Put-Upon, Underpaid, Disparaged, Victims—The Life of Wine Influencers
Are wine influencers mining the depths and potential of Instagram really just put-upon, underpaid, disparaged journalists working in a new medium that the sexist wine industry is too male and too old to understand or appreciate?
As usual, the San Francisco Chronicle’s Esther Mobley provides some fascinating insight into her subject matter, this time looking at “wine influencers” and doing a good job of letting them tell their story without too much interruption. Unfortunately, in “Instagram’s wine influencers started thriving during the pandemic. Their rise has prompted sexist backlash”, those “influencers” come off a tad, well…winey.
It’s true that some in the wine industry have been less than enthusiastic about the methods used by and utility of the Wine Influencers. As Mobley relates in her article:
Recently, several critics of these “vinfluencers” have been blunt: They’re “wannabes” practicing a form of “nauseating self-aggrandizement,” according to writer James Lawrence. Many of them are fraudsters and cheats, blogger Jamie Goode asserts. In the Spectator, Lisse Garnett argues it’s hard to take their commentary seriously because of their “overly staged sex appeal.”
The pushback hasn’t been as sharp or intense as Mobley suggests. But it’s there in the same way it was there for “wine bloggers” when they started to emerge around the mid-oughts. The claim too that the criticism of “vinfluencers” is grounded in sexism or misogyny is light on evidence. Mobley writes:
The wave of disparagement has exposed some disturbingly sexist dynamics that have long existed in wine. The contempt for influencers — at least one of whom displayed an image with a “nipple poke,” as Garnett puts it — feels particularly ironic coming within an industry where women sommeliers report that customers repeatedly sexualize them. Women have accused leaders in the country’s leading sommelier organization of misconduct; in Sonoma County, a winery owner has recently been accused of sexually abusing five women….All of the wine influencers I spoke with sounded a similar sentiment. They were disappointed, but not remotely surprised, by the unkind words, given the overwhelmingly older, male nature of the wine-industry establishment.
It’s simply too easy and lazy to argue that criticism of Influencers is based on sexism, as Mobley’s subjects imply. It might be that some of the criticism is based on the fact that so many wine influencers really overestimate their contribution to the wine world and maybe they demand more than they deserve.
One influencer that Mobley profiles is Amber Lucas. Lucas lives in Sonoma County and communicates with her 12,000 follower audience through a series of attractive, breezy-looking, self-reverential images and posts. But Ms. Lucas, who last year took the industry to task for not supporting her to the degree she’d have liked in her efforts to draw attention to racial issues and implied the industry is just full of folks that don’t care about her or social justice, is having some problems engaging with wineries and getting them to pay her. It’s frustrating for her:
Part of the issue, as Lucas sees it, is that wineries aren’t used to paying for media coverage. That’s frustrating to her, because unlike a freelance magazine writer, she’s not getting paid by the platform that publishes her work. And she believes she brings more to the table than just writing a favorable review of a wine. On top of that, behind the scenes, she has to be her own bookkeeper, website programmer and agent.
A lot of writers and others in the wine industry are likely to take issue with Ms. Lucas’s conflation of advertising (which is what she does) and “media coverage”—which is what writers, reporters and journalists do. Additionally, she wants us to know that in addition to being misunderstood, she is forced to do her own bookkeeping, website maintenance and marketing. These are things, however, that those who have been delivering real media coverage for years as freelancers have always had to do themselves.
There appears to be some confusion among influencers. Some see themselves as media in the same way that Jeb Dunnick or Robert Parker or Jancis Robinson are media. But of course, they are not. They are advertising vehicles. They are pay-for-play. This is not to disparage them in any way. Pay-for-play is a longstanding and noble enterprise that many a company uses to help market their product. But let’s not confuse them with journalists or really even educators.
So, of course, where Influencers are concerned, the question of authenticity raises its head. Notably, Mobley addresses this issue in the article. One Influencer she highlights is Napa-based Paige Comrie, who has a whopping 26,000 followers. Comrie insists that her advertising with wineries is always with those with whom she has an interest:
Influencers love to say that they only work with brands they actually stand behind, and Comrie thinks her followers believe that of her. “If it’s a paid partnership, I try to disclose that within the first two sentences,” she says. “But since it’s always a brand I am personally interested in, it’s still going to come across as authentic.” Admittedly, this requires a shift in our understanding of what “authenticity” means. That may help explain why so much of the wine-industry establishment has been slow to warm to wine influencers.
I’m not sure, as Mobley suggests, that it REQUIRES we shift our understanding of what “authenticity” means. I think it might mean that we come to influencers with the assumption that their work does not necessarily equate to authenticity. Perhaps they’ll prove us wrong. Personally, I’m going to stick with my previous understanding of “authentic”.
Because Influencers are, in the end, simply advertising vehicles, the question that really needs to be answered is can a winery or retailer or other wine-related company successfully use Influencers to increase sales. Mobley, aware of the limitations that wine as a product imposes upon Influencers and the Influence marketplace, concludes that “All this means that when wineries engage in paid partnerships with Instagram influencers, they can’t expect that it will directly result in bottle sales.” — OUCH.
Toward the end of the article, Mobley suggests that the partnership struck between influencers and wineries may not be that equitable given that payment often comes in the form of wine or only a few hundred dollars. This seems highly unlikely. Given, as Mobley points out, that wineries can’t expect Influencer engagement will directly result in bottle sales, it’s not surprising that a 12,000-follower Influencers walks away with only enough money for some new apparel, nor does it seem inequitable.
In the end, Wine Influencers are here to stay, like them or not. Most will accomplish little in the way of income-generation while producing some lovely photos. Some will succeed in making more money as advertising vehicles. And I think that’s great.
What I don’t think is great or sensible or reasonable, is the claim that those that criticize Influencers—particularly female influencers—are operating from a place of sexism or misogyny. It’s possible to honestly be critical of an Influencer for any number of things without coming from a sexist place. Lord knows, wine writers come in for criticism and deal with it without resorting to claims of misogyny, misandry, racism, ageism, homophobia or oakaphobia. One might take issue with a lack of wine knowledge or with a communication style that borders on inane or for having a too grandiose appreciation for themselves or for pretending they are promoting wine and wine education and wine lifestyle when instead they are really just smiling for the camera in a really dope chapeau with a sexy smile attached. All these criticisms are possible without them being sexist.