Earlier this year in Sydney I was asked to deliver the 2009 Wine Communicators of Australia Lecture. I opted for speaking off the cuff rather than reading from a prepared text, which is why this transcript (which has had the 'um's and 'you know's edited out of it) reads rather breathlessly. See here for details of a fellowship grant recently announced by the WCA.
It was suggested that I took as my title ‘Are wine writers an endangered species?’. It's a good title and I’m delighted to talk about it. One option is for me to simply say ‘Yes. Can I sit down now?’ But I suspect that you’d rather I talked a little bit longer. I’m not going to talk all that long, however, and I would welcome some questions and comments when I’m finished.
The last time I gave this lecture to what was then called the New South Wales Wine Press Club, I assumed that everyone in the audience was a journalist. I wanted to be utterly candid so I asked that everything that I said should be off the record, which took everyone by surprise, I think. But it does make a difference if you know that what you’re saying is off the record or on the record.
But I now realise that Press Club was a misnomer at that stage just as in a way Wine Communicators of Australia is in the strictest sense. There are many of Australia’s leading wine writers here today, but then there are lots of you who are not wine writers by any means. But, in a way, you could say that anyone who ever takes a sip of wine is a potential wine communicator and I know that all of you are much closer to wine than simply the common or garden drinker.
All someone who takes a sip of wine has to say is, I do, or I don’t, like this and they have communicated about wine. In the old days the most casual wine drinker had no platform for this message other than to communicate with the other people around the table at the time. It was wine writers who had special status. They had a by-line, sometimes a photograph, and the only way to communicate to a wider audience or readership for the ordinary common or garden drinker other than with their immediate circle of friends then was to do it on paper, in newspapers, magazines, or, if you were very lucky, in books or more recently on radio or television. Then you were a genuine bona fide recognised wine communicator. You needed to catch the eye of an editor, a publisher, or a producer to get your opinions heard, other than just sharing opinions about what you had just drunk with your friends.
I was very, very, lucky and got my first break as a wine writer back in 1975 when I applied to be assistant editor of a wine trade magazine. I was interviewed by a publisher who said ‘we’ve had a lot of difficulty choosing the right person for this job because we’ve had a lot of applicants but we seem to be either getting a trained journalist and have to teach them all about wine, or we get a wine expert then we have to teach them how to write. He looked down at my application form and said ‘you of course are neither of these things, but nevertheless you are the favourite for the job’. So I was surprised, and it was fortunate that he didn’t ask me if I could type because that would have been the end of it if he had.
But after I’d been there for about a year I did say to him ‘why did you take me on? Was it that I’d done some freelance writing, at university, or for the Good Food Guide, the restaurant guide?’ No, no, no. ‘Was it because I’d spent a year in France? ‘That sounds good, but no, no. Was it, I said a bit nervously, because I’d worked temporarily for a wine company? Because while that was true, the wine company had a wine bar and I was basically a bar maid but I didn’t spell that out. And to my relief, he said no, no, no, it wasn’t that either. It was because you’d shown that you could organise the skiing side of Britain’s largest holiday company. And we knew, therefore, that you were a good organiser, you’d taken a salary drop and you would organise yourself to learn about wine and learn about journalism. And to a certain extent he was right. But obviously nowadays, I wouldn’t get that break.
There were probably about 30 applicants for the job back in ‘75. There would be 300 or more nowadays. And most of them would have had some technical or some professional wine qualification, and probably some of them would be trained journalists. You really did need at that stage to have a platform to be either publishing or broadcasting about wine. And you used that platform to establish your reputation. Editors, in my experience, were the crucial link to getting yourself published in a traditional sense, and editors are very, very conservative in my experience.
I don’t know the ins and outs of Australia’s wine writers but in Britain most of us who are wine correspondents for one of the big important papers have been there for years and years and years. I feel really sorry for younger wine writers because we are damned if we’re going to move aside for them.
James Halliday was just telling me how he stood aside at the Sydney Wine Show to make way for young blood, and that is very noble. On the other hand I'm unwilling to be pushed out of my seat at The Financial Times because I enjoy it. But I do feel guilty because I know I’m taking up space, just like Jane MacQuitty at The Times, Joanna Simon at The Sunday Times [now replaced] and Tim Atkin at The Observer. Jane, Joanna and I have all been in post since the 80s, which is shocking really. And I’d love to say it’s because we’re all so brilliant at our jobs that our editors can’t bear to get rid of us. We’re not.
I think if I were an editor I might want a some new influences. I‘ll come onto how lazy we are in a second, but editors are lazy too. So I think the only time you see wine correspondents, certainly in Britain, getting the heave-ho is if they do something really naughty such as very obviously being on the take or something like that. So, we’re very happy in our little nests, and the last thing we want is a bright young cuckoo. Fortunately, wine for the younger generation, in the UK, is pretty much represented by one man and that's one Australian, Matt Skinner. Who is there as a result of the time just after Jamie Oliver got famous when everybody in Britain, in publishing or broadcasting, was looking for the ‘Jamie Oliver of wine’.
And of course, as Jamie’s ‘Wine Man’, Matt was the obvious person to step into those shoes and he did it very well. Of course it didn’t, poor chap, endear him to all the older ones who saw him as a bright young cuckoo. So he had to fight extra hard, I think, to establish his reputation. Perhaps it’s true, isn’t it, that we all look very differently on the people who are up and coming behind us rather than those who have walked in front of us? Which of course, talking of Jamie Oliver, brings us onto television, which is a very different matter.
But of course, broadcasting about wine is just as much communicating about wine, and so I hope you won’t mind if we also go onto considering our wine broadcasters as an endangered species. I had my breaks in television. I was very, very lucky. I won’t bore you with the story of that.
What’s really puzzling about wine on TV is that wine is more popular than ever before world wide and yet it is a real struggle, as some of you in this room will know, to get successful wine programmes on television.
We co-produced, as well as me presenting, a big BBC series on wine in the mid 90s and probably that was the biggest investment that I know of, certainly in Britain on wine and TV. It cost a million pounds then. But it only brought in three point something million viewers, which was seen as just not enough to warrant going for a second series.
What we've got at the moment is Oz and James. Do you see Oz and James, the TV show? Which is fun. It’s really nice. I think they do it really well. But it’s not really a wine show, is it? It’s the new ‘reality’ format. And I must say when we were discussing other ways of putting wine on TV, there was a certain point when I knew we could easily get a commission to do a wine reality show. You know, you shut twelve beautiful young people in a big château and then put people in to teach them and you have this annoying commentary, that says, ‘Charmaine has just twenty minutes to tell her Sauvignon from her Chardonnay’, and all that.
But I really don’t think that would be to do wine justice. So we also had – have you seen – a show called Chateau Monty? Which is about a nice guy called Monty Waldin, who’s trying to establish a biodynamic vineyard in South West France. You might see that. That was another nice sort of reality take on it. It is very, very difficult to make wine interesting on the screen because not much happens.
I know from having done an awful lot of filming with wine, the bottling line is by far the most captivating thing because there’s actual movement there. The odd spit for fun. But really, watching people wine tasting is not a spectator sport. The wind occasionally rustles some leaves of the vines, which gives you the odd lovely photograph, some lovely pans across the vinescape and a bit of banter and really that’s about it. It’s not a perfect match: wine and television.
So wine on television has shrivelled as far as I can see – but wine in print is seriously shrivelling, which is presumably the inspiration for your lecture title, Darren. For instance, Corie Brown is, I would say, one of the most original, well informed, grown up, wine journalists in the US. She was on the LA Times staff and she got the push last year. I had a very nice few hours with her walking up and down the beach in Santa Monica during a stopover on my flight over from London to Queenstown last week. And she’s very happy. She’s writing a book about climate change and wine. I don’t think it’ll be a dull one. I think it’s probably well worth looking out for. But she’s fortunate, she’s not personally on the bread line. And what could be more in the middle of the world’s best-funded wine producing centre than The San Francisco Chronicle? They use to have a special drinks section – every Thursday I think it was. They closed that. And they’re going to have a fraction of the wine stories they used to. Even they, in California, are going to have wine stories which will just pop up in the regular weekend section. They really have to earn their place, fighting for space amongst the restaurant reviews and the recipes.
Lettie Teague – I don’t know if she has been here? She was probably the Grande Dame of New York’s wine writing circle, the wine editor of American Express’ Food and Wine magazine. She has just been let go. From the UK, Joanna Simon in the London Sunday Times. Her space has been shrinking and shrinking [Joanna was ‘let go’ by the Sunday Times a couple of weeks after this speech was given].
The email that was next in my Inbox after Darren’s reminder about the details of this event just before I set off to fly here last week, was from a South African wine magazine that I write for, giving me the sack. My first sacking! In it, they did say they wanted to take the magazine down market and I’m not down market enough. That’s my problem.
Magazines which used to regularly have a wine column, certainly in Britain, don’t any more. Wine has disappeared from all women’s magazines, as far as I can see. And I think that pre-dated the credit crunch and this current internet inspired horrendous decline in print and mainstream TV ad revenues. I think it’s because there is not that much wine advertising. Not that much full colour wine advertising. The sort of thing that publishers like to bring in the revenue. We might discuss that later.
Perhaps you have a bit more here but we certainly have very, very little in the UK. I'm very lucky on The Financial Times, where I’ve been since the late 80s, because certainly over the last few years, the fine wine market has been alive, burning, and I'm allowed to write what I want. So I write quite a lot about fine wine. And we’ve regularly had every week really quite a healthy load of ads from the sort of people who sell classed growths and top burgundies and things like that. And that’s all good. It’s a good match with their market because probably my column is the only one in Britain that does deal, not exclusively, with fine wine, but isn’t afraid to talk about smart stuff. And so that’s quite a good match.
But I wonder how long that will go on. At least the pound in its pathetic state makes the fine wine traders based in Britain quite alluring to people outside Britain wanting to buy fine wine.
(And incidentally, as a completely tangential thing, the major trade that the fine wine traders in Britain have done recently is selling Bordeaux back to Bordeaux because it’s all so nice and cheap for them sadly. And because everyone is a big fan of storage conditions in Britain. We do have very, very good cool storage conditions. It may be a horrible place to live, in winter anyway, but it’s a lovely place to keep wine.)
There are a lot of accusations about wine writing that there are too many articles that are just shopping lists. I think there is a certain force in that observation. And I’ve long felt that. (You’ll have to forgive me that most of what I say is based on my experience in the UK because I don’t know exactly the ins and outs here, but perhaps you can comment on it later.) But it is certainly technically possible to be a wine writer in Britain and never to have seen either a cellar or a vineyard. The big retailers who dominate the retailing scene, twice a year have their spring tasting and their autumn tastings for the media, and you could perfectly happily feed a column for 52 weeks a year by just tasting the stuff that they have to offer and churning it all out in your column. No personal detail, no having spoken to the winemaker or understanding the difference between that valley and the other valley. It is all too easy and you could be pretty lazy in that respect.
I'm amazed how many members you have. Over 300, what was it? 380-ish, is that it? We have a thing called the Circle of Wine Writers in Britain where you supposedly have to prove that you have written or communicated something, that you’ve got a body of work. And I'm amazed there are over 250 members in the Circle. I'm not at all sure where the 250 outlets are; they must be shrinking at the moment.
But I have to admit that even for someone – apparently with a sinecure – like me, it is all too easy to get into a rut. I try to do much more than a canter round the supermarket tastings. I do quite a lot of travel and most of all listening, which I think is the most important thing for a wine writer, or a writer of any sort, a journalist of any sort, to do. But I unwillingly and unwittingly have my own sort of timetable. Every January it’s the burgundy primeurs and every April it’s the latest Bordeaux vintage, and a bit of Champagne in there, a bit of Germany there. And I don’t like that. I hate the idea of there being a routine. I regularly get emails from wine producers saying, what’s your schedule? When do you want your samples from Oregon and stuff?
I shy away from having that kind of timetable because I think it would take the excitement out of my work, although clearly it probably would be better from some points of view to know exactly what you’re going to write all the time. But I love just being able to sit down and sometimes decide at the last minute what I'm going to write about, I never plan more than, say, three weeks in advance, but sometimes I ditch the plan because I really, really want to write about something and I’m very lucky that the FT allows me to do that.
But I'm really not at all sure that we wine writers have worked quite hard enough in our enviable niches. I’m coming on to the ‘parasite’ business here! I was amazed by what a furore that caused. It’s in the Oxford Companion to Wine. The first line of the wine writer’s definition mentions ‘parasites on the wine trade’ so it’s not a new observation. And I don’t think it’s a very controversial one myself. But we couldn’t do it if wine producers didn’t exist.
I certainly work pretty hard but I’m not at all sure I do it in the right way. And I'm not at all sure that I’m giving readers what they want. It’s an interesting point to consider: how do you measure wine writer or wine communicator success? Do you measure it by the area of the column? By the area of the ads that go alongside? By the resulting sales? I do know some wine writers who are thrilled by the idea that the shelves of Tesco for such and such a wine were emptied within x hours after they mentioned it.
But personally I bend over backwards to recommend wines, probably to the great frustration of my readers, that are sometimes quite difficult to get, wines from the less mainstream, smaller merchants, in smaller quantities because nobody else is writing about those things and it’s nice to give those sorts of wines a bit of oxygen.
You could measure success by reader feedback. But in that case you’d be over privileging communications that are aimed or bought by retirees who have a lot of time on their hands. For instance, in the old days The Daily Telegraph in England always used to have a huge correspondence column because so many of its readers actually didn’t have a day job so they’d spend hours writing in disgust at what was written.
I get very little feedback from the Financial Times. A lot of people in finance read it but a lot of what one might call 'normal people' read it as well. But I do get very little feedback. I get masses of feedback when my column is published in The San Francisco Chronicle. Perhaps, because it’s a very online culture there. It’s an online way of sending your feedback and that’s a culture in which everyone’s at their computers ready to just push the button and send something through. And it is fun. I enjoy getting feedback.
You could say reader-recall would be a measure of success as a wine communicator, a wine writer. But then, that’s a little bit funny because recently a research outfit called Wine Intelligence did some research and asked people to name the wine people that they had heard of. Or I think they gave them names. I don’t know whether they gave them or prompted them or not. Anyway, the original result was that Oz Clarke was way, way, way ahead, with the rest of us in his wake. Then we looked at the research carefully and compared whom people had heard of and who they actually follow. And then you had very few people actually citing Robert Parker but his ‘I follow him religiously’ rating was obviously very, very high whereas Oz’s was very low. So it’s not just who you have you heard of, I would argue. It’s quite important how you rate them and that sort of thing.
Now to satisfy you Darren, so that you don’t have to say this, I will say it. The things that wine writers do wrong. I'm sure that some people in this room will enjoy this section and another category will not. I think the main thing that wine writers do wrong, it’s not their fault. It’s arguably the wine trade’s fault. It’s to believe that they’re as important as the wine trade likes to make them think they are.
I got my first inkling of this when I had just started writing about wine and no one recognised me. There was a big jolly outing to the races from London. I was a young thing on this wine trade magazine. And we’re all going by train. And it was sponsored by the very flourishing German wine importers at that stage. Of course, they couldn’t afford to give you a cream bun nowadays. But then I was in this carriage and we’re just setting off when one of the leading German wine importers stood up and said, “it’s just us, isn’t it? There aren’t any wine writers in here.” And I realised that we were in fact not seen as so marvellous as the trade like to make us feel. I had the distinct impression of them and us. We may be flattered by wine producers, wine publicists, wine retailers and wine merchants who try and make us feel awfully important, but really we are just these cogs in the whole chain.
And I think it’s terribly dangerous when wine writers start to believe that they are the centre of the universe, which we certainly aren’t. Those of you who have ever tried inviting wine writers to an event will know that we’re not the best behaved in terms of answering invitations. And I wonder when was the last time that anyone here who organised an event got a thank you? Probably not that many thank yous I would guess. But I could be wrong. I could be wrong.
Samples. We’re terribly blasé about samples [see The ethics of wine writing] and I know I’m guilty of this. If someone offers to send me a sample to taste I am pretty wary as I’ve already got so many things to taste. Of course, as for the real world, how lucky we are to have people pressing free bottles of wine on us! I could go on about the practical difficulties and all that sort of thing but I know, at least half of you wouldn’t be at all sympathetic.
This is something I could expand on later if you want me to. There are lots of problems about when you decide to accept a sample and not. But I have no qualms about accepting samples. I know, in his early days, Robert Parker used to say, “I paid for all my wine” but quite rightly he’s gone quiet on that nowadays because that would be silly. I don’t see that it’s compromising to accept a sample of wine in the same way that no book reviewer is compromised by accepting a free book to be reviewed. That is just the business, how commerce works. So that’s absolutely fine.
I don’t like taking travel from individual producers. I’m here because Mornington Peninsula invited me first and then Otago invited me. So I thought that’s a great chance for them: they only need to have to pay half of my fare each. So there’s a nice saving. (I slightly wished that I’d put my foot down and not taken the round the world route because I could probably could have got to Queenstown in less than 34 hours if I had, but never mind.) So I would happily take travel from a generic body but I wouldn’t take travel from a specific producer. I would also feel a bit uncomfortable even about accepting invitations to something like Wimbledon or something like that sponsored by a wine outfit because that is clearly slot machine stuff. I put this in and I'm expecting that out. But I believe there are wine writers who even accept commissions from wine producers. If you look at Tesco, they produce a booklet for all the many tens of thousands of members of their wine club and apparently all the articles there are written by their buyers, but I don’t actually believe that they are.
But all these observations apply to Britain, which is a very thriving, very mature market for wine. People can’t afford to be as fastidious in emerging markets. It’s much more difficult. For instance, I remember hearing someone who sold wine in one of the African countries, one of the less important wine markets of the world. He, of course, was creating the market for wine in that country. A bit like some of the people in the Caribbean Islands do. And he was the source of wine education, wine information, in that country.
When markets are starting out, you can’t afford the separation between the merchant and the writer. The merchants are the ones who are developing it and, yes, there may be a bit of compromise there but that’s just how things have to be. I'm not sure at the moment it’s just evolving its own independent wine press. And in Russia, for instance, it’s just got to the stage where different wine writers are hurling wonderfully Russian insults at each other about how they’re in so and so’s pocket and that one is in the other's pocket. Signs that the Russian wine market is maturing!
But if you take America, for instance, I would say that's an even more developed, or certainly more fastidious, market than Britain. Journalists on The New York Times, for example, go to inordinate lengths never to accept a single, single thing. And I remember being in Oregon once and planning to meet up with Brian Croser, who was there for Argyle. Matt Kramer, an American wine writer, absolutely recoiled in horror that there might be any sort of social situation with anyone who produced wine [although, come to think of it, he is very thick with Lalou in Burgundy...]. So it’s all very, very different in different places.
However, all these careful little considerations may actually just shrivel to nothing because the situation that I’ve just been describing is all being superseded. Today you don’t need any outside publisher or editor or producer to get yourself a platform. Anyone can get online. And anyone who can get online can pontificate about wine. As you know, it’s very, very easy to set up a website or become a persistent poster on a wine forum and establish your identity in that way.
And perhaps more importantly, wine writers have lost that isolation from criticism that we used to enjoy. We’re no longer on a special elevated platform where no one can get at us. There are all these forums, all these places, bulletin boards and blogs around the world where people can write, and anyone can access. People can criticise us and say, 'So and so was wrong about the 2005 or whatever.' And so we are finding that consumers increasingly have the whip hand as well as being a readership or an audience.
And it’s not just words that are going online obviously. How many of you have seen Wine Library TV? Why should I be doing this guy's publicity for him? I don’t know, he is such a publicist himself. I think I'm going to keep you in ignorance! No, I'm not, you’d have to discover, anyway.... He is way over the top. But if you want to see the future then have a look at Wine Library TV. The guy, white Russian by birth, is now in his thirties. You can read about Gary Vaynerchuk on www.jancisrobinson.com. Just put Vaynerchuk in the search box and you’ll find several things that I’ve written about him.
His father has a big – and it’s getting bigger – wine business in New Jersey. Gary came to the US when he was about eight, I think. And he’s just..., he’s got it. He's got the kind of get up and go to talk about wine to young people. And he does a daily TV show. How would you describe it? Utterly unlike me! Very lively, almost over the top – as though he's had ten coffees. And I say good for him. He is opening up wine to people in a completely different way and thereby definitely growing the wine market. And I’m sure there will be others following in his footsteps but he's not a shy man. He went to, is it called CAA – the organisation that looks after the likes of David Beckham and Oprah – and managed to walk out of there having persuaded them to take him on. So he's not shy. He says things like, 'I’m a big brand'. With a completely straight face. But he's really doing good for wine.
Then there are other aspects of the online picture. Not just individual blogs and forums all scrambling for attention but things like CellarTracker and VinFolio which amalgamate individual consumers' own tasting notes. These are gaining more and more importance and readership and I would argue that in the old days, a tasting note from a recognised wine writer might have had some status and just Joe Bloggs’ tasting note might not have done but they’re definitely creeping closer. And the power of CellarTracker and VinFolio is that they get lots and lots of different people’s notes.
So that someone who’s got the time to read all this – which I don’t – can actually form their own impression of a general view of how a certain wine might taste at this moment in its evolution. And this is particularly useful as wines age because most of us wine writers tend to write about the new releases. And, of course, when people have things in their cellars, they want to know how they’re coming along and are they ready to drink. This is the virtue of these note-sharing websites.
(Again, why am I doing these ads for people?) There are not many of you who know Wine Library TV. How many of you know www.winesearcher.com? Not surprisingly, many more. This is a New Zealand product actually. This is one of the few things, along with Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, which is a NZ product at the top of its tree internationally. And I think it’s brilliant even if it doesn’t look beautiful (Cellar Tracker certainly doesn’t look beautiful either) but it does a great job. You stick in a wine and it tells you who’s selling it and ranks the prices that it’s being offered at. So you can so easily see who’s ripping you off and who might go bust any minute. And see how prices vary around the world. So that’s another sort of power, giving consumers another sort of power, the power of price comparison.
So we have great upswing of social networking. More and more people talking together online. Online has become so important to wine. And because of that, I'm just so glad that by default I got into web publishing back in 2000. I only did it really because in 2000 I was approached by so many people telling me I was going to make my fortune by going into business with them to get something online. The most convincing of these, I was about to do something with him and then I realised he was telling me a whole load of rubbish.
So I didn’t but it was too late to stop the little line on my next book jacket which said, visit www.jancisrobinson.com. So I thought, I’d better have something at www.jancisrobinson.com. So it started in a very small way at the end of 2000 and I found out how much I really, really liked it. And what a wonderful complement online publishing is to, say, a weekly column. Especially a weekly column in an international paper like The Financial Times because of course, once you’re online your readership is international. It’s very difficult to keep it restricted to one country. Subscribers to the purple pages of JancisRobinson.com come from almost 100 countries.
So I find it’s brilliant for me that I can write an article in the FT - say an overview of something – and I can put as many related tasting notes as I like online. We’ve just done 1,350 tasting notes of 2007 burgundies, which you wouldn’t find room for in the print media. They’re mutually complementary. And what I love is that it gives me a place to put all my tasting notes. In the old days I would go to a fantastic tasting but couldn’t get all that I learnt into print. It would just sit there in a pile of paper but now I can share all these experiences. It’s so immediate. You can swap news. You can disseminate news of what is happening that day. (It’s a rather macabre side effect to this phenomenon of course, is that the minute someone dies, everybody knows because word spreads very, very quickly.)
Rather more happily, you can share news of really good new restaurants or wine bars and help new wine producers or wine retailers by getting the word out very, very quickly. We have lots of campaigns going on my site: anti heavy bottles, anti-polystyrene, non-delivery of en primeur orders. It gives consumers a lot of power. There’s one particular outfit in France which has very, very low prices for futures in wine but has a nasty habit of not delivering them. And so on our forum we’ve been sharing the telephone number of the managing director and all sorts of useful things like that.
So there are very useful aspects to these tight knit online wine communities. Travel tips for instance. I’m off to an obscure little Japanese town. Does anyone know a wine shop near there or whatever? So it’s good fun and of course you do build a community. Mine was free for the first year and a bit. But I was just spending so much time on it. I didn’t want to have ads or sponsorship because I reckoned it would be compromising. So I thought I’ll just try having a subscription part of the site. By mistake the call for subscriptions was up online for an hour before we meant it to be. And in that hour we got three subscriptions, one of which was from Brazil. So we thought, hmmm that looks like a goer.
When I said I was launching a subscription bit on my website, fellow wine writer Malcolm Gluck wrote to Harpers, the wine trade weekly, and said, I will bet Jancis a lunch at the Fat Duck with a really good bottle of burgundy that she’ll never make money from it. And I was able to write back immediately and say, look here are the figures. I’m already making money from it. (Chiefly because I gave my time for nothing but never mind.) And how about this lunch at the Fat Duck then? And he said, actually how about supper at my place? I never claimed that bet.
So that’s the beauty of online stuff which I really enjoy and I think I would feel very upset if I didn’t have an online presence now, although it’s probably quite difficult to build one up.
But how about books? Books are suffering terribly. I mean I would be saying that anyway but on my way here today I just had a little wander around Borders. I asked for the food and drink section. I was directed downstairs to the basement. I swear to you, three times I wandered round all the food shelves. There was no sign saying wine or even drink. I had a really good look at the food and cookery shelves trying to find the drinks books. And I had to go and ask for assistance. I finally found them. The drinks books started half way down shelves facing near the staff exit. With a sign above saying ‘Home’. It’s pretty dire.
Quite why wine books are suffering, far more than food books, I'm not 100% certain. I’d love to hear some of your views on that. I think part of the problem maybe associated with television. So many cook books do well because they get a big plug on television. And there are some big food characters on TV. But we don’t really have big wine characters on TV. So that TV isn’t helping wine book publishing.
But it’s jolly tricky out there. And of course, self publishing of books is easier than it’s ever been. Partly thanks to the net. You can publish online and then you've got contact with your target audience with your blog. Like Allen Meadows, aka Burghound, the American who specialises in amazing amounts of detail about Burgundy. He's written a book on Vosne Romanée. He doesn’t need to go to a publisher with it. Every single person who would want to buy that book is already visiting his website. And he's got this absolute straight track to his market there.
So all these distribution systems are completely changing. But of course it’s happening in every other sphere, not just wine. I mean, I’ve got a lot of friends who are in the television business. And they see that every teenager is making their own films now, just doing it with their cameras and stuff. What price National Film School and all the rest when you’ve grown up putting together your Facebook profile?
Everyone now is a publisher and the interesting thing is that really there’s no need nowadays for third parties to intervene as publishers or editors. Anyone who can get online can get the information. They have to work out which sources are better than others. They have to qualify them. They have to work out that a Wikipedia entry maybe not be 100% accurate. But they can go to the winery website or the this or the that and put together a whole list of facts. And that applies to wine as much to anything else.
So really what we need wine writers for now is not to give facts but to give a bit of opinion. But a lot of our opinion is tasting notes and they are being rivalled by consumers’ own tasting notes. So everything is in flux. And more and more online is free. More and more is being written by regular website visitors as 'user generated content'. UGC is a magic word for many a web publisher.
And print magazines are folding left, right and centre. The one that I started on back in 1975, Wine & Spirit, has just been amalgamated after 130 years with Harpers, the weekly one which has become fortnightly. So that’s all going down the tubes.
And certainly several of the wine magazine publishers I know, in several countries, say that really it’s wine events that are keeping them going. Advertising is plummeting, and subscriptions aren’t rising in any nice, wonderful way. So they’re generating all these events necessarily to keep the income coming in – but that is a heck of a lot of work.
As for the future, I’d love to say, right that’s what’s going to happen, but I really don’t know. I just feel that, as in finance, we are in directionless meltdown really. As they say, prediction is a difficult business especially with regard to the future.
My only hope is that consumers will continue to need privileged opinions to rail against. So they will need wine writers if only to disagree with us!
But it’s just amazing to me finally, that wine has made the transition to being online so well because you’d think that everyone would have to be there together with a glass, sharing opinions. But actually there is so much to be said about wine even when you’re not in the same room as somebody.
There are so many facts and opinions to share such as ‘Oh, you’ve the pH wrong' or whatever. To those of you who do look at some of these bulletin boards, I ask why are people so rude on them? It’s like people driving, they just forget manners and are just so horrid to each other. I'm very pleased to say that the forum on my website was described by La Revue du Vin de France, France's only wine magazine (and isn’t that bizarre that France has only one wine magazine?) as ‘the most courteous wine forum on the planet’. We don’t take any of this rudeness online.
In the old days, in the mid to late 90s when the UK wine trade was just learning about the internet – a bit like book publishers are now suddenly waking up and realising there's this thing called the internet – my view of wine online was that it was providing a place for wine bores to congregate. But now that I'm in the business of online publishing and know more about it, of course I’ve changed my mind! And I think it’s very valuable for people to be able to share information like that.
Another thing about online publishing, of course, is that now you can publish film, video and there are no space restrictions. We’ve got the whole of the Oxford Companion online. It’s so easy. You don’t have to carry that book around. And we have all the World Atlas of Wine maps that you can search, which is something you can’t do with the book. You can send emails to your readers. You can send them messages to their phones, which I'm sure we all ought to be doing much more of. And all in all, it’s an electronic age, isn’t it? We’re all sitting there with our Blackberries.
I would say to any of you who haven’t yet gone into online publishing, you perhaps have a product to sell and are wondering what to do about it. But it’s actually worse to have a website that's out of date than to have no website at all. If you are going into online publishing, it’s for life, not just for Christmas! It is a full time commitment.
So, finally, the future, I'm afraid I am a bit gloomy about the future for wine writing as we have known it. I think it could be that people who will follow us, the new up and coming wine authorities, will have to prove that they can do something more than just write about wine. They’ll probably have to be able to be good wine judges and wine tasters. They’ll probably have to be able to speak well because there’ll probably be more and more events I would guess, not just for the reasons that I mentioned before.
Anyway, I would love any questions although I may well have outstayed my welcome and maybe we should not have questions?
Darren Jahn, President, Wine Communicators of Australia:
We have another fifteen minutes at least, Jancis. Do we have any questions from the audience? Please introduce yourself briefly.
Question: Hi yes, Sheralee from Constellation Wines Australia, looking after the communications end. I'm interested Jancis in your opinion on the time it took for the UK consumer to really pick up that online editing side of things? My feeling is in Australia we’re well behind the UK and the US in terms of people, particularly in a wine sense, really using the online environment. And I'm just wondering the time period it took in the UK?
Do you mean specifically people starting up their own sites?
Question: I think starting up but also people using them. There are a couple of sites out there and there are really only a couple and I think probably the most popular of them might have 15,000 subscribers, which is pretty tiny when you’re talking about trying to get to the consumer market.
Hmmm. I would say online is pretty important in the UK now. There are still some people who need help to get online. There is a certain segment of the old traditional wine lover who just hasn’t quite got the hang of it. But very, very few.
But there are new wine websites coming up all the time. I suppose I should have mentioned the major ones. Obviously, Wine Spectator.com and eRobertParker.com would be the ones that are most visited. Not least because they’re US based. Both of which have free bits and subscription bits. Wine-Pages.com in the UK is a good example, by a guy called Tom Cannavan in Glasgow. He wasn’t at all known in the wine world. I think he was lecturing in Computer Science at Glasgow University or something, but he saw a gap and he got in very early. And he's got a big free forum and a lot of material on there and that’s quite visited. Wine Anorak is a nice one in Britain, by Jamie Goode. Doctor Vino in the US. They’re bubbling up all the time. But it would be difficult to be in the British wine trade and never to go online and see what’s happening.
And I find people gossiping about www.decanter.com, which is very good for keeping up with the news.
Thank you very much. I very much enjoyed what you had to say…
Question: Yes, that was my next word! I believe that many wine promoters, writers, look at the wines of the high prices and don’t look at other good wines somewhere lower down. And I think that’s important that you’re going to, thank you.
I agree with you but actually the comment that's made most often about British wine writing is that too much of it is about wine at the bottom end and not enough about more aspirational wine. I just don’t know whether editors are telling writers never to write about wine that costs more than ten pounds a bottle or not. But the comment’s often made that in the motoring pages you write about the latest fancy car, why not occasionally about some of the better wine?
But I agree you've got to realise, you’ve got to be in tune with your readers. And be writing about the wines they’re actually buying. It’s made a difference in Australia but in Britain they’re very much centred on the mass market most columns.
The bargain bin column in yesterdays Epicure in Melbourne, had a $39 Albarino!
(laughs) Mm. Mm.
Question: Lyndey Milan. I’m a food and wine writer and TV media presenter. The problem in Australia with getting wine on television is the rules and regulations. You can’t put wine on before quite late at night because it’s all viewed as children’s viewing time and it’s all about revenue. Any media outlet it’s all about the revenues. So if you haven’t got the revenue it’s not going to happen. I think what’s interesting is that online is a young person's world increasingly, you know. I do it. But I find it hard to keep it up to date. But it’s the younger generation that are completely savvy. There’s a younger generation that aren’t drinking wine. They’re drinking the alcho-pops and whatever. The things that look like soft drinks but aren’t. And they go to parties and taking drugs. So I think that's part of the thing is that online is a very much a young person's way. They've got a short attention span. You’ve got to grab their attention within the first seven seconds I think, or you lose them. So I think the challenge is how do we use online to attract new wine writers, sorry new wine drinkers?
Funnily enough this topic came up the last time that I spoke at the Press Club I remember. The interesting thing is that in the US, young people are getting into wine. And wine as I say there is being viewed as something pretty smart for young people and, wine is being pitched at them online. Maybe you just need one or two Gary Vaynerchuks to rattle around a bit.
Question: Jancis this is the patron speaking.
It does seem to me my reading of the UK journalism that we, from an Australian perspective, we are constantly being for sale because the wines are sweet, they’re not where they used to be, they’re not as good as they used to be. But on the one hand the price points are where they were ten years ago. And if took the exchequer take, tax take and you took inflation they really ought to be ten pounds not four pounds. So I'm not sure that you know, that's a real criticism. But more to the point, this wailing by what I would loosely call high street journalists against these lines it seems to me misses the whole point every bit as much as the writers who only write about Romanée Conti or whatever.
Who would that be, James? (laughs)
In other words, I really wonder how many high street wine buyers who are buying four pounds plus or minus wines. Do they ever read an article even when it’s a shopping list which is what so many journalists in the UK have been driven back to by their newspaper editors? …But it’s a descending spiral and I don’t know where it’s going to end. And thank God we don’t quite have that scenario here yet in Australia. But there is a serious point – well I at least, and I’m sure other people in this room, who get a bit tired out of the constant battering of Australia, which used to be of course, the wonderful thing, the wonderful baby and it’s now the pimply adolescent that we don’t want to even think about or talk about it unless we can possibly avoid it.
That is, if I may say so, a very interesting but completely different discussion which we can have over lunch. But it’s not really germane to our topic concerning wine writers. I think it is a very, very Australian wine question. I’m not shying away from answering it but it’s a question of action and reaction, isn’t it? You couldn’t be loved so much as you were for so long without there being a backlash. [See How Australia went Down Under.]
Question: Hi, my name is Fiona McDonald and I work for a wine distributor. So I’m a PR Manager and so obviously I'm very interested in this topic. But I think in Australia and maybe it’s just that we're a younger market we, our wine writers are really important from a perspective of the consumer. I mean I know that I’ve been in a bottle shop and wanted to buy something and maybe looking for something off the cuff and read a review from a wine writer saying this is a really terrific wine, yada, yada, yada. And bought the wine based on that comment.
And have you always been pleased?
I was pleased on that time. But yet I think in Australia there is a level of trust in some of our wine writers. Is that not the case in the UK?
I think perhaps we’ve got too many wine writers. We’ve got an awful lot. Yes, it’s great when you see a wine being written up by maybe two if not three people then yes, that looks a really good sign. But it’s a bit relentless and you know even I have to admit that there’s nothing more powerful than a friend's recommendation actually. Is there? We do listen to our friends I’m afraid more than the professional critics. That is very cynical but I think it's in practice true.
Question: Mark Hughes from Selector magazine. Your reputation precedes you. What is the secret to your longevity? What makes you so special?
Why am I still alive, you mean? I don’t know. I was born on a Saturday. Saturday’s children work hard for their living and unfortunately I do work hard. But I always say that nobody works harder than James [Halliday]. And one of the funniest things I remember was last time I was here in August ’06, just after the Hunter Wine Show, was when James and I did a little workshop on Shiraz. We tasted one, a Finca Sandoval from Manchuela in Spain which is made by a wine writer [and purple pager] Victor de la Serna. He’s deputy editor of El Mundo in Madrid. He’s a very prolific wine writer and just in his spare time has opened up this whole new region with a very, very good Bodega. So James and I are sitting there saying that, oh yes, Victor de la Serna, he works really hard. So if James and I say he works hard he must work very hard! I don’t know. I don’t think I am terrifically good at any one thing but perhaps I'm reasonably good at quite a lot of things.
Question: Jancis you mentioned opinion but what about the story…
Standing just behind me or sitting just behind me are two people that have a wonderful story, the Doyles from Bloodwood. And it is about the story and about the people and I think that is where we get the opportunity and it’s not about tasting notes and sure our opinion may or may not be valid but I think the story is very important.
You’re so right. Absolutely right. And that of course, is where writing comes in which is something I haven’t actually mentioned. But the quality of writing, the story, yes there are some great stories but they can be told awfully boringly, can’t they? You have to really work at telling them well and that's the pleasure.
I know for me, the single thing that gives me the greatest satisfaction is on those few days a year when I feel, yes, I’m really proud of, what I’ve written. I am very prolific so I write quite a lot but sometimes I go, "Yes! I think I wrote that pretty well." And that’s hugely, hugely satisfying, isn’t it? So I’m so glad you raised that very important point. Quite right.