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Palate or Opinion?  Why The Future of Wine Writing is P.I.S.S.’ed


December
1
2010
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Last week, Tom Wark, wine PR pro and champion of wine shipping rights, added to his already busy year by releasing the 2010 American Wine Writer Survey, the first such survey he has completed since 2004, practically the Mesozoic era as compared to today.

Wark, at his own blog Fermentation, highlighted several of the key findings from the survey of wine writers nationwide (here and here) including the value divide in between wine writers and wine publicists as well as a credibility gap in between well-established wine writers and upstarts.

If you haven’t downloaded the full report and read it, I encourage you to do so (link here).  Anybody who reads about wine online or offline will confirm a hunch or glean an insight.  And, glean an insight I did, but first, some background.

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When I started this blog, from the very first day, I took a columnist-style approach.  800 – 1000 words with a beginning, a middle and an end, hopefully with a point.  Good Grape has nearly been a wine blog outlier from the get-go; I’ve heard for five years that much of what I write is, well, different, and loooong.  Sometimes this has been framed positively and often times negatively.  Yet, perhaps, this site is different and long by blog standards, but it’s in line with print standards and online journalism.

Why did I choose this style?  For a couple of reasons:  It was partially based on the enjoyment I get out of writing about the intersection of culture, business and wine in a first person essay style (being a part of the story, but not THE story), partially because I don’t get too fired up to write boiler plate wine reviews or winery stories, and mainly because having grown up reading the newspaper every day I know that the glory position at any newspaper or magazine is the writer that has a column along with a picture.  And, columnists are the writers most often syndicated to other media outlets across the country.  If I was going to start writing a blog perhaps a column-style had the most long-term upside?

With that as background, before I hit the “publish” button for this blog, I pass the column / post through a mental filter that I’ve developed—my P.I.S.S. filter.  It’s a cheeky acronym that represents what I want my writing to be:  Pithy, Insightful, Stylish w/ Substance.

I’ll let you be the judge of whether I accomplish that aim, but I’ve never once regretted taking the approach that I have and I feel validated every time I hear somebody referencing a columnist opinion on sports talk radio or, especially, when somebody name-checks wine writer Matt Kramer and his column at Wine Spectator as being singularly worthy of the magazine subscription price.

In my opinion, columnists and the writers that write them drive today’s mainstream journalism, offline and online.

News matters, but news in context matters more and that’s what columnists do.

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Back to the Wine Writers Survey, I was keenly interested about the topic of wine writing subject matter.  Wark noted in his survey results:

“Interestingly, no matter how you look at and filter the survey results, every subcategory of survey takers choose(s) “reviews of wines” most often as the subject matter they most often write about.  However, it is interesting to note that if you look at the responses to this question by those who also say they maintain their own blog, these folks are much more inclined to identify “Commentary or Opinion” as a subject matter they most often engage.”

The survey noted that 32% of surveyed wine writers do commentary / opinion as a part of their writing. This becomes an important point when juxtaposed against the largest response – wine reviews at 63%—while also being viewed within larger wine writing trends.

First, wine reviews on the 100 point scale are the equivalent of the cockroach that survives the apocalypse, but with the increase in available reviewers online along with tasting notes services combined with popular wine critics aging, the day is not far off when a score is but a score.  Net-net, the score isn’t going away, but there is a point of diminishing return and a level of commoditization based on the trend of sheer quantity of scores coming from all directions.  Eventually, nobody’s going to give a shit when a score doesn’t come from one palate and, equally so, the impact is going to be blunted when a score doesn’t come from a masthead like Wine Spectator.  An aggregated score from CellarTracker will be equally valuable.

Second, the online wine scene has longingly, lovingly and achingly decried the mainstream wine media that serves them as being out of touch with their desires … lifestyle shtick being what it is …

And, by most rationale analysis, the amount of people seeking information online is growing at a pace equal to or greater than new mainstream wine magazine subscribers.

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To put a fine point on it, I’ve heard rumor that Wine Spectator is opening up their site from the previous pay wall.  Wark’s wine writing survey indicates even wine writers see the handwriting on the wall when only 7% prognosticate that in 10 years’ time will print be a primary source for wine information.

So, taken together, an increase in op-ed style commentary driven by blogs, a commoditization of the very wine reviews that currently predominate, a growing online wine community that can’t hack the lifestyle reacharound and a manifest destiny date with the internet being the principal delivery of wine information means what?

It means that if you’re a wine writer, or somebody who likes to read about wine, you should now be able to answer the question about what will be important in wine writing in the future.  Palate or Opinion?  I’ll go with opinion, a P.I.S.S’ed opinion.

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