your military career is humbling. I thank you for your years of service. Many of my Montana relatives served. My father was in the Navy, served on an old diesel submarine, a deathtrap by all accounts. Would you say a little (or a lot) of your years in uniform?
JK I served a total of eight years on active duty in the Army Infantry, with one long tour and two short tours in Vietnam. In all honesty, I really didn’t grow up until I experienced a few terrifying episodes in the Central Highlands north of Pleiku and Dak To – with some of the finest men I have ever known. Strange thing about Vietnam; I have never been so alive as when I was engaged in combat, but this does not mean that I liked it or want to relive it. It’s simply an observation; I have no desire to explain it.
After Vietnam I gravitated bit by bit into the world of military intelligence, first on active duty and then in the Reserves. I know, I know – military intelligence is an oxymoron. But when the laughter fades, there are people out there doing things for you in the name of military intelligence that you cannot dream of. Not the stuff of movies or novels, but still stuff that would surprise you, and I’m quite sure of that. Intelligence was just a natural channel for my never-ending curiosity, and it provided me a career.
And of your civil service position with the US Army, the Medical Research Detachment?
JK The MRD is a surviving fragment of a very fine organization known as the Letterman Army Institute of Research (LAIR). The latter was located at the Presidio of San Francisco and did far more for the medical welfare of this country than it cost. One of the travesties of that periodic process called Base Realignment and Closure is that they closed the LAIR to save a few bucks and lost a research momentum that has never really been regained. To close it, they broke it up into groups that were scattered around the country. One group was the MRD, which is a detachment of the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. Walter Reed is near Washington, DC. The MRD is “detached” and located in San Antonio, TX. Go figure.
In San Francisco, I supported the LAIR with scientific, technical and medical intelligence. You’ll have to use your imagination to figure out what that means, but I did travel abroad frequently. The most sensitive support I provided went to a division that later became the MRD, so I went to Texas with them. My job has changed considerably since the move but that’s okay. It was a good move for me, personally. I like my job, I like Texas and I like the people.
Whenever I want to get straight with duty, honor and country, I go downtown San Antonio and visit the Alamo. Nothing blows my mind quite like the choice those men made when they chose to stay and die on the walls of that indefensible mission. They could have slipped away. There is no doubt about that. Every runner Colonel Travis sent out made it, but 189 men chose to stay and make a statement. How can you not love a place that was paid for with men like that?
Anyway, I’ll be drawing retirement in a year to a year-and-a-half. I’m looking forward to it. We’re going through another Base Realignment and Closure action and the MRD will move across town and be absorbed into a new Center of Excellence for Battlefield Health and Trauma. I’ve been assigned to plan the closure, movement and absorption of the MRD, but I’m personally not moving. And that’s okay. It’s time to work for myself and for my wife. I really want to sift through the boxes of notes and references I have on winemaking and organize the essence of it all into a book. I’ve wanted to do that for quite some time.
You don’t seem to do anything without going ‘all in’. I am reminded of a phrase kids use these days, “Go big or go home!” Any new interests you’ve taken up?
JK I’m sort of focused on health right now. I’ve had two heart attacks in the past 11 years and they were both very sobering events. I’d like to hang around to enjoy retirement for a while.
My parents are both still with us, and for that I am blessed and ever so grateful to God. They are both in their eighties and I’d like to get close to that age some day. With my record the odds are against it, but one can hope. I’m not a health nut, but I’m far more focused on health than I used to be.
END OF PT. 1