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Wine bloggers have to make choices


Every wine critic, or wannabe, has to face the truth sooner rather than later: Since you can’t taste every wine in the world, you have to pick and choose what you can.

Circumstances compel it. There are, broadly speaking, two ways to deal with this situation. You can be a globe-trotting generalist, like Jancis Robinson, who can fly anywhere in the world and be welcomed with open arms by the most famous wineries in that region. (All right, if you detect a teensy weensy note of jealousy there, I’ll own up to it.) Or, along similar but less celebrated lines, you can be a Joe Roberts/1WineDude. He has, I suspect, fewer options than Jancis (at this point in his career, anyhow), having to depend on junkets or whatever comes across his transom (archaic metaphor). But he’s still a generalist: a little Italy, a little California, a little Spain, a little whatever, here’s what I think.

Being a generalist has its advantages. You get, over time, a grounding in the world’s wines. But generalism has its drawbacks. You can never really get to thoroughly understand a particular region; and if you can’t do that, then you can’t help your readers do it. Another drawback of generalism is that the peripatetic wine critic tends, most likely, to pay attention only to the best known wines of whatever region she’s covering at any particular time. New wineries, younger winemakers, innovative producers tend to be ignored by the generalist.

On the other hand are the specialists, like me in California, Paul Gregutt in the Pacific Northwest or, for that matter, all of Wine Enthusiast’s regional editors. I’d also include Lenn Thompson, at New York Cork Report, Alfonso Cevola’s On the Wine Trail in Italy and HaKerem: The Israeli Wine Blog as examples of specialists.

The neat thing about specializing is that you get a top to bottom understanding of your region, which you can then share with your readers. But I can see both sides of most things, including the specialist-generalist spectrum.

There are hundreds of wine blogs of both types, more than anyone can keep track of. To get just a taste, check out Alltop, a source that many bloggers go to every day to see who’s saying what about whom. I celebrate this diversity. It’s so different from when I started, when your choices were limited to 3 or 4 American critics with any credibility, and a handful of English writers whose knowledge of California wines was woefully inadequate, and limited to what they thought were the “important” wineries. It was all top down. New wineries didn’t have a chance of being discovered, unless they had a friend somewhere.

At the same time, this diversity puts the consumer in a bind. Whom to believe? That’s what’s so interesting about the Alltop website (which itself represents only a fraction of all wine blogs). There never have been so many choices, so many opportunities for consumers to obtain information and opinions on wine. That’s good, I suppose; but it’s also an unstable situation in need of resolution. This proliferation of sources reminds me of a Rube Goldberg machine, an overly complicated, irrational way of getting something simple accomplished.

Which is why wine critics have to make their choices. This chaotic situation will resolve itself, probably within the next few years. There will be a winnowing out. Who survives the coming shakeout cannot be known in advance; but, in retrospect, we’ll be able to look back and understand why “many were called, but few were chosen.” The chosen ones will be those who made the right choices, and stuck to their game plan.

  1. There is a definite “jack of all trades, master of none” trend/fashion in the ole blogosphere. Sadly this could be blamed simply on where most bloggers live. Brit and French bloggers simply due to location are going to be exposed to a wider variety of tastings/wines then those here on the West Coast, IMHO. There is also the fear A fear of the unknown or rather fear of the new…
    But whatever these are just excuses, I whole-heartedly agree with you.

  2. Websters “Blog” Definition: Web site that contains an online personal journal with reflections, comments, and often hyperlinks provided by the writer.

    So is a wine critic a blogger? We would say no actually. Blogger has always been defined as ones Journey through life. It can be a person on Wall Street or a person on the Street.

    To define a blogger as one who writes about wine we feel is the wrong title. Bloggers do not write to put cash in the bank account… They write to share life.

    So back to the above.. Wine Writers will all get shaken out in the next few years? From our perspective (all wine industry professionals in a direct way, 3 of us… Distributor, Winery Owner, Wine Maker and Multiple Store Owner) this will not happen.

    In fact see a time where it will grow and one of the main reasons is because the growth of the Industry itself. The industry like it or not will require more writers of wine and the business of.

    Call them or yourselves bloggers but expect many more in the coming years to jump on board.

    Wineguys Radio ( we educate, give opinions in text, video and across the country on the radio each week “Live” via IHeart Radio, Clear Channel… are we bloggers? Nope… we are not sharing our life journeys.

    Cheers and Have a GREAT DAY !!!!

  3. Thank you Steve: Here’s to specialization, not only for writers, but for drinkers. If you drink local, you get to know a region and sense its evolution, as vintages march on and winemakers evolve. Grazing here & there may give you great drinking experiences, but they won’t be connected to anything. So think globally but drink locally.

  4. Thanks for the mention, Steve! “New wineries, younger winemakers, innovative producers tend to be ignored by the generalist” – maybe that’s the tendency generally, but it’s not a mutually exclusive scenario. Speaking from personal experience, I’ve penned the very first reviews of, I believe, at least four low-production, young, off-the-radar (at the time anyway!) California producers. A balance can be struck, is the main point. Having said that, it’s a trade-off in that extensive deep+wide knowledge of a region isn’t as readily possible for the generalist. Also – and I’ve been giving this piece of advice to many bloggers for the last few years now – the Internet is only kind to specialists if they get in early enough. That time has passed now for wine blogs, for the most part. So specialization is needed – not necessarily in topic, but could also be in presentation, medium, or style. But for the most part, if you generalize and you’ve got your sights set on something big in the field, then you’re competing with and and, and that’s tough competition. But if you’re going to blog about Hungarian wines? That kind of specialization is ripe for the taking, I think!

  5. Steve,

    Agree with your point about how specializing creates depth of expertise. But, you are making an assumption that the only reason people read wine bloggers (I will give you many do) is for wine recommendations or deep insight into a region.

    As neither a professional critic nor even an aspiring one, I like to read writers with a sensibility about wine that I can relate to. I want to like their voice. I want to learn from their posture around wine and how they approach all kinds of wine experiences.

    I read you regularly because you offer that, a voice I can relate to about wine sensibility, not because you are an expert, focused on California.

  6. Patrick,

    Here is something I have mentioned to Lenn Thompson, much to his chagrin. Why not drink what you like, as opposed to restricting yourself solely to local. It could be considered a small world view. Just sayin’. There is a whole bunch of world class wine out there, and I cant imagine there is not a better bottle of something somewhere else in the world besides anyone’s back yard. Why reform ghettos that keep to themselves? Again, just sayin’.


  7. Steve:
    I view myself as a generalist and strongly disagree with your statement that: “New wineries, younger winemakers, innovative producers tend to be ignored by the generalist.” Sure, some generalists may do so, but there are plenty more which do revel in showcasing such more unique producers. Generalists also may cover more unique wine producing regions which are yet too small to come to the attention of a niche writer.

    For example, I was very pleased to get to write about some Koshu wines from Japan, which if I had a narrow niche I would not have generally had the opportunity to do so. I like having a greater overview of the world wine scene, rather than just focusing on a tiny part of it.

    An important element to consider is readership. Niche blogs generally have a smaller readership base, though they might be a more dedicated group. The average wine consumer in California is unlikely to care much about the wines of New York or Virginia, especially as they probably can get very few. A generalist can garner a much larger readership base. A good question to ponder is whether wine consumers want a single stop for all their wine reading? Or do they want to have to travel to dozens of small niche wine blogs?

    Adam is also correct that not all wine blogs are merely collections of wine reviews and in depth wine region coverage. They can and do include much more which attracts readers.

    Both niche and generalist blogs have their place, as well as each has its own advantages and disadvantages. It is great that both can co-exist.

  8. Totally agree. Like wine producers, placing one’s stake in the sand (specializing) holds more singular value than capitulating to the sway of popularity (my view of “generalizing”) when all is said and done. You can’t be everything to everybody. Generalizing is the safe way to go, but boring in the end, because as we all know, there is safety in numbers (on many different levels!). Daring to actually take a stand (aka specialize) is something different.

  9. I disagree with Joe when he says that the door is closing on opportunity for wine blog specialization. One of the main points I made on the panel at EWBC last October was that specialization is the future of blogging. There are not only niches waiting to be filled, there are niches waiting to be created. Good content attracts a following; wine writing is a classic free market where quality tends to win.

  10. Steve:

    In my view, specialization is the best way to build an audience quickest for a blogger. Of course, that’s not the primary criteria necessary for building an audience. But it helps more than not being a specialist.

    That said, I think all the niches are wide open for the taking. If someone comes along and proves themselves a remarkable palate and source of info on North Coast Wine, they’ll be noticed. If someone comes along and puts out a daily collection of honest and well written reviews on Central Coast wines, they’ll be noticed, no matter who is already in these spaces.

    But specialization is just as important in the wine niche where reviews are not the concern. A blogger dedicated to wine law or wine tourism or wine retail or the best deals on line or the NY Wine Scene will also do well faster in my view.

  11. Evan – WHOOPS!!!!

    Sorry all, I had a type in my comment, it should have read “the Internet is only kind to GENERALISTS if they get in early enough.”

    SO Evan and I are, in fact in 100% agreement; I was trying to say that the future lies in such specialization, and that generalist blogs in any niche are really difficult to start now.

    Sorry for any confusion, everyone – I should have proof-read that comment (and I’m not even under-rested, under-fed, or drunk!).

  12. Evan,
    Though I agree there are plenty of wine niches available for bloggers, I don’t think that means generalists can’t find a path as well. As you said, “Good content attracts a following; wine writing is a classic free market where quality tends to win.” and I fully agree. And that matters no whether one is a niche or generalist. Content and quality trump.

  13. raley roger says:

    Tom Wark is my hero.

    Everything he writes has about it so much clarity and wisdom.

  14. Why does wine blogging have to have so much of an agenda? To me it’s about what’s on your mind or what you experience. Maybe it’s just a journal or maybe it sparks some conversation among like minded individuals.

    As long as there are platforms to accomplish this there will be lots of “bloggers”, and most of them without the goal of taking it beyond it’s most basic form.

  15. Steve, thanks for the mention. I have always felt blessed to have begun wine writing just as an entire region was hitting its stride. It has allowed me to claim the Pacific NW as my specialist playground. That said, I have traveled to most of the important wine regions of the world, and made it my mission to taste widely so as to glean a global knowledge of winemaking styles and regional strengths. Only with a firm grasp of the entire world of wine can I place “my” region – the Pacific NW – in a meaningful context. But your comments are more and more true as far as any individual being able to write a comprehensive book or newsletter that attempts to cover the world of wine. Back in the day the British writers used to do that, but in truth they had only to focus on Burgundy, Bordeaux, the Rhine, a couple of regions in Italy, and give a quick fly-by the rest of the world, and that was good enough. Not any more.

  16. I agree with Mr. Gregutt in that having a world-wide grounding in what wine (how it tastes, how it’s made, what the terroir of that region contributes to the grape and how the locals view the product) not only is more fun, but also gives one context in how in compares (and contrasts) with other wines from other areas. As one should strive to broaden one’s horizons and avoid a restricted “tunnel palate,” a broader perspective also gives a person the experience, depth of tasting expertise and sheer number of wines in the personal tasting database to make more valid comparisons. That kind of contextual relating is how you also build an appreciation for the local wines, as well — do they hold up against the best that the rest of the world has to offer?

    If a wine writer lives in a substantive wine region, then they can also build that database to apply to the local wines (assuming there is sufficient quantity, some history and diversity). So there are strengths to both positions and it just comes down to how one wants to proceed and be perceived. Is it not possible to do justice to both fields?

  17. The difference between a blogger and a professional critic is that a blogger drinks what they like and blogs about it. A professional remains committed to a focus or a beat (varietal or regional) irrespective of what they personally prefer to drink. AND they keep their personal preferences separate from their evaluation of the subject at hand.

    Yes, I know that in some limited views this is impossible, but the limitation is the refusal to make a separation between personal feelings and the task at hand: conveying the essence of the product in the context of a standard useful to all members of the audience.

  18. doug wilder says:

    A lively question. For me, I favor specializing over being a generalist just because of my background and experience. Even if I wanted to I would have too little time to taste a lot ‘generally’ beyond what I already do. There are untold number of areas to concentrate on if someone wants to do it. For example, I would like to see somebody ‘own’ the exciting segment of domestic produced spanish varieties highlighted every year at the TAPAS tasting, not only from the standpoint of reviewing but also dive into the pairing with food and history. There is a lot there to talk about. After doing my blog for nearly three years, I turned it off a year ago because it no longer was the way i wanted to write. I admire you, Steve for putting something up everyday that is usually pretty good.

    I should add that it is much more difficult to be a specialist if you can’t easily get to wine region(s) you write about. Guys like Allen Meadows and Jeb Dunnick cover Pinot Noir and Rhone wines in different parts of the world, respectively but they have also elevated their work to a subscription level. Generalizing means everything is fair game to a writer and coming up with subjects may be a little easier, but still requires work to produce.

    When I have been asked about advice I would give to bloggers I provide ten bullet points:

    1. Ask yourself why anyone should take you seriously (contribute to the solution, not the problem)
    2. Find a niche and own it (If you’re everywhere, you’re nowhere)
    3. Be genuine, honest, fair and transparent (Speak your mind, just remember people are watching)
    4. Use spell check religiously (Be the first and last person to see your mistakes)
    5. Write because you are passionate about wine (people recognize the difference)
    6. Forget about generating ad revenue (You are regarded by the company you keep)
    7. Make your writing engaging and interesting (The bane of any endeavor is mediocrity)
    8. Post regularly (set a predictable schedule you can deliver on and then over-deliver)
    9. Own your domain name
    10. Don’t expect wineries to gush over you, if they do, run the other way (Do your homework)

  19. I agree that someone should write a post looking at other factors (women only, up and coming, pure play bloggers). I welcome that post and think you and many others mentioned are doing a great job.

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