Who gives a crap about wine bloggers?

Hooray for WBC
Hooray for WBC

 

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

Wine Bloggers in Action at WBC
Wine Bloggers in Action at WBC

 

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?

Apparently not.

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

MacNeil Quote

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.

Karen MacNeil keynote speaker at 2015 WBC
Karen MacNeil keynote speaker at 2015 WBC

 

Bad-ass bloggers

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.

Wine Folly the Essential Guide to Wine
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.

Custom bubbly for WBC
Cheers to wine bloggers

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.”

Lisa Mattson and Karen MacNeil
Lisa Mattson and Karen MacNiel

 

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 and Christine Havens
Michael Wangbickler and Christine Havens

 

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?

Related stories from the 2015 Wine Bloggers Conference:

 Disclosure: I was provided samples and was the Rodney Strong Scholarship which covered the costs of my participation in the 2015 Wine Bloggers Conference.

What are you drinking?

Cheers to wine bloggers
Cheers to wine bloggers

I’m Embarrassed to be Texan

I actively support the Texas wine industry as a consumer, in my marketing communications business and as a wine writer. We have fantastic wineries making delicious wine in Texas. However after visiting the Finger Lakes wine region in upstate New York for the 8th Annual Wine Bloggers Conference, I’m embarrassed to be a Texan.

I said it. I’m embarrassed to be a Texan.

Why? The Texas wine industry can’t hold a candle to New York.

Rainbow over Lake Seneca in the Finger Lakes wine region
Rainbow over Lake Seneca in the Finger Lakes wine region

 

Sure, Texas has excellent wines that win national and international awards. I’m confident Texas wines could go toe-to-toe with those from the Finger Lakes. It’s not about the quality of the wine.

Its all about the cohesion

It is about the cohesiveness of the industry. The Finger Lakes wine region has its stuff together. It’s more than a geographic region marked by 11 long, deep lakes gouged out of the earth by glaciers 10,000 years ago. It’s more than just an American Viticultural Area (AVA). It’s more than wine trails connecting the 129 wineries that grow cool climate vinifera grapes like Riesling and Cabernet Franc in Finger Lakes AVA (there are 428 wineries statewide). It is a tight knit community of wineries, farms, restaurants, tourism boards, chambers of commerce and businesses all with a shared mission of promoting the beautiful region as a top-notch wine and tourism destination. The biggest driver of this unity is the largest tourism board east of the Mississippi, the Finger Lakes Wine Country.

It’s working. The Finger Lakes wine region has been recognized as a “Top 10 Worldwide Wine Destination,” by Wine Enthusiast and a “Top Wine Destination in the U.S.,” by TripAdvisor.com. It also landed the challenge to host the 2015 Wine Bloggers Conference, a coveted marketing opportunity for any wine region looking to wine and dine around 270 wine writers. The folks of the Finger Lakes certainly made the most of that opportunity. They rolled out the red carpet for the bloggers.

A wine tourism board that works

The Finger Lakes Wine Country, founded in 2000, has a lot to do with that success. The group began conversations to bring the Wine Bloggers Conference to the Finger Lakes in 2011. That lobbying and the great press the region has enjoyed helped it win the RFP process to host the conference.

“It is a pretty big undertaking,” says Laury Ellen Poland, president of the Finger Lakes Wine Country Tourism Marketing Association. “There aren’t a whole lot of wine regions that have the infrastructure to support this kind of undertaking. It took all of our energy for more than a year.”

This whole concept of having a wine tourism board came about when Corning Enterprise, the economic development arm of Corning, commissioned a research study to determine the best ways to attract quality engineers and scientists to rural Upstate New York. The research firm determined the big draw is wine. Duh! I could have told them that.

Since then, four counties have signed on to support the Finger Lakes Wine Country by providing a portion of hotel room tax revenue. Private companies chip in too and Corning matches the public dollars. The group collaborates with organizations like Finger Lakes Wine Alliance and the New York wine and Grape Association for broader reach.

The Finger Lakes wine region screams community

Beyond the tourism board, everything about the Finger Lakes wine region screams community. Our first taste of this community during the conference was a tasty welcome dinner with dozens of restaurants and wineries hosted in a park in the middle of picturesque Corning, NY. That incredible level of hospitality was on also display with lovely receptions at the Rockwell Museum of Art and the Corning Museum of Glass.

Community was front and center in an excellent educational session put on by fruit crop physiologist Alan Lakso, a professor emeritus from Cornell University, who has researched grapes for 45 years, along with Fred Merwarth, owner, winemaker and vineyard manager of Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard and Master Sommelier, chef and winemaker Christopher Bates. These guys shared deep insight into the history, geology, climate, grapes and winemaking techniques. It was clear that academia, viticulture, winemaking, wine sales and culinary arts are inextricably linked in the Finger Lakes. How else could the region produce quality wines from an area with extreme weather, crazy variations in soil and short growing seasons?

Merwarth of Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard described the growing conditions saying, “Cold winters are a defining character. It can vary from minus 6 to minus 13 degrees Fahrenheit at the same time in the same winery. That kind of deep cold impacts vine health for up to 2 years. We don’t think of it as just a growing season. It’s a 12 month cycle.”

Master Sommelier, Bates, noted that the big challenge for the region is that it sells all of its wine to the millions of tourists that visit the areas each summer and the masses in New York City, a stone’s throw across the state. “If we’re not thinking about the future and real growth, people can be happy selling all the wine here. But we want our wine on a national stage. We need to get people excited about wine outside of New York. We have no interest in comparing our Riesling to the Riesling from Rheingau, Germany or our Cabernet Franc to what’s made in Loire, France. We make good Finger Lakes wine.”

Paul Scotto at sunset
Paul Scotto at sunset

 

Where the cohesiveness of the Finger Lakes wine community really shined was in the wineries visits that they arranged for the bloggers. These were incredibly well orchestrated to show off the interrelationships between the wineries, the interconnectivity between farmers, chefs, winemakers and the land itself. Each excursion along wine trails featured multiple wineries gathered in one location. We tasted fantastic wines from places like Glenora Wine Cellars, Zugibe Vineyards, Knapp Winery, Dr. Frank’s Wine Cellars, Fox Run Vineyards, Goose Watch Cellars, Wagner Vineyards Estate Winery and more. Can you imagine a Napa winery hosting other wineries on its property for group tastings? Would that happen in Bordeaux, Rioja, Mendoza, Barossa Valley or the Mosel? Well it happens in the Finger Lakes.

I’m not saying these people are nicer than Texans, but they sure can give us a run for our money.

What a treat to have a vegetable farmer, grain farmer, beef farmer, cheese maker, chef and winemaker describe what they grew, made and why they are great together. I was blown away by the camaraderie they shared not only with each other, but with those of us who were there eager to learn about it. Hospitality.

Texas isn’t ready

Texas, I don’t think you could pull off hosting the Wine Bloggers Conference. Yet. I don’t think you are ready. Texas has some great cities. It has some great wineries. It has some great wine trails. It has hospitality in spades. But, the Texas wine industry lacks the cohesion to really make it on the world stage. Maybe the state is just too dang big. After all, it is bigger than France. But, it is lacking a serious organizing body to unify the wine industry.

It can be done. It requires that a significant number of winery owners get on board. That’s tough. Established wineries may not feel the time and monetary investment is needed to advance their own business. That’s true in New York too, but they’ve gotten enough wineries on board to make it happen. It takes funding and that is definitely a challenge. The New York model of funding a concerted marketing campaign to promote economic development and regional tourism with a blend of private and public sector money may not work in exactly the same way in Texas. We may need state dollars to pull together our huge region.

Lake Seneca
Lake Seneca

 

It is worth the investment. The full economic impact of New York grapes, grape juice, and wine in 2012 was $4.8 billion in state and local taxes for New York State, according to a study conducted by Stonebridge Research Group for the New York Wine & Grape Foundation. This compares with a full economic impact of wine and wine grapes of $1.83 billion on the Texas economy in 2011 according to a study by Frank, Rimerman + Co. LLP commissioned by the Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association.

The words of Christopher Bates are ringing in my ears, “If we’re not thinking about the future and real growth, people can be happy selling all the wine here.” Does that sound familiar Texas? The 2016 Wine Bloggers Conference already has a home in Lodi, CA. What do you think Texas? Can we be ready to host in 2017? I know we can.

Related stories from the 2015 Wine Bloggers Conference:

Disclosure: I was provided with the Rodney Strong Scholarship which covered the costs of my participation in the 2015 Wine Bloggers Conference where this interview took place.

What are you drinking?