The Brave and Attractive Move in the Wine Writing World

One of America’s most prolific wine bloggers, Jeff Siegel, has abandoned his long-standing wine blog for the blue skies of Substack, the subscription newsletter format, and making a buck. The trail of free posts, free observations, and free access to “The Wine Curmudgeon” runs from 2007 to 2021. In that time, Siegel grabbed the mantle of champion of the drinker of cheap wine. Now, he wants to make a buck after 14 years of giving it away for free.

I can’t find one reason to criticize him or fault him for this decision. It’s a great idea.

The editorial subscription model for wine content is hardly new. The Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, Wine Advocate, and Vinous are only the most obvious examples of publishers toiling to deliver up compelling value to subscribers interested in various facets of wine. Moreover, early on—back in the 80s and 90s—a number of individuals (perhaps two people) wrote and charged for newsletters. I’m thinking of Connoisseurs Guide to California Wines, Restaurant Wine, and The Grapevine, just to name a few. The eminent Dan Berger has long been charging or his weekly newsletter.

What is somewhat new to the wine editorial world is asking readers to finally pay for the musings of a single writer who has spent the past decade or more giving it away for free. It’s not the evolution of the blogging format. It’s the evolution of the value equation.

Here’s what will happen when the blogger turns to a paid subscription format: Their audience and readership will plunge overnight and significantly. They will feel increased pressure to meet scheduled publishing deadlines. They may find they do not have nearly the same level of engagement in terms of comments and discussion. And of course, there is also the risk of public embarrassment if the venture fails to attract enough subscribers to justify keeping on.

This is a lot to give up and risk. But of course, there is an upside. The readership that chooses to pay for a writer’s musings is far more likely to read closely. The pressure to publish regularly should actually be seen as a good thing. And there’s the income.

Jeff Siegel charges $7 per month to receive his daily content that comes right into your email box. When he finds 500 subscribers, that’s $3,500 per month. That’s $42,000 annually and more than enough to put kids into a good private school. It’s a new car…annually. It’s enough to finance a few months in France for the family. That’s also a lot of $15.00 and under wine. Moreover, double that to 1,000 subscribers and now you are talking college education, home purchases and more.

The Wine Curmudgeon is well worth the $7.00 per month for someone like me since Jeff often writes insightful commentary on the business of wine that helps me think more clearly about the business I work within. His take on inexpensive wines is probably the best there has ever been, but I personally am less interested in this as my cellar has tons of wine in it for now. But there will likely be more people interested in this side of his writing than the industry info.

Jeff’s publishing format is Substack, which basically figured out how to monetize email newsletters in a simple, easy-to-manage way. There are a number of high-profile writers using Substack including Glenn Greenwald and Andrew Sullivan. At the moment, however, the number of wine writers utilizing the Substack format is relatively small with Jeff among the most prominent.

Is this the future for serious wine writers who blog? I can’t say. I can say that from this bloggers perspective it is a VERY, VERY attractive alternative. And it feels like as a movement goes, it’s still very early in the process of serious writers switching from giving it away to charging a small amount to subscribers. That’s also something that is VERY, VERY attractive to this wine blogger.

Yet, wine writing is very niche to begin with. Passionate though wine drinkers are and talkative and inquisitive though wine tradespeople may be, this realm of editorial content remains relatively small in comparison to so many other areas about which people dedicate their writing lives. For the wine blogger turned paid publisher, even of someone of Jeff Seigel’s caliber, things could end badly as easily as they turn out profitably.

That said, the upside of this kind of development is VERY, VERY, VERY attractive to this wine blogger.

 

Tags:


9 Responses

  1. Blake Gray - April 20, 2021

    As someone who has been giving away my content for free for years (AND having people who don’t pay a penny bitch about it), I’m rooting for Jeff. Gambatte, Jeff!

  2. Tom Wark - April 20, 2021

    It will be no surprise to you that I know exactly how you feel and I too and rooting for the Curmudgeon.

  3. Rusty Gaffney - April 20, 2021

    I began publishing the PinotFile at princeofpinot.com in 2002. The newsletter format went out every 1-2 weeks to email subscribers for free. I rode the popularity of Pinot Noir, and by 2008, I had over 50,000 followers. In 2008, I tried changing to a paid subscription model, offering the newsletter for what I thought was a reasonable $120 a year. I ended up with 200 subscribers. It just wasn’t worth it to me. Pressure to publish on a regular schedule, handling payments, cancellations, passwords, etc was a burden. I was retired and did not need another job. Also, I was writing for 200 people instead of 50,000 so my appeal to wineries and public relations people dwindled. After a year I abandoned the paid subscription model and have been highly successful and popular while enjoying the journey. I have been reimbursed in so many ways other than the money it has been well worth it, most importantly the opportunity to meet so many great people in the wine business, many of which have become friends, I have tasted Pinot Noir from practically every producer in California and Oregon, met many friends through my subscriber base, I attended every major Pinot Noir event as press with no entrance fee and often housing and some travel expenses. After 18+ years, I still publish the PinotFile but at my own pace and the cost to do so is reasonable.

  4. Tom Wark - April 20, 2021

    Russ,

    What a great story and in a way a cautionary tale in some ways. You nail the potential downside of switching to a subscription model after having given it a way. Thank yoiu for sharing that.

  5. Ray A Krause - April 20, 2021

    The original “Curmudgeon”, the late great Jerry D. Meade monetized his efforts by becoming a syndicated columnist (when there was still print).. Yet, most of his insight, advice, consultation and good ideas were given away at no charge.. Charlie and Earl probably did it best with their newsletter. and early rating system.

  6. Joe Roberts - April 20, 2021

    The interesting aspect of this type of model (though according to Jeff it doesn’t seem as applicable in his case when we chatted about this potential move months ago), is that for someone who regularly receives media samples it potentially creates a “captive audience” in the PR, wineries, and the like who send those samples. In order to get access to the resulting reviews of the products that they are promoting, those folks need to subscribe. And so along with the consolidation of truly engaged readership, it potentially means a fairly stable portion of subscriptions from within the wine industry itself.

  7. S.D. - April 21, 2021

    Just a quick clarification on your teeny, tiny mention of Wine Enthusiast: The website (Winemag.com)—including the reviews/ratings section—has not had a paywall for many, many moons, and offers all the content published in the print copy in addition to its own compelling lineup of stories.

    (That said, the print version is well-worth a subscription(!) or at least a flip through in line at the grocery.) 😉

    ANYWAY, thanks for sharing your compelling thoughts here, once again!

  8. Paul Moe - May 10, 2021

    I’m trying to figure out how you send kids to private school, buy a new car every year, and spend a few months in France with the family on $42k per year. What am I missing?

  9. Tom Wark - May 10, 2021

    Paul,

    A sugar daddy.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*