Tag Archives: Becca Yeamans Irwin

What’s The Point In Writing Wine Reviews?

I have a confession to make. While I’m no longer in the retail game, I spent over 7 years in it working as a grocery store wine steward and an associate at a major wine retailer. In that time working the floor and talking to thousands upon thousands of customers, I never once had a customer ask me for a wine they saw reviewed on a blog.

Photo by Jami (Wiki Ed). Uploaded to Wikimedia commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Not once.

Oh I’ve had numerous people come in with Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list or a copy of award winners from local competitions like the Seattle Wine Awards. Local newspaper and magazine articles such as Andy Perdue’s Top Wines Under $30 and Sean Sullivan’s 30 Most Exciting Wines in Washington also brought people in hunting.

But never once did I have a customer show me their phone with a wine review from a blog. Or an Instagram pic. Or a Twitter wine chat recommendation.

Never.

I share this confession because as I settle into full-time writing, I’m wondering “What is the point in doing wine reviews?”

Do Consumers Care?

Jeff Siegel, the Wine Curmudgeon, recently asked if we’ve “reached the end of wine criticism?” . He highlights a 2013 Laithwaites Wines Survey that shows only 9% of wine drinkers actively used wine reviews to make a decision. In fact, rather than being helpful, the majority of the 1000 wine drinkers surveyed found reviews to be of little use.

Becca Yeamans-Irwin (The Academic Wino) created a chart showing the results of the Laithwaites’ survey for Wine Industry Insight.

Wine Industry Insight Chart on how helpful reviews are

Chart made by Becca Yeamans-Irwin for Wine Industry Insight. Published 10/26/2018

When I step back and think about how I approach reviews as a consumer, I realize that I hardly use reviews at all.

Context or Empty Text?

It’s not that I don’t read reviews. I’m reading wine stuff all the time and pay for subscriptions to Decanter, JebDunnuck.com, Vinous Media, Burghound, Jancis Robinson’s Purple Pages and others.

But I’m not reading any of those for reviews. If anything, these sites are like porn mags where I am actually just reading them for the articles.

When an article includes tasting notes with descriptors about bouquet, body, fruit, etc, my eyes gloss over them. Instead, I’m looking through the review for something unique or interesting about the wine–something about its story that is worth my attention.

When I was selecting sample reviews for my 2017 Bordeaux Futures posts, the ones I picked had added details about the vintage or chateaux such as if they had frost damage or how this wine compares to the style of years past, etc. While I often found the notes of critics like James Suckling to be virtually useless, other writers like Jane Anson of Decanter gave me the context I craved.

I also regularly read numerous bloggers who do wine reviews such as Jeff Leve’s The Wine Cellar Insider, Dwight Furrow’s Edible Arts, Dave Nershi’s Vino-Sphere, Tom Lee’s Zinfandel Chronicles and Robin Renken’s Crushed Grape Chronicles.

The writers and bloggers that give me context, I follow. The ones that just spew out tasting notes and numbers, I don’t even give a second thought to.

Here’s an example of a wine blogger I follow.

https://foodandwineaesthetics.com/2018/10/16/wine-review-bonny-doon-syrah-bien-nacido-x-block-santa-maria-valley-2009/

While I was familiar with the Bien Nacido vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley, I didn’t know that it was the first cool-climate US vineyard to plant Syrah. This great tidbit adds context to Dwight Furrow’s review of the Bonny Doon Syrah Bien Nacido X-Block.

Even if Furrow didn’t like the Bonny Doon Bien Nacido Syrah, those added details about the wine intrigues me enough to want to try it.

It wasn’t his description of the wine, the “rich, smoked meat with mint highlights” or “luscious, peppery burst of fresh fruit”, that ultimately influenced me. Nor was it his 92 point score. There are many wines that have savory, meaty flavors and pepper notes. Likewise, the cliche “a dime a dozen” doesn’t even come close to expressing how many “92 point wines” there are out in the world.

But the story he shared about the wine–the uniqueness of the Bien Nacido vineyard and the framing of this as a “treasure of the past” that can be used to view Grahm’s new projects–gave me a reason to want to try this wine above all the other savory, meaty and peppery 92 pointers out there.

Why Do I Review Wines?

Being a blogger myself, these sentiments might be a bit of “biting the hand that feeds me”. I mean, shouldn’t I be banging the drum for more people to pay attention to wine reviews? I do, after all, even have a samples policy. Come on! Get with the program LeBeau!

But though I’ve been actively blogging for over a year, it’s hard for me to disengage from the mentality of a consumer and reader of blogs. Nor can I discount my experiences working in the industry. It is those experiences, and dealing with other consumers, that have made me hugely skeptical of the entire concept of “wine influencer”.

Photo by Naotake Murayama. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Lord knows that there are A LOT of stories that can be told about Randall Grahm and his wines.

However, I do think that wine writers have influence. But, as I mentioned with my example of Furrow’s review, it’s not in their tasting notes or numbers.

I might not walk into a wine shop with Furrow’s review on my phone, but the story of Bonny Doon’s Bien Nacido Syrah will resonate in my mind when I see the label or name on a wine list.

Even though I won’t remember the details of his tasting note at all, I will remember the story and context that Furrow shared about the wine.

THAT is the true influence of a wine writer.

These experiences are what shape my own 60 Second Reviews and how I expect readers to approach them.

To be brutally honest, folks could stop reading them after the Geekery section and make them 30 second reviews.

It’s that first section where I strive to give you something that either intrigues you about the wine or gives you a reason to think about it differently.

The tasting note that follows is mostly for my own edification. It’s there to force me to pay attention to what I’m tasting versus just drinking it. A lot of the language I use in those notes (like medium-plus acidity, firm tannins, etc) is language that I need to use for my blind tasting examinations. It’s not the same language that you are going to use when tasting the wine and my note is likely going to be quite different from yours in other ways as well. Wine is subjective and intensely personal.

Rating With My Wallet

The Verdict section, as I mentioned in my post Why I Don’t Use Scores, is my reconciliation of how I feel about the wine with what I paid for it.

I don’t expect to ever get many samples sent to me–and really, after the “hand biting” of this post, why would a PR firm want to? So the vast majority of wines I review will continue to be things that I bought with my own money from shops, wineries and restaurants.

Some things I’m going to feel really good about buying. Other wines are going to feel like I way overpaid for them. I’ll share that frank assessment because you’re likely not going to be getting samples sent to you either.

With every wine, it’s going to be your wallet and your taste buds that determine if it’s worth it. Not a tasting note, not a wine review and certainly not a numerical score.

That is why I don’t want to waste your time with empty text.

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WBC18 Day 2 Quick Impressions

Tom Wark (right speaking) of Fermentation Wine Blog and James Forsyth of Vinous/Delectable

Update: Check out my post Exploring the Cascade Valley at WBC18 about the wines featured at the lunch this day as well as my Day 3 overview for more details about the conference.

I’m darting away from the 2018 Wine Bloggers Conference activities to jot down a few quick thoughts from yesterday’s events. To see my thoughts from Day 1 check out my post here as well as my pre-conference worryfest here.

While a lot of those fears ended up unfounded, Day 2 introduced quite a few meaty questions for me to gnaw on.

It seems like an unofficial theme for Day 2 was “Why Are You Blogging?” with the morning panel and keynote speaker prompting a lot of inward reflection. I will admit that this is a question that has been wrangling around my head for a while now and will probably be the source of much rumination on the long drive home tomorrow.

Wine Bloggers vs Wine Influencers (vs The World)

This panel, moderated by Thaddeus Buggs of The Minority Wine Report, featured James Forsyth of Vinous/Delectable, Michael Wangbickler of Balzac Communications and Tom Wark of the Fermentation Wine Blog.

The aim of the panel was to distinguish what may separate a blogger from an influencer as well as how the future of social media and niche apps like Delectable could impact both.

I may write up a fuller review of this panel but there were three big takeaways that I got that really caught my attention.

1.) From Michael Wangbickler

Social media isn’t an alternative to blogging but it is another channel. While its ideal to utilize multiple channels, some are more tailored to certain audiences than others. For instance, Instagram seems to appeal more to image driven and younger generations while Facebook tends to cater to more lifestyle driven and older audiences. Twitter appeals to a diverse demographic that prefers one on one interactions.

Thaddeus Buggs (far left) of the Minority Wine Report and Michael Wangbickler of Balzac Communication (left seated).

Questions for me to explore:

Who is my audience? This is something I will definitely be pondering more. I think I can eliminate the image driven side. I personally don’t view wine as an “image accessory” nor do I write like it is. To me, wine is about enjoyment rather than enhancing status or image.

I feel like my style caters more towards the wine student and general enthusiasts but who knows? Maybe you guys can help me with some thoughts in the comments.

2.) From Tom Wark

If you are going to blog then you should focus on something that you can be the champion of and commit to posting at least once a week, if not more. Don’t be a generalist. Be the go-to person for something.

Questions for me to explore:

What do I want to champion? Or maybe to put it another way, what drives my passion that can fuel a commitment to write steadily about a topic? This is a dozy for me to chomp on because I can’t really say that I have had a focus with this blog at all. I’ve definitely followed more the generalist approach, writing about whatever has tickled my fancy at a particular moment–even dipping my toes into the world of spirits and beer occasionally.

Do I need to hunker down and focus on something? What can I possible be the “go-to person” for? My initial instinct is to focus more on the wine student aspect and write about the info that I have been seeking out for my studies. In some ways that has always been an impetus for me in writing. Wine info is scattered across the internet and books and I initially started writing wine articles for Wikipedia as a way to consolidate and digest that info into one source.

Do I continue that path with things like my Keeping Up With The Joneses of Burgundy series, Bordeaux Futures and expanded research articles on figures like Martin Ray, Bob Betz, W.B. Bridgman, etc?

3.) From James Forysth

Niche apps like Delectable are ways that writers can build credibility and authority with publishing their reviews as well as get useful backlinks.

Questions for me to explore:

Eh? Reviews are something that will probably always have me conflicted. To be 100% brutally honest, I really don’t think anyone should give a flying flip about what I think about a wine. This is also why the idea of being “an influencer” never appealed to me. If you read my review and go out and buy a bottle of wine, you are spending your money and you will be the one drinking the bottle–so really only your opinion should matter.

This is why I very deliberately organize my reviews to have my opinion shoved down to the bottom. For me, the story of the wine and whatever cool or unique details I discover are far more important.

I will share my opinion on the relative value of the wine versus its cost only because I’ve spent probably way too much money on wine and have learned a few lessons the hard way. I say “relative value” because ultimately we each have to decide on our own if a wine is worth paying what the asking price is–like $2600+ for a bottle of Petrus. That’s a decision that I can never make for you–nor should you ever want me to.

The Wines of Rías Baixas

Master Sommelier Chris Tanghe

I was looking forward to this event moderated by Master Sommelier Chris Tanghe. Since I’ve joined the Somm Select Blind 6 subscription, Albarino has been a royal pain in the rear for me to pick out blind. I confuse it so often with several different wines–Oregon Pinot gris, California Viognier, Argentine Torrontes–that I haven’t honed in yet on what’s my blind spot with this variety.

My Albarino issue is probably fodder for a future post but, after trying 8 vastly different examples of the variety from the Spanish wine region of Rías Baixas, I now have at least one razor sharp tell-tale of the variety to look for.

Salinity.

Every single one has this very precise and vivid streak of salinity–even the examples that had a lot of oak influence. While the highly floral and perfume examples will still probably steer me towards Torrontes while the weightier examples will trip up me thinking about Pinot gris or Viognier depending on the fruit profiles, it may ultimately be the salt that leads me home.

Keynote Speaker — Lewis Perdue

Lewis Perdue has a long history in journalism and the wine industry–working for the Washington Post and founding Wine Business Monthly. He currently manages the website Wine Industry Insights which is most prominently known for its daily email News Fetch that is curated by Perdue and Becca Yeamans-Irwin (The Academic Wino).

The bulk of Perdue’s very excellent keynote was about the importance of bloggers building and maintaining trust with their audience. He made the very salient point that admist all the noise of traditional and digital media, ultimately the readers are buying into you and you have to demonstrate that you are worth their time and attention. A big part of that worth is your credibility.

From here Perdue highlighted several pratfalls that befall bloggers who seek out paid promotion opportunities from wineries (are they being upfront with their readers and the Federal Trade Commission?) and noted that the more “the sell” increases in your writings, the less credible you are.

Ultimately each blogger has to answer the question “Why are you blogging?” Are you trying to make money? Trying to inform? Trying to build a reputation?

So….why am I blogging?

I know I’ve very fortunate in that I don’t have to try and scrape together a living from blogging. My wife is a manager in the tech field which safely covers all our bills (especially the wine bills). Listening to Perdue’s keynote as well as comments from the panel earlier and the seminars I took on Day 3 of the Wine Bloggers Conference has only solidified in my mind that I really don’t want to bother at all with influencing/paid promotion junk.

Which probably takes my blog off of a lot of PR and wineries’ radars but oh well. If your winery is really interesting and doing cool stuff like Tablas Creek or Domaine Henri Gouges, I’ll probably find you eventually and be glad to spend my own money on your product.

I know that if it lives up to the hype, I’m going to have a heck of a lot more fun writing about it and telling others than if a winery came knocking on my digital door wanting me to tout some mass-produced Cabernet and Chardonnay.

Frankly if you ever see me writing multiple posts about some bulk brand, dear readers, don’t go and buy the wine. That’s my distress signal. I’ve been kidnap. Send help.

But back to Perdue’s question.

Why am I blogging? I suppose it is to build a reputation and establish credibility. I’ve always been a big believer in the mantra “Show, don’t tell.”

Yes, I’m working on my various certifications and I would like to someday be a Master of Wine but I really don’t want my credibility to rest on some initials. I’d rather get out there into the world and prove my mettle by letting my work speak for itself.

Credibility is extremely important to me which is why I’m an obsessive fact checker and like to litter my posts with frequent links and attributions to other worthwhile sources (something that gets Perdue’s seal of approval). I want to get it right and if I have it wrong, I want to learn where I erred so I can be better the next time.

Live Red Wine Blogging

This was crazy chaotic and I need to hurry up and wrap up this post so I can get to the next round for Whites & Rosé. While I tweeted and Instagram about a few things, the wines that are really worth a more in-depth review I will seek out bottles to purchase for a later post.

Out of the 10 wines I tried, the ones that I will definitely be seeking out are:

In fact, I already bought a bottle! Kind of made it easy with the Mansion Creek tasting room in the Marcus Whitman hotel.

Mansion Creek Cellars 2015 Red Dog — 70% Tinta Cão (hence the name), 28% Cabernet Sauvignon and 2% Grenache-Syrah. Super cool blend and great back story with the Iberian grape varieties.

Stone Hill 2015 Chambourcin — This wine made this Missouri girl super nostalgic but also super impressed. It was fairly early in the tasting event and I was spitting so I can’t blame palate fatigue but I don’t remember Missouri Chambourcin being this tasty.

Tertulia Cellars 2014 The Great Schism — This winery thoroughly impressed me at this past February’s tasting of the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance in Seattle. They poured the 2013 release of the Great Schism which ended up being my wine of the event and this 2014 was just as good. If you are a fan of savory and complex Rhones then this winery needs to be on your radar.

Mystery Wine Country Excursion — L’Ecole 41 and Woodward Canyon

Rick Small (left) of Woodward Canyon and Marty Chubb (right) of L’Ecole

I pulled the red ticket and boy did I score with my mystery location being jointly hosted by the crème de la crème of Washington wine. I can’t do the evening justice in a short blurb so I will save my thoughts for a future post.

But I will say that this event was the perfect fulfillment of my original expectation from my pre-conference post of wanting to hear other opinions from non-Washington bloggers about our local wines.

I really enjoyed listening to the perspectives of Las Vegas-based blogger Louisa from The Grape Geeks and Dallas-based Diane and Nathan Roberts of Positive Vines as they enjoyed these benchmark Washington wines.

I eagerly look forward to reading their write-up of the event (as well as Earle Dutton of Equality 365 who was my dining companion) and comparing notes.

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Wine Geek Notes 3/20/18 — Wine Fraud in Rhone, Robert Haas and Synthetic Yeast

Photo by Phillip Capper. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0
Here is what I’m reading today in the world of wine.

Interesting Tweets and Weblinks

Massive Rhône Valley Wine Fraud Reported by French Authorities from Suzanne Mustacich (@smustacich) of Wine Spectator (@WineSpectator)

This scandal has been making waves in the wine world for a couple days now but this report from Mustacich is the first I saw that named names–pointing to the négociant firm and bulk bottler Raphaël Michel. This is important because when consumers read headlines blaring that 66 million bottles or 15% of the Côtes du Rhônes produced from 2013-2016 were cheap swill passed off as higher AOCs, that naturally cast suspicion on every bottle of Rhone.

It also doesn’t help when publications like The Daily Mail use pictures of esteemed estates like Ch. Beaucastel and Clos de Papes as the illustration for their article that talks about Raphaël Michel’s CEO, Guillaume Ryckwaert’s, arrest back in August 2017.

With Wine Spectator getting the name of the real culprit out there, consumers should know that the Rhone wines made by established and small family producers are not part of this scandal. Unfortunately, it is not easy finding all the names of the bulk wine and négociant labels that Raphaël Michel produces (their eShop has only a few names) so the best advice for consumers is to do their homework. If you’re at a wine shop and see a Rhone wine from a producer you don’t recognize, Google them to see if they have an online presence that connects them to a real person or family behind the wine.

Buying guides like Master of Wine Benjamin Lewin’s (@BenLewinMW) on the wines and producers of the Northern and southern Rhone are also valuable resources.

Tablas Creek Founder Dies by Rupert Millar (@wineguroo) for The Drinks Business (@teamdb). Brought to my dash via Vino101 (@Vino101net)

Photo by Deb Harkness. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under  CC-BY-2.0

Tablas Creek’s nursery in Paso Robles.

The death of Tablas Creek founder Robert Haas is a great loss for the industry and my condolences go out to the Tablas Creek family. The entire Tablas Creek operation is top notch and I recently charted my path to becoming a wine club member there in my post Wine Clubs Done Right.

Beyond just the establishment of Tablas Creek winery, Haas had far reaching influence in the Rhône Ranger movement by pioneering the introduction of several Rhone varieties to the US.

Haas and Tablas Creek did the heavy lifting in getting cuttings from Chateau Beaucastel through quarantine and TTB label approval for numerous varieties like Counoise, Terret noir, Grenache blanc, Picpoul and more. Additionally the high quality “Tablas Creek clones” of Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre have populated the vineyards of highly acclaimed producers throughout the US.

For that we should all grab our favorite bottle of Rhone grapes (even better if it is Tablas Creek) and toast the amazing legacy of Robert Haas.

THE FUTURE OF FERMENTATION: THE ROLE OF SYNTHETIC YEAST IN WINEMAKING by Becca Yeamans Irwin (@TheAcademicWino) for Spirited Magazine. Brought to my dash via Wine & Spirits Guild (@WineGuild).

This was a very timely article for me as I just finished reading Clark Smith’s Postmodern Winemaking which deals with some of the philosophical issues and conflicts between improving wine technology, the Natural Wine movement and the winemakers caught in the middle who just want to make good wine.

I’m not going to add any commentary at this point because Smith’s book has given me a bit to chew on. It’s clear that there is still a lot of discussion to be had about the “Future of Fermentation” with Yeamans Irwin’s article adding some worthwhile insight into that dialogue.

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