Wine,Wine Blogger,Wine Writer

Certifying Wine Writers… Are you kidding me?

I just came across this idea, again, for the umpteenth time on Enobytes.

I have to hand it to Pamela Heiligenthal, the site’s senior editor. She spent a lot of time and energy putting her thoughts into words. She had read something by someone who wasn’t well schooled in mechanical harvesting, and began to wonder if someone not completely in the know should be putting this kind of information out there.

Yes, it’s misleading. Yes, it wasn’t completely correct. Yes, I have the same frustration every time I see the words Petite Sirah written with a “y” in the word Sirah. And, Yes, I have to put up with the frustration of people supposedly knowing about Petite Sirah (which includes certified wines people, Master Sommeliers, and knowledgeable wine writers) all making this mistake… Misspelling the name of a cultivar and spreading their mistake all over the internet, in papers, books, and magazines. (“How dare they?” I ask myself all the time.)

But, can I pull their ability to write further, unless they all go to Petite Sirah School, and I give them a diploma?

Hey, not a bad idea! If you see someone with his or her name, let’s just say Joe Blow for instance, and it now reads, Joe Blow P.S., you know that the odds are pretty good that Petite Sirah will now only be occasionally misspelled by that person. (I really like it!)

In my opinion, this concept is simply out of whack.

A question presented by Pamela:

“Should wine writers be certified?” That’s a good question. It seems to make sense for some industries. Think of physicians, lawyers, architects, nurses, accountants and teachers—even financial planners. I don’t trust anyone to manage my money, do you? Most finance guys I know wouldn’t trust 90 percent of the (non-certified) people in the field.

The flaw in the ointment:

“…physicians, lawyers, architects, nurses, accountants and teachers—even financial planners” aren’t writers with opinions of physicians, lawyers, architects, nurses, accountants and teachers—even financial planners.

So… we’re back to wine writing, with lots of it being on wine blogs these days, which really spreads the mistakes around.

Wine blog sites don’t pay the bills. The advertising dollars are very low. My Google ads, for instance, in my five years of blogging have netted just over $100.00 for me. The math:

5 years divided by $100 = $20/year divided by 52 weeks/year = $.38 per week. (Yeah… I’m that rich… $20.00 per year before taxes.)

Let’s face it… Blogging for most people is a hobby. (Blogging on this site is my hobby. I have other sites where I blog for clients too busy to write their own stories. They do pay some of my bills, but this is an anomaly for most wine blogging.)

We bloggers love wine and we’re writing about our experiences; it’s a journey, not a destination.

What I wrote to Pamela as a comment, because her statement of professional careers wasn’t about critics of those careers, it was about the actual professions:

Should any critic be Certified? Sports, movies, books, wine, spirits, cigars, toys, fashion, etc…

Those who have taken the time to understand their subject matter, are connected, and know what they’re talking [writing] about will prevail.

Cream still rises to the top, even though it seems homogenized.

No harm, no foul, Pamela. You asked a question about something that was incorrect, because you were miffed to see someone who should know better not be better informed. I’ve asked myself the same question so many times… Actually… each time I see the words Petite Sirah with a “y.” (I won’t even write it incorrectly, so that it’s not on the Internet yet-one-more-time, giving it one more Google cred.) The responses you got back were great. A lot of people have a lot of opinions about this one.

The real issue is making everyone who writes about anything pass through a highly defined screening process. That’s not possible or plausible today in the digital age… But, I know your frustration. Keep up your critical thinking.

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13 Responses to “Certifying Wine Writers… Are you kidding me?”

  1. Great piece, Jo. I, too, saw the Enobytes article some weeks ago and sort of shrugged it off as another inward-facing (by wine bloggers about wine bloggers) thing. But your take on it rekindled a long-standing question I’ve had the effect of blogging on journalism:

    Will the continued proliferation of poorly researched/poorly written pieces trigger a flight to quality? Will people one day wake up and say, “No more. I’ve got mountains of iffy data when what I need is nuggets of good information. I give up. I’m willing to pay for one (or two or three) reliable sources.”? Will journalism come full circle and be reborn in the wake of an information revolution?

    Probably not, but it’d make a good movie 😉

  2. Mark Cochard says:

    Jo, what about variety and varietal. This one is more abused then petite syrah 🙂

  3. Jo Diaz says:

    Good question, Steve, and one that’s hard to ponder.

    We all find mistakes, for example, on Wikipedia. Now, if Encyclopedia Britannica went online with an annual fee for researching, would I pay it to go there, so that my information was well researched as well as informative. A big YES from me. I know primary and secondary schools would, as would post secondary… So, I can’t wait for that to happen, and I think it will as some point.

    That will begin to weed out the less informed resources, I believe. I’d be citing my source, as we must, when we use other intellectual property.

    I’d love to be compensated for these hours of writing (about 15 a week on my blog), but then I know that I’d have a “master” and I’d have to be more careful/considerate with my thinking and writing…

    For now, the freedom is what has this being a draw for me as a hobby.

    It’s a catch 22.

  4. Jo Diaz says:

    Mark, you just made me laugh out loud…

    You know exactly how to get me going…

    Variety is a noun. Varietal is an adjective. (Yup!)

    Example: I love the varietal characteristics of this variety.

    Now, this one has been so abused that some dictionaries are actaully including the word “varietal” as a noun. (Damn!)

    You won’t catch me doing it, though. I’m a stickler for grammar. Once I know a rule, I adhere to it.

    So, the varietal characteristics of Petite Sirah… anything worth doing is worth doing well around here ;^)

    Thanks, Mark, for a good laugh this morning.

  5. Benito says:

    Some of the most research-heavy (and for me, enjoyable) posts I’ve written have been about fairly obscure wine subjects: Swiss wine, Bulgarian wine, the elusive Tibouren grape, etc. These are barely covered in traditional publications, and there’s no way a certification program or test would cover them–most people are never going to encounter these products. Ditto for the burgeoning regional wine writing about Virginia, Texas, and other states outside the big four. A lot of winebloggers are covering new ground, devoting all their energy to what were previously mere footnotes.

    I fear that certification would encourage stagnation, that it would merely look at the established grapes, regions, and enclosures of 1850-1950 that somehow became The One True Definition Of Wine, And All False Prophets Be Damned. If we want Orthodoxy, we can sit around chanting the Bordeaux classifications and avoiding the temptations of South American wine, but getting the everyday person to give wine a chance and maybe build a true, enjoyable wine culture in this country is going to require a more dynamic, looser approach.

    Before I start churning out a few thousand more words… It’s very important to realize that certification or no, the bad wine writer of today is not necessarily the bad wine writer of tomorrow. If the writer actually wants to learn, every bottle tried and every vineyard visited is going to contribute to a better wine knowledge. The good ones will stick around.

  6. Sondra says:

    Jo, when I read the question – should wine writers be certified, my immediate response was they are certifiable, if you know what I mean. Then when I saw how much you’ve made from Google ads in 5 years – yep, certifiable.

    Yet Pamela begged the question – writing one’s passion is our right, privilege and often a provider of joy, for others as well as ourselves.

    I think news writers and TV commentators should be certified to tell the truth. How can we make that happen?

    Thanks for a fun piece this morning.

  7. Jo Diaz says:

    Benito… Amen.

  8. Jo Diaz says:

    Very funny. Thanks,. Sondra. I’ll be quoting you if anyone want to know if I’m certified… I’ll just say, “Nope, not certified, but after 18 years in this business, I certainly am certifiable.”

  9. The very idea is aggravating. What exactly would the requirement be? a joint Enology,journalism degree? perhaps time working at a winery? but in what capacity? Does glass polisher count?

    The blogs that are good will (and many have) risen to the top. The others will disappear, or remain in relative obscurity.

    as for petite “syrah”. I know of some wineries who can’t get THAT right!

  10. Arthur says:

    It is folly to not hold to some standard of qualification (knowledge and skill set) those people who pass judgment on and thus influence purchasing of consumer goods.

    While lives are not at stake, personal funds and a broader culture of wine (and the quality of wine produced in one country) ARE.

    The inevitable argument to this notion is that “wine is subjective”.

    I tell you it is not. Preference and enjoyment are. Wine itself does not change from one person drinking it to another.

    The reason why we have this pernicious myth of subjectivity arises out of the fact that a vast majority of those opining about wine from a public platform lack the understanding of wine (and sensory skills) requisite to make authoritative proclamations about stuff that can cost over a hundred dollars per bottle and the sale of which results in billions of (hard-earned) dollars changing hands annually.

  11. Jo Diaz says:

    Chris, when they’ll get it right is after they’ve developed a label and someone awake at the wheel in the TTB catches them.

    It’s not supposed to be allowed – ever again, as decreed by law. Even some people at the TTB don’t quite get the ruling; but, when someone does, it won’t pass the muster. Eventually, they’ll find someone at the TTB who’s a stickler for rules and regulation, and they’ll get he wake up call.

    We’ve got one member who’s been using the “y” for years. They made an alcohol change and got the word, “Sorry, needs to be with an “i.” The only way they could have done used the “y” was to go back and lower the alcohol to where it had been, because any change takes the winery out of the “grandfathered” clause.

    Sorry to hear that you have to be moving from your current location. Please keep me in your loop. I’ll help with publicity in any way that I can.

  12. Robbin says:

    I wonder if bloggers helped permeate the misuse of “varietal” as a noun…. 🙂

    I actually started my blog after going through WSET but for me its almost been a curse. I get writers block because I don’t know WHAT to say! I think, who cares to read about what I drank last week just because I got a stamp of approval from an exam.

    However, I will say being certified helped me with tasting lingo which I think does have a general, agreed upon language. I have some students contributing to my blog and during proofreading I had to kick one back because she wrote a wine I knew full good and well was “dry” as “medium sweet.”

    But do I think writers should be silent if they haven’t taken a class? No.

  13. Jo Diaz says:


    I don’t think bloggers help permeate the misuse of “varietal” being used as a noun, I *know* they do. I’ve watched the same happen with the misuse of the words Petite Sirah (with the “y” being in the word Sirah). It had just about all but cleared it up within the wine writing community, then along came the bloggers. The major US wine writers were fairly easy to take care of (there weren’t nearly as many as the amount of wine bloggers there now are).

    As in all things, there are teachers and there are students, and our job is never ending, because there are children being born every day. (Job security)

    Thanks for weighing in.

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