Are local winewriters lazy (or worse)?

sadiecellarIn the past eight years, Eben Sadie tells me, scarcely a single local wine-writer has bothered to visit him and his winery; a tiny handful have come to his annual open day – that’s it. On the other hand, the number of foreign writers who’ve visited is legion. Tim Atkin commented recently on this website that he’d visited Eben seven times, a not unreasonable attention to the country’s leading wine producer, he thinks.

Yet local winewriters don’t seem to feel the need or the desire, despite living on the doorstep. Eben’s Perdeberg winery is an hour’s drive from Cape Town. One can presume that the same neglect applies to other leading Cape producers (not to mention non-leading but interesting ones).

I was thinking about this matter, after I’d written a touch peevishly, in response to Tim Atkin, about how nice it is for foreign hacks that they get so much arranged for them by Wosa, whereas we locals don’t. I’ve decided that I was wrong to make that point. Sure, the specific fact is true – but, on the other hand, we get plentiful opportunities to attend numerous events throughout the year: journalists are pretty invariably given free entry, as far as I know, to big events like Winex, the awards shows of the likes of Veritas and Trophy Wine Show, the Stellenbosch Festival, many trade shows, etc.

Not to mention various “new release” functions offered by the richer and/or more marketing-oriented producers. Cumulatively, at all of these venues a huge range of the Cape’s wines is available. Not to mention the possibility of visiting wineries and their vineyards that are spread out and welcoming within an hour or two of Cape Town.

Do we take advantage of the opportunities? I doubt if Eben Sadie is somehow alone in not being visited by local wine-writers. Who don’t seem to take much advantage of the larger events either. I’ve seen remarkably few of them at the Swartland Revolution and the Hemel-en-Aarde  Pinot Noir Festival. Why? Is it the cost (neither of those expensive events gives freebies to local journalists)? Or that combined with a lack of interest? A lack of awareness that, really, to feel entitled to comment about local wines you should make a bit of effort to find out more than the superficialities.

On the other hand
Let’s look at it from the other side for a moment. It’s easy to convict South African wine journalists of laziness, of dereliction of duty, of insufficient education, experience, dedication, etc. On the other hand, look at how impossible it is to make any sort of a living out of wine journalism in South Africa. It is unquestionable that no-one does so, in fact, except for a few connected to the couple of wine (or wine, food and lifestyle) magazines. The market for wine writing is just not there. The vehicles for serious wine journalism are just not there. Proper wine journalists needing to make a living have to turn to making money from wine-shows and nonsense like wine competitions – and even these must be sponsored by ghastly institutions like banks to be viable.

A trip out to Stellenbosch, let alone the Swartland or Hemel-en-Aarde costs actual money. Seldom enough can a journalist sell a story (or a report) that results from such a visit, to at least cover the petrol costs. Eben Sadie and other producers who note the lack of attention from the local media contingent must remember that too. The foreigners’ expenses are usually paid for by their neespapers, or they have a commission, or are sponsored by Wosa. And local producers fall all over the foreigners because, actually, they can help sell more expensive Cape wine than the local journalists can.

There are wine producers who’ve made their money from banking or IT or leathergoods or advertising or whatever, who are there for the life-style even if they don’t make much profit out of wine. Some local wine writers could be earning much more from other careers, but are in this business because they love wine and have a great time being involved as parasites (as Jancis Robinson has slyly called us) on the wine industry.

Nonetheless, nonetheless. There’s not a little arrogance around among local wine-journalists. A bit more work from us would help justify it. I would say that, on the whole, if we make much less money than some of our grander foreign colleagues, we also have no conception about how hard they work for it.

15 thoughts on “Are local winewriters lazy (or worse)?

  1. Really interesting topic for a piece Tim. I look forward to some of the comments. Surely if wine writers …are in this business because they love wine and have a great time being involved… then a 60 minute drive up the N7 isn’t beyond them?

  2. PS. A little belatedly, further to my comment about how winewriters make a living – I should have pointed out that I make mine primarily from a totally unrelated morning job, in order to avoid involvement in what I’d regard as compromising commercial relationships with the wine industry.

  3. As a local writer of long standing, my view is if one wants to be taken seriously visting wineries and, if possible the vineyards is imperative(Eben, the Mullineux’s & others vines are strung out all over the place, so this would be difficult but not impossible). That said, and as I wrote in my piece on Tim Atkin’s SA report, I like to taste the wines first to get an understanding of the winemaker’s intent (possibly also driven by the owner’s). To drive even 10 minutes and waste an hour on mediocre wines where there’s neither knowledge nor desire to reach the top of the ladder is not something I’m willing to do.
    The little I do earn is made entirely from my wine writing & lecturing activities – Platter now my remaining ‘judging’ role.

  4. Tim

    Great article and I agree with everything that you have said especially the lack of proper money to make a full blown career from it. Something I have believed for some time is that the Wine Industry talks a big glamorous game, yet when it comes to investing in their staff, brand ambassadors etc there is always excuses why they can’t pay them more.

    We have also seen great marketing people leave the industry or from other parts of it for a better salary.

    However, I represent a couple of smaller producers who don’t have the money to splash out on big launched, lunches or dinners. Yet when I invite media, trade etc to my focused portfolio tastings IN CAPE TOWN, then they always decline. When you follow twitter or FB then you see these same people at more lavish events hosted by better known producers. Making it as if my tasting is just not worth going to.

    SO, it is not just the media that is at fault here but also the trade. Personally i wish there were more opportunity for good and objective wine writing in South Africa. Perhaps there could be something we miss and something that can be financially viable…will have to think about that :)!!

    Just a thought…to me an interesting read would be about a small, unknown producer rather than the launch of a new wine by a big brand. Or a known brand who’s winemaker has been there for 30 years and can comment on the changes etc. That to me would be writing something different rather that to just write something!

  5. We all know how poetically beautiful the winelands are and how engaging and charming those enigmatic winemakers. But I not sure that travelling, spending money and time,always explains what ultimately is in that bottle. “Back stories” can be fine journalism and interesting, but it’s when I drink (oh yes! and not only taste)the stuff that truth tells its own tale.

  6. I work in the restaurant industry in Gauteng as a sommelier. Obviously wine is my passion and I try fly down for weekends to visit wine farms! No matter what you day job is, if you live in the Cape and are a wine writer you should spend all your weekends in the wine regions of the Cape. More writing about wine, then wine writers!

  7. Hi Tim

    Just a few comments as a consumer (of wine and wine journalism):

    A lot of wine writing seems to end up following the same formula:

    1. Get invited to industry tasting.
    2. Write piece (often, but not always) in glowing terms about the producer’s wines.
    3. Tack on a piece of fairly superficial commentary about some attribute of the wines or pop-topic of the day (e.g. low alcohol, natural wine, etc).

    Personally I feel this type of coverage is what gives wine writing and writers a bad name.

    What I would like to see more of is wine writers who identify and research their own stories independent of particular producers’ marketing efforts. I appreciate that this costs time and money, but at the end of the day a writer’s duty is to educate and express an opinion with which readers can engage, rather than be lead by the nose from one tasting ‘jolly’ to another.

  8. As a producer out on the fringe of the wine industry, my farm is responsible for creating a specific and distinct Wine of Origin (discussions of the WSB aside). My wines have received quite a bit of attention over the years for their uniqueness, mostly stemming from the terroir in which they are grown. In the ten years that I have been here, with few exceptions (Tim being one of them) the wine writers and bloggers have not shown any interest to venture out and see what it is that is being done here and why. I am about 1 hour and 20 minutes from Cape Town.

    Recently, a huge launch with lots of free food and drink that took place well beyond the distance between Cape Town and my farm was very well attended by all of the “media”. Glowing tweets and blogs followed.

    One is left believing that a lavish (free) spread (perhaps party packs?) is what is needed to pique the interest of those who claim to be passionate about the soil and place in which the wine is grown.

  9. Media and sound bytes for sale, nothing more. Free lunch and free samples,hell you even have to arrange transport all the way from town for these poor souls. Laziness personified. I have been in the wine marketing/PR industry with some of the top wine brands in SA for the last eight years, in these eight years never once have any of my wineries been approached by an SA winewriter, often international writers visiting on their own steam but never an SA hack unless of course they fishing for a free dinner at your restaurant etc….
    Your efforts and expense is then rewarded with a copy and paste job from the press release you mailed them.

  10. Thank you, Tim, for a very interesting article. I apologize in advance if this carries on for too long or comes across as grandstanding.

    Perhaps it would be of interest to know how many wine writers Samantha O’Keefe has invited to her property and whether or not she would spend money on buying their work if it was for sale, which in this country is highly unlikely, what with the lack of dedicated wine magazines. If the tables were turned, would Stephen drive three hours to attend a book launch? I do not mean to target them specifically (for all I know they may both be fantastic supporters of the local written word), but more to raise a possible double standard coming from the producers’ side. How much effort, time and money are they willing to spend, without personal reward, in finding new voices to read?

    As you state, there is simply not enough money in the publishing industry to sustain oneself as a dedicated wine writer. Magazines increasingly display a contempt for freelancers, and it seems in South Africa quality standards are set by publishers who view writing as the inconvenient thing that happens between advertising space. Editors are overworked and unable to pay attention to the needs, both financial and aesthetic, of their contributors. When you’ve not been paid for your hard work by a magazine, it’s madness to continue to submit to them. Eventually those writers who think they can do better will move on to something else, leaving the magazine with a motley crew of industry folk who enjoy writing as a hobby – and invariably come up with insipid (and sometimes barely literate) commentary. The magazine becomes bland, the readership falls away and with it the advertising. In the end there’s even less opportunity for writers and readers.

    Until there is a willingness to pay for writing there will always be a lack of objective, considered and enjoyable material. This responsibility ultimately rests on the reader, surely? People need to ask themselves if they are willing to pay a subscription to a wine writer’s blog in order to support criticism and commentary – if not, they can’t profess to support the field. If wine writers, especially the young ones, enjoy a free lunch, it’s probably because they can’t readily afford one with the pittance of income they earn. And no one from the comfort of their estate should blame them for that without first seeking a means to support them as independent voices. As Doctor Johnson put it so well, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”

  11. Thanks for all these comments. I shall deal in a separate blog with some of the issues raised. But I feel a bit amused by Leo’s interesting table-turning points. I hadn’t thought of it in this connection, but I can tell you that the number of producers who have bought my book on Cape wine is minimal. Probably not more than a dozen of the 100 or so that I’ve sold directly (and discounted), and I doubt if many found it in shops. I’m not complaining, but, as Leo says, support can work both ways! As can genuine interest: how interested are most producers, winemakers and viticulturists in anything other than their own patches?

  12. My thoughts exactly (the working both ways bit). Producers tend to moan an awful lot about journos, ratings etc. but some should really should take a closer look at themselves now and again. How do they support the media, each other, and the industry as a whole? Appreciate their lives are not easy, and they feel poor and put upon, but try surviving on R2 a word, where days worth of work buys little more than a tank of petrol.

  13. I suspect towards the end of my comment I might stick my foot in it, but as I’ve always so eloquently expressed “Wie’s bang?”

    Tim’s observations on the paid/unpaid wine writer situation are very accurate. Speaking as an unpaid one, I can concur that while I would love nothing more than to work my way through each gem of a wine farm that’s on my “to visit” list (yes, I have a list… a long one), it costs cash I don’t have (that’s what happens when you’re 29 and still a part-time student) and time I don’t even always have (I have a more-than-full time job which often costs me weekend freedom).

    So I stay mostly close to home and work on my little community of ex-Real Time Wine SuperFANS, trying to involve wine farms and spread the word on wine as a shared hobby/passion between like-minded people. Because surely, that’s why you write about wine? Because you like it. And the people who read about it are most likely going to like it too…right?

    I do get the odd invite to an event. Most of them I have to decline as they’re on weekdays during the day, so eventually I suppose my name gets dropped off the list. When I do attend events, there is sometimes an unspoken pressure (for me, as a young and relatively unknown wine writer – or rather blogger) to do write-up if the tickets were comped. Don’t scoff, it’s a real thing. Why do you think there are so many “Lifestyle Bloggers” with their website plastered in brand names, spewing nothing but glorious praise for every free lip gloss or chocolate bar they get.

    But I digress.

    From my experience so far, the truth is that the wine writing/marketing/blogging/event/launch/PR scene is a bit of a fuzzy area. My personal take is that established wine writers such as Tim, Angela etc. are A) more involved in the industry (they do more than just write, they judge and it’s part of their daily job/routine and B) as a result of this type of involvement, their writing is often more focused with insights brought by their experience. They are often also paid for their work, as their experience etc would more legitimately lob them in the “wine journalist” category. Which is completely accurate.

    But to be honest, not everyone can appreciate that type of writing (sadly). And that has created the space for more informal types of writing, specifically the media-esque covering of events and launches. The PR machine’s go-to writer, basically. And there is a place for this content too, as the wine industry *does* have a penchant for the exposure of events; the glitz and glam if you will.

    I feel like I’m rambling so I shall summarise briefly: both sides (writers and producers) should probably take a look at both what they want and what they can offer the other side. If you speak to a winemaker about the issue of wine journalism and you speak to the wine estate’s PR or media person about wine blogging, you’re not having the same conversation. Writers can fall into any category of serious/trained/informal/bloggers/insightful/ journalists/freebie-hogs. Producers can be massive/commercial/independent/corporate/privately owned. And what they want/need from each other can be as varied as any combination of the above. Both need to keep that in mind when considering the worth of the other.

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