Friday, 13 November 2009

The future of wine writing (part two)

I've surfaced from the online coverage of winefuture hoping that no-one else has been listening to it. This is because I'm steadily coming to the conclusion that if things continue, wine writers won't matter and the ones that do matter might not be able to get themselves heard.

The main problem: we've all got to be friends.

Many people on Twitter (a self-selecting bunch, I admit) kept banging on about how all these new web tools would bring wine into a glorious new age. Everyone, from writer to marketer kept harping on about it. One person even talked about 'developing the future for the common good'. What does that mean?

Well it means that the all-encompassing power of the internet and its tools, such as the aforementioned Twitter, will be able to bring wine lovers into a great global community.

We'll just have one big chat about wine.

So who's got the most important voice? Well, whoever's got the best statistics. It's all 'hits' and 'unique users', which only shows that some wine websites have good search engine rankings. Although a good search engine ranking means more relevance to the subject in hand, it doesn't mean the writing is (a) any good or (b) objective. Because if wine estates got their websites right, their website should rank top in google when someone types in their name. Relevant? Yes. Friendly? Yes. Impartial? Probably not.

If I wanted to blow the dream that we can all be a happy, sharing community with wine in common, I'd haul up the example of Jancis Robinson. And she might well be more canny than most wine writers. Refusing to put the all-inclusive '#winefuture' sign in front of most of her Twitter posts, she ensured that anyone looking for (her) coverage of winefuture had to go to her Twitter page and did not participate in the general discussion. Assuming she had an audience it bizarrely restores some of my faith in the future of wine writers and their willing readers.

Some people really do have an audience. With producers like Randall Grahm leading the way on Twitter (he has a quarter of a million people following him) the idea that wine writers can use social media to communicate with consumers is, to all intents and purposes, over. If corporately applied, producers using Twitter will be able to jam the airwaves with endless, self-congratulatory dross (imagine it: "Lafite RT @MichelRolland Just put the microx bulb 2cm too deep in the Cabernet tank ROFLOL").

Talking of 'bigging yourself up', another theme was the importance of 'the human story' behind the brand, or the 'personal content' of its website. The subtext here is twofold: the product itself (what's in the bottle) is merely a cipher. What is important is the story that goes with it. If you think some of the dross on back labels is bad, brace yourselves - it's going to get worse. Wine may well be on the brink of entering the vacuous world of the cult of personality.

So if the quality of the product is of less importance, that everyone's voice is getting mixed up, and we're all trying to be friends, where does that leave (a) the future quality of the wines we drink, (b) those whose job it is to assess them and (c) how on earth we communicate about wine?

What's the solution? Well, I have to be honest here - there isn't one. If anything, winefuture perfectly illustrated the future of wine. In a mix of voices, some were good (interesting), some were bad (self-promoting), it was just impossible to tell which was which from the program.

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At 14 November 2009 05:13 , Blogger Zev Robinson said...

interesting points, not sure about some of your conclusions.
1 - anyone jamming up my twitter waves gets dropped/un-followed. You have to make and keep it interesting and give others room.

2 - I'm not so sure that it is any different now than it was in the past. Lots of people were "bigging themselves up" at Winefuture, not just those young bloggers. Lots of "how fantastic this is/we are/I am", much less critical debate at a time when the whole industry in Spain is in a critical crisis on many levels. There's far more debate on the web than there was in Winefuture.

3 - No greater cult of personality in wine than that of Robert Parker. He's been a necessary figure making a valuable contribution and has transformed the world of wine, but he's just one man with a particular taste, excluding many other styles as well, I'm told.

4 - I'd just as soon trust Ryan Opaz and others who I hung out with at Winefuture and EWBC on what to taste or to look for in wine than Robert Parker. thirstforwine once gave me a master class on traditional Rioja wines, something I probably couldn't get from Parker. I know 2 MW's and 2 MW students as well. I like a variety of opinions and points of views, I like democracy not autocracy. Social media enables me to get that. It doesn't mean a big, happy family, it means that no patri/matriarch can feel too secure as the head of the house, or even that there is one.

5 - social media isn't just Twitter and FB, there are blogs like Catavino and sites like Adegga, where you can get an overall or aggregate rating for wine, not go out to buy a magazine or three to see what a much more limited no. of people say.

6 - Ryan Opaz may not be as dynamic a speaker as Gary Vee, but the content of what he was saying was a good as anything at winefuture. Robert Parker was once a non-professional upstart, now, seemingly, he may not be pleased that his position is being threatened by other non-pro upstarts.

7 - More consumers have easy access to information on wine now than they ever had before. Many consumers may not have bought wine magazines, but can now easily read and even enter into the debate. It means that the powers that be cannot control the conversation, and I think that anyone who wants to be heard has to embrace that.

8 - A vacuous world? perhaps, but not because of social media. Where were the wine makers at Winefuture? Is there a future of wine without wine makers? Do they not get their voices heard? How about the vine growers?

9 - I'll end with a quote from the 60's - Question authority. Pre-social media, but for all it's flaws, social media has that ability.


Zev Robinson

At 14 November 2009 06:42 , Anonymous Tish said...

Oliver, Zev, both of you make some fine points here. Bottom line: the "conversation" in wine is evolving at warp speed these days. I attribute that in great part to the ability of twitter to highlight topics that are explored in greater depth on blogs. People who care about wine are becoming more aware of and open to the idea that honest and astute viewpoints on wine are simply more plentiful on the Web than in print.

At the same time, the Web in general has raised the bar for transparency among everyone who communicates about wine. Oliver, I am not every worried about the Internet airwaves in genreal or twitter in particular being overrun by self-serving info. Randall Grahm has 250K followers because of his unique perspective and willingness to engage wine in a much greater context than his own bottlings. His massive following is actually evidence that smart wine talk prevails, period.

This is a very exciting time to be in wine. While difficult to gauge the direction of many aspects of the industry, there can be no doubt that the evolution is increasingly happening on the Web and in many cases because of the Web.

At 14 November 2009 07:53 , Blogger Alfonso Cevola said...

Has anyone looked at Randall Grahm's list of 240K followers on Twitter?
His list grew exponentially, almost overnight. Not sure it was an organic growth, but more a result of some internet tweak that was directed to him (most likely, not of his own doing, more some sort of anomaly).

Why do I say that? Look at his "followers" Many of them seem to come from Asia/India and many of them have yet to deliver a "tweet". Are these “bot-followers?”

So to say that he is has an audience- I wonder if that is really the case.

You can look on GaryVee's twitter follow list too - he has plenty of that going on, but more of his followers seem to actually know who he is. I’m sure he has more than his share of “porn-sites-disguised-as-young-girls followers”.

So with these stats and indicators, they all have to be taken with a grain of salt. Gi-Go

Randall Grahm is a master marketer and a nice guy, but I'm not sure his twitter follower list is a viable indication of where the winefuture is taking him or us.

At 14 November 2009 09:11 , Anonymous nathan waks said...

Having had mixed views about some of the online is best conclusions reached at Wine future my next day conclusion is that if all of this helps lead to more people drinking wine and thus debating it, even if only to decide whether it was too sweet or dry, I'm all for it.
Might even help us sell some more booze..

At 15 November 2009 02:24 , Anonymous Oliver Styles said...

Ryan, et al,

Thanks for your well-considered comments. Stepping back from it all, I have to say that the coverage of the event - from Ryan and the others - at least showed (a) what is achievable given the social media [cough] tools and (b) that, as you say, the debate it generated was arguably more interesting, pertinent and honest than what was going on in the room.

I'm not going to go into more depth re: the Grahm arguments etc. because it's a Sunday morning and I've got to go off and clean some empty bottles before bottling a batch of my wine [!] but I will make two points:

As you say, Zev, 'the whole industry in Spain is in a critical crisis on many levels'. So why were people like Jorge Ordonez (who is probably best placed to comment) not given a good grilling on the podium about how to look at ways of getting Spain out of this? There was far too much of the "we're all friends, let's dodge the sensitive stuff as it's the end of the conference"-style questioning and answering. Me, you, the journos, the hosts and the people on the podium were as much to blame.

The second point picks up on point number 6 and Tish's closing comment - the future of Parker and the 'new wave' of wine journalists on the web. I've got too much to say on that to go in here and I'll pen a piece on it a bit later, but I think it is going to be a huge part of the future - and it's already begun.


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