The State of the Wine Media—2013
I’m a fairly close observer of what we have come to call “The Wine Media”. My 20+ years observing the writing and reporting of all things wine, and any expertise I’ve accumulated as a result, is part of what I offer my clients—who hire me and keep me around in part because I’m a fairly reliable analyst of the wine media. I make a living understanding the wine media, how it works, what it wants and who reads it.
Me and people like me may be more valuable than ever before for the simple reason that the Wine Media has never been more complex and has never more fully satisfied the audience for wine information than it does today. This has implications—for everyone.
As 2013 comes to an end and I undertake to evaluate the state of the wine media, I’m compelled to accept a stark reality: never before has the wine media so successfully answered the needs and demands of its potential audiences. This observation is made even more significant when you note that the needs and interests of the Wine Media’s audiences are more diverse than ever before. Consider the different types of audiences that now seek and expect to find reliable wine information:
1. The Collector
2. The Neophyte
3, The Winemaker/Winery Owner
4. The Wine Retailer
5. The Millennial Buyer
6. The BabyBoomer/Silent Generation Buyer
7. The Wine Marketer
8. The Investor
9. The Obsessive Wine Lover
10. The Traveller
11. The Foodie
12. The Wholesaler
I cannot pull up an example of a single source of wine information that comes close to satisfying the needs of all these different types of audiences or the other audiences you could easily slice off of these and identify as having unique needs and desires. I can’t even think of a single foolish publisher of wine information that has ever attempted to address the entire universe of wine media consumers with a single effort.
Still, anyone who can’t find sources of information that matches their wine-centric needs simply isn’t looking—because I can guarantee it is out there. And not only this, but I can also guarantee that there are sources of wine information to match the needs of every wine-interested person that can accurately be described as high quality. But here’s the thing…
Unless a publisher/writer/reporter of wine information wants to invest considerable amounts of money, expertise and time, it’s extraordinarily difficult to build a significant audience in the realm of wine media, no matter how many slices of the wine-centric reader you may want to try to satisfy. This means it remains very difficult to develop a profitable or even near-profitable wine media venture meant to be more than a sidelight for said publisher.
These realities shape the contours and content of today’s “Wine Media”. Interestingly, as one attempts to break down this unique subject area, it’s still best to do so by looking not at what kind of audiences have been developed, but rather the categories of publishers that are attempting to meet these audiences’ needs. Furthermore, the most useful way to gaze upon the Wine Media is not by looking at the kind of writing and reporting being done, but rather who is doing this. This is the case because wine information is largely inconsequential the vast majority of literate people.
Consider the kinds of stories about wine that find their way out of the blogs, wine publications and wine sections of the daily newspapers and into the mainstream press: “A Wine Counterfeiter Scams Rich Folk out of Millions”. “France Has a Disastrous Harvest”. “Wine Experts Shown To Know Very Little”. It’s the scandalous and disastrous that is deemed worthy of coverage in the mainstream media. Occasionally, the business or political writers cover wine politics when a state considers significant change to its regulatory or legal structure.
The Wine Media reports on what the general population would call esoterica: information and an area of interest that is very specialized, very obscure and highly relevant to only a relatively small number of, well, geeks.
THE WINE BLOGGER
The Wine Blogger remains largely an amateur. That is to say, the vast majority of wine blogs are written without the intent of the publisher making much of anything in the way of revenue. This is not necessarily a reflection of the depth of ambition of the average wine blogger. It’s more a reflection of the slight general interest in wine-related writing and reporting, the lower expectations people have of blogs in general, and the somewhat inadequate structure of the traditional blog layout to accommodate revenue streams.
Yet, it can be said that some of the most impressive wine expertise and some of the most interesting commentary is now appearing on wine blogs written by these amateurs. While some folks dismiss the quality of writing and commentary appearing on blogs, they do this correctly only by averaging the quality of the entire universe of wine bloggers. But when you zero in on the best of wine blogging it is very difficult not to make the case that remarkable talents inhabit this publishing category.
It is still true that the best wine bloggers tend to publish regularly, often multiple times per week. It is still true that the best wine bloggers have a well-developed and unique voice. It is still true that the best wine bloggers tightly embrace the wine sub-culture with all its seeming inscrutability, quirks and layered cultural meaning. It is still true that the best wine bloggers foster audiences that contribute to the blogger’s success and influence by engaging in substantive comments of their own. Put another way, the best wine bloggers appear to genuinely care deeply about the meaning of wine and the benefits it delivers to those who dive in to the deep end of the wine pool.
Finally, here’s the real interesting thing to remember about wine bloggers today: They in no way constitute a sideshow, a unique alternative or a developing sector of the wine media. They are today an integral and mainstream component of the wine media mechanism.
THE WINE CRITICS
By “Wine Critic” I am referring to that category of the wine media that tends largely to review and assess the character and quality of individual wines. They write notes and reviews of wines and often grade wines. The club of serious wine critics is relatively small and always has been. What I find most interesting about this slice of the wine media is that their output has changed the least over time, their body of work has tremendous room for evolution and that this small group still maintains significant influence.
The most read and therefore most influential wine critics remain ensconced at traditional publications: The Wine Advocate, The Wine Spectator, The Wine Enthusiast, Wine & Spirits Magazine, International Wine Cellar, Connoisseurs Guide to California Wine, etc. While most of these publications and critics have in one way or another taken their work online, this fact is inconsequential to the character of their output. The wine critic remains dedicated to what is generally a 100-word review with a score or rating of some type attached.
The questions that seems to most consistently occupy wine media watchers is whether or not the value of wine critics is waning or should wane, whether the 100 point rating scale remains valuable or influential and the degree to which critics are being, or ought to be, replaced by the crowd? The first two questions are difficult to answer because they require some form of measurement that can then be compared to measurements taken in the past. And I’m not sure any forms of reliable past measurements have been undertaken. A number of wine critics have obviously been very consequential in the past. And these folks remain influential today. But to what degree? It’s hard to say with any precision.
However, it is true that traditional wine critics have new competition today in the form of social media and the crowd-sourced wine review. Denying the impact of CellarTracker, for example, is just stupid. Furthermore it appears that the crowd will be with us for the foreseeable future if only because technology provides easier and more convenient ways for members of the crowd to express an opinion and because this technology motivates more members of the crowd to do just this.
That said, to-date I see no indication that the individuals wine critic/expert is loosing any important measure of their influence among wine geeks any more than the academic journals are loosing their influence among the economics, paleontology, historiography, particle physics and Hegelianism geeks that read them. It seems to me that the crowd sourced reviews will play an increasingly important role among the crowd, while the wine experts and critics will continue to play an important role among the geeks or demand a reliable level of expertise from their wine critics.
That said, I am convinced there is room for the wine critic to evolve their output into something different. There is something stale about the 100 word wine review. It will be something fascinating to see if there is any development in this area of the wine media going forward.
THE WINE PUBLICATIONS
They are relatively small in number and those with the largest readership, despite increasing their circulations (Wine Spectator is up to a 400,000 circulation), still have a readership smaller than the largest circulation publications covering many other notable subjects.
However, the avid consumer of wine information should have noticed that these mainstream wine publications still possess and employ the best minds in wine writing and produce some of the most reliably important coverage of the world of wine. No matter what you think of their opinions and biases, it’s a fact that the Jim Laubes, Matt Kramers, Steve Heimoffs, Patrick J. Comiskeys, Joshua Greenes, Paul Gregutts and Andy Perdues are formidable wine minds.
It has always been the case that excellent reporting and writing about wine came from the mainstream wine media primarily because this is where you go to get paid to write about wine. Wine writing is almost never a lucrative project. So, when payment is offered for prose, those offering they payment often have their pick of the litter.
Also under the category of “The Wine Publications” I put the wine newsletters and journals. Most of these are headed up by wine critics, yet nearly all of them offer commentary. There has been a certain dynamism in this sub category of the “Wine Publication” category. Still with us and still going strong are the Charles Olkens Dan Bergers, Robert Parkers and other stalwarts. But others have come on the scene who offer new perspectives and opportunities for wine geeks including Antonio Galloni, Doug Wilder, and Alice Feiring, to name just a few. These specialists provide coverage of niche topics and deliver very unique takes on the world of wine and I see no reason to believe that they will go away anytime soon and I’m sure they will be joined by new entrants into the newsletter/journal/niche category. In fact, this area of niche publication is one of the more likely ways for the wine blogger to graduate to a paying audience.
THE WINE TRADE MEDIA
Certain mechanical harvesters do a better job than others. The size and dynamism of direct to consumer sales channel is important to more and more companies. The development of the Chinese retail sector is impacting global wine production. These are the kinds of topics one finds covered in the wine trade media and this sector of the overall wine media world is critical to the functioning of the wine industry.
A number of writers and publications contribute to realm of wine trade media. However, in the United States The Wine Communications Group dominates the sector. This company publishes Wine Business Monthly, Wine Business Insider, Wine Business Daily News Email, WineBusiness.com, Wines & Vines and The Practical Winery and Vineyard Journal. Their impact and influence on how members of the wine trade understand their business cannot be underestimated.
M. Shanken Communications, the publisher of The Wine Spectator, also happens to be the publisher of another important source of trade news. They publisher both IMPACT as well as MarketWatch, two publications that regularly survey the wine and spirits industry and chronicle the movement of its movers and shakers and most important sales channels.
These and other sources of industry-related writing tend to trade in nuts and bolts reporting, making them somewhat unique inside the wine media. They also are the source of the most traditional journalists in the wine media, those reporting the facts and not opinion. It’s important to note that this kind of wine writing rarely gets much attention, if only because it rarely the source of scandal and bombast. However, the growing complexity of the global wine industry and the quickened pace of change in the industry over the past 10 years means that no other sector of the wine media has played a more important role than the trade media does today. This is also the reason why news aggregation sites and services such as Lew Perdue’s Wine Industry Insight has gained such an important following.
There is no indication that the importance of the wine trade media will wane. There is such constant movement and development and complexity now swirling inside the wine industry that outlets covering this maelstrom of ideas and change will remain critical and dynamic.
Lettie Teague of the Wall Street Journal, Eric Asimov of the New York Times, Katherine Cole of the Oregonian, Jon Bonne of the San Francisco Chronicle, Bill St. John of the Chicago Tribune,
The large daily newspapers, whether in print or online, remain the place where the largest number of Americans get their information in written form. The circulation of only those publications mentioned above is in the millions. So, when Mr. Asimov or Ms. Teague or Mr. St. John declare what the wine trends in America are or advise on what to buy or introduce us to a new winery or weigh in on the way Americas do or ought to buy or keep wine, it has impact…great impact.
These are also the writers that interpret for the general public what the geeks inside the world of wine are talking about, arguing about and worrying about. I would argue that the degree to which the general public has a positive or negative view of wine or the wine industry in large part is due to how this relatively small group writes about the subjects they cover.
But it is also notable that unlike in previous times, it is no longer a requirement that a large daily newspaper have a wine writer on staff or print a wine column. There is an equation here that impacts this reality. Categories of information that are in no way crucial the public weal and that are merely best understood at hobbies (such as wine, the game of bridge, the art of dance and gardening) must pay their way in the large dailies. That is, any space devoted to these topics must produce accompanying advertising in order to justify their inclusion in the newspaper. Wine columns have not always done this and with the continuing decline of circulation numbers of daily newspapers, the wine column has steadily disappeared. This development should remain of critical importance to the wine industry.
Finally, I want to draw attention to one realm of the wine media that may not be considered a traditional slice of that pie, that has expanded with the development of the Internet and that provides wine geeks with a remarkably robust source of wine information and opinion: Online discussion forums.
This is where the geeks gather to discuss in-depth any number of wine-related topics and the form of these discussions often takes on a very sophisticated note. They represent places where novices, experts and other wine-interested parties can learn a great deal about the topic of wine.
There are a number of wine discussion forums and each possess a unique personality. Wine.Woot revolves around the “Wooters” that are catered to by this wine selling platform. WineBerserkers.com is home to a very active group of both wine lovers and members of the trade. Mark Squire’s Wine Discussion Board at eRobertParker hosts subscribers who have very opinionated views of wine. CellarTracker hosts a forum that delivers a wide-ranging discussion of all things wine. The Wine Lovers Discussion Forum is the oldest and most venerable discussion forum. Finally, Facebook has a number of “groups” where various aspects of wine and the wine industry are regularly discussed.
It’s rare that news is broken at these venues. And it’s true that the commenters who inhabit these forums can sometimes be overly opinionated to the point of rudeness. But it’s equally true that they can be dynamic communities where intense, enlightening and detailed discussion of wine topics are most fully explored. Personally I adore them and have regularly surveyed their content since the early days when Compuserve, AOL and Prodigy were the places where wine geeks gathered online.
I see no indication that the way wine is written about and discussed will or is changing in any meaningful way. Whether it is on a blog, in a Daily, on a discussion forum or in the wine trade publications, the subject of wine will focus primarily on opinion the evaluation of particular products. Places, people, companies and trends will be evaluated for the benefits and inspiration they provide. Reviews whether by critics or crowds will remain central to the discussion. Ratings and scores are going nowhere. And the diversity of products and producers will remain the primary driver of how wine is covered in the media.