For those of you who’ve missed (what will certainly seem like) the last several thousand posts here on 1WineDude.com, I recently spoke at the 2010 Wines of Portugal International Conference as a panelist on the topic of how the Internet and Social Media are impacting the world of wine and how that will impact the Portuguese wine industry.
Among my fellow panelists was the talented Neal Martin, who writes for eRobertParker.com covering Bordeaux. In some ways, Neal proved the counterbalance to the messages being offered by me and the other panelists, in that he has a rather skeptical approach to the power of social media in the wine world. During the course of the panel, Neal raised several points about social media’s place in the context of wine criticism that I and the other panelists did not address directly – not because we’re without opinion on those points, but because we felt they weren’t relevant to the topic of how wine producers (the largest contingent of our panel audience) could leverage the power of social media online to help their business.
In my case, it certainly did NOT mean that I agreed with those points, as will become clear to anyone in the course of reading this article, in which I will address what I took as the primary (or, if not primary, at least relatively important) points raised or hinted at by Neal about social media’s place in wine criticism – and try to refute them.
I should note that I enjoy Neal’s company, respect his work, and marvel at his writing abilities. But I found many of his views on social media so profoundly off-base that I felt they needed comment. It’s not that Neal sees no value in social media, but I got the impression that his view is looking backward, not forward – and thinking ahead is absolutely key in understanding what social media can do for you, and the place that it is very likely to take in the future in terms of wine criticism.
Let’s take a look at the contrarian views that are all too often espoused when applying social media to wine, and go from there. I’ve grouped them below roughly in a group of three, and summarized each as a hypothetical quite or argument. It’s worth noting that I’m not quoting anyone in particular but am paraphrasing and, while it might be tempting to anoint someone like Neal as a sort of dark arts saint of an anti-social-media satanic church, life is rarely that simple and it’s certainly not my intention here.
In this case, Neal’s comments during our panel were simply the catalyst for a sort of… manifesto that took shape in my (twisted) mind. The kind of thing you’re compelled to write because you have to (and because you’re a bit tired of preaching the same gospel over and over, and would like to have a handy place to keep it so you can refer others to it again… and again… and again…). I will warn you, it’s long and probably not appropriately “scannable” for blog reading, but f–k it I’m posting it anyway.
As always, your comments / criticisms / points / love / hate are all welcome!…
1) Critiquing and writing about wine via established publications is fundamentally different than via blogs. Blogs cannot be taken seriously nor can a non-serious approach/tone to writing about wine.
At first, this seems a sensible argument – “blogs” provide two-way interactive communication via comments, usually have no editor, and primarily are authored by people with no formal background or training in wine. However, it’s ultimately pointless to distinguish between blogs and other forms of content creation, because a blog is merely a platform – one used by talented writers such as Jancis Robinson (who does have formal training in wine) and Alder Yarrow (who doesn’t). Why? Because authors of content on any subject, including wine, are fully capable of using any medium – some have just chosen to publish on-line. While there are several differences in how an article about wine might be published in print vs. online, there is no fundamental difference between writing about wine and publishing it in one form (online) or another (print).
Another way of putting this argument is that on-line writing is somehow poorer and/or less legitimate than print. But in both cases (print and on-line), someone is creating content and they are either talented, original, and experienced or they’re not – and plenty of both examples are now prevalent in both the on- and off-line worlds; we simply notice the cases in blogging because, with fewer barriers to entry, there are more of them than there are print publications. To assume that print is somehow a requirement for legitimacy is not only arrogant, it’s also incorrect because enough examples of content creators who publish about wine primarily or solely on-line now exist to refute it (Jancis Robinson, Tyler Colman, Alder Yarrow, W. Blake Gray… I wont’ go so far as to submit my own name to that list but I’m aspiring to get there…).
In terms of seriousness, I’ve espoused for over four years that wine coverage needs less stuffiness, less arrogance, and more fun if we hope to keep people interested enough in wine in the coming years to inspire them to delve into its greatness and endless joys at anything beyond the most superficial of levels (and for some, the most superficial of levels will be the end point – and there’s nothing wrong with that, either; but it would be a shame if everyone ended there wine journeys there). What I’m finding is that as I encounter wine media’s most accomplished and important and inspiring voices, they are anything but arrogant and many times can be giddy with their appreciation of wine and all of its wonders – in other words, the best of the best take wine seriously, but don’t take themselves seriously.
For my part, I’m willing to play the jester in the Court of Wine Media because it’s a hell of a lot more fun than taking myself seriously (both for me and, I hope, for the 1WD readers!). I also suspect many in the budding wine blog-o-world would tell you that they’d rather be a bit silly if it means they’ll enjoy the ride through the wine world more – it doesn’t make what we’re doing somehow less important, and it probably makes it more accessible to the next generation of wine lovers (more on them in a moment or two).
2) The interaction provided by on-line / social media platforms isn’t important, and wine critics don’t need to interact with their audience of consumers.
This, in my view, is the most insidious of the of the arguments against social media because it either presumes that wine consumers don’t want or don’t need to interact with critics and writers, or that somehow it’s not important for wine writers to hear from their audience – and both assumptions are arrogant in the extreme (or else are extremely naive). Neal didn’t say this directly, but he did say “I don’t want to be interactive” and that’s what got me thinking – is it really a choice? The trouble with this argument is, everyone else wants to be interactive (do I even need to quote the never-ending statistics of Facebook’s enormous membership as evidence?) so whether or not wine critics/writers want to take that approach is quickly becoming irrelevant.
Ultimately, wine critics and writers serve at the pleasure of their audience. They do not exist to hand down pronouncement from an ivory tower based on our own experiences, no matter how sophisticated our palates or diverse and deep our knowledge of wine. We (I suppose I should be counting myself in these ranks now) exist to foster the global conversation about wine, educate readers on wine and wine experiences, introduce them to new things, help them locate wines of quality, and – most importantly – listen to them so that we can do all of the former to the best of our abilities and provide as much value to them as humanely possible.
In other words, our place is to give back, not to take - and to spread the “love” of wine in ways that the consumers who listen to what we have to say (and therefore allow us to exist!) in ways that they can best use and understand. If there’s a way to do that without regularly interacting with those people, I’d love to hear it because I suspect it involves long-distance mind-reading (and therefore would prove not only quite lucrative but also useful in sustaining my marriage for the long term).
Of course, many, many people blog about wine as a personal journal only – and there is nothing wrong with this approach. However, I would argue that once you’ve built up a following and a community, a blog is no longer really yours; it then belongs to that community, of which you are then the curator and leader of sorts. Like a public official, your ‘blogging body’ sort of “belongs to the state” at that point, because any other approach undermines that community.
I won’t even go into the profound pleasure that the interaction / argument / discussion / contemplation with readers can provide – words do no justice to the experience of following along with consumers, bloggers, MWs, print wine writers, winemakers and wine PR reps as they interact in the comments of my blog (sometimes all in the same post!). I would be a poorer person (and provide far less value as a writer) without those interactions!
3) The world of wine is complex and difficult; consumers will always need wine experts to help them navigate it and will need them exactly in the same way that they do now.
Nearly every established printed wine coverage seems to think this statement is true – or, if they don’t, they don’t seem to be doing much to dispel the myth. And it is a myth, at least part of it, anyway.
The first half of this paraphrased statement (“the world of wine is complex and consumers will always need wine experts”) is very likely true. While it doesn’t take an expert to appreciate the pleasures of wine, it often takes one to explain it so that consumers don’t have to be burdened by the detail that they may not even want (and can of course pursue on their own if they become interested – more easily now than ever before, in fact). However, the second half (“in the same way that they do now”) is, however, now completely false.
Thinking that experts don’t need to change their interaction with their core audience is the equivalent of sticking your fingers in your ears, shutting your eyes, and screaming Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You up” at the top of your voice so as not to hear something you wish weren’t true (as in, “sorry but we’re out of Madeira”… “NO! NEVER GONNA SAAAAY GOODBYEEEEEE…. LALALALALALA…!”).
The data exists already to prove it. Through dozens of studies of their purchasing decisions across various goods/markets, Millenial wine consumers have already told the world that not all wine consumer groups are the same, and that they will not be told what to buy – rather, they will be influenced on what to buy by people that they trust. In that context, they idea of expert is malleable and may include wine writers, friends, family, advertisers, wine producers – almost anyone who can successfully interact with them one-on-one and in a genuinely honest way. Knowing what you’re talking about and having talent aren’t enough – you need to also be trusted, and the only way that you can be trusted is to be known, to interact, to build a relationship. Ivory towers need not apply – and the more savvy wine lovers get on their own (a task made easier and easier each day by the free coverage and readily available tomes of information on the Internet) the less relevant the role of the detached expert becomes in any field.
Just because the Millenials don’t yet move the wine market in significant numbers to disrupt businesses doesn’t mean that they won’t eventually do that – it is inevitable. As Baby Boomers and Gen Xers move on (ok, die off), Millenials will take over. It is not a question of if, it is a question of when – and we already know that the younger set interact with experts and markets differently. The question, therefore, becomes whether or not wine will be a market somehow magically immune from this change, somehow amazingly different from every other market in the world in how Millenials will treat it. If you take that bet, then good luck to you for the long term – you’re going to need it.
You can certainly take that bet if you want – and if you believe the latter half of the above point (“the same way that they do now”) then you’ve already made your bet. You can take that bet even though the Jancis Robinsons, James Sucklings, and Tim Hannis of the world are now quite publicly going the other direction in some way/shape/form. You can take that bet, but remember this – it’s the bet that things will always be as they have been, the bet that has never come to pay out even in the industries of taxation and funerals – the bet of self-delusion.