It used to be easy. Not so long ago, the UK wine landscape could be mapped on three points of a triangle: those who sold the wine (aka the industry or ‘wine trade’), those who bought the wine (aka consumers) and those who wrote about it (aka the press).
If you were involved in wine in the UK, typically you’d exist in one of these separate categories; mixing them together tended to be avoided. Communication from both trade and press eventually all flowed in one direction – towards the consumer. But since the internet has found its way into everyone’s home, increasingly consumers have found a voice, through social media, and particularly through blogging. The barriers between these groups have started to dissolve. The three primary colours have started to bleed into each other, giving rise to some bright new possibilities.
With the internet, publishing personal views has become easy and widespread. Anyone can cobble together a soapbox out of blogging software such as WordPress, Blogger or TypePad and be posting articles online by lunchtime. Soon it wasn’t just the journalist who was broadcasting their views: the consumer was too. More and more retailers starting joining in, realising they wanted to be part of the conversation as well. The enviable world of the wine critic, long coveted by the enthusiastic drinker, had been broached by the blogger.
The blog has also proved an effective springboard for consumers wanting to work in the trade. Eamon FitzGerald, a long-time wine lover, started his blog as “a nice way to fill some lonely nights” and meet like-minded people whilst working in different cities as part of his job in a consulting firm. He hoped it might one day lead to a job in wine: two years later, at 27 years old, he’s now chief operating officer at Naked Wines. Some, like publishing professional Henry Jeffreys who also runs the wine blog http://worldofbooze.wordpress.com, are even more direct; when he finds a wine he likes, he imports half a pallet himself and sells it by the case to friends. He also has a permanent weekly column in The Lady.
So an exciting time for the enthusiastic drinker with multifarious new ways in which to get amongst it. An interesting time for the wine trade too, with more wine lovers making themselves known on blogs and social media, and more ways for them to reach their market. But for wine journalists, it has created more challenges than obvious opportunities. Pay for writing about wine is not what it used to be, and it’s getting harder and harder to make a living by writing alone. Professionals that work in other creative industries such as photography are also having a hard time adapting to working around the internet and competing with highly competent enthusiastic amateurs who are happy to supply content for free. The publishing landscape has of course altered for a number of reasons – the problems of the print journalist can’t all be laid at the door of the blogger.
What it does mean is that wine journalists will find it increasingly necessary to become commercially involved in wine – or something else – to retain the same standard of living. Working directly for specific producers, brands, or even retailers can raise the spectre of the conflict of interest. For a journalist that trades on independent advice, the trust of their readership is their most valuable asset. As such, writers have been looking towards events, courses, speaking engagements and consultancy when taking on non-written assignments.
Bloggers are freer to experiment and take risks: their writing is not their primary source of income (no-one, in the UK at least, makes enough money to survive on the proceeds from a wine blog alone). Six bloggers (Tara Devon O’Leary, Belinda Stone, Tom Lewis, Andrew Barrow, Paola Tich and David Lowe) have recently clubbed together to create the ‘Wine Bloggers’ Case’ in partnership with Oddbins. Lowe (bigpinots.com) admits that money wasn’t their primary concern: “I’d have done it if there wasn’t any money in it… it’s to give recommendations, to help people, but also to raise our profiles. And it was fun going there and drinking lots of wine”. O’Leary (winepassionista.com) agrees: “the return is pretty small… it’s more to highlight the profile of bloggers in general, and to do something different”. But nonetheless this type of commercial involvement in wine is something we haven’t seen before in the UK, and any self-respecting blogger is just as keen to be respected and trusted in their writing as full-time journalists.
Both O’Leary and Lowe were keen to state that when it came to other consumers trusting their recommendations, the main issue was not that they were making a small amount of money per case sold, but that they were being fully transparent about it. Marketing professional Robert McIntosh (who blogs at www.thirstforwine.co.uk) points out that writers being paid by those in the industry is nothing new, though in traditional print journalism it is less direct. Adverts by producers or retailers are placed around a column or feature in a publication in order to sell to the readers. It is these producers or retailers that have often paid the journalist’s wage, albeit indirectly.
One blogger’s readership might be only a fraction of that of a weekly wine column in a national newspaper, but there is strength in numbers. According to McIntosh, we will see an increasing amount of collaboration, not just in commercial ventures like the one above, but also in publishing written content: “the ‘one person one blog’ model is no longer viable”. Pointing out that a blogger needs to be a writer, photographer, editor, marketer and everything else in between in publishing their blog, it will make more and more sense to group together and publish on platforms where talents are pooled for the benefit of all. When it comes to making money from recommendations, McIntosh applauds the creators of the Wine Bloggers’ Case: “I see no reason why bloggers shouldn’t benefit”.
The blending of the three traditionally discrete groups of wine trade, consumers and journalists has given birth to some interesting new projects and collaborations, and it has encouraged wine lovers to get involved in deeper and more creative ways, whether or not they publish a blog. For the everyday wine drinker, there are many new, and more varied, voices to talk to about wine than ever before, and more ways to join in – whether at big events, small scale offline tastings or online. This middle ground between consumer, press and trade is currently the most colourful and exciting place to explore wine.