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Making wine blogging credible

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In an upcoming column on blogging I wrote for Wine Enthusiast, I said that the “tendency [among bloggers] to cite each other can result in a self-referential gossipy-ness that’s almost incestuous.” Now, the lead-in for print publication being what it is, I wrote those words nearly 2 months ago, while the column itself won’t appear until the July issue. Which is to say, I wrote them before I started this blog (and well before my new Unreserved blog at Wine Enthusiast launches, which is supposed to be any day now, but that’s not something I have control over, like I do here).

Well, maybe I was a little hasty when I wrote the incestuous thing, because I am finding that other peoples’ blog postings (and the comments they generate) can give me useful things to think and write about. Yesterday and today the wine blogosphere — parts of it, anyhow — was vibrating with the topic of “credibility.” Can wine blogs become credible sources of news and opinion among the vast wine-loving public, not just in the U.S. but abroad, the way print wine publications traditionally have been?

It’s a complicated topic, made all the murkier by the inevitable spectre of filthy lucre. Yes, money. Because a credible wine blog would be one which attracts a lot of eyeballs — and a website that has lots of readers on a consistent basis is an advertising magnet; that’s the way the Internet’s revenue stream works. So, you see, the issue of credibility is directly tied to the issue of revenue.

Which brings us to the Wine Bloggers Conference, a first of its kind set to be held in Sonoma County next October. You can bet that the question of revenue will loom large. As one blogger, at Good Grape, put it succinctly, “Simply, most people that engage in wine blogging want more credibility and they would not mind making a little money from the time spent blogging.”

The Good Grape blogger had a suggestion to make to boost credibility: Have wine bloggers complete some form of wine education, in order to become certified. (There are several different organizations in the world that offer such certification; some are more prestigious than others.) In Good Grape’s view, this would increase the public’s belief in the competence of wine bloggers’s reviews.

It probably wouldn’t hurt to have bloggers pass some form of rigorous training in order to educate their palates. After all, since anyone can blog, the standards as they are now are low to non-existent. I’ve seen umpteen wine blogs that purport to review wine, and while I can sympathize with these bloggers wanting to be taken seriously, the question invariably is, Why should we take anyone seriously just because they have a blog and put up some wine reviews? I don’t mean to sound snarky, but that’s the bottom line. So, yes, it’s a good start to have wine reviewing bloggers get all the professional education they can.

But to me the best blogs, the most interesting ones to read, don’t do wine reviewing. They’re blogs like Tom Wark’s Fermentation, where you never know what rant Tom’s going off on. If I’m taking the time to check out blogs every day, I want a sense of being surprised and delighted by what I find — and reading about so-and-so’s Chenin Blanc experience of the prior evening doesn’t cut it.

In the end, the most credible blogs will be the ones that do good reporting, offer lively and cogent analysis and opinion, and entertain (and occasionally outrage) you, the reader. I do not think that the most credible blogs will be ones that review, at least, not anytime soon. I think print publications will continue to dominate, not just magazines but private newsletters. Credibility doesn’t spring up instantly, like Athena from Zeus’s forehead. It takes years and years to build. The best advice I can give to wine bloggers is to stay at it, work hard, be patient, and do good writing. I intend to follow my own advice.

  1. Hi Steve,

    Thanks for the mention. Over the course of almost 2000 words yesterday and today on my site, I think you might be simplistically boiling down my intent, particularly within the larger context of my posts.

    In regards to the certification, I suggest it as a unified baseline for a small business idea I put forth and not for all blogging and all wine blogging credibility.

    Thanks, Steve and I look forward to the new iteration of UnReserved, as well!

    Jeff
    http://www.goodgrape.com

  2. Steve – I think there’s a difference between what the professional and amateur wants to read. Actually, pro vs amateur is the wrong distinction, but i cant think of a better one at the moment.

    Basically there are people in the industry, people on the inside, who know the laws, the players, the dirty little secrets and they read Fermentation.

    However, there are other people, those that dont blog about wine, or who dont work in the industry and I dont think they really care about whats going on in Illinois (unless they live there), for these people the review blogs are ideal.

  3. Why not then suggest that all wine bloggers have to pass the WSET, or they’re to be decertified as wine bloggers? (And instead, are to be known as wine sloggers.) Oh, wait, helpful I am not.

  4. Jeff, I know I jumped on that 1 thing of yours and bypassed the rest. Admittedly many of your other suggestions I can get solidly behind. But I’m trying to keep my posts short, and the certification thing struck me as the most, err, controversial part. I hope people will hit your link and read your full proposal.

  5. Certification that comes from the current wine industry mainstream (a la WSET) would be a major step backward, in my opinion. Blogging is by nature more freestyle and opinionated (when done well). In fact, I think any sort of certification based on wine knoweledge would be very difficult. A set of standard ethics/practices would seem to be very positive; for example knowing whether a blog is connected to a commerical venture is extremely relevant for readers. Ditto knowing a particular blogger’s policy re wine samples and trips. Personally, I think the greatest source of interest/traffic in specific blogs will always come from other blogs, via direct links.

  6. Interesting post, Steve, but I think you’re wrong about wine blogs that do reviews, and about the education issue. I think a lot of people find out about wines on the internet–and that means wine blogs, by and large. And, I think that most wine bloggers know their stuff–at least that’s true of the people who do it consistently. Whether we have all passed the WSET often comes down to time and money. Having taken a class or two at UCDavis, I am without certification–but I don’t think that I’m uneducated. I talk to winemakers, visit wineries, taste wine, read books, and even what my fellow wine bloggers write about on their sites. I learn something about wine almost every day, and would rather spend my limited amount of discretionary time and money engaging in these activities than taking a formal class. Of course, if Wine Enthusiast wants to pay for my tuition, sign me up! I’ll even promise to blog about the experience!

    (By the way, your own bio emphasizes your “self-education” and doesn’t mention classroom certification–better get cracking!)

    I am sure its not intentional, but when people suggest disenfranchising or bestowing secondary status on wine bloggers without pieces of paper that say they’ve spend XX hours learning about wine, it smacks of elitism. And the wine world is full up on that.

  7. Dr. Debs, I sure don’t think anyone needs a piece of paper to review wines! I was just making the point that there’s a lot of wine review blogs out there and I don’t see how most of them are going to be seen as credible by the wider public, although I’m sure they’ll have their fans. I think Phillip James [above] made a good observation concerning “different strokes for different folks” blogs. In this new, internationalized, democratized, atomized world of the internet, people of every stripe and flavor [so to speak] will flock to the sites they relate to best. It’s just that more of them will flock to a few blogs, and these will be the “credible” ones. About my “self-education,” it was not only thorough and effective, it was a lot of fun, in fact one of the best times of my life was learning about wine in San Francisco in the 1980s.

  8. 1) There are 2 wine blogger conferences: http://ewbc2008.wineblogger.info is the other

    2) My wife, who isn’t “formally” trained, and I, write for Catavino. But Catavino is objective, and well-reasoned, and we do know Iberian wine.

    3) We stopped taking ads and have moved towards soliciting sponsorships, not from wineries who want to give them, but to things that surround the industry. We are very focused on objectivity, along with many other blogs! In fact, I can’t name one who is currently taking money from a winery (not that their isn’t).

    4) I can name plenty of journalists who take press trips and never mention this in their stories, and yet, they publish in newspapers and magazines with authority. Should we not also have an article dedicated to this topic?

    5) How many small town newspapers hire the guy with the most wine knowledge to write the weekly column? We aren’t criticizing them…

    Bloggers, are for the most part, incredibly gifted “amateurs” with knowledge that many times surpasses the “pros”…Blog software is a tool to publish with. In fact, Robert Parker is a blogger without “rigorous training”. He just started before the blogging software was created. You can like him or not, but he does know his stuff, and he gained his knowledge through tasting, not classes.

    The web allows people to share knowledge and to document learning. Wine needs this. Too many people think you need to know something about wine to be able to enjoy it.

    I know a few journalists at WS and WA who accept lodging and gifts without ever reporting it, so why are they not scrutinized, while “amateur bloggers” are asked to be held to stricter standards?

    my two cents…

  9. Well, we’ve learned one thing: Steve’s taste in blogs has something to be desired.

    Certification is an interesting idea, but in the end it’s much like designing American Viticultural Areas: You get what’s been paid for. But more importantly, reviews are a dime a dozen…today. I don’t care so much that a blogging reviewer really understands that whole cluster fermentation will deliver certain characteristics to a Chardonnay. I care that upon reading the review I’m entertained and enlightened, with emphasis on the former.

  10. Steve,

    First off, thanks for you honest take on situation; however, I beg to disagree wholeheartedly. Like Dr. Debbs, I have no formal education, but as I live and breathe Iberian wine, I don’t think that I am out of the loop by any means. I research, write up the most compelling post I can, and submit it to the world as my best shot. Is a journalist any different, and just because they may have had a formal education in wine, doesn’t mean they can write well.

    I equate blogging to the proverbial melting pot, where you can find a little of everything. For me, this is what makes blogging so beautiful, a truly democratic method allowing everyone to play in the game if they have the tools.

    Certification is very much a situation where your ostracizing and isolating people for doing their own thing. Not everyone has the funds to get their certification, the ability or the desire. Why should they be left out?

    I write about Iberian wines, visit Iberian wineries, talk to Iberian winemakers, and LIVE in Iberia where I write about Iberian wines everyday. Why do I need a formal course when I live the education? And as Tom points out, why does anyone care if you have a formal education if they enjoy what you write?

    I understand your hesitation and your concerns, but I think your mindset is still stuck in the print. Robert McIntosh from the Wine Conversation sent me a great article from The Guardian on why print journalists fear blogging. It may be worth your time to check it out. http://blogs.guardian.co.uk/greenslade/2008/06/why_journalists_must_learn_the.html

  11. I think a lot of wine blogging is simply having a conversation with other wine lovers. The advantage of the internet is that they can do this online when they’re geographically spread out. I know in my in-person community, my husband and I are by far the biggest wine geeks. No one in our circle comes even close. So I get my fix online.

    That said, I don’t read reviews often, but mostly that’s because there are so many wines out there and the distribution system is so wacked. There’s nothing worse than discovering a wine you can’t have. The blogs and posts I like are ones that educate, inform, and entertain, and you don’t have to be a bona fide journalist to write those.

    (And THAT said, I am a journalist and I make my living writing for mostly print publications. I agree with you, Steve, that it does take years to build up credibility and a knowledge base from which to be authoritative. But I’ve also learned that in this “me” world of Web 2.0, not necessarily everyone cares about that.)

  12. Steve,

    Great post, and something I was thinking about as well after looking into the Bloggers conference and reading Jeff’s blog . . .

    The power of wine blogs is quite apparent these days, with some retailers using ‘points’ or ‘reviews’ from some of these blogs to help sell wines . . .

    I am also not in favor of creating a ‘certification’ for bloggers . . . especially since this is not required for wine reviewers in more traditional channels either! It cannot hurt to take classes to either expand one’s palate or get more ‘formal’ training in breaking wines down . . . but is certainly not a requirement for blogging about wines . . .

    I also agree with Tom’s take on wine blogs – if I want my fill of wine reviews, there are PLENTY of sites I can hit and, with an open mind, can get a sense of those I want to follow more closely and those I don’t. And if I want my fill of ‘wine news’, there are some great sights for that as well.

    What I hope to continue to find is a variety of wine bloggers that are somehow tied to the biz, are independent thinkers, and are willing to step out on a limb from time to time and express their opinions, regardless of how ‘controversial’ they may be . . .

    Thanks again and good luck on your blog! Cheers!

  13. Steve, this issue has come up before in a pretty long dialogue that took place on OWC. I have to say that I’m of the “no certification necessary” camp. I do have my WSET Advanced and I dabbled in diploma but I don’t think that makes me better than anybody else. Heck, I don’t even write about wine that often! I think the cream will ultimately always rise to the top and those who know their stuff, will get more readers.

  14. Steve – clearly a provocative post. I keep two of possibly the least entertaining wine-related blogs on the planet, though that has not stopped a lot of people from reading anyway. I have no certification per se but my bona fides are in my profile, and I hope evident in my content. If I put out something really bone-headed I expect the community to rubbish my post. I’m a believer in the marketplace of ideas vision of the internet to a point, short of belief in the wisdom of crowds. I think that so long as the smartest people in the room (yoo-hoo! whoever you are!) are spending a little time fact-checking the space around them, the wine-related blog community will not turn into an echo chamber for inanity.

  15. Oh, yeah? Well, that’s just, like, your opinion, man!

    And what credentials do *you* have anyway, Steve?

    Oh… wait… never mind!
    ;-)

  16. Hello Steve,
    Thanks for your interesting post. Food for thought! I have 7 years experience in the wine industry in Australia writing about wine for corporations, (which have their own spin and bias) so I find my blog, whilst it is mostly opinion, is a fun way to write from a new perspective ie entertainment. Whether it is FACT or not, whether my palate is better than someone who has done my training or not, I think it’s great to have plurality of voices out there. Keep the big guys honest! All interesting comments, thank you.

    Feel free to drop by sometime: http://www.winewomansong.com

  17. Firstly, I think you’ll find that many people who write wine related blogs will spend a fair bit of time educating themselves, whether it’s through formal channels or through plenty of reading and tasting. There’s also a huge difference in the blogging world between those who write posts several times a week and have done for years, and those who start a blog, write a post once a week for the first month and then once a month after that. Unlike print media, when a mistake is made in a blog, the reader can post the correction in the comment … this way you find out everything you need to know about the blog’s author. Is your comment even published? Is the response handled with grace?

    Secondly, Ryan has already mentioned the European Wine Bloggers’ Conference. This is taking place in August, making it the first of its kind.

    And finally, why are you “taking the time to check out blogs every day”, when you could just let a feed reader do all the work for you?

  18. Alex, I post every day Monday-Friday and make a point of replying to every comment. And I’m always happy to correct my mistakes! Re: feed readers, I’m still trying to get the hang of how these gadgets work. Thanks.

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