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.”

And it’s true that I’ve also taken a slightly jaundiced view of the current state of wine influencers.

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.

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17 Responses

  1. acv - May 5, 2021

    Lisse Garnett’s piece is awesome. I missed it. Thanks for pointing to it. In the sphere of Social media the “I’m offended by that” that has produced this shut up cancel culture feedback loop is sad…I looked on Twitter concerning Lisse’s piece. Wow. Did not take long for calls for her to be canceled.

    Harmlessness is the great ethos that we are all intended to buy into these days (see previous article thread). In politics and in everyone’s life the great aspiration is to show harmlessness. To live your life as a harmless individual. To harm nothing and no one. To say nothing with the language you use, to express no ideas, and to die having harmed nothing.
    And what is worse is we are asked to advertise our harmlessness. Lisse Gannett must have missed the memo. This criticism of Lisse Gannett’s piece and the criticism from Esther Mosby in re: the vinfluencers – is that if you are not with us, you are against us.

    They (the woke mob) require that you show the world each day this self-consciously harmless posture.

    Lost on the mob is that this is purely a form of narcissism – I know shockingly from a Millennial do tell? This constant need to project to the world your harmlessness is just another way of saying “love me.” It is a way of preceding through the world and in life in this cocoon of self-love showered by others. “Hey, everyone, look how harmless I am.” That is the height of narcissism and an extraordinary aspiration to be harmless in all manners and beings in life.

    Leave it to Esther to miss the elephant in the room.

    I have said I am not an anti-influencers. Yes, I’ve offered caution but I have also recognized their appeal and their market today in 2021. But when I am trying not to be so…. harmless….and I read people like Amber Lucas piece pulling out every victim card at her disposal. I am kind of an…. anti-influencer.

    “too grandiose appreciation for themselves” ……sums it up beautifully.

  2. NBK - May 9, 2021

    I followed the link to Amber Lucas’ article, “I’ve Supported the Wine Industry for Years. Why Won’t it Support Me?”, and didn’t need to read beyond the lede.

    She could try getting a job selling wine for a distributor or winery. Prove your worth and you can go far, no matter your race or gender, and there’s still plenty of free wine to drink.

    But it does require actual work.

  3. Bob Henry - May 10, 2021

    When I read comments such as this — independent of the subject matter discussed — my immediate reaction is: why not affix your name to the opinion?

    Rather than standing behind the identification sign-in? (In this case: “acv”)

    If you have an opinion, own it. Starting with your true identity, so others can judge if there is a hidden agenda?

    No “opinion” page or letters-to-the-editor section in a credible newspaper or magazine would run a comment anonymously.

    ~~ Bob

  4. Bob Henry - May 10, 2021

    When I read comments such as this — independent of the subject matter discussed — my immediate reaction is: why not affix your name to the opinion?

    Rather than standing behind the identification sign-in? (In this case: “NBK”)

    If you have an opinion, own it. Starting with your true identity, so others can judge if there is a hidden agenda?

    No “opinion” page or letters-to-the-editor section in a credible newspaper or magazine would run a comment anonymously.

    ~~ Bob

  5. acv - May 10, 2021

    Another guy from Los Angeles calling me out. Bob, did you ever work at Almor liquor? I think I know you….possibly educated you when I was in the shop. At any rate…I still call you a friend.. xoxoxo

  6. Bob Henry - May 10, 2021

    acv:

    Never worked at Almor liquor store. (I know it.) Never bought wines from the store. (The merchandise mix was not to my taste.)

    So no opportunity for you to take credit for schooling me.

    That goes to Robert Lawrence Balzer’s class. His wine column, and his Los Angeles Times wine columnist colleagues Nathan Chroman and Dan Berger.

    So acv, here’s your opportunity — again — to tell us YOUR name? YOUR bona fides?

    ~~ Bob

  7. NBK - May 10, 2021

    Well, Bob…I don’t see how suggesting someone get a job and some qualification in a world they aspire to could have some nefarious hidden agenda, but what the hell…

    Noel Kaplan, CSW, WSET III, ISGDip, multiple years working in the wine business in all tiers.

    Now show me yours.

  8. acv - May 10, 2021

    The fixation on my identity is precisely what is wrong with the left today. My identity – in this case, my group identity is paramount in your mind because immutable characteristics matter more to you than having to debate ideas. A personality trait from what I can tell you don’t lack.

    In fairness to the blog, W. Blake Grey had the one opportunity to learn my identity. His anger caught me by surprise, and I was more than willing to tell him my name if he wanted it. He never replied and then the avalanche came of “who are you?” …..followed, Frankly, I don’t need to be told “I’m not black enough. I am not truly gay. And my ideas of what it means to be trans are not reflective of the community I belong to.

    So, no Bob, I will not tell you, my name. I am sure I know you there would be next to no way I could not have run into you in Los Angeles or Woodland Hills or even the OC. I lived in LA from 99 to late 2014 and I worked in the wine business nearly the whole time.

    Should you care to tell me what perspective you feel I misspoke on I would be happy to educate you.

    Should you offer to open a bottle of Screaming Eagle with me to learn my name…I may be willing to reconsider

    xoxoxo

  9. Bob Henry - May 10, 2021

    Noel, we have never met.  I would have recognized such a distinctive name.

    Okay, at the risk of humble bragging, here are my bona fides:

    ~~ Silicon Valley business school grad with a degree in marketing.
    ~~ Ad agency trained (including service at Adweek’s “West Coast Ad Agency of the Year.”)
    ~~ Ad agency clients included Fortune 500 companies (e.g., General Electric, General Motors)
    ~~ Extensive work experience in retailing, distribution and manufacturing in luxury goods . . . in and outside of the wine industry.
    ~~ Co-founder of business start-ups whose collective “enterprise value” comfortably exceeds one billion dollars.
    ~~ National business awards (e.g., Inc. Magazine “Top 500 Fastest Growing Companies”) for entrepreneurial excellence.
    ~~ Nonprofit fundraiser who has raised millions of dollars for charities and academic institutions.
    ~~ And a “student of wine” for decades, whose drinking buddies at scores of wine industry trade tastings in Los Angeles are winery owners, winemakers, Masters of Wine, Master Sommeliers, wine writers, wine merchants, restaurateurs and highly accomplished private wine collectors.  (Some of whose wine cellars I organize.)
    I subscribe to the evidence-based management philosophy of Stanford University business and engineering school professors Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton, presented in their book titled “Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths, and Total Nonsense.”

    Worth reading.  Again and again.

    URL: https://www.gsb.stanford.edu/faculty-research/books/hard-facts-dangerous-half-truths

  10. Bob Henry - May 10, 2021

    acv:

    “Funny” that you should assume I am “left” leaning.

    Not “left” or “right” leaning.

    I am a middle-of-the-road pragmatist. And non-partisan. (At 18 I registered to vote without declaring any party affiliation. ‘Cause no political party can encompass my world view. Still true to this day.)

    You write:

    “Should you care to tell me what perspective you feel I misspoke on I would be happy to educate you.”

    I am reminded of this observation from Daniel Patrick Moynihan:

    “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”

    Own your opinion about Millennials and various mindsets by PUTTING YOUR NAME TO IT.

    Don’t hide in the shadows.

    ~~ Bob

  11. acv - May 11, 2021

    Bona fides

    • High school educated.
    • The “Co-founder of business start-ups whose collective “enterprise value” comfortably exceeds one billion dollars.” …want to know my name.

    You do not care who I am… more perniciously you care what I represent.

    I did try googling your name yesterday along with the search result for Rudy Kuwarian to see if there was a connection. I only meet Rudy twice (that I recall) but after seeing you were an original member of the Screaming Eagle mailing list, I thought maybe you hung out with Rudy.

    You organize cellars, huh? Did you do organize David Geffen’s cellar? I was quite impressed with his cellar. I saw it once but that was enough. Gay men always have superb taste.

    I am all conservative. Big Fan of Douglas Murray and Dave Rubin….and Milo Yiannopoulos.

    I do not know what issue you have with anyone’s post. You seem to be interested in knowing names than engaging in debate. That is odd but whatever. Perhaps once you know I am a transphobic midget you feel you can l gleam an insight into my soul.

    Daniel was a great NY senator. Here are some other good quotes from the once upon a time principled left. Miss those days. I particularly love the 1st quote.

    Daniel Patrick Moynihan quotes

    “The issue of race could benefit from a period of benign neglect.”

    “The liberal left can be as rigid and destructive as any force in American life.”

  12. Bob Henry - May 12, 2021

    acv:

    Against my better judgment, I will respond to your reply.

    Screaming Eagle owner Jean Philips “gifted” me with a bottle of the inaugural vintage for my single-blind comparison tasting of 1992 California Cab and Cab blend releases, held at the Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles.

    “Spoiler alert”: the 1992 Screaming Eagle blew away the competition. The greatest young California Cabernet I have ever tasted.

    And Jean graciously (without my lobbying) put me on the mailing list for the 1993 vintage release and beyond.

    I remained on the list for the next decade, so that I would have a bottle for my annual new vintage single-blind tastings of California’s “cult” Cabs and Cab blends.

    Rudy Kurniawan was a patron of mine at a (now defunct) Pasadena wine store’s wine bar. He lived nearby and hung out on weekends.

    He joined many of my (more than 100 by count) organized sit-down “theme” winetasting luncheons in town — before his criminal deeds. (He never asked to take home any empty bottles as “mementos.”)

    Rudy left my wine group and moved on to more elite wine circles in town and in New York.

    I have no first-hand or anecdotal knowledge of David Geffen and his wine collecting proclivities.

    My most “illustrious” wine cellar client was the anonymous collector in town who purchased Sir Alfred Hitchcock’s complete cellar upon the director’s passing circa 1983. Deemed one of the finest collections in the world. Even after all these decades, the current owner has hardly made a dent in it — that is how voluminous the collection is. (It was like working in one of the world’s greatest wine museum.)

    (Purportedly, Hitchcock agreed to host his eponymous broadcast television show
    as a way to quickly pay off his sizable debt to wine merchants for his cellar purchases.)

    My largest wine cellar client owned over 12,000 bottles — and augmented it by over 100 new purchases each week. A daunting challenge for one person — me, working alone — to keep up with, so I turned the project over to a friendly competitor in town. (Who subsequently hired three subordinates to assist him in transferring and organizing the inventory in a larger wine locker facility in town — a task that took the four of them almost half a year.)

    I ask to know WHO I am crossing swords with in any “debate” because agendas matter.

    And that is why no credible newspaper or magazine will run a letter-to-the-editor or guest editorial on the “opinion” page from a reader without securing — and publishing — that identification.

    That’s the “issue” of have with your or anyone else’s post.

    When I post a comment, I own it. Nothing ever “anonymous.”

    Your professed heroes Douglas Murray and Dave Rubin and Milo Yiannopoulos don’t seem to have any reluctance to publicly profess their beliefs.

    “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery . . .”

    Have the courage of your convictions and publicly stand behind them.

    So acv . . . what’s holding YOU back?

    ~~ Bob

  13. Blake Gray - May 18, 2021

    I don’t want to get into this debate, but I am amused that Batman nearly revealed his secret identity to me but I wasn’t interested. Close one there, acv! Your mask was nearly whipped off in front of all of Gotham City!

    I still don’t give a shit who you are. Sorry. Bob has this one right: it’s not worth discussing anything of value with people who hide behind anonymity.

  14. Bob Henry - May 25, 2021

    Hey acv:

    You can pass along this news to anyone you’ve “schooled” on wine in Los Angeles:

    https://www.ziprecruiter.com/jobs/almor-wine-spirits-090025e7/driver-stock-retail-wine-spirits-store-c7c9ea2a?enc_campaign_id=dc30ea3e&tsid=122003430

    Just sayin’ . . .

    (Mic drop)

  15. acv - May 25, 2021

    I get it. It is easier to question who I am than to do the hard work necessary to debate.

    Tom’s article is worth exploring, nonetheless. Namely, how do we balance the value of social media as an outreach tool for engaging new consumers with some of the shallowness and toxicity that comes with it? Further, when you attempt to discuss the merits of the medium and suddenly you find yourself wrapped into a debate on whether your views are sexist and misogynistic…then we have a second front opened. Sadly.

    Bob and Blake are identitarians. Group identity is how they judge people. Intersectionality divides these groups up even further in their worldview. And of course, anything that happens to you in their opinion is the result of outside influences as a rule and generally can be summed up as one group oppressing another.

    I too take an intersectionality approach to identity politics. You might say I have and Judeo-Christian approach to looking at identity politics…. and when I drill down to my groups (one intersection after another) I don’t stop until I get to the individual.

    Hard work matters. It is the primary factor that separates us. Hard work, not the color of our skin or gender we are born with…. or the sexuality we adhere to. What separates Tom’s wine blog from other wine bloggers? Hard work

    I do not claim to have this amazing memory for quotes. I wish I did. But Pogo’s quote is committed to memory. “I’ve seen the enemy and he is us.”

    Amber Lucas and Georgie Fenn should take note….. they seem to want “Everything handed to them on a silver platter?” Okay, ….one platitude too many.

  16. Bob Henry - May 25, 2021

    I invite anyone with the requisite critical thinking skills to go back and re-read my comments.

    Not once did I engage in ad hominem or other attacks of acv’s expressed (or imputed) philosophy or world view politics.

    The reason: I don’t KNOW what they are.

    So — as a champion of Stanford University business and engineering school professors Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton’s book “Hard Facts” — I made and continue to make no assumptions. Await any evidence, if presented.

    My challenge to acv was simple: if you have an opinion, express it with your name attached to it.

    Don’t hide behind anonymity.

    ~~ Bob

    (There will be a follow-up note to the above. I simply need to “tee it up.”)

  17. Bob Henry - May 25, 2021

    This weekend’s Wall Street Journal published an essay by a university math professor celebrating Abraham Lincoln’s masterful rhetorical skills. And excerpts of this essay lend themselves to this spirited debate on Tom’s blog.

    From The Wall Street Journal “Review” Section
    (May 22-23, 2021, Page C3):

    “What Honest Abe Learned from Geometry”

    Subheadline: “For today’s students as for Abraham Lincoln, geometrical proofs offer a gold standard for integrity and clear thinking.”

    URL: https://www.wsj.com/articles/what-honest-abe-learned-from-geometry-11621656062

    By Jordan Ellenberg
    Professor of Mathematics at the University of Wisconsin

    In 1865, the Reverend J.P. Gulliver asked Abraham Lincoln how he came to acquire his famous rhetorical skill. The President gave an unusual response:

    “In the course of my law-reading I constantly came upon the word ‘demonstrate.’ I thought, at first, that I understood its meaning, but soon became satisfied that I did not…. At last I said, ‘Lincoln, you can never make a lawyer if you do not understand what demonstrate means’; and I left my situation in Springfield, went home to my father’s house, and stayed there till I could give any propositions in the six books of Euclid at sight.”

    Not the Constitution, not scripture, but geometry — that’s where Lincoln went when he needed to learn to persuade.  . . .

    . . . Abraham Lincoln[‘s] . . . interest in Euclid arose, as he told Rev. Gulliver, because he needed to know what “proof” was. What distinguished Lincoln as a thinker, his friend and fellow lawyer Henry Clay Whitney recalled, wasn’t his brilliance; lots of people in public life are smart, and among them one finds both the good and the bad. What made Lincoln special was integrity, his belief that you should not say something unless you have demonstrated that it is right. Whitney writes: “It was morally impossible for Lincoln to argue dishonestly; he could no more do it than he could steal; it was the same thing to him in essence, to despoil a man of his property by larceny, or by illogical or flagitious reasoning.”

    In Euclid, Lincoln found a language in which it’s very hard to dissimulate, cheat or dodge the question. Geometry is a form of honesty.

    The ultimate reason for young people to learn how to write a proof is that the world is full of bad logic, and we need to know the difference. Geometry teaches us to be skeptical when someone says they’re “just being logical.” If they are talking about an economic policy, or a cultural figure whose behavior they deplore, or a concession they want you to make in a relationship, rather than a congruence of triangles, they aren’t just being logical. They want you to mistake an assertively expressed chain of opinions for proof of a theorem.

    Knowing geometry protects you: Once you’ve experienced the sharp click of an honest-to-goodness proof, you’ll never fall for this trick again. Tell your “logical” opponent to go square a circle.

    (“Spoiler alert:: As professor Ellenberg states in a section of his essay not excerpted here, squaring a circle “was [mathematically] proved to be impossible in 1882.”)


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