Blogging a dead horse
Author: Claire Hu - Wine & Spirit News Desk
Online diarists have opened up new possibilities for wine. But are they still effective - or just open to corruption? Claire Hu investigates
I start to investigate the world of wine blogging one afternoon and get sucked into a cyber black hole, emerging many hours later with a pounding head and dry mouth. The depth and breadth of wine's virtual world is astounding, with link leading to link, comment to counter-comment and one website to another. Some of the sites are engaging, some seriously nerdy and some complete dross, but it's obvious the universe of wine blogging is expanding, and at a lightning rate.
Blogging is becoming an increasingly powerful communication tool in the wine world, used by everyone from nerds discussing what they drank with dinner to big corporations who are starting to recognise the scope and influence of the medium. Google "wine blog" and nearly 10 million hits come up, and it's growing all the time as a challenge to traditional media.
Blogging as a way of talking about wine has evolved from its beginnings a decade ago as an anti-establishment, counter cultural reaction to very formal and stuffy writing on the subject to become pretty mainstream these days. This year alone, Majestic Wine and Waitrose became just two of the big guys who have launched their own "blogs", and the queue of sponsors clamouring to back the world's first wine blogging conference in August bears witness to the influence being accredited to the people behind the posts.
But is blogging good for wine? The blogosphere seems to be at a crossroads, with an investigation by W&S revealing it is coming under increasing commercial pressures that threaten its very raison d'être as an informal, immediate and independent way of chatting about wine.
As well as major retailers and suppliers trying to get in on the act with their own blogs, the bloggers are being offered cash in return for favourable product reviews on their sites. And a US supplier that regularly posts favourable reviews of its own products on bloggers' sites is just the tip of the iceberg. It's becoming increasingly hard to distinguish which content is independent and which is commercially motivated.
Blogging is undergoing a metamorphosis, changing into something very different from its origins a decade ago, when the practice evolved from the early discussion boards and online diaries - the word is a shortened form of weblog . With the term now used by every Tom, Dick and Harry to try to give either their company or their wines a "down with the kids" image, does the word even mean anything any more?
Jamie Goode, who was one of the first writers to launch a blogging element on his site, wineanorak.com, in 2001, believes web wine writers tread an increasingly fine line between commercial and editorial considerations. A scientist by trade, he has made the decision to go full-time on the site after being made redundant from his day job.
While Goode believes there is nothing wrong with making money from sites through ads or by getting other editorial commissions on the back of the sites, he agrees the independence of recording one's drinking online is being eroded. "I decide if something goes on the blog myself," he says. "The most important thing is that there is interesting content, and for all the ads I run on the site I make sure I know the companies are respectable. I would never accept payment for reviews, and I think if you do you would need to declare it."
Others, though, do accept cash from merchants and suppliers in return for reviews. At great personal risk to himself (imagine hundreds of wine nerds descending on your home), Charles Short, of cluelessaboutwine.co.uk, has decided to lift the lid on what he sees as the hijacking of the editorial integrity of wine blogs. "You have a lot of wine companies asking if you can write about products for £15 or £50," he says. "You have to submit your piece for approval before it goes up. Lots of companies are trying to do product placements on blogs. But I don't want to compromise my integrity for a bottle of plonk. When a reader goes on a blog, they expect to be reading an unbiased opinion; they don't expect to be guided by commercial considerations."
Short believes a good blog should have a strong personal element. "When I got into wine, I wasn't interested in reading about why grapes are green, but people's personal and emotional connection with wine."
The more intelligent companies are starting to grasp how to use blogging as a marketing tool themselves, rather than infiltrating other peoples' sites. Just look at how South African brand Stormhoek managed to spread its message by stealth when it launched in 2005, engaging with drinkers through its own blogging site and tools such as inviting websters to design the labels for two of its wines.
It was a cheap and effective viral campaign and, although its parent company, Orbital Wines, collapsed in December, its marketing success was the envy of many in the trade. And who can forget the so-called "gaffe" when Thresher sent out 40 per cent-off vouchers to friends and family in the build-up to Christmas 2006, only to have them widely circulated on the web through the blogging community? The scheme resulted in a massive sales up lift and gave the company lots of free PR in the national press - indeed, one can't help wondering if the whole "mistake" was engineered f rom the beginning with the bloggers in mind.
Is the proliferation of blogging actually good for wine knowledge? Well, yes and no. Blogs have helped democratise the subject in terms of anyone being able to start talking about wine on the web . But there is little quality control and there really is an awful lot of rubbish out there. Pressure is growing for a bloggers' code of conduct due to some of the inaccurate and libellous content that goes up. It could be argued that blogs are unlikely to ever replace magazines or books because, by their very nature, they are not really a format to be mulled over or savoured - they are rather an immediate, personal and interactive form of communication.
There is a broad scale in terms of the quality of content. Indeed, much of what bloggers discuss is what other bloggers are doing, rather than fresh ideas - it's soon apparent that the community is quite a strange, small and rather inward-looking world. Just hours into starting this article, I had been contacted by many bloggers I did not know from all over the world, and even appeared on one site. Who told them? I began to feel I was being watched.
This rapid spread of information across the web also bears witness to the growth of social networking sites for the wine trade. Now it seems you are no body in the trade unless you are someone on Facebook, LinkedIn or new sites such as the Open Wine Consortium. These sites have become much more than a way of chatting with mates - they are now an important professional tool used for everything from announcing a new restaurant to a wine product launch .
When it comes to big companies blogging , Goode is somewhat scornful, although he rates sites such as Bibendum's. "Blogging has traditionally appealed to people who are disenfranchised with normal forms of communication so it doesn't sit so well with big companies . What are they going to say that's fresh when what they are really trying to do is represent their products?" In response, retailers who have turned their hand to blogging say they believe it will help give them more personality.
Majestic 's new blog will feature everything from a harvest report to a discussion of duty increases by a store manager. But e-commerce manager Richard Weaver is realistic about its limitations .
"It's a great way of communicating with customers and encouraging a dialogue about issues in a way the main website can't," he says. "We want there to be a personal tone, but we make no secret it's a professional site and will be moderated."
Neal Martin, who gained a wide following as writer and blogger on his site, wine-journal.com, and was then head-hunted by Robert Parker for his website , believes the improving quality of wine writing on the web means sites are proving a serious challenge to books and magazines. Although he says he "detests" the word blogging because of its amateurish reputation, Martin believes it is gaining in stature. "If you are going to be doing this as a career you need to stand out with the quality of your writing," he says.
Goode, meanwhile, takes a slightly alternative view on the co existence of traditional and new forms of wine media."The internet is a powerful way of communicating some things but books and magazines do other things better. There will always be a place for magazines because people do like to be able to see something physical, and it's so much more relaxing to sit on the sofa and read than in front of a screen."
The first wine blogging conference takes place in August in Rioja and is being organised by Robert McIntosh of http://wineculture.blogspot.com, who is also brand ambassador for three Rioja winemakers. Bloggers from all over Europe will descend on the town to discuss issues such as how to set up websites, wine writing and how to appeal to advertisers. The aim is also, according to McIntosh, to encourage new voices to emerge from the community. "We need to find the Jamie Oliver of the wine blogging world, but we are some way off that."
Some cool blogs
Simon Woods' site is about "wine for people with a life", and this gives some clue to the irreverent, humorous tone of the blog. It's well-written, accessible stuff which focuses on the enjoyment of wine. What a novel idea. The only gripe would be that it really needs to be updated a bit more often.
Titled "Wine and Food Adventures in San Francisco and Around the World", Alder Yarrow's site has won awards for its wine reviews. There are some cool links, such as a search engine, calendar of postings, free wine tasting tool, "ramblings and rants" and regular posts on anything from Chinese wines to trade gossip.
This is a simply designed site with great pictures from the French photographer and writer Bertrand Celce. Focusing on smaller producers and quirky stories, the posts could discuss anything from wine bars in To kyo to the filter/unfilter wine debate.
From wine writer Andrew Barrow, the site has a professional air and is quite "tradey", featuring a lot of wine news and developments. There is also a focus on food and wine matching, and plenty of good links.
The erudite wine philosopher has recently set up a blogging element on his site. Outspoken on matters ranging from the weather in Santorini to Fairtrade wines, click here for a lesson in stylish writing.
Do's and don't of wine blogging
_ Find a niche. Some of the best sites specialise in an aspect of wine such as fortheloveofport.com or burgundy-report.com
_ Find fresh subjects to discuss in an engaging way
_ Check punctuation, spelling, grammar and facts
_ Try to move up the Google rankings by choosing relevant keywords and headlines, interesting and newsy content and setting up link exchanges. Tagging key words and blog rolls also help s
_ Rehash old content. Find your own voice
_ Over-edit. The appeal of a blog is its immediate and interactive appeal, but see above
_ Just put up tasting notes. It's boring
_ Be too trivial - keep it real instead
_ Over-do the technology. Better to keep it simple and effective