Bloggerview #10: Russ Beebe
Name: Russ Beebe
Blog: Winehiker Witiculture
How could I not like a blog written by a fellow who would invite both Willie Mays and Thelonius Monk to his dinner party? Actually there’s more to Russ Beebe and his Winehiker Witiculture Blog than his good taste in dinner companions. Russ does something with his blog that few others do well: combine his interest in wine with a distinctly different avocation: Hiking. When I first ran across Winehiker this is what struck me immediately: there was was felt like a very nice and natural combining of these two seemingly different pursuits at WineHiker. So, despite Russ’ rash decision to do a post that include many terrible and unsettling photos of large spiders crawling near human beings, I thought it important you meet the man behind one very original and well done blog.
1. When did you begin blogging and why?
In the late Spring of 2005, I received a layoff notice from a job I’d held for over eight years. I suddenly felt compelled to focus on two activities for which I had long held great passion – hiking and wine tasting – and taking them to a professional level as a wine country tour guide with a "nature" twist. I began building a website for my tour business, californiawinehikes.com, which eventually launched on the first of January 2006. Meanwhile, I had a hunch that I should support the business with a blog – seems everyone was doing it – and thus I wrote my first post for Winehiker Witiculture on December 7, 2005. Looking back, that seems to be a time in which a lot of wine and hiking bloggers jitterbugged onto the blogging dance floor.
2. In two sentences describe the focus of your wine blog.
Winehiker Witiculture is for hikers who love wine. It’s also a blog for wine lovers who love to be – or desire to be – active outdoors.
3. What sets your wine blog apart from the pack?
It’s rather non-denominational in that I write for both the wine and hiking communities as one greater whole. The demographic overlap between the two groups, and the realization of the wine country ideal for both, is huge. I believe that I’m rather unique in this niche since nobody else, as near as I can tell, is blogging about winehiking, much less using the term, which I secretly hope to someday see defined in Wikipedia (and written by an objective third party).
4. How would you characterize the growth in your readership since beginning your blog?
The blog started life humbly, but hardly a month has gone by since the Spring of ’06 in which its readership hasn’t grown. Nurturing a blossoming community of readers – and a devoted band of commenters – has helped me to blossom, in turn, because the blog keeps me engaged in networking, researching, and learning, which therefore allows me to entertain and grow my readership further.
Toward that goal, I believe I’ve done best when I’ve taken the time and patience to strike a responsive chord with my readers. There’s something about being in the wine country – fully experiencing its potential for renewal and reward – that goes beyond where to hike next or how a wine tastes. It’s about developing a connection between people and the natural world that is all around us, but which we seem to easily forsake.
I want to place people on the winehiking path, figuratively and literally. I prefer to write, then, with a sensibility that produces a physical desire on the part of my readers to pursue a winehiking vacation. I therefore expect to continue writing about the things that tend to draw people to fully experience not merely the wine country as a place, but as an emotional or spiritual destination, a notion of the nature that surrounds the place in which the wine we love is created.
This notion also describes the way in which I approach my tours. When you’re on the trail with me, you’re not just walking – you’re using me as your conduit to reconnect with something vital. A self-guided tour offering nothing more than a map, a hotel reservation, and a boilerplate itinerary cannot approach this kind of genuine natural connection. So I would characterize the growth in my readership as being reflective of the values of a community that feels the attractive intangibles of the wine country as strongly as I do and, like me, wishes to reach out to connect with its very nature.
5. Do you accept samples for review?
Yes. I tend to purchase my review wine most of the time – sometimes because I’ve already tasted it – but I do nevertheless disclose how I come by the wine I write about. I admit that I’ve wrestled with how my review could potentially make or break a budding winemaker. I feel, however, that I should express honesty at all costs, even if it seems displeasing. Isn’t that what other critics do?
I’ve talked this issue up with my friends, most of whom suggest that if I don’t like a submitted sample, I should just keep my yap shut. However, that’s the opposite of the tacit business schema in which silence is acceptance; maintaining silence about a wine I didn’t like will not convey much to the winemaker about his or her need for improvement. Why should a winemaker – or anyone else – assume false illusions? I don’t believe in tacitly perpetuating mediocrity; it’s passive-regressive. Reality dictates that action should breed consequence. And I do believe winemakers should make good wine, not bad wine. Call me an iconoclast, but I refuse to be politically correct for fear of reprisal or lost subscribers. I just plain won’t write an honestly good review about an honestly bad wine. But I’ll still write it, given the bandwidth.
6. What kind of wine rating/review system do you use and why?
Each system has its purpose. To me, merely liking a wine is not enough; I want to know why I like a wine (or not). I also want to apply reasoning to my ratings based on a wine’s separate attributes – color, aroma, body, balance, finish, etc. And while the five-star rating system is good for the quick glance, I find it too simplistic to be of educational value; conversely, the 100-point scale seems too mincingly complex to successfully employ in a wine blog.
Because I regularly host blind wine tastings, I use a variation on the 20-point scale (originally developed at UC Davis) because it possesses the capacity to aid learning. I’ve since applied some design and formatting to my version of it and added a second page that combines individual scores to result in a group favorite and to see how individual tasters’ palates compare and contrast to each other. In retrospect, I’m glad I added the group scoring feature; the tastings that followed were much more engaging (read: fun!) for my guests.
7. How do you fit the maintenance of your winehiking blog into your daily schedule?
I somehow fit it in between CNBC and the Colbert Report. And a full-time job. Weekends? Naw: I’m usually out getting my winehiking ya-yas.
8. Have you utilized any particular techniques to successfully market your blog?
I have explored a number of tools for distributing the Winehiker Witiculture feed including del.icio.us, Facebook, Twitter, and other sites, but mostly I’ve concentrated on the search terms people use to find me, then using those terms where appropriate in my blog posts and tour descriptions. What I believe most, though – and what I aspire to becoming more consistent toward – is that good writing attracts good readers.
9. In your view how, if at all, is blogging different than traditional wine writing for print?
Technically, blogging is different than traditional print media because bloggers are not compelled to kow-tow to any editorial constraints imposed by management or to a particular accepted professional style. We can just express ourselves in any way we see fit. The similarity, however, is that both the writer and the blogger must think constantly of their respective audiences. As a technical writer by profession, I’ve always had to adhere to a strict company style and develop complex content for a technical audience; it’s a narrow path with limited room for creativity. Therefore I appreciate the freedom to write about the things I love the way I choose to write about them. I also take great joy in knowing that I have built a readership that finds my words compelling enough to want to click through again.
Freedom and joy. Sounds exhilarating: kind of like a winehiking tour.
10. Which other wine blogs do you read regularly?
It depends on whether I’m seeking facts or feelings. I’ve been tested as whole-brained, plus I follow many wayward notions, so I tend toward left-brain-oriented blogs on some days and right-brain-oriented blogs on others. That leaves plenty of room for interpretation, and I therefore read a lot of blogs – both wine and hiking – to stay informed and to also gather the vinoambulocentric energy that fosters febrile creativity.
Here’s a short list of the wine blogs I read regularly, followed by a list of notable hiking blogs:
• Dr. Vino
• El Bloggo Torcido
• Good Wine Under $20
• The Cork Board
• The Wine Collector
• Wine Life Today
• Wine Outlook
• Gambolin’ Man
• Trout Underground
• Two-Heel Drive
11. Do you believe wine blogs have made any marked impact on the wine industry or wine culture?
Yes, to both. I even believed this to be true before I wrote my first post on Winehiker Witiculture. It’s why I choose to target a readership interested in wine and hiking rather than an audience merely seeking tour- and travel-oriented content; there’s much more long-term passion inherent in the former. That passion must have outlets, and traditional media cannot contain it.
It’s time for the wine industry to think outside of the static website, because the industry practitioners who choose to give a human touch to their enterprises via a blog are quickly gaining loyal fans who vote with online dollars and then tell their online friends, virally, about their experiences. Blogging is huge – it’s a freaking juggernaut – and it represents just too big an opportunity for wineries to remain complacent about.
12. Vacation: Paris or the Caribbean?
Paris. In the Spring. On a road bike. Wearing a jersey with 750ml pockets.
13. Pet: Dog or Cat?
I tend to enjoy deeper philosophical discussions with cats. They can actually make me purr.
14. Airplane Reading: New Yorker or People?
Let’s see: style or substance? New Yorker.
15. Car: Prius or BMW?
Style vs. substance again: it’s all about me vs. it’s the global warming, stupid. I purposely pick Prius. (Be careful how you say that.)
16. Chablis or California Chardonnay?
This California boy would cause some consternatious head-scratching if he declared himself a Chablis fan. So it’s Chards, all the way. Spicy, big, mildly buttery.
17. What Would Your Last Meal on Earth Consist of?
If I were to be on the trail for the few days prior to such a mortally distressing event, even a strip of beef jerky, a handful of raisins, and a cup of cow-camp coffee might seem like manna.
But if I could have a choice – and I’d like one, please – then I’d surround myself with lots of friends for a Southern-style feast consisting of gumbo, etouffe, jambalaya, blackened catfish on dirty rice, pork ribs slathered (slathered, I say!) in my own tangy-hot BBQ sauce, plus red beans and rice with Andouille sausage and a green salad with pecans, Vidalia onions and a spicy mustard dressing. I’d follow all that with a heapin’ helpin’ o’ fresh peach pie a la mode. Plus I’d swill lots of Dry Creek Valley zinfandel with that dinner and Inniskillin eiswein – and later espresso – with that peach pie. I would probably die immediately of acute gluttony and the end would justify the means. (Or is it vice versa?) The meal, nevertheless, might just be worth it. Because maybe I’ll then undergo a crematory shape-shift into fertilizer for a new redwood sapling that’ll endure for 2500 years. Or perhaps a block of cabernet vines! Yeah!! Future wine bloggers could remark about how the latest Winehiker vintage breathes earth, bramble, smoke, tabasco, charred sweat, and boot leather. At least I (burp!) hope so.
18. What is Heaven Like?
Every trail goes slightly downhill both ways and there’s a top-notch winery at the beginning, middle, and end of each one. (Indeed, I’ve actually been there.)
19. If you could invite 4 people dead or alive to your fantasy dinner party, who would they be and who would you have bring the wine?
The Three Stooges and Gary Vay-ner-chuk.
No, on second thought, too much good food and vino would end up on the walls. Let’s make that Mark Twain, Willie Mays, Thelonius Monk, and Jennifer Rosen who, naturally, will arrive an hour early to greet me with a double magnum of 1er Cru just so I can score it before the boys arrive.
20. What advice would you give to someone considering starting a wine blog?
It may sound trite, but you’ve got to want to write. Learn all you can about your audience, your wine, your network, and the particular wine-related passion that chose you. But before you do, start writing. And then edit, edit, edit.