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It’s not blogs vs. print. Never was. Still isn’t.

26 comments

I don’t know why it’s controversial anymore that some of the better wine blogs can be effective in driving sales. Didn’t we have that conversation in, like, 2010, and decide the answer is Yes? I thought it was over. But then somebody writes something that gets the whole issue percolating again, and we find ourselves knee-deep into another faux controversy.

That’s my considered reaction to reading this Vintank posting that purports to tell the “wine industry” that they’re “looking at wine bloggers all wrong.”

There’s something really retro when the pro-blogging community (of which I obviously count myself as one) gets all defensive about themselves. Go on, read the Vintank post. It’s entirely correct in its claims that some blogs drive sales, that wineries should reach out to them, etc. No argument there. What sets me off about these kinds of articles, though, is the underlying sense that it’s bloggers versus people like me: mainstream wine critics, as if I were in the mixed martial arts octagon with Joe Roberts, battling it out for supremecy. See the old guy get his ass whipped by the hot young blogger! See print journalism go down for the count! Oh, my word, the blogger just gave a mawashi geri to the print guy’s head, then followed it up with a driving punch to the chudan! [Sound track: riotous cheers and applause from the blog fans, boos and moans from the few print people still alive.]

No, no, no! The pro-bloggers have got to get over this bruised sense of having been hurt or disrespected by the print critics. Can’t we all get along? Yes, I’ll take the author’s word (which Alder Yarrow modestly confirms in the comments section) that a good Vinography review moves product. That’s great. I’ll accept the author’s claim that a good Joe Roberts review sells wine. That’s good, too. But so does a good Steve Heimoff review in Wine Enthusiast, and I would wager that a high score from me, printed in the magazine’s Buying Guide, and reproduced as a shelf talker at Costco, sells a heck of a lot more wine than a good 1WineDude or Vinography score.

The Vintank post argues that “WE [i.e. wineries] FAIL if we don’t use [bloggers’] tasting notes, scores, badges, or whatever, not only on our sites, through social media, and in email and other communications with our customers, but also distributed to our retail partners on our sell sheets.” I couldn’t agree more with this (although if I were a winery I wouldn’t be sure which bloggers to send samples to).

The Vintank posting makes a number of statements I don’t agree with, though, because I think they’re based on false premises:

1. It’s “unfair” to hold bloggers to the same traffic standards as “mainstream critics” like me. Why? If I reach 1,000 times as many eyeballs through the magazine than a wine blogger can, why disregard that fact? Wine sales people understand that eyeballs is the correct measurement for a wine writer, be she a blogger or a print person. And wait until Wine Enthusiast hits the China market, in June. Our little local wine bloggers will be as dust in the wind.

2. Print writers are declining in power because “the decades of stories that have already been written about wineries, regions, and varieties make it a struggle [for them] to generate new and interesting content.” Well, I don’t think there’s anyone better than me to reply to that! Let me assure you that generating “new and interesting content” is no harder (or easier) for me today than it was 20 years ago. And even if you think it is hard for me, why would it be easier for a blogger?

Before the hate mail starts coming in from the blogging crowd, let me repeat that I firmly believe blogging is an integral part of the wine writing community. At the same time, the pro-blogging people really have got to stop complaining about “the mainstream media.” Honestly, they’re starting to sound like Sarah Palin.

And with all due respect to Alder Yarrow, let me answer the question he asked in the comments section:

Q: “What are all your new customers over the next five years more likely to do when they hear about your brand or one of your wines and want to know whether it’s any good or not: a) Go to the store and buy a copy of the Wine Spectator or b) type the wine name into Google?”

A: Yes, of course they’re going to Google it. But what does that have to do with the continued popularity of Spectator, Enthusiast or other wine magazines? This is a straw-man issue: Alder poses two hypothetical behaviors, the first obviously absurd, the second having little to do with the premise that wine bloggers will “win” some kind of Google search contest over “mainstream” writers. If you Google a winery brand looking for reviews, chances are the first several hits will take you to the winery’s website and to their “Reviews” link, if they have one (which they should). And which critics will most wineries publicize first? What Vintank calls “the power critics.” Would it hurt for the winery to also link to 1WineDude? Of course not; I hope they do; I hope Joe Roberts is making a ton of money by the time he’s 50.

Meanwhile, the mainstream media isn’t going anywhere. Look, we’re all one wine writing community, whether it’s print, blogging or whatever. We all should respect that fact, and quit the subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle trashing and resentment of print.

  1. Expecting blogs to compete with the power reviewers or even the niche reviewers whose readers pay for buying guidance is probably not the right way to go.

    That suggests to me that a winery cannot broadcast samples to 100 bloggers and get a reasonable return on that investment unless they are very big wineries with lots of product or the winery broadcasts only to a handful of “power bloggers”.

    That is why the article takes as its central theme that bloggers are different. In so saying, the article does ignore the bloggers who are also reader-supported reviewers like Messrs. Heimoff, Gregutt, Fish, Tanzer, Bonne, Asimov, Olken.

    Those bloggers are more than bloggers. They are part of the collectors’ evaluation system in a way that few bloggers can be.

    It is what the article does not say about how to use bloggers that impresses me. It does not say “how” to nurture bloggers. It just says to nurture them.

    It does not say to sample the top 100, and I am guessing that even the most blog-centric wineries do not send out nearly so many samples to bloggers as they do to critics whose reviews are read by paying subscribers. The reason is simple. It takes committed eyeballs to move product with a review.

    What I wish the article would have said is that the industry should invite bloggers to local events when its representatives are travelling; that the industry should get to know the important bloggers and fill them with product and stories that are tailored specifically rather than generally to each of their propensities.

    The best PR folks in the wine biz do that with the writers. My rag is loaded with offers from wineries to have us come and do vertical tastings since those kinds of features regularly appear in our pages. We get fewer requests to come and stay overnight in their guest cottages because we don’t do that and they know it.

    The way to nurture bloggers is to treat them as individuals, not as part of some monolithic mass. Joe Roberts and Alder Yarrow each have loyal followings but they talk about wine in very different ways. And so do all the other important bloggers.

    I think, Steve, that I may have liked the VinTank article more than you because it was a timely reminder that the broad blogosphere exists beyond the pros, plus the few widely followed newcomers, and that its shrinkage is not tantamount to its demise.

    But, you and I strongly agree that the article is way off base with its assertion that existing writing pool has run out of things to say. The fact that pros like you and me and others are writing an entire, cogent, edited, researched article every day is proof enough of that.

  2. Steve “All animals are created equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” This is the quote that came to my mind as I read your less than cogent post; usually filled with exceptional writing and engaging metaphors, this struck me as more bragging than writing. However you got my eyes balls (The purpose?), but you’ve increased the alienation I have with you by bragging and jabbing. I know, I know, “just the facts. . . you don’t have to look.” I’m only one person, but some time ago I found reading Alder Yarrow, and several rather unknown bloggers far more satisfying than WE or WS which I no longer subscribe to.

  3. For the record: You are far hotter than Joe Roberts ever was.

  4. James McCann says:

    2 quick comments… I’m not anti-blogger, but we do need to find some balance here:

    1. Alder’s comment may have been the most telling, as his best anecdote was that a winery once told him they got orders for 6 cases because of his blog?! That’s not a ringing endorsement.
    2. Part of the article’s premise seemed to be that wineries should continue to sample and support blogs, lest they disappear? Wineries should worry about how to sell their wine. Bloggers should continue to put out relevant and compelling content, build their own readerships, lest they disappear.

  5. Dear Susan B, you made my day!

  6. Dennis T., well that’s your right! Alder’s a good writer and a diligent researcher. He takes the most extensive notes I’ve ever seen at big tastings.

  7. If the measure of success for both is how much product is moved by a given rating, perhaps wine blogging and wine print media are both headed down for the count.

  8. Roberts washed up as a matinee idol at 40, nice Susan B. Steve, I think it’s the grand tats that did it.

  9. Let’s hope that the standards of judgment of winewriting do not degenerate into which of us is the most cuddly.

    Morton, while sales is not the only measure, it is a measure that can be readily seen and thus has its own level of validity for some typoes of writers/bloggers and for some types of winery outreach efforts.

    But winewriting is certainly about far more than case sales as my favorite writer, Gerald Asher, has proved over and over again.

  10. george kaplan says:

    Ill bet a luxury cab with a Leroy Neiman print and the caption” Down goes Heimoff!” would sell a lot of bottles.
    As Charles Olken says, there are multilple cohorts of readers and buyers, quality writing and sound judgement will almost always sell, and unless you’re trying to move boatloads of 1928 Roaming Eh Conti, there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

  11. Steve,

    I think you haven’t fully understood my comment about googling vs. buying a magazine. I was not making a comment at all about “the success” or not of mainstream media (you’re bringing that to the conversation on your own). The point that I was making is very specific. It is about the relevance and power of wine reviews on blogs. In short, they are valuable to wineries because they show up in Google search results. Your reviews don’t. Because more and more people’s very first instinct when it comes to answering a question is to use Google, blogger reviews will be infinitely more visible and accessible than reviews that live behind a paywall or on dead trees.

    Note that I am not making any claims about which is more likely to drive purchase behavior, nor am I stooping to “my review is worth X cases of wine” what’s yours worth? I’m also not suggesting that the tendency to find things on Google means that print magazines are no longer relevant. Obviously people continue to buy them, so clearly they are relevant. And I believe they will be for a long time, though not as broadly as they have been in the past. But there IS a reason that print advertising revenues have taken a nosedive in the last decade and a half.

    Finally, I want to suggest that you need to stop seeing every entreaty that someone like Paul Mabray makes for wineries to pay attention to blogs or social media as an explicit attack on print media. I challenge you to carefully re-read Paul’s piece and notice that you are confusing his comments about very real trends in print publication (which are, unfortunately negative) with an attack on print media.

    For him to say, “look, it’s harder and harder for you to get your brand in print these days, so you should pay attention to bloggers more than you are” is not an attack on print media, nor any attempt to set up a contest or “us vs. them” between new media and paper media. It’s just pointing out a real trend in the industry. You might not like that trend. You might be fighting it with all your might, but pointing out that print wine columns are disappearing is not an attack, it’s a statement of fact.

    Finally, just to make sure you know I’m not being reactionary here, I want to say that I think you are right to object to point #2 you mention above. I think Paul is incorrect on that count, even if his other reasons for the tough times facing print publications are correct.

  12. P.S. I, for one, would love to see a cuddle-off between Charlie Olken and Gerald Asher.

  13. James McCann says:

    Morton,

    I think that is exactly how the influence of any reviewer is measured. If no one followed the advice of a blogger / print reviewer (to differetiate from a journalist, although most often fill both roles), then what’s the point?

  14. Alder, I am shaking my head in wonderment. :-}

    The blogosphere needs more humor like this–except that in any contest between me and Mr. Asher, I come out second best on every count.

  15. Steve,
    Sorry you misinterpreted this as a bloggers vs. mainstream article. It was meant to remind wineries the relevance of blogs and their extended value as it relates to digital (especially in a Google economy) and new consumer behavior. It was meant to demonstrate the power and key role blogs have in the wine industry. Consumers and wineries NEED wine more wine writers especially in the form of blogs or accessible digital content.

    My only point about mainstream critics (especially the 25 “power critics”) is there are FAR less of you with FAR more wine/stories to write about. You, unfortunately, are a declining population as we have seen more and more wine publications/columns vanish. This is a fact. A sad but true fact. This trend is coupled with wine consumers looking for wine information via their phone/computer and powered by Google raises the relevance of digital content like blogs. That being said, mainstream wine publications/columns move more wine faster (they have more eyeballs) but for the majority of wines (almost 110K annually) that do not get written about the ever decreasing publications need an outlet to help consumers discover their wines. Blogs are critical for these vast majority of wines and do to consumer behavior, even for the ones that are written about on “dead trees.”

    Let’s never forget that you are a blogger too. The term has become a “Scarlet Letter” that when one says blogger, everyone assumes amateur. Digital wine writer would be a better moniker. In my article I demonstrated why your blog is even more relevant than I think you even understand. You would be better suited looking through that lens and understanding that I am supporting you, Jon Bonne, Charlie and many others with my statements instead of pitting you against the term “blogger.”

    Regarding your China launch we wish the Wine Enthusiast the best in this new launch but the statement of “Our little local wine bloggers will be as dust in the wind” is not only patronizing but also absurd as it assumes that China doesn’t have access to the internet. In that case you’ll be competing against a much larger population who will be more in tune with the culture (thus more relevant) and only beginning their arc of wine blogging. I have a feeling the dust you are going to see is the from the giant mob of Chinese wine bloggers running towards you.

    Charlie (who I deeply respect), I actually tried not to ignore the reader-supported reviewers as I see them as bloggers too (as stated above). It is wine writing, in all its facets and the ones that have their content accessible to Google and not behind paywalls are clearly more valuable to the ever increasing digital population. In regards to my comment about “trying to find things to write about” I meant it in the context of a print publication. Yes, there are infinite wines and stories to write about but from the perspective of a “story”, print publications have limited real estate and do not like to revisit stories about wineries, regions, or varieties in a short period. I have heard many times wineries pitching stories and the publication saying, “thanks but we wrote about that last Fall.” Moreover, mainstream publications need to be incredibly thoughtful about the stories they include in their limited space and those stories need to be very newsworthy to maintain readership. Writing about an obscure variety, a 200 case winery, or a vineyard that has been around for fifty years does no usually warrant their real estate. Blogs (yours and Steve’s included) are not limited to any of these restrictions.

    I did not do a good job telling wineries how to nurture the wine blogosphere EXCEPT to say that once upon a time we help make the kings by using their content to sell wines (Parker, Laube, et al). We should do the same for wine bloggers to help raise awareness of their storytelling as well as leverage their content for our benefit. We (wineries and wine retailers) are the distribution network for their content. If we don’t distribute it, we stifle their ability to be relevant. To Steve’s point the reason he drives more sales is because we (the industry) reprint and distribute his tasting notes and scores. We make him relevant and we should consider doing the same for bloggers. As an example, I would LOVE to see your CGCW reviews and scores (http://www.cgcw.com/databaseshowitemcgcw.aspx?id=77234&tn_id=20100701) on shelf talkers, and on winery on etailers sites. The same for Alder, Joe, etc. We (the industry) make wine writers like Steve, Parker, Laube relevant by distributing their content, not the other way around.

    Great wine writing will hopefully continue and by no means is diluted in quality if their are more people aspiring to that goal. I admire the great wine writers like you. I also admire passionate oenophiles documenting their experiences, even if clumsy, to help guide others on their wine journey. ALL of them benefit the wine industry and the consumer’s journey especially in an increasingly digital world where access to all information is now in your pocket.

  16. So, I hit 40 and all of a sudden everyone notices that I’m not that good-looking? Uhm… what the hell, I was homely for most of the previous 39 years before my most recent birthday… did you all get new contact lens prescriptions or lasik surgury or something?

    p.s. – I agree with Alder’s points, apart from wanting to see the cuddle-off…

  17. Steve – it’s just struck me that, ironically, the one who seems to suggest pitting you against me UF-cage-match-style is, more often than not, *you*.

    I’ve got to admit, I don’t feel at war with anyone other than, on a higher number of occasions than is probably healthy, myself.

    I can only say that in 2012 I’m looking to engage more wine consumers (and let’s not forget that some of those people blog about it!), and everything else in the wine blog-o-world, for me, is taking a back seat to that. Everything.

    So maybe there’s a threat of me shaving off a hair or two of WE market share there but I suspect it’s only a hair, so I see no print/on-line conflict there, and certainly didn’t see one in the VinTank article.

  18. Steve, you are the master of the straw man technique, glad to see you putting your Philosophy background to work. You have once again set up a false dichotomy re: Paul’s piece. He never said it was an us vs you, just like Joe never said that, it’s more about leveraging what is new, it’s not abandon the old methods, it’s take advantage of the new. You’re right on a few of your points. You’re wrong on the basic principal of Paul’s piece. What hasn’t been already pointed out above though is that you clearly haven’t thought through the real world dynamics of how someone would “google” a wine or winery on a smartphone. You’re going to “click” on the post with the easiest access to a review or tasting notes. Someone in a wine shop isn’t going to click on the winery page, click on their “in the media link” from the homepage, and then click on “scores” or “reviews” from their in the media page, it just doesn’t work that way.

  19. Also, I’m much better looking than you or Joe.

  20. Ok, Clive – is *anyone* here NOT better looking than me? :)

  21. I’ve always thought that it is about leveraging the new, BUT it is also the (perceived) authority behind the opinions that matter, not the medium which is chosen to express the view?

    So any attempt at structuring any form of dichotomy misses the point? There have always been “people who matter” in wine. As it was 500 years ago, as it is today. Blogging has in no way shape or form, changed the simple premise – there are people who are perceived to know (e.g. Jancis Robinson, 1winedude), and those that don’t (e.g. random person in a comments section, dodgy magazines).

    Ultimately it is always about the search for the oracle. The list may now be (slightly) longer and feedback from the people instantaneous and harsh, but the media still function on the idea that finding an influencing voice – SELLS. T’was ever thus?

    The changing medium merely provides increasingly convenient points of access? But says nothing about the content.

  22. raley roger says:

    I would like to go on the record as saying that Joe Roberts is far hotter than I.

  23. Clearly, I have time on my hands because I just read all 3 articles in question, plus all of the comments thus far. So much to say. First off, I want to remind you that Vintank speaks to a specific demo: winery people. That’s why Paul’s post is definitely not an attack on print media. His points are very valid and insightful for winery owners/employees who are trying their darnedest to gets any publicity lately.

    I also think Alder and others comments on how Google works is also an important part of validating what Paul is trying to impart.

    Finally, Steve, I can’t remember how I started following your blog, but I thoroughly enjoy reading your missives. You are great, but please try and not be as sensitive as you come off sometimes. There is room at the table for everyone and I personally feel as though you have a seat at the head if the adults table and not at the children’s table. I really hope I get to meet you someday so I can give you a big ‘ol hug! ;-)

  24. I don’t know if I’m doing something wrong on Google but when I Google a particular wine the first thing I see is 20 stores looking to sell the product, each trying to undercut each other and maybe, if the winery has some $$ behind it, it pops up on the first page. From my chair, to think the consumer is finding blogs through a Google search of a particular wine is like finding a needle in a stack of needles. I would bet that most blogs are found and subscribed to by referral. In the end, the retailer decides what content a consumer sees in the store and it’s always been my firm belief that if you need to rely on the opinion of someone else to introduce a product on your shelf to a customer than you are in the wine business for the wrong reasons.
    As a retailer I rely on blogs to keep me current, introduce new concepts and ideas and provide a perspective I can’t get from a paid subscription and advertisement driven publication. In the end, it’s my choice what the consumer sees in my store and what I recommend. If they choose to Google the wine when they get home, they’re going to find a lot of price information before they can’t any real perspective on the wine. For the record, I’m the best looking commenter here.

  25. Peter,

    Depending on the wine, just the wine name will sometimes bring up stores, sometimes bring up reviews. Add the word “review” to your google query and that should do the trick.

    Alder

  26. Thanks Alder. I’ll start searching that way. Maybe I’ll find some new things to read.

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