The ill-health of wine writing

happiness map

It’s not been a great year for wine writing. Several fellow writers have lost their newspaper columns and regular gigs. It has been particularly tough for those who rely solely on writing for their living; for many like me who have had quite a good year, it has been the lecturing, judging, consulting, presenting and other communication-related activities that has made the difference.

The big problem is the continued flight of advertising money away from professionally generated content (newspapers, magazines) onto platforms where the content is user generated (facebook, twitter, google). There’s no money left to pay writers.

Is it a tragedy? No one owes me a living. If the market isn’t there for the service I provide, then shouldn’t I just go and get a new job?

It’s just that, now, it’s the good ones who are losing their regular gigs. Talented writers who are doing the right thing.

The wine trade needs to consider who it wants to do the necessary communication about wine. At the moment, there remain some good wine writers without commercial conflicts of interest who talk about interesting wines and want to help the good guys to win.

Increasingly, there is a blurring of boundaries, and the communicators who survive are part of media organizations who increasingly look to producers to make money; who promise content to producers who pay to play, albeit indirectly. Where content is directed towards regions and organizations who have budget. Who run events where both consumers and producers pay to participate.

There are relatively few independent voices left. If those in the wine trade who have budget are smart, they will support the sort of people they’d like to do the communication. Traditionally, this has been the case. But if there’s an oversupply of good communicators then the temptation is to get people to work for free.

Of course, it’s fine to work for free, and I occasionally do gigs for people with zero budget who really need help. But normally I turn down these gigs, and fortunately there are others who do pay.

But then there are emails like this, which I received yesterday:

‘During the day we are planning to do four 45 minute masterclasses and we are looking for some experienced and knowledgeable people to moderate them. At a recent meeting it was decided that we would not pay anyone to participate in the masterclasses, but we would be happy to send you a fantastic 6 pack of top XXXX wine’

It’s like wine retail. As consumers, we get the wine shops we deserve. If we are always looking to save £1 od £2 on a bottle of wine, going to the cheapest source, then we’ll lose retailers who have good customer service and a carefully curated list. If those in the wine trade are looking to get freelancers to work for free, then they’ll lose the good ones.

In the meantime, my job is to work hard and make myself indispensable. I have to do such a good job that I’m in demand and there are enough paying gigs to make a living. But I also have to encourage those with budget to do the right thing and support good writers. Otherwise in desperation these writers will end up having to compromise and conflict their interests, or else they’ll just leave wine communication altogether. And wine needs good, impartial communicators. There are stories that need telling.

18 comments to The ill-health of wine writing

  • Vitor Bento

    Dear Jammie
    I totally agree with you. Writing freely about wine is something that a curious person like me who is eager to learn, really needs. Paying a service with cases of wine, is a very dangerous path. I can’t imagine flying my aircraft and then be paid in “goods”. When I want a particular bottle of wine, I go to a shop and buy it (if I can afford it). You are RIGHT. Hope that you can keep writing and being justly paid for a very long time.
    Vitor Bento
    Porto, Portugal

  • John Szabo

    Hmm. Are they a charitable organization? If not, I’d treat them with as much regard and respect as they treat you, which is to say, with none – that’s a pretty simple immediate delete for that offensive email. Do they think that knowledge and experience is acquired at no cost or effort? Who’s benefiting from these masterclasses and your experience? Staggering to think that such ignorance and disregard exists, and indeed is proliferating. I’m sure someone will do it for some free wine – so let them get what they pay for.

  • At WineAlign we’ve experienced first hand the dramatic drop in advertising revenue of almost 40% in 2016 vs 2015 despite that fact that we continue to set records in visitors. The traditional model of publishing quality articles supported by passive ads is dying a rapid death. Most advertisers are now looking to create ‘sponsored’ content which goes to the heart of journalistic integrity. Furthermore, most wine advertising budgets are to support large consumer brands which generally don’t far well with the objective wine media, putting further pressure on the bottom line. To make matters worse, the mindset of millennials (and others) is that EVERYTHING on the Internet should be ‘free’ so the appetite for quality content supported by paywalls is limited.

    Wine media isn’t alone in facing this dilemma, all quality publications trying to produce well-researched articles backed by solid journalism are struggling. I don’t think anyone has figured out the answer yet.

  • We are always looking to hire writers at GuildSomm. Our challenge is that as these jobs have decreased, so seemingly has the pool of experienced writers who will do the hard work and be able to write with an experienced perspective that doesn’t resort to trend-spotting or self aggrandizement. (I used you as a positive counterexample in my recent podcast with Jancis.)

    Our audience are wine professionals, but those looking to reach a serious audience with top quality writing, send us ideas! Our content ranges from 1500 word free articles to 15,000 word expanded guides on individual topics for our members.

    I’m not saying we are a solution to industry wine trends, but we are looking to support those who can write on a topic at a top level.

  • Is it possible that the perceived mystique surrounding wine is preventing reader engagement and investment? As an aspiring wine writer, I have had many conversations with people who are interested in wine, but who don’t trust themselves enough to actually say what they like. Instead, they feel shamed by points and only safe to express their opinion when they know that it is agreeable to the “expert.” Wine is full of small distinctions and for most people, it is difficult to tell the difference between critical though and paid content. And this phenomenon is not unique to wine journalism. How to address the problem is proving vexing not only to independent wine writers, but to creative-types the world over. It is my hope that just having a dialogue about it will highlight the need for more investment on the part of readers the world over. But in the meantime, those with passion will continue to work for free and hope that their contributions make a difference.

  • Jake

    Whilst there maybe good writers. They are not on the right platform. Content is king but attention in vital. Advertising follows attention.

  • Gian Luca Garattoni

    It’s really saddening, but let’s separate the small retailer’s crisis from the writing’s. In my opinion the first is largely due to governments fiscal policies which are intransigent with small business while allowing corporates all kinds of possibilities for a substantial tax reduction. As far as writing is concerned I can tell my own reader’s point of view.The consumer nowadays likes to make his/her own discoveries, what he’s looking for is something that stimulates his fantasy and curiosity not detailed descriptions made in a detached way with points and so on. I’m a baby boomer not a millennial and I honestly think that children are better than their fathers but we all should try to communicate in a way they can understand, after all the client is always right. Social media are pretty much targeting emotions while the traditional ones are still largely aimed at rationality. When it comes to pleasure such as wine drinking emotions are the driving force of human mind.

  • I would have preferred to see “help the good guys succeed” instead of help the good guys win.”

  • This is so true. I have seen the worst writing get the best regard and the best writing goes ignored or unfollowed. Wine writing has become less about great and well written content that has value and is enjoyable to read and it has turned into a big macho shitstorm of a contest on who tasted this rare thing first, boring and inflated tasting notes to let the reader know that the author knows some adjectives, and has moved on to narcissistic self promotion and moved away from actual community building.
    At the end of the day, the writing still has to be good. Maybe in this age of social media people don’t care about poetry and not wasting words. I am glad that people like Jaime Goode, Andrew Jefford Alice Feiring Panos Kakaviatos Cathy Huyghe and Simon Woolf are still writing. I mean they are writers. We need more of them. (And I know there are more of you, these are just at the top of my head)
    Also, another point here: Pay for good writing! Too many terrible writers are working for free for their narcissistic self promotion and we are losing a great chance to read the great writers!

  • I am totally shocked that you received this type of email. Your contribution to the professional and international wine community is staggering as well as your incredible ability to demystify the intricacies of the science of wine. This type of email would only be acceptable if it was for your favourite charity event and nobody at all was getting paid – ie. including the organising staff, the printers, hotel, caterers etc. Otherwise sadly these people are completely ignorant, and whilst it´s tempting to just press the delete button, I think I would choose to enlighten them about your fees for your time and your travel – you will be doing them a great favour! Good wine journalism needs to be nourished and protected and must never revert to selling your soul on the cheap.

  • David Greer

    I think subscription is the way forward for you Jamie. I pay for the NYT, the London Review and after reading your output for over ten years I would pay a subscription. Not the complete answer but if it works for Jancis and Parker, why not for you?

  • There are regulated unions for actors, writers and various creatives, etc. It used to be difficult to get in the door, now it’s easy to get in the door, but it’s a crowded and v noisy room once inside … (paraphrase picked up via NYTimes on Audible recently will need to search credit). Lightbulbs. Web Cam. Action;).

  • The irony of this piece is that Jamie, one of the best and best-informed wine writers around, has been putting lots of really good stuff online for years and giving it away for nothing to anyone who wants it. And now he’s mourning the demise of traditional commercial wine publishing.

    If you want people to come into your restaurant, it’s probably not the wisest strategy to set up a stall from which you give away free food. And the fact that lots of other restaurateurs are doing the same as you, hardly makes the situation any better.

    Wine publishing was marginal enough in the old pre-online days (I know because I was involved in every sector of it). Stated simply, not enough people wanted to pay for wine magazines or books, or to read columns in newspapers.

    Now that those traditional media are being increasingly squeezed, it’s hardly surprising that wine is one of the categories that’s suffering. (But it’s one of many).

    There were very, very few professional wine writers a century ago, and the wine industry of its day managed perfectly well. Who’s to say how many there will be in even 10 or 20 years time?

  • Nothing to do about the above article ” THE ILL-HEALTH OF WINE WRITING “.

    This is the first time I have visited your site and noticed on the left hand margin several topics and vine varieties and countries without any reference to my motherland i.e. Cyprus. To my surprise you do have Lebanon,Turkey and Israel.

    If you have visited the above mentioned countries then surely you should have made the effort to come to Cyprus. King Richard The Lionheart did and that was in the middle ages.

    Regards
    Alexandros Alexandrou
    Wine Connoisseur.

  • Chris Telford

    The challenge particularly in the Southern Hemisphere is that we have limited print media options and possibly to many writers writing about same subjects. How many articles do you need to read about the same iconic or big brands.

  • Over the years I’ve depended on the guy or gal in the wine section of the store or a sommelier or waiter at a restaurant or at the winery to introduce me to a wine. For the most part, I’ve been disappointed by wine critics, maybe because writing is more about writing, so I can’t say I’m a fan of wine critics, but I still read about wine. Especially about wine from Cyprus.
    Times, they are a changing and being a writer does not qualify one to write about wine, yet there are so many out there. Even in the old days, there is much more to know about a wine than a wine judge or writer who sits down to slip and spit out a taste from ten or a hundred bottles of wine. To really know a wine, one must drink it and eat with it and spend more than a few seconds with it.
    As one who’s been interested in wine as a consumer for over forty years and as a restaurateur in Carmel, California for 3 years and a small time independent exporter, importer, distributor of select California and Oregon pinot noir wines and retailer in France the last four years, I’ve never known there to be a lot of good wine critics. Certainly not Parker and his hype about numerically rating wine or those who follow him.
    I’m from the US and I’ll speak from that perspective: naïve wine consumers initially read ads and articles to learn about wine and hopefully get a tip on a good value.
    What does independent wine critic mean nowadays. The wine industry has been taken over by multinational conglomerate distributors and big wine houses who hire people like Heimoff or they buy ads in publications, who hire writers like Robinson. And then there’s the nonsensical alarmists like Gray and other crazies out there who make wine tasting all about themselves.
    And we don’t need the Gallo family telling us that people who enjoy hand-crafted wines are snobs and that they should drink Gallo industrial wines because they are just as good as wines cellared in Napa and Sonoma.
    If anything, wine should be described by its flavors and not rated by numbers. The only numbers involved are in the vintage and price. The wine speaks for itself.

  • Keith Prothero

    But Robert if Jamie (and Neal Martin with his original Wine Journal) had not had his blog then he would never have been recognised as the fine writer he is. Also of course,he gets his paid gigs because of his Blog
    I agree with another poster,that perhaps now Jamie your fame is such,that you could charge a modest subscription for access to your site.
    Whatever you decide thanks for your contribution to the world of wine information

  • Jamie wrote: “The wine trade needs to consider who it wants to do the necessary communication about wine. At the moment, there remain some good wine writers without commercial conflicts of interest who talk about interesting wines and want to help the good guys to win.

    Increasingly, there is a blurring of boundaries, and the communicators who survive are part of media organizations who increasingly look to producers to make money; who promise content to producers who pay to play, albeit indirectly. Where content is directed towards regions and organizations who have budget. Who run events where both consumers and producers pay to participate.

    There are relatively few independent voices left. If those in the wine trade who have budget are smart, they will support the sort of people they’d like to do the communication. Traditionally, this has been the case. But if there’s an oversupply of good communicators then the temptation is to get people to work for free.”

    ———————————————————-

    I have a few thoughts about this. As an independent publisher of a wine review magazine I interact with a cross section of people who either make or represent the wines I taste. I think it is the fundamental nature of these relationships that they be professional and cordial for all parties. I don’t filter “Are they a good guy?” when I evaluate the wine. What’s in the glass is the only thing I care about. Does stating that “you want to help the good guys to win.” not blur boundaries? When I started publishing in 2011, I determined that I wouldn’t accept payments, travel, lodging, meals or gifts from wineries in exchange for talking about them. The only entity I answer to is my subscribers and luckily they haven’t fired me.

    Regarding supporting the people we want to do the writing. I consider myself smart and do have a budget for a regular long-form article in my magazine to augment the review content. Here is a story that undoubtedly organizations must experience as well. Recently I contacted a freelance writer I was familiar with to offer them an assignment for a story about several wineries I was reviewing. The location was essentially their backyard and I was prepared to make the introductions as they were unfamiliar with the brands. No extensive research was required on their part. I admit that working with freelancers is something new for me so I spent some time and investigated what the range of rates were and came up with a figure for a 2000 word article. When the writer told me their rate, I realized it was about 5x what a top freelancer in any technically challenging field would charge for something they needed to develop from nothing. I later determined that I could get myself to the area with airfare, car and hotel for about 20% of what they would charge and write the story myself (if I had the time!)Meanwhile I publish content from guest writers who tell me they don’t want to be compensated, that being able to appear in the magazine is enough.

    I am not suggesting going the subscription route is easy as you first need to determine who will follow. Then comes the stark realization that “If this doesn’t work, what next?” It really does feel like casting off from the shore in a very small boat knowing that everything you need is there with you and you can never go back to the way things once were. Maintaining momentum and finding ways to market yourself forces you to be really creative and bet on yourself.

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