Tuesday, January 14, 2014

No humour please - we're wine lovers


A few days ago, one of the best US wine bloggers Steve Heimoff said in one of his posts, that the wine world needs more humour. Within 24 hours of that call, I found myself reading one of Hosemaster - aka Ron Washam's - latest pieces.
Now, I'd have to admit that Hosemaster, like his countryman Jon Stewart of the Daily Show, is an acquired taste. I happen to find his savage tongue-in-cheek attacks on all sorts of aspects of the wine world wonderfully refreshing. Others, including figures like Robert Parker and Jancis Robinson who have felt the Hosemaster stiletto satirically sliding between their ribs, agree. 

Parker said he is "without a doubt the funniest SOB in the blog-world...[with the] brains and balls to target his laser of laughter on anybody... HoseMaster for Blogger of the Year... although he would be the first to say the bar is so damn low for that award, he should win it every year... No one else is remotely as funny or as talented. And the wine world sure needs someone to poke fun at all the nonsense and phoney/baloney unsufferable crap out there."

The piece I enjoyed was entitled "What Not to Publish on Your Stupid Wine Blog in 2014"  and laid into some of the mainstays of wine bloggery, ranging from lists of favourite wines and paeans of praise to social media, to futile attempts to uncover the truth of terroir and pictures of winery dogs. As an exercise in puncturing the pomposity of the vinous blogosphere, it was well nigh perfect. Which is probably why it did not go down very well with some of the more serious members of the wine blogging fraternity.

Among the people who hated the piece were Sean Piper, publisher of Wine Consumer who defended bloggers as representing "the most enthusiastic of wine consumers" who, in their turn, risked being "alienated" by satire. Hosemaster was described as having a "humorous and vulgar opinion" which was worryingly "proliferated by the experts of wine". (A reference presumably to the fact that, like me, he is commissioned to write a monthly piece on the Timatkin.com site).

Another person who evidently shares Piper's appreciation of Hosemaster is Ken Payton, film-maker and decidedly earnest author of Reign of Terroir. Payton is gleefully quoted on the Hosemaster site (along with Parker, Robinson, Heimoff et al) as saying ""I must say you are an idiot. I've never liked you. I have no idea why people find you funny."

And that's the point. Payton and Piper and - from my experience judging wine blogs for a couple of awards - far too many other bloggers, simply don't "do humour". As Heimoff said in his piece, "...part of the reason I have mixed feelings about winery use of social media is that the products (especially the videos) are so damned earnest. There’s no sense of humor, no trace of mocumentary or snicker. "

I've always thought that making people laugh is one of the more honorable human aspirations and that wine and humour are natural bedfellows. After all, much of the art celebrating the subject over the centuries depicts jolly, smiling people who look as though they've enjoyed a few jokes along with their copious glasses of red. They don't usually appear to have sat through a lecture on the subtle differences in the limestone content of Burgundian soil, or the more obscure varieties of Portuguese grape. 

A brief trawl through Youtube reveals that ordinary mortals seem to agree with Heimoff and me - if the viewing figures for "funny" wine videos made by non wine folk are anything to judge by.











People watch these clips in tens of thousands. "Serious" videos struggle to get into four figures.






Fortunately, there are occasional examples of the industry understanding the value of humour in video, and they're rewarded with gratifyingly large audiences.

Sadly, however, this kind of thing is not usually associated with - or appreciated by - terroirism-obsessive bloggers.


42 comments:

  1. Nice angle.Robert....sometimes humour does rub people up the wrong way...we all have different tastes like in wine!
    I regularly watch the BoringWineGuy and he makes me laugh alot...very funny bloke

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    1. Thanks Patrick. I agree: different strokes for different folks.

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  2. Please allow me to suggest my "humorous" wine videos: http://theriojascrolls.tumblr.com/

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  3. Hi Robert,
    I agree. Wine writing needs more humour. That's why I usually love Ron Washam's pieces. This one however was slightly different. I only liked it. Why? Because his advices were basically that: good advices. (Though I still think it might be a good post to interview my imigianary pet penguin "Frosty" about which wines pair well with herring).
    As usual Ron wasn't just funny. He also shows a lot of wisdom in his satirical criticism. Often this is hidden in extreme exaggeration as is typical for satire. But this time I missed the exaggeration. So his humour came from his use of language. As a non-native-speaker I just don’t get as much of that as you do. And maybe it was because of the lack of exaggeration that it was indeed harder to get the humour in this piece if you’re not familiar with Ron’s jokes.

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  4. Hello Robert,
    As a longtime satirist and Fool, I always try to remember that if I'm not angering people, I'm simply not doing it right. Satire's job isn't just to make one laugh, it's to make one laugh at something or someone. The targets aren't supposed to find it amusing. Indeed, if you look at the folks who most actively dislike what I wrote in my piece, you'll find the folks I wrote about.

    I'm not sure why Sean Piper thinks wine bloggers should be above criticism. If my silly words "alienate" them, well, they must be sad and insecure folks. So they'll have a great future in wine writing.

    For as long as I can remember, people in the wine business have said that wine needs more humour. But they want Noel Coward, not Ricky Gervais. I'm not concerned with what folks want. Those who like what I do, well, I'm deeply flattered. Those who abhor it, I am equally flattered.

    Self-delusion is a wonderful thing! It's what makes most wine bloggers.

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    1. I think the key word for bloggers is "self". They are all too often writing their diaries in public, and have little concern about pleasing an audience. You certainly do that, so please don't stop!

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  5. Louise Hurren6:26 p.m.

    I read and laughed out loud at that particular Hosemaster post. Hurrah for humour. But serious wine writing is important too. I embrace both. It's just the mindless pictures of dogs (along with vines at dusk, at dawn, at daybreak, at sunset, ad nauseum) and inane "we love wine!" kind of posts that grate.

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    1. We're on the same page. Dogs that happen to hang around wineries are no more interesting than any other dogs... Or cats. (And I'm a dog lover). Now a winery with pet rats. That would be more interesting.

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  6. Sean Piper6:26 p.m.

    I get your point, Robert. Trust me (or ask anyone who knows me), I can do funny all day long. Some things just cross the line of humor when they become obscene and vulgar, and there's little to benefit wine consumers or the image of the wine industry at that point. Your perspective is appreciated nevertheless.


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    1. Thsnks Sean. I believe you - and lots of people with keen senses of humour laugh - or fail to laugh - at diffferent things.

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  7. Reka Haros6:27 p.m.

    The audience, therefore the consumers, are tired of mystical wine language, of details that they don't care about. They look for light-hearted and easy wine language to be able to enjoy wine. Industry professionals are too deeply into matters, and speak and communicate the same way, but the audience (consumers) don't care and don't want to hear about it anymore. Here is one of the main reasons for the communication gap between consumers and industry professionals. Humour is good if it's done the right way, at the right moment be it for wine or any other consumer product.

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    1. Jamie Goode6:28 p.m.

      Reka, how do you know this? Or are you guessing? Most 'consumers' simply don't want to read about wine at all. By all means, bloggers should write clearly and entertainingly, but I don't think there's much of an audience outside the niche of wine geeks (from my experience with friends who like wine but will never read about it)

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    2. Reka Haros6:31 p.m.

      Jamie, by audience I mean the youtube viewers, the difference between views of "funny" videos compared to "serious" videos. Other than this my experience as a producer who travels quite a bit for private wine tastings I can say that everywhere I have been this is the case, my audience looks for entertaining experiences, either through humour or just an easy-going wine tasting experience... Obviously I dont have market shares and statistics in hand, I have my own on-field experiences, and this is what I have to share. As I can read around in many wine sites, this seems to a quite a big tendency, not just my own isolated experience.

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  8. Elisabetta Tosi6:28 p.m.

    Funny. I always thought that this is exactly the more notable characteristic of a wine blogger - he/she is able to have fun with wine (yet), without losing of authority, if he/she has it

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    1. If only... Fun is not a word I associate with many of the blogs I've looked at. (re wine or any other subject).

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  9. Louise Hurren6:29 p.m.

    I'd like a pound for every time I've heard someone sound off about what "most consumers" or "people" want. Unless you've done an independent survey, how on earth do you know?

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    1. Anthony Spawton6:38 p.m.

      Louise - again it is wine bloggers judging wine bloggers. I agree its an interesting area but it would be better and more interesting if it was a conversation with the consumer - not a one way opinion - like we are having now a conversation - there is disagreement and I love to be controversial as Robert knows - he and I have been acquaintances for years and he for one has transformed from being a wine writer hack to a communicaotor in the modern communications media few of his contemporaries have done the same.

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  10. Louise Hurren6:30 p.m.

    And in Ken Payton's defence (although he can speak for himself), he is actually quite funny and can be a very playful guy, when you get to know him. He doesn't often write humorous pieces, I grant you, but here's a good one:http://reignofterroir.com/.../screw-cap-industry-strikes.../

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    1. Antony Spawton7:29 p.m.

      Ken Payton - funny - you cannot be serious.

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  11. Anthony Spawton6:32 p.m.

    Robert - there is a difference between humour and entertainment ( ing ) writing about wine. Its like Jeremy Clarkson writing about cars - you read for entertainment but you are not at least interested in the car let alone buy it. I only wish Clarkson would forget cars and start writing about wine . if you really want to be bored about wine spend a few hours ( minutes ) on wine on Youtube - or better still a few wine web pages - or if you really want to be pissed off winery Facebook pages. Unprofessional, and boring. Try teaching wine Communication and have your students audit the web and they like me cringe and say what a turnoff. Robert you should run a competition on the best wine web page/ blogg/ Youtube post / and publish the feedback - if you get any; other then from other bloggers. Wine is an accessory to hedonic behaviour - the wine industy is in the entertainment category where it is associated with people enjoying themselves not being talked down to or bored out of their brains.

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    1. Anthony, I agree re "entertaining". (Humour is just one facet). And, yes most wine online is tedious in the extreme. To any other than the absolutely wine-obsessed.

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  12. Louise Hurren6:34 p.m.

    Anthony with all due respect, isn't writing "they... write bullshit most of the time" a bit of a generalisation, the like of which I was calling out before? I'd challenge you on that. There are 1000s of wine bloggers, of all kinds, from the deeply thoughtful to the seriously inane. That's the joy of online wine writing: there's a great deal of it (so it can take time to sift through), and there's truly something for everyone. There are polls and awards to nominate the "best" wine bloggers, but it's a matter of personal choice. The better bloggers (IMHO) are those who manage to combine solid professional knowledge and commitment with a lightness of touch (which brings us back to humour and Robert's original question). From having rubbed shoulders with Robert and several hundred European bloggers at last year's #DWCC event, I can testify to the diversity of skills, talent and enthusiasm within the wine blogging community (translation: there's some great writing out there... and also some rubbish. It was ever thus).

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    1. With respect, Louise, it was not ever thus. In previous ages, getting into the public eye was a lot harder. You either had to persuade someone to pay you for your contribution to their publication; you had to pay for your own pamphlet to be printed and distributed; or you had to get upon a soapbox and shout what you had to say - ad quite possibly duck the insults and tomatoes.

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  13. Anthony Spawton6:36 p.m.

    Robert - there is a difference between humour and entertainment ( ing ) writing about wine. Its like Jeremy Clarkson writing about cars - you read for entertainment but you are not at least interested in the car let alone buy it. I only wish Clarkson would forget cars and start writing about wine . if you really want to be bored about wine spend a few hours ( minutes ) on wine on Youtube - or better still a few wine web pages - or if you really want to be pissed off winery Facebook pages. Unprofessional, and boring. Try teaching wine Communication and have your students audit the web and they like me cringe and say what a turnoff. Robert you should run a competition on the best wine web page/ blogg/ Youtube post / and publish the feedback - if you get any; other then from other bloggers. Wine is an accessory to hedonic behaviour - the wine industy is in the entertainment category where it is associated with people enjoying themselves not being talked down to or bored out of their brains.

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    1. We're 100% on the same page, Anthony.

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  14. Graham Tigg6:40 p.m.

    Everything is relative. Try reading some blogs on IT. In general I find wine blogs as witty as say food blogs.

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    1. Anthony Spawton7:24 p.m.

      Graham - that's my job - I developed wine marketing as a discipline and I teach wine Communication ( or did) and I weep. Wine is a personal product like no other - it is interesting/ exciting/ it is stimulating / it captures the imagination but it is under developed. There is a sameness of product orientation unlike food bloggs which are occasion based/ culture/ location/ anything that will transform the reader to want to participate - to experience and with the internet you can do that. Its like you are in a virtual wine world experience. Ken tried but it in my opinion did not really come off - it is too subtle for the average punter. Wine consumers are neglected and taken for granted - they are uninvolved in the main - ignored and you wonder why they buy on price. I have a class on observed behaviour on the wine purchase process - it is enlightening and disappointing. Wine has lost its mojo and we are to blame - the communication is boring. contradictory, demeaning ( what industry

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  15. JC Viens6:45 p.m.

    if i may contribute my 2-cents, i feel that many "conversations" such as the one above seem to miss a very important aspect of wine "communication" which is, fundamentally, about trying to translate into words the emotions a wine gives.
    as we all know, words are much too often inadequate to properly express those emotions. yet it is exactly because of those that we feel compelled to share with others. part of the problem is that some have more abilities with words than others. some have more experience at sharing their emotions. instead of trying to empathize with each other, it seems that the experience of wine has become (or was it always?) a "battle of wits". no wonder that many a "wine conversation" is a major turnoff...

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    1. Thanks J.C. To be fair, I think Hosemaster's criticisms go further than that. I agree with him that at under $15 few wines are really "great".I also question why winery dogs are more interesting than guide dogs.

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  16. Alan March6:45 p.m.

    Anthony you've lost me, A 2.99 buyer will buy a £40 bottle once or twice a year??? Not in my area and I have stood in many supermarket wine areas and talked to many people who drink wine occasionally. I was in a supermarket this morning which was 'selling' Meursault 04 from an unheard of merchant at £25. Who is going to buy that?

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  17. Ken Payton7:31 p.m.

    Thank you, Robert, for sending so many new readers to my blog. I appreciate it. As for my comment the Hose Master so tenaciously clings to, it was written, if memory serves, sometime in 2009 in response to what I felt to be a tactless attack on a friend of mine. Though I have moved on, sadly the Hose Master has not.

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    1. Thanks Ken. I'm sorry if Hosemaster or I have misrepresented you. I guess you's better send him a new review.

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    2. Mr. Payton is correct. His comment, so brilliant and incisive, was posted as a comment on my blog many years ago. I have it lovingly reproduced in a sidebar I call "What the Critics Are Saying" as an antidote to the mindless praise I'm given.

      Indeed, a tactless attack certainly warrants a, well, tactless attack. I still haven't the vaguest idea who Mr. Payton's friend is.

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  18. Keep in mind that the Hosemaster is basically writing for an American audience. We have a somewhat different sensibility than Brits (which I assume you are?)

    His irreverent humor is a unique beacon of light in an otherwise boring assortment of usual wine blogs/reviews. When I am feeling down, I can always count on Ron Washam to lift my spirits with his funny, often silly prose.

    And, just for the record, I am a former sommeliere ( the French Culinary Institute in NY) , the wine columnist for Chef Magazine and "distinguished" instructor in the Wine Program(mme) at the University of Callifornia.

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    1. You make a good point - though Ron now has a monthly slot in Timatkin.com which is published here in the UK. But you're right. No one, or almost no one here talks about Somms or have even heard of Raj Parr or Steve Steve Matthiasson. (I just looked for Matthiasson on Wine Searcher and there does not appear to be a single bottle in the country.

      That's the other side of the picture. In the UK we have a much quieter, less enthusiastic wine scene. We don't have star sommeliers or wiinemakers or "hot" new wines. We don't shout about "great" wines at any price - and our blogs have smaller audiences.

      One thing we have in common, however: whatever their specific content, the blogs are similarly dull. Which is why you and I relish Ron.

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  19. It's always awkward when one is driven to respond by mentioning one's own work, but if you will forgive us coughing from the wings to attract attention…

    We've been writing The Sediment Blog (http://www.sedimentblog.com), and from our position of ignorance and poverty have attempted to write humorously about wine for three years now. In the process we have almost won two awards for our writing.

    The Hosemaster is satire, and a very industry-focussed satire at that. Sediment is, hopefully,amusing about the social, marital and financial aspects of wine, from a middle aged, middle class, middle market point of view.

    We have enough followers to know that our writing haven't gone completely unnoticed - but may we appeal to anyone seeking humorous wine writing to give us a try?

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    1. Thanks for your note. I HAD in fact noticed - and liked - your blog and have included it in this post: http://thejosephreport.blogspot.co.uk/2014/01/being-offensive-humorous-challenge.html

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  20. Humour comes in many forms, from understated wit, straightfaced dryness, to in your face vulgarity or bitchy satire.

    There's a subtext (sorry for the boring intellectual word, but I've been writing a wine blog for three years, so being boring comes naturally) that the only type of humour that gets you an audience is the more extreme or obvious kind.

    It would be a shame if everyone felt they had to ramp up to those levels. A bit like everyone having to shout at the top of their voice to be heard. Just not necessary.

    Some people like Rob Chubby Brown. Others prefer Jeeves and Wooster. It's all entertainment, even if some people find one abhorrent and the other dull and old fashioned (You'll have no difficulty in guessing which one I prefer then).

    I've stumbled on humour in fairly unlikely places ( random entries in the Oxford Companion to Wine for example). But perhaps not everyone notices when things are being quietly sent up or mocked?

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    1. Different strokes for different folks. Some people laugh out loud at Proust.

      Bruce Springsteen and the Stones v Bach and Miles Davis.

      I relish dry wit as well as hardcore Mock the Week, the Onion, Lenny Bruce style satire. I don't happen to like Chubby Brown and find likening Hosemaster to him unreasonable. Ron Washam is an extremely knowledgeable former sommelier who made at least one (I'd say more) very valid point: talking about "great" wines at under $15 does devalue the adjective.

      I think the risk of "everyone feeling they have to ramp up their humour and to shoult at the top of their voice" is small. Doing enough to raise a smile from anyone other than the initiated who "get" recherché wine puns does not, however, strike me as a very lofty ambition.

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  21. From my perspective, all the above is of severely limited value. Blogging has a very real historical dimension. The history of publishing in America, for example, demonstrates great activity, as every township in early America published broadsheets, what would now be considered blogging. Indeed. contemporary historians would positive lust over discovering such detailed, immediate accounts of days gone by. Or the Annals group, out of France, led by M. Bloch, F. Braudel and R. Mandrou etc. They dug deep to find the truth of an era extrapolated from the wall scribblings of prisoners, farmers' accounts of crops grown, the number of chickens raised in this hamlet or that, notebooks of the quartered wood required for a village to maintain heat in the local church, so much more; and in the case of America, our very currency was blogged, the hypothetical creation of enterprising souls fortunate enough to obtain/steal a printing press, Benjamin Franklin included. Fact is we cannot yet see the value of blogging. The judgement is not ours to properly make. All it takes is an iteration by a bright soul not yet born, to show us the limits of our understanding. And I for one, welcome it.

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    1. Ken, you make some good points. However, those broadsheets were generally sold. Ones that found no readers withered on the vine. The scribblings of farmers generally existed for their own records. Prisoners were a particular example thanks to their lack of human contact - and other activity.
      Blogging is something else. I blog and I read other people's blogs, and all of it is publishing, without the constraints that publishers have always had: in the shape of production costs and a need for a paying customer base (of readers and/or advertisers).
      Bloggers are by definition self-important, with a belief that what they have to say is of value.
      Sometimes it is. Often it isn't. But once they have been placed in the public eye, as far as I am concerned, blogs are fair game for all the criticism and satire that is directed at all the books, plays, movies created by possibly more overtly commercial souls.
      And yes, some blogs will be historically valuable. As will many a credit card bill.

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