Today’s consumers can benefit from more voices in wine writing — whether in newspapers, in blogs and even on Twitter — to help loosen the grip that a few authoritative writers have had on our palates. That is not just my opinion. It comes from one of the most authoritative wine writers in the world.
Jancis Robinson, wine columnist for the Financial Times, wine adviser to Queen Elizabeth and blogger, oracle and all-around encyclopedic reference on everything vinous, hailed the “multiplicity of voices” in wine at the Wine Bloggers Conference last month in Charlottesville. It was the fourth annual gathering of the Internet’s most prolific and incessant voices on wine. It was also the first gathering away from the West Coast and, as such, a major coup for Virginia’s growing wine industry to host it.
Robinson, 61 and a new grandmother (her followers call her “Grancis”), somehow managed to be at once old-school classy and nouveau cool as she gave the keynote address to open the conference. Her audience consisted of about 325 bloggers from across North America, many of whom had not even been born when she started her writing career in the 1970s. Much of her speech had a schoolmarmish air, as she (appropriately) urged her audience to take wine and writing more seriously than they take themselves and to work at honing their journalistic skills to avoid “formulaic writing.” (That theme was echoed the next day by the conference’s second keynote speaker, Eric Asimov of the New York Times.)
Robinson seemed genuinely excited when she spoke of the changes brought on by new media. With consumers no longer dependent on one or two magazines for advice, and with more and more-varied wines available to choose from, the market is being transformed, she said.
“Retailers will regain the right to make their own choices of what to sell instead of following the one or two voices, and my own dream of consumers making up their own minds about what they like to drink will finally come true,” Robinson said.
She continued on that theme in an interview during the conference, noting the influence of two major publications, Wine Spectator and Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate. “For a large country, the American market was largely dependent on too few sources of opinion, and it didn’t help, in my view, that the two most powerful, Spectator and Parker, for whatever reasons, seemed to have very similar palates,” she said. “So it’s healthy that you’re getting people — not just bloggers, but Eric [Asimov] and Jon Bonne [of the San Francisco Chronicle] — who have a different sensibility and are pushing different wines from those that would be the natural high scorers of old.”
Robinson minced no words in saying she had accepted the offer to speak at the Wine Bloggers Conference as a means of marketing her Web site, where a membership costs about $115 a year. (It’s worth it for wine fiends, if only for the unlimited online access to her Oxford Companion to Wine.)
“People in Britain know me, and older Americans know me,” — ahem! — “but this was an opportunity to speak to younger American bloggers who are writing for new audiences,” she said.
Where are today’s wine bargains coming from? She pointed to wines from around Mount Etna in Sicily as well as “Portuguese in general, but especially whites.” She also mentioned historical Italian grape varieties and wines from Turkey’s indigenous grapes.
“I would hate just to drink the established classics,” said the woman who can drink whatever she darn well pleases.
And if she could speak directly to the American consumer, what advice would she give?
“Develop your own opinions and get in touch with your own preferences. Remember that with wine appreciation, there are no rights and no wrongs. We all have different tastes, and no single one of them is right. Be open: There are other grape varieties than chardonnay, and there are other colors of wine than red.”