It’s been four-plus years since I launched this little corner of cyberspace, and my attitude towards it–towards blogging–has undergone some changes. I point this out not merely because it says something about me, which would be uninteresting, but because it says something, I think, about wine blogging in general: the transformation it’s undergone, and where it might be going.
One thing we all can agree on, I believe, is that the blogosphere has settled down. It was the Wild West in 2008-2009, filled with gunslingers looking for a fight. An exciting place: Dodge City, dangerous, adrenalized, edgy, where anything could happen. Wine blogging was new; everywhere you went (in cyberspace) you had the sense of being in on something revolutionary. Nobody knew where the train was going, but everyone (writers and readers alike) wanted to be on it, for if you missed the train–well, then you wouldn’t go wherever it was going, wherever that was. And nobody wanted to miss the train.
Today, a kind of ordinariness has settled over the wine blogosphere. It’s not revolutionary anymore; it’s become a routine part of our lives, like the morning paper sitting peacefully at my doorstep (hopefully, not in a puddle). I blog everyday the way I brush my teeth: it’s part of what I do. You read everyday because it’s what you do. We do it together, you and I: part of the same community (wine), we reach across the desolations of distance and time to find each other and share.
This sharing is why I keep on blogging. It’s the communication I have with you, my readers, that drives me to get 600 words up by 7:30 a.m., California time, five days a week. I grant you that the communication isn’t always pleasant, coming from your end. Some of the comments here are pretty insulting to me, but I like them anyway, because hearing from people is better than not hearing, no matter what they say. Sometimes, when the comments are personal attacks, I bristle for a minute; but then I think that the purpose of journalism–and my blog is journalism, albeit of a different kind–is to stimulate thinking, even to be controversial.
I’ve written before that I don’t set out to be controversial, but I suppose I do have something in me that likes a good row. It’s the New Yorker I am, I guess. I have strong opinions and I’m not afraid to express them. It’s only fair, then, that my readers should have the opportunity to express their strong opinions, in the Comments section. I like that. I like a dinner table where people are arguing vociferously. I don’t mean fighting: I mean voicing their opinions about things, and disagreeing with others. It all ends happily, of course: no thrown plates, no wine dumped over anyone’s head, no stabbings with the fork.
I can’t see you out there as I sit here, at my desk in Oakland, in the peace of a summer morning. There are some birds chirping, and I can hear the far off rumble of rush hour traffic on the freeway, a mile away. Otherwise, all is silent, except for the click-clack of my fingers pecking at the keyboard. But I can feel you, in San Francisco, in St. Helena, in Manhattan, in London, in Mumbai, in Beijing, wherever you are. You are a vibration that circles the world. Most people will not feel you at a distance because they’re not seeking you, but I am, and do, everyday. It’s an invisible thread that unites us, whether you’re angry at me for something I said, or agreeing with me, or just taking it in for a moment.
I’ll keep on writing as long as you keep on reading: that’s my bond. And that is what wine blogging has become: it’s not an earth-shattering new development that will change anybody’s life forever. It’s not the end of print. It’s not the revenue-generating engine people hoped it would be, four years ago. What wine blogging is, is exactly what this space has become: a digital conversation in a family that just happens not to be related by blood. In that sense, wine blogging is less than anyone thought, four years ago; but on the other hand, it’s precisely what we all expected the Internet to be, fifteen years ago: the final expression (for now) of McLuhan’s global village, “contracted…by electronic technology [at] electric speed,” as Wikipedia puts it.
From that perspective, then, wine blogging–this blog, anyway–has little or nothing to do with that other primal topic of conversation, “Can wineries increase revenue through social media?” Maybe yes, maybe no. That’s a whole different thing. Through all the commotion and hubbub, this blog, like the mighty Mississippi, just goes rolling along.
A few years ago, following the Murphy-Goode “A Really Goode Job” contest that the inimitable Hardy Wallace won, the Big News throughout wine country was wineries hiring Social Media Directors.
The idea, near as I could tell, was to bring someone onboard who was young, social media savvy, creative and hard-working, who would give the winery a strong presence on platforms like Facebook and Twitter as well as the winery’s own website. From there, the theory went, sales would soar as engagement with consumers took off.
Well, as far as theories go, it was all right–a good and necessary first step–but in retrospect I think we can all agree that the reach exceeded the grasp. Perhaps that’s why we began hearing less and less about Social Media Directors, as that function was transitioned either upward, as a rather small part of the Technology Officer’s or Human Relations manager’s duties, or downward, to a mere intern’s (or maybe a son’s or daughter’s) responsibilities.
The turnabout was to be expected. Social media arose so quickly in the U.S. that, not only did few see it coming, but even when it got here few knew how to use it. As usual, the adults thought it was just something for the kids. And the kids, well, they just liked it and didn’t over-analyze it or try to figure out how they could make money off it. (Okay, Mark Zuckerberg did, but you know what I mean.) It was like the Internet itself: when it came of age, in the 1990s, nobody knew what to make of it. Everybody said it was revolutionary and would change the world–but exactly how that was supposed to happen, no one knew. If you go back to the early and mid-1990s, you’ll remember the search for “the killer app.” It turned out to be search engine (well, actually, it was porn, but we’re not supposed to talk about that). And then after search it was social media. One-eighth of the population of the world has a Facebook account!
I suppose there could be even more “killer apps” in the future as the technology improves (keep in mind Moore’s Law), but it’s hard to wrap my mind around that, since we haven’t fully absorbed the lessons of the social media we already have. The focus so far has been on what used to be called B2C: the business-to-consumer use of social media. Given the temporary (let us hope) hiatus that so many wineries are experiencing in this area, some companies are starting to think of social media in terms of B2B (business-to-business). For example, Brian Margolies, the CIO of Allied Beverage Group, New Jersey’s largest distributor of wine and spirits, wrote last week that his company has spent the past year researching how to use social media to facilitate relationships with its clients (“liquor stores, bars, and restaurants”). As hard as they’ve worked it, Margolies writes, “[W]e’ve seen little discernible effect on sales, demand, brand awareness, usable business intelligence, or even facilitation of community.” He’s savvy enough to realize that this doesn’t necessarily mean social media is useless for B2B purposes. Maybe it was something Allied did wrong, or didn’t do right. “Have we missed something in our approach or not given the program sufficient time to evolve? Have we overlooked something obvious, or is our target community already too defined?” Good questions, and a good posture of self-examination.
That’s where the wine industry is at: the bloom is off the social media rose, but it’s impossible to shake off the feeling that it really, truly could be something incredible, if only…what? We still don’t know, which is why Margolies’s questions are so vital.
Peter Mondavi, Jr., of Charles Krug Winery, was interviewed on the Fox Business online site, and the interviewer asked him four open-ended questions that allowed him to free-range his answers. Read the interview, then come back here. I’ll ask myself the same questions.
What is your death row wine?
Champagne, always. My desert island wine, my honeymoon wine, my go-to toast wine, my birthday wine, the perfect wine for any festivity. I can’t think of any other wine that even comes close. We shouldn’t even call Champagne “wine.” It’s beyond wine. (I include the world’s best sparkling wines in this category, not just real French Champagne.) Calling Champagne “wine” is like calling Thomas Keller’s Mon Poulet Rôti “a chicken dish.”
What region produces the best wine?
You might think I’d say “Champagne”–in France–and I’m tempted to, but I don’t want to offend my California friends, so I’ll just keep my answer to California. It depends on the type of wine. Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux blends? Easy: Napa Valley. Chardonnay? The narrow coastal strip extending from the ocean to about 30 miles inland, from Santa Barbara County in the south to Anderson Valley in the north. The accidental fact that geopolitics has sub-divided it into different counties doesn’t mean Mother Nature has been trumped. This is all one region, courtesy of the constancy of the temperature of the Eastern Pacific Ocean, which is cold all year round. Pinot Noir? Ditto for Chardonnay. Everything else can be made well in a lot of places.
What is the best wine and food pairing you’ve ever had?
I like that Peter Mondavi picked one of the simplest dishes: bread, olive oil and goat cheese, drunk with–what else?–Sauvignon Blanc. I suppose Champagne would work with that; it works with everything. But Sauvignon Blanc and goat cheese are so perfect, why would you tinker with it? I’ve had so many memorable combinations. One was beef tacos that Kathy Joseph, from Fiddlehead, fixed for me at her house. She paired them with one of her Pinot Noirs, and it was a revelation. I’m not saying it was the greatest pairing I’ve ever had, but somehow, it has stayed in my head. Oddly enough, I remember few of the foods I ate with the very greatest wines I ever drank (most of which were served to me). That’s probably because the wines were the stars of the show; the food stayed in the background. The best pairings allow both food and wine co-equal roles in the drama (or comedy, as it were). By the way, if you open the Kathy Joseph link, above, you’ll see that Kathy asked herself some questions and then answered them. I’m going to add her questions to this post. But first, the fourth Peter Mondavi question:
What will the U.S. wine industry look like in 10 years?
I don’t know, but acting in the belief that things in general don’t change that much in a mere decade, I’d say pretty much like it does today. More corporate takeovers at the top, more proliferation of little wineries and brands, often via negociant, at the bottom. As more Americans drink wine, the industry will experience growth, so there will be room for increased competition. If I get all this wrong, come back in 2022 and sue me.
The Kathy Joseph questions:
If you had $10, what would you buy?
Cold-smoked salmon and crême fraiche.
What would your mother say is your most attractive feature?
What’s your favorite indulgence?
Not gonna say.
When you grow up, what do you want to be?
Biggest time waster?
What are 3 words to describe yourself?
Physically fit [all right, that’s two words, but only one concept]. Polite. Inquisitive.
What are your 5 favorite places?
Cuddling with Gus, my dog, anywhere. Any good restaurant. The gym. Lakeside Park, in Oakland. The fifth, I ain’t gonna tell you. Even wine bloggers deserve a little privacy.
Paul Mabray, from VinTank, sent me this study, from Institut du Management du Vin, in Burgundy, on wine blogging in China and America, two opposite ends of the world and also, as the study says, one from a mature market and the other still developing.
The study examined 308 American wine blogs (out of perhaps 1,000). It’s an interesting snapshot of the current wine blog scene. Here are some key findings:
- “wine bloggers are getting younger every year,” quote.
- At the same time, “out of our 308 blogs, we have 94 bloggers aged between 26 to 40 and 93 between 41 to 55.” That adds up to 187. Since the study emphasizes “The dearth of contributors in the under 26 group,” we are forced to conclude that the remaining 121 bloggers (of the sample of 308) are over 55! That doesn’t seem likely, and is impossible to square with the statement above.
- Of the 308 bloggers, 62 are “non-wine professionals”, followed by 33 who are “journalist/writers.” (That would be me, I guess.) Ten are sommeliers. Eight are wine store owners.
- In America, California has more wine bloggers (15% of the total) than any other state, followed by New York. The study found 105 active wine bloggers in California.
- The motives given for blogging are not entirely clear. The study cited everything from “documenting the blogger’s life” and “improving writing” to “making money, attracting clients and hoping to get published.” A “new and interesting category” of bloggers, the study found, is people “writing about their own wineries or the winery they work for.”
- Of the types of blogs, the majority are wine reviews. Next is wine and food. Wine and culture, wine business and “other” are further down the list. I wonder how the study’s authors would have stereotyped my blog.
- Thirty-eight percent of the wine bloggers post daily (which I assume means 5 days a week).
- Concerning monetization, “very few bloggers are making a living out of their blog or even making any money out of it. The only type of bloggers earning a salary are ‘corporate’ bloggers–working for a company.” However, some bloggers make some money taking advertising.
- Of the 308 U.S. bloggers, about half maintain both a Facebook page and a Twitter account. (I do.) However, most of these have very few followers or friends. (I’m in the minority in that I have thousands of both.)
That’s it for the American wine bloggers. You can get info on the Chinese bloggers by studying the review. I’ll just cite this interesting conclusion: “Americans tend to blog for pleasure and by passion when Chinese are still very much educating themselves and their readers.” From my perspective, that is certainly true. I don’t try to “educate” my readers in the basics of wine because I trust and assume they already know. I do try to share my pleasure and passion.
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.
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.