Authentic Discovery: Rather Drink Wine With Tom Johnson than Stephen Tanzer


It was an amusing week dipping into the online wine-world, witnessing Stephen Tanzer barreling clumsily into the blogosphere with his Winophilia and Tom Johnson striking a chord at Palate Press, accusing wine blogs of failing its readers. Tanzer, an established traditional media wine critic, is Editor and Publisher of the International Wine Cellar while Johnson, a recently converted political-turned-wine blogger, is a smart and sharp witted guy hailing out of Louisville extending his voice in his  soon to be renamed Louisville Juice.  Both cast stones at wine bloggers, yet both underscored polar opposite examples of the two essential reasons I invest energy in the world-of- fine-wine’s humble corner of the social web:

“The Discovery of Personal Authenticity”

“Wine as a Stimulant For Positive Human Connection”

Johnson, in a direct comparison to his political blogging experience,  is frustrated by a comparatively small audience and unsatisfying level of commentary and engagement.  He attempts to lay that at the feet of bloggers who don’t readily link to each other, incorrectly focus on wine reviews, and refrain from commenting on each other’s blogs.  While I am not clear on all the top motivators behind his time investment writing about wine, engagement and debate are recurring themes in Johnson’s social footprint.  I like that.  So Tom, don’t get frustrated with “small” audiences unless your  goal, which I doubt, is to become the next Spectator, Parker, Colman, Yarrow, or Wark.

I could be wrong, but I suspect you just need enough audience to satisfy a thirst for engagement, authentic conversation, and to provide a platform for sharing and garnering wine knowledge.  All that can, and needs to be, accomplished with modest audience sizes since wine (like politics) is a MASS market and fine wine is a NICHE market.  Subsequently, there are natural limits to the number of consumers interested in fine wine writing and reviews, a statement further supported by the relatively low distribution levels of  fine wine enthusiast magazines compared to publications with broader and more general topical appeal.  I publish local and regional magazines  such as New England Home,  where we can engage communities of readers and professionals in the local Home Design and Architecture spaces as well, if not better than, national titles like Architectural Digest or Traditional Home can on the national stage, while carrying dramatically lower distribution levels (20,000-60,000 copies per market) than those national titles.  So, while wine drinking defines a mass market, the tinier fine wine market comparison is similar to looking at the size of Seattle’s Home Design and Architecture market next to the entire US domestic home remodeling market.

Here is a snapshot of my WineZag audience over the last few months, a blog about to turn one year old (ported to new URL in February causing hopefully short term negative impact on audience levels):

On average, 3,000-5,000 different visitors show up monthly at WineZag through Google search, RSS feeds, other social media platforms, and a host of referring sites.   I get to share with them a personal perspective on wine experiences that move me one way or another.  I know it is a small audience, but until WineZag I only had about 20 friends that appreciated fine wine discussion and we tasted together only occasionally, traveled to wine destinations less frequently, and shared interesting conversation at an unsatisfactory pace.  Today, I have made new online and offline wine friends, am tasting more frequently, engaging with the wine trade at all levels, wine traveling more frequently, and have infused a wine passion with new stimulus that would never have been available to me offline.  For me, that is more reward than I originally outlined when I launched WineZag as a way to understand how social media is shifting media consumption patterns.

I like the stone that Tom Johnson cast last week.  It was an authentic expression of a need for engagement and authenticity.  He simply challenged the existing pool of online wine writers to connect more often.  At the further opposite end of the spectrum, Stephen Tanzer’s stone was also authentic.  But in an attempt to characteristically assert his experience, he bullishly and obnoxiously showed off inexperience on a marquis for all to bash.  You won’t find complete evidence of that on his About Winophilia Page anymore because along with the comments that so many of us sent his way, he deleted all trace evidence to a personal and professional agenda that is anything but inviting.   Here is what he wrote before  he deleted it from his new blog in retreat:

At Winophilia, we’re not armchair tasters who pretend to speak knowledgeably about regions we’ve never visited. We’re not amateur bloggers whose coverage of wine is limited to a handful of random samples we’ve just received, a trade tasting we’ve attended, or a press junket we’ve just been treated to. We live wine. Each of us spends several weeks to several months on the road each year, visiting wineries and tasting thousands of wines annually with their makers. And that’s not even including the thousands of bottles we taste each year in our own dining rooms.

I am not going to grace that perspective with any commentary, but simply wonder what the millions of voluntary and eager monthly visitors to wine blogs see that Tanzer does not?  Interestingly, if you visit the About Page for International Wine Cellar, the website for his traditional offline media business, you find an almost entirely different tone:

Stephen D. Tanzer is editor and publisher of the critically acclaimed bimonthly International Wine Cellar, an independent journal read by wine professionals and other wine lovers in all 50 states and 34 countries, and the first American wine periodical to be translated into French and Japanese.

Tanzer is the author of The WineAccess Buyer’s Guide (Sterling Publishing), a concise yet comprehensive guide to the best bottles and producers from virtually every important wine region of the world. Tanzer has also served as Senior Editor and wine columnist for Food & Wine magazine and wrote Food & Wine’s Official Wine Guidein 1998 and 1999. Previously, he was the wine columnist for Forbes FYI.

Tanzer samples well over 10,000 wines annually, spending several months each year tasting and discussing wines with their makers, both in the U.S. and abroad.

“Stephen Tanzer is thoroughly reliable…”
– Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine

“For wine advice, I only consult Stephen Tanzer…”
– David Rosengarten, Host, TV Food Network

“Exceptionally informative…”
– Robert Parker, Author/Publisher, The Wine Advocate

Tanzer actually engages his community of competitors and seems more comfortable with  himself.  Yet, in all the language in his online and offline footprints, Tanzer shows some need, be it financial, competitive, or simply out of personal quirks of insecurity, to puff up and pound his chest in demonstrations of dominance.  For Tanzer, while this air of superiority now appears completely authentic to me,  he learned last week it is a shortcut to the blogosphere’s exit doors (only averted by some quick track covering edits).

Both Johnson and Tanzer showed the social web’s unique ability to put authenticity on display.  In these cases, that authenticity shaped my thinking in the following way:  I would thoroughly enjoy popping  the cork on a bottle over dinner with Tom Johnson but could never imagine enjoying a social or professional wine moment with Tanzer after putting  his own authentic colors on display in the saddest of ways (even though it only lasted a day until the “armchair taster” crowd had the opportunity to weigh in).   I won’t be paying much  attention to Tanzer anymore.  Not because of the aspersions he cast on bloggers and just because of the things he says about himself.  @RobertDwyer‘s retweet summed it up best while further defining the power of the social web on offline prosperity, even if it is coming from the Tanzer labeled “amateur armchair” wine writer community:

RobertDwyer @adamjapko great litmus testing for deciding whether to subscribe to someone’s content: “Would I like to drink wine with this person?”

  • Robert Dwyer

    Great piece of writing as usual Adam. Two things in particular resonate with me.

    First, in terms of the rewards associated with blogging and about wine in particular. Like you, I think the best thing about it has been connecting online and offline with folks with eerily similar wine perspective and life experiences. I’ve enjoyed getting to know people I never would have otherwise and that’s priceless.

    Second, regarding the question “why people blog?”. For me blogging is a loosely-connected forum that takes places on multiple venues instead of on some 3rd party site. Each of us control our own little domain and hopefully the conversations fan out from there. The notion that those who set up a blog, write, and click publish are somehow higher in the pecking order in the conversation has never felt right to me. We’re just people who care enough about wine to write a blog. It doesn’t mean we’re pretending to be professional journalists, and it doesn’t mean we know more than people who contribute to forums or leave comments on blogs. It’s all about sharing useful or interesting content, regardless of where its written or the pedigree of who does the writing. In this context, Tanzer’s interest in positioning himself above the wine blogging crowd seems strange to me.


    PS I continue to have template/aesthetics envy since your redesign of this site. Did you do it yourself? Or did you have help?

  • Wally

    Drinking wine with Tom is fun if you can get him to stop whining about needing to get back to his hotel and get some sleep.

  • david rosengarten

    Oh, come on. I’m not going to comment on your main point, which is an intriguing one. But I hate this business of critics assuming they know what someone’s company is like. A journalist once wrote “it’d be really boring to go on a road food trip with David Rosengarten.” Ha! Ask anyone who has…it’s just the opposite, I assure you. You wouldn’t want to share a glass of wine with Tanzer? I’ve shared hundreds of glasses with him….it’s a delightful experience! Protect your credibility please by avoiding silly remarks.

  • adamjapko

    Robert: Agreed on Tanzer’s strange position, can’t imagine why he struck it in his writing, even if he thinks it. Bad taste. And thanks for sharing the mostly unspoken words that wine bloggers are often simply joining a personally important conversation and not intending to masquerade as tastemakers, journalists, or dominant wine personalties. Also, did have a little help on blog template and URL porting, but its a simple Studiopress template that you can view by clicking on the Lifestyle them link at the bottom of this page. Easily accomplished.

    Wally: I be it would be fun

    David: I really do appreciate you stopping in and leaving some of your thoughts. I guess I owe thanks for not commenting on my one intriguing point:-) Anyway, I will continue to reserve the right to eat dinner and drink wine with whomever I like. In this particular case, my inclination to pick Tom over Stephen for dinner (not that I anticipate ever having the opportunity to do either and can’t see Tanzer agreeing to sit still for a meal with this armchair amateur”) is derived from Tanzer’s writing which recently took a bitterly strange and defensive tone. I have not had the pleasure of his personal company, which as you claim, might just be charming enough. So far, he’s just not my cup of tea. I have always wanted to share wine with Parker, and managed to at EWS gatherings. Not surprisingly, my initial favorable instincts about tasting RMP was correct. I’ll stick with my instincts, thank you. Lastly, while I never met you personally, I will go out on another writing inspired instinctual limb and agree with you that it can’t be boring going on a road trip with you. But, I’ll pass.

  • Amanda Maynard

    I really enjoyed this post, Adam. It was very interesting to see and be a part of the faction who was against the Stephen Tanzer comments, and then to later see his revision of content and explanation of why he wrote what he did. He was naive to think that his comments wouldn’t be read and taken offensively by bloggers, but he was right to clear up matters via a comment on Dale’s blog.

    I do think that the end of your post speaks volumes, though. I currently only subscribe to blogs whose authors I would love to have wine with. Before the comment made by Robert, that’s how I was working anyway. I just fully noticed it when I saw the comment and thought about it. It’s a good way to judge content (at least for me) and there isn’t a blog I read that I wouldn’t love to drink with the person (or people) writing it.

    Great insight. See you for #WAMerlot on Thursday 🙂