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Aug. 11, 2021

More Voices in Wine w/ Esther Mobley, San Francisco Chronicle

More Voices in Wine w/ Esther Mobley, San Francisco Chronicle

Esther Mobley, Wine Critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, thought writing would be more of a passion than a career. Yet, she’s one of two full-time wine writers for newspapers in the US. Esther discusses how being at a newspaper differs from a wine ma


Esther Mobley, Wine Critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, thought writing would be more of a passion than a career.  Yet, she’s one of two full-time wine writers for newspapers in the US.  Esther discusses how being at a newspaper differs from a wine magazine, the changing wine critic landscape, the impact of wine scoring, and even gives some tips for budding wine bloggers and influencers.  She believes that “More voices are great” when it comes to wine writing and celebrates when there’s a new wine writer hired.  A unique voice and angle in our discussion of the evolving landscape for wine critics. 

Detailed Show Notes: 

  • Esther’s background
    • She went to Napa to work harvest after college (for fun)
    • Worked in restaurants and wine shops
    • Landed an internship at Wine Enthusiast
    • She got a job at the Wine Spectator in the editorial department
    • She was an English major, wanted to be a writer
  • Role as the SF Chron’s wine critic
    • Plays both a new reporter and critic role
    • News reporter - cover local news for a major industry (wine)
    • Critic - look at wine through an evaluative lens
    • Doesn’t score wines, writes more narrative reviews of wines
    • “Wine of the Week” column - focus on one bottle of wine
  • The decline of newspaper wine writers
    • Might be only 2 full time in the US - Eric Asimov (New York Times) & Esther
    • The local newspaper business model has shifted
      • All used to have a wine columnist, and no one goes to the local newspaper now to learn about wine
      • Newspaper wine writers have evolved - more local news-oriented, provides a view on something important to the Bay Area
      • Everyone works online now
    • Chronicle business model
      • Profitable and hiring a lot of people
      • Focused on subscribers vs. advertisement - would rather have fewer people read an article, but more subscribers
      • Not trying to be a national publication
  • Newspapers vs. magazines
    • Magazines score wines, publish less frequently traditionally
    • Newspapers - more news, though Wine Spectator also doing more wine news
    • Differences are narrowing between the two
  • Wine Critic landscape
    • “More voices are great”
    • The barrier of entry is lower than it used to be
    • A lot of people want to know “who’s the next Parker” -> probably will never be a next Parker
    • More people covering niches w/in wine
    • SF Chronicle / Esther - cover mostly CA wine, telling the story of Bay Area wines, enables the telling of interesting stories
  • Wine Influencers
    • Some concern over the blurring lines between sponsored and editorial content
    • Some people may feel they have made wine too democratic
    • Esther believes most criticism against influencers is sexist -> influencers just doing the best to succeed in their medium
    • Influencers working w/in social media algorithms to get their success
  • Wine Scoring
    • Anecdotally hear score remain important on the wholesale level - to sell wines to restaurants / retail buyers
    • “Wine of the Week” articles - have heard this does lead to some wines selling out at retail (publishes where wine is available, but sells out after it comes out online but before it hits print) -> recommendations from trusted sources still matter
    • Blind tasting - if someone is scoring wine, this is the best way to do it
      • Wine Spectator - tastes blind, includes a “ringer” in every flight (a wine that the critic has scored before) to see if scores are consistent
  • Critics vs. Publications
    • SF Chronicle makes Esther’s name more public
    • The Wine Advocate invested more in the personal name of critics vs. Wine Spectator less so
    • Average consumers don’t know the difference between wine critics and their palates
  • Stories that are interesting to Esther
    • “Things that don’t make sense on their face”
    • E.g., Andy Beckstoffer giving away grapes for free from a Lake County vineyard
  • Advice to wine bloggers/influencers
    • Read a lot of good, non-wine writing (e.g., The New Yorker, The Atlantic)
    • Don’t assume the reader has much knowledge of wine (e.g., don’t use too many technical terms, wine jargon)
  • User-Generated Content wine forums (e.g., CellarTracker, Vivino)
    • Wine Berserkers - “it’s its own thing,” like a Reddit for wine, very knowledgeable people on it 
    • In beer, e.g., Untappd, Rate Beer - are taken more seriously than wine
    • General problem - no one’s figured out how to talk about wine on the internet
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