What Should We Expect of Wine Writers? Short Visits, Thin Coverage, and Why Specialization Matters
By Evan Dawson, Managing Editor
If you wanted to gain an understanding of what a winemaker is trying to accomplish, how long would you need? How many wines would you want to taste? How many steps would you need to take in the vineyard? How many questions would you want to ask?
There is no set standard, obviously. But one of the most valuable exercises we have is the in-person visit to the winery. It helps writers get to know the winemaker, and perhaps the owner and the grower and the staff. It helps us comprehend why certain decisions are made. Interestingly, it's one of the least ideal settings to evaluate wines — we're human, after all, and confirmation bias is ever threatening. But the advantages are many, and direct visits are vital for writers covering a region.
I bring this up because I want NYCR readers to know how we approach our coverage, and I confess to experiencing a bit of shock when I learned how the Wine Advocate's Antonio Galloni was approaching his recent trip to Burgundy.
On the Dr Vino blog, Tyler Colman highlighted a tweet from Galloni in which Galloni said he was visiting nine producers in a single day. Nine visits! I was blown away. Doing the math, Colman figures that Galloni can only spend 30-45 minutes with each producer.
There is simply no amount of training or experience that will allow you to load up a schedule like that and still gain the comprehension that most writers seek. I don't bring the subject up to take a shot at Antonio Galloni, who, by all accounts, is a great guy and an impressive taster. But the Wine Advocate has had a credibility problem in Burgundy for years, and I just can't believe this is the way to improve relations.
To his credit, Galloni responded on Twitter to the questions of Colman and Dan Posner, owner of Grapes The Wine Company. Galloni wouldn't reveal the average amount of time he spent per visit, but he did say that the key was to make sure the producer has the wines set up for tasting in advance, so as to move quickly. He ate a baguette in his car for lunch. When asked if he felt he had sufficient time for each stop, he replied, "Sure thing."
Since his recent promotion, wine enthusiasts have questioned whether Galloni is "spread too thin." He now is responsible for covering all of Italy, Burgundy, Champagne and California. Galloni's schedule in Burgundy offers confirmation that he's being asked to do too much. As a point of comparison, Wine Spectator has, by my count, six people doing the work that Galloni does. It might be more. Italy alone is a behemoth with myriad varieties, and each year the winemaking improves. But with Galloni's workload, he has to focus on the tried-and-true regions, with almost no time to focus on something new and exciting. Just imagine what he could accomplish if he covered only Italy.
Today we learned that Jay Miller is leaving his post at the Wine Advocate after allegations of unethical behavior. (Miller claims the timing of his departure is mere coincidence.) Miller apparently was either incapable of booking winery visits himself, or didn't trust himself to do the work and had help from others who allegedly took advantage of the situation and tried to profit. The coverage duties of Miller, who handled South America, Spain, Washington State and Oregon, will be divided amongst the existing staff. You don't have to ask whether that will make their existing beats more challenging. These are capable professionals, but no one can travel to wine regions on opposite ends of the globe with regularity.
Fortunately for wine lovers, specialized wine writing is beginning to thrive. Note that I did not say blogging, even though this site is still technically described as a blog. True wine writing requires research, experience, and time. Are wine bloggers also wine writers? Some are, absolutely. But now, with the dilution of quality at industry titans such as the Advocate, wine lovers ought to be turning to specialized coverage.
At NYCR, the staff has the opportunity to spend as much time as we need with producers. Last year when I visited with winemaker Derek Wilber, I figured the visit would last roughly an hour. It stretched to two-and-a-half. Wilber is a thoughtful, experienced winemaker who had stories to tell and new ideas to share, and I didn't want to cut it short. There have been visits that I was surprised to find lasted only 40 minutes or so, but that's rare.
That's not to say that Lenn, Bryan, the staff and I are doing things flawlessly. Not even close. We all work full-time jobs outside of our work as wine writers. There are wineries I still haven't visited, and I regret that. But I don't want to sell it short with a drive-by visit, either.
Galloni might say, fairly, that he's not a storyteller; he's a wine reviewer, and he's there to taste wines. But if that's the case, why bother with the visit? He can taste those wines in his office. It's better to spend the time talking, interviewing, and trying to learn what a producer is all about. That time is so valuable, and if you have less than an hour, I can't imagine spending all or most of it tasting a lineup of wines.
But specialized coverage has its own risks for readers. Writers must resist the natural pull to root for a region. We are not cheerleaders. Do we occasionally advocate? Perhaps, but I would say we advocate for open minds and better consumer understanding. If a consumer declares they'll never try Finger Lakes riesling or Long Island merlot or Niagara pinot noir, for example, I'll urge them to reconsider. But I'm not a promoter. I travel and visit and taste wines from around the world to gain an understanding of where the region I cover fits in a global context. Our job is not to convince readers it's something that it clearly is not.
That said, I find specialized coverage to be more professional each passing year. Many companies are attempting to do more with less. But that trend doesn't benefit readers, and eventually, they'll find quality in new sources.