Thursday, 28 March 2013

Men behaving badly - social media and the wine "professional"

At any given time, lurking somewhere in the depths of my Blogger "dashboard" are a handful of drafts - posts that I have part-written and may or may not eventually see the light of day. Occasionally, I have a clear-out and get rid of the ones which are either no longer relevant or topical, or which I simply cannot be bothered to complete. But the bare bones of what follows have been sitting there for a few months now - essentially, a bit of a rant about the propensity of people - mainly men, to put it bluntly - to force their (often ill-conceived or rash) opinions onto anyone who cares to read them. The most valuable attribute of the Internet can at the same time be the worst - it offers a window to the world, yet provides a certain degree of anonimity for those who wish to sound-off or, in the worst cases, abuse the privilege...............

Although I guess I am a "wine professional", insofar as I import and sell the stuff, it isn't usually a term I apply to myself. The fact that I also write a blog and use Facebook and Twitter is purely incidental (although I feel I do it quite well - in fact, better than some of those so-called professionals). After all, if I were not keen enough to be in the business in the first place, I doubt that I would be moved to share my thoughts about wine in a  public place. No, by "professional", I mean those who write and/or talk about wine for a living - the wine media.

I doubt very much that spats involving - or between - various members of the wine-writing fraternity are a new phenomenon. In my experience, by no means all of them have egos the size of Texas, but it often seems to help, especially if such writers' main means of communication with their readers is via blogs and social media. And let's face it, the importance of the printed word, be it in newspapers, magazines, or even books, seems to wane more and more with each passing year. Don't get me wrong - I love the Internet and can hardly imagine going back to a world without it. And of course I would never have been able to start a wine business without it - a bricks and mortar wine shop would have been (and still remains) way beyond my means and capabilities. And Facebook (and to a lesser extent Twitter) can be a fun way of communicating, not only with friends you see on a regular basis, or those who you see only occasionally/rarely, but also "friends" you have never even met. Just as long as the discussions remain civilised, of course. My mantra for social media is never to say anything to/about anyone on a public (or even private) forum that I wouldn't say to their face. Or at least to try and resist the urge to do so. It doesn't always work out that way, but I suppose we all put our foot in our mouth occasionally!

But I have noticed a fashion emerging amongst certain wine writers recently for posting remarks on Twitter and Facebook that are clearly intended to provoke. Sometimes it may be a link to their latest blog post, other times it may be an isolated remark - something along the lines of "(provocative statement) - discuss". At which point, more often than not, the writer retreats to a safe distance, whilst a mix of casual observers, sycophants and naysayers proceed to slog it out. I even feel the need to stick my two penn'orth in occasionally! A recent example was where the writer (a particularly prolific blogger, tweeter and - to be frank - serial troller) suggested that, because he didn't rate a wine that another (world-renowned) critic scored highly, said critic had somehow lost the plot. He then went on to remark that the very same critic is "a legend, a hero and an inspiration to me, but his scoring is boxing him into a corner."  It all smacks of a "my points are worth more than so-and-so's points" sort of attitude. Even more annoyingly, the original comment was made on Twitter, but also appeared automatically on Facebook, although the writer didn't see fit to reply to any resulting comments by his Faceboof "friends". Which to my mind displays a staggering level of arrogance, not to mention a large degree of contempt for his "friends" or followers. And because this was a far from isolated incident, I felt rather good about deleting this person's Facebook and Twitter feeds from my accounts! 

Another situation which occurred around the same time concerned another equally well-known wine writer (and an MW no less), who became embroiled with mutual a friend/follower on Facebook about the subject of ageing wines - my, what a controversial subject! Whilst many people, myself included, think that too many wines are drunk far too young, our writer friend decided to take completely the opposite view, stating quite categorically that "most whites, except Riesling and (at a pinch) Chardonnay, Beaujolais, most Pinot Noir, a lot of Syrahs, Loire Cab Francs, etc, etc" do not age. I replied that, in my opinion, virtually all of the above (which are any good in the first place, that is) benefit from plenty of age. Back came the reply "No they don't. Most of them are great young too. You need to taste more young Pinots. Which wines evolve in fascinating ways? Chenin, yes, Riesling, yes. Sauternes at a pinch. Hunter Semillon. That's about it." Given the rather dismissive (nay, arrogant) tone of this guy's replies, I decided that there was little point in continuing the discussion. Just as well, really, given that it deteriorated thereafter into a rather unseemly bout of handbags between the two original protagonists, resulting in a very public "unfriending". A very unseemly episode and a lesson in how not to use social media.

And then there is the seemingly never-ending one-man crusade by a wine journalist and fellow blogger to discredit a  producer of sweet wines in the Loire Valley, whose viticultural and vinification methods he suggests are at best contrary to the principles of fine winemaking and at worst illegal. The fact that this grower is particularly highly-regarded by so many wine drinkers (and indeed makes arguably the finest wine of the appellation in question) seems to make no difference to the journalist. Unfortunately, having done so much good work in the past, investigating so many more worthy incidents of real wine fraud, I feel that he is in danger of damaging his own reputation as much as - if not more than - his quarry. 

The thing that links these episodes together (albeit very loosely) is that they are all propogated by men. Not that the fairer sex is entirely blameless, but the nearest I have seen to spats about wine involving women was a bit of "handbags" between Jancis Robinson MW and Robert Parker Jr over the merits of a certain Bordeaux chateau's wine (and I know whose palate I would trust!) and a respected female Loire expert's online discussion/argument with the aforementioned blogger about his vendetta. Again, I know whose side I am on.

But now to the thing that really prompted me to publish this post - the work of a certain lady by the name of Helena Nicklin (a.k.a Winebird), whose interesting take on the wine video genre appears to have split the jury, garnering praise and derision in equal measure. The videos came to my attention via a thread on a UK-based wine discussion forum (which many of you reading this may well contribute to, or at least read). Ultimately, the thread ran to almost 200 posts and I have to admit that, as a man, I was more than a little disappointed - though far from surprised - at some of the derogatory remarks offered by so many regular (and almost exclusively male) contibutors, not to mention the (male) owner of the forum..

Personally, I think they provide an entertaining, light-hearted, yet extremely effective concept in attempting to bring "proper wine" to the masses. And thankfully, a few of the more tolerant and enlightened contributors seemed to agree with me. More importantly, I have a feeling that the same sentiment would be shared by countless hordes of non-wine geeks - surely the sort of people they are actually aimed at (rather than those of us who think we know it all). Of course, a pretty face helps (with apologies to anyone who thinks I'm being sexist, but I'm a red-blooded male!). Would I find the videos so interesting if they were presented by a man? Probably not, but the content would still be relevant and informative. Perhaps "Winehusband" (I believe that is Helena's other half's handle) could make some for the ladies!
        
Should Winebird be accepted into the world of the professional online wine commentator? Damn right she should. Her style might not go down too well with the old guard, whose often elitist and tired approach to the subject of wine is threatened by the more populist style of the new generation, but if it gets more people genuinely interested in wine (rather than just consuming the cheap and cheerful stuff as a beverage) then that can only be a positive.

As for wine commentary as a whole, and the Internet in general, it really doesn't matter whether you are a man or a woman - there's room for everyone. And if you don't like it, then don't read/watch it - but don't just jump in and slag it off without good reason.
            
         

18 comments:

charlie said...

I guessed the wine critic in your first example without having to google the phrase. A vocal exponent of the 'objective' school of wine criticism - providing your view agrees with his.

Leon Stolarski said...

Not so much "objective", Charlie, as "objectionable"! I must admit I felt rather liberated when I removed one or two of these characters from my life in cyberspace! ;-)

Alan March said...

I recognise 2 of your 3 male writers Leon, not the middle one.
I do think you're being a little harsh on men. There are some poor writers who are both male and female. I could name many male writers and indeed contributors on that forum who make me feel belittled for offering a comment, there is a feeling of gentleman's club about the whole industry.
However, I am not one for tokenism. Jancis has earned her reputation and can only be admired fro doing so, though even she can be a little up herself with tweets. One of the worst wine presentations I have ever seen was at a tasting last year by a fairly high profile female journalist which would have shamed a trainee teacher in its amateur preparation. However, there have been some equally bad from men in the past.
Do you remember the fuss created when Joanne Simon lost her column in the Sunday Times, we were told because of space. Her replacement, Bob something or other is awful and gets more space.
So I am not bothered about gender just quality. As you know I disliked that youtube presentation, it strikes me as patronising and aiming at who? Are wine novices gong to look to youtube for guidance? I doubt it and if I was such a person I'd be offended at being treated like a child with limited attention span. The presenter has made an effort and I applaud her for that and I hope she succeeds for having the guts to do it. I admire such initiative even if it's not to my taste I wouldn't claim to be the final arbiter. And you're right some of the comments on there were equally patronising and sexist, but that was no surprise.
Some of the best tasters and experts I know about win are women, some are men; what matters is their knowledge, enthusiasm and ability to communicate.

Leon Stolarski said...

Wise words, as always, Alan. As I said in my final paragraph, it matters now whether you are a man or a woman, because there is room for everyone (and everyone's opinions). It is only the people (mainly men, it has to be said!) who are intolerant of those opinions that get my goat.......

Ben Hopkins said...

He talks an enormous amount of shit dressed up as pseudish cod philosophy about objective quality of wine. He seems to believe his own hype to an enormous extent, especially with regard to his superior palate at whichever competition it is he helps to judge. His knowledge of wine seems superficial, jumping from whichever region has entertained him most recently to the next jolly at an artisanal winery with a story and well designed label. I compare his shrill and self promoting output to an amateur who has just put his excellent, detailed, erudite and considered site behind a paywall and I know who I would trust to recommend a wine. I just don't see who his audience is, beyond his chums who accompany him on his jaunts.

Leon Stolarski said...

Brilliant, Ben! Your first 6 words gave it away. ;-) I must admit that this post of mine has been so long in the making that I was in two minds whether to publish it, but I'm glad I did, as I am obviously not alone in what I feel about thse things. Your comment about jollies (in my opinion, the "Payola" of the modern day, at least in wine terms) is another thing altogether, of course. I'd love to write about that, but I don't think I would dare, for fear of retribution!

Leon Stolarski said...

Oh, and I almost forgot, your reference to a certain "amateur" (I'm assuming Scottish, doctor, etc) is spot on. It's a shame he's introducing the paywall, but as you quite rightly suggest, his content is *so* much more worthy than most of the other so-called experts with websites. I wish him luck and really hope the paywall actually pays-off - he deserves every bit of success he gets.

Ben Hopkins said...

I don't mean to come across as overly aggressive towards the wine professional I/we're talking about, but it seems that in my opinion, less was more 9 or 10 years ago. Now it feels corporate and forced. I'm sure there's a genuine love for wine there, but for me it's narcissistic and "look at me" wine journalism, with added trolling to bring in some controversy. The scientific angle he brings doesn't bring anything to my liking for wine. You guessed the other guy right. Maybe not doing it for a living makes a difference from this consumer's point of view.

Alan March said...

I think I know who you mean but I hope you'll make sure I'm right Leon, and the Scottish doctor :)

The freebies bit is seriously annoying, mainly because it's not me who gets to go to these places!! I was shaking my head at the tweets of a journo, whose presentation I slammed in my previous post, who was in SW France on such a freebie early this week. I hope she learned some of the basic facts that she got wrong in her talk. Yet she spouted forth her 'expertise' in these tweets and how some producers get it wrong etc. Kettle and pot sprang to mind.

Leon Stolarski said...

Would you like to name a name, Alan? ;-) If not, at least send me an email, as I'm now very curious!

Alan March said...

Jane Parkinson. I attended the Wine Gang tasting in Edinburgh before Christmas. Some good wines and a fantastic tasting with Anthony Rose of various rare sherries, truly breathtaking. And then one on SW France which was execrable, slides in the wrong order, confused about grape varieties etc. If I'd been nin my role as Assistant Head I'd have failed her and made her do some retraining. Who are the 2 you were on about?

Alan March said...

Which writers do you like Leon?
I'll always have a soft spot for Oz Clarke as his books were what taught e so much when I first got into wine. At the moment Andrew Jefford does it for me, a great article in this month's Decanter shows his blend of poetry and knowledge. His book on SW France is also excellent. And Rosemary of course, to prove my lack of bias :)

Jamie said...

Leon, good points, but you need to chill a bit. Lots of voices out there. Follow the ones you like. Ignore the others. And I agree - I thought Helena's videos were fun

Leon Stolarski said...

Alan - Like you, Oz Clarke and his books were a big influence on me, especially back in the late 80's and early 90's. My introduction to Musar and (at to an extent) Australian wines came partly through his influence. He was also quite a champion of southern France at that time. I have 2 or 3 editions of his Websters Wine Guide, which used to be my wine "Bible", plus his brilliant "New Classic Wines" - in its day, one of the finest books of the lot. Shame we see/hear less of him these days. Jefford's "New France" is a cracking book and I agree, he writes beautifully. And what self-respecting wine geek would be without Jancis' World Wine Atlas and Oxford Companion To Wine (with an honourable mention for Hugh Johnson of course)? Bill Nanson's book, "The Finest Wines Of Burgundy" is a fine effort and well worth buying.

And of course - as I have said on many occasions - Rosemary George's book "The Wines Of The South Of France - From Banyuls To Bellet" played a *very* important part in my life, providing the catalyst for my entry into the wine business. Curiously though - and much as I like her subject matter - I can't say I enjoy her writing style.

I also look forward very much to seeing my friend Peter Gorley's book, "Gorley's Guide 2 - The Wines of Languedoc-Roussillon" published. Goodness knows, we've waited too long! Peter..... are you listening?! ;-)

Leon Stolarski said...

Jamie - Thanks for the advice. I will, and I do.

Alan March said...

it is high time we had another book on the Languedoc-Roussillon, so hoping that Peter's is published before too long.
Bill Nanson is a fine example Leon, a passionate enthusiast who shows off his knowledge but is willing to share advice and respond to, no doubt, simplistic questions from amateurs like myself. But then I think of Bill as a true amateur in the sense of loving the wines and having a passion for the area which he manages to convey in the book so well.

Alan Smeaton said...

Ah, the joys and perils of the internet. As you know Leon, I got rather annoyed with some of the posts about winebird leading me to reopen a thread on the subject of internet forums and that one in particular. I shouldn't have been surprised at the responses I suppose, but there was an undertone of smugness, pompousness and defensiveness. No wonder people who profess a passion about wine can be viewed as pretentious at times.

As someone else has observed, at the end of the day it's only fermented grape juice. Any internet forum about wine that doesn't want to end up fossilised has to make newcomers feel that they aren't joining some secret society with a rigorous entrance exam and a requirement to buy at least two first-growths en primeur on a regular basis.

Leon Stolarski said...

Alan, you can always be sure of a warm welcome here! As we have discussed elsewhere, you and I (and, it seems, most people who have commented on this thread) seem to agree about an awful lot. And as you say, it really is just fermented grape juice. :-)