Authority, Influence and Popularity in Wine Writing
Last week one of America's senior wine writers made the point that experience lends more credibility to opinion where wine writing is concerned. Steve Heimoff, long time West Coast editor of Wine Enthusiast who also writes about wine on his blog, put it this way:
"the validity of a person’s opinions about wine is directly related to the amount of time and effort that person has put into the study of wine, which includes reading, traveling, learning from others and extensive tasting."
I would hope no one would attempt to argue this point. And the comments beneath his post bare out my hope. However, quite a few folks suggested that new, less experienced voices, have a role to play and shouldn't be denigrated. Again, hard to argue with that.
What was provoked in me upon reading this post and its comments was the different type of importance that can be assigned to writing about wine.
The relative importance of a given to a wine writers seems to fall into the following categories:
We can describe a particular writer as more "authoritative" based on the mount of experience and expertise they have acquired on a given subject. For example, Matt Kramer or Steve Heimoff writing on Russian River Valley terroir are going to carry far more authority on this issue than Tom Wark writing on the subject. They have investigated it more thoroughly than I have and have and for a much longer time than I have and than most people in the world have.
Now, while I know this is the case, someone else may not know this. Someone else may come to this website, see a post of mine suggesting that the notion of "Russian River Valley" being meaningless from the perspective of terroir and assume that my words on this subject carry great authority. This opinion of the reader of my authority on the subject doesn't change the fact that based on the idea of expertise and experience, this person's evaluation of my authority would be wrong and that they could find greater authority on the subject by seeking out more experienced and expert writers.
A given wine writer's "influence" is a very interesting possession. I think we can accurately define "influence" as the degree to which a writer's words and opinions cause readers to change their minds or cause readers to take action. An example would be the different consequences of Robert Parker or Steve Heimoff or Jancis Robison rating a given wine highly and Tom Wark rating a wine highly. Far more people will buy this wine based on Robert, Steve or Jancis' review than on Tom's review. They have more influence. And while this effect may have something to do with the size of one's readership, it doesn't necessarily have to do with this.
Popularity is another measure of a wine writer's importance that is important to take note of. A given writer may not write with nearly as much authority as another and may not even have as much influence as another, but the fact that they might be published in Time Magazine or the New Yorker or even the Wine Spectator makes them more "popular" because more people read them.
It's important to note, too, that a writer with more popularity may not even be a good wine writer or wine reporter. I can't tell you how many times I've seen a wine issue reported on in a very well-read publication where the reporting was objectively incorrect, sloppy or otherwise useless. Nonetheless, this writer ranks as important because of the popularity of their outlet and their voice based on the number of readers.
Clearly, the most important wine writers are those that possess higher degrees of authority, Influence and popularity. These kinds of wine writers are few and far between. We might find various combinations of importance among wine writers, but rarely do we find them possessing higher amounts of all three of these elements of importance. This is true because there are so few outlets for wine writers that are very popular. We can count them on our two hands. They would include Eric Asimov of the NY Times. The writers at the Wall Street Journal, the Writers at the San Francisco Chronicle, the writers as the Wine Spectator and perhaps a few others.
It should be noted that no one writing in the wine blogosphere would fall into this elevated category primarily because few if any bloggers have great popularity and great influence.
It is much more likely that one writing in an independent wine blog would have great authority. And this is what Steve Heimoff was referring to when he wrote about the relative validity of an writers opinion. The reader will surely find most value from by reading writers with greater authority, be they reading the writer's reports or reviews. And it also should be noted that no matter how popular or influential a writer or reporter is, the personal value to the reader will always be greater based on the authority of the writer, not based on their influence or popularity.