On The Eve of the First Wine Bloggers Conference

The power and importance of The Wine Spectator, Robert Parker's Wine Advocate, Wine & Spirit's Magazine, the Wine Enthusiast or any other wine print publications isn't determined by the quality of their content. It isn't measured by the number of wines they review. And it's not measured by the insight of their various columnists, editors or writers.

The power of these publications and any others is determined by one single thing: The number of eyeballs they attract.

With eyeballs come hearts and minds. And it's the heart and mind, working in tandem and calculating personal values, that results in action.

To this extent the power of any given wine blog currently in existence is relatively light, though a few are creeping into the consciousness of the dedicated wine lover and the wine trade itself. However, if you consider the number of people reading wine blogs in general, then you have to conclude that something of a power shift (migration) has been initiated by the world's wine bloggers.

As over 100 wine bloggers get set to meet at the first American Wine Bloggers Conference, the question of what wine blogging means isn't so self indulgent, even if it's asked by a wine blogger. The question is of great significance to members of the wine trade who always feel shifts and migration in the hearts and minds of their compatriots before the general consumer feels the quake. The wine trade is like the dog that perks up before the ground moves.

What are the implications of a large percentage of newly-minted wine lovers turning to wine blogs as well as to traditional wine publications to get their fix of wine info? What are the implications of a good percentage of these new wine lovers turning to on-line sources exclusively in order to get that needed dose of winespeak that lovers of the beverage seem to commit to for a lifetime once struck by the bug?

The first thing that those in the wine industry, wine publishing and into wine blogging need to recognizes is that the 500-800 wine blogs that exist are in no way like the better recognized and better understood political blogs that have changed political reporting. Wine has no news cycle. Our taxes, our children's future, our mortgage payments and our safety in the world have little or no connection to wine. It is an indulgence. That is to say, wine "matters" very little in the grand scheme we each connect to.

And yet, there are 500 to 800 wine blogs.

The reason for this is that taste is very subjective. The diversity of wine alone tells us this. Wine lovers know this. It's why the same wine book is published 10-20 times each year under different titles. Wine lovers are willing to listen and learn from many different sources. The fact that up until a few years ago only a very few publications world wide (printed or digitized) provided wine information to the world's wine lovers was an anomaly driven by the lack of an easy, cheep and efficient way for the subjectivity in taste to express itself.

Enter the wine blog.

To understand the implications of this, consider that there will never again be a Robert Parker, Jr. Many people have asked what will happen when Mr. Parker retires? The answer is nothing. His readers will migrate to the 1000s of other sources, easily found and easily searched and easily evaluated, in order to fulfill their needs. In this respect, Robert Parker Jr.'s Wine Advocate and the Wine Spectator are truly remarkable entities. Wine marketers the world over really should take a moment to step back and appreciate them for their uniqueness, their success, their influence, the way they changed wine and the wine industry, for the talent they gathered and showed off, and for the fact that they were a one of a kind venture that will never be duplicated.

However, they did confirm something of which wine bloggers and the wine industry should take note: Wine lovers follow voices.

They'll look for that voice that speaks to them by browsing among many. But once they find the one that sings to them, they'll be loyal listeners. And though I don't think any wine blogger will soon wield the kind of game changing influence that Mr. Parker or the Wine Spectator did (do!), I think we can count of five or ten of them rising beyond the pack, attracted a significantly larger readership than all others, and wielding significant influence among their readers. And this will happen because their voices are the right ones for the times.

But wine bloggers, particularly those who believe what I'm writing, should not begin to get excited or giddy at the prospect of become among the influential or semi-influential. Nor should they revel in the idea that the traditional wine print publications many of them scorn will somehow die off.

That's not going to happen.

While the print editions of newspapers are likely to die a slow, ugly death, magazines will live. And Wine Magazines will be among the living.

The nature of blogging strikes me as being rather visceral. The content of blogs most often reflect momentary insights, the substance of a blogger's current ire or delight, a first impression of events, the immediate declaration of what their palates tell them. This is not to say that wine blogging can't be reflective or synthesizing. It just rarely is. This is not a dirty secret or a bad thing. Human beings rarely find themselves in a reflective mood, rarely synthesize complex ideas, and too often appear incapable of doing so even if it were something they wanted to indulge in. It's the rare human being that is more often reflective than reactive. Blogging is a much more human way of expressing ideas.

But we do reflect, some of us. And that's what print magazines are best at demonstrating. They provide a perfect package for filling up with longer, reflective ideas. They provide a vehicle for teasing out distant connections that force the reader to take a longer intellectual journey. Print Magazines are more tactile-friendly when this kind of journey is desired than a computer or phone can be. I fully expect and fully hope that the greatest editors and publishers, those with a disposition toward reflection and synthesis, will gravitate toward the printed word, rather than the digital word.

Printed wine publications really must excel at this reflective form of prose because they have no chance of competing in the areas where blogs will mow them over like a Toro gliding over a thick summer lawn.

Consider the idea of community and communicating. At the very heart of the blog format is the assumption that what is written will be discussed by the readers…and discussed right away. The "letter to the editor" section is something that no print publications should be publishing now or ever again. Put it where it should be: on-line.

It's an ugly fact that while print publications will provide bloggers with fodder for posts, the conversations provoked by the print publication will occur at blogs completely unassociated with the magazines. Let's hope bloggers appreciate this gift and let's hope editors and publishers of the print publications have the foresight to encourage this kind of subscriber enhancing activity.

Everyone who grows old has the opportunity to tell the young'ens in earshot that "I was around at the beginning of…" It's supposed to be impressive. It rarely is to the younger folk. Still, we make our claim to fate because it's impressive to us. I'm impressed by being able to say that I was around and I was involved when wine blogging began and when it began to change how wine lovers got
their information and how the wine industry markets their wares.
It's a very small claim in the larger scheme of things. But it is among my claims. And, it's among the claims that can be made by all the bloggers who will be attending the first American Wine Bloggers Conference this coming weekend. I want them to appreciate the claim they can make.

9 Responses

  1. Dr. Horowitz - October 23, 2008

    What do wine bloggers think about academic wine journals, such as the International Journal of Wine Business Research and the international journal of wine marketing (yes I cut and pasted, sorry about the caps discrepancy)? I wonder how the eyeballs of these publications compare to wine blogger eyeballs. While the Wine Spectator et al. are always brought up by wine bloggers, I have yet to read a post about these academic publications…
    I hope the conference is fun!

  2. Wilf Krutzmann DVM, CSW - October 23, 2008

    What an exciting moment in blogging history and your insights as always are thought stimulating. Wish I could have attended but just returned from a super trip to Tuscany and gloried in their food and SuperTuscans. I am sure this first Wine Bloggers Conference will be a huge success and I hope to be at the next one.

  3. Tom Wark - October 23, 2008

    Dr Horowitz.
    I’ve written about the journal of wine economics, mainly because they do fascinating research of interest to wine industry folk. I suspect the Journals you mentioned would have an audience that is small, but highly motivated to read them.

  4. Jack Everitt - October 23, 2008

    “there will never again be a Robert Parker, Jr.” – Says you? You know, many retailers would love another like him, so why is so far-fetched that it won’t happen?

  5. Phil - October 24, 2008

    Great post Tom, I appreciate your grounding of what we think will happen in the future vs. what is actually happening now. Just one point to consider: half of our subscribers say they never use our website to read articles (or do much else). Will that change as more of them become aware of it? Sure, it already is, actually, probably because we asked about it. But there are a great number of people out there still who either don’t have the time (in their opinion) or in the inclination to use the Internet frequently. And not all of these people are older folks. Thus things like Letters to the Editor, for example, will continue to have to be printed precisely because they represent a trust with all subscribers that their opinions can be heard.

  6. David Harden - October 24, 2008

    I have to agree with Jack. We can distinguish between wine writing and investment advice. Parker is the unequivocal champion in the later category. There is no doubt that his role will be filled by someone(s) when he steps down. Perhaps not by a singular, dominating phenomenon like RP, but people aren’t going to spend big money on booze without some reassurances they aren’t wasting their money.

  7. Tom Wark - October 24, 2008

    David and Jack:
    My point is exactly as David put it: There will not be another dominating presence like RP or the WS. Diversification of the media and people’s embrace of that diversification assure it.
    Will there be critics? Yes. Will there be popular critics? Yes. Will there be the kind of remarkably powerful critics like RP and the WS? No.

  8. Benito - October 24, 2008

    Y’all have fun out there–I wasn’t able to make it this year but definitely hope to attend in ’09.
    Regardless of the future of wineblogging (and I agree with your sentiments), it’s been really exciting to be there for the beginning of the revolution, both as a reader and writer.
    Tonight a glass will be raised and tilted in the direction of California.

  9. Dylan - October 26, 2008

    Great point on magazine’s living-on, and not only will they live on, but they’re coming into their own right as electronic formats as well. It’s an exciting transitional time we’re living in right now–but what person couldn’t say that about any time they were living in, time is filled with things happening and progress.

Leave a Reply