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A wine blogger on wine blogs

41 comments

I don’t have any evidence for making the following assertion–just a feeling–but I think the bloom is off the rose when it comes to wine blogs.

After an intense period of creative ferment of about 4 or 5 years, the nation’s major wine blogs have settled into a comfortable middle age. The shock, delight and revolutionary fervor that surrounded wine blogs even three years ago, when I started (relatively late in the game), have lifted. Now, instead, wine blogs feel like regular parts of our lives, as sturdy and familiar as the morning newspaper in the driveway (if you happen to subscribe to a newspaper, as I do: the San Francisco Chronicle).

That it has come to this is testament to several things. One is that wine blogs have demonstrated their staying power. Although bloggers make little or (in my case) no money at all from their efforts (and those efforts can be considerable), still they’ve demonstrated that they’re passionate/crazy/stupid/hopeful enough to keep at it. Likewise, readers have shown their commitment to reading their favorite blogs, and loyalty to them. I know there are steveheimoff.com fans who look forward to reading me everyday. Similarly there must be 1WineDude, Juicy Tales, DrVino and Vinography fans who feel that a day without their bloggy fix is less than full. This is good: it means that certain blogs have become branded, which is what most bloggers hope for when they start. (I did.)

Something else, too: I think we now know who the players are, and that situation is unlikely to change. The field is set, the top names known. It is now extraordinarily difficult for a newcomer to enter the fray and succeed. It’s too late for that. The country already is saturated with wine blogs. I can’t see how a newbie could jump in and achieve any kind of respectable numbers, unless that person already was famous from something else.

While blogging’s recent history is reasonably clear, but it’s future is less so. Where do the wine blogs go from here? We can make some inferences. The major wine blogs will continue to be published, if for no other reason than that their authors are a stubborn bunch. Blogging has become so interwoven with their lives, their self-identity and everyday practice, that nobody wants to be the first to give it up and become the talk of the town. “I blog, therefore I am” is the unstated dictum of wine blogging.

At the same time, I suspect that readership is leveling off, after years of sharp acceleration. This is only natural. The existing blogs are probably attracting a relatively smaller share of new readers every month, but the readership that remains is more intensely loyal. This must raise profound questions in the bloggers’ minds. None of the majors has yet begun to charge a subscription fee. (I exempt certain celebrities.) The thought has to be whether or not a blog’s loyal, committed readers will not pay a modest annual fee to retain privileges. What is a modest annual fee? Surely somewhere between $25 and $45. More than that, and it feels exorbitant, especially in this train wreck of an economy. So it will be interesting to see who finally makes the jump to a subscription model. But that someone will, and should, seems evident, as the next natural evolutionary step.

Far more obscure is where wine writing and reviewing goes from here. I know we’re had this intense debate for years now, but it’s as far from being resolved as ever. I think print publications are on a far sounder footing than they were in 2009-2010, but at some cost to their bottom lines: as they move online, revenues fall, even as expenses also do, and publishers are taking careful looks at the balance between the two. The New York Times remains the quintessential poster child of getting that balance (including subscription fees) resolved.

As for steveheimoff.com, it will still be here for a long time, if I have anything to say about it–which, come to think of it, I do, since it’s my blog, and I write it of my own free will. As long as I have free will, this blog will exist.

  1. RedMoumtainEar says:

    A well thought post. However, by adding subscription fees this would in turn raise the opportunity for a newcomer to gain a foothold, a small one maybe. There still are other opportunities out there. For, example the education level of wine bloggers is not that of a winemaker. So the technical aspect of wine can still be exploited (the wine blog for winemakers). In addition to that there are still many great new and expanding viticulture areas in the world. This would be a further opportunity of specialization in a specific wine region. Just some thoughts from an optimistic winemaker.

  2. Hi Steve,

    Why do you think blog readership has fallen off?

  3. Steve,
    I’ve got to say that’s kind of depressing for the rest of us lowly bloggers. To think we’re toiling away to maintain the limited readership that we already have but may be unable to grow it in the future… Hmmm. Good thing I still have a day job!

  4. Lori, I think like any cultural phenomenon, the bloom wears off the rose after the initial burst of glory.

  5. Nova, it shouldn’t be about depression, it should be about hope and ambition. A kid who wants to play for the NBA, NFL or MLB knows the odds are stacked against him, but he doesn’t let it stop him from trying. Ditto for all the people who make their way to Hollywood, or young entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley.

  6. Jim Vandegriff says:

    Thanks for this blog, Steve. I do read it daily and would feel a loss if it weren’t present. So I’m glad it will be here in the future.
    As for the future, I’ve been toying with the idea of doing a weekly video blog focused around Humboldt County wines. I think regional blogs or vblogs may spread to regions that could use some publicity for their products.

  7. I could not agree more or less with this at the same time.

    In terms of the maxing out of wine blogs, I agree fully. I have been saying that for awhile (not publicly) that the top players are established and everyone else (brilliant or not) will have to fight for crumbs. There may be a few exceptions in time, but I don’t see anyone on the radar that I think can fill in for Yarrow, Roberts, Wark, or you Steve.

    However, some of the above statements come across as funny to me. It reminds me of the big print newspapers channeling Jack’s character in Titanic, “I’m the King of the World!” You were the King of the World dear Jack… until you drowned. Newspapers are struggling for many reasons, but the main one has been the iceberg influence of the Internet that caught them off guard.

    Blogs in general flourished in the early to mid 2000’s because they were anti-establishment, they were anti-status quo. Now, they have increasingly become the new status quo. I don’t mean this in a disrespectful way, but these top of the pile wine bloggers will be on top until someone else changes the game on them. This is not to say they won’t always have their loyal followers, but mediums change, David picks up a rock, and history moves forward. Some will change with it, some will not.

    It will be excited to see what new twist come from both established and new wine writers (or personalities), in whatever the medium is.

    P.S. I also agree with Jim, I think more regional influence has a strong future.

  8. Jim V, that’s a great idea, about Humboldt County. I’d like to know what’s happening there, aside from pot.

  9. As a neophyte wine blogger this confirms the disheartening reality for me. But niche blogging is definitely where there is room for growth (such as with the Humboldt Cty. Wines described above or kosher wines in my case, though there are already big names in my niche as well.) however, in my case blogging isn’t an end unto itself but rather a means: translating it into a real-world business (eventually).

  10. I went back and re-examined your comments about a “modest annual fee” and I have no more idea now than I did two years ago when we first discussed this idea why anybody would pay for a blog–even one as good as yours–unless it brought more than an early morning pick me up into their lives. The question of the value proposition continues to nag at me.

    What is that we bloggers write that sufficiently changes the landscape to an extent that people would pay to read it? How many brilliant insights do we have? How many more do we need to have in order to charge? Could all ten of the top bloggers charge? Would we therefore pay $20-40 a month to get our fill of the blogosphere over breakfast?

    Again, I come back to the value proposition. Would I pay $3 a month to read any one single column anywhere in the world? Sure, like you, I pay for the SF Chron. I also pay for The Economist, Travel and Leisure and a host of wine pubs (but that is professional necessity on my part). I can’t think of one single columnist, not even Tom Friedman or Paul Klugman, that I would pay $45 a year to read.

    But I wlll subscibe to magazines with broad coverage. Maybe Palate Press, Zester Daily, Wine Review Online have a better business model built simply on volume of words rather than on a few precious words. I guess we will just have to wait to see on that one.

    But unless somehow the blogosphere fractures into groups of writers who take their not-so-precious prose and agglomerate them into something whose collective weight has value, I find it hard to see the value proposition playing out for a single blogger–even for one as good as you are.

    Hey, buddy, wanna start a blogazine? Oh wait. We already have day jobs.

  11. With the right approach it would be easier than ever to enter the wine-blogosphere and make a dent.

    Very little has changed in the last 4 yrs- Too much intelligent wine writing and not enough stuff that makes you curl w/ anticipation for the next post.

  12. Hardy – I love it: setting up a juxtaposition between “intelligent wine writing” vs. “stuff that makes you curl w/ anticipation.” At my little blog, I try to do both!

  13. Charlie, I agree in part. A subscription model would have to include more than just the daily blog. However that is not a problem for a good, prolific writer.

  14. Steve,

    I’ve got to disagree with this contention: “We now know who the players are, and that situation is unlikely to change. The field is set, the top names known. It is now extraordinarily difficult for a newcomer to enter the fray and succeed. It’s too late for that. The country already is saturated with wine blogs. I can’t see how a newbie could jump in and achieve any kind of respectable numbers, unless that person already was famous from something else.”

    Consider the world of opinion media.

    You’ve got a stable of well-known commentators who have been around forever — George Will, Tom Friedman, Charles Krauthammer, etc. But there are always new voices, and some quickly become influential, household names. Consider Ross Douthat at the New York Times or Ezra Klein at the Washington Post.

    Why is wine blogging different? People who read Douthat and Klein probably haven’t stopped reading other opinion columnists. And as the older guys retire (or become irrelevant), there will be even more room for them.

    I’m self interested, of course. My blog, http://www.Terroirist.com, launched only seven months ago. But the traffic seems impressive – we’re well over 6,000 unique readers per month. And the credentials of having a daily wine blog have allowed me to write about wine for the Washington Post, LA Times, New York Times and appear on radio and TV.

  15. Steve, you are absolutely right. A full-blown publication on the Internet supported by folks who already have an allegiance to a particular voice and set of principles is a doable model. Whether it would be a successful model financially is a different question. I guess that depends on how success is defined.

  16. I’ve been blogging since 1995 – before there was even a term “blog” – on a variety of topics. I’ve covered deep technical stuff, personal thoughts, musical equipment, and lately wine. In all cases, I’ve had a certain detachment about the numbers. Like you mentioned, Steve, there’s a very real passion, craziness, stupidity, and hopefulness in writing any kind of blog.

    I’ve considered the problem of monetizing a blog many times in the past. In fact, many of the loyal readers of my reasonably popular guitar gear blog (GuitarGear.org) have suggested that I charge a subscription fee, so I know that I could do it. But the reason I blog is the same reason I have problem with charging my readers: freedom.

    My thought is that if I charge money, then I’m instantly obligated to write. Then what started out as pure fun in wanting to share my thoughts suddenly becomes work. Sure, I write anyway, but I write within the context of what I love to do. Charging money would take away from that – at least from my perspective.

    Now it doesn’t mean that not taking payment doesn’t have its rewards. With my guitar gear blog, while I used to have to go to stores or outright buy to try out and test new gear, I now have manufacturers contacting me to evaluate their stuff. So I get to try out TONS of gear each year, and that’s awesome to me. And of course, it provides lots of material for me to write about.

    All that said, if the intent was to generate income, then that would be a completely different story and an annual fee model would probably work, as long as you had a regular publication schedule. But then it all goes back to the question: Why are you blogging?

  17. I’m with Hardy and David White. There’s plenty of room for new, fresh voices to come into the online wine writing community(I’m starting to wretch at the word ‘blog’). The problem is –seemingly — that the talented amateur with something, new, fresh and interesting to say about wine is a very small group indeed.

    So, it’s not that there’s not room, it’s just that nobody (or few, as White is an example), have stepped up and stepped in.

    Secondarily, until there is an online authority for every wine niche, there’s still plenty of room. Personally, I’d love to read an accessible, interesting, boots on the ground English language blog that does Germany and NZ well.

  18. Isn’t the key word “talent?” Genuine talent always finds an audience. It’s no different than starting a winery in this crazy economy and overcrowded marketplace. Takes incredible guts and a very loose grip on reality, but if you have talent, it just works. Your audience finds you. Instead there’s a parade of 82 point wine blogs, though most are actually pointless altogether.

    I don’t miss the insular world of wine blogs very much. I haven’t found anyone replacing my brand of wine tomfoolery. Instead, there is more and more of the same dreary Poodle barking. I said a year ago wine blogs will effectively be dead in five years. I’m looking very Nostradamus right about now.

    But for $45 a year, I just might make a comeback! I can use the $90.

  19. You can’t get enough subscribers to matter if you charge for a small one-site subscription. No one source of info matters enough in the opinion category, especially for wine. That’s my feel based on looking at the market. Maybe one or two.

    Look at places where people DO pay for content. I look to the trade. The trade certainly pays for content that is based on actual research, actual statistics and the like. If you were to do original research and discover trade-relevant privileged info, I think the trade would pay to be there. I also think if you could create a place where the (vetted members of the)trade wanted to be (a watering hole of sorts), people would pay to be part of that.

    If the NYT cannot really make a subscription model work, bloggers certainly won’t. Monetizing the blog could instead be about:

    1. Hitching your wagon to a commerce company, who can pay for your blog as a source of traffic for its business. Whatever.com could create an amazing community of paid bloggers and have them blog about wines in their selection occasionally. Commerce pays the bills, so it has to end up there. Netflix does this (did this?), for instance.

    2. Some people monetize blogs modestly by asking readers to buy through them. By selling ads and becoming affiliates, writers can monetize the loyalty of their audience, modestly.

    3. Larger brands can afford to sponsor good writers. You can complete this line of thinking.

    4. Create book-grade content as you blog and sell books made from that content. Of course you have to know the book market well enough.

    It helps to take an attitude about selling that goes beyond simple “I need to be independent” and toward “I have independence within the context I agree to while still getting paid.” That’s true for just about all media I’d think. It doesn’t hurt Gary V that he sells, in fact it enhances his credibility in my opinion.

    I often love Steve’s (this) blog and get value from it, but I’d probably not pay for it (no offense intended) given the multitudes of reasonably good alternatives of things to read. That comes down to supply and demand.

    Plus, don’t be complacent about new voices. New blogs and new voices have in the past and will in the future routinely sprout up in all markets. The old gets boring and new talent emerges just as it does in all talent industries. The internet facilitates this happening quickly and the medium will not be static. Fashion is fickle.

    There’s my 2¢…and I thought I wouldn’t pay anything. :-)

  20. Hello Hosemaster! Yes, you were inimitable. There cannot and will not be another Hosemaster of Wine, unless you return to Earth and provide us another glimpse. However some of us hope that we might approach the hem of your gown on bended knee and touch it with our lips, perchance to borrow some of your greatness, if not to approach your level of tomfoolery.

  21. For me, the opportunities lie in niche blogs (like mine) that appeal to a specific topic in the wine world. What becomes important is that through the avenue of wine blogging one can develop one’s INFLUENCE, and parlay that influence into a paying gig…
    I disagree that the main players have been identified and the rest of us are scurrying for crumbs. Excellence and creativity in wine blogging goes a long way… Look at samanthasansdosage, for instance. Writing wine reviews isnt enough anymore. You have to provide information and ENTERTAINMENT.

  22. “So it will be interesting to see who finally makes the jump to a subscription model. But that someone will, and should, seems evident, as the next natural evolutionary step”.
    I honestly do not believe a “subscription model” will ever succeed (i.e., become the mainstream model) on the Internet.
    Electronic media is not, by nature, a scarce economic good. A scarce good is non-divisible; it cannot be shared. Music, films, e-books, articles, posts, etc., can all be shared. In this case one can have one’s cake and eat it too.
    This is probably the reason why printed media (with its massive production costs and weird logistics) is still available, since it is the only effective way to protect copyrights.
    In point of fact, the future of IP (intellectual property) and copyrights seems, IMHO, seriously endangered.

  23. Marlene Rossman says:

    Steve, I agree with you. And, although I am now ITB as a wine columnist, I also have an MBA. The market will shake everything out.
    It already has. If you look at the list of bloggers from a year ago, many have folded. I have read dozens of blogs with bad grammar, terrible typos and simply inept writing. As Oded says, “everyone sets up a blog and wants a (free) bottle of wine.”

    Also, many bloggers simply report on the same old, same old (not you, of course)! And how many “reviews” on Zinfandel can be written (not that there’s anything wrong with Zinfandel) with “jammy, brambly red fruit” descriptors. The bloggers that will stay are those with a variety of topics, views and interests.

    I realize that I am rambling and not being totally coherent in this post. I am on deadline for my wine column and have been up a good deal of the night!

  24. Hi Steve – You brought up an interesting wrinkle: paid subscriptions. I can pretty much guarantee that the second bloggers start charging money for the privilege to read their (our) personal opinions on a particular matter, the readership will disappear. A blog by its very nature is something that is free, candid, and in the case of wine blogging, casual.

    Interestingly enough, if top wine blogs start charging money, it will create a void for consumers used to free, casual and candid opinions on wine. They’ll go looking for other channels. That’s how the next set of wine bloggers takes over.

  25. here is an example of someone getting paid for their writing through a monthly subscription — i’ve interviewed her and she says it works for her, but she IS in a more simple (literally), quiet arena, without all the yapping poodles…

    http://rowdykittens.com/2011/02/letter-ly/

    i gotta say, i am really surprised, at the elitist and depowering stance shared in this post: “The field is set, the top names known. It is now extraordinarily difficult for a newcomer to enter the fray and succeed. It’s too late for that. The country already is saturated with wine blogs. I can’t see how a newbie could jump in and achieve any kind of respectable numbers, unless that person already was famous from something else.” geez!

    someone in a position such as yours, steve, would stand legions above the others if you were to encourage, not deflate. yet as a wine-industry insider, i can see how your opinion is prevalent across the board of the current regime — what you wrote about blogs is exactly what’s shown in the industry about wines. the country club is full, people, you can line-up for entry, but don’t hold your breath. this idea is disheartening and growing old fast. yet in an insular world, who cares, right?

  26. Steve, given how big your interest is in wine, and how little money in blogging, have you thought of working in a retail store? Have you already done that? I don’t recall your full background. Lots of places in the Bay area. I enjoy it. Barely survive at times, but is very social. The original social media, I believe. Meeting the consumer in person. Anyway, I enjoy your writing.

  27. Tom Ferrell says:

    Regarding monetizing a blog, it has to have value. I’m not sure I would pay for a good online wine story. However, I would pay for a tip that that saved me money and guided me to a great deal on a delicious wine. Maybe, a blog that focused and put its reputation on the line for a “buy this” recommendation. How this could be achieved in a practical and consistent way, I have no idea. Maybe, this is a purely theoretical and idealistic notion. Matt Kramer used to provide a good tip once a week when he wrote for the Sun which I found helpful. He included a store or two and prices.

    There are many good publications and newsletters that critique wine, but you have to wade through a lot of scores, factor in equivalent values, the taster’s preferences, the amount of “goodwill” (hype) behind the price, and search the web and local stores to find it discounted. A critic too rarely ventures with extreme candor into a realistic judgement of whether a wine is truly worth it or not. That is usually left up to us. Maybe I don’t subscribe to the right publications.

    A good wine merchant is the usual solution , but no matter how good or honest the merchant, their recommendations are always colored by their selection and existing inventory. Flash wine sites are particularly iffy given their offerings are colored by both their and their supplier’s inventory(and oversupply.)

    But finding those steals, those great values that pop up now and then, that everyone could agree on? I feel like in the internet age there is someone who is particularly situated to dependably crack this nut and profit from it.

  28. Don, thanks. I don’t think retail is in my future.

  29. Have always admired your opinion Steve, and still do. If someone has ‘fire in their belly’ about writing or blogging, I would say go for it. Others, often novices who never dreamed they would do it, bring out the paints and the canvas to create what they see and or feel. It’s all part of our life journey to express that inner self.

  30. Hosemaster, you Nostradamus with faint praise… but your faithful poodle army will continue to wag their little buffed tails whenever you peek into the blog room…

  31. What a load of horse shit…

  32. Hi Ken, be well.

  33. I have to look at Steve’s comments in reverse. Not first off, but rather somewhat later in his blog he says

    “It is now extraordinarily difficult for a newcomer to enter the fray and succeed. It’s too late for that. The country already is saturated with wine blogs. I can’t see how a newbie could jump in and achieve any kind of respectable numbers, unless that person already was famous from something else.”

    OK. Maybe. But to start the post off he says “Although bloggers make little or (in my case) no money at all from their efforts (and those efforts can be considerable), still they’ve demonstrated that they’re passionate/crazy/stupid/hopeful enough to keep at it.”

    I don’t get it. If the cost of entry to blogging is next to nothing, and since the goal is not profits, than what prevents new writers with (gasp) more compelling writing skills than so many of the existing bloggers, from becoming widely read and their writings sought after?

    To say the market is saturated and closed and that essentially new generations of writers and wine drinkers will never enter the genre, seems exceptionally close minded.

    Trying to scare off budding writers?

  34. Erik, my key phrase was “and succeed.” Anybody can enter the field. But I think the players have been identified, at least over the next several years. It’s kind of like the Republican race for a presidential nominee. We know who the field is. Anybody who’s not already in it isn’t going to be.

  35. I’m a wine retailer and launched a blob 10 months ago. Being in the wine biz sometimes gives me access to info other bloggers wouldn’t have, and working daily with real wine drinkers keeps me, well, real. I enjoy writing and turning people on to wine, so the blog gives me a charge even if it doesn’t give me a pay check.
    And like David White, I’m using it to “build my personal brand” (to use Gary V’s expression).

  36. “It’s kind of like the Republican race for a presidential nominee. We know who the field is. Anybody who’s not already in it isn’t going to be.”

    Steve, that’s off the mark, I think.

    Is it more difficult for generalist blogs – in any genre – to gain readership now? Yes, they are competing with more established players in their niche because of the acceptance of alternative media like blogs as viable.

    Your blog is a leader because you’re talented and can leverage your WE relationship – in a way, you blog about being a critic for a wine glossy, and that’s interesting so one could even argue that you’ve got a niche, but let’s call it a generalist wine blog here because you’ll talk about anything wine-related; I fall into the same category, as does Tyler and Alder as further examples.

    Does that mean the stage is set, even for generalist sites? For now, maybe, but generally the answer is No. The thinking about a stage being set implies an endgame, a finale to the competition, but it’s not at all clear that there will ever be one. If folks like you (and maybe to some extent me) stop blogging for a month, or offer up crappy content, or “phone it in,” then we’re screwed because voices are rising up in the community all the time. Not just the hobbyists, but people with the passion, drive and talent to get more serious about it and become leaders within the community.

    It took, what, three and half years for the current wine blogging pack leaders to become established in this space? That’s quantum-physics-quick when compared to the off-line world, which took something like 15 years to sort itself out.

    The point is, the space can change, and will change, and it will happen quickly and in ways that we cannot easily predict. And there’s nothing we can do about it.

    And that’s *awesome*. What better way than that sort of (mostly) friendly competition to bring out the best in all of us, consistently?

  37. Deb Lapmardo says: “I’m a wine retailer and launched a blob(sic) 10 months ago.”

    Hey Deb. Do be careful about spelling errors on your blob. ;-)
    You’ll be embarrassed for a minute but (should) thank me for this prod.

    ALWAYS re-read your blobbings before they go on-line [as I sometimes fail to do]

    Blob away

    Warren

  38. If the New York Times couldn’t make a subscription model work, wine blogs won’t either.

    A few wine blogs are making money from advertising, and that number is going up as they group together for more advertising power. I know this because a certain person I meet in the mirror in the morning will be sending out checks in the first week of July and distributing a rather fair-sized (five figures) chunk of change.

    The next model to come will comb wine blogs for the best talent and find a way to market it. That announcement will be coming soon, for those on the inside who didn’t get it already.

  39. Warren, I didn’t think she was misspelling it!

  40. I forget now – was it blobbers or bloppers?

  41. Blobbers. I could not agree with bloppers.

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