Provoking The Future of Wine Journalism

Of late (say the last 3 to 5 years) I noted something of slight detour in wine journalism. Rather than a dedication among wine journalists toward praising and congratulating wines as a rule, there is a slight move toward the secular and cynical when it comes to wine. But it’s ever so slight and that’s because among those who read most of the wine writings, there is not that much call for peering behind the color and taste of the wine.

Nevertheless, has anyone noticed the willingness among serious wine writers to question and closely consider what goes on in the world of wine and in the glass? We’ve always had those who place wine in a social and political context…at least one or two of them who write for a small audience. But today it seems more are willing to look at wine this way.

I’m not talking about reporting on scandal and society’s underbelly, which often leaves me feeling a tad soiled upon reading this kind of story. I’m thinking about critiques of governing wine styles, open questioning of the critic’s role in wine, the various business stories that count up the beans and the close investigations (usually in book form) of the "wine culture".

You don’t write stories about  how a product is understood by people, critics and business unless unless that product has come to matter. Where that threshold is for how much a product or industry must matter to the public at large lies, I’m not sure. However, I do know we’ve crossed it when it comes to wine.

The Internet, with its blogs and chat rooms, will tend to cross that threshold more willingly than the traditional wine media if only because its members have less at stake and more concern to jump up and down shouting, "look at me!". In the last two weeks a variety of wine business stories broke out of the Internet and hit the traditional media. And in the recent past we’ve seen stories on how the character of wines have changed, why they should change back and what the international and globalist implications of wine might be.

I think the trend among the traditional wine media and the non-wine media is to continue to look for stories that have broader implications than just how a wine might be sumptuous or great to pair with lasagna, though this kind of writing will always rule the day.

I wonder if wineries have noticed this trend? And I wonder if their marketing and PR shops have noticed it too. If they haven’t then there is the risk of acting as though no one is watching or as if very little matters to the public and media beyond what their wines taste like. That would be a mistake. But here’s where the action and reaction comes in. We most certainly will see wine companies get into some tepid water now and again in the media. That will lead to wine companies being a bit more careful in how they act and speak. This will lead to the media peering in more closely. This will lead to even more searching journalism. This will lead to even more careful explanations by wineries of their company line.

This…in turn…offers opportunities to the winery that wants to gain attention by speaking honestly, forthrightly and provocatively…because it seems to me that wine writers, traditional and not-so-traditional are more frequently looking for "provocative."

11 Responses

  1. fredric koeppel - January 21, 2008

    Too often journalism and writing about wine have been considered separate entities, with wine writing regarded as a sinecure that required no investigation or thoughtful criticism, just a process of tasting wine, having lunch and recycling press releases. In the early ’90s, I was on a bus from Milan to Verona, to judge at VinItaly, and I head a prominent free-lance writer (who went on to work for a few years for the WS) state that he never wrote anything negative about California wine because “the industry needs all the help it can get.” Fuck that. The wine industries or individual wineries of any state, region or country will never improve if writers don’t turn a cold eye to the heady blandishments held out to them and write cleanly and objectively about the flaws, faults and nonsense that occur. If it takes the independence of bloggers to dish out the kind of criticism that any industry requires to stay honest, more power to them, but it’s a shame that wine writing wasn’t always so objective. This is why on my blog two of the categories are “What Were They Thinking?” and “Ethics in Wine Reviewing and Writing.”

  2. Steve - January 21, 2008

    I suspect many marketing and PR shops are taking notice of the media reports regarding’s sting operation. Regardless of whether or not you agree with’s position, these stories clearly will have significant implications for how wine organizations act in the future.
    And I agree with your last paragraph. People are looking for interesting, straight-talk (to borrow Senator McCain’s slogan), but being provocative can be hazardous. If your expectation bears out, it would likely necessitate more PR folks even for the smaller operations. In the end, I don’t think that bodes well for anybody.

  3. Terry Hughes - January 21, 2008

    Thoughtful post and very good comments. Big Picture time. Lots better than “Pair it with lasagna”.

  4. Thomas Pellechia - January 21, 2008

    The original intent of wine magazines was strictly as lifestyle stuff. That’s because, as Tom alluded, and Fred’s story about a wine writer indicates, wine wasn’t taken seriously in American letters.
    Now that wine makes an economic impact, such as it still is, and now that it has (almost) entered the daily walk of American life, and now that there’s money being made by some who write about it, it’s a story for print journalists, who scramble for anything to keep up with the Internet.
    Still, in major news outlets, an air of lifestyle remains in the stories about wine. You often read it in the lede or at the head of most of the paragraphs, a reference that clearly shows the hold frivolity holds over information.

  5. Tim Vandergrift - January 21, 2008

    Interesting post, Tom. But I think the implications are much larger than for just wine journalism/reporting. Traditional journalistic outlets have become corporatised to the point where there’s no room for investigative reporting, only recycling wire stories and puffing up advertisers and the publisher’s friends. Among the heavily wired folks I hang out with, nobody sources their news from traditional media. Instead, they source from independent internet sites, choose the bias that suits them and find opposing views to tease out the truthiest interpretation going.
    I’ve read way too much mainstream wine writing that was pure fertiliser to have faith in the big magazines, or even the little ones. Blogs have very low stakes because there simply isn’t enough revenue in them: you can’t organise a corporate fiscal plan around a tiny little blog, but you can reach millions of people with it, and you can especially reach the self-selected smart ones who are trying to really figure things out. As such it’s not difficult to remain independent, and therefore relevant.

  6. Tom Wark - January 21, 2008

    I’m not quite so cynical as you with regard to the corporatized media, though I do understand the source of your cynicism.
    I think that the mainstream wine media does a great deal of original reporting and in large part does a good job of delivering solid, educational based information info to those who have taken the step beyond “I’ll have a white wine”.
    And there are a number of “traditional” reporters who write very seriously about the wine trade and do so with great authority.

  7. Justin Stephen - January 21, 2008

    As Tim pointed out, the mainstream media has become increasingly corporatised, but then again so has the wine world itself. Anyone who has paid much attention over the past decade plus has seen wine producer after wine producer swallowed up by a handful of large multinationals. Certainly thousands of dedicated and passionate independent wine producers still exist, but wholesome mental image of these folks has been dispelled and replaced with huge corporation simply manufacturing a product and cramming marketing down our throats.
    With this image comes cynicism, and with this cynicism comes a change in tone.

  8. JohnLopresti - January 21, 2008

    I think there are several time curves progressing here, a kind of educating, if you will; and naturally the pr folks like Tom are in the forefront with the perceptive interfaces. Wine always was a lifestyle component, so that aspect will remain; the way society in the US has changed into one of acceptance of wine as a table commodity remains a fairly recent development. The styles winemakers chose, however, in part is a result of the science behind viticulture. Perhaps the Europeans have centuries of perfecting their cultivars, but US wine design is still young, though maturing. I live in a zone in which fifteen years ago from the ridges one could watch the 1/3 of the vineyards which were being replanted because AxR1 monoculture had succumbed to a phylloxera spp genotype. In this zone where 60k acres of vines has been the constant for a century the vine training and vineyard layout and siting have modernized immensely over the past thirty years since I first studied vit and enology; but the plants are few which have 30-year-old wood and great complexity of fruit. To some extent viticulture has yielded better product over short early lifespans of the vines, but we are far from having uniformly 30-year-old vine fruit to vinify. So, while the public learns about wine as something to buy often, the parallel tale is one of waiting for some really great bold must; I wonder sometimes as the corporations buy the quick fame small labels, whether viticulture science and wine chemistry will gravitate toward a short lifespan viticulture instead of trying for old vine plots. Tom has asked some interesting questions about these topics occasionally.

  9. Douglas - January 21, 2008

    I am fairly new to exploring wine seriously (maybe the past four-five years). I love these blogs, and I -do- read Spectator and Enthusiast religiously, but I am old school. I wish someone would put out a solid PRINTED monthly that’s not as brainy as Parker, not as gushy as Spectator and not as immature as Wine XXX (remember them?), but still has lots of valuable info that strikes a balance between newbies and experts like the host of this blog. There is a missing niche there that is not really being covered.
    Oh too have unlimited venture capital!

  10. Tish - January 22, 2008

    Mainstream wine journalism is pretty much “broke” and I can’t envision a fix. As I have stated loudly and often, the main problem as I see it is ratings; WS and other copycats have bastardized the entire notion of what American wine writing is. But just as problematic (and far more existential) is the reality that it is essentially impossible to translate — menaingfully — one’s own wine experience to the page for others. Why should the bottle of Chianti I had with my lasagna matter to you and your taste/context?
    I do think stories about the “wine culture” are more important these days than in the past, and that wine deserves and ultimately will get more ink in mainstream publications. But just as the past few “big” stories abut wine happened unpredictably (e.g., 60 Minutes; Supreme Court decision; Sideways; the fiasco and other direct shipping brouhahas ), the next crossover will likely be something no one within the industry foresaw. Maybe it involves a celebrity, maybe a scandal, maybe a food tie-in…
    In the meantime, the past few years have clearly shown that blogs are more important than ever to the flow of wine information. THere is more good wine opinion appearing in cyberspace now than in print. That’s a good thing.

  11. Phil Vogels - January 22, 2008

    Douglas, I completely agree and something that comes close to your description is what I am working on right now. I don’t know the rules of posting here, so I don’t want to step out-of-bounds, but keep your eyes peeled.

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