Damien Wilson on why wine bloggers are an endangered species

One of the great communication innovations assisting the wine sector’s recovery has been the birth of the wine blogger. Since wine blogging began, its role has evolved from being a publicly recorded journal by wine enthusiasts through to a buying guide and discussion platform for news and events in the wine sector.

In the early years of wine blogging, the blogger had to fight to be recognized as a credible and valuable member of the wine sector.

However, all began to change as the era of social media burst on to the commercial scene. With the hype surrounding social media platforms capturing the imagination of wine businesses, the status of celebrity fell onto wine bloggers.

Concurrently, the role of professional wine writers was put into question as wine column space decreased in the daily papers. Suddenly, the credibility and potential of a blogger’s loyal audience began to appeal to a sector where most producers only needed to capture a small, but accessible, segment of the market.

As wine bloggers began receiving samples, press trip invitations and welcomes to attend tasting events, wine businesses waited with interest for blog inches to create sales, and for droves of loyal customers to come knocking in search of their new favourite wine.

Thankfully, there are some examples of bloggers having achieved this aim, just as there are examples of wines and wine controversies having made a blogger’s popularity. This new relationship began in earnest, and was working well for a time.

However, the relationship began changing in recent years as wine bloggers proliferated, and wine businesses began querying the blogger’s value. Word started circulating on whether the publicity created by wine bloggers was worth the cost that wineries were paying.

Difficult balancing act

Wine producers have always struggled with the fine line between the expectation of a blogger’s contribution and the value of what bloggers expect in return. Freedom of speech is a blogger’s currency because they are supposed to bring independent views from an informed standpoint on the wine sector.

A blogger must thus remain independent from commercial appeals, and write for their audience. However, a blogger must also remember that the wine producer is looking to create awareness for their brand in the consumer’s mind. This should be why they approach specific bloggers. Thus, for wine businesses who recognise a consistency between a blogger’s preferences and the winery’s products, there is an opportunity to link the two for mutual benefit.

What has now come into question is how difficult it is for a producer to understand the independency and freedom of choice for a blogger.

As Réka Haros, who runs her own Italian Sfiro winery, explains: “If I invite a blogger to my winery, and after I have paid for all of the costs the blogger still thinks I am not worth a mention, it is his/her right to do so. It is also obvious that I, the producer, will never again pay a cent for his/her freedom to not write. I am sure they can still find something positive and interesting to write about, even if much of the experience was indifferent. As Sarah Abbott MW wrote in a comment on this topic recently ’it’s about the [blogger’s] intentions’.”

Reka Haros of Sfriso winery in Italy

Reka Haros of Sfriso winery in Italy

What surprises wine producers is that bloggers could think it is appropriate that producers accept their freedom to not write anything after having traveled and been accommodated at the producer’s expense. Remember that a producer does not have to agree with a blogger’s perspective. But to not write anything after receiving value in wine, time, restauration and accommodation is simply a one-way transaction. In other descriptions of commerce, a one-way transfer of value could also be called ‘theft’.

Most wine producers just don’t have the budget to spend annually to promote themselves. If they are barely making enough margin/bottle to buy a cappuccino, it doesn’t take Einstein to understand that paying for bloggers’ trips is a huge financial effort for most wineries. If the bloggers then in return write nothing, then they also don’t contribute any awareness about elements of their sector. And as I said at this week at Wine Vision, “the biggest challenge facing a wine producer is first convincing consumers that you exist”.

During the session I recently chaired on ‘Antiblogging’, at the Digital Wine Communicators Conference, it was suggested by each presenter that bloggers need to thus understand the influence they have (or could have) on their audience. Although the blogger may not know who, and how many readers end up buying the wines appearing on their blogs, it is not difficult to find out such information. Data such as viewer numbers, time spent on pages, repeat visits, and the number and length of comments made in response to each blog is freely available. Further, a blogger in touch with their readers would also know about readers’ preferences, opinions, and even behaviours. These are all tools to illustrate how much potential value a blogger can provide a wine business.

Bloggers have been courted by wine producers in recent years, under the auspice of their potential influence. But bloggers need to stay relevant just as any other professional in the sector, and producers are starting to question whether the wine blogger is, indeed, relevant.

Although bloggers are valued for their credibility and knowledge, if they aren’t also influential, they should not expect to receive gratuity for their principles.  It is just not enough to write or not write, based on a whim. Consumers/readers know the difference, and will follow the most informed, informative, and influential communicators over time.

Wineries are beginning to distinguish the difference, and are analysing closely as to where they should spend their few available euros.

* Dr Damien Wilson heads up the MSC in to wine business at Burgundy’s School of Wine and Spirits Business.


Readers' comments (13)

  • An endangered species or is their lifespan necessarily short?

    A blogger must have a writing style that attracts readers in the first place, but also have something interesting to say to sustain that interest.

    Or have an event to write about.

    Last week, I covered the BBC Food and Wine show for my own blog, Tierravino, and attracted 2500 hits across 3 days, doubling the months figures. But can this data be translated to show actual wine sales? Probably not.

    I completely understand Reka Haros dismay at the blogger who accepted her hospitality yet failed to cover her wines. Perhaps others will be able to learn from this experience and use a service level agreement before sponsoring others. I'd be more than happy to demonstrate my value for money, it's the world we live in, isn't it?

    Perhaps we can name and shame this blogger and allow the rest of us to get on with our somewhat one sided and utterly subjective witterings.

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  • Thank you Riaz for your comment. I like the way you approach this topic.
    I personally believe that we all have our good share and space within the industry. We all have our interests and nothing comes free, ever. As wine producers are expected to evolve, I honestly believe everyone else in the industry should too. It cannot be a one-way conversation or a one-way street, where bloggers set themselves apart for their principles. As communications have changed and developed, wine consumers are finding diverse ways of filtering information and are becoming independent, or disloyal, of single sources. Bloggers need to understand this and find alternative ways for staying relevant/influential. Therefore, to answer to your question, bloggers are an endangered group if they do not progress, just as every creature has to as science has shown us with the evolution of the species.
    Some of the bloggers’ reactions after the DWCC panel were constructive some were just unacceptable. At this point, I personally think that Wineries should also have their say to support a two-way conversation.

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  • "Bloggers" are likely not an endangered species, though the blog will soon be replaced by different forms of publication. Many of the better "bloggers," which is really just a different name for online writers, are affiliating themselves with online publications, from Palate Press (my own magazine) to Grape Collective. Others have carved out their own niche by blending the traditional "blog" with more active social media, such as Twitter. Joe Roberts, at 1WineDude, is a great example.

    The bottom line, though, is that "blogging" is just another way of publishing. Good writers will get a readership. To keep it, though, they have to be credible, and guaranteeing a quid pro quo for every trip or meal is not the way to get there.

    If a PR person or winery invites a writer, they are offering education, not a deal. It is their job, once the writer is there, to tell a story somebody wants to write.

    Finally, keep in mind that once in a while, a writer might not write something, not because he or she intends to take and not give back, but because what would be written might not be wonderful. Every wine is not worth 100 points, even if the winemaker bought lunch.

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  • Interesting read - I think it's a little more straightforward. Virtually no-one in "wine blogging" is making any money out of it, so what's all this winging arrogance from wine producers (I do understand their position though) who don't think they've got "good value" out of pampered bloggers. Or is there an assumption that most of us are well-off anyway (not untrue in quite a few cases although not mine) and do it just for the craic?
    Cheers, Richard.
    WineWriting.com & FrenchMediterraneanWine.com

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  • So, what I meant to add, is that, yes, we are an endangered species, as how can we make it pay if wine producers aren't prepared to put their hands in their pockets just a little bit? I'm also trying to sell full-length supplements off my blogs, but it's hard work trying to get consumers to pay for anything either, as online = free as far as most people are concerned, it seems.
    Ho hum.
    WineWriting.com & FrenchMediterraneanWine.com

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  • Great article Damien, and I really appreciated the intelligent, considered comments. I wonder whether good wine blogs can become the new de facto wine journalism. Wine lovers find their tribe, and gifted communicators will build influence from the community up, rather than editors down. I do think that no reputable salaried 'wine writer' would accept a paid press trip to a region or a winery that they are not either researching or intending to write about at some point. But wineries should also be clear that to sponsor a press/blogger trip is not to buy guaranteed positive and immediate content. But wine communicators are part of the sales cycle of wine. We're not talking about health insurance or mortgages here: anyone who is arsed enough about the wine they drink to read about it is thinking 'which wine for me', not 'shall I start drinking wine'.

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  • I think there ist a conflict for the polite writer to tell the truth, for he has been invited, and the fact that he wants to be honest and critical ,in order to be credible. I 'm sure, if you have a good look at a winery, the people, who invited you and the wine, you can allways find something worth mentioning positivly - this should be found in order to complete the deal!
    Those ones, that don't apreciate the winemakers work and the invitation, are probably, narrow minded, rude, ignorant, arrogant, too impulsive, or maybe just not capable of writing an interessting story and make only wine experts read a little between the lines, without destroying it all.
    I considers this to be a matter of manners and style, old fashioned, I'm afraid.

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  • One thing that I did not see mentioned here was the concept of the blogger's willingness to accept a trip to a certain region or producer with the a priori idea in his head to actually cover that producer or region in their blog.
    A blogger who has no interest in covering prosecco should not accept a trip to Valdobbiadene. If there is a passing interest, then maybe a little prior research and tasting should be done before accepting a trip.
    As a PR person in a winery we are always told not to spam press releases, to tailor our message and to know who we are communicating with in order to appeal to the type of subject matter the blogger is interested in, i.e. No need to send Steve Heimhoff samples of your Friulano because he only ever really writes about CA wine.
    So why would a blogger with no interest in Port accept any invitation to visit the Duoro?

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  • Interesting article, and I do see both sides. As someone who is playing with the idea of starting a personal blog, though I have been writing about wine for numerous years, I can understand the hesitancy of some bloggers to not write about a producer if they earnestly do not like the wines, do not subscribe to their philosophy, etc.

    I have seen enough cases where mini wars have started (and even contentious legal threats have ensued) all because the producer does not agree or appreciate what has been printed. I know of some full-time wine writers who prefer to avoid this issue by not publishing negative claims (even if everyone is technically allowed their opinion and producers even say so beforehand). Who could blame them?

    So as long as bloggers' aims are noble (i.e. not using a producer for a free-for-all and intending in advance to not publish), I feel that they have the choice to withhold an article if they feel that publishing a negative one could lead to undesired issues.

    Yes, one could write something "neutral", but there is always the concern that people will still view it as an endorsement. Plus, I imagine bloggers want to write about things that excite them or have a story they appreciate. If, in the end, a blogger does not feel this is the case, then being pressured to write one just because a producer paid for their dinner and opened some of their wines feels dishonest too.

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  • Dear David, Richard*2, Sarah, Gerhild, Wayne and Robin, Thank-you all for your comments. This discussion is important for all parties concerned. We need to do what we can to highlight the challenges being faced by the modern wine sector.

    The aim of this article was always to highlight the need for all to be accountable for the wine sector's recovery. That Réka and I have been able to increase the attention on this issue has a lot to do with the interest and support from you. Let's keep this going.

    The challenge in this discussion is that there's an on-going attempt by many contributors to advance their own personal opinion without considering that other opinions are worthy of consideration. It's fair to say that the topic is particularly charged. You only have to look at the comments, and commentary, from any number of wine writers on this to realise that some feel that their credibility is being questioned. For some, we are. But not the good writers!

    Just take a look at Steve Heimoff, or Tom Wark's posts on the issue to find a raft of wine writers clamouring to reinforce their integrity as beyond the influence of gifts and samples. I'm not even going to go into the argument on the psychology of gift-giving on the recipient. So, let's just put that argument to the side, and for the time being assume that the ethics of all wine writers are beyond reproach.

    The key message of this article is that producers strive to make themselves heard/seen/known about, and many rely on writers as a way create this awareness. No matter how you look at this issue, it costs the producers money to create publicity. I'm not going to get into the argument about what's right, appropriate, acceptable or the like regarding samples, gifts, travel, etc...Everyone has their opinion on the matter. But, what we all want is for wine producers to benefit from writers' skills, and for writers to be objective, productive and valued.

    The two parties to this model just have to find ways to work together, effectively. Let's say that both sides just need to respect the role of, and objectivity of, the other. If they spend more time working together effectively, we'll end up growing the wine market because we'll provide great wines, which are communicated to an audience that values and desires these wines. That's what we all want.

    The blogger is just one, modern version of a wine writer. Many of them provide enjoyable commentary on the wine sector, like Wine Folly; or drive excellent campaigns, like Jim's Loire; or offer great buying advice, like Vinography. What Réka and I wanted to convey in this article was that if you behave like the writers that Chris Kassel wrote about last week: http://intoxreport.com/2014/11/16/send-me-free-wine-but-only-stuff-i-like-youre-welcome/ then you'll begin to understand why wine producers are starting to ask questions about where they send their samples and spend their meagre budgets on communications.

    Wine producers have every right to be disappointed if they spend a heap of money on PR, samples, critics, etc... and nothing happens as a result. What no-one's mentioned yet is that such a result may be for any number of reasons: Poor planning, poor story, poor wines, poor match between the two parties could all be potential reasons. It's not always about the writer. Blamestorrming and plausible denial aren't going to help. So let's stop trying to take the moral high ground in this debate, which will only alienate and divide. If we take an approach to the discussion like many of you above, then we can figure out how we get all parties working together more effectively.

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