Wine bloggers are not journalists. They don’t abide by the same journalistic rigor or integrity as diploma carrying J-school grads. Tons of wine bloggers are mouth-breathers who can barely string together a coherent sentence. It’s surprising how little some bloggers actually know about wine. Wine bloggers just write to feed their egos or to get free wine or both.
At least that’s what I’ve been told by journalist friends, some winery owners and some PR people.
That is exactly the sentiment that UK based wine journalist and blogger, Jamie Goode expressed in his article, Wine media and the internet: are we drowning in a sea of mediocrity?. He said, “While there’s a lot of free, self-published content on the internet, much of it is of poor quality. The twin gate-keeping jobs of editors – hiring people who can actually write and then editing their work to improve it – was an important quality filter, and without it, there’s a lot of unreliable, mediocre material being published.”
I bet some of you think things like that about wine bloggers too.
Wine summer camp for a bunch of mediocre wannabe hacks
I’ll admit that that negative perception was lurking in the back of my mind when I set out to attend the 8th Annual Wine Bloggers Conference (WBC) in the Finger Lakes wine region in upstate New York in August. The Wine Bloggers Conference drew about 270 wine writers in search of tips to make them better at their craft. Was I heading to wine summer camp for a bunch of mediocre wannabe hacks?
It was evident right from the opening reception put on by the Finger Lakes Wine Country, the group that hosted the conference, takes wine bloggers very seriously. The time, effort and expense it put in to receptions, winery tours and parties was astounding. The organization bet a lot that wine bloggers have the reach and influence to help showcase the fantastic wine and food scene in the Finger Lakes wine region of Upstate NY.
Endlessly curious about wine
Conference organizers clearly take wine bloggers seriously too. They booked one of the most renowned wine writers in the world to give the opening keynote. Karen MacNeil, author of The Wine Bible, had a packed house of bloggers hanging on her every word during her talk, “Breaking In, Breaking out.” in the world of wine writing.
Here is a writer, who broke into the business in 1976 when the only prominent wine writers were five stuffy old men. No women. She succeeded in landing prominent positions at the New York Times, Town & Country, and as the first Food and Wine editor of USA Today through perseverance and determination.
MacNeil called on her rich experience to dole out valuable advice to the hungry audience. She takes bloggers seriously and had a serious message for us.
“The speed of blogging can influence more than a magazine because of its currency and energy.”
While blogging is about speed and currency, MacNeil says that is no excuse for not being a great writer.
She encouraged us to agonize over our writing saying, “Don’t be a serviceable writer, be a great writer.”
To be a great writer, it is essential that bloggers know wine deeply. MacNeil says, “The unspoken contract is that you’ll be a learner, endlessly curious. Don’t play fast and loose with the facts. Aim really big and master the subject. Wine is worth knowing.”
Was she reading my mind? This is exactly the advice that I wanted to hear. It was exactly the advice that I thought all of these other creeten wine bloggers really needed to take to heart. I immediately had a total crush on Ms. MacNeil. Swoon.
A wonderful thing happened at the conference. I met a lot of incredibly passionate, seriously talented, creative, smart and knowledgeable wine bloggers. The majority of the people I met ardently strive to live up to MacKeil’s recommendations; be a great writer and know wine deeply.
Knowing wine, beyond just how to drink it, is a priority for many wine bloggers. Several people in attendance have studied wine intently including several Certified Sommeliers, a handful of people pursuing the WSET Diploma and even several aspiring Masters of Wine.
Quality writing is of paramount importance to a large swath of the bloggers who attended. Several bloggers also write for mainstream publications and some are book authors, like Madeline Puckette, who just published Wine Folly; The Essential Guide to Wine.
When the 2015 Wine Blog Award Winners were introduced, any hint of trepidation I may have had about the quality of some fellow bloggers’ writing vanished. I suddenly was feeling down-right intimidated by how good these bloggers are. The eloquence of Chris Kassel’s Intoxicology Report dazzles me. The levity of Stub’s videos on Cork Envy amuses me. The insight of Becca Yeamans, The Academic Wino, intrigues me.
A couple more Wine Blog Award winners packed a big hotel ballroom with their talk on how to improve wine writing. It was SOR for W Blake Gray (2012 winner), The Gray Report, and Meg Houston Maker, Maker’s Table (2015 winner). The audience’s enthusiastic response and active participation in the session was another clear sign that this was a large group of wine bloggers who take their writing very seriously. Maker published her talk in its entirety in the blog post, “The Story Only You Can Tell: Advice to Wine Bloggers.”
After only a few sessions at the WBC, it was clear: these are not a bunch of mediocre wannabe hacks at wine summer camp.
Taking wine bloggers seriously
Not surprisingly several wineries and PR people recognize the importance of wine bloggers and make the trek to attend the Wine Bloggers Conference each year. (Yes, I am a PR and marketing guy who works with wineries, but I went as a blogger.)
Rodney Strong Vineyards has been involved as a sponsor of a WBC scholarship since the first conference in 2008, and funded the top scholarship this year. The winery sees this as an opportunity to support the writing community and increase its brand recognition. (Disclosure, I was the Rodney Strong scholarship recipient this year.)
Robert Larsen, the former head of communications at Rodney Strong and now at The Larsen Projekt, is pragmatic about the importance of bloggers.
“We started sponsoring the conference back then it was about supporting emerging wine writers. So many newspapers had cut wine writers, and there were fewer people to expose consumers to wine in a unique and interesting way. It’s a bummer that a big city like Chicago didn’t have its own wine writer at the Chicago Tribune. Who else locally can tell me about great wine and where to get it.”
Larsen explained that Rodney Strong’s involvement in the conference is a means to expand the winery’s relationship with writers who provide good content to consumers. The winery recognizes the reach of bloggers is expanding.
“Since the first WBC, so many bloggers have grown into national figures and have gotten great national writing gigs. It has given bloggers a voice to have fantastic experiences, learn about wine and share it. It’s also allowed people to develop into experts with speaking engagements and earn money from that or from big publications. The conference and blogging will continue to evolve. That’s why we stay involved.”
Other noteworthy wineries like Cornerstone Cellars and Jordan Vineyard & Winery recognize the value of supporting wine writers by sponsoring the WBC. Jordan been involved with the WBC since 2010, when it donated video services and created a blogger confessional area.
Lisa Mattson, director of marketing & communications at Jordan created a winery blog in 2009 that shares life in wine country and the stories behind its wine and culinary hospitality with videos and photos. It is a “takes one to know one” approach to wine blogger relations. “Being a part of the wine blogger community helps us learn how to be better bloggers, but also gives us an opportunity to build relationships with influential wine lovers like bloggers. Wine bloggers come from very diverse backgrounds across different age groups, and for an established brand like Jordan, staying connected with wine, food and travel bloggers gives us an opportunity to share the Jordan Winery of today–who we are, the seriousness of our wines and the fun we have doing what we love.”
One of the wine industry’s leading PR agencies, Balzac Communications and Marketing, has been involved in the WBC since the beginning. It sees the conference as a vital opportunity to make connections with wine writers that are an invaluable resource to the agency and its clients.
Michael Wangbickler, CEO and partner of Balzac, says, “We realized early on that blogging and social media would be important. Over the past decade, the wine blogging community has grown immensely… both in size and influence. Individually, most wine blogs don’t have huge audiences, but taken in aggregate they can move mountains. With the decreased quantity and influence of print outlets, online wine writing has become more and more important for wine consumers to find information about the subject they love. Wine bloggers have led that charge and continue to do so.”
Who gives a crap about wine bloggers?
Sure PR people and other bloggers thing wine bloggers are important, but do these bloggers actually reach wine drinkers? Probably. Increasingly people are get information about wine from the internet.
A recent study by Wine Opinions says that only 17 percent of millennials read traditional wine columnist and only 22 percent subscribe to a print wine magazine or newsletter. However, more than half of adults turn to the internet for the scoop on wine with 61 percent of boomers, 65 percent of Gen Xers and 50 percent of millennials.
That proclivity to turn to the web for info is leading lots of people to wine blogs. The UK-based online wine retailer, Exel Wines, recently published a list of the “Top 100 Most Influential Wine blogs of 2015” with a ranking based on empirical measures of online influence. Skimming the data of some of the top blogs shows that a lot of people are reading them and interacting with them on social media.
What is the verdict?
Blogs are relevant, but are they all worth the read? While there are many knowledgeable wine bloggers and dozens of well written sites, and hundreds of blogs that are very well read, not all wine blogs are created equal. Jamie Goode’s assertion that there is a lot of “unreliable, mediocre material being published” is still true.
Karen MacNeil has hope for wine blogging. She attended the WBC for the chance to interact with others who care as deeply about wine and wine culture as she does. In a post conference email exchange, she told me, “There’s a broad group of wine experts, wine writers and wine teachers coming up. I wanted to meet the ‘next set’ of exciting, knowledgeable wine people, and the Blogger’s Conference was one great way to do that.”
However, she sees wine blogging as a mixed bag, saying, “I met many people who I felt would go on to be great wine professionals; I also met some people who I thought weren’t very seriously committed to wine or writing…”
Yes, not all wine blogs are worth reading, but many are outstanding. The Wine Bloggers Conference is an excellent way to gather some of the best bloggers, encourage aspiring writers and provide the tools to help writers get better at their craft. I feel fortunate to have had the chance to attend the WBC to meet excellent bloggers and to be inspired to improve this blog.
What are your favorite wine blogs?