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THURSDAY THORNS
01/19/2012
Thursday Thorns
Sommeliers Vs. Bloggers—The Battle To Replace Mr. Parker

By Charles Olken

A couple of years ago, it was the bloggers who were going to take over. Recently, the new word is that it will be the Sommeliers. I know the answer.

It will be none of the above. Wine journalism is going to evolve going forward, but there will always be plenty of room for expert opinion. The suggestion that the wine-drinking world is now so well-educated in this country that it no longer needs expert journalism is belied by the experiences in Europe where wine drinking is established and so are wine experts and where paid for publications continue to thrive.

My own view is that the newsletter as we know it—whether CGCW or Parker’s Wine Advocate—will evolve into something that is much more “electronic” with both written opinion by a staff of experts and lots of reader involvement. Something that crosses the divide between the so-called agglomeration sites like Snooth and Cellar Tracker and the newsletters. As for the glossy mags, it will be a long-time before we see the devolution of the Wine Spectator or the Wine Enthusiast. Those folks rely on advertising for their business model, and because they serve such a high-income, big-time consumption set of readers, they will be able to maintain themselves through their formulas of low subscription costs and ad revenues. And look out you bloggers and sommeliers and agglomeration sites because the financial health of the existing publications makes them the best bet to be the last man standing years from now.

What is less clear is how the Internet will evolve. Blogging is already different from what it was just a few short years ago. There may not have been a great falloff in the number of blogs, but there are cracks in the base caused by the lack of reward for all the hard work that goes into writing. Even those bloggers whose expertise platform is lacking (sorry for the snobbish note here, but it does take time to become professional at any trade or craft), and for whom blogging is a spare time, non-commercial event, don’t like putting thousands of words into the ether and not having much readership to show for it. A blog is not a personal diary. It is a piece of work offered to others. It takes time and effort. That is why the best-read blogs these days are written by professionals of one sort or another. Very few amateur blogs have taken hold. For every Vinography or 1WineDude that is succeeding, there are plenty who are not despite making big efforts.

And then there are the online journals like Palate Press and Zester Daily. Maybe one of them or one yet to be seen will evolve into a widely read journal that pays its own way comfortably through ad revenue and some level of subscription fee. So far, it has been very difficult for anyone but the established print journals to make the transition to electronic subscription revenues. With many of those publications run by sixties-somethings, there may be the makings of some form of opening for increased expert opinion online. It has yet to be seen, however. Will the coming of age of the Millenials make a difference? Everyone has an opinion about what those fairly active wine drinkers will do over time as they get older and wealthier, but they are yet to be a large force in the “pay for wine knowledge” area.

There are a few things about which I am quite clear. The battle for the minds of the winedrinkers is just now beginning to take shape. The blogosphere is going to change or it will become moribund. Expert opinion will always have a place, and some of it will be in traditional media like newspapers and magazines. Online distribution of information must and will, at some point, find a way to become monetized beyond the likes of the existing voices, but no one knows exactly what that form will be and whether it will be controlled by the existing voices or will be the product of someone whose work is so good, whose voice is so convincing, whose ability to put together a big enough mass of fungible information such that a new “publication” will arise. It is easy to imagine its shape. It is less easy to imagine that it will become the kind of force that arose in so many places in the ‘70s and ‘80s and continue today as mature businesses. Stay tuned but don’t hold your breath. The answer will not arrive any time soon.


 

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For thirty-five years, Connoisseurs’ Guide has been the authoritative voice of the California wine consumer. With readers in all fifty states and twenty foreign countries, the Guide is valued by wine lovers everywhere for its honesty and for it strong adherence to the principles of transparency, unbiased, hard-hitting opinions. Now, it is becoming the California winelover’s most powerful online voice as well. And, our new features provide an unmatched array of advice and information for aficionados of every stripe.

Comments

Sommeliers, bloggers, etc.
by Mike Dunne
Posted on:1/20/2012 8:58:45 AM

Spot on, Charles. While these are uncertain and frustrating times in wine communications, they also are exciting. All the exploration and debate going on about this and that voice and avenue ultimately will yield fresh and provocative perspectives, I'm confident. The weakness in much of today's wine commentary is the lack of reporting, which the more promising practitioners of the craft will come to recognize and correct, I'm hoping. My only quibble with what you say is with the comment that "a blog is not a personal diary." Often, it is, and that's fine; a diary can be smart as well as intimate. When you look at the history of wine commentary you will find several books that basically are diaries; colorful, insightful and entertaining diaries, to be sure, but diaries nonetheless.

Media Throwdown
by Kurt Burris
Posted on:1/20/2012 11:09:47 AM

Mike:  I'm with you.  I think Charles was spot on with his analysis.  And as any reader of Lewis's Newsfetch can attest, there is a lot of pretty unprofessional wine "reporting" (using the term very loosely) out there.  I do think there is a niche for regional reporting by some of the major retailers highlighting what is available where the reader lives.  It doesn't do me much good to fine out about the latest Bourdeaux container that a store in New Jersey got.  The hard part for the retailer is spending the resources to have content that isn't just a list of prices and maybe a rehash of the wineries PR blahblah.

The Unknown
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:1/20/2012 12:03:10 PM

Mike and Kurt--

One of the questions that concerns me most is the role of independent experts going forward. I expect the newsletter to die or to transition to something more akin to an online publication. But even then, there is no evidence that the next generation will pay the freight for them.

Ultimately, two kinds of publications, aside from free, might exist. One will be some online version of the Spectator, et all, with both reviews and reportage, and the other will be some kind of tightly focused journal whose readership may be small but keenly interestged and thus willing to pay. Burghound is a good example. Regional examples are also possible--something like Mike Dunne starting a Sacramento-based journal with a few thousand readers at most, paying about half what the newsletters now charge, and offering  buying guidance as well as insider info. But, this kind of local journal seems unlikely to be the sole support of its practitioner so it will either be the province of the hobbyist or of a wine professional with other income.

And of course, I am guessing.

Whoops....
by Samantha Dugan
Posted on:1/20/2012 12:05:59 PM

Looks like once again I've been doing it wrong. Never going to figure this blogging business out. I think much like food, music and movies, there are so many varied triggers that speak to people in different ways. I have readers that don't read STEVE! or The HoseMaster or even your blog Charlie and it's because they aren't looking for wine reporting, don't care about the industry or even know who Robert Parker is....just as I'm sure many, (likely most) of your readers would never read my emotional and personal...diary like drivel. Every time this subject comes up I end up saying the same damn thing, there needs to be as many voices to choose from as possible. That's the only way to reach more people and make wine accessable for them.

Just my 2 cents....

The Unknown
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:1/20/2012 12:28:06 PM

Sam--

The beauty of the Internet is that it allows voices like yours that would previously have found it impossible to find a home. I don't see that changing much. And it does not matter whether it is your approach or Brooklyn Wine Guy with his 1000 words per wine or The Wine Economist. Those kinds of volunteer voices will remain in play because their makers are not trying to be commercial in any way and because their visions are so unique.

Eventually, some of them will consolitdate into things that look like Palate Press, but many will simply not. It used to be that one had to stand on the corner on a soap bax to have an independent voice. The Internet is new the soapbox--and that won't change.

What we don't know is what, if anything dramatically new, will emerge as the new center of expert wine information. I am guessing that there will always be experts in wine just as there will always be movie reviewers.

My 2c
by NubianOR
Posted on:1/20/2012 9:12:27 PM

I am fairly new to the American wine scene.  I joined Twitter a while ago and have met some fantastic wine blogger tweeps.  They have interacted with me, helped me with my choices, teaching me about so many aspects of the wine that I wouldn't get with the top wine guru's.

I bought those wine magazines and was beyond intimidated.  I think new people to wine are going to gravitate towards the bloggers first.  Now finding those that know what they are talking about may be the challenge. :~)

 

Advice
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:1/21/2012 2:11:04 AM

There have long been avenues for volunteer advice, and the Internet has certainly enhanced the opportunities for such advice the amount of it.

It does not matter whether the topic is wine or laptops or gas grills. The expansion of volunteer advice has not done away with expert advice however. What we are seeing now is a discussion over the future direction of that advice be it in print, for sale or for little or no cost.

Some folks argue that the sommeliers will become the center of such advice. Retailers with strong websites suggest otherwise. Writers in traditional media expect to stay around and to maintain their importance--although they all readily admit that the Internet has changed their profession. Most of them now have blogs in addition to their "pay for" journals. I suspect that the folks with financial resources are going to be the winners in all this because they will find ways to sell the fungible data in one or many forms just as Connoisseurs' Guide does with its digitial platform, its printable journal and its books. While there is now no advertising on our site, may sites do take advertising as yet another income stream that supports their central businesses. See the Wine Spectator for the best example of that multiple revenue stream model.

Still, you are new to the local wine scene and your needs are being met by the volunteer sector. If you ever decide that there is a concern about "knowign what they are taliking about", you will likely turn to one or more parts of the professional sector. It has been ever thus--great information is fungible--meaning people are willing to pay for it.

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