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The state of the wine blog

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I go to the 2014 Wine Bloggers Conference next month, for which we (the organizers and myself) already are deep in the planning stages. I’ll participate in three panels, and each requires a great deal of forethought in order to maximize the chances that the audiences will be happy they came, which is what we all want.

Aside and apart from, and perhaps above, those immediate considerations, I’ll be looking for any evidence concerning the State of the Blogosphere. Having been deeply involved in wine blogging since 2008 (late, by some standards, but six years after all is a pretty good tenure), I’m in some position to weigh in on blogging’s evolution. And it seems to me that things are a bit static.

We saw initially a great deal of excitement with wine blogs. In the period 2007-2009, not only was the wine blog a new, shiny toy, but traditional print journalism was going through its most arduous and tumultuous times in recent history, what with the recession and the subsequent loss of advertising experienced by so many magazines and newspapers. Thus, it sounded almost reasonable when wine bloggers pronounced that “Print is dead, long live wine blogging!”

I, myself, never bought into that theory. I was aware that (a) recessions, no matter how severe, never last forever and (b) as soon as the current recession was over, advertising would return, and print publications would be back on track. At the same time, it would have been unduly credulous for me, or anyone, to suppose that print periodicals would return to the robust health they had enjoyed for so long in the twentieth century. Change certainly was upon print—but of what kind, and how and when it would arrive, no one could say.

Here we are now, the recession having ended, print having bounced back, and the 2014 Wine Bloggers Conference upon us. My sense is that blogging has lost some steam. That heady rush of excitement of four and five years ago isn’t there anymore. We’ve seen some well-known blogs go by the wayside and some new ones pop up, while the mainstays (including this one) keep on keeping on. We ought at least to give credit to blogs like Vinography, Dr. Vino, Fermentation and 1WineDude for longevity, or perhaps “stick-to-it-tiveness” is a more apt description.

Yet with the recovery of print publications has come the corresponding diminution of the wine blog. It was inevitable; it is a zero-sum game, this business of writing about wine, for there are only so many eyeballs out there who care to read about wine, and they have only so many hours in the day in which to do so. Besides, one senses (dare I say it?) a certain fatigue in the wine blogosphere. So much of what was so captivating five years ago has now become, well, the online equivalent of vin ordinaire. Of course the newer blogs still have the sense of awesome discovery that budding wine aficienados have displayed always, but their readers, such as they are, may be forgiven for being less than thrilled by yet another recitation of Argentine values or the best wine to drink with pizza. (I might say the same thing about wine magazines. They endlessly run the same cycle of articles over and over and over. Next November it will be “what wine to drink for Thanksgiving.”) At the same time, winery proprietors must take the blogs into consideration, regardless of what they personally feel or think about them (and believe me, in many cases, it’s not much), because you never know whose blog will help you move product. So that is where we are: a strange place, no doubt, and one that is evolving.

It was against this conceptual backdrop that I read that “Making an emotional connection with consumers, and creating personalized, shareable and useful content, is vital to selling wine.” This was the conclusion of “experts from major wine retailers” who gathered at the recent London Wine Fair, as reported in Harper’s.

Blogging would seem perfectly positioned to express “personalized, shareable and useful content.” Blogging is, by its very nature, personalized, in the sense that there is real connectivity, almost intimacy, between blogger and reader, the way there isn’t in print. This is especially true when readers can instantly comment on a blog, which certainly isn’t the case with a magazine or newspaper. I write Letters to the Editor of the San Francisco Chronicle with some frequency, but 95% of them never are published, which distances me from the paper and makes me wonder if my opinions are truly valued. Not so at many blogs; you can comment on steveheimoff.com, and your comment will instantly go up, with no prior approval from me, as long as I’ve previously approved a first comment from your computer. That is truly personalized service, and shareable, too. (I leave it to my readers to decide if my content is “useful.”)

But blogging has not yet achieved the gravitas of newspapers or magazines. Perhaps it’s that very personalized, easy-breezy quality that makes a blog feel like, well, just a blog—a fancy email–while a newspaper or magazine has the weight of authority and tradition and all the labor and costs that go into the production process. That may never change; the low bar to entry works against taking individual blogs too seriously, or investing your energy into them (not to mention your money). Still, I have to say that wine blogs have been the most innovative development in wine writing of the 21st century.

At any rate, that’s the view from where I sit!

  1. Very interesting read, you do always bring a wonderful perspective to these discussions, having been involved in print and digital wine writing.

    I have been reading wine blogs for about 2-3 years, and I have noticed that some bloggers, if not their blogs specifically, achieving success through digital wine writing. That includes blogs like 1winedude & dr. vino, who have used their blog to become voices in the industry, or the Washington Wine Report, whose writer ended up writing for print journalism. And your blog is also an interesting case study: you were able to leave print journalism while continuing to be a writer with relevance in the industry.

    Not sure what this means for the “state of the wine blog”, but I think it shows some concrete examples of blogs being relevant to the overall wine industry.

  2. STEVE!
    I would attribute the fatigue of wine blogs to growing pains. It would be interesting to know the average lifespan of a wine blog. It’s probably only slightly longer than a tse-tse fly, and slightly less infectious. I do have to admit, I am often tired of writing mine. I’m no Alderpated or 1WineDoody or Sermontation, but I’ve been around a long time, too. The grind of it is debilitating, at times. Also, the longer I’m around, the fewer wine blogs I read. The ambition far outpaces the talent.

    What you say about comments might be true, but I see far fewer comments on wine blogs, including my own, than there were a few years ago. My common taters come and go (I’m talkin’ to YOU, Gabe), with a few longtime stalwarts, but, overall, thoughtful comments are much rarer than once upon a time.

    It will be interesting to see which blogs win the Wine Blog Awards (which I call “The Poodles”) this year. That might be a genuine depiction of the state of wine blogs, for better or worse. I see more and more sites like Palate Press–think PUNCH and Grape Collective and Wine-Searcher–that want to attract advertising by using a stable of writers. Their content is derivative and banal, in my estimation, and rarely worth reading. To be honest, I would love to discover a new and interesting voice on a wine blog. I think it’s a great format, and one in which a person with a talent for writing can shine. Know anyone?

    Hell, case in point, even posts about wine bloggers don’t get that many comments any more.

  3. You are indeed correct, HMW. Comments are down across the board, a symptom of the declining influence or excitement factor of blogs. Still, I think this is a lull, not an end.

  4. Blogs flourish when there is something of great interest, either in the wine world or in the blog itself.

    To my mind, the reductions in readers and comments is directly proportional to two factors:

    –There is no big controversy at the moment.

    –All of the potential controversial topics have been done to death like blind tasting vs. tasting with the label showing, the 100-point system, site vs variety, natural vs unnatural wine.

    I am not so sure that it is growing pains so much as overexposure and the difficulties of being relevant several times a week in an industry that moves slowly.

  5. As usual, Charlie Olken brings an acute, historical understanding to the issue! Thank you Charlie.

  6. I have at different times been a subscriber to The Wine Advocate, Wine Enthusiast, and Wine Spectator. All of those subscriptions have lapsed due to the repetitiveness and/or shallowness of their articles.
    I still read Mike Dunne every Wednesday in my local paper but I do miss his blog, of which I was an avid reader as I am your blog, Steve.
    What the blogs give me (Charlie’s also) is an insider’s take on the wine business. It’s like listening to NPR as opposed to Headline news. The story within and people who speak in more than soundbites and platitudes.

    What keeps me and I assume a few others from commenting regularly are two things.
    1) You are an expert. I learn far more from reading than I ever would from commenting.
    2) You have a Blow-Hard troll that demands more than his fair share of print space. Beating Home his tiresome tirades against all things Napa, his Boorish Harangues actually take away from the conversation as he always comes across as Butt-Hurt when nobody agrees with him. Maybe he should start his own blog instead of using yours, but that would take work, wouldn’t it?

    Regardless, please keep up the good work.

  7. Why, bless your heart, Bill Stephenson! It’s comments like yours that keep me writing this thing every day. Thanks.

  8. All,

    Two things:

    1) “print having bounced back” – From where I sit, this is not the case. Print pubs are still in decline generally based on every bit of data and media coverage I’ve seen. I guess in this case I need to see proof that print is somehow surging back (my strong suspicion is that there is no proof).

    2) Decline in comments on wine blogs – Comments have declined on non-news-breaking blog articles in every genre and that has been happening for the last few years, coinciding with the rise of micro-blogging platforms like FB and twitter. What it means is that discussion is being marginalized in favor of FB “likes” and retweets to express approval (both of which are on the rise for 1WD, by way of an example, while comments are lower than in the past). I am not sure that’s indicative of anything other than the fact that it is easier to do those things than to write a comment, and when people don’t right “I agree!” comments, they are less likely to express an opinion that would have stemmed from that type of comment, etc. Interestingly, 1WD average visits are up, as is conversion of banner ads and such, while comments are lower, which might be anecdotal evidence in support of what I am describing above.

    3) I agree that things are a bit stagnant in wine blogging, but see that as growing pains as well. I mean, the field is quite dynamic and we have “serious” players at the top end of it, etc. How much further dynamic change should we expect to see after the more explosive early period of it? Probably not a whole lot.

  9. Sorry about adding the third item, btw, couldn’t help myself! ;-)

  10. Bob Henry says:

    Is print coming back? Not that I see . . .

    Excerpt from the Los Angeles Times “Business” Section

    (October 10, 2005, Page C1ff):

    “Black & White and Read by Fewer”

    [Link: http://articles.latimes.com/print/2005/oct/10/business/fi-newspapers10

    By James Rainey

    Times Staff Writer

    In a recent e-mail chat about the future of their business, several young New York Times reporters concluded with dismay that most of their friends don’t subscribe to the newspaper.

    . . .

    A Media Management Center study reached an even more alarming conclusion regarding younger readers — estimating that BY 2010, ONLY 9% OF THOSE IN THEIR 20s WILL READ A NEWSPAPER EVERY DAY. . . .

    [CAPITALIZATION used for emphasis. ~~ Bob]

    Excerpt from the Wall Street Journal “Markeplace” Section

    (June 24, 2013, Page B2):

    “Gauging Investor Appetites for Print Media”

    [Link: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323300004578559561956424342.html

    By William Launder

    “The Week Ahead” Column

    Not as many consumers buy newspapers as they once did. Several major corporate newspaper deals moving forward this week will test how much appetite investors have left for print media.

    . . .

    Driving these deals, one way or another, is the collapse of the newspaper print ad market over the past few years — which shows no signs of stopping. U.S. PRINT ADVERTISING FELL 55% FROM 2007 TO 2012, according to the Newspaper Association of America. A FURTHER DROP OF 6.2% IS EXPECTED THIS YEAR, AND A 6.8% DECLINE NEXT YEAR, predicts Magna Global, a division of IPG Mediabrands.

    Another media agency, ZenithOptimedia, expects total ad spending on newspapers to fall 8% annually in the years ahead.

    At that rate, THE TOTAL MARKET FOR PRINT NEWSPAPER ADS WOULD BE REDUCED [BY NEARLY 80%] to less than $10 billion OVER THE NEXT DECADE from $49.3 billion [pre-recession 2006 levels] . . .

    WHILE DIGITAL ADVERTISING IS GROWING, it was just 11% of total ad revenue in 2012, according to Newspaper Association data. Magna sees it rising by more than 14% next year – A GROWTH RATE THAT IS STILL TOO LOW TO FULLY OFFSET THE PRINT DECLINES.

    . . .

    Aside from taking steps to cut costs, publishers are trying to offset the ad declines by boosting subscription revenue, including by raising print cover prices and charging for full access to websites if such “paywalls” weren’t already in place.

    . . .

    [CAPITALIZATION used for emphasis. ~~ Bob]

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