Friday, February 25, 2011

On the Nature of Wine Blogs

FAITHFUL READERS, HAVE PATIENCE with me. Normally on a Friday night I'd be drinking wine and listening to Wilco and relaxing in front of a fire or within a pool. Instead I'm doing all of those things while composing a minor reflection spurred by a post at one of the best wine blogs out there, Vinography:

The gist of it is that there was a survey conducted asking winos what source they trust for wine information, concluding that wine blogs weren't really trusted. And more importantly, Vinography reflects thoughtfully on the circumstances of such surveying (including the fact that the surveyors spun their press release so that bloggers would react to, and thus propagate it) and offers data from his own site's survey and access statistics.

What Vinography doesn't do with this post is reflect on the relationship between bloggers and the wine industry--the elephant in the room when we talk about authority and consumer trust. The blogosphere's reputation as a third party has changed over the last few years, and will continue to change. It used to be that blogs were pretty radical and DIY, and now they're often co-opted (and we always suspect them of being so first, and look for clues of genuineness, a moving target). Look at how Gary Vaynerchuk massages his commercial interests in his video blog--it's an evolving, difficult issue, because the wine market changes, even as the media marketplace morphs at the same time.

On the one hand, if you buy a lot of wine over the $15 mark, you probably consult more than one source when buying something you've never tasted. So an industry insider--that is, one who has any kind of commercial stake in any part of the wine creation-and-circulation chain, including journalists and software designers--is never your only potential source.

On the other hand, no source or combination of sources is reliable. It's not the marketplace for reviews or wine itself that matters, but the palate and its aggregate shiftiness. Get Vaynerchuk, Parker, Galloni, and Asher together and get 'em drunk, and have them all agree, in that freewheeling ecstatic state, on five wines that they think are phenomenal. I'll bet you'll find at least one of those bottles pretty mundane, if not icky. I will never forget the disgusted look on the face of one of my guests a couple of years ago when I served her a glass of 2003 Tablas Creek Esprit de Beaucastel--not because I regret a faux pas, but because of how immediately I thought, menos burros, mas olotes.

But we can't do without wine writing and reporting. (Ranking we can do without.) Sure, we don't buy as much mail-order wine as we used to, and so the necessity to write about wines may be coming from other sources--perhaps, the explosion of an international trade market (in the U.S. anyway; the wine selections in Ireland, for example, are at the moment comparatively narrow); the diversification of the wine-drinking demographic; or the flood of Internet-vectored information about wines that comes from vendors or vintners, very little of which will actually make us pull the trigger on a bottle unless we're drinking it alone and can smother the shame of having been taken, if it turns out to suck.

Now, I don't know much about wine, partly because I'm not a wine industry person. But among the things I study is the relationship among writing, authority, and evidence. There is decent evidence of what makes a wine terrible, but not much about what makes one good. Time, temperature, terroir, temperament, mood, and mold all make a difference when we're talking about individual bottles, which I suspect is the way most of us buy. And all those factors can be taken into account in a written description of a wine: its social connections, food compatability, trajectory and history, all of these things that give life and richness can be conveyed.

That, to me, is the role of the wine blog. My title suggests that they have a nature, but frankly, the title is an essayistic affectation designed to attract the attention of wine bloggers (who will find much to complain about here, if they have any acuity or self-esteem). But what one does in a media outlet changes when its context changes. And the variety of social embeddings of wine that responsible wine blogs create (the jury is out for me on whether James Suckling's new project is responsible or not) is salutary.

That said, I really appreciate writers who make clear their relationship to the wine industry, even if only to say their role is just that of a verbose consumer. And it can catalyze fascinating interactions among readers, writers, and wineries, when you do: check out what I think is an astonishing and rare exchange at Wine Peeps, when a blogger had a tough time at a 2009 tasting at Soos Creek. (Also, please do NOT buy Soos Creek wines, because I want them all.)

At this point what irritates me most--and see Siva Vaidhyanathan's The Googlization of Everything for a much more detailed rant--is Google's algorithm and the search engine optimization industry. When I search for any particular bottle of wine, it's very difficult to find blog posts reviewing the wine, particularly if those blog posts aren't on massively linked sites like Vinography. There are thousands and thousands of wine blogs, and you can't tell me that a CDP I buy at Costco hasn't been reviewed on one of them. But it's gotten harder and harder over the last year, thanks to the Cork' formations, to find blogger reviews unless they're brand new. If you want reviews that aren't trusted, it's the ones on these sites. StreetMarine says he found the Hello Kitty Brut Rose disappointing...say it ain't so!

So to those big four, and others that aspire to them: hear me. Start linking up blogger reviews. Do what Google can't, because your SEO specialists are hammering away at it, and give us links to blogger reviews of the wines, not just links to Cellartracker and some Parker scores.

And now, back to our regularly biased wine reviews!