“Sod the wine, I want to suck on the writing. This man White is an instinctive writer, bloody rare to find one who actually pulls it off, as in still gets a meaning across with concision. Sharp arbitrage of speed and risk, closest thing I can think of to Cicero’s ‘motus continuum animi.’

Probably takes a drink or two to connect like that: he literally paints his senses on the page.”


DBC Pierre (Vernon God Little, Ludmila’s Broken English, Lights Out In Wonderland ... Winner: Booker prize; Whitbread prize; Bollinger Wodehouse Everyman prize; James Joyce Award from the Literary & Historical Society of University College Dublin)


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03 January 2012

THE DEATH OF CONTROLLED CRITICISM

THE SUN IS SETTING ON THE NEWSPAPER WINE COLUMN, AS THE CHAOS OF THE BLOGOSPHERE DRINKS UP THE READERSHIP OF THE OLD-STYLE SELF-CENSORING HACKS WITH THEIR SNOUTS IN THE TROUGH OF THE VINO-INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX 
photo of the author in Eden Valley, Barossa Ranges by MARIE LINKE

Wine Hacks: Old Days Dying
Big Winers Dead In The Net
Blog Chaos Dominates Dogma
by PHILIP WHITE

" ... Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world ... "
 William Butler Yeats - The Second Coming



Last year, kickling and struggling, the wine world was dragged toward the internet.

But in spite of the countless millions wineries spent on website design - same designers, same design - most of wine’s digital revolution came from the bloggers and their chat pages, which are myriad and uncontrolled, and most of whom make absolutely no money from their endeavours.  There are thousands of wine blogs, and more each day – the Chinese are just beginning – and there’s no chance of any normal winery keeping all these freshly in their loop. 

There’s a list of thousands of blogs on Vinography, and even that can’t keep up-to-date.  While corporate websites languish and grow quickly stale, the best of the bloggers, at least, keep ahead of the propaganda departments, and quickly gather - and lose – great armies of fans, depending on their activity. 

To succeed, blogs must be fed with tasty morsels, and I don’t mean wine.  There’s not enough wine to go around, if it’s samples they want.  No, I mean the sorts of stories no food and wine editor would have dared contemplate publishing in the old days of the newspapers.

ALL THOSE WINERIES WHICH NEVER SPENT A CENT ON ADVERTISING MAY WELL MISS THEIR CHANCE ... IT SEEMS LIKELY THAT ALCOHOL DISPLAY ADS WILL SOON GO THE WAY OF TOBACCO ADVERTISING ... THERE WILL BE NO REASON THEN FOR NEWSPAPER PUBLISHERS TO EMPLOY WINE WRITERS ... IF INDEED THE LAW CONTINUES TO PERMIT THE GENERAL NEWSPAPER PROMOTION OF LIQUOR THROUGH WINE COLUMNS

Bloggers can do, like, your actual criticism. Analysis.  Stuff way beyond the fluffy review and the points and stars.  And then, bloggers can bullshit like the worst of us. 

Which is the most popular?  The one with the most followers.

The current example of the instant interrogative possibilities of the blogosphere is the payola accusations involving Robert Parker’s former employee, Jay Miller, and the Spanish middleman Pancho Camp MW.  This is the World’s Most Influential Critic. Bloggers actually got in there and explored and worried the issue until the august Masters of Wine themselves announced a secret inquiry into the allegations tainting one of their members.  So now the clubby MWs are for the first time feeling the souring gaze of the bloggers, who can make or break that stuffy institution’s reputation in a flash.  Parker knows what it’s like: these thousands of amateurs want his status, and constantly analyse and theorise about his activity.  Like Jay and Pancho, he cannot hide.

The bloggers don’t just watch the business – they watch each other.

For thirty years, the wine world depended almost entirely on the newspapers to promote their brands.  For free.  No other commodities or food product enjoyed such freaky luck.  At the expense of the newspaper publishers, writers taught the wine industry’s market about the different varieties and styles, about the regions, the flavours and aromas, about accoutrements and manners – the stuff any other comestible commodity manufacturer would have to conduct and pay for themselves.  For safe, utterly supportive reportage, the wine industry got it on a plate. 


I’ve written before of the Murdoch editor who called me his Squirt Writer; there were those who’d mumble something like “We don’t want you writing this stuff about the vineyards any more – we want product we can sell around ” as they’d advise you to take a walk. I recall an editor who felt he was particularly risqué to suggest I write a piece teaching people how to spit like an expert. This was far preferable to me writing about how most of the stuff they wanted me to praise was only worth spitting. 

They never had milk writers, or bread writers, or water writers, but strangely, every newspaper had a wine writer.  I don’t say critic, because there was rarely any criticism. The wine writer was there to justify the publishers’ ad department screwing skrillions from the huge grogmongers for feature advertising – ads usually promoting rotgut that no genuine expert would ever recommend.

This writer has been fired from nearly every major newspaper in Australia for insisting on discussions of public health and alcohol, and environmental issues related to irrigating vignerons, whilst refusing to award higher points to the sort of industrial swill promoted in the advertisements.

That’s not just over for me.  It’s closing down on even the most compliant freeloading plonk hack as newspaper wine columns shrink internationally and the papers network an ever-diminishing mob of favourite hacks.  This makes those who remain on staff look particularly dodgy, as they’re pressured to award higher and higher points. 

SOMETHING MISSING HERE? IT SEEMS MOST SURVIVING NEWSPAPER WINE CRITICS TEND TO MISS THE POINT ABOUT AS BADLY AS THIS GREAT KIWI SCRIBE

The wine industry hasn’t quite realized this. The smarter ones, the wineries, and their organizations, seem to think that putting a website up will sort everything.  The most radical ones even use Facebook.  But just putting the damn thing on the net never guarantees that people are going to look at it or indeed believe it.  A website is useless unless it’s bang up-to-date with entertaining, informative facts, and there’s immediate access to a real live talking, helpful human through it.  The luxury goods industry is already abandoning Facebook – it cheapens their value and attracts bugger-all new customers, as it caters almost completely, on that level at least, for aspiring customers only.  Pretenders.  Would-be-could-bees.

Real purchasers, with real money, expect one-on-one treatment with somebody who never acts like a sales representative.  And they never expect to be rubbing shoulders with those noisy peasants.

This year, for better or for worse, the bloggers will show this business a thing or two. With luck, those who do so with convincing skill and professionalism will quickly distance themselves from the aspirant throng queuing for free tasting samples.  They will be the pied pipers.  The newspapers will evaporate.  There will be perfect chaos; the market will preside; the wine business won’t have any idea what to do.


THE ADELAIDE UNIVERSITY'S GLENTHORNE FARM, AT THE GATEWAY TO THE FLEURIEU PENINSULA AND McLAREN VALE WINE REGIONS ... GM TRIALS ARE BEING CONDUCTED HERE INSTEAD OF THE SERIOUS, PRACTICAL, ENVIRONMENTALLY-SENSITIVE RESEARCH THE UNIVERSITY PLEDGED TO CONDUCT WHEN IT WAS GIVEN THE PRICELESS 209ha FARM BY THE TAXPAYERS A DECADE AGO photo LEO DAVIS

 Take genetic modification.  The wineries, and more pertinently, their councils and associations, have no hope of dealing with the burgeoning digi-hordes’ fascination and hatred for GM.   

The Australian Wine Research Institute, for example, can barely boast of its vast expenditures on GM study while its employer, the industry, maintains it is GM-free.  So the GM vines that took years to develop can’t be let out of the glass house.  The AWRI propagandists sneak the news of their accomplishments to the science press and the viti boffins, but must also try hard to keep it off the front pages.

Now the front pages are managed by the blogging rabble, which will ensure there is no chance of the GM vines getting out.  Unless, of course, the AWRI’s partner, the University of Adelaide, plays its typical hubris to include grape vines in the GM trials it quietly conducts at Glenthorne Farm, in the Adelaide suburbs.  A decade back the South Australian taxpayer bought this huge research farm for the University to conduct, among other things, serious, practical viticulture science which it has never looked like commencing.

But GM?  Cool, man!  Nothing is as glamorous as GM to the boffin, and nothing is as explosive in the blogosphere.

Even this is piffle compared to other very real problems slumbering away.  Stuff already in the ground; the water.  And in us. 

Currently, the internet is fizzing with Monsanto news and conjecture.  The wine industry, Australia’s in particular, is addicted to Monsanto’s glyphosate herbicide, Roundup.  This was promised to break down very quickly after it had simply and harmlessly killed everything other than the vines.  Bing!
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Bing?  Bung!  Now the Spanish have discovered the stuff in dangerous amounts in their vignoble aquifers, it’s pretty obvious it doesn’t simply disappear.  Here is a chemical designed by experts to kill living things, brutally and efficiently.  It now seems possible that it limits the amount of essential minerals plant roots absorb, and its plant residue is being accused of killing the flora in the animal gut, which is being linked to human obesity, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome.  I won’t even mention the new claims about mental illness.  This is the sort of thing the University and the Wine Research Institute should be exploring: has the wine industry's widespread use of Roundup affected Australia’s waters?  How long will the stuff be there?  What is it doing to us?

Is the wine safe?

They should have been investigating this for decades.

But no.  This battle will be fought in the blogosphere, where fact is fleeting and serious professional research rarely paid for.

Wait til the burgeoning green wine bloggers discover the little matter of vineyard trellis posts, which are so toxic from their preservative treatments that they cannot be burned or buried when they’re removed: they must be stockpiled.  There are countless millions of them lying about in fenced corrals, stacks which are growing exponentially as the irrigating growers uproot their vineyards and leave the business.  What are these posts doing to our soil?  Our waters?  To us?

Is the wine safe?

You’ll read about it on the blogs.  And there won’t be much wine industry advertising in the margin.

Global warming, the Murray-Darling, alcoholism, the health lobby, the wowser lobby, the scandalous Wine Equalisation Tax – all these things will be addressed and scrutinized more chaotically and more aggressively this year, and there’s absolutely no sign of the wine industry even beginning to understand what to do.   

Which is to be expected, really.  33 years in this racket has taught me that most Australian winemakers don't read anything unless it's about them.  



6 comments:

John Ullinger said...

Hi Phillip,
great article today, for mine one of your best.

Anonymous said...

Do you know why the land from the faultline at Terraces right down through the Flat to the Vale was called "Cancer Alley"?

Philip White said...

No. When?

Sal said...

Ha! Love that newspaper clipping ...

KARRA YERTA WINES said...

Another great post. Monsanto scares me. And you are quite right about blogs, Facebook and the expectations of customers. Sadly, I think that over the next few years, in the wine industry anyway, customers will have much less chance of meeting the people/families of the wineries/brands face to face. Quite simply, it's all getting too hard to do everything for many of us. The small guys can only stretch so thin before they snap and thus the personalisation that we like to give, and consumers like to receive, will be lost.

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