Examining Wine Blogging: Responsibility

ResponsibilityA week from today, upwards of 300 wine blogger will converge on Portland, Oregon for the Wine Bloggers Conference. They will come from across the country and in some cases around the world to examine their chosen avocation, to commune with fellow bloggers and to learn.

During this conference, which will be my fifth, I have the happy responsibility of moderating a session entitled "Are We Wine Writers or Wine Bloggers?" In preparation for helping instigate an invigorating discussion of this topic, I've been examining my own thoughts on what it means to be a wine blogger. I keep coming back to the notion of "responsibility"

Does a wine blogger have a responsibility to anyone but themselves? Put another way, can a person who maintains a wine blog do so without any consideration for any readers they may have and be called a successful wine blogger?

That this is a legitimate question at all should expose the difference between "writers" and bloggers". Anyone legitimately calling themself a "writer" would never even consider examining this question as the vast majority of any responsibility a writer must satisfy is to their reader first.

If a writer does not first satisfy the needs and expectations of their readers, they won't long be writing for their readers. They won't have any readers. They won't be given the opportunity to even try to satisfy readers. And they could not legitimately call themself a "writer".  But a wine blogger can ignore the needs of their readers, write entirely for their own satisfaction and continue to legitimately be called a "wine blogger".

Over and over these past years as wine blogging as taken off and become a more important part of the public wine conversation, I have listened to wine blogger after wine blogger say the following: "I blog for myself". A minority of wine bloggers admit that they blog for their readers or for a heightened profile within the wine world or to advance their careers. Yet, the constant refrain I've heard is from so many wine bloggers is the self-centered pursuit of self satisfaction.

A bonafied writer, I think, could never honestly make this statement. Despite the fact that writers are often accused of being ego-maniacs, and despite the fact that their their own efforts to expose, explain and pronounce satisfy some kind of inner need to act authoritatively, no writer will ever argue that the care and feeding of their readers is of no importance. They know that the reader must be possess some level of satisfaction derived for the writer to call themselves even a mediocre success.

None of this is to say that a Wine Blogger can't make something beyond themselves, particularly the reader, their prime responsibility. And of course writers who must have the reader as their prime responsibility can meet that responsibility as a wine blogger. But the fact remains, a Wine Blogger can always be a wine blogger by writing for themself.

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34 Responses

  1. Bart Oomen - August 10, 2012

    Interesting thought. I started my blog for personal reasons but as the number of readers grew, I started to take their opinion into account. At this time I’m well aware of my public and write accordingly. My taste for wines however is still personal and I’m not forcing anyone to like the wines I like. I always say: don’t take my word for it, just try it yourself.

  2. Tom Wark - August 10, 2012

    Bart,
    I think any reviewer has personal tastes that are communicated through their reviews. What would be interesting to know is how you have “taken [readers] opinions into account” as your readership has grown.
    Tom…

  3. Ron Washam, HMW - August 10, 2012

    Tom,
    I’d say, as myself and not as the HoseMaster, that you’re a writer when other people say you’re a writer. I don’t see it as a self-proclaimed vocation. That would render “writer” meaningless. A blogger has a blog, a writer has a talent and a gift for language, and for stimulating thought. Very few blogs manage that. To use writer as you are demeans it.
    I’d argue writers satisfy their readers because they have talent, not because they set out to satisfy them. That’s shortsighted and limiting. A writer does not have responsibility to his readers, not to please them anyway. Unless he’s writing crap, cranking out the same old thing over and over, like a romance novelist. He has a responsibility to be honest and open, to be true to his gift, to write what moves him or what he finds interesting, and to do it with voice and passion. His readers will support him for doing so.
    I’ve said this before, and, verily, I will say it again. There’s not much wine writing in the blogosphere, but there’s a lot of wine typing.

  4. Tom Wark - August 10, 2012

    Ron:
    Here’s one: Can one be legitimately called a “writer” if they are not compensated for writing? Can one call themselves a plumber if they are not compensated for plumbing?
    The issue of writers’ responsibility does not begin and end with the satisfaction of their reader. They have others also. However, I’d argue that if a writer is not satisfying the needs (defined broadly) of their audience, then they will fail to continue to earn the moniker of “writer”. Not only that, they will fail to be compensated for writing.

  5. Bart Oomen - August 10, 2012

    Tom,
    I use Google Analytics to see what my audience searched for on my blogsite. When they searched for something that I haven’t reviewed yet, I will get that wine and review it. They can also leave requests for wines for me to taste.
    Kind regards, Bart.

  6. Thomas Pellechia - August 10, 2012

    Oh, Tom,
    You missed Ron’s point entirely: a writer has a talent and a gift for language, and for stimulating thought.
    Isn’t it possible that unsatisfied readers could simply be too dense to recognize talent? Or worse, unworthy of someone’s talent? It happens, and it is not the writer’s fault when it does. But an untalented writer is an unworthy writer, and that could very well be the writer’s fault.
    As for your latest question: since I have a vested interest in the answer, I’d say you are a writer when you do it for a living. That is not to say that people who don;t do it for a living can’t be good writers. The former describes a profession, the latter describes potential or talent.
    One other thing; this coming from me as a writer: why do you constantly shift from singular pronoun to plural pronoun within sentences? Gives me whiplash ;)

  7. Tom Wark - August 10, 2012

    Thomas,
    I didn’t miss Ron’s point. I just thought I’d address something more pertinent.
    That said, how a writer satisfies the read may vary. They may not do with fabulous and intricate and complex or soothing prose. They may do it with average, simplistic prose. And yes, some readers may not recognize talent. But it’s equally true that a reader who recognizes talent may still be unsatisfied by the writer perhaps because the writer, though talented, doesn’t fulfill the need manifested by the reader.
    As to the issue of singular v. plural pronouns, it’s likely an issue of being lazy.

  8. Thomas Pellechia - August 10, 2012

    Oh, sorry. Rather than moving into another area to consider I thought that you were arguing with Ron through bringing up another point. My mistake.
    Even though many reporters lately have tried, a writer can’t be lazy.

  9. Tom Wark - August 10, 2012

    Thomas,
    I just didn’t want to get into a discussion of quality and whether bloggers possess quality writing skills. It’s irrelevant, I think. In this post I really wanted to ponder the nature of blogging v. writing and to look at it via the issue of responsibility.
    And as for laziness in writing, I think it’s pretty clear to you, me and Ron that a writer can succeed and be lazy. But that’s a different subject isn’t it…one that gets into the area of expectations, editors and more.

  10. Thomas Pellechia - August 10, 2012

    “…a writer can succeed and be lazy.”
    If there is any justice, not for long.
    Yes, it is a different subject, but one that relates to blogging.
    One of the flaws inherent in most blogging is that writing from the perspective of opinion only can be stultifying that can produce insular thinking that comes out as inane blather.

  11. Edible Arts - August 10, 2012

    I find it hard to imagine anyone writing with no audience in mind. Without some limitations imposed by the expectations of a reader, the possibilities of creative expression would be endless and endlessly unfocused. Writing is inherently a form of communication.
    When bloggers say they are writing for themselves, I suspect they mean they don’t care about how large their audience is. They are content with the readers they have.
    I doubt I have ever written a word without quite explictly having an audience in mind.

  12. SDependahl - August 10, 2012

    I think the intent to communicate and hopefully affect, provoke or move an audience is a fundamental requirement to being a writer (or artist, musician, comedian). A “wine blogger” becomes a “wine writer” the moment they choose to accept the commitment, discipline and courage required to make this happen. Yes, it is a responsibility. It doesn’t matter if the motivation is for money, status or anything else. I don’t even think popularity matters—Kim Kardashian could have the top wine blog overnight if she wanted to but this would not necessarily make her a “wine writer” (Ms. Kardashian, if you are reading this blog, I’m sorry for calling you out. I think it would be great if you got into wine blogging.)

  13. Ron Washam, HMW - August 10, 2012

    Tom,
    Sorry, I was otherwise occupied.
    You can call yourself any damn thing you please–writer, plumber, actor, King of the World, but that doesn’t make it so. A blogger only took the time to enter some data and type. You are not a writer because you type. “Blogger” is meaningless as an occupation or avocation. It’s like being a Driver because you have a car. It’s not responsibility that defines it either. I can only speak for myself–I do not write for my audience, which may explain why it’s so small. When I was paid to write I certainly did write for my audience. Was I writer only when I was paid? You could argue that. But I’ve been called a writer since I was about fifteen, not by myself, but by others. Does that make me a writer? You could argue that too.
    And how does one determine the “needs” of readers? There is very little reliable feedback on blogs, no matter how much you check your Google guts. Hell, most of the readers of blogs seem to be other bloggers. What the hell do they need except original ideas?
    You can play to an audience. But is that your responsibility? You can choose to do that. It’s a choice, plain and simple. Is it irresponsible not to? That’s the question that’s implied. And that seems foolish on the face of it.
    Sorry. I guess I consider writing more serious work than slapping together a review of a free wine sample. Writing also involves grammar, language, structure, thought, and surprise. Having only one of those tools makes you a plumber with only a wrench. So the idea of bloggers being wine writers by virtue of owning a computer, well, it insults the craft. But you have a panel to convene. Don’t you wish I were on it with you?

  14. isabel marant sneakers - August 10, 2012

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  15. Amy Corron Power - August 11, 2012

    What? This horse isn’t dead YET?

  16. WineWonkette - August 11, 2012

    In an effort to save time from the 5th annual rehashing of this same topic, perhaps we can simplify it…
    writ•er
       [rahy-ter]
    noun
    1. a person engaged in writing books, articles, stories, etc.,especially as an occupation or profession; an author orjournalist.
    2. a clerk, scribe, or the like.
    3. a person who commits his or her thoughts, ideas, etc., towriting: an expert letter writer.
    4. (in a piece of writing) the author (used as a circumlocutionfor “I,” “me,” “my,” etc.): The writer wishes to state….
    5. a person who writes or is able to write: a writer in script.
    6. Stock Exchange . someone who sells options.
    7. Scot. a lawyer or solicitor.
    blog
      [blawg, blog] Show IPA noun, verb, blogged,blog•ging.
    noun
    1. a Web site containing the writer’s or group of writers’ ownexperiences, observations, opinions, etc., and often havingimages and links to other Web sites.
    verb (used without object)
    2. to maintain or add new entries to a blog.

  17. Thomas Pellechia - August 11, 2012

    Who the hell is Ms. Kardashian?

  18. Samantha Dugan - August 11, 2012

    Get with it Thomas! Ms. Kardashian became famous by marrying Tiger Woods and through taking us on her journey as she discovers her love of long-haired dog breeds and the best music to pair with petting them. Sheesh.

  19. Thomas Pellechia - August 11, 2012

    Thanks, Sam.
    My unwillingness to participate in the vacuous world certainly has its rewards.

  20. Tom Wark - August 11, 2012

    Amy,
    Given the changes that have occurred in wine education, communications, writing and publishing, and given the aspirations and accomplishments of many bloggers in these areas, the subject remains pertinent to many. The beauty of interesting subject matter that is both abstract and practical is that it lends itself to various approaches, attitudes and changing circumstances. That’s a long way of saying, “no”.

  21. SUAMW - August 11, 2012

    Ron
    It’s not enough to be a wordsmith. That’s like saying wanting to care for ill people is all you need to be a competent physician.
    Responsibility towards the audience and the greater benefit of the field/subject covered as well as above-average proficiency in the subject matter are necessary requisites.
    You are a wine culture/business pundit and you engage your need for creative writing in that venture, so to you ability to weave a rich tapestry with words is of greatest importance. And good on you, you’re an entertainer. I don’t watch Letterman of Leno for an analysis of the current economic trend. I go elsewhere for that.
    Similarly, when I want to learn something about a type of wine, a particular wine or obtain other factual information about wine presented in a thorough and even handed evaluation, I’ll go to a source who has demonstrated consistently that they can provide that.

  22. JohnLopresti - August 11, 2012

    Wine blogs are a sort of oracle; both the mundane and the extraordinary are found there, in various guises. Some of the dialog is contemporaneous, yet when there is material which seems more universal and timeless, that also can be quite worthwhile. Good writing helps; yet, interesting ideas and variety of perspectives are equally valuable.

  23. Fredric Koeppel - August 12, 2012

    I started writing when my parents gave me an old Royal typewriter when I was 14; 53 years later, I still type with two fingers. I taught college English for 17 years, published stories and poems in journals; switched to journalism (through writing about wine) and worked for a metropolitan daily newspaper for almost 23 years as reporter, critic, commentator, book page editor, and I continue to write for that paper as a freelancer. In short: I’m a writer, and it’s that background and experience that I try to bring to biggerthanyourhead.net, a blog which I see as no different from writing journalism except for more freedom of expression and the choice of frequency or infrequency of posting. I always keep my readers in mind as I write, whether reviews of wines or commentary on the wine and marketing industries, because they’re the people toward whom my responsibility lies, particularly in the fine balance between objectivity and subjectivity.

  24. Fine Online Store - August 13, 2012

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  25. W. Blake Gray - August 13, 2012

    Tom: One of my pet peeves as a blogger is people telling me what I must do.
    I would never say I blog for myself. But reading my blog is free and optional. If I don’t write something worth reading, don’t read it.

  26. Randy Caparoso - August 13, 2012

    With all due respect, deciding who is a writer vs. someone who blogs or just types is as arbitrary a distinction as it gets. Anyone who strings words together — be it a jingle or ad, a magazine column, a research article, novel, or even a blog — is technically a writer, and in my opinion, should be accorded that respect.
    Call it what you will, but wine blogging has been a very good thing — a great outlet for creative writing, and for airing out of opinions. The thought processing alone is far more preferable to the situation of just a few years ago, when it was the opinions or influence of the very few (Mr. Parker, Spectator, W&S, etc.) that determined how many people thought about wine.
    If anything, what I find most disappointing about blogs is what I have always found disappointing in traditional print media: very weak sense of responsibility. New fangled bloggers falling into the same traps as the “old guard” — dishing out negative thoughts, nonsensical ratings or narrow minded opinions on wines with very little thought given to the honest, well intentioned work that went into those wines. Worse yet, very little awareness of terroir or vintage related circumstances, or even stylistic or artistic factors.
    It’s the endless dissing, especially whining, that I find annoying — making me reluctant to follow even my favorite bloggers with any degree of regularity.
    Ignorance is no excuse for shoddy work or behavior. Whether you’re writing “for yourself” or for untold numbers of subscribers, responsibility means doing your homework, thinking before putting down your words, and above, showing some respect for the hard work of others.
    My mother used to say, if you don’t have anything good to say don’t say anything. I may not listen to mom much anymore (seeing that I’m a grandpa these days), but that part, I’ll never forget…

  27. Tom Wark - August 13, 2012

    Randy,
    Isn’t it rather the case that anyone who strings together words is technically writing, but not necessarily a writer?
    Otherwise….absolutely!

  28. Randy Caparoso - August 13, 2012

    Who’s to say who is more of a writer, Tom — you, or me?
    I can’t do jingle or greeting card writing for beans, for instance. Could you? Does this mean a jingle writer is a writer, but I’m not? But even within the category of wine, there are multiple qualifications as to what constitutes being a writer.
    I’d venture to say, for instance, that neither you nor I have nearly the talent for humor oriented wine pieces like the Hosemaster (who does?). If I tried to compose, say, an industry focused piece for Practical Winery & Vineyard, my lack of technical training would put me at a distinct disadvantage. But for Sommelier Journal, and given my former career, I sure am good when it comes to restaurant wine related topics (at least I think I am), or when it comes to reports on wine regions that need to be skewed towards the restaurant/sommelier trade.

  29. Tom Wark - August 13, 2012

    Randy,
    I think it is for both of us, as well as anyone else who wants to take a whack at it, to say what qualifies someone to be deemed a “writer”. It’s something of an abstract topic that has practical implications.
    That said, I’m not completely sure I get what you are saying. Are you suggesting that there are different kinds of writers? It’s hard to disagree with that. However, I think the case can also be made that the definition of a write could be s/he who is engaged to write about something. And as I try to argue in this piece, I think a certain set of responsibilities come with being deemed a “writer”, which if not met either disqualify a person from being called a writer or will lead to a writer being given very little work.

  30. Richard Auffrey - August 13, 2012

    First, I doubt that many of the bloggers who claim to write only for themselves are being truthful. I have heard make that claim, but then they also worry over their Google analytics, wanting ways to increase readership. One could say that by allowing the public to comment on their blogs, they do so because they care what their readers think. They may only blog as a hobby, but most still care about their readers to one degree or another.
    Second, I have heard professional writers who claimed to only write for themself. They would rather have a tiny readership of people and be true, rather than write and cater to the masses.

  31. Thomas Pellechia - August 13, 2012

    Writing is a profession; unfortunately, many people think they can master the profession by just laying words down on paper or screen, because they believe they are “creative” and have something to say. Those who do that certainly are writing, but they are usually as much writers as the amateur baseball players who play in the park are major leaguers.
    I know it’s a cultural phenomenon to praise others as being worth whatever it is that think they are worth, just for doing something–but it’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.

  32. Randy Caparoso - August 13, 2012

    Yes, Tom, there are many kinds of writers, especially those who make a living doing it. Many just write copy, and are far from creative; and many are incredibly creative, making them less suitable for copy writing. My point is that they’re all writers, and we should respect everyone’s work.
    What’s harder to respect are writers who discourse with little sense of responsibility; especially those who mouth off on wine related subjects they know little of. We have too much of that, especially in the blogosphere.
    I would not, however, go so far as say that “amateurs” have no business blogging. Fact is, there can be great beauty in discourses by people who write about wine for fun (or even “for themselves”) — as nonprofessionals, even with very little experience assessing or talking about wine — if the blogging, of course, is artfully written, entertaining, original, energetic and unpretentious. I’ve enjoyed lots of that, and I think it’s one of the great things that blogging has brought to the wine world.
    Having outlets for people who, otherwise, would never be published, or who could never be paid for what they’re writing, is nothing but a positive thing. If it’s lousy writing, nobody has to read it. But it’s a heckuva lot better than the alternative, which is what we used to have to settle for: getting our information strictly through publishing companies with little agenda beyond what is deemed commercially viable.

  33. Thomas Pellechia - August 15, 2012

    Randy,
    I don’t say that amateurs have no business blogging. People should do with their lives and their talents whatever they want to do with them.
    My objection is to the constant spin that automatically elevates blogging with effective and important writing, publishing, etc., when in fact, such things are always case-by-case.
    Your last comment covers the subject in a realistic manner. Tom gives the impression of analytical thinking, and he sometimes does analyze; more often, however, he seems to engage in high-powered spin.

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