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Copyright © Ric Einstein 2009
What Price Information? (16 October)
Once upon a time back in the dark old days B.I. (Before Internet) it was much more difficult to get information on newly released Australian wines domestically. But it is worth remembering that in those days, wineries in Oz were in the hundreds, not in the thousands, and stylistic changes were generally a very slow evolution. The term ‘boutique winery” was not used, but if it would have been, Brokenwood would have qualified. Tyrrell’s was regarded as a fairly large producer. Penfolds (including Lindemans) was our largest producer, and that was without the benefit of Thomas Hyland, Rawson’s Retreat, Bin 407 etc.
If wine lovers wanted information on wine, options were limited. There was not much available that was immediate. If you were a “real wine lover” the chances are you were a member of a tasting group, as that was the best way to get information on the latest releases. You actually got to taste the stuff and could make up your own mind based on what was in the glass. What a revolutionary idea! There also seemed to be more regular and worthwhile in-store tastings in those days. People also watched the newspapers for a limited number of reviews, but without doubt the greatest amount of timely information came from publications like Winestate. It was the first serious wine magazine in Australia. With seven issues per year, the information was “hot off the press.”
Winewise was the next publication off the blocks to provide timely information. It started in 1985 and has been publishing six issues (paper) per year ever since. It’s doesn’t aim to compete with Winestate as it appeals to a more educated palate than Winestate. As far as I know, Winewise still does not have an online database of all its past tasting notes.
If you were really into wine into those B.I. days, chances are you also bought a number of books that were popular at the time. Robin Bradley’s Gold Book which was first published in 1971 was regarded as a gem. No tasting notes mind you, just a mystical number between one and seven that was provided by the winery. A label rating (one to five stars) was also provided. The peak drinking year was listed as well as the “current intrinsic value” but that last item was widely regarded as a joke, and a bad one at that.
By 1991 James Halliday had started his Pocket Guide Wine Companion and it competed with the Gold Book. By the late 1990’s it was a serious publication and for a few years, it was possible to buy the Companion with CD. The CD contained all the past Halliday’s tasting notes. For the last eight years or so, if you wanted the latest from Halliday, you had to buy his book as soon as it was released. Old notes were available online, but updates were only added after the new book was published. (That has just changed and new notes will be added when available.)
Jeremy Oliver started to write about wine in 1984 but it was not until 1997 that his first annual book, The Onwine Australian Wine Annual hit the shelves. It is interesting to note that although the book came out in 1997, many of his ratings go back to the 1980’s. Oliver also offered a theoretical bimonthly (from memory) subscription, hard copy, publication that regularly ran late. Some years ago, Onwine went live on the Internet. New Tasting notes were uploaded as available and all the old rating and tasting notes were easily searchable. The hard copy version died a natural death.
Campbell Mattinson threw his beanie into the ring and stated Wine Front Monthly in 2002. It started off as a hard copy publication. Like Oliver, in the past, Mattinson regularly had real difficulties getting his publication out on time. Working as a one-man band is not easy and the demands and dictates of life can easily get in the way of deadlines. Both scribes realised producing “x number” of the hard copy issues a year was financially and physically unsustainable. The rod that they had made for their own backs needed to be removed before it crippled them. The solution was already there; publish on the internet.
No printing costs, no postage, no snail mail delays, and information could be put up as soon as it was complete. All great reasons to convert to an online only operation…… or so it may have seemed. Unfortunately the parent that spawned its internet young is also capable of eating its own offspring.
You will note that the move to the availability of more timely wine information started to ramp up in the late 1990’s but it wasn’t until about four or five years ago that it really grained solid traction.
It was a happy coincidence that the massive increase in wineries and labels and the increasing reliance on the internet happened at the same time. If it was not for the advent of the internet, many of these new brands would not have been so successful. It wasn’t just the professional reviewers’ sites and publications that contributed to the success of many of the boutique wineries. The wine forums, wine information sites like this one, and wine blogs have all had a hand in getting the latest and greatest information out there quickly. Frequently, it was the hobbyist sites that drove the success, rather than the professional reviewers.
Serious wine lovers now expect and demand timely information. “I want the information and I want it yesterday” has become the norm.
Every once in a while a thread pops up on a wine forum complaining about the lack of timely or new information from sites like Onwine and Wine Front. Posters state they are not happy as there has been insufficient new material for “x” period of time. That dissatisfaction leads them to question the value of renewing their subscriptions. In many cases they don’t renew.
But it’s not that simple. There are other factors, as well as the other side of the coin to consider.
Up until recently, the latest wine information was limited and difficult to obtain. People who have come to love wine in the last decade and there are a heck of a lot of wine lovers that fall into this category, have not had to endure the B.I. wine days. Their expectation is to be able to immediately access what ever information they want. The advent of free wine information sites, forums, and blogs are one of the major reasons for this expectation.
Unfortunately in many cases, these new wine lovers don’t appreciate that professional scribes have to make a living if they are going to continue writing. Also, because of the limited size of the Australian domestic wine market, it is virtually impossible to make a living by doing nothing but producing an online wine magazine or blog, no matter how professional the output. All these guys do some other writing, or have some other wine activity that produces revenue. Writing books, hosting dinners, attending corporate events, public speaking and consulting are just some of these other activities.
Writing books seems to be the most popular, but books usually have a deadline that has to be met. No ifs and no buts. Presses are booked and the publication has to be ready. That pressure is enormous. Other activities, unimportant ones like spending time with the family and sleeping are foregone. Even important ones like updating their websites with the latest tasting notes are also put on hold, sometimes for a couple of months. Both Oliver and Mattinson were guilty of this in the past. Mattinson must now slave away over a hot wine bottle for 29 hours a day. His site has produced a huge amount of new information for some time now, without the release of books getting in the way. The recent merging of Winorama into Wine Front with Gary Walsh contributing tasting notes and has ramped up the value too. When these sites fail to post a load of new information for even a shortish period of time, it pisses off the “I want the information now” customers. They don’t feel they are getting their moneys worth. And they are entitled to their opinion. However on the other side of the coin is what they are getting for their subscription.
How about access to all the past information on the site; articles, stories, tasting notes and ratings etc.? That is all part of the subscription costs. As is the information that is posted the rest of the year; those hundreds, in many cases thousands of tasting notes and the other good stuff. And what value it is! The subscription to these Australian sites cost anything from about $20 a year to $44 a year. So how much is the information that these sites provide really worth? I mean to say it can actually cost as much as a pretty good bottle of plonk! That’s bloody expensive….. and yes I am being sarcastic, to make a point.
Many wine lovers wouldn’t think twice about going out and spending $44 on a bottle of wine on a whim. A couple of hours later it’s gone. Drunk. Consumed. Finished. They may not even enjoy the wine all that much, but it doesn’t matter, its all part of the wine drinking experience. Yet, the same person will seriously wonder if $44 is worth spending on an annual subscription for a professional wine writer’s work. Why? Does that make any sense?
In a perverse way it does. Post the advent of the Internet (P.I.) there is huge amount of knowledge and data available, and much of it is the latest information. The P.I. wine loving consumer now expects instant information and much of what is available on the internet is free. It is extremely difficult for the professionals who have to make a living from their internet sites to compete with all the free information out there. Sites like CellarTracker offer over 680,000 free tasting notes made by average consumers but this is a two-edged sword. The majority of Cellar Trackers Users are far from being wine professionals and their tastes need to be aligned with yours. With the professional wine writers you can develop a feeling for how relevant their views may be to your own. That may be possible with Cellar Tracker members too but then there is also the quantity of wine a CT member tastes in a year versus a professional. So in summary there are three factors at play with amateurs versus professionals; quality of output, quantity of output and alignment of taste and style to the reviewer.
Out shopping and want to find a tasting note on a particular wine you see? No wucking furries mate, just bring up the internet site on your phone or PDA. The pros are also getting into the act too. Wine Spectator has announced an optimised version of their magazines database for PDA’s Smartphones and other mobile devices.
I sent a pre-release copy of this story to Campbell Mattinson to get his
perspective. As his livelihood depends on it, he would have given it much
thought over the years. Here is what he had to say. "We're at an interesting
stage in the evolution of wine publishing. There were some online wine
super-sites created ten or so years back - Wine Planet and
Winepros - which ended up essentially falling over. Ten years on the super
sites are coming back, and internationally the two most obvious of them are
Robert Parker's expanded site and Jancis Robinson's site. The interesting
things about both these sites is that in the past 18 months they've added a host
of new reviewers or specialists, to take the pressure off the main names
themselves, and to broaden their coverage. This is all part of the most pressing
point in world wine; the fact that the world wine business is now massively
bigger than it's ever been. Everyone from consumers to retailers to
producers to bloggers to the professional wine media is grappling with this new
fact of life. Once upon a time it was possible for a single wine person to
become something of an expert on all the major points in world wine. Now it is
not possible for anyone to do that - even a country like Australia producers
50,000-odd wines each year, every year, a figure that no single person can
cover. And then there are all the other wine producing nations - of which there
will soon be more. The fact that the world of wine is now vastly expanded is
something that all folks are only just now starting to come to terms with - or
so I would argue.
"In that sense, TORBWine with its emphasis on red wine was ahead of its time."
Campbell makes many excellent points here. The changes in what we get, and the way in which we get wine information has changed more in the last ten years than in the last two hundred years. And in the next ten years, it may changes that much again. We are only at the starting point of internet technology.
It is ironic that the medium that these wine writers were driven to may be the cause for their eventual professional demise, in the format that we know it today. It would be a crying shame if these resources were to disappear as these Australian writers offer a great service, which is incredibly good value , especially when you consider what you are getting for your subscription fee. These fees in other countries, like the US and UK, are far higher, so don’t be mingy - support your local professional scribes. Or else you won’t have any! And that would be a crying shame.
Feel free to submit your comments!From Bob Lidston: Sunday 19 October
When I worked part time in wine retail I used to subscribe to Jeremy Oliver's website. I found it quite useful to supplement and fill in the gaps in my new wine release tasting. Although I attend all the trade days I could and was able to taste a few wines each week at the store I did have enough information to satisfy my regular customers.
Now that I have retired I stopped subscribing mainly because my personal tastes
had changed. Now for each bottle of Australian red I drink there are at least 3
bottles of Italian/ Spanish red - more savoury, drier and easier to match with
food. I have yet to find a professional in Australia who reviews these wines on
I have enjoyed immensely reading your articles for several years now.
From Michael McMahon: Sunday 19 October
I think the point is well made that the sites you mention in your article offer extraordinary value for money .
Unfortunately the vast majority of people are only interested in the wines tasted and the points scored …this has always been the case since I started drinking wines in the ‘60’s, but sadly now seems to lead to innumerable everyday drinking wines being given stratospheric scores, particularly by some of the scribes who have been drinking wine for as long as I have.
Is this the wine scribes way of dumbing down information or are there really that many great wines out there now ?? I taste a helluva lot of wine and there aren’t ( to my palate ) that many really good ones that come along, let alone great ones. There isn’t really the thirst for pure information out there, which understandably leads wine critics to focus on tasting a lot of wine and giving them all a points score (a really silly concept if you think about it, because it’s so subjective and invariably flawed in so many ways.)
I admire Oliver because he calls it as he sees it , and I believe winefront packs plenty of information with, as you point out, a lot of hard work …they’re obviously heading in the right direction …but for my money your site offers the best value because you tackle important issues through your own personal perspective. It’s also free. I’d really like to see some of the other critics give more a warts and all insight as you sometimes do, and perhaps use their taste buds a little more critically …I think it would help them as well as us.
Copyright © Ric Einstein 2008
Copyright © Ric Einstein 2008