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Wine magazines dead? I don’t think so

39 comments

And as proof I offer wine.com’s #1 wine of the year, Cambria 2006 Julia’s Vineyard Pinot Noir, from the Santa Maria Valley.

Each year for the last 3 years, wine.com, the nation’s largest online wine retailer, publishes its Top 100 wines list, but it’s different from the top wine lists published by most newspapers and magazines, including Wine Enthusiast. Wine.com’s list is “based entirely on customer preferences,” the web site explains. “The ranking reflects the top 1% of wines sold nationally on Wine.com during 2009 based on unit volume.” In other words, in wine.com’s list, the company’s customers vote with their wallets, instead of editors voting their personal preferences.

But hold on. There’s one big thing wine.com’s list has in common with Wine Enthusiast’s Top 100 Wines list of 2009. Our #1 wine also was the Cambria 2006 Julia’s; our list came out a week before wine.com’s. I can explain why the Cambria was our top wine, since I’m the guy who reviewed it and gave it 93 points. What I can’t do with precision is tell you why the Cambria was wine.com’s #1 wine. But I can make an inference that’s pretty plausible.

It’s this: wine.com cites two reviews from wine magazines for the Cambria. One was mine, which appeared in Feb., 2009 in Wine Enthusiast; the other was a 90-point score from Wine News (which I believe was given by my old friend, Steve Pitcher). Add to that the fact that wine.com is selling the wine for $17.79 — considerably less than the $21 suggested retail price — and you had lots of customers buying it. A 93-point Santa Maria Pinot for under $20? Grab your credit card and start shopping!

So I’d venture to say my review in Wine Enthusiast pushed the Cambria into the stratosphere. Not bad for a paper-based wine magazine published in a time when strident voices are predicting (and possibly hoping for) the “death of print” we’ve heard so much about. If being a potent driver of sales is an indication of a terminal disease, we’re going to have to reconsider what “healthy” means.

I daresay that even if the top 10 blogs, or the top 25 or what have you, all agreed on their #1 wine of the year (which obviously isn’t going to happen), it wouldn’t be enough to cause a #1 wine at wine.com. We’ve all heard anecdotes of a few success stories here and there — Capozzi selling out 1,700 cases of Pinot pre-release purportedly on the strength of pinotblogger’s blog, or Gary V. pushing product through winelibrarytv. But what you’re not hearing are the hundreds or thousands of wines that have gotten good reviews on blogs (and some of them pretty famous blogs) where the net impact on sales was lighter than a gnat’s poop.

What I’m driving at is that the better wine magazines are going to be around for a long time because, frankly, they work. As the recession lifts and the advertising climate improves, the difficulties of the past year or so will increasingly be behind us. Americans still like to read their wine magazines. That doesn’t mean lots of stuff isn’t shifting online. But when it comes to wine reviews that actually sell cases, I don’t think it’s moving to blogs or Twitter. Amazon’s Kindle, maybe, and similar portable reading devices. People may well move away from paper-based to an e-book platform, but I’m predicting that even as/when that happens, the wine magazines they’ll turn to will be the same ones they’ve always turned to, such as Wine Enthusiast. And as the wine.com #1 wine of 2009 makes clear, reviews, including those from Wine Enthusiast, will remain the single biggest driver of sales (yes, even bigger than peer recommendations!).

  1. Steve

    Your are good and Cambria’s distribution even better. Wines that succeed at these levels have distribution first. It would be rare to be the other way around.

  2. Ron, I suppose Cambria’s distribution was helpful but I think my review/score was most instrumental, along with the price. If wine.com had offered it for $40 it would not have sold as well.

  3. Yes, print mags will be influential as long as they publish stuff like the Top 100. It seems that the typical target audience member for the Top 100 is people who don’t know their own palate (e.g., beginners, etc.) and/or for some reason can’t access alternate sources of info. Although I used to pay attention to the top 100 lists (books, etc., as well as vintage ratings, etc.) I don’t any more because I know my own palate and have acess to many wine info sources. FYI: the 2006 Cambria Pinot has an average CT! rating of 86.9 (25 total ratings)

  4. There’s no question, points move wine. A 93 on a sub-$20 wine is very rare, so it’s doubly true for the Cambria PN. Especially given the large production and wide distribution. (Not knocking the wine–I’ve had it and it definitely punches above its weight class.)

    The effect is so large in part because of the price point. If you scored a $40 wine a 98, that would be extraordinary as well, but it wouldn’t pull in the same consumers en mass. In effect blogs are doing the same thing. They’re looking at lesser-known, expensive or small production wines. It’s a niche, though there are certainly some blogs, especially the sample bloggers, who cover large production wines as well.

    No question, print wins when it comes to mass dissemination of info. Peer recs help when it comes to lesser known producers/regions. As far as the sample bloggers are concerned, well, no worries there. They can’t do what you do as well, and they don’t cover an under-represented niche, either. It’s the niche market where blogs might have an in long-term, though I doubt there’s much profit to be made there.

  5. Ah, if only it were so. I have 1700 people who have joined our inaugural vintage mailing list, but there is no guarantee they will all buy, much less buy a case.

    I’m happy with the results, but they aren’t quite as impressive as you mention.

    Thanks for the mentions Steve. Had a good time on the panel with you.

  6. Ego alert

    Ego alert

    Ego alert

  7. Wishing you good luck, Josh!

  8. So, when can I expect to read Wine Enthusiast on my Kindle?

  9. Mike, I don’t know but I think people above my pay grade are working on it.

  10. Wine magazines still have their place, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. There are still wine drinkers who are looking for a little guidance on what they should buy and try. Some of those may read blogs, but many still read the rags. I know that I do. Regardless of your experience level, what’s wrong with seeking the advice of an expert once in a while? You don’t have to take it, but it’s nice to have when making a purchasing decision.

    Besides, wine mags have already proven that they are adapting to the new environment by moving a lot of content onto their websites and posting blogs themselves. I expect that being able to read them on the Kindle and other e-book readers will actually help boost revenues.

  11. Christophe says:

    Steve,

    If I used magazines to sell to the trade, I would be thrown out of my accounts. It’s not a harsh criticism, just a reality. Today’s wine buyers are beyond scores and hype. They look for a good representation of Geography in wine as well as price. Things are changing….for the better.

  12. Steve,

    I completely agree about print not going anywhere anytime soon. Good point about the Kindle. There is something to be said about being able to sit down with your magazine and read cover to cover.

    Really enjoyed your talk at the Davis PR class! Hope to run into you again soon.

  13. WOW, Christphe summed it up quite well. The fact is that more and more new buyers and many of the semi- (wine) mature demogaphics simply are not listening to dudes in NY City or Maine for sound wine advice. Why would they?

    Let’s keep the mag’s for their perhaps intended use. Shiny pages of pretty people and cool photo shots pitching (mosly) large corporate product and mission statements. Small wineries could never afford the fancy (NYC) ad placements anyways.

    Reading wine mag’s is kinda like looking over and cheating off your classmate, only you don’t know if they’ve got the right answer either. Only by tasting wine and folks doing their own homework will they begin to calibrate their specific taste to their pallate.

  14. Randy, it’s true that most small wineries can’t afford the ad space. But you’re overlooking one huge fact: We writers, when we write our articles and do our reviews, routinely include small wineries in them. So in a sense, the big, wealthy wineries are underwriting the ability of their smaller competition to get coverage!

  15. Christophe, while your wine buyers may be beyond scores and hype (which is a hyberbolic claim in itself), are consumers beyond it as well? As a distributor, I’ve seen wine sit on a shelf untouched for months and then it gets flagged with a review and begins to sell. Right now, it’s just the nature of the beast. Reviews aren’t the end all, be all of wine but they are engrained in the industry for the foreseeable future.

  16. Boo Walker says:

    Steve,

    Your blogging has made a much better impression on me concerning your ability to talk about the wine industry. I was not convinced during my years of reading Enthusiast or any other wine print media. All I can say is keep up the blogging. It is a much truer approach to an industry that is purely subjective. Let us not destroy the most important thing in wine: Terroir. All else is secondary.

    I found a little video that sums up the new generation of thought:

    http://www.xtranormal.com/watch/5776511

  17. At first reading, I was a little taken aback by this post. So shamelessly self-obsessed! But then it occurred to me: a sheep-herding dog would certainly be proud to have herded sheep well.

  18. The two Steves are way too modest. Not only did their reviews persuade wine enthusiasts to buy the Julia’s from wine.com, they persuaded wine enthusiasts to pay more for the wine than they likely would pay at their neighborhood wine shop. Do the math: With shipping, a single bottle of the wine would cost $30.24. A full case would average out to $20.20 per bottle, likely more than a consumer would pay at the corner deli, given typical discounts on case purchases.

  19. Baa-aaa.

  20. Is it truly safe to say you are a potent driving force for sales or rather consumers are looking for value and this ONE particular example is $21.

  21. In addition,

    Wouldn’t it be more relevant in terms of wether or not YOUR magazine is effective at pushing wine if you were able to give a “good” score on a wine at $40 and have it be a top seller. I find it hard to believe that a 93 was the sole reason for its success. Especially when there is a lot of wine rated over 90 that isn’t moving.

    What made Julia’s the wine of the year, at Wine Enthusiast? (just curious)

  22. Steve,

    I think you are giving yourself a bit too much credit. Those buying the wine are being influenced by a number of variables, principally variety, price and recognition. wine.com uses eight reviewers. Six undoubtedly gave the wine a score under 90. So they cherry picked. But the Cambria, which is old reliable to a lot of people, is a single vineyard Pinot for under $20. You just can’t find this combination in the marketplace. Most Pinot’s above 90 are also at least twice the price of the Cambria. All the other top wines on the wine.com list came in under 20 bucks, some under $10. Buyers want QPR coupled with a 90 or higher score from some entity with standing, meaning a mag even if it is a newsletter like Connoisseur’s Guide (wonder what Charlie gave the wine).

    As for Mike’s comment, very few people order just a single wine. The pro rata share for shipping an average order is closer to $4

  23. I feel a sense of deja vu about this post.
    But Christophe is right. Trade buyers are usually the harbingers of wine trends to come, mostly because they do more direct communicating with wine consumers than the rest of us.
    Most trade buyers (excepting some chains focused on value deals) do not want to hear about critic reviews or scores.
    That being said, I do believe that wine mags and critics will continue to have influence, albeit from a PDA or laptop.
    I also believe their influence will continue to be eroded by the emerging voices online, wine bloggers, etc
    Two points about wine bloggers which print writers obfuscate:
    1. there are many wine bloggers out there who are indeed long-time wine professionals and have been tasting/appraising wine for as long as many print critics
    2.other wine bloggers are simply hard-core wine lovers that have married their love of writing with their love of wine…..and a fresh breeze can feel mighty nice

    Either way, print or online, good content always wins.
    Cheers,
    Amy

  24. Certainly wine scores are far, far, far from being dead.

    Not so sure that the score equates to a magazine, though. You can have one without the other, after all.

  25. 1WineDude, yes you can have a score without a magazine, but not all scores are equal. Joe Blow’s 100 points on crazywineguru.com/blogspot is not the same as a Parker 100!

  26. wine consumer says:

    I’d pat you on the back but it seems you’ve taken care of that already. There are a large number of retailers that will state a wine ranking on a notecard on front of the wine for consumers to see. There are also a large number of consumers who will see that ranking and buy the wine. End of story.

  27. Julie Crafton says:

    I think it all comes down to credibility – and at this point, I agree that the wine magazines have the upper hand in that regard. However, it will be interesting to see over the next few years if select bloggers/wine social media gurus gain more traction when it comes to influencing consumers.

  28. Continuing a thought started by TallyWineGuy- I wonder, Steve, if you ever consult consumer ratings from sites like CellarTracker to see whether folks you may have influenced to buy a wine like this were as pleased with it as you were?

  29. I’m sure that big lists like that have a huge impact, much more than the countless wine blogs out there, for moving lot’s of cases of those top-rated wines. But those top-rated wines are always going to be a minority of the wines out there (of course), and it would be foolish for the majority of wineries out there that are producing really good wine to rely on this as their marketing strategy. Sure, winning the lottery is great, but what are you going to eat if you don’t win? I think the future for the majority of wineries is to invest time in social media. Social media use won’t move as many cases as getting 93 points for an under $20 wine on Wine Enthusiast, but it will move a hell of a lot more cases than you’ll move without it if you don’t get that honorable mention.

  30. Robert: Nope.

  31. Certainly true that not all scores are created equal. I’m not sure that it takes a wine magazine to validate/launch/make an expert who’s scores could move wine, though. Gary V. is a case in point, as his scores are beginning to move wines (though not as much as a Parker score).

  32. Joe, anybody else besides Gary V on your radar?

  33. And, Joe, can you cite where Gary V scores are moving wine besides for Gary V?

    Now, don’t get me wrong. I have said all along that new voices are going to emerge, and if Gary V is emerging, that is fine with me. His voice is unique and people do listen to him directly, which is how followings are built.

    One of these days, there will be more voices–maybe yours, maybe Alder’s, but it is hard at present to match the tens of thousands of folks who pay for advice from the exisitng sources and thus read them when they arrive.

    Interestingly, from my admittedly limited perspective, the most important new voice in the vinous stratosphere is that of Steve Heimoff. He combines a platform to get his reviews in the hands of a very large and dedicated, believing audience, and his blog ahs

  34. Arrgh. Wrong Button.

    His blog has elevated him to the role of high philosopher. Notice, however, that his blog does not review wine. I still do not see blogs as a source of comprehensive wine reviews. The costs in time and money are too great to give away the work of a what is a full-time job.

  35. Well I don’t pay Charlie but maybe I should! Joe you’re being called out and as one of the greatest wine bloggers out there I hope you’ll reply.

  36. Steve, I do believe that you owe Charlie a beer!

    Charlie – There is no question that the vast majority of wine shops in the U.S. do NOT cite Gary’s scores on the shelf.

    However, there is no questioning the success of Gary’s website and his brick-and-mortar store, which has grown ten-fold in business. People who follow his video blog are buying wine based on his scores, there’s no doubt about that.

    I do agree with your point about the prohibitive costs of serious, comprehensive wine reviews. Case in point – I spend far more on this endeavor than I make via the blog, and the vast majority of the wines reviewed on 1WineDude are samples; like golf or ice hockey, there’s nothing cheap about this once you get even remotely serious about pursuing it.

    Like you, I do see the glass ceiling starting to crack. We talk about Gary V and Alder – but IMO the template for the ‘modern person’ in wine coverage is Tyler at Dr. Vino. He’s been able to establish himself as a subject matter expert, obtain book deals and TV appearances, etc., without the backing of a major print magazine.

    The hold of wine scores is still an iron grip when it comes to moving wine. The hold of wine mags on those scores is still tight but loosens (slowly) every year.

  37. Joe–

    I agree that the hold on scores of traditional mags, including mine, is loosening. Or perhaps broadening is the correct word. And, of course, traditional print is no longer the same. All of those rags have significant online presences and revenues from subscribers who get their wine reviews electronically rather than in print.

    But the real question is will it ever be replaced? Tom Merle argues that lumped scores from consumers, ala Zagat or TripAdvisor, will make the mags obsolete. I am less convinced of that.

    Whether the mags will be obsolete is really not the issue. It is whether expert commentary, even from self-appointed folks, as Tom P likes to call them, will be replaced. To that point, I would argue that it will not be.

    There will be new entrants to the field, and new ways to deliver that content, but I am guessing that there will always be a fee for service arrangement of some sort because the time and money aspects are, as you have personally experienced, not insignificant.

  38. Steve –

    Back to the wine for a second. Why the 2006 Cambia Julia’s over the 2007?

  39. Ron, well the ’07 didn’t get as good a score.

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