At its heart, the essence of writing about wine is no different to any form of storytelling. Whether you are a journalist or a blogger, it makes little difference. Right?
“The future of wine journalism is stories. Stories written so well that people will pay to read them. Earn their trust. Be their guide.” Bruce Schoenfeld, a regular contributor to World of Fine Wine magazine, had this to say to an international audience of writers and bloggers at the 2019 annual Wine Media Conference (formerly Wine Bloggers Conference). The event was this year held in the Hunter Valley, north of Sydney in New South Wales, Australia, the first time it has been held outside of the US in its 12-year history. “You are wine writers, or you want to be wine writers, or you wouldn’t be here,” Schoenfeld said.
While Schoenfeld made little distinction between journalists and bloggers, this was not the case with all the speakers at the conference, whose audience was dominated by American wine bloggers. “Blogs are important,” offered Liz Barrett, PR consultant and US wine blogger, during the Online Versus Print Wine Writers discussion on day three. “They offer a certain authenticity because they have a passion. It’s authentic because these people aren’t being paid,” she said, a blogger herself. “Most people do it because they love doing it. They are not trying to be a journalist.”
The “them and us” relationship became a recurring theme, as was the increasingly important role of wine marketers in the wine writing/blogging world. “Wine writing is controlled by wine marketers,” Schoenfeld said. “Wine writing used to be controlled by editors.” Judging by the large number of wine marketers present in the audience and in presenter roles, he might have had a point.
Over three days, WMC topics ranged from the wine media in China to how to promote your brand globally. The rules of media are changing rapidly, said Trish Barry of Mastermind Consulting, as the social media giants pivot to prioritising private conversations between members, versus boosting news feeds. “We are seeing these evolutions happen very quickly as privacy is at the centre of all of the social media networks,” she said.
Barry had five important tips for better social media use, the first of which was to remember that social media is social and requires a two-way dialogue between you and your readers or consumers. Next, define your audience, and know who is reading about wine and buying it. Third, do letter content but better. Posting ten times a day is just clogging up the news feed and it’s better to create content that people will engage with. That means using beautiful images, too. Four, use a paid media strategy – that is, social media advertising – to attract a broader audience. Don’t, however, use Boost Post on Facebook, she advised, but rather Ad Manager, which lets you be strategic about where content goes. Finally, try new things, particularly Instagram stories, which are getting more views than the Instagram feed.
The Wine Media Conference ventured outside the US to Australia partly because of substantial sponsorship. This came from Australian wine producers, including in the host Hunter Valley region, and from Wine Communicators Australia, which contributed A$140,000 ($68,000) in Australian Federal Government funding – a decision that was controversial in Australian wine media circles. The person who secured the government funding and initiated the name change was an influential wine marketer, the executive officer of Wine Communicators Australia, Lynda Schenk. “I understand from Zephyr Conferencing, who own this conference, that they have been wanting to change the name for quite some time,” she said. Schenk noted that the term “wine blogger” isn’t popular in Australia and suggested “wine media” would work better. “And they were happy to change it.”
Schenk applied on WCA’s behalf for the A$140,000 in funding from the Federal Government’s A$50m Export and Regional Wine Support Package. “The rationale was we were going to bring in a number of micro-influencers who are people who write about wine from I guess a more passion-driven perspective as opposed to a paid perspective,” she said. “The grant was around building wine tourism, so therefore the consumer who was reading these influencers’ blogs were people interested in wine. We hoped they would travel to see [Australian] wine regions.”
Sponsorship was a major concern for US-based organiser Allan Wright of Zephyr United Tours & Conferences. “We know what we get in North America [in funding] and we needed to get something similar in Australia,” he said. “We didn’t think we would get it from our typical US sponsors who quite clearly told us that Australia is not their market. It’s not big enough for them to worry about.” He may have been right. When the conference is held in the US, it usually has 200 to 300 attendees. In Australia, the number was closer to 100.
Bruce Schoenfeld acknowledged that there is a serious decline in traditional wine journalism and urged the new generation of wine bloggers to prioritise basic storytelling. “Write about people with interesting stories that will be compelling to readers by the force of the narrative,” he said.
Different content for different channels
Australia’s Gourmet Traveller WINE (GTW) magazine has been a must-read for many wine lovers for 24 years. Its hard copy circulation is 82,000 copies and it attracts a largely male readership (80%). By contrast, its online version attracts 26,000 paid views per month, has 10,600 unique users and is skewed towards a largely female audience (56%). Content varies between the two channels. “There is definitely different forms of writing between the two formats,” explained Josh Martin, GTW writer and presenter. “This [the hard copy magazine] has more tasting notes, too, and it’s a bit more maybe on the technical side, and digital is more about the styling I would say.”
Digital, with its “smaller bites” of information, was the future, it was agreed, partly because it is more shareable, Except when there is a paywall – which many legacy publishers see as a route to profitability since the collapse of advertising, but which many of the new communicators found a problem. “Digital is way more shareable obviously than print, right, because you e-mail it, you can put it up, post it on your social, but when there’s that paywall you can’t share it,” Liz Barrett said. “So when you hit that wall, it’s just a little frustrating.”
For many attendees, however, writing about wine was simply a side passion, not their main focus. Reggie Solomon from Connecticut, for example, is a university fund-raiser by day and wine blogger the rest of the time. “I have a full-time job,” he said. “Most people here have other jobs.” Like many of the 50 US-based attendees, he paid his own way and took time off from work to be there. The best part of the annual conference, he said, was travelling to wine regions for the pre- and post-conference tours. “That’s where you get the real perspective and we meet people in a more intimate setting. This [the conference] is more general.”
To one leading Australian wine writer, the future of wine writing is about diversification. “I do recognise that I do have to diversify; this is where I think the future lies,” Max Allen explained. “One of the ways I’m diversifying is going offline. I’m writing more books – ha, ha, crazy I know.” Allen is writing a cultural history of drinking in Australia, and also presenting a live show, MasterQuiz, with his food writer friend Richard Cornish. “Everybody in the room sits down and there is a carafe of white wine on the table and the only way you can answer the question, ‘What do you think that wine is?’ is by putting it in your mouth. You can’t guess it. You can’t Google that,” he said. “I think the more we go on online, the more we are craving offline experience. I think there is a future in that.”
Allan Wright, the conference organiser, says the lines are now completely and irrevocably blurred. “All wine bloggers are wine media,” he said. “All wine writers are wine media. Wine influencers in some ways are wine media. The lines between them are very blurred.”
This article first appeared in Issue 6, 2019 of Meininger's Wine Business International magazine, available in print and online by subscription.