BLOGGERVIEW #31: W. Blake Gray


Who: W. Blake Gray
Blog: The Gray Market Report

W. Blake Gray possesses one of the best titles in the wine world: Chairman of the Electoral College of the Vintners Hall of Fame". If it were me, I'd get myself some cards—I guess some really wide ones—and pass them around. Instead, Blake writes. And he's been doing it well for a good long while and for some very spiffy and important wine venues, including the San Francisco Chronicle which has long had the best wine coverage of any daily newspaper in America. But Blake's blog, The Gray Market Report, is a perfect example of what happens to a good reporter when they take up blogging and why I love to read blogs by professional wine writers like Blake: They start giving their opinions. What you'll find at The Gray Market Report are the opinions of a wine reporter who knows about which he writes and who writes well. Blake's wine blog is very much in the tradition of Eric Asimov's and Steve Heimoff's. And that shouldn't surprise anyone.  Blake's thoughts and opinions at The Gray Report are a must read.

Blake2 1. When did you begin blogging and why?

I started blogging about 3 years ago, but I wasn't serious about doing it regularly and I didn't put my name on it, which tells you something since a writer's name is all he has. I started the blog with my name and face on it about 10 months ago. When I first played around with a blog, I was a fulltime writer at a major newspaper, and had both all the readers and all the creative outlet I needed. I started blogging because the Internet is the future and I wanted to learn the format. The main reason I blog today as much as I do is because I have things I want to say for which there is no other outlet.

2. In two sentences describe the focus of your wine blog.
My blog offers opinions on issues in the wine world, with some reviews and diversions and outbursts. That's only one sentence so here is a second.
3. What sets your wine blog apart from the pack?
I've been a journalist for much of my life, and still am — I write about wine and food for newspapers and magazines, and I generally try to tell a story rather than just say, "here are 5 Syrahs I like." While having reported material is not unique to my blog, it isn't all that common. I'm not big on the "I bought this wine at Costco and really liked it" kind of entry. If I like a wine, I try to find out something about it.

4. How would you characterize the growth in your readership since beginning your blog?
Benign (we did a tissue sample).

5. Do you accept sample for review?
Yes I do. I even wrote a post admitting it so the feds wouldn't haul me off to the hoosegow.

6. What kind of wine rating/review system do you use and why?
I'm a little sheepish because I went to the 100 point system though I'm not a fan of it.

At the San Francisco Chronicle, we used a star system. It isn't perfect: they still use 4 stars because that's the Chronicle style, but wines we like often got just 2 stars and that's a mixed message. I think a 5-star system is ideal because it more accurately reflects the ambiguity of ratings. What's the difference between a 90 point wine and a 92 point wine? It's just a single taster's personal preference of style. Both of those would get 4 stars, and I think that accurately reflects their relative worth.

All of that said, the American public now demands 100-point-scale ratings. And as a blogger, I have to try to get attention, which I detest doing. I prefer to let my written words speak and not go out marketing myself, but if I don't get readers there's not much point in writing a blog. Wine ratings are their own form of marketing, which Robert Parker understands very well. If he gives a wine 94 points, that rating will be posted on retail websites and printed on shelf talkers, and all of that sells Parker as much as it does the wine. One of the main reasons for Parker's success is that his high ratings are more generous than Wine Spectator's, so his name gets quoted more by retailers.

I will never bump up a rating to get attention. I need to keep my ratings honest, according to my palate, or I will have no credibility. But I admit that giving a wine 92 points instead of 4 stars is a way of marketing myself. It's possible that a winery or retailer will post, "92 points, The Gray Market Report," and a regular Joe wine drinker will think, Hmm, I'll have to go read that review. If I give that wine 4 stars, it will never appear on a website or shelf talker. So that's why I do it. I feel conflicted about it, but until I have hundreds of thousands of readers who will pay attention to a star system, I'm stuck with points.

7. How do you fit the maintenance of your wine blog into your daily schedule?
I wish I were better organized about it. While the blog is my most personal outlet, it's my least lucrative, and unlike some bloggers who do it as a hobby, I write for a living. I'll interview someone and think, "Should I try to sell this to the LA Times or some in-flight magazine, make my monthly Wine Review On-line column out of it, or just blog about it?" This means that my very best stories often sit unwritten for a while because I want to put them in a paying publication, and sometimes they just fall by the wayside. I really need a better system for making sure the best ones always get on the blog in some form. Suggestions?

8. Have you utilized any particular techniques to successfully market your blog?
Not really. I sometimes point out on Facebook what I've written, but a friend in England chided me for blowing my own horn so I try not to do that as often. I often tweet about blog posts because I think people expect horn-blowing on Twitter. 

9. In your view how, if at all, is blogging different than traditional wine writing for print?
It's a lot different in ways both good and bad — as different as wine programs on television are from print journalism.

The good: First, the personal ways — I can write shorter items, without needing to fill a specific column length, or longer items, without having to cut good stuff to fit a word limit. I can get things out quickly. I don't have to give all the background on every story. I can take stronger positions on issues without even giving lipservice to a dissenting view — people disagreeing can write comments.

Then, the overall good — a lot of wine writing in print is really dull. Most feature editors don't understand wine and want every story
to be "great wines under $7." I know a wine writer who says he has to write the exact same story on Port every Christmas. Also, just because a story is in print doesn't mean the writer knows anything about the topic. I've read a lot of really foolish wine stories in print.

When a blogger knows the topic well, he or she can write more comprehensively and incisively about it. The lack of constraint on length is a huge plus for bloggers who are passionate about a particular topic — the wineries of a certain region, for example. I think the very best blog posts are better than the very best print stories.

The bad: Personally, it's that I don't have the budget to look into stories in depth.
In the larger sense, while there are plenty of great voices on blogs, like Alder Yarrow and Dr. Vino, there are way too many wine blogs that have nothing to say but say it as loudly as they can, and I wonder if readers can always tell the difference.

10. Which other wine blogs do you read regularly?
Alder Yarrow, Dr. Vino, yourself, Jon Bonne, Eric Asimov. I hope Steve Heimoff doesn't see this, but his blog is a must-read for me for two very different reasons — he has really interesting opinions sometimes and he does know what he's talking about, but I get a big laugh out of counting the number of times per month he writes "Why doesn't Winery X send me samples?" with a really aggrieved tone.

11. Do you believe wine blogs have made any marked impact on the wine industry or wine culture?
Americans are more interested in wine, and I think blogs have played a big part in that in many ways. Most wine bloggers are wine drinkers first — they're buying lots of wine, talking to their friends about wine, and they become ambassadors for the very idea of having wine. That's very different from print stories about wine, in which the reader doesn't participate. I also think wine blogs allow ordinary consumers to engage in conversation with wineries, and that will lead to impacts that we can't yet assess.

12. Vacation: Paris or the Caribbean?
Not specific enough. I like scuba diving, so if it's a good island for diving and not too expensive (Roatan, for example), the Caribbean. But if it's a bunch of East Coast muckety mucks wearing jewelry on the beach, Paris.

13. Pet: Dog or Cat?
Dog. But I don't actually have one. The last pets I had were two tree frogs I adopted after they were poisoned on a photo shoot by a camera company making a brochure to show off its environmental friendliness. The frogs kept jumping before they could get a good photo, so they stunned them with chloroform so they would stay still. They were going to flush the frogs down the toilet, so I took them home and fed them crickets until they came to a natural end.

14. Airplane Reading: New Yorker or People?
New Yorker. 

15. Car: Prius or BMW?

I drive a BMW convertible because unlike most Americans I really enjoy driving. To me, there's nothing better than a nice day and an empty, winding mountain road. Sometimes on Trinity Road between Napa and Sonoma I go as fast as I can until I catch up to some car, then I pull over for a minute to let that car chug along ahead, invariably braking at every turn. Then I do the ripping-around-curves thing until I catch it again. A Prius is responsible transportation, but that's not the same as driving.

16. Chablis or California Chardonnay?
Chablis, of course. You should have said Russian River.

17. Describe what you would have at your last meal?
It depends on which state I'm incarcerated in. Ideally, I'd like a dozen steamed blue crabs (with Old Bay, of course), an anchovy pizza, a blueberry pie, and unlimited bottles of the best pink bubbly I could lay my hands on. But if I kill someone in Texas, I noticed on that burgers with the relish tray are really popular, and you have to go with what the chef does best.

18. What is Heaven Like?
David Byrne sang, "Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens." It really depends on who actually gets in. A lot of evangelicals think only devout people get in, and if they're right, David Byrne probably is too.

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?
Leonardo da Vinci, Jesus Christ, Madame Clicquot and Lee Harvey Oswald. The first three would be really interesting to listen to, and I just gotta know if Oswald acted alone. Obviously I'd have Oswald bring the wine — the others' wines would be oxidized by now. Of course, with Jesus there, maybe all we'd need is water and a decanter.

20. What advice would you give to someone considering starting a wine blog?
I personally played around with an anonymous blog before putting my name on one, so I guess I'd give that advice to others too. When you're serious (but not too serious) and you're ready, then it's time.

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6 Responses

  1. Marcia - January 18, 2010

    Great Q & A with Mr. Gray for BV #31. But, Tom, has anyone ever really answered People over New Yorker for airplane reading material? …Really…
    How about something with slightly more teeth? Say… Atlantic Monthly vs. New Yorker? Or Architectural Digest? Or trashy novel picked up at airport bookstall…? Or for the male Bloggerviews (the majority of them BTW), perhaps it should be more along the lines of Maxim vs. New Yorker? Nah…too easy.

  2. Jason Moore - January 18, 2010

    Thanks for posting this. I’ll subscribe to both of you, and please, check out my blog that I just recently started.

  3. Blake Gray - January 18, 2010

    Hi Marcia, I’m probably a cliche but I would pick New Yorker for airplane reading over any of the ones you mentioned, yes, even Maxim (Maxim’s wine section sucks). That said, I’m more of a novel guy (I suppose only in the sense of books of fiction) and on international flights I watch as many movies as I can.

  4. T. Ewing - January 19, 2010

    What about the New Yorker cartoons? Those alone are worth the price of the mag. Besides, you can read entire month’s worth of People before the plane takes off.
    Forgive my ignorance, Blake, but what’s an “anonymous blog”? I’m still trying to understand this media…

  5. Blake Gray - January 19, 2010

    T.: You can start a blog without putting your name anywhere on it. A really savvy computer person could ID you, but nobody pays much attention to new anonymous blogs unless there’s a murder so there’s not much risk.
    Just imagine this page without Tom Wark’s name or photo. The blog could be called “Fermentation,” and he could sign all his posts and email answers “Fermentation.” In essence, that’s what I did.
    Ironically, I wrote one post on that blog that STILL gets more comments than anything on my named blog, even though I haven’t tended that blog in a year. But part of the reason, I think, is that the blog was anonymous, so people speculated about what well-connected insider might be writing it. Not as much intrigue at The Gray Market Report, I’m afraid.

  6. casey - January 19, 2010

    I will check out his blog for the simple fact that the man appreciates the ultimate driving machine. I too LOVE driving my 330i and I love wine, though not together.

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