Down With The Gatekeepers, Up With The Long Tail

Vinted on October 5, 2011 binned in going pro, wine industry events

A friend of mine, that talented writer David White, recently gave a speech at the 2011 Nederburg Auction in South Africa.  The title of the talk: “The End of the Gatekeeper: How The Online Revolution is Revolutionizing Wine.”

Forgiving the potential redundancy in the title (a revolution does have to revolutionize something, by definition, at least I think it does but maybe we’ve revolutionized the definitions as well and I missed it), David’s speech (which you can read in its entirety) is chock-full of interesting tidbits regarding the state of the on-line wine world.  And if that speech has a theme, it’s this: gatekeepers are largely wasting their time, especially when it comes to wine.

One of the more interesting tidbits from that speech comes from David’s observation of the current market’s combination of social media and the long-tail of how we search for and eventually consume products…

From the “tape”:

“Consumers still need advisors, of course, but when today’s consumers want information, they turn to their friends and their trusted networks — in real life and online. This change represents a remarkable opportunity for everyone in the wine industry. How so? Consumer choice. For all intents and purposes, wine consumers have unlimited selection. With its hundreds of thousands of labels, wine has one of the longest tails in the marketplace. Understanding this Long Tail — and its implications — is critical… What’s the Long Tail have to do with wine? Just like with movies, music, and books, the selection is virtually unlimited — and today’s consumers are eager to be unique, free from the influence of gatekeepers and able to make up their own minds.”

This is spot-on, peeps – at least, it is for the budding geeky wine consumer section of the market, which isn’t enormous but is certainly big enough to support its fair share of fine wine brands. 

Wine, as a product, has a tail longer than the Alaskan pipeline – a crazy number of SKUs, brands, and multiple vintages of each potentially all available and competing with one another in the marketplace at the same time. Long Tail is your friend, and if you are in the wine biz than you need to get a handle on it. For an introduction to the long tail, check out the vid and slide deck from a panel that Doug Cook, Alder Yarrow and I gave at the 2011 Pro Wine Writers Symposium, discussing the long tail and its SEO implications (in this case for wine writing, but the intro. to the concept is relevant in the context of what David discusses in his speech).






  • @terroiristblog

    Thanks for the shoutout, Joe! Hugely appreciated. As for the title, well, I was just having fun with it — I didn't realize anyone would actually READ the speech!

    • 1WineDude

      Well, that's what you get man! :)

  • John Kelly

    What David says is absolutely true—so far as it goes. Looking closely, the "…consumers [who] are eager to be unique, free from the influence of gatekeepers and able to make up their own minds…” also represent a long tail: they are a diverse lot, but in the grand scheme there just aren't that many of them.

    Last year over 330 million cases of wine were shipped in the US. How many of those purchases do you think were REALLY information-driven? On the consumer side—a tiny fraction. In the middle, the wholesaler gatekeepers who move by far the largest volume of product continue to 1) rely on most consumers being uninformed, and/or 2) rely on the traditional media gatekeepers for information. I'm 93-96 points on that last bit.

    This does not mean that the revolution is not happening, only that it is not that big a deal. I'm defining the new small winery value proposition as the direct intersection between the long tail of producers and the long tail of consumers, enabled by the long tail of "friends and trusted networks" made possible by the internet.

    • 1WineDude

      John – I am onboard with what you're saying here. In fact I wrote about something similar (the pyramid of wine consumers in terms of numbers, and how we are talking to mostly those at the tippy top) not too long ago. Cheers!

  • Steve Heimoff

    It always interests me that the people who predict the demise of gatekeepers are not the gatekeepers, but the people who wish they could be gatekeepers.

    • 1WineDude

      Steve – for my money it's not the interest in becoming a gatekeeper; it's the futility of it in this day/age.

  • @terroiristblog


    I have zero interest in being a "gatekeeper." An educator, sure. A writer, absolutely. An occasional critic, of course. But gatekeepers are quickly becoming irrelevant.

  • Steve Heimoff

    If you are a writer/educator/critic, you are a gatekeeper by definition.

    • 1WineDude

      Steve – I disagree, if we take gatekeepers to mean those who would profess that only a few voices (theirs included) are worth listening to. Sorry about ending that sentence in a preposition, by the way. :)

  • Colorado Wine Press

    Joe, great minds think alike (though judging by the timestamps I have you beat by a few hours for quoting David :) ). I think that the long tail plays a role, but overall the gatekeepers are just lazy: (insert shameless self plug, now: )

  • Tom Wark

    I was very excited to see David invited to talk in South Africa. And I like his message.

    But I'm not sure I know what this means: "free from the influence of gatekeepers"

  • @terroiristblog

    Tom –

    I mean someone can taste a funky, Slovenian white wine or an Austrian red — and feel confident in ordering it and telling his friends about it, even though Robert Parker didn't give it 95 pts.

    • Tom Wark


      Gotcha. I think folks have understood that for many years. That said, I think the value of the professional critic (gatekeeper) is incredibly valuable, be it in wine, literature, film, music, dance, art, architecture, etc, etc, etc…

      I can't count how many times I've bought a book, saw a movie or consumed a wine based on a critic's assessment and been pleased or surprised.

  • Thomas Pellechia

    I've been in the wine biz on multiple levels since the early 80s. Consumer numbers certainly have grown but statistics regarding the overall market and the geek market hasn't moved much at all. As John alludes to, the bulk of those 330 million cases go to people who don't even know there's a gate, let alone gatekeepers.

    Methinks the wine writing/critic world has too much bellybutton to contemplate.

    • 1WineDude

      Thomas – no shortage of navel-gazing in this biz, but we should keep in mind that David's words were part of a keynote for those in the biz.

      • @terroiristblog

        I'm certainly guilty of navel-gazing, but it's silly to pretend that those of us who read wine blogs don't influence mass-market behavior.

        Friends turn to me for advice all the time (typical text message from friend: "David: I'm at a wine shop. What should I buy?" My response: Wine.). As consumers in the middle of the pyramid gain confidence ignoring "gatekeepers" like Parker (and Heimoff!) and instead seek advice from influencers (think the neighborhood wine shop, the sommelier at your favorite restaurant, your favorite wine blogger), I think it'll trickle down and impact the entire market.

  • Steve Heimoff

    It's a matter of definitions. To me a gatekeeper is anyone whose opinion other people listen to–somms, merchants, writers and critics, etc. Of course some gatekeepers are more influential than others but the guy who owns the little wine shop down on the corner is also a gatekeeper for his customers.

    • 1WineDude

      Steve – yeah, I think the term has negative connotations (though maybe we need a better term at this point!).

      • @terroiristblog

        A gatekeeper lashes out at “vinofreaks” who prefer wines “made by some sheep farmer” that are “better fed to wild boar than the human species.”

        An influencer/blogger/sommelier/wine-shop owner/normal person says "So you like greener wines with higher acidity. You should try XXX — I think you'll enjoy it."

        In other words, the days of global arbiters of good taste are numbered.

        • 1WineDude

          For sure I certainly praise and pan wines. But I don't do it under the assumption that mine is one of only a handful of valid voices on those wines. If I did, then in my view that would be gatekeeping. Instead, I try to be consistent and honest always in those assessments so that readers of 1WD who enjoy those recommendations and share my approach can trust the 1WD brand – and I'd never profess that brand is one of a dozen worth their time; it could be more like one or several dozen. That's the differentiation in my mind when talking about gatekeeping.

  • John Kelly

    "Gatekeeper" in the bad connotation is the bouncer who determines who gets past the velvet rope. But the person who has interposed their assessment between the producer and the buyer is also a gatekeeper. The shop owner who says "I'm not going to stock that swill" is no less a gatekeeper than Steve saying "this wine is worth my time to taste and write up, and therefore worth your money" or the online wisdom-of-crowds network of "experts" you might call on for a recommendation. The consumer is not just buying the wine brand, but into the gatekeeper's brand as well. The gatekeeper's brand is trust.

  • Thomas Pellechia

    …and I might add that a person who answers the his friend's question, "what's a good wine?" by telling that friend what he or she thinks is a good wine is also acting as a gatekeeper.

    David, what you seem to object to is the concept of gatekeepers that make a living telling others what they prefer. Not that I disagree with you, but I disagree with what you think is the solution.

    To me, the solution is that individuals learn to slow down, chew their food, swirl their liquids, and figure out for themselves what they like to eat and drink; then, go out and explore, which is a lifetime endeavor that should not rely on the power of suggestion from others.

    Having said that, I concede that you are onto what may not be the solution but is almost certainly the direction, and right there I should stop talking.

  • Phil

    An easy way to look at this is to take it out of wine, the long tail is frequently referenced for and online music because it is now possible to get just about anything you want, there is no longer a gatekeeper deciding what you can and cannot purchase. Here the long tail literally removes the gatekeeper concept.

    But in news/information you have to first know what you want to know and then someone has to dig up that information for you. Now in the digital age the power of gatekeepers has been defused because there are so many of them, but they still exist. Joe is a gatekeeper just like Robert Parker and just like the really knowledgeable wine guy in the group. Their level of power differs greatly and the digital age greatly erodes the power of traditional gatekeepers, but unlike with tangible products where there is a finite universe that can be encapsulated by something like, knowledge and information doesn't lose gatekeepers by going digital and long tail.

    • 1WineDude

      Phil – I dunno… There are a lot reviews on Amazon and it's only in the aggregate that they can make / break a product.

      • Phil

        But being a gatekeeper isn't about recommending this or that it's about literally providing or preventing access by manning the gate. Either things get through or they don't. The reason that someone who is asked for a recommendation can be a gatekeeper is that they have access to a lot of information the askee does not and are therefore choosing what to present. If something is for sale on Amazon, it's out there and you have access to it. Positive or negative reviews may influence buying decisions but you still have access to the product. Information is of course quite different, which is the point I was trying to make, as you can correctly point out that having access to the product is not the same as having access to information about the product.

        The long tail defuses the power of the gatekeepers by adding a lot of them but it doesn't remove them entirely unless you have a situation where someone can get everything at one place. So, for example, if you had a supercomputer that everyone had access to that knew every single fact there was to know about wine, gatekeepers would no longer functionally exist for wine. The way I think about it is as a visual image: imagine all of the knowledge in the wine world as this great mass of stuff and a bunch of people who have gates keeping it in. These people decide what stuff to let out of their gate and which not to. Obviously having just a few gatekeepers is greatly limiting while having a lot can actually make it almost as difficult since you have to seek out each individual gatekeeper. The Internet helps a lot there.

        So sorry but I think you guys are twisting the definition of the word a bit in order to make a point that is valid: the Internet makes the traditional gatekeepers less powerful.

        But we are going to have gatekeepers for a very, very long time and however you feel about it, you are one of them. As powerful as Robert Parker? No, but certainly one of the most powerful online gatekeepers. When you decide to write about something (or just as importantly to not write about something), you're manning your gate. When you decide to tweet about something or comment about something or recommend a wine to a friend, you're manning your gate. You have access to information that many others do not and have chosen what parts of that information to let through. Steve Heimoff is a gatekeeper (one with considerably more power than you), so is David White and so is Tom Wark and so is probably everyone who has commented on this thread including me. It's isn't a dirty word, it's just the way things are.

        • 1WineDude

          Phil – I understand where you're coming from, but I don't think someone like me is an arbiter of information so much as an arbiter of experience.

          Here's why:

          "…if you had a supercomputer that everyone had access to that knew every single fact there was to know about wine, gatekeepers would no longer functionally exist for wine" – in effect we have this already, it's called the Internet. We have nearly the totality of all the info./data in human history at our fingertips because of the way that Internet search has indexed the information out there. Sure, some of it is crap but search providers are in the business of finding the most accurate stuff out there nearly instantaneously. And what's more, we do NOT search that info. in the broadest or most superficial senses, people look for very specific pieces of it (hence the long tail).

          So I think in a sense people like me aren't really gatekeepers. We don't keep data, ideas, or voices out. And even if I am, at some point if everyone is a gatekeeper in the democratization made possible via the Internet, then no one is a gatekeeper…

          • Phil

            Sorry Joe, but the Internet does not qualify as a supercomputer that everyone has access to that contains all of the known wine information in the world. Quick, give me the all of the producers in Georgia (the country), where I can buy their wines, all of the wines they make, the history of each winery, and all reviews of all of their wines ever given. You can't, even with the Internet. So what you find is a selective culling that those who put stuff on the Internet have decided to put there, in large part determined by people who have visited the country.

            And on gatekeepers, I hate to keep harping on this, but I still think you're changing the definition to suit your purposes. You do keep data, ideas, and voices out by deciding what to publish and what not to publish on your blog. That does not mean that these data, ideas, or voices are PERMANENTLY kept out, it just means someone else has to bring the data in if you don't. I also hate to keep harping on this, but THIS IS NOT A BAD THING! Imagine your blog if you did not function as a gatekeeper but merely published every single thing about wine you came across. It would suck. So you decide what you think people will be interested in, just like Wine Spectator does and just like I do if someone I know asks me a question about wine.

            And this is where power comes into play, which I maintain is what this posting is really about. There is a vast difference between Wine Spectator publishing something in their magazine, you posting something on your blog, and me answering someone I know's question about wine. But we are all still gatekeepers, just with different levels of power. And the difference between something like Wine Spectator publishing something and everyone else gets smaller all the time. Even so, Wine Spectator is still a gatekeeper. Will there be a day in the future where their power is brought down to the level of any person on the Internet? I don't think so, but that is the thrust of your argument.

            Finally, sorry Joe, if everyone is a gatekeeper, then everyone is a gatekeeper, you can't say that if everyone is a human than no one is a human, this is the same thing. Once again, someone's power has nothing to do with the definition of gatekeeper. However, I think you'll find that my grandmother, for instance, is not a gatekeeper when it comes to wine. You'll also find that my 24 year-old cousin is not either, nor my 31 year-old friend, nor a ton of other people I know. Do they have the potential to be gatekeepers? Sure, as you point out the Internet makes that possible. But potential is not the same thing as reality, and the marketplace has a way of making gatekeepers themselves into a long tail where you have a few voices that large numbers of people listen to and many, many voices that very few people listen to.

            So my opinion is, meet our new masters, same as the old ones just the 2.0 version.

            • 1WineDude

              Thanks, Phil – you need never apologize for your thoughtful and thought-provoking comments here! I welcome the opinions, especially when they are different from mine. I think you are onto something regarding the gatekeeper definition being a hang-up here, we seem to be approaching it from different angles. On the one hand, you are saying there is a curating role played by gatekeepers and that in a fundamental way defines a gatekeeper. I understand that but would say that popular culture has twisted the definition of the term and added negative context to it – and so now the gatekeeper is someone who actively tries to keep other voices out of the conversation and/or downplay their importance in an attempt to bolster his or her own position of power and perceived sense of expertise on a given topic. The Internet may not be able to YET provide every data element that the hardest-core wine geek (or any other geek!) might search for yet, but it is certainly on that trajectory, and as you mention the list of contributors cannot be curated – so I think the gatekeeper as curator and arbiter of information and giver of entertainment is still valid, but the gatekeeper as someone who tries to keep others from contributing and gaining power is a a futile concept; the barriers to entry are simply too low, they might as well try to stop leaves from blowing in the wind.

              • Phil

                I guess I'm a stickler in that I don't care what connotations the popular culture has added, I go by what Merriam Webster says: Definition of GATEKEEPER
                : one that tends or guards a gate
                : a person who controls access

                In my point of view your definition is not a gatekeeper but just a a**h***e. Don't need to be in a position of power to act that way… :)

              • 1WineDude

                Good point, Phil! :)

  • Joe Herrig

    Problem solved on the whole "gatekeeper has a negative connotation": They're 'keymasters'.

    Again, "Ghostbusters" resolves another debate.

    • 1WineDude

      Joe – +1 for resolving via Ghostbusters reference. Actually, +643 for that!!!

    • @fatcork

      I love it, "keymasters", not gatekeepers!!

      And, Dude, you are nobody's definition of a gatekeeper. You continually educate me with your posts, and entertain. That's in no way a description of a gatekeeper. I believe Steve is a little sour these days. He used to be someone that I read daily, but lately, he seems to have jumped off the deep end and I'm not interested in following.

      • 1WineDude

        @fatcork – thanks for that. Regarding Steve, well he puts everything out there and I admire him a lot for that. It can be polarizing, but it is always genuine. Cheers!

  • JIm

    Funny to see all of the bloggers, critics, and "gatekeepers", responses to this post. I have read the post and response and enjoyed the banter.

    Personally, I am a novice at wine tasting but am trying to learn as much as I can. I was in a local liquor store recently and had picked out what I was going to purchase and was just looking at other options for the future when a lady asked me if I was an wine expert, my response, "Nope, just a really big fan". Loved it.

    • 1WineDude

      Jim – Well, I consider myself more a fan than an expert any day! :) Actually, more like a dangerously obsessed fan…

  • Kathy

    People ask friends and people they trust for recommendations – on wine, who to vote for, whether red is a better color than brown with the new jeans. It's the trust part that opens the gate, even if it is only for a moment because the sommelier seems to know his or her wines or because the bartender has a sympathetic smile or the blogger/commenter/columnist has a way with words that makes me come back for more. The last is my dangerous obsession…

    • 1WineDude

      Kathy – I think you nailed it with the trust aspect. I suppose the same is true with those we would consider gatekeepers in the *negative* connotation, but their trust is earned in a different way (via a masthead for example) or is taken for granted based on who they work for, etc. The bi change is that now different sources can be trusted sources – mags, bloggers, friends, even wine producers themselves – but they have to earn it one person at a time through real, honest-to-goodness engagement. Exciting times! :)

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