The End of Wine Writing

I have been a wine writer for nearly 40 years. And yet, for the first time in my career, I’m worried. Despondent even. Wine writing as a profession, a craft, even sometimes an art, is disappearing. And it’s not clear what, if anything, will replace it.

I recently gave a speech on this topic as part of the Walt Klenz Leadership Series at the Robert Mondavi Institute at the University of California at Davis.  Here is what I said.

Let me start out with a few questions:

Does anyone know the number one, best-selling wine introduced last year?  It was Stella Rosa Pineapple and Chili Wine.

Does anyone know the volume of RTDs (Ready to Drink Cocktails) now being sold? The answer is 36.6 million 9-liter cases. That’s more than the total volume of all wine sold in the U.S. In fact the leading RTD—Gallo’s High Noon—which was introduced just five years ago—sold 21.4 million cases last year.

Does anyone know the average percentage of legal-drinking-age adults who say they are cutting back their alcohol consumption?

64%. If you look at just the Gen Z cohort, it’s 75%.

Do you know the number of glasses of wine a day the World Health Organization now says is safe?

Zero. A doctor for the WHO whose title is European Regional Advisor for Alcohol and Illicit Drugs—Dr. Carina Ferreira-Borges—is quoted in the report as saying “the risk to your health starts with a single drop” of wine or any alcohol.

Do you know the percentage of people aged 21 to 39 who participated in Dry January and/or who plan to participate in Sober October?

64% according to a Wine Opinions survey by Colangelo and Partners and the Wine Market Council. If you combine Dry January and Sober October, that’s 17% of the calendar year when a huge swath of Americans plans to not drink wine or any other beverage that has alcohol in it.

And yet, the Wine Industry, including many of the last remaining wine journalists are, for the most part, rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

“Last remaining wine journalists…”—it’s a heavy thought, and my heart is heavy even saying it.

But wine writing as we’ve known it is disappearing. Do you know how many newspapers in America have a journalist on staff who covers wine?

Two. There used to be hundreds.

At the same time that wine writing is vanishing, wine consumption around the world is declining and wine drinking is being de-normalized.

In Bordeaux, it’s declining so precipitously that it was announced just weeks ago that 23,000 acres of Bordeaux vines will soon be grubbed up. In fact, the only region in France that is not suffering steep declines in sales of its wine is Burgundy. France—the Mother Ship—the place where the concept of terroir was born and where it first became the critical core and heartbeat of viticulture. As it turns out, France now cannot sell a lot of its wine. Not even to the French themselves.

Is there a causal relationship between falling consumption worldwide and diminishing wine journalism? Or is the correlation  coincidental?

I don’t know the answer to this. But I do know something about the evolution of wine writing in the United States and why wine writing is important.

Let me start by defining what wine writing is, and is not.

First, wine writing is not wine criticism. Wine criticism—as a form of writing that included specific evaluations or scores—began in the late 1970s with Robert M. Parker Jr.’s The Wine Advocate.

Wine had somehow managed to be sold and drunk for 8,000 years before critics arrived on the scene, BUT from about 1980 to 2010, for those thirty years, critics had enormous sway and power. No matter that critic’s tasting notes were abbreviated stream-of-conscious snippets most of which used the same 20 words over and over again—no matter how inscrutable or boring the tasting notes were,  many wine drinkers came to think of wine criticism like Consumer Reports—it promised to get you to the right purchase fast.

And critics themselves were fast. They often did not visit wine regions or producers. They sat in their offices and tasted 50 to 100 wines day without “wasting time” walking through vineyards, wineries, or talking one-on-one with winemakers, viticulturists, or vintners.

As a young journalist, I had my own experience with this. The first time I met Bob Parker—who I very much like by the way—we had been invited to taste the German Rieslings of the best importer of German wines in the U.S.

I think we were in a hotel banquet room, and there were 125 bottles of Riesling lined up down the center of long tables, a glass on each side of the bottles. The importer introduced us, Bob and I shook hands, and then we began.

Bob was done with the 125 Rieslings, when I was on wine #24.

Bob has a brilliant palate, and he’s clearly fast, and maybe I’m too slow.

But I knew when I looked up, and he was 100 wines ahead of me and done—I knew right then that I was not and would never be a wine critic. I was a wine writer.

For a wine writer, the two things that matter most are people and place. People and place are bookends, and the rich core between them is a wine’s story. A wine’s story can only exist in the context of a culture.

For a writer like me, the ratio of sheep to winemakers in New Zealand is exactly the kind of crazy little gem that helps tell the story of a place. (Just in case you’re wondering, it’s 5 to 1,  sheep to winemakers).

A wine writer is the kind of person who finds an old bar in the Veneto so they can eat whatever’s traditional while drinking Amarone. (The traditional dish is horsemeat).

A wine writer is the kind of person who drinks Greek mountain wines out of hairy bags made from goat’s stomachs.

And smokes cigars and drinks Rioja with bullfighters, and interviews the men who, after the fight, line up to buy the tail and testicles of a bullfighting bull—said to imbue the eater with the bull’s strength, courage, and virility.

A writer would waltz between the wine barrels with winemakers in Vienna.

And learn to tango in Argentina in hopes that it would shed some light on the sensuality of Malbec.

A wine writer would stomp grapes at 2am in the morning in ancient Portuguese lagares until their legs were neon purple, and work harvesting grapes all night long with a Mexican crew.

I have done all of those things, hoping that each of them would bring wine more vividly into my life, so that I could write about it more compellingly.

But apart from books (and blogs which we’ll get to), the publications where you can now write about stories like these are virtually non-existent. And even if you find them, the pay and the competition are brutal.

First of all, because of the dwindling outlets, scores of writers are now willing to work for free.  Last fall, Newsweek called me and asked if I’d do a piece on Rosé Champagnes. We plotted out the content, the visuals, the word length, and so on. At the end, I said, “By the way, what does Newsweek pay for a piece like this?”

The editor paused for the briefest second as if she was surprised by the question. And then she said: “Nothing. We don’t pay anything.”

A publication that does still pay is Decanter magazine. The last big piece I did for Decanter was on the history of Cabernet Franc in California. Which meant researching that history, and then my staff and I acquired the 60 top California Cabernet Francs and blind-tasted them over 5 days, to write about the 20 best. All in all, two weeks of work. Decanter’s fee: a little over $600.

In the 1980s—thirty years ago—The New York Times paid two times that for a freelance piece. Good Housekeeping, Mirabella, Elle, and other women’s magazines paid three times that. And the best magazine of all to write freelance for—Playboy—paid, 30 years ago, seven to eight times what Decanter pays today.

The dwindling number of print publications has resulted in an explosion of digital wine blogs. There are now about 1,300 of them, according to The Wine Media Conference, although that number includes Canada and Mexico as well as the U.S.  So clearly there’s a pent-up need for wine writers to write. Of course, a blog means you definitely aren’t going to get paid, except maybe a few dollars in ads or affiliate fees for the very best blogs  which are thought to number under 20.

But blogs present their own problems. The vast majority are non-professional. And almost all of them have no editor. Editors make writers better writers. You can’t get past a good editor without checking your facts.

I will give you an example from the first edition of The Wine Bible.

For that first edition, my line editor was a woman I’ll call Cecilia.

It was hard to tell how old Cecilia was; I pegged her at about 50. She was single, shy, and spoke with a slight stutter when she spoke at all (which wasn’t that often). Cecilia lived with a gaggle of cats in Greenwich Village.

None of this particularly surprised me. What did were the high heels.  Cecilia, whose hair was always pulled into a tight, no-nonsense bun, would teeter into the publisher’s offices balancing on a different pair of expensive heels each time we had a meeting. Her collection could have rivaled Imelda Marcos’.

Workman, my publisher, had hired Cecilia to edit The Wine Bible because of the manuscript’s large size. “Edit” meant word by word, line by line.

Nothing—and I mean nothing—got by Cecilia. Her weapon was a red felt-tip pen. The margins of my manuscript were soon bleeding with accusatory questions. How did I know X? Where was the proof of Y?

I remember getting back the Burgundy chapter. In trying to illuminate the vast power and glory of the Catholic church in the region, I’d written the sentence: “In fact, the stunning Burgundian Abbey of Cluny was the most famous cathedral in Europe until St. Peters in Rome was built to surpass it.”

There in the margin, in glaring red letters, Cecilia had written: “…until St. Peters in Rome was built to surpass it—OR until St. Peter’s in Rome was built and surpassed it???” Cecilia could make me cry page-by-page.

I understand writers needing to write, but when blogs started appearing, part of me was stunned. It seemed as though a few bloggers simply made up facts or they channeled Kellyanne Conway and just asserted their own “alternative facts.”

I was so worried and despondent about this that a few years ago I started my own digital newsletter called WineSpeed. It gets fact-checked with all the rigor of The Wine Bible.

Let’s talk about the purpose of wine writing.

I had this conversation recently with Pauline Vicard, the brilliant mind behind the wine think tank Areni. We agreed that, above all, wine writing has a duty to communicate wine’s beauty, awe, and wonder.

I believe that winemakers also have a duty to communicate wine’s beauty, awe, and wonder.

I wonder if here, at the Robert Mondavi Institute at UC Davis, aspiring winemakers are taught about that?

Recently in the Napa Valley at the 3-day tasting event known as Premiere, I interviewed five Napa winemakers on video.

With the video camera rolling, I asked each of them—without the others around—just one question.

The question was: Why is wine important?

You can see in the video that each of them was taken aback for a minute.  For a second, they didn’t know what to say.

If I had asked if maceration times for Cabernet Sauvignon were getting shorter these days, or if they planned on using misters and shade cloth in their vineyards, they would have had an immediate response.

But why wine is important—arguably the most important question of all—stopped them.

Do winemakers have a responsibility to be able to talk about wine beyond a tech sheet?

Do schools and universities have a responsibility to talk about and teach the historical, cultural, philosophic, and emotional role wine plays in society? To talk about, discuss, and examine why wine is important?

One thing is true: writers cannot write moving stories—can’t emotionally touch readers-—unless winemakers and viticulturists have something moving to say.

And any winemaker who thinks that’s the role of the marketing person has abdicated his or her power. “Why is wine important?” is not a marketing question. It’s a question that relates to the very existence of our collective profession.

I’m reminded of the single best quote a winemaker ever said to me. I asked him what he looked for in making Pinot Noir.

“A great Pinot Noir,” he said, “should make you feel as though Grace Kelly just walked in the room.”

Nothing about oak, nothing about punch downs, nothing about clonal types.  All of those, he could and did answer later.

The neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor has said, “We think of ourselves as thinking creatures who feel; but we are actually feeling creatures who think.”

In addition to wine writers, wine critics, and wine bloggers, there are now a fast-growing number of new wine communicators from whom the American public gets lots of their information about wine—wine influencers.

There are no statistics on the number of wine influencers currently at work in the U.S.—but we do know this: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary for a wine influencer is more than the median base salary for a Napa Valley winemaker.

As of 2022, wine Influencers earned about $73k annually. The base salary for Napa Valley winemakers was $1000 less—$72,000—and winery lab techs on average made $23,000 less than wine influencers.

Despite the perilous downward spiral in wine writing, influencers are probably here to stay.  Recently The New York Times reported that according to Goldman Sachs, brands in the U.S. spend more than $5 billion a year on influencers. Nearly 1/3 of preteens list influencing as a career goal, and 11% of Gen Z (born 1997-2012) describe themselves as influencers.

The wine writing that IS hanging on, now faces another threat that may hasten its demise: AI.

Generative AI can already write any basic wine piece. It gets the facts more or less right, and like a good WSET student, it mirrors them back.

When and if AI becomes the dominant form of wine writing, wine communications will truly become an elliptical feedback loop of innocuous information that means nothing to anyone. A feedback loop so devoid of creativity, so lacking in thinking, that wine itself may lose its meaning.

Wine—so rich, so soulful—so capable of stirring passion—will become just another beverage. And just like that, 8,000 years of beauty, awe, and wonder will slip away.

I know you won’t believe this, but I’m actually a happy, glass-half-full kind of person.  I believe in wine. I believe in its ability to bring people together. I believe that it is a good and true thing. That it is the silent music of Nature.

When I wrote the first edition of The Wine Bible—which took eight unpaid years—at the end of that, my publisher told me that they were going to print 1,000 copies as the print run. I said, “Don’t do it. I only have 25 friends who’ll buy a book.”

The Wine Bible has now sold about a million copies, including the recent third edition.

So, I have to be optimistic—optimistic that the stories of people and places are inherently gravitational.

And that why wine matters is a question that should continue to be asked. And continue to be written about.

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