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Reflections on Tom Wark’s wine writers survey

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I figured I’d weigh in on Tom Wark’s impressive new survey on wine writers, which has garnered considerable attention. Its main bullet-point findings, as the press release on Business Wire says, are that “American wine writers are getting younger, are more female than in past years, are abandoning print for digital, don’t appreciate the work of publicists and marketers that court them and are very concerned about the economic difficulties that have effected the publishing industry.”

(You can find the entire PDF of the study here.)

It’s obviously good that wine writing is feminizing, as is everything else in America, as women now go to college in equal numbers to men and have equal (or nearly so) access in the workplace. All during my professional career here in California I’ve known and been surrounded by female wine writers, so this isn’t surprising to me. I think women bring a more humanizing touch to wine writing than do men, and about time. We’ve been talking a lot about the human touch lately here on the old blog, and that impetus is being stirred by the increased presence of women in my wine writing field.

It’s also not surprising that writers “are abandoning print for digital,” although I’m not sure that “abandoning” is the word I’d use. When you abandon something it’s usually deliberate. Except for Mr. Suckling, who deliberately left Spectator to go online, I’m not aware of anyone else who voluntarily gave up a juicy print gig to go online. Instead, they get fired or laid off, and that’s when they go online. The other reason for so many wine writers going digital is obviously because it’s easy to do. The bar to entry is non-existent. But then, Tom explicitly acknowledges that in the study when he says, “To be blunt, it costs nothing to start a wine blog and reach a potentially large audience. This lowering of the bar where reaching an audience is concerned also is contributing to the increase in younger wine writers.”

There was actually very little in this study that surprised me, except for the part about wine writers not appreciating the work of publicists and marketers. It was said that 20 percent of wine writers with 20 years or more of experience found information from wine publicists “rarely useful,” while that number jumped to 40 percent for those with 5 years or less of experience. Later, only 19 percent said they found information from publicists “extremely” or “very” useful. Eighty-one percent found it only “somewhat” or “rarely” useful. This led Tom to speculate that for most wine writers, “The typical view is that [publicists] are responsible for ‘spin,’ a form of communication considered only slightly more reliable than outright lies.”

There’s much more on this topic in the study’s 36 pages, and it makes for interesting reading. Meanwhile, I’d like to get in a word or two on the subject of publicists before we get it go. While it’s true, by definition, that a publicist is explicitly paid by an employer to tout or “spin” the company’s products, it’s also true that a good publicist can be extraordinarily helpful to a harried wine writer. I’ll speak from my own experience in California, but I’m sure it’s true for veterans in New York or New South Wales or Chateauneuf-du-Pape. If I were giving advice to younger wine writers, I’d tell them to not be dismissive of publicists. They’re willing to work with you. They “know where the bodies are buried,” so to speak, and can often point a writer in the direction of a hot lead. Publicists know how to work “off the record,” and when a writer cultivates good relationships with publicists, it will make him or her a better, more informed, more linked in writer. And when you get to know publicists, you’ll find them (I want to say this carefully and respectfully) grateful for the least tidbit you can provide their client. It’s not like you have to give them a front page story or a fantastic review in order to get help. If you did, the  better publicists would stop respecting you. They understand that quid doesn’t necessarily lead to quo. Publicists understand that writers have ethical constraints, and they respect our boundaries. Many’s the time I’ve rejected a publicist’s original pitch, only to engage in a conversation that resulted in a story I really liked. In fact, dare I say it, older writers are more sensitive to both the trappings and the allures of publicists than are younger writers.

So, if I were to add a question for the next time Tom launches the wine writers survey, it would be something like, “How do you work with publicists in such a way as to enhance your job?” In other words, don’t just bash them.  Writers, get to know your publicists. Befriend them. Form relationships (that magic word again!) that are based on mutual trust and respect. You won’t regret it.

* * *

I want to wish everyone the happiest, healthiest, safest Thanksgiving ever. See you next Monday!

  1. Well said. Have not yet read the report, only Wark’s intro. Your comments seem to the point. E.g. Nothing (so far) of what I’ve seen is in any way surprising. Or: don’t bash the publicist. On this last point, perhaps they get an unfair amount of bashing from younger wine writers or writers writing in ‘new media’, since they (we?) have a tendency to reject *anything* that has a whiff of ‘old media’ about it…?

  2. When it comes to the 3-tier system and distribution Tom Wark is the best.

    I like to read your blog to follow what’s going on in the wine world.

    Thanks for sharing this study.

  3. Per-BK, I think the younger writers will learn as they become more professional. Some of them are a bit rebellious, but even in the past 2 years they’ve calmed down a lot, and are taking their jobs more seriously.

  4. On behalf of you know who, from all of us, thank you.

  5. Steve,

    Thanks for pointing us to the survey and for your excellent comments. As a father of two pretty well-adjusted teenagers I’d like to offer a minor point of view about the bashing issue. The younger crowd who uses the digital medium for their social interactions tends to bash online freely, even if they do not do it verbally in their daily life. The (sometimes sad) reality is that if you are going to venture into the limelight (or the faint glow of your 20 inch monitor) you better grow a thick skin. Which brings me to an analogy I was thinking about: The explosion of wine bloggers is akin to a wine writing version of “American Idol”. On one hand, any SHMUCK with a keyboard and a broadband connection can join the auditions and make us cringe as we have to listen to a few verses of their vocal mania. On the other hand… once in a while you truly get to see something amazing bloom in front of your eyes. something that otherwise may have not had a chance to do so. I say that in the big picture, it is worth the wait.

  6. Oded,
    Have to say that is one of the coolest things I’ve read on this subject.

  7. The publicists I know (and there are not many) really understand Steve’s last point about relationships and trust. Isn’t this true of any relationship? Trust is fundamental to all aspects of our life and in every relationship we have. I have learned this the hard way through the school of hard knocks.

    I think what makes a publicist not just good but great is that they are real people. They have chinks in their armor. They admit when they are wrong. They are honest about what they say. They are willing to roll up their sleeves and go to work. They have integrity. Ah, integrity. Seems like such an old fashioned word these days but really, how many people live their lives with integrity?

  8. Rusty Eddy says:

    All great comments. Having integrity and building good relationships is a big part of being a respected publicist. I would also add something that’s worked well for me over the years: treating media people like they’re my employer (don’t tell my current boss). I’ve always felt that it’s been my job to make the writer look good (without compromising my client or employer, of course).

  9. Good words, Steve. By all means, writers, bash the PR people who have earned a bashing. But do keep an open mind.

  10. So with this “explosion” of wine writing, can we expect an “explosion” of wine consumption?

  11. George: let us hope!

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