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Robert Parker's Advice to Wine Writers

Wine-critic-Robert-Parker-010Given the quantity of articles last week on Robert Parker’s appearance at The Symposium for Professional Wine Writers, and the length of this one as it stands, I’m not doing the compleat review I’d intended here. Instead, I’m focusing on his advice to wine writers, which was intended to be one of the primary benefits to us of his talk.

Though some disagree, I believe Parker thought the issue through and was genuinely trying to be helpful. Wine writer Elin McCoy, who wrote the 2005 biography of Parker, The Emperor of Wine: The Rise of Robert M. Parker, Jr. and the Reign of American Taste, also attended the conference and saw his appearance similarly, “What struck me first was his clear desire to reach out to this group of wine writers, certainly generous given his current health issues. – i.e. back surgery, and he has bad knees, too.”

In his opening remarks last week, Parker said, “In the time that I have here today, I’d like to share as much information as I have because I want to see all of you succeed. I came out of basically nowhere… and never dreamed of the kind of success I would have…. I have some ideas how I got there and I want other people to succeed.”

But then he added, “When I retire, I don’t want to see the wine writing profession just sort of dwindle away.” That led to open-mouthed gapes. Does he fear that, without him as shepherd, the huge flock of contemporary wine writers will lose focus and drift off into oblivion? To some writers, Robert Parker seems like one of those fathers who dispenses encouragement and sage advice, urges you to work hard and then pauses to remind you (again) that you’ll never be as good as he is. It can be maddening. But, perhaps, we are hearing what we expect, not what’s said.

Let’s look at his words again. He did not say “wine writing.” He said “the wine writing profession.” He’s not saying that we aren’t good writers. He said the opposite, “There’s a lot of good talent here. I think there are infinite possibilities to do something very, very special.”

He’s worried about the profession. “When I started in 1978, and looking around the room I think this makes me the premier geezer in the room [he and the room laugh], in 1978 when I started most magazines that dealt with any kind of lifestyle involving food had wine writers. I’ve seen a lot of those publications reduce their staffs. They’re under strict budgets and that’s unfortunate.” We have seen most all newspapers cut their paid wine columns too, and trim their culture sections overall.

How many professional wine writers today make a living based solely on that vocation? A survey at last year’s Symposium revealed that most of the attendees made less than $20,000 per year writing about wine. How many wine scribes make the kind of money through wine writing that Parker has? Probably none. Other areas of journalism are little better. This is what causes him trepidation, not our talent. He’s not demeaning our capabilities. He’s realistically appraising the state of paid journalism today. It’s abysmal.

Later, Parker hit on that topic in a different way. “The idea of giving content away makes no sense at all. People will always be willing to pay for independent expertise. In the overall blog world I see content that is derived from other sources, it may be good reading and attract a lot of hits but we’re talking about people willing to pay you for content.” I’ve heard wine writer and educator Karen MacNeil give this advice more bluntly, “Never do anything for free.”

Parker is not criticizing us as writers. He’s cautioning us, bloggers in particular, as business people and he’s correct to do so. Very few writers have the financial wherewithal and stubbornness to continue writing quality articles day after day, year after year, without compensation. And nobody has meaningfully monetized a personal wine blog. Meanwhile, the internet’s demand for new content every day almost guarantees a great many blog articles will be superficial, derivative or navel-gazing—not the kind of thing people will pay for.

Creating enough valuable, unique content to drive a profitable level of paid subscriptions, let alone ads, is hard. The niche isn’t big enough to support everyone that might want to do it either. But the market has already proved free wine content with an ad- or affinity sales-based model won’t support anyone at all. There is a good number of subscription-based content providers who have achieved at least modest success though. Some have done much better.

Parker suggests teaming up may be a way forward. “If you have a website, and there are some really good websites… there’s got to be real content, original content not derivative stuff… We’re talking about making money. People willing to pay you, $9.95, $20 or whatever for that content. You may have to do it with a group of people [to get enough content].”

The already successful sites and newsletters also reinforce something else Parker said. Despite complaints from many writers about the banality of wine reviews, people still want to read them. The majority of consumer-focused, subscription-based wine newsletters have wine reviews at their core. Even so, the market for paid wine newsletters in the United States is small and more likely to decline than improve.

There will never be another figure such as Parker in wine for the western world. “Today,” he said, “the internet sort of neutralizes things. It’s a reservoir almost.” The great ease with which wine writing can now be published and the broad access to it for consumers precludes that. Parker’s empire is being divided among many hundreds of writers and thousands of citizen reviewers.

This leads into Parker’s next point. "“The real growth market, and this is why I sold the majority of the Wine Advocate to guys in Singapore, is in Asia. There is no question about it, even though the economy in China has slowed a bit; it’s still booming.” There is virtually no credible, Chinese-language writing on wine, but many of the wealthy in Asia who can afford fine wine are comfortable with English.

“I really think the opportunity today,” Parker continued “is live-streamed video, high-quality video content… I think the future is in an educational wine video program that streams through all of the different Asian countries. If you do it as professionally as possible, and don’t charge too much for it, you’ll have success because the volume of people in these countries dying for education is enormous.”

I know this to be true. The number of applicants to the Wine & Spirits Education Trust for authorization and training to teach WSET curriculum throughout Asia is startling, as is attendance in the resulting classes. Some well-established western wine writers, such as Australia’s Jeremy Oliver, are spending more and more of their time in China serving this thirst for wine education. And Robert Parker, with his reconstructed back and aching knees, wouldn’t be embarking on a month-long trip to China were it not important.

We can laugh at stories about people in Asia mixing expensive Bordeaux with Coca-Cola, as I heard some writers do. Or we can let those folks pay us to help them enjoy the nuances of great wine, straight-up, no chaser. We can titter at the idea of doing videos from home while we write our pajama-clad, freelancing-butts off for fifty cents per word, or we can give Parker’s suggestions a shot.

Nobody in Parker’s audience at the symposium was a serious videographer but video, even mediocre video, will be more compelling to this audience, and many others, than the same content in writing. Jancis Robinson spoke to this when addressing bloggers in Virginia two years ago. She urged them to integrate video into their repertoire. She said it didn’t have to be sleek, if the information was solid and unique. Antonio Galloni has made videos a big component of his Vinous Media site.

In a post-symposium discussion, David White of the excellent Terroirist.com told me, “I think writers are still hoping for Parker to become the elder statesman he pretends he wants to be… We still revere him. Yet over and over again, he’s divisive and dismissive.” There were definitely moments of that in Parker’s session and they’ve been well-documented. However, his advice to us as professional writers was solid and well-intentioned.

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for wine news, information on events and more, or friend me on Facebook. This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2014. Robert Parker photo by Shahrar Azran/WireImage. All rights reserved.

Harvest 2011 in Paso Robles and Freshly-Picked Roussanne at Tablas Creek Vineyards

I have just spent three days visiting with wineries in Paso Robles. The weather was great with cool mornings and warm, occasionally hot, days under a clear blue sky. Harvest for some grapes is underway, though most varieties have yet to achieve necessary ripeness.

The harvest is late this year due to poor weather in previous months. At Terry Hoage Vineyards, for example, harvest will probably start next week. That’s at least two weeks behind normal. Even then, brix levels may be lower than average. Because of the cool growing season and the need to pull in fruit slightly prematurely should there be forecasts of substantial rain, many winemakers are suggesting 2011 Paso Robles wines will be lower in alcohol and higher in acidity than is typical. The difference may be noticeable, but not extreme.

The biggest problem for Paso Robles growers and wineries this year is not ripeness though. It's low yields. A series of early April frosts are primarily to blame. Vines that had already entered budbreak were damaged and didn’t flower. Viognier was the most affected. [Some varieties tend to reach budbreak early, others late. The timing of the frost this year happened to hit Viognier the hardest.] Tablas Creek figures their potential Viognier crop may be just 20% of average this year (or less). On the positive end of the spectrum, Grenache yields should be at about 90% barring heavy rains during the remainder of the season.

Tablas Creek GM Jason Haas told me on Tuesday that Paso Robles has had much less trouble due to weather than most of California's AVAs. The previous day his blog post was, “Why Paso Robles will make California's best wines in 2011.” It is an interesting read. The calcareous earth beneath the thin topsoil holds water like a sponge. It soaked up the heavy winter rains, aiding those vineyards which are dry-farmed. But Paso Robles' specific location isolated it from most of the untimely rain and heat spikes.

As a Paso Robles producer, Mr. Haas is not an unbiased observer. His arguments are sound though and there has been no shortage of dire reports from other AVAs. I expect top Paso Robles vintners to sell out of wine even earlier than usual. If you have favorite Paso Robles wines that are tough to get in normal years, consider joining the wine club/mailing list to improve your access for this year.

While at Tablas Creek, I had the opportunity to see freshly-picked Roussanne grapes. They looked healthy and tasted great. The fruit was perfectly ripe with sweet flavorful juice and dry, crunchy seeds. A sip of frothy juice straight from the press was equally promising. The other varieties I saw on vine — Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, Tannat — looked good as well.

Roussanne-at-Tablas-Creek-Vineyards
Freshly-picked Rousssanne at Tablas Creek Vineyard. The name Roussanne is a reference to the grapes' russet color.

pressing-roussanne-at-Tablas
The Roussanne is sorted and then put into this horizontal bladder press.

roussanne-juice
Juice coming out of the press looks like this.

 

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for breaking wine news, information on events and more. Become a fan and join the NorCal Wine community on FacebookAlso check out our comprehensive Northern California winery listings. They are very useful for planning a tasting trip or just getting in touch with a winery.

This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2011 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.

Creating a New Wine Label

A wine bottle’s front label may be the most important tool a winery has for driving retail sales. Whether the bottle is in a supermarket, wine boutique or wine bar, the label needs to do the same things. It needs to stand out in a crowd and catch the attention of as many people as possible. Once that attention is captured, the label has about two seconds to communicate what kind of wine it is, whether its quality is appropriate for the price point and what kind of wine consumer it’s targeted at. And it has to do all of this from a distance of at least four feet.

Brand Building in the Wine Business, It Ain’t Easy

A brand is a set of expectations. We think of McDonalds and Coca-Cola as brands, but those are just the names. The golden arches and red can with white script are the brands’ symbols. The real brands are the collected expectations those names and symbols represent. Whether you like the products or not, you know exactly what a Big Mac is, how McDonalds french fries differ from those of Wendy’s and can tell the difference between Coke and Pepsi in a blind tasting.

320px-McDonalds Times SquareMcDonalds and Coca-Cola are strong brands not because we recognize the name but because we know what they stand for. Decades of advertising and your personal experience with their extremely consistent products have almost literally etched their products into your brain. How many wine brands can you say that about?

Building a brand is difficult and expensive. It requires uniformity of products, seemingly endless repetition of messaging and many, many personal experiences with the product by each target consumer. This presents serious challenges for the wine industry.

The first problem is that the quality and character of wine is subject to change from year to year because of weather, harvest dates, increasing vine age, circumstances during fermentation and numerous other factors. Compounding that lack of constancy is the fact that wine changes as it ages in bottle. Consumers may drink it any time from the date of release to many years later. And then there’s the way serving temperature affects a wine. The only wineries that can achieve anything like the product consistency of a McDonalds or a Coca-Cola are those that produce at very high volume and don’t mind using additives—or at least blending multiple vintages as in Champagne— to build wine to a relatively simple and specific flavor profile.

Another issue is that fine wines often have complicated, multi-part names. In one hand we hold a McDonalds Big Mac sandwich. In the other we clutch a 2011 Wind Gap Chardonnay James Berry Vineyard Paso Robles. Which is easier to understand? The Big Mac is, or was, a cute but generic name. Today we know it to be just one thing, a two-patty, three-bun burger with cheese, shredded lettuce and special sauce.

wind gap bottleshot whiteBut the wine’s name is full of variables. You can tell Wind Gap is the winery name and you may be aware they make small-production wines of individual character and high-quality.

Next we see “Chardonnay.” Okay, that’s easy. Most wine lovers know that Chardonnay is a white wine. Experienced sippers will know that Chardonnay is a dry wine... except when it’s a little bit sweet.

What else do we know about Chardonnay?

  • Chardonnay smells and tastes like lemon or green apple or yellow apple or pear or peach of varying degrees of ripeness. And it can have accents of chalk or limestone, lemon curd or cheese rind, baking spice or flowers...
  • Chardonnay is fermented with native or commercial yeast
  • Chardonnay undergoes malolactic fermentation making it round and buttery or partial malolactic fermentation making it a little crisp, a little smooth and not very buttery or no malolactic fermentation keeping it very crisp and medium-bodied.
  • Chardonnay is fermented in oak, stainless steel or, very rarely, concrete.
  • Chardonnay is aged in new oak, probably French, or aged in neutral oak or it’s not aged at all.

So far so good? We also know 2011 was the vintage and have heard it was a cool year. But then the grapes came from Paso Robles which we know to be warm. So that means...? And wait, isn’t Paso Robles best-known for Cabernet Sauvignon? No worries! It’s from the James Berry Vineyard which is kind of famous. Um... for Syrah.

Please allow me a brief aside. Lately it’s been fashionable to bash tasting notes and call them unnecessary. If, after simply reading the name of this wine— that was made from America’s most popular grape by a famous, small winery from a vineyard that has produced 100-point wines in an AVA that’s one of the United States’ best-known—you can honestly say you know what that wine is like, then you’ve either tasted the wine before or your name is Larry Stone. For everyone else, here’s my tasting note which is way better than nothing.

2011 Wind Gap Chardonnay James Berry Vineyard Paso Robles
The grapes came from the vineyard’s last remaining block of Chardonnay (own-rooted, 50-year old vines of Wente clone). The juice was fermented with native yeast in concrete and stainless steel tanks, then aged 12 months in neutral French oak barrels. The wine is medium to medium-plus in body with matching acidity and light-grained texture. The nose is controlled but expressive, the palate even more forthcoming. Aromas and flavors of yellow apple are embellished with notes of baking spice, apple blossom and dusty soil. Highly Recommended.

So, back to branding. The complexity of wine makes it very difficult. That is true whether we’re talking about a single bottle of wine, a winery producing many different wines or even a growing region.

If you’re trying to build recognition for an AVA, you have to educate consumers on it’s character. That character is determined at minimum by its climate, topography, soils and principal varieties, plus the quality and style of its wineries. There is also a danger that the region will be overshadowed by individual producers or the grape varieties.

French wines are labeled by region rather than variety. That’s great at building awareness for the region, perhaps too good. I can’t tell you how many Americans I meet who think Burgundy is a grape variety.

Here in California we tend to label varietally. I’m convinced this straightforward approach helps the average consumer. It doesn’t help regions though. As with the wine above, our eyes go first to the winery and then to the grape. People often stop reading at that point, especially if the producer is recognized and the variety something common like Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc.

So how do you go about building the brand for a region? Next week I’ll tell you about one winery’s attempt to do exactly that. It’s a cool, if quixotic, project.

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for breaking wine news, information on events and more. Become a fan and join the NorCal Wine community on FacebookAlso check out our comprehensive Northern California winery listings. They are very useful for planning a tasting trip or just getting in touch with a winery.

This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2013 NorCal Wine. Photo of McDonalds in Times Square by Sallicio. McDonalds and the golden arches are registered trademarks of McDonalds. All rights reserved.

Rain, Rain, Go Away!

Weathermen have delivered an unpleasant forecast for this Tuesday, rain and plenty of it. Northern California is due to get at least 2 - 3 inches of rain in one day. In some places, like the Sierras, as much as 8 inches may fall.

This is a bad time for a big rain in wine country. While many wineries have already harvested the majority of their grapes, some have not. The bulk of the white wine grapes and Pinot Noir are happily fermenting by now. Red varietals that take longer to ripen, especially those in cool climate areas, are still hanging on the vines though. Particularly at risk are Syrah, Zinfandel and, in some areas, Cabernet Sauvignon.