Our email conversation cut off with a tale of a few Sonoma winemakers “highjacking” a train and forcing the passengers on a wine trip through Napa Valley to drink Sonoma Cab. Refresh your memories, or start from the beginning by checking out part 1 before proceeding…
Jeff: Ha, talk about guerilla marketing! Good luck to the next trio that attempts a similar brand building expedition in the age of Homeland Security and whatnot. And speaking of a wine writer holding court, what motivated you to take a literary path into wine and how has that profession changed now that anyone can write about anything? I wouldn’t say I write about wine, but even I “publish” occasional thoughts on the subject.
Bruce: I’ve always thought of myself as a Wine Educator, which usually took the form of a stand-up instructor in the classroom. I was part of the founding, and early administration, of the Society of Wine Educators. I wrote the original Wine Educators’ Handbook (1976), a curriculum guide published by Wine Institute for college campuses. And I put several years into a primary prevention of alcohol abuse project called Alcohol Education Research Institute. I believed, and still do, that 5,000 years of cultural ritual surrounding wine diminishes the compulsion toward excess.
Writing was something I enjoyed, but doing it for money, on a deadline, took all the fun out of it. I can’t say I’ve really overcome that attitude. And I’m sure there are a great many participants in the wine blogosphere who would agree ~ marvelous hobby; tough job.
The point at which writing became a requirement for me was in the mid-1980’s with a company called Winewrights’ Register. We sold wines from sixty or seventy tiny wineries over the phone and through the mail, after sending consumer members an annual book about the wineries and how they made their wines. We had many players who have subsequently gone on to very big reputations: Laurel Glen, Dunn, Au Bon Climat, Qupé, Ravenswood, even Hacienda del Rio (renamed Williams & Selyem). So it was crucial to convey the fascinating backgrounds of our participating winemaker / owners.
I had gone to Australia in 1980 to teach classes about small California wineries, and met James Halliday in one of the classes. At the time Halliday worked for a 300-person law firm in Sydney (he would have been 42-years-old), but already had several wine books to his credit and fairly elite status as a wine judge on the Australian Show circuit. Eventually he and his Australian publisher decided to do a survey book about California wine using a format that was very successful for them on Australian wine. That book became Wine Atlas of California (1993), which won the James Beard Award. I was hired to set things up for Halliday, who by then was Managing Director of the law firm, since he could only afford the time to make two 30-day trips to California. Halliday is one of the hardest working people I’ve ever met. Over sixty total days in California, he put 10,000 miles on my car, visited 300 wineries, and tasted 2,000 wines blind at my dinner table.
Every time I complained about how poorly I was being compensated, Halliday would promise to increase the type-size of my credit as Consulting Editor in the book. When it was finally published, my name was gigantic in the middle of the third page. Once people realized Halliday had only spent 60 days in California, they started to assume I had actually written the book. Not true! Halliday wrote every word. [The book has lots of pictures, but it’s nearly 400 pages long.] Moreover, the man can’t even type. He wrote the whole damn thing longhand on stacks of yellow legal pads. And did it all in about four months!
Soon writing offers began to pour in over my transom. I did lots of newspaper and magazine articles. There were two major hassles though: (1) it took forever to get paid; and (2) the weakest publications used unpaid interns as ‘fact’ checkers. These interns didn’t recognize the difference between a fact and an opinion. If I say, “the wine smells of lavender,” one shouldn’t call up the winemaker for confirmation. And if he replies,” no, it smells of violets,” that should not become the basis for a two-week argument holding up publication.
In 1997 I was rescued from the free-lance magazine biz by Jancis Robinson, who asked me to do a book for Oxford University Press which we called the “daughter book” to her Oxford Companion to Wine. Any project of that stature takes on a life of its own, and Jancis is every bit as bright and as much a workaholic as Halliday. I’m proud of the final product ~ Oxford Companion to the Wines of North America (2000), which was named Technical Work of the Year by the Intl. Assoc. of Culinary Professionals ~ in no small part because it was completed. Two planned subsequent projects by OUP, one on wines of Italy and one on wines of Australia, never came to fruition. Presumably because the writer / editors gave up. At least that’s what one of them told me. The Oxford Companion to Food by Alan Davidson is illustrative in this matter. Davidson turned his manuscript in 20 years past the date specified in his contract.
Will blogs fundamentally change the face of wine writing? I don’t know. It will always be desirable for writers to know a little something about the subject matter, and to state it in an entertaining manner. That’s the same in the new publishing paradigm as it was in the old. And there will always be tension between the need to pay expenses to do the job well, and the risk that a writer’s objectivity is compromised by the agenda of whoever pays the expenses. Again, no change from the old to the new. I suppose the audience is changing. And the absence of an editor is a big change. We’ll just have to see what form of output stands the test of time.
Jeff: The transition from writer to educator makes a lot of sense. As we’ve now touched on, technology is playing an ever-increasing role in how we learn, and this concept leads well into my next and final question. First, though, a bit of disclosure: you and I are working together on this project. With that out of the way, can you describe your latest venture in as much or as little detail as you’re willing to divulge?
Bruce: We’re taking a time-out from teaching fine wine classes in order to create a smart-phone app for self-guided tours in CA’s best wine producing regions. It’s an interesting balance between education and entertainment. Eventually we’ll have a book, in electronic form, which will be a wonderful educational tool. It will explain the concept of terroir in California, or why wines from specific vineyards taste different than the same grapes grown in other vineyards. But that is a big, time-consuming effort involving generation of some 120 maps in 3-D. And the audience for such cork-dork educational material is limited. What we want right away is an entertainment product (meat and potatoes) which allows consumers to sprinkle on education (the seasoning) to their own individual taste. Easy to see in any classroom: when one person’s eyes start to glaze over, an instructor needs to reinvigorate everybody with some saucy story about a winemaker being diddled by the owner’s daughter.
It’s the wine industry! History is replete with such tales. So we are about creating a free smart-phone app which will provide a similar range of entertainment / education as one finds from TMZ to Nova on television, along with a dial so consumers can choose a level which suits their mood. There will be objective recommendations, and useful functions such as note-writing and appointment-making. But nobody has to take themselves too seriously. If all you want is a little frothy conversation starter, we can supply as much location-specific salacious gossip as you desire.
We have a colorful team. Our lead software engineer is related to Geronimo. He grew up in Hawaii, and learned Japanese in high school so he could spend his junior year there studying computer-driven machine lathes. He’s bright. He’s also a closet wine geek. The guy who will do the 3D maps for us is an unrepentant hippie with hair to his waist, and a Masters from Cal Tech. He spends six months of each year growing organic tea in Hawaii. Twenty years ago he was writing algorithms that eventually became Google Earth. Our graphic designer is 6’9″ and rows for exercise on the Oakland Estuary. He works at the Tech Museum in San Jose and just had a baby daughter. He’s a closet wine geek too. Jeff is our Marketing Guy.
My responsibility is wine content. At parties I prefer to have strangers call me “Bronco.” Our videographer lives in Napa Valley, but is also the 8th Baronet of Newe, a shire near Aberdeen in Scotland. The family fortune was gambled away generations ago, but he remains Chieftain of the Forbes Clan, and head of the Highland Games each August in Scotland. Our major investor lives in Seattle and owns the Butterfly House in Carmel. There are only five houses on the ocean side of the shoreline drive through Carmel. There will never be any more. He owns two of those houses. He is also the biggest investor in WineBid.com. Our other Seed investors include a woman who was head of PR for Gallo when she was in her early 30′s. Our Advisory Committee includes the VP of Marketing for Playfish (owned by Electronic Arts) and a guy whose NY advertising agency has clients such as Kimpton Hotels and Pebble Beach G&CC.
We’re excited. Our Napa Valley app should be ready for consumer testing this Summer. Eventually we’ll have apps for six California regions. Useful suggestions, as opposed to comprehensive coverage, will be our paramount concern. We want users convening friends around a dinner table when they get home so they can share their experience. One highlight will be several sections of augmented reality in each region. We call them teachable locations. You touch an icon on the screen and are directed to a certain place. You exit your car and point your phones’ camera at (say) a particular vine. While the audio explains the training and pruning of that vine for quality and economic purposes, the screen shows the vine as it goes through a year’s worth of changes: pruning in the Winter; leaf growth in the Spring; fruit development through the summer; leaf pulling and harvest in the Fall; color change and leaf drop. Now apply this same technique to concepts like fog intrusion, or rain shadow. Very cool.