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Wine blogs: an endangered species?

27 comments

Two years ago, when I started playing in the blog sandbox, wine blogs seemed like the wave of the future.

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The conventional wisdom was, Print was as dead as the dinosaurs, advertising was flooding away from magazines and newspapers to online, and an older generation of Baby Boomer critics was rapidly being killed off by young blogger guns, who were strangling the necks of old critics like a chicken in the hands of a poultry farmer.

Well, in the words of Churchill, “Some chicken; some neck.”

Even an organization that’s desperately trying to make a living from online blogging, Palate Press, ran an op-ed piece called “There’s a Reason No One Reads Wine Blogs,” that I largely agree with, although the author, Tom Johnson, is overly-broad in his conclusions. For one thing, it’s patently not true that “no one reads wine blogs.” Tens of thousands of people everyday read the top wine blogs, including mine.

Nonetheless, Johnson’s main indictment is that very few people read wine blogs compared to other kinds of blogs; “the top 100 wine blogs combined would be the 280th most popular blog in the country,” he argues. (Readers should be aware that all statistics regarding blog readership, including my own, are to be viewed with skepticism. There simply are no reliable metrics.)

Okay, so wine blogs aren’t as popular as political blogs, or technology blogs, or sports or celebrity entertainment blogs. I have no problem with that; it’s what I’d expect. Lots of people like to drink wine, but far fewer of them enjoy talking about it, the way people talk endlessly about March Madness or iPads or Sandra Bullock’s husband’s infidelity.

I’m not so sure, as Johnson advises, that wine bloggers should stop reviewing wine. They can write about whatever they want (Sonadora, this is for you). But the fact is that no wine blog is going to out-influence the most important wine magazines, including Wine Enthusiast, for anytime soon. That could change, under the right circumstances, but some very particular events would have to occur, in precisely the right way, and the odds of that happening presently are slight.

Johnson is right when he says that interlinking wine blogs is a good thing to do. That’s pretty obvious. It takes advantage of the structure and spirit of the Internet. I probably don’t interlink enough with other wine blogs, although, come to think of it, that’s exactly what I’m doing right now with Johnson’s and Sonadora’s Wannabe Wino’s. This interlinking is what makes these blog discussions so interesting.

But where I think Johnson misses the mark entirely  is in his hope that some quick fixes (of the type he recommends) will “make wine blogs relevant to wine drinkers” and therefore, miraculously make them into major economic factors in wine. I just don’t see that happening. A wine blog is, at most, a perfunctory daily stop for people, mostly in the industry or hoping to get into the industry. Does anybody really think that there’s anything a blog, or even an agglomeration of blogs (as some hope), can achieve the power and influence of a big wine magazine? I don’t think so.

What’s fueled the top blogs for the last few years is a hope that blogging will lead to something more rewarding. I’m not talking about wine bloggers who blog just for the heck of it. But, let’s get real here, there’s a ton of ambition among wine bloggers. Although some insist they’re not in it for the money, they doth protest a little too much. So, as the possibilities dwindle that there’s a pot of gold at the end of the blogging rainbow, I can’t see some of the top bloggers continuing to produce 3, 4, 5 well-written blogs a week. It’s a lot of work (more than the casual reader knows), without pay, or, even if the blogger accepts advertising (which I don’t), without much pay. Sooner or later, some bloggers are going to start wondering if it’s worth the hassle (or their spouses will make them start wondering).

People sometimes ask me why I spend so much time blogging about blogging, social media, etc. It’s because we’re talking about the future of wine writing and criticism in this country, and that’s something I have a stake in. I’d probably do myself more good, and make myself less of a target, by just talking about wine, terroir, etc. But wine writing is something I take as seriously as my retirement account. When the time comes, I want to hand it off, to whoever it may be, to people who believe in wine passionately, sincerely, with every ounce of their being. To people who are willing to live wine 24/7 — not just blog about the free sample somebody sent them yesterday. Fortunately, there are such bloggers out there; they know who they are. All I’m saying is that they’re not going to make a living doing it anytime soon. They’re going to have to either wait for the system to change, or they’re going to have to make it change, or get jobs within the system that will no longer allow them to freely blog on their own. I’m not saying this is good or bad. It’s just the way it is.

P.S. On “Blood Into Wine“: I had a nice little part in that documentary about “Tool” frontman Maynard James Keenan, and I thought I came across pretty well. But I have to say this: They blind-tasted me on several wines, including Maynard’s. I didn’t like Maynard’s Arizona wine at all, but the filmmakers left that part out.

  1. Desperately? Assiduously, perhaps, but not desperately. There’s no despair here, for we are feeling quite good about how things are going. Steve, resist the temptation of so many other print wine writers to cast everything on-line in a pejorative light. It ads nothing to your post and just makes you look petty.

  2. I think blogging serves different purposes for different people. It is a form of connecting with people who share a common passion. In the wine world, trust is so important. Can you get a following, yes you can. People want a kin and honesty before they spend their dollars on a bottle of wine. I read WE magazine for years and realized we felt the same way on a variety of wines Steve, so I “trust” your wine picks. Will wine enthusiast who write and blog ever replace folks like you; I think not! But, we all have our place in the wine world. Everyone has a wine reading style. some like it serious and detailed, so like it simple.

  3. Are blogs going away? Sure, some are going to die of their owner’s boredom with posting and posting and posting and getting nowhere. Other blogs are going to take their places. All one has to do is look back at the history of wine conversations online to realize that people who love wine also love to talk about it. Some write blogs, some comment regularly, lots more folks read a handful of blogs both to get some insider insights and to also get the occasional good recommendation about wine or wine lists or wine-country stops or wine paraphernalia but rarely comment. The kind of writing that serves all those purposes, at no cost to the consumer and little direct cost except time to the writer is not going away, in my opinion.

    Can people make money from blogging is a different question. Palate Press is a noble experiment and so is the broader coverage provided by Zester Daily. Wine Review Online may not be a blog in the classic meaning of the term, but it is an online startup that has brought together a large number of top writers. Some of these folks will make money in the Online space at some point, but I have to agree with Steve, it will be the exception and not the rule.

    I look at the efforts of folks like Joe Roberts (1WineDude), Jeff Lefevere (Good Grape), Derrick Schneider (An Obsession With Food) and I sense that I am looking at the next generation, the guys who will take the place of the folks like me, Mr. Heimoff, Jim Laube, Robert Parker, Dan Berger and you name it–all of whom are simply going to age out of this biz at some point.

    But, for the young bloggers to actually make money, they are going to have to align themselves with someone or something that is actually making money. And that means getting paid for providing online content or writing for a print publication. That requirement is not insurmountable, but it probably is not likely to happen to the larger blogging community, and while I do not think that blogging is an endangered species, I think that many individual blogs are endangered–simply because it is hard to write and write and write even when one is making money. It is harder still to do it for years and years when one is not.

  4. @CharlieOlken good point in your 3rd paragraph.

    A blog is also like a resume/portfolio of your work. How is a wine publication/website/blog/magazine going to decide which wine writers/blogger/podcasters/videographers to hire in the future?

  5. Dr. H, they’ll hire whoever the owner/s think will be the best, according to the company’s business plan.

  6. Charles, your observations are interesting. Perhaps most interesting to me is that you note Joe Roberts and Jeff Lefevere among the future of wine writing. I could not agree more. That is why we are so thrilled that they are Contributors and Editors at Palate Press, as well as members of The Palate Press Advertising Network.

    We agree that bloggers who want to make money will have to align themselves with something making money and paying for content. Our whole theory combines two basic ideas. First, that the next generation is not going to pay for print content, and second, that if we provide a place for the best young wine writers to get paid for their content, we can provide the vehicle for new writers that the print magazines provided for the last generation.

    We are paying for some of our stories, and in the near future plan to pay for all of them. Sometimes the stories come from bloggers, sometimes from professional freelance writers. We pay for the best story, not the byline. Ultimately, that is what this experiment can do, democratize professional wine writing, one story at a time.

    One of the very interesting side effects we see of our process is a distinct improvement in blog content. Writers who go through a multi-tiered editing process do two things. First, they self-edit when they send us stories far more carefully than they might self-publish. Second, after the editing process they sometimes change how they write, hearing the voice of the editor even after she is gone.

    I do not think anybody is going to make a living blogging any time soon. I agree with Steve on that point. But I believe the model is being created that will make it possible, and fortunately, you, Steve, Dan Berger, and all the others have plenty of good years left, and by the time you are ready to hand it off (or we are ready to take it), the system will have already changed enough to accodate them.

  7. Two years ago I was doing wine PR, so I and my colleagues spent a lot of time thinking about wine blogs. I don’t remember coming across anyone who believed your “conventional wisdom,” Steve. Where do you get this stuff? Spectator, Parker, nationally read newspaper folk (Asimov, Dot & John, Jerry Shriver) and even Wine Enthusiast and Wine & Spirits were considered far more important and nobody was anticipating a wholesale overturning of that hierarchy in the foreseeable future. I remember talking to the PR and marketing people who attended the first Wine Bloggers’ Conference. The prevailing sentiment was, “Yeah, there are some bloggers who seem to have developed modest but perhaps meaningful audiences, and it’s probably a good idea to send them samples and invite them to events.” But that was pretty much it as far as wine bloggers as valued media targets. The attendees were enthusiastic, likable, laudable — but it was impossible to see very many of those bloggers, especially those unaffiliated with established publications, developing into influencers.

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the big change that digital media is ushering in isn’t in giving us a whole new set of influential writers (bloggers), it’s in allowing brands to communicate in a more direct and intimate way with consumers.

  8. The answer to your blog post question found posted outside a bar in Austin at the recent SXSW Festival: http://cache.gawker.com/assets/images/7/2010/03/340x_custom_1269216472725_sxswfarewell.jpg

  9. The big difference between say a celebrity gossip blog and a wine blog is the target audience. The people who read the wine blogs I would guess are much more likely to spend money on what is recommended, whereas what do you guess the conversion rate on a banner add on a gossip site is? The wine blog is a much smaller audience, but the blogger is much much more influential and the reader is much more willing to spend.
    One other point is that people don’t read wine reviews for fun, they read them for information. Not every wine has been reviewed by Advocate, Spectator or Enthusiast, so maybe the blogs can provide a niche for small production un-reviewed wine.
    Lastly, what do you think people said about Robert Parker when he started up his wine reviews? Nobody reads wine reviews for entertainment?

  10. I read Johnson’s piece with interest, and very much agree with Steve’s points about the limited available audience. If engagement is your prize, a good social footprint is a viable path and can be accomplished with a small slice of the very niched fine wine media consumer. Personally, as a wine enthusiast who started blogging a year ago as a research and media experiment (I published my firts magazine in 1984 and have not stopped yet), I picked wine because it was the only thing I could imagine tolerating writing about every week forever. It’s been exhilarating and uninspired by any hope for financial or professional reward. Good thing, huh?

  11. Charlie – you make me proud, dad!!! :-)

  12. the difference between a wine blog and a globally distributed wine publication is huge. Obviously, anybody can write daily on a wine blog. Even if their content is origional and well written, you can’t guarantee that anybody will see it. In the business of online traffic and marketing, you really need a lot of viewers, I’m talking about thousands or tens of thousands of impressions per month just to make it worth your time. far more to make a career of it.
    Wine blogs are good for the industry, especially for people who work in the industry, as they provide grounds to learn and interact with other industry professionals. You may find some day that people with greatwine blogs end up getting higher paying jobs from publications like Wine Enthusiast. That possibility exists but it is obviously more likely that a proven wine writer or wine maker will have a successfull and income producing blog.

  13. First, thanks for the plugola of my Palate Press thing, and because I am a big man — literally as well as figuratively — I’ll forgive you for disagreeing with me on several points where I was, in fact, completely right.

    I do want to say one thing about the nature not just of blogging but of all writing. Blogs did not create the surplus of writers. There have always been more writers than the world knows what to do with, and there have always been means of publication that involved no money at all. There are literally hundreds of print publications that pay in contributor copies, and they are never wanting for content.

    Most of the wine print media that are so dominant in the wine business started out as mimeographed newsletters — the mid-20th Century equivalent of a blog. Of the hundreds of similar publications — I had one myself, called NAPALM — a few rose to prominence.

    Blogging is no different than that, though the embryonic terminology of our time confuses technology and content. Blogging, as a technology, fills a number of useful rolls that have nothing to do with aggregating audience. People use blogs as diaries/filing cabinets to organize their memories, whether those memories are child-rearing milestones or wines tasted. Blogs are used to coordinate small interest groups or projects. And, like mimeographed newsletters, they’re a low-risk place to coordinate the craft of writing with a nascent audience.

    The Palate Press piece was entirely about blog writers who seek a larger audience, who want to play a meaningful role in the larger wine conversation. I did not, in fact, propose “quick fixes” that would make wine blogs powerful in the wine business. I suggested that a strategic change of course that would create a different kind of marketplace for wine blogs, with incentives that would improve the quality of the content and thus the utility of the blogs to potential readers. The change of course is easy, yes; the hard work it will require to capitalize on that change of course is not.

    It is that hard work, not the change of course, that should make wine blogs relevant to wine drinkers. Or, at least, more relevant than they currently are.

  14. Steve,
    Would like to know which “circumstances” have to fall into place so that wine blogging “out-influences” the typical mainstream wine magazines?
    What you fail to see is that wine blogging is not waiting for “the system to change” because it is the new system of use and its interaction will overtake the roll of traditional “Expert” magazines sooner than you think.
    In other words, the emergence of wine blogging is bringing a sense of immediate transparency and interaction.

  15. vinorojo86 says:

    I think it was Bukowski who said “when a writer has nothing to write about, they write about writing.”

  16. A blog or combination of blogs could in fact over take a number of wine publications in terms of readership and influence:

    Marketing….It would take some serious marketing. And some talent.

    Still, that tells me that what’s keeping wine blogs from being much more important is not their format or the people writing them.

    It’s money.

  17. Vinorojo, Bukowski may have said that, but it’s not true. Some of the best lit crit has come from authors. Writing about writing gives a writer a different way to express his voice.

  18. wininginmiami, essentially the entire structure of reading patterns, advertising, publishing, visibility, credibility and talent would have to shift in order for blogs to out-influence magazines. Not saying it can’t happen, but… Anyhow I do welcome the focus on transparency and interaction that blogging has brought. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be blogging.

  19. Hey Steve: have you noticed the entire structure of reading patterns, advertising, publishing, etc. in the newspaper business shifting lately? Think that can’t happen to magazines?

    We may not know what the new model is yet, but we can be pretty sure there’s going to be a new model.

  20. Tom, actually, no, we can’t assume what you allege. There is no reason to think the major print publications will not continue to dominate, because they can afford best practices. The “new model” you assume is likely to be an upgraded old model.

  21. Of course it is going to be an update on existing media. As for the best practices thing…well, the definition of “best practices” changes. Ethical orthodoxies inevitably evolve, according to the establishment always for the worse. Recall how the British commanders were appalled by the American tendency to attack from behind trees, an ungentlemanly way of waging war. The Brits were justifiably appalled, according to the best practices of the time, but they still lost the war.

    To be fair, newspapers made mistakes that niche magazines generally didn’t. They filled themselves with syndicated, commodity content while focusing their business innovation on printing and distribution. The web makes distribution universal and printing irrelevant. All they’re left with is the syndicated crap we read two days ago on the web, so they’re headed down fast.

    Magazines already went through one collapse, when the big, general interest publications like Colliers and Life went down. That pushed mags into niches filled with hundreds of different titles, where unique content was absolutely the most important thing they had to offer. That’s why magazines remain healthy. (I love magazines, by the way. Growing up I wanted to be John McPhee. I worked for ten years in the magazine business in L.A.) Nonetheless, the underlying economics are the same. Printing and distribution mean less and less; the barriers to competitive entry are lower and lower.

    My hunch is that the future is something more like Hollywood than Madison Avenue. There will be, in effect, studios that provide capital and marketing, and there will be stars of varying magnitude who know how to attract an audience, and who carry that audience with them wherever they go. Status, which is currently attached primarily to the publication, will more and more be attached to the stars: writers, editors, photographers, etc.

    Best practices, whatever they may be, will be a competitive advantage, the kind of brand attribute that separates, for example, the New York Times from the supermarket tabloids. It’s worth keeping in mind, however, that the Times lost $75 million last year. The tabs made record profits. Who has the sustainable business model?

  22. Note to Tom Johnson–

    Things have already changed in the best practices model. Time was, and it was not so long ago, that wine pubs that took advertising did not review wines and wine pubs that revewed wine did not take advertising or accept samples.

    Now, you have an entirely different paradigm that has left folks like me with those old “British” values gasping for air and having to adapt. Some of us will and some won’t.

    I would guess that the advent of electronic magazines through Kindle, I-Pads and their ilk will change us all again, and who knows what is coming after that. But, when I see major pubs like WS, WE, RP, Tanzer and soon, CGCW, morphing into modern media presentations with the full understanding that we are just part way down the way, I also realize that we have the resources, contacts, writers, audience to remain strong in one form or another.

  23. Charlie –

    Absolutely. The understanding of how to build and maintain relationships with sources and subjects is crucial. That’s among the expertise that newspapers gave up when they laid-off writing staff and put their capital into four-color printing plants. It’s also the expertise that magazines — working niches where expertise is valued — can leverage to change media. While it’s going to be tricky, I think its inevitable. And I think it’s going to be a tipping point model rather than a gradual change.

  24. Charlie,

    Thanks for the flattering plug. I guess I should get my conversion done so I can keep posting!

  25. Tom–

    Could not figure an email address from your blog so I will post this here.

    Your blog entry, “If Wine Blogging Were More Like Political Blogging” had me in stitches. You may not replace the HMW (who could), but this is very funny stuff. I don’t know how to put links in either, so I would suggest that interested folks click on the Tom Johnson name and scroll down for a great read.

    Charlie

  26. Derrick–

    Yes, and soon.

  27. Thanks, Charlie. Here’s a direct link so no one has to wade through the rest of my stuff.

    http://excellentproj.com/archives/3576#comments

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