Wine blogs


About once a week I get an email with a link to a new “wine social network” designed to be an outlet where people can chat about wine and their wine experiences and share opinions.

Well, it’s not that I’m misanthropic, antisocial or stand-offish (here LL would chime in with “Well, you’re a little stand-offish”), but I don’t have time for it. Sure, I joined Open Wine Consortium “The Misanthrope” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder when it was launched. How many times have I been on the site? Um, maybe once. Twitter wine tastings? The monthly wine book review? All worthy endeavors, I’m sure, but I don’t have time for them.

I mean, how do people carve the temporal and psychic space to chat about wine and exchange opinions, all quite helpful, I warrant, when I can barely find time to taste wine and make notes and keep up with this blog? I mean, I’m trying to do 15 to 18 posts a month, and my job as a full-time journalist at my newspaper and keep up with our five dogs and two cats and the puppies we foster for rescue groups and practice the piano, because I’m taking lessons again for the first time since I was in college (and this is a whole other story) and all the various other jobs, chores, duties and pleasures of what we call life. Yard work. Reading and sleeping. Keeping up with some favorite blogs. Which, I’m sure, everybody else does too. I wouldn’t deny it.

But I sit at a computer at work five days a week and then I sit at a computer at home doing research and writing this blog, and I’ll tell you the truth, if the choice is between eating a dinner that LL or I cooked (or we cooked together) and drinking a really good (or great) bottle of wine or maybe trying a couple of wines, and the candles are lit and music is filtering through the air and the dogs lie about us on the floor in various attitudes of slumber, I say, if the choice is between that or sitting at the keyboard in the lurid light of the computer screen social networkiing about a bottle of wine with someone I don’t know — well, do I even have to say what my choice would be?

So, I’m not trying to be a jerk or a snob. Go ahead and social network about wine all you want. If that’s a valuable use of time for you, have at it.

But count me out. I have too much work to do.

I happened to be home this morning when the UPS man came to the door, setting off a blood-curdling explosion of barking and howling and growling from the dogs. “You know,” he said, “you’d think they would be used to me by now.” Said I: “Don’t feel bad. They don’t like anybody.”

The box clearly held one bottle of wine. When I opened the box and saw the single initial “R” on top of the dove-gray capsule, I thought, “Ah ha, my Rockaway.” Indeed, that was the wine. rockawayedited.jpg

If you go anywhere near blogs that concern themselves with wine and the wine industry, you cannot have escaped, at the end of August, reading about the controversy surrounding the Rockaway Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, Alexander Valley, Sonoma County. This limited-edition, single-vineyard cabernet is a separate project under the aegis of Rodney Strong Vineyards, owned by Tom Klein. It’s not actually the wine that’s controversial — everyone who writes about it loves it — it’s the manner in which it was introduced.

This will be a brief recap, since I and many other bloggers wrote about these issues extensively two or three weeks ago. The gist is that a well-known wine blogger conceived the notion that it would be a good test of the influence of the concept of blogging about wine if a number of bloggers all wrote about the same wine within the same time period. Arrangements were made with Rodney Strong Vineyards to supply bottles of the as-yet unreleased debut vintage of Rockaway to the bloggers, with the stipulation that if the bloggers accepted the sample they would post something about the wine — not necessarily a review — to their blogs within a certain number of days. The project would give these bloggers a chance to write about or review an important wine before samples even went to the mainstream wine media. Who could resist?

The problem is that most of the bloggers, though all thoughtful and well-intentioned people, neglected to mention in their posts about the stipulation to publish within a set time-period. This part of the deal seemed unsavory, unduly influential to other bloggers, Wines & Vines ran a story which was picked up by the blog Vinography, and then Tom Wark at Fermentation issued a stunning denunciation of the bloggers who had participated in the experiment, accusing them of lacking ethical judgment.

Perhaps an element of rushing to condemn before the facts were all in place entered this controversy, as well as surprising naivete on the part of the bloggers who participated in the project. Anyway, there was a huge stink in the world of wine blogging, angry and sarcastic words were issued, flinging-down-the-gantlet positions were taken, feelings were hurt and relationships, perhaps a few, may have been damaged irreparably. Yes, I had my say, too, a bit shrill at first and later, I hope, mre temperate.

But, hey, here I am with my bottle of Rockaway 2005. Do I mind that I didn’t get my Rockaway in that first, brave new wave of bloggers’ samples? Do I mind that the Wine Spectator received its bottle before I did? Nah, we all move to different rhymes, rhythms and reasons.

Rockaway ’05 makes an impressive package. Obviously part of the $75-price-tag goes to cover concept and design elements and the heavy bottle with high, sloping shoulders and deep punt, the sort of bottle to which all high-end cabernets aspire. No paper labels here; all text is embossed on the glass, and etched into the circumference, about two-thirds the way up, is a representation of the lines of hillsides and strata that define the vineyard.

Unmentioned by most of the bloggers that first reviewed Rockaway ’05 is the fact that the alcohol content is a soaring 15.4 percent. Such a number is mere child’s-play for a zinfandel, but it’s unusually high for a cabernet. The test is in the balance.

Meanwhile, life goes on, the big fish eat the little fish, the days dwindle down to a precious few and I’m going to wait a week or two before opening my bottle of Rockaway 2005. It’s always a good idea to give a wine a chance to settle down and sort itself out after a long journey by airplane and truck. We’ll probably drink it with a grilled rib-eye steak; it sounds as if it’s that kind of wine. I’ll let you know how it goes.

I borrowed the Rockaway image from Dr. Debs; I hope she doesn’t mind.

Things are getting nasty over at Tom Wark’s blog Fermentation. Frankly, this week, the shit hit the fan.

Wark closely follows the wine industry, marketing, politics and wine blogs on his entity, and he posts frequently on these matters. He has worked in wine marketing for years and knows the business thoroughly.

On August 27, in a post titled “On Press Sampling — Giving and Taking and Ethics,” Wark sharply denounced a program in which a small group of wine bloggers was given bottles of a new wine from Rodney Strong Vineyards, the limited edition Rockaway Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, suggested price, $75. The stipulation given to these bloggers was that if they took the sample they had to write about the wine, whether in a review or in a story, within a time-frame of four days. The samples came to the bloggers before they went to mainstream wine publications like the Wine Spectator and the Wine Enthusiast, meaning that the notices or reviews from the bloggers would be published before the Big Guns even got the wine.

The idea did not originate at Rockaway or Rodney Strong Vineyards or with Rodney Strong’s public relations director Robert Larsen. Instead, the experiment was organized by Jeff Lefevere at Good Grape as an exercise in blogger power, to see, that is, if the simultaneous, or closely simultaneous, publication of these reviews or notices would have any sort of effect. Obviously the winery cooperated by supplying the wine.

Wark’s denunciation of one part of this experiment, that is the aspect that the bloggers were required to produce copy at a certain time, can be summed up in this sentence from his post, and I suspect this is what hurt people’s feelings:

I’m not sure bloggers shouldn’t be ashamed of themselves for agreeing to these terms — assuming they want to be seen as part of the long tradition of independent journalism and professional criticism that strives to maintain a measured and necessary distance from their subject that allows them to entertain and inform their readers through the appearance (and reality) of not being unduly influenced by their subject.

The result was (at this time: 2:32 p.m., C.T., on Saturday) 110 increasingly vituperative responses and 45 fairly snarky responses to a follow-up post, “On the Wane,” that Tom put the blog on Aug. 28. (I am generally in agreement with Tom, and I admit to having been fairly snarky myself over there.)

There seems to be a crisis of confidence in the world of wine bloggerdom, and the crisis revolves around these issues:

1. Is it all right to accept samples of wines from producers and imports?

2. As wine blogging becomes better-known and (perhaps) more influential, is there a danger that wine blogs will lose their independence and personality?

3. What sort of ethics should be applied to wine blogging?

My perspective on these issues derives from having written a weekly print wine column for 20 years (for 15 of those years as a nationally distributed column) and as 22 years as a full-time journalist at a daily newspaper. I have been writing for the Internet since December 2004, first on my old website and now on this blog.

Samples

Nobody picks up The New York Times Book Review on Sunday and says, “Oh no, these are reviews of books that the Times got for free from the publishers, how can I trust them?.” No one picks up Fanfare or Downbeat and says, “Oh no, these are reviews of CDs that the magazines got free from the recording companies, how can I trust them?” And yet there’s all this anxiety among wine bloggers that they will be tainted if they accept samples of wine.

Calm down, friends. A sample bottle of wine is not a bribe.

Sending wine samples is written into the cost of doing business for wineries and importers. In the 24 years that I have been writing about wine, no representative from a winery or importer, no marketing or PR person, has tried to establish a quid pro quo understanding about how I would review a wine or even if I would review it or not, though of course they would like some sort of notice in timely fashion. And even after negative reviews of some wines, most producers have continued to send samples, because that’s part of the procedure.

An excellent example of this aspect, as a matter of fact, is the winery in question; over the years, I have been hard on Rick Sayer, the longtime winemaker at Rodney Strong, because I think he has too free a hand with oak. When I can recommend a wine from Rodney Strong, I do; when I can’t, I say so. I continue to receive samples from the winery, and I hope it’s because they trust me to be objective and straightforward. (Rather than that they just forgot that I was on the mailing list.)

The understanding has to be perfectly clear: Writers receive samples from wineries. They will write about those wines if and when they can, and they will write about those wines with a sense of complete freedom and independence. If that concept makes you nervous, don’t review wine. And if bloggers feel that they can only write about wines that they purchase, that they have to take this stance to reinforce their integrity, that’s fine, but I would say that it’s a stance that’s impractical for most of us.

Keeping Blogs Independent, or “How Can We Get Respect But Not Turn into the Wine Spectator”?

So, what kind of respect do wine bloggers want, anyway?

One aspect of the Rodney Strong experiment — or “RodneyStrongGate” as Terry Hughes at mondosapore dubbed the brouhaha — that surfaced repeatedly was that it served as a signal to the mainstream publications that wine blogging had to be taken seriously. Remember, however, that the experiment was organized by a blogger and carried out by other bloggers; there’s little evidence that it advanced the recognition of wine blogging other than the fact that Rodney Strong agreed to participate. The whole affair hardly seems to live up to the “innovation” it was touted to be.

The real question is, from whom do wine bloggers want recognition? Do we really care if the mainstream publications like Wine Spectator, Wine & Spirits and Wine Enthusiast acknowledge our existence or feel a sense of competition? I would say not. While a few wine blogs carry real advertising, most of us (envious, to be sure) have to be content with Google Adsense; not much recognition (or livelihood) that way. Would stories about wine blogging in food magazines and the popular press satisfy our need for recognition?

Give it up. The recognition comes from the readers of our blogs, the consumers who are looking for alternatives to the mainstream journals, which are increasingly “lifestyle” oriented, the readers who enjoy a little quirkiness, a little personality, a little attitude. It worries me to read that wine bloggers seek “legitimacy,” another word that came up in the posts surrounding this mess. Do a good job and satisfy the needs of your audience; there’s your legitimacy.

Wine Blogging Ethics, or Just, You Know, Ethics?

One response to Tom Wark’s posts on Fermentation suggested that a code of ethics for wine bloggers needs to be formulated.

Sorry, that notion suggests committees and subcommittees, months of endless emailing, divisions into factions, official positions.

Let me save everyone the trouble:

*Be Honest.
*Be Fair.
*Don’t Be an Asshole.

In other words, yes, of course wine bloggers need to have a sense of ethics, for crying out loud, but it doesn’t have to be some special agenda. It’s a matter of common sense. Transparency, for example, begins at the beginning of a process, not at the end. Independence from the sources of your wine is always necessary; if you feel compelled to disclose to your readers that wines you review are samples, by all means do so. I mean, I just assume that’s the case anyway. Even if you go to a trade tasting and work through 100 wines in four hours (or whatever), the wine still came free from somewhere. That’s the nature of the business, and it’s your job to stay objective and enlightened.

To the person who says, “But it’s my blog, and I’ll be dishonest, unfair and an asshole if I want to be,” I say, Go for it, but I won’t be one of your readers and I bet that people who care about wine won’t be either.

One More Thing

What bothered me about l’affair Rodney Strong was the tone adopted by some of the bloggers who reviewed Rockaway 2005. What they wrote sounded like press releases for a winery’s new product; there was a notable lack of the distance and detachment necessary to true balance and objectivity.

Here are some lines from some of the reviews:

“These small areas of the vineyard are where the viticultural and winemaking teams have found the best fruit that expresses the terroir there.”

“To maximize the expression of the Rockaway vineyard …”

“Please join me in congratulating Rockaway on the pending release of their new wine …”

“To craft these wines, grapes from only the best (meaning most tasty) vines/rows are selected …”

“In a final feat of expressing the best of the land …”

“Rockaway is completely made from free-run juice from the best rows and vines in the vineyard. Their goal is for it to be the ultimate expression of terroir …”

These (somewhat similar) lines convey all the enthusiasm of writers who got so carried away with a project that they forgot to be objective and detached. If I had written like this when I was doing a print column, my editor would have throw the copy back at me and said, “Stop with the press release bullshit and write something real.”

So, here’s my final point:

You bloggers want recognition? You want legitimacy? You want to be taken seriously?

Then love wine in general, but be very skeptical about wines individually.

Delight in the process of wine-making, but be very skeptical about wineries.

Admire the people who make the wine, but always watch your back.

Let’s give a shout-out for Eric Asimov, whose column in yesterday’s New York Times (and the post on his blog “The Pour”) are among the most important commentaries he has done.

The point is that on a recent trip to the Napa Valley, Asimov discovered or became reacquainted with a number of wineries that still make cabernet sauvignon wines in the “old-fashioned” style of balance and restraint, subtlety and nuance. These qualities napa_valley.jpg stand in contrast to the current fashion of super-ripe, jammy wines with lots of toasty new oak and high alcohol levels, qualities beloved by the reviewers at the Wine Spectator. Asimov’s recommendations of Napa Valley wineries that produce cabernets of balance and restraint are:

Chateau Montelena, Clark-Claudon Vineyards. Clos du Val, Continuum, Corison Winery, Dominus Estate, Dyer, Forman Vineyard, Frog’s Leap, Grgich Hills, HdV Vineyards, Heitz Cellars, J. Davies, Joseph Carr, Kongsgaard, Mayacamas Vineyards, M by Michael Mondavi, Rubicon Estate, Seps Estate, Smith-Madrone, Spottswoode Estate, Tom Eddy Wines, Trefethen Family Vineyard, Truchard Vineyards, White Rock Vineyards.

Some of my favorite cabernet-based wines are on this roster — Clos du Val, Corison, Dominus, Frog’s Leap, Mayacamas,
Rubicon, Smith-Madrone, Trefethen and Truchard. The Wine Spectator often dismisses the cabernets of some of these producers with the epithets “harmonious” and “elegant,” rendering each adjective into a condescending synonym for “damning with faint praise.” When did harmony and elegance become such pejorative terms? Why did the reviewers for the Spectator start favoring big, jammy toasty fruit-bomb cabernets over the classically proportioned models? Especially since those reviewers learned to love California cabernet with the great old classic examples? Perhaps it’s simply about having the power to shape an industry or a “lifestyle” in its readers.

Anyway, I would add Mount Veeder and Oakville Ranch Estate to Asimov’s line-up. And I have a bottle of Tom Eddy’s 2002 in my rack; I’d better unlimber that little number. On the other hand, I have to say that to this palate, the red wines of Grgich Hills have displayed, for the last several vintages, unusually powerful and obtrusive earthy elements. I’m worried about what’s going on inside this venerable winery. The Grgich Hills whites, however, keep a firm grip on greatness.

The response to Asimov’s celebration of lean, supple, balanced cabernets has been interesting and polarizing. The first post after the column went up on the Times’ website came from Tom Lino:

I love young California Cabernet. I don’t usually drink them with food. I enjoy the full bodied flavors and embrace this as America’s style of wine making and consuming.

An example of the opposing view came from James Ricci:

I used to be mad for California cabs, now I’m astonished at how rarely I buy or order them. I miss them at the dinner table. Nowadays most of them might as well be port — or filler for fountain pens.

I agree with Ricci (not a surprise), but Lino has a point; why should cabernet wines made in the Napa Valley, derived from different soil and climate and sensibility, have to conform to the model of Bordeaux? They don’t, of course. They should, however, be made with a few iota of common sense and with an eye to the proper cousinage with their origins. It’s not the fruit that bothers me so much in fruity Napa Valley cabernets; it’s the over-ripe jamminess. I am more bothered by the high alcohol levels, which contribute to the wines “hotness” and cloying qualities and to the use of highly toasted French oak. Both of these elements mask the character of the grapes from which the wine was made, turning the product into just another big expensive red wine rather than something distinctive.

Let’s go back to the source, Michael Broadbent’s Pocket Guide to Wine Tasting. As always, I am quoting from the little edition of 1982 published in the United States by Simon & Schuster. I recently bought at a yard sale, for fifty cents, an older edition, the one of 1973, when the pamphlet was still a “Christie’s Wine Publication.”

Anyway, it’s salutary to read what Broadbent, a great taster brought up on the wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy, has to say about the cabernet sauvignon grape:

Without hesitation, I put cabernet-sauvignon at the head of the great red wine grapes of the world, not because I am dogmatic enough to place the finest claret, which it produces, above the finest burgundy, but because it maintains a recognizable style and character even when transplanted out of its classic home region, Bordeaux. For example, a well made ‘cabernet’ from Australia, California or Chile will have a basic family resemblance despite overtones produced by differences of soil and climate.

The cabernet-sauvignon gives red Bordeaux (claret) its quality; its depth and richness of colour, aroma and wealth of bouquet; the firm, hard, keeping qualities and length of flavour. The three keys to its recognition are its deep colour, its characteristic aroma of fresh black currants or cedar, and its particular concentrated fruity flavor combined with tannin and acidity.

Broadbent clearly appreciates the grape’s ability to remain true to itself in different environments (expressed as “overtones”), but some qualities must remain constant. Look again at the last phrase: “its particular concentrated fruity flavor combined with tannin and acidity.” There you have it, the three elements that are essential to any wine worthy of our high regard: fruit, tannin and acidity: the flavor, the structure, the aliveness.

Napa Valley vineyard image from z.about.com.

O.K., readers, today is the last chance to vote on the 2008 American Wine Blog Awards. BiggerThanYourHead is a finalist in 2008awards-finalist3.jpg the “Best Wine Review Blog” category, and if you like what I do, if you find what I write helpful, informative and (I hope) sometimes amusing, please follow this link and cast a vote for BTYH. Take a few minutes to follow links to the blogs in other categories; the range of ambition, knowledge and individuality — as well as some boffo graphics — is awesome. Thanks for reading and thanks for your vote.

Friends, BiggerThanYourHead has been nominated for an American Wine Blog Award for 2008 in the “Best Wine Review Blog” 2008awards-finalist.jpg category. The competition is stiff; the other finalists are BrooklynGuy’s Wine & Food Blog; Good Wine Under $20 and 750ML, all excellent blogs that reflect highly individual views about wine, wine buying and consumption and the wine industry in general.

But I’m hoping, naturally, that you enjoy and find valuable what I do on this blog and that you’ll vote for BTYH. Go to Tom Wark’s Fermentation to vote in this and the other categories.

The purpose of the American Wine Blog Awards is to bring attention to the activities of a host of dedicated people who love wine and love writing about wine and love educating the wine-buying public, and who occasionally need the opportunity to vent their frustrations; it happens.

Thanks for your vote and for reading BTYH.

… and their way with words, get a load of this comment from wine.elitistreview.com, the site whose motto is “If it is possible to live it is possible to live well.” Isn’t that what’s printed on Lindsay Lohan’s t-shirt in her latest mug-shot? Anyway, in writing, back in March — I stumbled upon this a few days ago, which happens so often on the Internet and makes surfing so much fun — about the Tim Adams Pinot Grigio 2006, from Australia’s Clare Valley, our elitist says: “Much better than that Italian pinot grigio filth.” Wow, I mean I know that I’ve had some pretty damned bland, innocuous, generic Italian pinot grigios, but that’s rather harsh, isn’t it? Swill, yes, but filth?

So while it may be presumptuous for me to recommend wine to someone of such strong opinions — I wouldn’t be surprised if our elitist flew to America and kicked my American butt — I’m going to name some pinot grigio wines that I think are of superior quality. They’re certainly better than, you know, “filth.”

From northeastern Italy, I recommend the pinot grigios from Alois Lageder from the Benefizium Porer vineyard (Alto Adige, about $20) and La Tunella (Colli Orientali del Friuli, about $17). Turning to California — quelle horreur! — I have recently enjoyed Morgan’s R & D Franscioni Pinot Gris 2006 (Santa Lucia Highlands, about $18) and the Terlato Family Vineyard Pinot Grigio 2006 (Russian River Valley, about $17). I would also look to Oregon for the Elk Cove Pinot Gris 2006 (Willamette Valley, about $15).
These are clean, fresh, lively and quite engaging pinot grigio-style wines (I mean not in the denser, spicer style of Alsace), packed with far more presence and character than our elitist might suspect.

Unusually for an Englishman, by the way, (or a British guy, is that what we’re supposed to say?), our elitist despises what the English (or the British) have called “claret” since time immemorial, “claret” being red Bordeaux wine. We mustn’t forget that a great deal of western France, including Gascony and Bordeaux, became English territory when Eleanor of Aquitaine married Henry claret2_01.jpg Plantagenet in 1152 and remained part of England until the end of the Hundred Years’ War in 1453. Trade restrictions with Bordeaux were eased during those 301 years, leading to the English taste for what came to be called claret — pronounced “CLAR-ette” — though the red wines of Bordeaux were much lighter all those centuries ago. (And that’s your history lesson for today.) The English became great connoisseurs of the wines of Bordeaux, producing great cellars, a number of well-known commentators on the wines, from George Saintsbury to Michael Broadbent, and a healthy auction market.

Anyway, our elitist begs to differ. After opening a bottle of Domaine de Chevaliers 1995, a red wine from Pessac Leognan, formerly a part of Graves, he writes, on Monday, August 6: “I own only one bottle of Claret, I hate the stuff. Red Bordeaux is simply dull unless it is fabulously expensive, and most of them are still crap. After this I am not going to buy another bottle of red Bordeaux.”

Well, O.K.

If I’m ever invited to the elitist’s house for dinner, I’ll have to remember to take Burgundy. And a bottle of pinot grigio.

“The young man is used to claret” is from gutenberg.org.

First, readers, I can’t help noticing that about 25 percent of you that travel to my website http://www.koeppelonwine.com from the links provided on this blog stop at the index and go no further. Perhaps you are put off by the word “member” that occurs several times on the home-page. It’s true that KoeppelonWine has a membership component; it’s right there in the “Members’ Wine of the Week,” which is available only to subscribers. Other advantages of membership — $48 a year, a mere 95 cents a week — are the ability to search the archives for past reviews and stories and automatic email notification every time I post a page. But all the other pages, The Featured Article, the Case of New Releases, Refrigerator Door Wines and Eating & Drinking, are there for anyone to look at absolutely free. So, next time you follow a link to KoeppelonWine, don’t glance and run; take your time and read. Better yet, subscribe.
Second, to entice you that way, yesterday I posted “California Cabernets from 2002, Part Two,” reviews of 18 cabernet-based wines from the excellent vintage, including the superb Joseph Phelps Insignia ’02 and the Ladera ’02. Here’s the link: http://www.koeppelonwine.com/Featured_Article.asp

Third — I know, we’re beyond “a couple of things” — just so this post doesn’t seem all about me, Terry Hughes at Mondosapore is celebrating a new design for his blog that debuted this weekend. Executed by Mouse Foundry Media, which made the design for BiggerThanYourHead, the design for http://www.mondosapore.com is clean, easier to read and very attractive.

And fourth, the finalists for the American Wine Blog of the Year awards are posted at Tom Wark’s Fermentation: The Daily Wine Blog. Go there, take a look at the nominees, and vote. http://www.fermentation.typepad.com

Go to Tom Wark’s Fermentation: The Daily Wine Blog to nominate your favorite wine blogs for the 2007 awards. A blog image.jpg must have put up at least 52 posts during 2006 and be written in English to be eligible. These are the categories:
Best Overall Wine Blog

Best Writing on a Wine Blog

Best Graphics on a Wine Blog

Best Single Subject Wine Blog

Best Winery Blog

Best Wine Podcast of Videoblog

Best Wine Blog Focused on Wine Reviews

Here’s the link: http://www.fermentation.typepad.com/

The nominating process ends January 18.

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