The Future Of Wine Writing, Walla Walla Redux

Ξ June 30th, 2010 | → 0 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Technology, WALLA WALLA, Wine & Politics, Wine History, Wine News |

What follows is my gaze into the crystal ball of wine writing’s future. I was invited by the organizers of the Wine Bloggers Conference, this year held in Walla Walla, Washington, to offer my views along side of those of the steady Steve Heimoff and the durable Tom Wark of Fermentation. My invitation to participate, I must say, was a bit of a lark, entirely unexpected. It is one thing to go about the quiet, deliberative work of presenting important ideas and issues to the public, one’s readership; it is quite another to take to the stage with gentlemen of such considerable experience and wisdom. Though I will not dispute for a minute the insight of the Conference organizers for having thought of me, I will say that I approached the panel discussion with humility, indeed, with a haunting sense that it could all go very wrong. But it didn’t. In fact, it may turn out that our exchange will take on an after-life none of us could have predicted.
Not used to public speaking, fully aware of the shortcomings of my presentation, here I offer an enhanced, fluid reconstruction of my remarks.
 
So It Begins…
 
None of us on the panel had any idea of what the other would say. We had agreed that our point of departure would be the question of whether in the future there would be a handful of important critics, gatekeepers; whether the consumer would continue to depend upon select voices for navigating the bewildering choices. However interesting the answer may be, it was clear to me that the question did not remotely approach what I understand by wine writing. Whether there will be gatekeepers in the future is a marginal question at best. The handmaiden to mere commerce, tasting notes and scores threaten to trivialize wine, and make of wine writing little more than the penning of serviceable haikus. A sub-genre at best, tasting notes and scores might more properly be understood as the discursive equivalent of a wine additive or manipulative technology.
 
And the assumption of a passive consumer deepens this impression. Having worked in a winery and knowing the manipulations commonly brought to unbalanced juice, I have often encountered a deep cynicism with respect to the public. And just as it is a common feature of winemaker psychology, so too does it afflict the wine writer. Aware of winery shenanigans, to the degree that they turn a blind eye to such manipulations in their tasting notes and scores, they, too, show a lazy contempt for the consumer, more so when, as often happens, they are made fully aware of a specific winery’s procedures and practices. Critics often share an unspoken compact with a winery that some things shall go unspoken. Indeed, it is just this structural deformity, the non-equivalence between wine critic and consumer knowledge that encourages contempt for the latter and generates dependance.
 
Now, to be put properly on the path to being a successful wine blogger, especially one specializing in tasting notes, will often mean accumulating secrets, a knowledge of which the public is unaware. It is the effective concealment of aspects wine knowledge, rather than its elaboration, that informs credibility. How humorous is the spectacle of established wine critics slamming bloggers for their lack of expertise when what they really mean is that they don’t know where the bodies are buried! You don’t need a PhD is business to know that controversy will close more doors than it opens. So, a wine blogger’s success, their monetization, is often built upon a foundation of bad faith, the requirement that wine drinkers be reduced to passive consumers, and that some aspects of wine knowledge be strictly policed.
 
The principle obstacle to improving the fortunes of wine writing in a broader sense is, unsurprisingly, the digital form it is required to take. These days there is no wine-related conference one may attend at which social media does not play a commanding role. Whether it be Twitter, Facebook, or blog formats themselves, these forms can significantly limit expression. A technological fetish, the various forms of social media, endlessly promoted, are granted magical (commercial) powers. But at the expense of thought and culture. We are repeatedly told that no one reads anymore; that 500 to 1000 words is all we should write on our blogs. But that is a function of social media’s digital forms. They aggressively subvert thought, largely preferring commercial applications alone. The corrosive financial impact of multiple digital innovations on traditional wine writers exploring the complexities of wine history, culture, and the literary side of the wine world, is everywhere evident. After all, democratization has, since Plato, known another face. With respect to wine writing we might call it a variation of the tragedy of the commons.
 
The future of wine writing ought to include readers in the writer’s explorations. No longer relegated to a passive position, the word ‘consumer’ should be scrapped. It was just a short while ago that Oz Clarke referred to Merlot as America’s gateway wine. Following upon a series of news reports in the 1980s about the beneficial effects of moderate wine drinking, America turned to wine in a big way. Merlot was chosen because it was the least wine-like wine, by which was meant that it caused no offense and was easy to drink. A lot has changed since then. The ‘consumer’ is not longer in that place. I compare our understanding of the evolution of the ‘consumer’ to traveling by car in the south of France to the Spanish frontier. The architectural forms, the local vernacular, slowly change. To take a single snapshot at any given mileage marker tells you nothing of the subtle, on-going transformations. It is the same with our idea of the ‘consumer’. Though we may try to fix the concept, it is morphing, taking on complexities of its own. So, the first principle of future wine writing in digital formats should be this recognition. Educate readers! Invite them along. Deepen their understanding along with yours. Most importantly, make of your own developing sophistication a promise to readers that your current ignorance will become a shared future knowledge. For your journey is also theirs.
 
There are great opportunities for on-line wine magazines. The Palate Press and Catavino are among the best examples we currently enjoy. Though differing in intent, each offer opportunities for multiple genres and topics to be more fully explored, even if somewhat briefly. The world of wine demands the multiplication of genres the on-line mag performs. The Palate Press’ recent stories on under-valued indigenous American grape varieties amply illustrates the point.
 
And then is the interesting possibility of wineries themselves taking on a greater role in wine writing in the future, to help gently force the agenda. It has long been felt that a winery can only provide updates on the humdrum ‘everydayness’ of their work. Perhaps one might read on Facebook an announcement about a festival or wine sale, the comings and going of the winery dog, that is about it. And whether one is organic or biodynamic is a one-off utterance. “We are organic!” Next month they write, “Yup. We’re still organic!” What is needed is for a winery to enter into a compelling narrative, for themselves to become a generator of important news. And this, in my view, is what Parducci Wine Cellars, the whole of the Mendocino Wine Company, is fast becoming. America’s first carbon neutral winery, the 100% reuse of winery waste water, the construction of wetlands, the aggressive promotion of biodiversity on their properties, these and many other green initiatives make of the Mendocino Wine Company an on-going performance of its vision of the future. The process moves. It is the unfolding story with multiple chapters.
 
Their most recent chapter may well be that as the anchor for a broad-based micro-finance initiative throughout the Mendocino AVA itself. Briefly stated, micro-financing is the use of monies aggregated from multiple private sources for the purpose of peer-to-peer lending. The purpose is not only to eliminate banking hierarchies and their usurious interest rates, but to encourage an entrepreneurial spirit. And to open up opportunities for development often closed to small farmers, for example, in our troubled economic times. Were a struggling farmer wish to do the right thing, to improve the efficiency of their water recycling system or even to install one, where a bank might not see a compelling financial interest, private micro-financing dedicated to such an initiative could quickly respond.
 
I shall have much more to say about this matter moving forward. It is best for now to simply let the process take its course and, hopefully, to awaken the imaginations of other wineries to the idea of micro-financing.
 
So, there are many, many ways to approach the question of the future of wine writing. I have related here not the sum total of my speculations, just those generally consistent with my presentation at the Wine Bloggers Conference. There will be much more to come. After all, tomorrow is the future.
 
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