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Wine Bloggers Anonymous

"At last!," you say. Finally, a 12-step program to get me, them our yourself out of Zinfandel-stained pajamas, away from the keyboard and on to something more productive. Whatever that may be... Well, no. Wine Bloggers Anonymous is not a support group. It's simply a reality.

Despite the smiling pictures and optimistic bios on their blog sites, wine bloggers are largely ignored by the world around them. Tom Johnson posted an entertaining and informative article about the sad state of wine blogs today on PalattePress. He pointed out, among other things, that wine blogs are not only light years away from drawing the traffic that political and entertainment blogs get, they aren't even getting substantial attention from serious wine enthusiasts.

Tom suggests that wine bloggers could go a long way toward closing the gap, at least with the wine-drinking audience, if the bloggers stopped reviewing wine and started linking more with each other. There is value in these suggestions and even more in his analyses, but I don't think either action will move the needle substantially.

There seems to be a lot of negativity toward wine reviews these days, whether they be capsule reviews, one-liners with a score, or a full page of tasting notes. Part of this is still due to frustration over the dominance of, and excessive consumer focus on, scores from Robert Parker, The Wine Spectator, etc. Part of it is due to mounting frustration over descriptions of wine that are laden with adjectives yet fail to give readers a true sense of what the wine is like to drink. As Tom points out, there is also the reality that no blogger can ever hope to achieve the extensive range of reviews and that Robert Parker does, or even the level of the latest blogger-berating wine reviewer, Stephen Tanzer. Heck, Tanzer's dog probably sniffs more wine in a month than most bloggers do in three years. (Or so he would have you think.) So why bother with reviews in a blog. Here's why…

People want them. Perhaps wine experts don't want them. But, if bloggers concern themselves about what the wine intelligentsia want, then the blogs are going to continue talking to that same small audience. There is a reason well beyond volume and authoritativeness that Parker's site is popular and that his scores and others adorn the shelves of wine shops around the world. To quote Michael Brill of CrushPad in his recent interview on WineRadio.com, "Most people need to be told what to buy."

We may be horrified by that statement. We may bristle at the thought that someone knows our taste better than we do. And we may say, "Down with reviews, let the public decide!" But we are the minority and minorities are not "most people." Most people don't visit 100 wineries per year. Most people don't spend 5+ hours a day reading about wine, whether it be online or in print. Most people don't go to a half-dozen trade tastings every month. I could go on. The fact is, most people need to be told what to buy. There are too many choices out there and the typical consumer would rather put their money where an "experts" mouth is than gamble on their own intuition.

This desire to be told drives shop owners to clutter their shelves with tasting note cards, just as bookstores have best-seller racks and news shows announce which movies are grossing the most on any given weekend. People want to know what's popular with their peers and with critics. Reviews may not adequately characterize a wine. But they are something that a lot of people want and providing what people want is a way to increase web traffic. Dropping reviews may hurt, rather than help, readership. (On a side note, if people like Tanzer didn't feel that blog-based reviews had some draw and the potential to cut into their revenue by providing free wine commentary, then they probably wouldn't bother to take shots at bloggers.)

Cross-linking is a great idea and I'm all for it. However, the links will only be seen by people already reading blogs. Certainly, if some of the top bloggers decided to be more generous and link with a wider range of blogs, that would lead to increased traffic for the less known sites. Many of the "anonymous" sites have a lot to offer and exposing them to greater readership would be a benefit to wine enthusiasts. At the moment, some of the top blogs seem to link and comment only to each other. Whether that is out of expediency and the desire for efficiently driving traffic, a competitive spirit or simply a lack of awareness is unclear.

Frankly, I am not in a position to pontificate about what will drive blogs to higher levels. My own traffic isn't that high ("Yet," I add hopefully). But, I continue to think about the issue and try different things. As these things succeed, or don't, I'll be happy to share my experiences so that others can benefit. Or laugh.

Even with a very successful plan, the potential audience for wine blogs is fairly small though. As Adam Japko said in his comment on Tom Johnson's article, "You need to have an interest in wine beyond the average person to follow and consume this stuff." If the vast majority of wine sold is under $10 per 750ml and is consumed within 24 hours of purchase (both true), then the vast majority of purchases are not being made by people who care enough to read about wine on a monthly, let alone daily, basis. So long as we continue to blog only about wine, most of us are destined to remain wine bloggers anonymous.

This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2010 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.

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Comments   

Sonoma William
#1 Sonoma William 2010-03-18 22:32
Good article Fred. Getting a bit weary of the blogging deprecation, especially since its amongst ourselves; and we then expect the industry to take ourselves seriously? Go figure.

Wine Enthusiasts, who consume and care about more than the average $10 mass produced wine; are indeed a niche market. Do we think Wine Spectator or Robert Parker influence them either? No, so why do we insist in comparing people who write about a niche product to those of mass appeal.

Compared to a mainstream topic or website, Simple Hedonisms hits are small. For the defined, by intent smaller regional market it serves, and the limited time I have, I am very happy with it, and its continued upward growth. (50% this month over last.) ya...so no-one is reading blogs, social media doesn't matter...and oh ya - the earth is flat!

cheers!
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James Schmeling
#2 James Schmeling 2010-03-19 01:19
The problem with wine blogs is that they aren't often relevant to their intended audience. (Mine included.)

1. They often don't have meaningful search, comment, or other features most people expect on current sites.
2. Their database is often thin compared to others available - CellarTracker aggregates far more tasting notes, many retail sites feature multiple reviews from the pros, and the pro review sites have both expertise (real or perceived) and depth of review databases.
3. The reviews aren't reaching the audiences that could benefit most (local consumers thinking about buying a bottle locally, that night) because they aren't optimized to reach a local audience.
4. Wine review blogs often feature just wine reviews instead of meaningful connections to other topics as magazines and newsletter sites do. Those might be food and wine, articles about wineries, growers, regions, techniques, events, or others. They might be about local events, restaurants, wine stores, or wines you tried from any of those local places.

Nothing bad about wine blog reviews or reviewers, but until they become more than they are currently they're not likely to have success in commercial terms. Some are starting to get there. Others won't because that's not what they're trying to do. @jschmeling on Twitter.
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Fred Swan
#3 Fred Swan 2010-03-19 02:40
Excellent comments, guys. I think it really is important to write about what you're passionate about. If you do it well, you will eventually gain an audience. And, if one isn't looking to make money from the blog, doing something you enjoy and getting bit of positive feedback here or there is compensation enough. Though, as James points out, optimizing one's site to better serve the target audience would benefit the reader and increase traffic.
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