Monday, August 9, 2010

Commentary - The Rise of Wine-Related New Media and its Effects on Wine Writing/Wine Appreciation

It may sound pseudo intellectual, but I believe the making of, and appreciation of wine is very similar to the making of, and appreciation of art/specific artforms. It is the romance, history and complexity of the world of wine that separates it from being a mere beverage. With this in mind, as I love both wine and music, I can see many similarities between the making of, and appreciation of both ‘artforms’.

The similarities are endless: A hot new band can have swagger, an x factor, a ‘unique new sound’ or a charismatic front person. The band can make their music at a certain time and place that maximises sales and exposure, work really hard to generate hype/a loyal following, or could just get really lucky. All of these factors can elevate a band’s music beyond the sum of its technical parts. This can be the case for consistently successful artists, stars that burn bright and quickly fade away or for artists that shun popularity and seek a more underground audience.

Wine, wineries, wine regions and wine trends share similar features to their music equivalents in this regard– a style of wine can emerge from nowhere, when previously it was derided and dismissed: it can suddenly become a ‘wow factor’ style of wine, and on the lips (figuratively and literally) of thousands of trendy consumers. Wine styles of a previous era can be ‘re-invented (or just re-introduced) and gain newfound popularity. Cool new wineries, exciting new wine makers, etc can emerge like vinous rock stars and let their charisma drive further sales.

Like music trends (disco, glam rock, grunge), a group of consumers or wine drinkers can all collectively become disillusioned with a winery or wine style and make a gradual or sudden shift to something new (either spontaneously or more commonly being influenced by market forces). Finally a wine drinker can be gradually be worn down by a dominant wine style, and then seek out a new, fresh, fully marketed alternative that they embrace.

I could go on (and hope to post some semi-serious stories on the same topic in the future), suffice to say these similarities between the two ‘artforms’ also apply to the people who commentate on music and wine. The evolution of commentary on music has also occurred with wine, albeit at a slower pace. This is the primary topic of the article.

As a wine blogger and user of Twitter, I read with interest a print-media article by MW Andrew Corrigan in the July/August edition of the Australian wine magazine ‘Winestate’ titled ‘Writers, Bloggers and Tweeters’.

It seems Corrigan does not believe wine blogs contribute positively to wine discussion. In fact, he argues that bloggers may have a negative impact on the world of wine. In the article, Corrigan argues that wine blogs are too long, irrelevant, ‘not very good’, ‘gushing with enthusiasm and technically poor’. Corrigan argues that the common use of terms such as ‘seriously good booze’ in wine blogs is unhelpful, and prevents a potential buyer from properly assessing the merits of a wine being reviewed.

Following my initial feeling of ‘just don’t read small-scale wine blogs’ (to save further angst and frustration), I started to realise that Corrigan’s argument ignores or skims-over the nature and rationale behind the rapid and ongoing growth of online discussion and online content (across a large number of different topics, including wine).The world of wine journalism is not alone in being affected by this growth; indeed, all forms of journalism are experiencing similar problems. However, this is not a bad thing for wine appreciation or wine consumption.

The increase in the number of part-time/amateur/serious wine blogs is merely the result of the online presence of wine ‘catching up’ to the online world of music, sport and food commentary. The exponential growth of mobile broadband-enables smart phones, iPads/tablet PCs rapidly increases the number of hours in the day a consumer can read about topics that interest them.

Noting the aforementioned similarities between the worlds of music and wine, topics like music, sport and food have thousands of related websites on the internet, from the most basic blog, MySpace music sites and expensive, well-organised websites. The fact that wine is starting to see more and more small scale, part time blogs emerge is symptomatic of this broader, irreversible online growth.

In many ways, what separates the part-time wine blogs from the more serious blogs and the fully-paid websites is the fact Bloggers are indulging in a passion on the side – Wine is a prominent part of many people’s lives, but it may not generate the primary income of a blogger (as much as many would want it to). Therefore, most wine bloggers are no different to music bloggers, or film bloggers or food bloggers – they are indulging in a part time passion with no entry requirements based on the quality, accuracy or frequency of their output.

Print journalism has been in gradual and relative decline for years – well before twitter / / WordPress were launched. In the face of this decline in revenue from print media, the ‘old media’ organisations like News Ltd have been grappling with how to monetize online content for some time now, and are yet to find a workable solution. Understandably, if the number of full-time, print media news journalists is declining, the number of more specialised full time, specialised wine journalists is also likely to decline. However, this is not necessarily caused by the growth of wine blogs.

The increase in wine-related information using new-media is the result of the availability of this online forum to express oneself and share in a passion than it is to try and ‘muscle-in’ on established wine writers, or forge a career from wine (by and large). With this growth comes the explicit understanding that not all online content can be taken on face value or treated like it is as valid as a wine review from Jancis Robinson, Robert Parker Jr or James Halliday (noting how subjective wine reviews are, and how reviewers like Parker in particular can polarize opinion).

As with ‘conspiracy theory’ blogs, or amateur music blogs, most readers of online content can make an educated call on how trustworthy or respectable an online source is – wine blogs will not lead to the end of days.

Quite the opposite - the growth in wine-related online content should see an increase demand for output from respected wine writers as the casual wine enthusiast progresses from a part-time blog to a more professional wine writer (and probably back again to the more specialised wine blogs). This new demand generated from online interest would include the purchase of more traditional hard copy wine books, though also increased subscriptions to wine websites and Iphone/smartphone wine applications.

Therefore, the proliferation of blogs will probably continue. The collective quality of the output of these blogs and twitter feeds is not guaranteed to improve, and may get worse. Many sites and wine-related Twitter accounts have, and will continue to spark and fade, with a handful gaining enough of a toe-hold to establish themselves and improve with experience. None of this should be seen as damaging to the world of wine appreciation, wine consumption or wine writing: the growth of new media and its use by wine writers and wine buffs will only expose/ introduce more and more people to the world of wine, with all its history, romance and complexity. The challenge for the capable online and offline wine communicator is to educate and shape the increased number of people reading about wine online in a way that suits both parties. Surely this is a positive, not a negative. After all, if you do not like what is being posted, you can always switch off your iPad or laptop!

PS: Just throwing this out there, and not intended to offend. All comments / alternative views more than welcome.


Andrew Graham said...

Good post. Go wine blogs!

Brown said...

Thanks Andrew. Just some thoughts on the topic. Can't see the blogs inflicting too much harm on humanity.


Chris Plummer said...

Lovely post Brown. Much agreed on pretty much everything you've written (although I am obviously somewhat biased), and would love to post a deeper reply on your numerous points of conversation, but I'm afraid it might end up being as long as your original post! Probably something we'd be better off discussing the old fashioned way, over a glass of wine :)

Chris P

Brown said...

Cheers Chris. When you are next in Sydney we should definitely exchange thoughts on this over a glass if wine (or two)!

Jeremy Pringle said...

A very well written post with a lot of food for thought and some great analogies. I hope to read further exploration of these ideas on your site down the track (although I am fully aware that such posts are a little more demanding and time consuming than most tasting notes :) )


ps- As with CP, I would love to add some thoughts but best to do it on my blog when I have time and link to yours, otherwise this comment just won't fit ;)

Vinedrops said...

Totall agree.
I spend considerable time working with winemakers, and I have always viewed them as a cross between;
- artists (the expression of their creative vision) and
- scientists (required technical skill to achieve their vision, just us a musician needs to be able to play their instrument.

Great blog guys.


Jeremy Pringle said...

Interesting you should mention the artist/scientist issue Nelson. I spoke to Louisa Rose (cheif winemaker of Yalumba) recently and she viewed winemakers as existing at different points on that contiuum.

I think she stradles both extremes very well. I believe she has a background in nuclear physics, although it is not something she is keen to advertise. And her expression of creative vision is clear in many of her wines and in conversation with her.

Mike said...

Great blog post. Really thought provoking even at 8am! People who can't accept new forms of media feel threaten from it because they realize there might be someone out there that writes about their topic in this case wine better than themselves and also give it away for free. They believe free content is worthless where in fact someone who writes for free can sometimes be worthwhile to read because the people writing it have a true PASSION for the topic!

Brown said...

Thanks Mike and Nelson for your kind comments. I definitely feel the passion most winemakers have for their profession (and their 'art'), and this comes out in the wines more often than not. As for online writing (wine-related and other), it is part of a brave new world that is ever-changing. I am glad passion and enthusiasm for a subject can now be projected to a (potentially) very large audience. It means we can indulge in a part-time passion ourselves, and hopefully have some people read it and enjoy it!!

Anonymous said...

I know I've missed the moment with this discussion - just discovered this blog ...

You're spot on about blogs widening the appeal of wine commentary. I never read traditional wine reviews because I have little in common with people writing the reviews, so don't feel they 'get' where I'm coming from when I enjoy a glass or two. I'm less likely to consider advice from a professional wine writer than I am from a friend who 'knows a bit about wine'.

Looking forward to more posts on this Brown


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