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Robert Parker's Advice to Wine Writers

Wine-critic-Robert-Parker-010Given the quantity of articles last week on Robert Parker’s appearance at The Symposium for Professional Wine Writers, and the length of this one as it stands, I’m not doing the compleat review I’d intended here. Instead, I’m focusing on his advice to wine writers, which was intended to be one of the primary benefits to us of his talk.

Though some disagree, I believe Parker thought the issue through and was genuinely trying to be helpful. Wine writer Elin McCoy, who wrote the 2005 biography of Parker, The Emperor of Wine: The Rise of Robert M. Parker, Jr. and the Reign of American Taste, also attended the conference and saw his appearance similarly, “What struck me first was his clear desire to reach out to this group of wine writers, certainly generous given his current health issues. – i.e. back surgery, and he has bad knees, too.”

In his opening remarks last week, Parker said, “In the time that I have here today, I’d like to share as much information as I have because I want to see all of you succeed. I came out of basically nowhere… and never dreamed of the kind of success I would have…. I have some ideas how I got there and I want other people to succeed.”

But then he added, “When I retire, I don’t want to see the wine writing profession just sort of dwindle away.” That led to open-mouthed gapes. Does he fear that, without him as shepherd, the huge flock of contemporary wine writers will lose focus and drift off into oblivion? To some writers, Robert Parker seems like one of those fathers who dispenses encouragement and sage advice, urges you to work hard and then pauses to remind you (again) that you’ll never be as good as he is. It can be maddening. But, perhaps, we are hearing what we expect, not what’s said.

Let’s look at his words again. He did not say “wine writing.” He said “the wine writing profession.” He’s not saying that we aren’t good writers. He said the opposite, “There’s a lot of good talent here. I think there are infinite possibilities to do something very, very special.”

He’s worried about the profession. “When I started in 1978, and looking around the room I think this makes me the premier geezer in the room [he and the room laugh], in 1978 when I started most magazines that dealt with any kind of lifestyle involving food had wine writers. I’ve seen a lot of those publications reduce their staffs. They’re under strict budgets and that’s unfortunate.” We have seen most all newspapers cut their paid wine columns too, and trim their culture sections overall.

How many professional wine writers today make a living based solely on that vocation? A survey at last year’s Symposium revealed that most of the attendees made less than $20,000 per year writing about wine. How many wine scribes make the kind of money through wine writing that Parker has? Probably none. Other areas of journalism are little better. This is what causes him trepidation, not our talent. He’s not demeaning our capabilities. He’s realistically appraising the state of paid journalism today. It’s abysmal.

Later, Parker hit on that topic in a different way. “The idea of giving content away makes no sense at all. People will always be willing to pay for independent expertise. In the overall blog world I see content that is derived from other sources, it may be good reading and attract a lot of hits but we’re talking about people willing to pay you for content.” I’ve heard wine writer and educator Karen MacNeil give this advice more bluntly, “Never do anything for free.”

Parker is not criticizing us as writers. He’s cautioning us, bloggers in particular, as business people and he’s correct to do so. Very few writers have the financial wherewithal and stubbornness to continue writing quality articles day after day, year after year, without compensation. And nobody has meaningfully monetized a personal wine blog. Meanwhile, the internet’s demand for new content every day almost guarantees a great many blog articles will be superficial, derivative or navel-gazing—not the kind of thing people will pay for.

Creating enough valuable, unique content to drive a profitable level of paid subscriptions, let alone ads, is hard. The niche isn’t big enough to support everyone that might want to do it either. But the market has already proved free wine content with an ad- or affinity sales-based model won’t support anyone at all. There is a good number of subscription-based content providers who have achieved at least modest success though. Some have done much better.

Parker suggests teaming up may be a way forward. “If you have a website, and there are some really good websites… there’s got to be real content, original content not derivative stuff… We’re talking about making money. People willing to pay you, $9.95, $20 or whatever for that content. You may have to do it with a group of people [to get enough content].”

The already successful sites and newsletters also reinforce something else Parker said. Despite complaints from many writers about the banality of wine reviews, people still want to read them. The majority of consumer-focused, subscription-based wine newsletters have wine reviews at their core. Even so, the market for paid wine newsletters in the United States is small and more likely to decline than improve.

There will never be another figure such as Parker in wine for the western world. “Today,” he said, “the internet sort of neutralizes things. It’s a reservoir almost.” The great ease with which wine writing can now be published and the broad access to it for consumers precludes that. Parker’s empire is being divided among many hundreds of writers and thousands of citizen reviewers.

This leads into Parker’s next point. "“The real growth market, and this is why I sold the majority of the Wine Advocate to guys in Singapore, is in Asia. There is no question about it, even though the economy in China has slowed a bit; it’s still booming.” There is virtually no credible, Chinese-language writing on wine, but many of the wealthy in Asia who can afford fine wine are comfortable with English.

“I really think the opportunity today,” Parker continued “is live-streamed video, high-quality video content… I think the future is in an educational wine video program that streams through all of the different Asian countries. If you do it as professionally as possible, and don’t charge too much for it, you’ll have success because the volume of people in these countries dying for education is enormous.”

I know this to be true. The number of applicants to the Wine & Spirits Education Trust for authorization and training to teach WSET curriculum throughout Asia is startling, as is attendance in the resulting classes. Some well-established western wine writers, such as Australia’s Jeremy Oliver, are spending more and more of their time in China serving this thirst for wine education. And Robert Parker, with his reconstructed back and aching knees, wouldn’t be embarking on a month-long trip to China were it not important.

We can laugh at stories about people in Asia mixing expensive Bordeaux with Coca-Cola, as I heard some writers do. Or we can let those folks pay us to help them enjoy the nuances of great wine, straight-up, no chaser. We can titter at the idea of doing videos from home while we write our pajama-clad, freelancing-butts off for fifty cents per word, or we can give Parker’s suggestions a shot.

Nobody in Parker’s audience at the symposium was a serious videographer but video, even mediocre video, will be more compelling to this audience, and many others, than the same content in writing. Jancis Robinson spoke to this when addressing bloggers in Virginia two years ago. She urged them to integrate video into their repertoire. She said it didn’t have to be sleek, if the information was solid and unique. Antonio Galloni has made videos a big component of his Vinous Media site.

In a post-symposium discussion, David White of the excellent Terroirist.com told me, “I think writers are still hoping for Parker to become the elder statesman he pretends he wants to be… We still revere him. Yet over and over again, he’s divisive and dismissive.” There were definitely moments of that in Parker’s session and they’ve been well-documented. However, his advice to us as professional writers was solid and well-intentioned.

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for wine news, information on events and more, or friend me on Facebook. This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2014. Robert Parker photo by Shahrar Azran/WireImage. All rights reserved.

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