Wine blogs

Dear Readers: A few days ago I posted an entry to BiggerThanYourHead that brought the number of posts since its beginning in December 2006 to 1,500. That’s an average of 187 posts each year or slightly more than 15 per month. Perhaps it’s time to step back and get a little perspective.

Last week, Jonathan Cristaldi posted to an amusing and educational essay titled “10 Dirty Secrets of Wine (That Nobody Wants to Talk About),” an exercise that received quite a bit of comment on Facebook and on other people’s blogs. In his prefactory remarks, Cristaldi mentions among “sinister forces at play” in the wine world the “in-fighting among critics and bloggers.” Does such “in-fighting” exist, with its implications of envy, rivalry and hurt feelings? If it does, I hadn’t noticed, but perhaps I am isolated in my Slough of Despond here in what’s called the Mid-South.

One of the “10 Dirty Secrets of Wine” in the piece is “Wine Critics are not necessarily more qualified than bloggers.” Not necessarily more qualified. The point I take from this statement is that typically wine critics are regarded as more qualified than bloggers, but surely these loaded terms require definition. I assume that a wine “critic” is a person employed by a newspaper or magazine or online entity who is paid for his or her efforts, hence a “professional.” A wine “blogger” on the other hand is anyone who establishes a blog or has a blog designed and set up and then writes whatever he or she desires about wine, hence an amateur. The Federal Trade Commission certainly adheres to this view. That regulatory body made effective on December 1, 2009, a ruling that bloggers must disclose the source of products they review and whether those products were samples. (Didn’t know that, youngsters?) That stipulation does not apply to writers who review for print media, the assumption being that newspapers and magazines undergo editorial control that somehow makes the process more trustworthy and legitimate.

The distinction between professional and amateur is irksome. The widely held belief is that one is professional if you get paid for what you’re doing, while amateurs perform out of interest, involvement or love (as the word implies) without regular financial compensation. A professional can also be a person who is certified by an overseeing board or entity, having passed certain tests and qualifying procedures; amateurs typically lack such credentials. Yet since reviewing wine or being a wine critic, whether for a print journal or online, tends toward matters of taste and subjectivity, just as reviewing books or music or theater does, notions of who is professional and who is amateur become more tenuous. The real criteria rest in knowledge and experience, sensitivity and imagination and the ability to transform physical and emotional sensations, as well as history and geography, into evocative language.

How does one achieve such a state? Through constant reading and tasting and writing, through seeking out opportunities to experience a wide range of wines through regions and vintages, through travel, if possible, and visits to the home turf where grapes are grown and wine is made. The “professionals” who write for print outlets may possess all sorts of qualifications, but they are not infallible nor do they always display particular artistry or articulateness in their expression; the same may be said of many bloggers. As far as consumers are concerned, they need to find writers or critics or bloggers whose voices they admire and can engage with, whose intellects they find amenable and whose palates they trust. I started writing about wine in a newspaper column in 1984, before many of the marketing and PR people who send me press releases and samples were born, and I continued that weekly, nationally-distributed column for 20 years (and was a full-time reporter and critic). Did that make me a professional? And when I left the newspaper and launched myself online, did I decline from being a professional to being an amateur?

Those issues are ancient history, however, and wine-blogging and critiquing are about the here and now, as each vintage succeeds the one before, and producers around the world watch the weather and the climate for the minute (or dramatic) changes that make each year and harvest different. The issue I really want to approach is my own motivation for adhering to an avocation that takes up a good deal of time and space and produces little material reward except — and this is a big “except” — for the wine samples I receive and the occasional sponsored trip that I go on. My Readers are thinking, “Those should be reasons enough,” and indeed I don’t discount them, but there are other aspects.

Most important is the wine itself — a uniquely complex and evocative beverage and a perpetual reminder of our connection to the earth and its seasons — and the ability to follow producers and wines from year to year. One of the most gratifying factors in this endeavor is the contact I have with new, small wineries that send me their products for review. Next is the responsibility to My Readers, bless their hearts, who depend on me for honest and fair assessments of wines and for supporting historical, geographical and technical information, which to me is an essential part of writing about wine. Then there are the friendships I have made and that I treasure in many moments of tasting wine and food and sharing knowledge and experience and stories of travel and adventure.

Lord knows how many mass tastings I have attended over 30 years, those trade events where journalists carry a glass in one hand and a notebook in the other and move from table to table, producer to producer and swirl-sniff-sip-spit their way through a hundred wines. Not the best way to taste wine, but sometimes such events are the only way to be exposed to a broad range of products. Then there are the weekend mornings when I stand in the kitchen and taste through a dozen cabernets or pinot noirs or rieslings. My favorite way to experience wine though is with dinner at home, when LL and I sit down with a wine that I have held back and open it and take a sniff and taste and look at each other and whisper, “Holy crap, that’s good.”

You see, friends, we’re all amateurs.

The Wine Bloggers’ Conference that I attended last month in Portland was my first. Will I attend next year’s conference in Penticton, British Columbia? My feelings are ambivalent, but today I want to put forth the argument that I should be the keynote speaker for WBC13, in which case, of course, I would certainly participate.

(And a brief aside to the WBC organizers: There cannot be two keynote speakers at an event, as there were, so to speak, this year. The keynote speech is the grand introduction to or the grand climax of a conference or convention. All speeches that occur before or after the keynote speech are simply speeches and ought to be billed in some other fashion.)

Why should I be the keynote speaker for WBC13?

First, because I’m an active blogger who tries righteously to post four or five times a week, though I don’t always attain that goal. In 2011, I posted 196 times, which equals one post every 1.8 days. Keynote speakers for previous Wine Blogger Conferences included Eric Asimov and Jancis Robinson, both estimable writers and judges of wine, and, I’ll admit, far more famous than I am, but hardly active bloggers. This year’s relevant keynote speech was given by Randall Grahm, controversial and outspoken owner and winemaker of Bonny Doon Vineyards. (The irrelevant “other” keynote speaker was Rex Pickett — you remember Sideways — whose event I skipped and later was congratulated for doing so by many of my wine blogging colleagues.) Grahm’s talk was entertaining, funny, informative, personal and, finally, just profound enough for the audience to take something important away with them. In other words, exactly what a keynote speech should be, and I applauded along with the rest of the room. (Here’s a link to the speech.)

The problem is that Grahm posts to his blog, Been Doon So Long, so infrequently that last year he entered only six posts; I know, he’s busy running a winery and making wine, but my point is that as keynote speaker for WBC13, I would share with my audience the similar blogging experiences of finding time to deal with the wine samples, finding time to taste the wine, finding time to write and post, finding time to walk the dogs and exercise and run errands and make a living outside of blogging and haul all those bottles out to the street for the garbage truck and not feel guilty for not posting often enough.

Second, I bring to wine blogging a history that’s almost unique in our little kingdom. What I mean is that I started writing about wine in 1984, before some wine bloggers or other participants in WBC12 — as several sweetly reminded me — were born, as in “Wow, you started writing about wine before I was born!” I wrote a weekly print column for 20 years, one that was distributed to newspapers around by country by the Scripps-Howard newswire. When the column ended (not my choice), I launched in December 2004 a magazine-format website,; my blog,, came in December 2006, and for a while I ran both the website and the blog, but that was a hell of a lot of work, so I dissolved the website in April 2008.

Based on my 28 years experience as a journalist, wine writer, freelance writer and blogger, what would I tell my audience at WBC13?

<>I would say, Revel in the spontaneous and improvisatory nature of blogging, but at the same time remember that professionalism counts. Good spelling, grammar, punctuation, word order, sentence structure mark the difference between the serious writer — or the writer who can be taken seriously — and the hit-and-miss amateur.

<>I would say, Don’t merely be a wine-blogger, but be a person who writes about wine on a blog. Not many degrees may separate those concepts, but they are significant indicators of intention and accomplishment.

<>I would say, O.K., however spontaneous or improvisatory you want to be, because after all this is the Internet and that, you may say, is the whole point, and all questions of grammar, spelling and so on aside, be accurate — in terms of history, geography, tradition, names, brands, grapes, personalities — get it right. Write, for example, that Chablis is made from sauvignon blanc grapes or that Santa Ynez is near Santa Cruz, and it will be difficult for you to be taken seriously as a wine writer, either by readers or wineries.

<>I would say, Be skeptical. Once your blog achieves some healthy measure of readership or reputation, you’ll be inundated by information and narratives designed to persuade you to like a product, to mention a product, to trade a link for your (free) content. Ignore them all except the ones that politely say something like, “We’d like you to try our wine. If you have any feedback, we’d appreciate it.” Remember that even the text on the back label of a bottle of wine is a form of marketing, so why would you quote such a thing in your review? Sure, it’s exciting to get the attention of wineries, importers and PR and marketing agencies, and while it’s necessary (and sometimes a pleasure) to work with them, remember that they’re all trying to sell you something.

<>I would say, Be critical, by which I don’t mean negative but discriminating, thoughtful, disinterested, judicial — all of these qualities based on knowledge, experience and extensive tasting — but when it’s necessary to be negative in tone and judgment, be that too. “Life Is Too Short to Drink Bad Wine” goes the placard we see in many retail stores, but my motto is “Life Is Too Short for My Readers to Drink Bad Wine,” so when I get a bad one, I tell them about it. It’s fine to be enthusiastic, but temper your enthusiasm with taste and tact.

<>Finally, I would conclude my keynote address for WBC13 with a recitation of Fredric’s Three Rules for Blogging and Life, and I would ask the assembled bloggers, writers, journalists and others in the trade to repeat after me, like a gospel call and response:

1. Be honest!
Be honest!!
2. Be fair!
Be fair!!
(General hilarity, applause, cheers and acclaim.)

Friends, family, relatives, bloggers and drinkers and wine producers far and near, retailers and wholesalers, former classmates and students, judges who saw fit to have mercy, the UPS man who unexpectedly asked for my card last week as he handed over a box of product — My Peeps! This blog has been nominated for a 2012 Wine Blog Award in the category of Best Writing, and I am honestly thrilled to be included in a highly competitive roster. Also, honestly again, I’m asking for your vote. Here’s a link to the ballot page: Voting continues through July 26, and it’s easy and fun! If you have time, go through the other categories and check out the efforts by the other bloggers; none of the blogs is like any other, and they provide, in their individual ways, a wide view of what’s going on in tasting and thinking about wine today. Of course voting for BiggerThanYourHead is most important!.

A thousand thanks, bless your bones and may your tribes increase…

Yep, this very day, on Dec. 3, 2006, I launched BiggerThanYourHead, and now it’s 950 posts and 2,161,609 visits later (according to Blue Host, the counting service I subscribe to), about the population of Houston or Managua. Much has changed in the world of blogging about wine in five years, mainly that there are about a hundred times more people doing this than there were then. I mean in the United States of America; worldwide, who knows? It boggles the mind. The majority of these bloggers perform their services and make their observations casually, off-the-cuff, for fun, as is true with any kind of blogging, but there’s a core that takes writing about wine and the industry, making reviews and commentary, quite seriously, a factor that leads to another change, and that is that wine-bloggers seem to be taken more seriously by the wine and marketing industries than they were five years ago. Do we make a difference? I don’t know. I do know that I’ll keep doing this until I can’t or until it seems superfluous. Thanks to all you readers for your support and your responses, for your votes in the annual American Wine Blog Awards (which gave me the award for Best Wine Reviews in 2009 and 2010) and for your enthusiasm. I’ll keep writing; you keep drinking. In moderation, of course.

Splendid fifth anniversary image from

So, I’m sitting here working away — slog, slog, slog — and suddenly I realize that the month is December and that I missed by three days the Fourth Anniversary of the launching of Sacre bleu! The actual date was December 3 (which was Friday), 2006, and I skated right over that because it was a busy day. Anyway, here we are, four years and 754 posts down the road, and the wine keeps pouring in, figuratively and literally, so I’ll certainly keep the enterprise aloft for another year. If you don’t mind.

Dear Readers … I learned yesterday that this blog — affectionately pronounced “Btyh” by its many fans — won the “Best Wine Reviews” category in the 2010 Wine Blog Awards now operated by Open Wine Consortium. The awards were announced Friday afternoon at the annual Wine Bloggers Conference, held this year in Walla Walla — motto: “The Town So Nice, They Named It Twice” — and I’m sorry that I wasn’t able to attend. Thanks for your public votes, thanks for the sagacious decision by the judging committee (which looked at many excellent blogs in the competition), and above all, a thousand thanks and bless yer bones for reading Bigger Than Your Head and endorsing what I have tried to do since launching the blog in December 2006: To provide information, education, commentary and level-headed criticism about the history and geography of wine, the wine industry and individual bottles great and small. This is the second year in a row that Bigger Than Your Head has won this award, a fact that not only gladdens my heart but spurs me to taste more wine, write about more wine and just have a fine old time doing so. I hope you do too.

Readers, this blog has been nominated again for a Wine Blog Award in the category of Best Wine Reviews. How about that! We won in this category last year, but this is a different year, with a few different competitors. Let’s maintain the momentum! If BiggerThanYourHead is helpful, informative, education and fun, and especially if you like the way that I write reviews of wines, please vote for us. Deadline for voting is Sunday, May 30, so the rush is on. Thanks for the support, the kind thoughts, the entertaining comments and especially — Your Vote! I wouldn’t mind if you forwarded this message through your various email and other social media networks, too.

The link to the voting page is here.

Q. You are on record as despising Twitter, Facebook and other social-networking devices, yet you recently signed up for Twitter. Que pasa?

A. I signed on to Twitter because everyone said that I should use it as a marketing tool to bring traffic to this blog. More traffic may lead to more advertising. No, wait, make that some advertising, any advertising, at least something more than Google ads, which I assume that everyone regards as annoying to the point of invisibility. Those Google ads net me all of $100 annually. Whoa, bring up that Wells-Fargo armored truck now!

Q. And has Twitter brought you more traffic?

A. Not noticeably. Of course I only have 34 followers, so I guess it will take time, you know, slowly building the Irresistible Momentum of a Force of Nature.

Q. We notice that you aren’t following anyone on Twitter. Pour quoi?

A. I tried that for a few weeks, but found the suffocating inanity intolerable. It’s amazing what intelligent, college-educated people will reveal about themselves or the trivialities they so breathlessly report. It’s like reading a Freudian treatise on the madness of crowds via telegraph.

Q. On another subject, do you accept wine samples for review?

A. Let me say this about that. The whole reviewing apparatus — wine, books, music CDs (what’s left of them), household products — depends on review samples. Rare is the publication or writer who possesses the fiduciary prowess to afford paying for the items he or she reviews. Probably 80 percent of he wines I review come as samples from wineries, producers, importers and wholesalers; some of these are sent with prior notice, some I solicit, to fit into a particular theme or post, but most just arrive at the door. Another 10 percent I encounter at trade tastings or similar events, and the remaining five percent I buy.

Q. That being the case, would you state your policy about accepting samples and reviewing the wines for this blog?

A. Of course I will. Let’s practice full disclosure. As I said in the previous entry, yes, I accept wine samples for review, but I accept them on no assumption on the part of whoever sent the sample that I will give a positive review or even any review at all. While it gives me great joy to recommend wines to my readers and share my enthusiasm with them, I am obligated, both by conscience and professional considerations, to dole out negative notices when necessary. I also reserve the right to make fun of, parody or downright deride — without being a total asshole — press releases that are badly written, deficient, vain, pompous and utterly fantastical. You would be amazed how many press releases embody all of those fatal flaws.

Q. On another subject entirely, is it true that when you were a child in Rochester N.Y., you and your older brother were a Cossack-dancing team and you performed on local television?

A. Yes.

Cool question mark image from Cossack-dancing kid from Koeppel Family Archives.

There are two problems with the new guidelines issued this week by the Federal Trade Commission that stipulate that bloggers and other new media writers disclose the sources of the products they review, i.e. if they were free samples. And no, that particular rule isn’t one of the problems. Many wine bloggers already post disclaimers so that readers know that wines being reviewed were sent from wineries or importers or their representatives in hopes of a mention of some kind, preferably positive. And many wine bloggers make it clear that wineries from which they receive samples should have no expectation as to whether a review will be positive or negative or even if the wine will be reviewed at all; that’s exactly as it should be.

No, the first problem, as Tom Wark pointed out eloquently on his blog Fermentation yesterday, is that the FTC’s new disclosure rules do not apply to “traditional” print media because they, presumably, exercise more editorial control over their material and coverage than the rank amateurs of the blogosphere. So publications like Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast and Wine & Spirits, which receive untold thousands of bottles of wine free every year, do not need to disclose that fact to their readers, while a first-time wine blogger, who might feel grateful for a few review samples, must do so. This is a situation for which the phrase “The Double Standard Stinks” was invented.

The second problem is that the drafters of the new FTC guidelines don’t seem to know a hawk from a handsaw when it comes to the difference between a review and an endorsement. The report expresses the principle this way:

“For example, a blogger could receive merchandise from a marketer with a request to review it, but with no compensation paid other than the value of the product itself. In this situation, whether or not any positive statement the blogger posts would be deemed an ‘endorsement’ within the meaning of the Guides would depend on, among other things, the value of that product, and on whether the blogger routinely receives such requests. If that blogger frequently receives products from manufacturers because he or she is known to have wide readership within a particular demographic group that is the manufacturers’ target market, the blogger’s statements are likely to be deemed to be ‘endorsements,’ as are postings by participants in network marketing programs.”

Obviously the FTC equates positive reviews with “endorsements,” as if bloggers were celebrity basketball players on billboards being paid hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars to put the force of their internationally known, outsize personalities at the service of athletic shoes and energy drinks. (If only, right?)

A review or critique of anything — book, musical recording, an art exhibition or theatrical performance, a product such as an automobile or a dishwasher, or a bottle of wine — is (or should be) an assessment and evaluation based on knowledge, experience and judgment. For the reader, the benefit lies in the information and analysis upon which to base a decision, to go see that play, to read that book, to purchase that bottle of wine. This result is not the same as an endorsement, in which a celebrity is paid to mouth words conceived by a copy-writer from a marketing or public relations firm. A review is not an advertisement or press release for the object or performance or entity in question.

Yet, annoyingly, the new FTC guidelines refer, again and again, to reviews on blogs as endorsements and to companies that supply products to bloggers for review as advertisers. The case seems devastatingly clear: If I were sent a review copy of a book by a publisher and wrote a review that was published in a print journal or newspaper, the FTC would regard it as a review; if I wrote that review, however, and placed it on my blog, it would be regarded by the FTC as an endorsement for the book, going on the supposition that my blog lacks traditional “editorial responsibility.” And notice, in the quotation from the guidelines above, that the bigger the audience for the blog, the more likely that a review will be considered an endorsement. This is the sort of obtuse reasoning from which Circles of Hell are fashioned.

It’s possible that these guidelines — only a small portion of the 81-page document that focuses primarily on television and magazine advertising — were deemed necessary by the FTC because of the bloggers who review a variety of mainly household products only in a positive manner. Well-known examples of these are the “mommy bloggers” Katja Presnal at and Christine Young of As Tim Arango wrote yesterday in The New York Times about Christine Young, “If she doesn’t like a product, she simply won’t write about it.”

Now I’m not telling my Fellow Wine-Bloggers to pick out a bottle of wine and kick it in the teeth just for fun, but I will say that giving only positive reviews does not build credibility or a reputation for objectivity. In fact, writing only positive reviews creates the impression that all you’re doing is, yes, endorsing products without engaging a balancing critical sensibility. And providing negative or even not wholly positive reviews is a boon for your readers; doesn’t it make as much sense to warn them away from mediocrity as to extol what is superior?

The FTC guidelines for bloggers take effect on Dec. 1, though the enterprise is fraught with ambiguity. If I write a post in which I review 12 wines, must I include a disclaimer for each wine or a blanket disclaimer for the post? Or is it all right to include a permanent disclaimer for the blog that covers all posts and all wines? The FTC hasn’t made that clear. What is clear is that in the next few months the sort of confusion and consternation that leads to lawsuits will reign.

I mean thanks to you readers and thanks to the judging panel of the American Wine Blog Awards for selecting bestwinereviewsawba-web.jpg BiggerThanYourHead as the winner in the “Best Wine Reviews” category.

The satisfaction of winning is immense, of course, but I feel the sense of honor more keenly knowing that I was competing with some of the best blogs and best writers in the wine blogging realm. What we share is a love of wine, an obsession for educating and an irresistible attraction to the power of language.

This award means that readers find what I do and how I think about and write about wine valuable, thereby entailing the responsibility for me to continue performing up to the standard I have set and that you, my readers, expect. I will, I promise, keep at it, daily, weekly, and so on. I mean, I have a back-list of wines to write about now that I need to jump into, for all our sakes!

Tremendous thanks must be offered to Tom Wark at Fermentation: The Daily Wine Blog, who conceived of the American Wine Blog Awards three years ago, created the necessity for them, nurtured the concept and shepherded it to completion. Next year, he turns administration of the AWBA over to OpenWine Consortium, which was one of this year’s sponsors. The others were Riedel Crystal and Mutineer Magazine. The gratitude of all the nominees, finalists and winners goes to these organizations.

So, back to work.

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