Joe Roberts is known to many as 1 Wine Dude, the author of a wine blog that has reached stratospheric heights and was begun as a blog for the “intermediate” wine lover. He is now a wine consultant and a member of the U.S.-based Society of Wine Educators and other organizations. He has been a winner of the Wine Blog Awards for best wine blog, and Wine Enthusiast ranked him as one of the top three wine blogs in 2010. He is currently one of the finalists for the 2012 Wine Blog Awards, and was a finalist for the 2011 Wine Blog Awards, proof that social media has forever changed the landscape of wine. His casual yet focused approach to wine causes him to be a sought after speaker and educator.
The wine industry is saturated with magazines, blogs, books and websites all vying for attention from an ever segmented public. What do you see as the future of wine journalism?
When I interviewed Kermit Lynch earlier this year, he mentioned that when he started his importing business there were no big wine buying decisions being made based on scores or magazine reviews. Wine was about context, you had to get to know a wine and a producer to make a determination and a buying decision. And now, he sees things coming around again to a similar point, because the changes we’ve seen online in journalism are impacting wine and democratizing wine opinion, reviews, and coverage. I agree with Kermit, and I think we’ll continue to see that shift, with the cream of the crop rising and becoming more and more influential. I have a fear here, though.
I think we see a lot of laziness on the part of some retailers and importers and distributors, who use scores as shortcuts to determine what to buy rather than trying to get to know their customer bases and what wines would be best for them. When those folks retire, will they be replaced with people who have similarly lazy approaches to wine buying, only they’ll be younger? If that happens, you’ll see reviews from 1WineDude or Vinography or whatever carrying more and more influence and moving more cases of wine, but it won’t be the kind of influence I’d want to have. I am holding out hope that the democratization we’re seeing now translates into more and more informed consumers who will demand better than that.
The other big thing we’re seeing is that wine producers can reach out directly to the people who are drinking their stuff, and do it cheaply, by means of social media. The ones who do that well have as much power and influence with their audience and followers as any critic. At some point, I hope more producers will wake up to this fact and stop leaving those opportunities on the table.
What grape varieties would you like to see the public embrace more fully and why these grapes?
Really, anything beyond Cabernet and Chardonnay would be a good start. Not that those grapes aren’t amazing – they are. But they’re not amazing everywhere, and the focus on those wines over the years has helped drive a decision in emerging wine regions to make varietal wines from those varieties for recognition sales, without much thought into how well those varieties actually perform in those areas. The good news here is that Millennials aren’t afraid to try any grape varieties, so the time has never been better for opinion-makers like sommeliers, wine directors, and wine media to encourage consumers to try more obscure Italian grapes, Greek wines, or Portuguese wines that they might not be able to pronounce yet. Personally, I’ve been geeking out on Italian Vermentino this Summer!
Whether it’s the 100 point rating scale, a 20 point scale, stars, alphabetical scores or anything else, do wine ratings actually empower consumers, or do they distort wine prices?
They do both. The ironic thing is that the former is only really possible after a consumer has already done a little bit of work to try out what kind of wines they really like, and then following a critic who seems to taste along the same lines as they do. When that happens, and only when that happens, are wine critics a valuable resource. I mean, would you buy a car or a dress, sight unseen, if someone gave it an “A” or “94 points?” It’s patently ridiculous, yet the wine biz has fallen very deeply into this illogical trap. The advertising and sometimes laziness on the part of retailers and importers I think is where the distortion comes in. The one who suffers in all of this is the consumer, who can be left thinking “well, if this is a 96 point wine and I don’t like it, what’s wrong with me? Maybe I just don’t ‘get’ wine.” And then nobody wins, because the wine biz just lost a potential lifelong customer – which is the real impact of that laziness, of choosing short-term sales over trying to encourage a lifelong love and a lifelong buying habit. As for prices, it contributes to distortion, but in my experience that’s only really for low-production, very high-scoring wines, many of which I’ve tasted and few of which were actually worth spending that kind of cash to buy.
Alcohol levels in U.S. and foreign wines are all over the map. What are your thoughts on high alcohol wines?
I rarely pay any attention to a wine’s ABV. It’s almost like the label for me – who cares? I have had 15%+ ABV wines that were a joy to drink, and 12% ABV wines that tasted flabby and laborious. The key is whether or not all of the wines elements – fruit, acid, etc. – are working in harmony. When they do, and the wine is more balanced than not, then the individual constituents don’t matter. Unless you’re planning on drinking a lot that night, in which case you need to pay attention to that sh*t and watch yourself. Ever had a Port hangover? You’ll be praying for death the next day if you’re not careful!
You write on your blog, you’ve written a book, you speak at events - so what is the best part of your job?
Well… I get to travel to amazing places, eat amazing food, taste incredible wine, and interview rock stars. So there’s a lot to like.
But what I love most is engagement; connecting with people, with those making wine, buying it, writing about it, and especially those drinking it. I’ve been a bit hard on a minority of the people in this interview, attacking laziness on the wine buying side, because it needs to be said; but generally those people are great as well and most of them are a delight, too. That is far and away the best part of the wine biz for me. I LOVE doing the speaking gigs for that reason, those are the best, it’s where all the elements come together for me, so I really want to do more and more of those.
For the average wine consumer, what is the greatest obstacle to their enjoyment of wine?
The wine biz currently proliferates the notion (both intentionally and unintentionally) that being able to taste wine is a special skill, and that critics know good wine better than consumers do. This is only partially true – critics know where a wine sits on a continuum of worst to best in the world, but have no idea whether or not you’ll like that wine. The biggest obstacle is the consumer not yet feeling empowered to make their own decisions based on their own preferences. That day is coming though, we inch closer to it everyday because of the proliferation of alternative voices, consumer opinion, and information sharing. And I think it’s coming faster than most of the wine biz realizes.
You have criss-crossed the globe tasting wines. What are the regions do you find most compelling, and why?
There are so many… the ones I tend to have mad respect for are those who are doing their own thing unashamedly. Portugal is one, also some spots in California like Anderson Valley and Sonoma Coast. Northern Italy comes to mind, and the Loire Valley. I’m talking about winemaking that’s really got a goal in mind, and offers unique things you cannot find in other places in the world. Not every producer in those places is doing that, of course, but the possibilities that are being hinted at with the wines coming out of those places now is really, really exciting for me.
You play bass in a band. Is there anything about being in a band, and music in general, that helps shape your perspective on wine?
Yeah, I find there’s a synthesis across everything like that. The sense of balance and the sum being greater than its parts, while still being ale to appreciate all the parts individually, is the biggest cross-over between the two for me. You know, bass could be like a wine’s structure, they play similar roles I think, which might be why I’m such a stickler for how a wine’s structure is perceived when I’m tasting! And flashy stuff like too much ripe fruit or oak, that’s a lot like the drummer overplaying, or the guitar player overdoing it with those arpeggiated solos and whammy bar crap. As Miles Davis once described playing with a drummer with bad timing, “that sh*t is like death!” That’s how I feel about wines that lack balance.
A really, really amazing wine, to me, can be a lot like a piece of music that’s transcendent. Both just take you out of the world completely, or I should say they take you so far into the world at that moment that it’s blissful.
How much of wine tasting is based on analyzing the technical aspects of a wine, as opposed to the sheer immediate enjoyment of the wine in the glass at that moment?
Well, I can only answer that one for me but I go to great pains to separate the two. There are somewhat objective things that you try to look for when tasting a wine: flaws, fruit perception, acidity, etc. I start with the WSET formal tasting method, and then move into the subjective part, when I review a wine critically. And interestingly, I think that separates me from a lot of people – I mean, the most influential critics in wine have never, to the best of my knowledge, studied any formal tasting method. My guess – and this is of course only a guess – is that they therefore allow their subjective perceptions and preferences to dictate a wine’s rating- i.e., “if it tastes better to me, than it must be a superior wine because I’ve tasted thousands of wines…” I don’t agree with that approach. Yes, you need to taste a lot of wine to have the right reference points as a critic, but I’ve found myself giving high marks to wines that I don’t like personally, because the wine simply is made in a different style than I enjoy but is made well and is of high quality, etc. I don’t enjoy reviewing wines, particularly because wine can change so dramatically even within an hour in the glass, let alone over much longer periods of time aging in a bottle, so I see most wine reviews as silly unless there’s a lot of context involved. As a consumer, I’d rather know the spirit of the wine and how it evolved when you tasted it, not some number based on five f*cking minutes with it. I mean, c’mon, give people some credit – wine drinkers tend to be smart, so give them the essence of the thing and not an indelible stamp. When I am drinking wine, and not reviewing it, I don’t worry about any of that crap. I just worry about whether or not I like it.
It’s been a long day; your daughter is firmly ensconced in bed. What might be an ideal wine (with or without food) for you in the cool of the evening?
Dude, that’s like asking what movie I want to watch every night or what sexual position I want to use when making love to my wife. I won’t know on any particular day, it will depend on the mood and what’s going on in my life at the moment… the answer will simply… present itself when the time is right!