Wine and the digital conversation

The internet, and more specifically the recent social media revolution, has changed wine writing.

A lot, and fast.

It’s the wine writing equivalent of the meteor impact 65 million years ago on the Cretacious–Tertiary boundary, and it has left many traditional wine writers wandering around like confused dinosaurs, wondering what happened.

I’m not sure any of us understand fully the implications. But what I see here is a lot of opportunity. There’s the chance for many new voices to have their say. The notion of a full-time wine writer, paid a decent salary by a newspaper to write a weekly column on wine, is now confined to history. A few still exist, but it’s not an option for new entrants.

I was lucky when I started wineanorak.com, in that my timing was good (being one of the first helps a great deal), and I could do it alongside a day job which took the financial pressure off me. The need to earn money can end up causing writers to compromise themselves by taking too many gigs that leave them beholden to too many people. It’s this taint of commerce that afflicts many of the mainstream wine media outlets, where advertising money brings coverage, and content isn’t primarily determined by interest, but by commercial relevance.

The wonderful thing about the social media revolution is the authenticity of much of the content. Instead of the old fashioned expert dishing out advice to readers in a vertical, one-way transmission, we now find ourselves as participants in a conversation – a horizontal relationship where it is important to listen and respond, as well as speak.

This conversation is self-correcting, in that there are enough smart participants that when commercial interests try to push things in their direction, people sniff this taint out a mile away. Self-promotion and ego is also immediately obvious, and clumsy attempts to pull rank simply fail.

My hope is that this new way of communicating will result in a new egalitarianism. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if real talent had a clear route to success? So much of modern retailing results in wineries with distribution succeeding at the expense of those with better wines, but less commercial clout. In the wine writing field, there are still some handsomely rewarded ‘experts’ getting the best gigs, often the expense of those with better palates, more open minds, and a truer love of wine.

One final point. I think it’s interesting that new forms of communication have opened up wine writing not just to writers, but also those in the trade – people who make and sell wine. Many of these are gifted communicators. It’s great that the self-correcting nature of social media (frauds are easily spotted) means that people who are gifted communicators, but who would previously be considered compromised, can find their own voice and following. Isn’t it great that consumers can now drink a bottle of wine while tweeting the person who made it, or who sold it to them?

17 comments to Wine and the digital conversation

  • I’m trying to think of something valuable to contribute but all I can think of is, “Yup, that about sums it up”.

  • Wine description in 140 characters makes people focus on the true essence of the wine w/o all the flowery prose.

  • The digital conversation is amazing! Viva meritocracy – it is a leveller as you mention both amongst wine writers and wineries. I live on the end of a dirt track on the estate I manage with my husband and our three children under 5. Our production is too small for business travel (less than 1000 cases a year) and in any case we need to be on site to work on the vineyard and in the cellar. Increasingly as I juggle cereal bowls, schoolbags and moka machines I find myself tweeting with final consumers of our wine and grappa in the US/Canada/Australia, or to people who buy and re-sell our products in other time zones or else exchanging ideas with other wineries in Italy and abroad about QR codes or the subjectivity of taste…

  • I like the horizontal concept. French blogger Miss Glouglou said it the same way at a wine/internet conference a while ago, and I agree that the idea of authority through position is weakening in favor of authority through peer recognition. Somehow though, I get the feeling that the wine industry is almost afraid of the un-professionalisation of the press….. it somehow makes the whole “game” less predictable.

  • Hi Jamie,
    Agree with your final paragraph as someone starting out from the wine trade and is the reason why I started my blog. I only wish there were more from trade as social media can be too self-referential. This is the biggest criticism I get from friends in the trade. Then again, this is why a lot of friends in the trade don’t rate wine writers in newspapers much, either…

  • All very true Jamie, although I can offer some counterviews to some of the points you have made.

    You paint a picture that suggests the “digital conversation” is usurping the pre-existing systems of wine communication, the top-down one-way system found in print magazines and newspaper columns for example. Traditional winewriters are headed for extinction it seems, judging by your dinosaur analogy, to be replaced by two-way tweeting and blogging. But this isn’t the whole story, is it? It’s just part of the picture.

    First up, you have undoubted authority. Wineanorak and the associated blogs were part of establishing that authority, but traditional media were perhaps a greater part, the web presence a stepping stone. From it you secured a newspaper column, a regular contribution to WOFW, regular appearances in other magazines (Tatler, IIRC, and others no doubt?), and more than anything else published several books around wine science. Speaking engagements followed. All traditional expert-led systems of communication which do far more to cement your authority/position/knowledge/credibility than blogging, twitter or wineanorak.com, as excellent as that site is.

    Regardless of the value of social media, it is very difficult to build up authority – or ‘credibility’ as I referred to it on our recent trip together – with purely a web presence. The joy if the internet is that it gives freedom to publih and communicate. But it is also open to criticism, usually concerning the amount of “noise” from “wannabe critics” (terms seen recently on well-known wine forums). Amongst this noise there are interesting voices out there, but I am struggling to think of many (any?) who haven’t used traditional media to establish or cement their worth to the wine-writing community.

  • One thing is for sure…. the communication channels between consumer, writer and wine maker are now a super highway enabling more views to expressed and heard. Sure there will be more noise, but the fact that the internet (and its devices) allows more people to convey their view is only a good thing.

    More than ever, I feel there is less dependency on the traditional channels and this will only lessen as more consumers jump on board the “super highway”

  • Laura, absolutely! I agree entirely, and I’m in the same situation as you – almost! I wish I had a bit more interaction with final customers and trade people, but I’m working on it, so it will come in good time. Exiting and interesting times for everyone involved in the wine world, final customers, trade, writers/critics and winemakers :)

  • As far as I can tell the “signal” coming from social media, including wanabee critics, is pretty much the same as the signal coming from more traditional sources. There is very little to challenge the status quo. It is the “noise” I am interested in.

  • Stu

    It’s the last sentence that captures it for me. As a consumer, with designs on being something more, I love that aspect. Connection. I’ve said it before, wine is more than a liquid in a glass, it is a liquid story and “new media” has helped tell that story, but often the greatest orator is the author themself.

  • Tim Carlisle

    Are we in a situation where we are sticking people in pigeon holes? You could – but I think it would be wrong to.
    Of all the content out there there are the wine writers (a loose term but by that I mean the people who write books, perhaps a bit for specialist printed media and that is about it – the Spurriers, Jeffords and Coates of this world). Then there are the ‘journalists’ those who write for printed popular press, they are the ones who tend to appear on television, then there are the bloggers who are then split by their role in wine – amateurs, wineries, merchants etc.
    However you split it though, I don’t think people fit neatly into boxes, sure for a lot of people their identity may be as one of those so perhaps how people see themselves is where we should place them? Take Jamie for instance – if you want to box him in – is he a blogger, a journalist?

  • “New egalitarianism”, “authority through peer recognition” – it all sounds very nice but my feeling is we’re not quite yet. The situation at present is total atomisation. Everyone tweets and/or blogs and there is a resulting confusion of who says what and where. And I challenge you to closely follow the multiple digital activites of say, 50 wine writers. Aren’t there 50 important wine writers in the world with something valuable to say? There are many more.
    That’s why the hierarchised space that printed magazines and books offer these authors will remain relevant: it gives readers a sense of relevance through institutional importance. For this reason I don’t see magazines disappearing anytime soon. Plus I don’t really understand why you are so negative versus printed media Jamie. Of course there is some abuse of their position here and there but on the whole, I think magazines have been delivering wine writing of relevance to the wide public.
    On the other hand digital wine writing will need to find a way of establishing a hierarchy to its contents if it is to grow. Otherwise it will boil down to a Cellartracker-like system of horizontal data points indiscriminately mixing the relevant with the irrelevant. This is very egalitarian but trying to draw any reasonable conclusions from that system is time-consuming and uneconomical (to me). Wine assessment might increasingly be reduced to the Facebook “like” button. Will we not be missing something when it comes to that?

  • Great post Jamie.

    Some well-put counter-veiling views as well. However for me they sound a little nostalgic. Like it or not, the train has left the station.

    I recommend reading this idea on the impact of social media Do also read the NYT article by Bill Keller that he is responding to – beautifully written (and nostalgic!)

    We are living in exciting times. Old Guards in all sorts of guises (rock stars, media moguls, Arab despots, English judges…) are being swept away, the revolutionaries all empowered by social media. Who knows how it will impact the wine world? But it undoubtably will transform us. It’s like a wild yeast ferment – I just hope we don’t end up with brett.

  • Hi Jamie,

    I loved your point about social media opening up wine writing to those in the trade. It’s wonderful to become acquainted with wineries on a deeper level and discover the personalities and the day-to-day operations behind the label, especially for those who aren’t within driving distance of wine country. I agree that many in the wine industry are gifted writers, and it is nice to see them get a chance to shine!

    Zoe Geddes-Soltess
    Community Engagement, Radian6
    @zodot

  • Glyn Ettridge

    I have a bottle of Old Git wine (2002 vintage) which achieved a silver in the International Wine Challenge 2003. Is it worth keeping, drinking or selling?

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