Will Dedicated Wine Lovers Support Quality?

Apamlogo The best source of independent, web-only wine writing will no longer be free beginning July 6th.

That's right, Appellation America recently and quietly announced it would be transitioning to a subscription format on that date. Though this move will significantly reduce its readership, it undoubtedly will have a much more active and dedicated readership and one that demonstrates real appreciation for outstanding content.

And yet the bottom line is that the work of Appellation America, including its features, tastings and database of wineries, will no longer be available to anyone and everyone.

The move by Appellation America introduces an important question: Will the most dedicated wine lovers and wine industry folks, those who have always devoured and craved and praised high quality wine reporting and prose, put their money where their mouth is?

The cost to subscribe to Appellation America, according to its announcement, will be $49.95 for an annual subscription—or, $4.16 per month.

But let's layout what we are talking about here. Appellation America is the most significant and serious vessel for wine journalism to emerge this decade. From its beginning it offered the somewhat unique argument that the wines of Texas, Missouri, New York and Michigan were equally important and deserving of attention as those of California. It made the positive case that "place" is more important to the consumer than brand, varietal or winemaker. And it backed all this up by going out and assembling one of the most impressive collections of wine writers ever placed under one masthead.

If there was ever an online wine publication that was worthy of $49.95 per year, I suspect it is this one.

Yet, I also suspect that 96% of those of you reading this won't break out your credit cards on July 6th.


Sure the economy is tough. But many people will happily walk into Starbucks and pay their $4.00 for a super duper coffee drink on a daily basis, even in the bad economy. The fact is, I think, that the availability of free content is more persuasive to people than is the quality of content. And this is so, I think, whether we are in a boom or bust economy. It's also an ugly truth.

I personally can't afford to not have access to the Appellation America content because my ability to do my job as a member of the wine industry and as a wine publicist and my need to continually educate myself and my need to have real intellectual stimulation depends on having access to great ideas and great coverage of my industry.

22 Responses

  1. Roger King - July 2, 2009

    With great appreciation, we thank you for your comments on the value of Appellation America. There is a turning point in every company when the reality of P&L takes over. To undertake content of this magnitude is dauntiing in the era of the free internet. We are likely not the only ones out there that will have to make such a decision going … Read Moreforward.
    The option of not doing this should be obvious to anyone that understands business in a capital society.
    We greatly value our viewer base and wish to serve them for some time to come.

  2. John Kelly - July 2, 2009

    I wish Appellation America all the luck in the world – they are going to need it.

  3. Steve Heimoff - July 2, 2009

    It will be very interesting to see what happens.

  4. Thomas Pellechia - July 2, 2009

    It’s always difficult to start free and then ask for money. That’s why, as a writer, I hardly ever succumb to being asked to provide free content, which of course I have been asked to do on the Internet over and over.
    Unfortunately, we become as valuable as we let others think we are.

  5. Jack - Helpful as Always - July 2, 2009

    “The best source of independent, web-only wine writing” … wow, I would never have thought of Appellation America in a million years.
    Yet, I also suspect that 96% of those of you reading this won’t break out your credit cards on July 6th. I’d start with 99% and go up from there if I was you, Tom.
    Hey, I’m not trying to mean or mean-spirited; I simply can’t recall the last time I saw AA mentioned in any wine publication, winery website, blog, forum or tasting event that I read/go to. No one has ever, out-of-the-blue, mentioned AA to me.
    Therefore, good luck to them getting people to pay $50 a year. Good luck indeed.

  6. Jack - Helpful as Always - July 2, 2009

    Oh, and it’s not going well for another, somewhat similar situation:

  7. Michael W. Pleitgen - July 3, 2009

    Dear Tom,
    Professional wine tasting and judgement costs. And wine journalism too.
    We are going into a discussion on who will pay for all that in the future. When the consumer is not willing, nor are the producers, wine writing, tasting, judgement will become a matter of amateurs.
    In Germany we actually see wine-mags, guides, sites closing. See Jacks posting or look here http://www.weinakademie-berlin.de/spitzen-weingueter-vs-gault-millau

  8. Thomas Pellechia - July 3, 2009

    This is what happens when the standard of ‘free’ has been set.
    The other thing that I look at is volume: in my admitted reverse sense of logic, I see more consolidation as the result of open access, mainly because with near instant global access, the audience is essentially in one place, and that probably means that the few information providers will rise to the top from a global community buzz (or maybe mass hysteria 😉 while the many will vanish. The first to go are likely to be the ones asking for money.
    It’s a horrible scenario, but until it’s all worked out, I see few alternatives to that course.
    It also doesn’t help when information providers are at the same time product promoters and hucksters, and there is an awful lot of that going on both behind the scene and out in front.

  9. Dylan - July 3, 2009

    I agree with Thomas that it’s about setting personal standards of expectation. In this case, AA is setting a new standard for itself and asking for that value they believe they offer. Will readership drop, likely and dramatically, however I agree with Tom’s position that it will garner a much more loyalist and effective readership. The kind that can grow over time with this new standard in place.

  10. Greg Dyer - July 3, 2009

    Jack, there are quite a few very serious wine people who contribute to Appellation America. Unfortunately, its approach doesn’t lend itself to mass dissemination. For one, there are no points. Strike one! They focus on just about every appellation but Napa, which the wine hegemons don’t want to see since they’re tied to the Napa brand in one way or another. Strike two! They also take a systematic if not scientific approach, which is confusing to those who view wine purely as a status symbol, Veblen good and volatile commodity. Strike three!
    I suspect you and your “wine publications, winery websites, blogs, forums [and] tasting events” have little interest outside of what high end collectors and print media have already declared worthy. But I do believe there’s a significant niche for those who are intellectually curious that Appellation America fills.

  11. Morton Leslie - July 3, 2009

    Up until now A.A. has tried to supply a product to wineries. Everything from articles to tastings that were designed to appeal to and not offend wineries. The goal was to derive revenue from them. Links to winery written content, links to buy their wine. How to find the winery. Favorable stories about wineries and appellations. No unfavorable reviews. Wineries were, in fact, the customer. This didn’t work.
    Now, A.A. is looking to the wine drinker and enthusiast for revenue. Unfortunately they haven’t changed the product and it is too late to do so. Is there a need filled by the product they offer to the wine drinker?
    A.A. makes a big deal about their database. For the Napa Valley it is a list provided by N.V. Grape Growers of wines, the far majority of which, are not reviewed by A.A.. What utility is such a list to the reader?
    What good are articles that are no different than anything wineries have been providing to journalists for the last half century? Yes, they can be called “educational,” but even the novice knows that it isn’t all good news about every wine, winery and appellation?
    And the best of appellation program…what wines were tasted, how many got BOA, how many didn’t, where are the details? The credibility is in the details.
    I would be very surprised if this isn’t the tail end of the end for A.A.

  12. Thomas Pellechia - July 3, 2009

    Interesting take, Morton.
    I was in conversation a number of years ago with the originators of A.A., who are no longer involved. The present-day product isn’t much like they had described to me it would be.

  13. Grant - July 3, 2009

    Good luck to the guys at AA. The amount of time that goes into running and driving a website deserves to be rewarded. I hope they are able to retain a paying audience.

  14. Jack - Helpful as Always - July 3, 2009

    Ha – just wait until CellarTracker becomes the standard over Parker, etc.
    Greg: I really don’t read/follow the articles, etc., about the High End of wine. My tastes are quite eclective: old red Burgs, Northeast Italian whites, Loire, Jura(!), 15-35 yr old Napa cabs, RRV/SC pinot, Alsace(!) and biodynamic wines. My wine geek friends are mostly into these too…I’ve never been served a Cal Cult or major Bordeaux by any of them.

  15. Thomas Pellechia - July 3, 2009

    You have friends???
    I haven’t forgot the Riesling I promised. It’s just that I did forget to send and when I remembered, it was too hot to send.
    Stay alive until the fall–they’ll arrive, and they won’t be no Cult wines.

  16. Jack - Helpful as Always - July 3, 2009

    Don’t sweat it, Thomas.

  17. Charlie Olken - July 3, 2009

    Unless AA changes is content to that of a magazine, it will have one hell of a time surviving. Tom Wark is right that their content is valuable. Where else can you instantly learn about every AVA in the US of A? Where else can you get winery listings and maps for everyone in one place?
    But, the wine reviews and the on-going articles are hardly of the depth and quality of any of the existing publications, either in Print or online.
    Can they change and adapt to a consumer-driven model? Guys like Berger, Goldfarb, Smith are serious professionals, but AA is a different kind of beast, and survival is not a slam dunk in the fee-for-words world.

  18. Alder - July 4, 2009

    Appellation America, bless them, has always had two primary problems:
    #1 – they were a business started with no realistic plan to generate revenue (i.e. doomed to fail)
    #2 – as Jack notes, their writing was never really relevant to anyone except a select few folks in the wine industry.
    For that reason, they are unlikely to succeed in this next incarnation. They are realizing far too late that a business (if it is going to call itself that, as opposed to a foundation) must generate profits, and they still may not have realized that in order to sell what they have, it must be relevant to a wide enough market.

  19. Charlie Olken - July 6, 2009

    Tom Merle’s take on AA (see Steve Heimoff blog) seems about right to me at first blush. If enough industry folk and enthusiasts sign up, they have a chance.
    But, first blushes are not ever the whole story. In order to be a subscriber based “publication”, because that is why they want to become, they will have to add different content. How AA changes and how quickly AA changes are stories yet to unfold.
    They have chosen a difficult time to make the transition, yet if Tom Merle’s assumption is right, and AA changes it spots, they do have a chance. It is simply too earlier to write them off without knowing how deep their pockets are and how many subscribers they need to survive.

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