The wine writer as a species is endangered. This has been discussed quite a bit within the wine media community. I remember at a bloggers conference in Ismir, Turkey, back in 2012, when Andrew Jefford delivered a keynote speech announcing the death of wine writing. That went down well.
And more recently, at the 2016 Symposium for Professional Wine Writers, there was a lot of discussion about how wine writers need to earn money doing other stuff: the traditional wine writer, taking commissions from magazines and newspapers and making a living by actually writing alone, is now very rare. I missed the ‘golden age’ of wine writing by about a decade, when there were plenty of specialist newspaper columns for grabs, each of which paid a more-or-less proper salary for producing a wine page each week. So I’ve always had to do a range of things (lecturing, judging, consulting) in addition to writing in order to make a living.
So, even if wine writing isn’t quite dead, wine writers are in peril. But I haven’t heard a lot of discussion about the main reason for this: UGC.
No, UGC isn’t referring here to the Union des Grands Crus, the Bordeaux organization. It’s user-generated content. Let’s be honest: wine writing has always existed on the back of advertising. It’s advertising that pays most of the bills in media. The content exists as a way of getting eyeballs, and eyeballs bring advertising. There are only a very few publications where the content is paid for without advertising. The World of Fine Wine, which I write for, isn’t advertiser driven, for example (although it does take some advertising): it charges a hefty subscription fee. But it’s rare.
With the advent of the internet, advertising spend has largely shifted online. However, it hasn’t all gone to traditional media organizations. Newspapers have been forced to remain free in order to maintain traffic (paywall experiments have not been terribly successful, except for in a few cases). The main newspaper brands do get get huge traffic, but they only have a slice of the advertising revenue that they used to enjoy when everything was print. Instead, the bulk of online advertising revenue has shifted to Google ($67 billion in 2015) and Facebook ($4.3 billion last quarter), and here’s the crucial feature: the content that lures the advertisers isn’t professionally produced. It’s user-generated. It’s our tweets and Facebook posts. Pictures of cats and videos of accidents, and that sort of thing.
Smartphones may have allowed us to increase the amount of media that we consume. But a significant slice of our media diet is now through social media. So there is now much less of a need for professional content generators. Indeed, a good portion of my output is now delivered up for free, on social media or on my website. I could have stood back and said that my content is too good to be given away, but then this misses the point of what it means to be a communicator in today’s digital age.
The other threat to wine writers is the shift from professional criticism (of restaurants, hotels, electrical goods, wines) to user reviews. Apps such as Vivino are producing lots of easily accessible wine reviews from users. You can even scan restaurant lists with this app, and it recognises the bulk of the wines from the text. Very clever. And sort of useful.
Wine writing is very much alive. But professional wine writers, as we know them, are an endangered species, potentially heading for extinction. And this is all because of UGC.