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Jefford on Monday: Wine and the Information Tsunami

Many of my waking hours over the last month have been devoted to judging the Louis Roederer International Wine Writers' Awards.

The shortlists compiled by our panel of six are now out congratulations to those cited, the winners picked, and my lips superglued until September 10th.

Compared to previous judging stints for this and other competitions, two changes were obvious. First, the volume of entries has billowed. Secondly, most of what we judges looked at (and not simply the Blogging category) is now delivered to its target audience in electronic form. Regular visitors to this website will know that each new monthly edition of Decanter magazine can land in a multitude of devices electronically; you may well read your daily newspaper in that way, and enjoy novels on an e-reader. The electronic word continues to chew up the printed word. The corpse is looking ragged.  

This has a number of consequences for writing and reading about wine. Let me focus on just two.

The first is inflation: anyone can be a wine writer with (potentially) a global reach, and every existing wine writer seems to up their word-count annually to feed the insatiable electronic maw.  

The exciting aspect of this explosion is that much can now be reported which previously never featured in print. There is no limit to what you can know, and what you can tell. Every region, every domain, every vineyard can now become artfully interesting. All the old commissioning filters are gone. You may write next year’s greatest wine feature, on a subject which would fail every commissioning test ever devised.

I’d be lying, though, if I suggested that the Roederer judging process was one of unalloyed excitement, or that finely crafted front-line reporting comprised the grist of most entries. Here’s four morsels of advice for those wishing to excel.

1.   Try to increase the sum of knowledge rather than bristle with opinions.
2.   Always aim to inspire the general reader rather than entertain other wine writers or bloggers. (It’s good writing discipline.)
3.   Never assume that quantity matters more than quality, even if the diabolical limitlessness of electronic space suggests otherwise.
4.   Learn to become your own most stringent editor. (A dreary sentence, a half-formed thought or an unintentionally ambiguous observation is no more attractive online than on the page. But far more common.)

Perhaps a more important consequence of the electronic revolution, though, concerns the way that electronic delivery changes reading habits.  

A physical newspaper, read on a train or in an armchair, is an invitation to general knowledge. The world is spread out before you, and most readers (given a little time) will work their way through most of it. Many of those who would never declare wine as a ‘hobby’ acquire wine culture in this way.

Electronically delivered newspapers and journals don’t work like that. There is a multitude of ways in which the reader can be selective, and screens are always smaller, and sometimes much smaller, than even printed tabloid pages, let alone newspapers in the broadsheet format. You click in on what interests you, and discard the rest without even glancing at it (usually you have no chance to glance at it). A wine column in an electronic newspaper is liable to be read only by those who consider themselves ‘interested in wine’, and not by the general reader.

The overall danger of both promiscuous text production and electronic delivery, in sum, is that wine is not (as one might expect) opening up to a much broader audience, but being restricted further to a closed circuit of buffs, geeks, nerds, hoarders, bottle-twitchers, cork-sniffers and label-drinkers. Perhaps, in truth, this will happen to many of the subjects covered by specialist feature writers. The age of the Renaissance reader — and drinker — may be ending, submerged in the information tsunami. 

Written by Andrew Jefford

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