Stalin, the Khmer Rouge and Wine Influencers

It’s not often that you get to read in a wine article in which “Wine Influencers” are compared to Joseph Stalin or the Khmer Rouge. In discussing the claim by Influencers that they work hard at the thing they do, James Lawrence, writing at Wine-Searcher went and did it:

“even if we accept that this firmament [Wine Influencers] can sell a lifestyle, and the associated brands, the defense of “working hard” is fatuous. History’s worst men and women have ‘worked hard’. I’m sure Joseph Stalin was a workaholic. Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge boasted a strong work ethic. This alone does not grant one estimable status.”

Ouch.

This particular article on the meaning of wine influencers has been compared by some on #WineTwitter to the same kind of abuse that wine bloggers received from legacy wine writers back in the mid 00s when blogging was taking off. However, I never recall, as one of those bloggers, getting this kind of blowback:

“The contract of deception between the consumer and influencer is almost totally wasted on the wine industry. Its victims want to be deceived, to subscribe to a faux lifestyle that most of us can never achieve. It encourages one of the most destructive societal pathologies – delusion. So influencer culture is simply a mutation of a pre-existing virus: the obsessive need to vicariously experience the unobtainable, via celebrity culture.”

There are of course substantial differences between the wine blogger and the social media wine influencer. One difference is that the former uses words while the latter does not. Now hold on. We all know that a picture is worth more than a thousand words. Of course, it has always been true, despite how the saying goes, that some pictures are only worth 231 words. That’s my particular issue with social media wine influencers. Generally, their pictures don’t deliver the impact of 231 words, let alone one-thousands.

In the end, Lawrence is using his space in Wine-Searcher to question the utility of social media Wine Influencers, their utility to both the followers and the industry. His conclusion is that they have little and he doubts their very, very pretty pictures are worth much in the way of sales. But this doesn’t mean they can’t be useful in the pursuit of another sale of wine.

The correct way to understand the social media wine influencer is to understand them as advertising vehicles and not much else. If a wine brand or wine region wants to work with these influencers, I say awesome. Personally, I’m more than happy to work with them on behalf of a client. The key is to keep it transactional and not overpay for the promise of exposure to the influencer’s followers. The vast majority of Instagram or Twitter influencers are worth a bottle or two or three of wine. Some are worth a few dollars. But as you negotiate your relationship with these advertisers it’s important not to listen to closely to their claims of “engagement” or “community” or “authenticity”. Count their followers, do a quick cost-per-thousand calculation, make the offer, try to get them to take it in wine, then move on. It’s not too much different than digital or print advertising, just less results-oriented in nature.

In the end, the phenomenon of the Wine Influencer is no different than any other form of communication vehicle: it is a reaction to new technology. Just like blogging, websites, Zines, magazines, newspapers, books, and carrier pigeons.

Lawrence, however, has built a certain enmity for the Wine Influencer. That’s not difficult to understand. He’s a thoughtful person who tends to write wine-related news items and features and there is nothing much in the way of thoughtfulness within the Wine influencer realm. I think down at the ground floor level, Lawrence might be peeved that Wine Influencers are considered no different than wine writers. In this, he has a point.

There are more than enough people who DO believe the social media Wine Influencer is just the latest iteration of Wine Influencer, no different than wine writers. In an article written a couple years ago by David Morrison at The Wine Gourd the Wine Influencer phenomenon was explored. Morrison gives a nod to the similarity between writer and influencer, noting, “Once again, there is nothing fundamentally new here. We have always had media personalities with wine expertise, and with many followers.” Morrison then goes on to quote David Shaw, writing in the LA Times in 1987 (great pull, by the way):

“A wine writer is a physician or a lawyer with a bottle of wine and a typewriter, looking to see his or her name in print, looking for an invitation to a free lunch, and a way to write off the wine cellar.”

To this day, 33 years later, you occasionally read the opinion that wine writers really on nothing more than folks looking for a free wine ride. This was certainly the poke that wine bloggers received when they were the flavor of the month. But this really is nothing more than a slur. The difference between wine writers and Wine Influencers is great and substantial. For example, you can learn something from even the worst wine writers. From the best, you can get an education. Most wine writers attempt to tell a genuine story. Wine Influencers attempt to find the right light. Wine writers, writing at best, can call up connections between ideas and offer meaningful insights. Wine Influencers can, at their best, allude to ideas.

I’m biased, of course. Not because I tend to write, but because I don’t care that much about finding the right light.

Posted In: Wine Media

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7 Responses

  1. rh+drexel - January 18, 2021

    I think wine influencers like Amanda McCrossin have breathed new life into the world of wine. Silly to paint them all with one negative brushstroke. Folks like MJ Towler, Amanda mentioned above, Thaddeus Buggs and a number of other influencers have turned me on to new wines. I hadn’t heard of the Ravines Reisling from NY until Thaddeus talked about it.

    Geez…why get territorial about folks talking about wine?

  2. Tom Wark - January 18, 2021

    Breathed new life? Really? It’s not about being territorial. I mean, there is a difference between a writer and a social media influencer. And I’m not primarily a writer anyway. I’m a marketer and a advocate. I just thought the article in Wine Searcher was interesting because it was such a polemic and it offered a bit of truth. But let’s not go off the deep end and start attributing new breath to social media wine influencers.

  3. acv - January 19, 2021

    I read your blog first… I had seen the article kicking around but chose not to click through. Anyhow, after your article I read Lawrence’s piece. First, yes, he is quite brilliant with his prose…. but having read the Joseph Stalin quote already…. when he delivers the line in the article, I still burst out laughing. The punch line beautifully delivered. Bravo. I am not sure I can add much to what you have written…I personally agree with Lawrence’s assessment.
    This – “Influencers stake their claim on authenticity, but the only authentic thing about this sorry enterprise is the cynicism from all involved.”
    I am not an anti-influencer…. but it does feel a little shallow on the engagement meter. I see the usual virtue-signaling folks have come to the rescue on the much-maligned and misunderstood wine-influencer. Joe Fattorini – I think we know what that is about. Felicity Carter, a colleague of Mr. Lawrence at Meininger’s, frankly she would adopt any opinion or posture solely to garner clicks. And finally, Simon Woolf whose ego far exceeds his intellect. The heart of the appeal was to shed light on the manipulative perils of the Social Media world. The question starkly put are we sacrificing quality – a professionally written article (and Pictures) for the skill of photoshopping? Lawrence takes a position the reader is free to choose their own. Further on…Yes, if Orson Wells wants to use his status as an accomplished film director to hock for Paul Masson wines – I am on board. But as Lawrence aptly points out the DIY celebrity status boils down to setting up an Instagram account and heading for the nearest infinity pool. Cue cynicism. Certainly, as you and others suggest we can have both and as you point out – at the right price – even value.
    This:” The contract of deception between the consumer and influencer is almost totally wasted on the wine industry.
    Periodically I have seen threads and articles about the death of wine writing. IMO Lawrence is right to point out…. that the move into space where you are selling everything but the wine…. you may be doing at your own peril. Now, what was that neighbor’s Rose they liked?

  4. Robert Behlendorf - January 19, 2021

    Whom do “Wine Influencers” really influence? I suspect it is those who do not wish to do their own thinking and research and those who blindly follow the next guru. Both are definitely in a class that needs guidance. In any case, if they are drinking wine, it can be said it is all to the good. For, at some magical point, I would say most wine neophytes get curious about the next level and drop the “Wine Influencers” for some better info and better wines. If the “Wine Influencers” got them there, then they have done a service to the industry. Plain and simple.

  5. Tom Wark - January 19, 2021

    Robert,

    The question of who social media influencers influence is, as you suggest, similar to who are the folks convinced by Mr. Bartles and Mr. James to drink that stuff. You are further right that among those who are influenced and who do do some buying, a small percent will “move up”.

  6. acv - January 20, 2021

    There’s always room for asking how can we engage the new consumers or where? Expanding further, I would be the first to sing the laurels of Moscato and White Zinfandel for ushering in new devotees to the wine segment. I have no shame (humor everyone). The problems raised in Lawrence’s articles that are not so easily dismissed by the “ends justify the means” or Mr. blue checkmark Paul Mabray’s call to “be nice” is that the marketing is by someone who seems to have even less connection to authenticity in construction of this marketing ploy.
    Kim Kardashian’s marketing of the liqueur brand Midori including “hosting a Halloween party and appearing in promotional images” all despite the fact she doesn’t drink. This had an opposite effect causing a backlash…. but you know if it hooks a few more consumers what is the harm…other than trust? This seems closer to a hustle than a new marketing medium. Three card Monti anyone? Is there a role for influencers to introduce products to a larger group of people who rely on Social Media in 2021? Yes, most definitely. But I’m with Diageo….lets pause and think this through. All this talk of selling a few more bottles frankly is making me want to take a shower from it all.

  7. Paul+Vandenberg - January 21, 2021

    As always.
    Many are involved for
    Money for nothing and wine for free!


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