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Garden Party: How To Keep Wine Blogging From Going Mainstream

So... I'm "freshly pressed," so to speak (specifically in terms of palate fatigue and possible liver damage), from the first North American wine bloggers conference in Sonoma. Overall it was a fantastic event, about which I could pen a great number of virtual pages in covering. But that's not what I'm going to write about.

Not exactly, anyway.

I'm also, as I type this, just returned from a visit to C. Donatiello winery in Healdsburg. I could write a lengthy amount (what else is new, right?) about how nice owner Chris Donatiello is (he's quite pleasant, and generous), how beautiful the aroma garden grounds were (very), or the quality of their wines (extremely promising for a first vintage, but unfortunately not yet widely available - anyway, more on those upcoming on my twitter wine review feed).

But that's not what I'm going to write about. Not exactly, anyway.

Instead, I'm going to write about how the face of wine media is changing, and why that's dangerous for wine bloggers. Because I just spent the better part of three days at a conference where I and my fellow wine bloggers were being at times courted by the Sonoma wine industry, which helped to sponsor the event.

The congregation of 150+ wine bloggers at the WBC, whose individual influence in the world of wine could by-and-large be considered modest (at best), or insignificant (at worst), has amassed the collective power and reach of this new(ish) arm of the wine media - one that is now drawing a larger and larger amount of wine marketing attention. Gary Vaynerchuk underscored this during his WBC keynote speech, when he provided the energetic NJ businessman's view of the opportunities available now that the 'old guard' is no longer the all-dominant force in wine media. The attention given to bloggers by PR departments is a natural progression - and now this is happening for the world of wine.

This is a dramatic turn of events compared to how wine blogging was viewed (more or less as a fad) a little more than three years ago. The winemakers, PR, and the Sonoma wine industry in general "get it" - and it's all happening rather quickly thanks to the immediacy of the Internet.

Which means that wine blogging has the potential to completely screw itself now.

First, I need to make one thing very clear: there is nothing wrong with what the PR departments in Sonoma are doing by sponsoring the WBC and courting the wine blog-o-world. It's their job - one that they've been doing for years with the traditional wine media.

In a way, wine blogging has arrived. The danger is that, as guest panelist Tracy Rickman told us during one of the conference breakout sessions, outside factors (such as the potential influence of the courting PR) can influence us to become more and more mainstream. At the moment we actually become mainstream, we have lost our edge (and might as well be 'overtaken' by the next phase of wine media, whatever that may be).


In the same breakout session, Wine Enthusiast's Steve Heimoff cautioned that winery PR would no doubt attempt to "use" us, and that we needed to be prepared - and cautious about to whom we lend our trust. Keynote speaker Alice Feiring (yes, she actually entered CA wine country for this...) added (among some very inspiring dialog), "Trust no one."

What's a wine blogger to do?

Go on blogging, of course!

I'm not saying that bloggers need to become prudes who completely shut down at the very thought of having to walk a tightrope line of credibility just because they've been invited to an industry event, or a personal winery tour, or the like. Heaven knows I've got no problem whatsoever being courted by winemakers, PR contacts, or the wine media in general (in fact, my view is that it's about time this has happened).

The trick is maintaining the willpower to keep a unique, individual, and (hopefully) credibly opinionated voice as a blogger while the "courting" ramps up.

I don't know what the future will bring, but I'm looking forward to the ride...

Cheers (and "Organic Flow" forever)!
(images: 1WineDude.com)


k2 said...


As a blogger who is part of the industry (retail), I think it is both easier and more difficult to prevent the outside influence. Easier in that as a retailer, I control what goes into and goes out of our stores. What brands get featured, what brands are on sale, what brands get better shelf placement or floor displays, etc. But the influence is obvious when, especially the last quarter of the year (OND as it's lovingly refered to in the biz), allows the wholesalers more opportunity to ply their way into our stores, with better deals, allocated items, "staff" incentives, etc. You just have to have the fortitude to say "no." It's not all that easy, but sometimes, you have to switch to A-hole mode in order to protect your dignity and sanity.

Anonymous said...

Hi Dude :)

Does your opinion only refer to the American market? I on the other hand see a more synergistic relationship between Bloggers and the wine industry as a whole.

In fact I think IT in general will soon become an integral part of the global wine industry.

Brandon Marc
My Wine Cellar

Joe Roberts said...

Thanks, k2 - sage advice indeed!

Hey Brandon - I suppose my take is squarely on the NA wine scene (which is my home base, of course). Frankly, I'm jealous of how well-integrated the on-line/blogging scene is in South Africa!

Anonymous said...

Hey there, Dude! It was great tasting with you this weekend and getting to know you and your family in person!
Also, very good and succinct writeup here about our (wine blogosphere) on-going discussion on wine blogger credibility and our increasing exposure and influence.
Have a great rest of the trip!

Anonymous said...

"The trick is maintaining the willpower to keep a unique, individual, and (hopefully) credibly opinionated voice as a blogger while the "courting" ramps up."

Dude, the courting makes you high at first -- it's so flattering -- but after a while you see it for what it is. As soon as you stop writing about wine, the phone stops ringing. So it's not hard maintaining will power. All it takes is personal integrity which I think most bloggers have. And those who don't will be busted by bloggers like you.

Anonymous said...

Hey Joe,

(so tempted to say, "where you going with that gun in your hand?")

Fantastic to meet you, finally, at WBC. I read with jealousy (and looked at the pic with even more jealousy) of all the fun you're having in my absence. Well, look forward to more fun in the future. Safe travels, man, and enjoy the rest of your trip.

Anonymous said...

We can only control ourselves. Fortunately, advetorial stuff is easy to spot and the kiss of death for most folks.

The part that concerns me is the guilt by association.

Organic flow was the way to go!

Joe Roberts said...

Thanks, Steve - Great finally meeting you in person. You make a great point; the wine blogging "collective" has the unique diversity (and therefore opportunity) to police itself, provided that we maintain enough collective integrity to do so.

Ward - Great finally meeting you as well, hoping we don't have to wait a year before we get to see you again, my man!

ablegrape - Keep fighting the good fight, and special thanks to you for the amazing wine selections at the after-after party!

dirty - you are a blogger, and a gentleman! I agree with you, we've seen already that guilt-by-association can harm the wine blogging community; but we've also seen that same community heal itself afterward, all in the span of about 6 weeks, which is an amazing turn-around, and speaks to the bright future we've got if we can maintain that kind of momentum.


viNomadic said...

What a clear-eyed assesment. You seem to walk the tighrope of pragmatic integrity with unusual power & grace. Wish I'd managed my endurance better to hang out more. Next time, soon. Salud!

Joe Roberts said...

DJR-S - Thanks for the comment & the kind words. Great to meet you this weekend!

Taster B said...

Hey Joe, (yeah, I didn't realize how tempting it is to quote Jimmy after that salutation)
Very astute. I definitely got that vibe last weekend a little bit too. Alas, I guess it is what it is.
Collectively, wine bloggers have something wine producers want: eyeballs. And, they have something we are interested in: wine. So it's kind of a synergistic relationship but, like you said, it's a tightrope act to keep it real as a blogger and not get carried away by it all.

That being said, I hope your band can play a gig at C. Donatiello someday because that would just be awesome. ;)

Joe Roberts said...

Thanks, Taster B - great meeting you, and I will send you an invite if the band gets a gig...

C. Donatiello said...

I'll let you know when we start putting together the band list for 2009.
-Chris Donatiello

Joe Roberts said...

thanks, Chris (for the post, and for your generosity!) - I know a decent bass player! ;-)

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