The Future of Wine Writing

by Tim Elliott on May 31, 2009

The Wine Advocate
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“There’s something happening here / What it is ain’t exactly clear…”  — Stephen Stills, “For What It’s Worth”

I’ve been away from the blog for much of this month but have been keeping up with my reading and, oh course, tweeting. A few weeks ago Tyler Colman, who blogs as Dr Vino, posted some legitimate questions about policies at The Wine Advocate. What transpired was a discussion of wine writer ethics that at one point featured Robert Parker labeling wine blogs, “…the source of much of the misinformation,distortion,and egegious falsehoods spread with reckless abandon…”

Needless to say, I was not pleased with this comment and wrote a 3,000 word response that concluded with some advice for Mr. Parker, open letter-style. But I never published that post because I thought it would not really do anything positive except, perhaps, make me feel a bit better. Fellow bloggers Joel Vincent and Joe Roberts covered this ground a bit more diplomatically than I did, but with much the same tone.

So I was somewhat surprised to see this issue rehashed this week in the Wall Street Journal. Another discussion broke out on the subject on eBob which was somewhat capped off by a mea culpa of sorts by Mr. Parker. In my book, case closed, but I’m sure there will be some additional chatter in the blogosphere because it creates more traffic and comments.

But I think all this raises a more fundimental question; what is the future of wine writing?

Jeff Lefevere over at Good Grape made a good point about bell curves the other day and it’s clear that dominance of The Wine Advocate and other wine review newsletters is on the downward slope of the curve. Local newspapers are cutting back on wine writers even in big metros such as Los Angeles and New York. As I’ve written here before, I don’t think there is a great future for wine glossies such as the Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast unless they transform their business models quickly and figure out how to make money online.

So the future is wine blogs, right? Perhaps, but there are some, such as Alice Feiring, who doubt it as she recently blogged:

And who knows if wine writing will exist in any form. If what only exists is the blog world, God help us. I’m not saying that some of my colleagues don’t give great blog, but finding the knowledgeble folk who don’t have something to ‘sell’ is tough. And then finding some voices who have done homework is even tougher.

Whatever the format, there will be a void in wine writing in the next decade that will be filled by new voices. With the rise of Millennials as major wine consumers, this format will no doubt be digital and presented online in several contexts (text, video, audio, mobile). The question at hand is if the serious wine consumer of the future will pay for this information or will expect this to be freely available and ad supported.

My gut tells me it will be a bit of both but I seriously doubt there will be a solo critic success story like Robert Parker. It’s not because the talent doesn’t exist but that the circumstances are vastly different than they were 30 years ago when Mr. Parker got his start. Back then you didn’t have to be independently wealthy in order to sample the top wines of the world. You could buy them and share them with friends at weekend tastings where everyone chipped in for the wines. This is how the wines for The Wine Advocate were financed along with Mr. Parker’s rather generous personal wine budget (how he talked his wife into this early on would make a great story, but I digress).

Today it is nearly impossible for the independent wine blogger to buy the sufficient amount of wine to provide the breadth of coverage required to attract enough readers to make a wine blog financially viable. Yes, we do receive samples but this alone doesn’t provide enough tasting opportunities; the reviewer still needs to travel and purchase more wines at retail. Both not easy given the current economic climate but even in better times one would have to spend at least $100,000 a year in order to review enough wines to make a serious go of it.

EngadgetBut I do think that several wine bloggers working together at a single blog is the future of wine writing. Each could cover a wine region or variety in depth and in aggregate this content would attract enough of an audience to sell sponsorships, drive affiliate programs and other monetization opportunities. Think Engadget but for wine.

I think we will see such a blog launch yet in 2009 and there will be several existing wine bloggers who will be convinced to write for this site as they continue to maintain their own blogs. The “Robert Parker of the future” will be a blogger but I doubt he or she will go it alone. But together, even a small team could create enough content and traffic to build the next wine publishing empire.

The time is now; the question is who will step up and try to do this first?

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  • http://www.michwine.com Joel Goldberg

    If you accept the notion — which I do — that Parker was the wine blogging equivalent of his generation, then it 's not difficult to imagine many stepping up to assume the mantle. The problem is just the opposite: too many people will try to lay claim to the role for which too few are qualified.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/winecast Tim Elliott

      I agree, Joel. The job is a lot more challenging than blogging notes about which wine you had with dinner. And I've always said that if Mr. Parker started now, he'd be a blogger. The monetization strategy is the sticky wicket here.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/jasonswineblog jasonswineblog

    Totally agree on the blogging coalition covering the world, region by region. Whether it is formal or a loosely formed network it can't be too far away…

  • http://thegrapecrusader.wordpress.com/ GrapeCrusader

    "But I do think that several wine bloggers working together at a single blog is the future of wine writing." — You're right, its been getting very expensive for me personally, trying to cover as much as I can. I'm moving to San Francisco in nine days. Going forward, I'll be more than happy to cover the up and coming Mendocino/Anderson Valley beat for this new wine blogging business model. Any takers for the other regions in California?

  • http://2daysperbottle.blogspot.com David Honig

    I'm not so sure. I think the next decade will be dominated by people like Gary V, using social media to sell product, not opinion. Bloggers will continue to blog, and their opinions will start to be the virtual shelf-hangers, but they won't dominate. If any "blogger" opinion dominates, it might be the gestalt opinions coming from Cellar Tracker.

  • Bobby

    I find this concept fascinating, especially as one who has done markrting on and off the net and works in the retail wine business. I believe one has only to look at motion picture and music industries to understand Pandora's Box has been opened and it will never be as it was. Personally I thnk that to be a good thing. What does it bode for the future of wine writing – well having a fairly decent understanding of the publishing world, I think one should examine if "serious" wine writers will lament about young and seemingly less qualified writers starting to grow in influence – or will come to some understanding that the landscape has changed and that they most evolve with it.

  • John Wolf

    Wine writing has been influential in what people drink and think. This has gone on for the last 15 or so years. The writers now tend to be much more commercial, such as the Advocate and Enthusiast. It is hard to really get a true picture of what is really good and who paid whom to try and comment on what. As the Advocate increased from Parker and one or two others, to a newsletter with a large staff, it seems to be trying too hard and not really delivering useful info anymore. As more people accept wine as a beverage less commentary is needed from experts. Therefore I believe the curve is on the downward slope,and newspapers like the Journal will be better suited to keep wine writing up to speed with the current days realities.

  • http://adega24.com Stephan

    Usually articles about wine are very serious, informative but not very amusing. Wine is a feast for the senses and sometimes joyful, sometimes joyless but never a science.

  • http://www.beyondthemargin.net/2009/09/santa-barbara-county-vineyards.html BeyondTheMargin.net

    I haven't subscribed to a wine magazine in years. I would much rather read what others are writing on the web then what some potentially biased / bribed individual wrote in a for profit magazine.

  • http://www.wineinformation4u.com Wine

    I agree social media is where it's going for most all marketing, and mobile being the key driver. I often find myself at the stores looking for reviews of products which was unheard of a few years ago. It's especially true for things like wine where someone can be right in front of the product and get a ton of feedback quickly.

  • Pingback: The Future of Wine Criticism Gets Clearer | Winecast

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