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The wine blogger as journalist entrepreneur

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If you had told me 25 years ago that wine was going to be as popular as it is in America, I wouldn’t have been surprised. I learned a long time ago that, whenever I get passionate about something in the culture, millions of others are getting excited by the same thing. I might have latched onto wine a little earlier than most people, but ultimately, we’re all just riders on the huge demographic waves that sweep back and forth across history.

What does surprise me, though, is the interest in writing about wine. It not only surprises me, it blows my mind. If you’d told me, 25 years ago, that thousands of people would be writing about wine, I would have suggested you get your head examined. But here we are, with 1,000 wine blogs or whatever it is and counting, and even a Wine Writers Symposium that’s held at (of all places) Meadowood.

Why do so many people want to write about wine?

The first thing that’s so strange about it is that people are actually writing. That’s counter-intuitive. Conventional wisdom is that nobody writes anything anymore, unless they have to. But here we have millions of people across the world writing blogs of all types. That suggests to me a longing to communicate, which is, of course, the best thing about the Internet. You can communicate to everyone, instantaneously, at the push of a button. (Never mind that it’s not face to face. It’s still communication.)

With the blogs, including wine blogs, that are seeking to make money, there’s also an element of entrepreneurialism. In America post-Sept. 11, with life as we know it changing in radically unpredictable ways, and especially since the Great Collapse of 2007-2008 which has left many with scary financial futures, people seem to feel that they’re going to have to make it on their own, rather than depend on a company or employer to take care of them. There’s also this tremendous burst of creativity that’s been unleashed by the Internet and the access it gives everyone to information and expression. Put those two things–insecurity and creativity–together, and it helps explain the explosion of entrepreneurialism that underpins the wine blogging phenomenon.

Paul Kedrosky, who writes one of my favorite (non-wine) blogs, analyzed this recently in a post he called The “Tilt” Thing and the Case for Journalist Entrepreneurs.

Briefly, his take is that Silicon Valley is seeing less entrepreneurialism than might be expected, and he wonders why. Then he postulates it may be because the kinds of risk takers who become entrepreneurs are being “sucked…out” of science and technology into “other sectors.” His reference to “journalist entrepreneurs,” I think, is a metaphor for these “other sectors,” which he doesn’t really define, except to say that, compared to science and engineering, they offer “societal benefits [that] are much smaller, and arguable even negative.” I’m not sure I agree with that: the implication is that science gives people “positive” benefits, while journalism (the liberal arts?) yields smaller and “even negative” benefits. But then, Kedrosky is a techie, and maybe that’s why he sees the liberal arts as less positive than science.

Where he’s spot on, though, is in insisting that “Entrepreneurship is and should be irrational. You are taking on huge risks, showing immense ego, and trying something with an absurdly high failure rate.” That describes every major wine blogger in America. Anybody who hopes to make money at wine blogging is completely irrational, as there’s not a shred of evidence it can be done. Those who try to do it anyway, year after year, are showing colossal egos; my Hebrew ancestors would describe it as chutzpah. Kedrosky admits he “teases” journalist entrepreneurs but adds, in a begrudgingly admiring way, “I wouldn’t have it any other way.” Neither would I. The essence of entrepreneurialism is absurd: you invent something in a garage, your friends and family all think you’re nuts, everybody’s always asking you why you’re wasting your time on something so profitless. But you have a feeling. An instinct. A dream. So you push. Yes, there’s “an absurdly high failure rate.” You know that. But no risk, no reward, as the saying goes.

  1. Steve – curious if you have any opinions about whiskey and craft beer? The craft beer world has been growing at tremendous speed, and the report released this week just showed that craft beer volume in 2010 increased by 11% over the previous year. Whisk(e)y is further behind, at least in the American market, but the growth of craft whiskey distilleries in America, as well as the growing popularity of Scotch in the US is a trend that is on the brink. So, do you think the more entrepreneurial drink enthusiasts – who have a passion for wine, whisky and beer – may think about exploring/writing/video blogging about the bigger picture of drink enthusiast culture as opposed to just wine? That’s the direction I’ve chosen to explore – partly because I’m entrepreneurial by nature and think there is a more ripe opportunity than with just wine, but also because I have an extreme passion for all three.

  2. Terry – I was the principal writer at the Liquorblog at the now defunct Martini Republic from inception in 2004 to early 2006. I reviewed craft ales, breweries, and liquor. I had a seven-point rating system for ales and a checklist for breweries/brewpubs so that everyone was rated under the same parameters. At one point we were getting 500-1000 unique viewers a day.

    What I ultimately found was that beer and liquor aren’t a sexy as wine. Sure, they both have a long history and some interesting stories and can even have cultural, geographical, and national significance. But neither is as cross-cultural, pan-geographical, or as internationally coveted as wine.

    The problem I had with blogging twice weekly was coming up with something interesting to say without becoming redundant. Beer and liquor don’t invoke as much passion as wine nor do they allow for as broad a spectrum of prose in describing them. Sad to say I ultimately became a little bored with it and simply stuck with drinking. This is why I appreciate what Steve, Mike Dunne, Alder Yarrow, and many commenters here do on their own blogs. I understand part of it is a gift or talent for writing, but a great deal of it comes from good ‘ol fashioned hard work and stamina.

    And, equally, a love for the written word.

  3. Steve, thanks for the great article. I think many of us blog because we know we need to. In these challenging times, you have to do everything you possibly can to get noticed. Blogging is what some people might call a necessary evil :-)

  4. Hi Betty, I don’t know if blogging is a necessary evil. If it is, so is journalism itself, which was important enough to be protected in the Constitution. But I totally, fully understand the need to get noticed, and I am fascinated by the new ways this is happening.

  5. Terry and Bill,

    In addition to organizing a Wine Bloggers Conference, we also organize a Beer Bloggers Conference. Two of them, in fact – one in the US and one in Europe. We also publish what we call The Complete List of Beer Blogs and currently list 966 “citizen beer blogs” worldwide. Check it out. http://beerbloggersconference.org/blogs/complete-list-of-beer-blogs/

    I know beer bloggers would definitely dispute they have less passion than wine bloggers and think with the onset of craft beer that beer drinkers are on the way to that same level of passion.

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