“The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” - Mark Twain
This post is provoked by Andrew Jefford’s now-famous speech “The Wine Writer is Dead,” which he gave at a meeting of European wine bloggers in Izmir, Turkey last month. It’s a great speech, full of wisdom and insight — click here to read the written version on Jefford’s website.
Jefford’s title made me think of the famous scene in Mondovino (see video above) where Aimé Guibert declares that wine is dead (and cheese and fruit, too). It seems to me that Guibert’s obituary for wine was based on the fact that people try to make a living from wine in an increasingly global and competitive market environment and this changes things, although perhaps not as much as Guibert suggests since money and wine have always intermingled and it is foolish to pretend otherwise.
Jefford talks about the problem of making a living, too, and the changing writers’ market environment, but he doesn’t suggest that wine writing has lost its soul in the way that Guibert mourns the death of wine’s essence. Certainly it is difficult to earn a living writing about wine, especially with the decline in paid print-media jobs, he says. So wine writing has evolved into something broader — wine communications – which seems to be about story telling in all its forms using all available media outlets.
“The world probably doesn’t need more writers … [but] the wine world will always … need multi-tasking communicators …”.
I tend to agree with Jefford that telling stories about wine is much more than simply writing for print publications, but I wonder if wine writing has ever really been such a narrow and focused endeavor as he describes? He’s been at this longer than I have, so I suppose he is right, but my sense is that the his distinction between wine writing (RIP) and wine communicating is not so sharp as he suggests and that if wine writing has died it probably did so a long time ago. In any case his point — that people who tell stories about wine should seize every opportunity to do so — is certainly well taken.
Is the Wine Reader Dead, Too?
I’m not really worried about whether wine writing is dead or alive. I’m more interested in wine reading, which I specifically do not define as reading about wine exclusively in paid (generally print) publications. Wine reading seems to be changing dramatically and that’s the more interesting trend. Unsurprisingly, I tend to think about this in economic terms.
Economists who study the economics of food choice believe that a key factor in the growing consumption of high fat fast food is cost — fast food is relatively cheap both in terms of money and time, which are strong economic incentives. Even when healthier food is available and consumers understand something about nutrition the economic incentives push and pull them into the drive-through lane on the margin.
I think the economics of readership (and wine readership) works the same way. I’m not saying that writing on the internet is the intellectual equivalent of “empty calories, ” but the shift of readership from traditional print publications to electronic media is influenced by economic incentives (as well as other factors of course).
Electronic texts are obviously cheaper in terms of marginal dollar cost since most of them are available free on the web and even the electronic versions of books are often cheaper to buy than the print versions. And you can often access electronic documents in a fraction of a second rather than the minutes, hours, days or weeks that it might take to get a copy of a print publication. Fast beats slow in a time-constrained world just as cheap beats expensive when money is scarce. No wonder readership patterns are changing.
The shift is magnified by the technology associated with electronic publications — especially tablets and smartphones. I may have already told you about my university student who explained to me that he was going to do his senior year on his smart phone — all his reading and writing would be iPhone-based or not at all. He succeeded after a fact, which I found a bit shocking. Shifting from iPhone to iPad, I think he might succeed quite well today and there’s nothing shocking about it.
Follow the Money, Deep Throat Advised
Reading has always been as much affected by economics as writing. Imagine the chaos created by the introduction of paperback books in the 1930s (or read about it here). Some observers predicted that paperbacks would be the death of the traditional book world, but in fact it seems that they ended up creating more readers and therefore more writers, too.
Follow the readers. This seems like good advice and I think it is Jefford’s’ point as well. The readers (and viewers and listeners) are shifting, responding to technological change and the altered economic incentives they confront. Writing has to do the same in order to stay relevant, and if a certain idea of wine writing (or writing in general) is a victim of the changing times I think we have to accept that and move on. Joseph Schumpeter called this sort of process creative destruction and we need to take account of what has been created as well as what is lost. Jefford understands this, although he doesn’t put it quite this way, which is why I recommend his talk to you.
It seems to me that there are probably more wine readers today than ever before in history, which is good news for wine writing, however you define it. As Mark Twain might have said, reports of its death are exaggerated.
Paperbacks then, Kindle today?