In late 2003, just as wine blogging was starting up on the Internet, Eric Arnold, currently the editorial director of BottleNotes.com, had never written a word about wine. “At least nothing professionally or intelligently,” he says. But he was interested in breaking into what was, at that point, the small, niche world of wine writing. So rather than go the usual route—visit wine tastings, pitch stories to magazines and newspapers—Arnold decided to “learn and write about wine [his] own way.” This meant, for him, moving New Zealand, where he lived and worked on a vineyard for fourteen months.
The result was a book, First Big Crush, which also helped land Arnold a job as a writer and editor at Wine Spectator. After that, he became the lifestyle editor of Forbes—a job he left last month for his current post at a new online startup, where he focuses on social-media technologies while overhauling a newsletter called The Daily Sip. “It’s basically like Daily Candy for wine,” he says.
If Arnold had started writing about wine this year, though, he may have skipped the trip abroad, the jobs at Wine Spectator and Forbes, and even the book—and simply started a blog. Which is what Eric Rosen, a 29-year-old freelance wine and travel writer in Los Angeles, says he’s planning to do later this summer. In fact, like Arnold, Rosen is launching a newsletter—“like a Daily Candy for wine,” he says—that will be called Cluster Crush. “It’s going to be a little tongue and cheek,” he says, “and basically we’re going to pick a region or a varietal each month to talk about.”
Arnold and Rosen—and their e-newsletters—represent what’s become a fast-growing phenomenon within the world of wine criticism and writing. These days, many young, social-media savvy bloggers are fragmenting what was once a lofty territory reserved for mostly stalwart, high-profile publications like Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast. Some bloggers, like Arnold, are leaving more traditional publications for startups; others, like Rosen, are creating passion projects they hope to turn into full-time jobs. Why? Because social media technologies allow anybody with an Internet connection to quickly and easily write about anything—even wine. The point of entry to become a wine writer, in fact, has never been so low. As Tom Wark, a public relations professional who runs the wine blog Fermentation, recently put it: “Around 2004, I came across the blog format. What struck me was, ‘Oh my God, it’s so easy to create a fairly sophisticated Web site that is easy to update and allows me to reach people as easily as Time.com or NYTimes.com.’”
Nowadays, there are well over 1,000 wine blogs; six years ago, only a handful existed. Such rapid change has allowed for tremendous shifts in the order of things—some beneficial, some problematic. A number of amateur bloggers, for instance, now call themselves critics. This is, some argue, a worrisome trend for the winemaking industry itself, if not also for professional wine writing. (“There are a lot people that don’t know shit about wine and blog about it,” says Jeff Lefevre, who runs the blog Good Grape, which he claims is among the top 1 percent of wine blogs in terms of Web traffic.) But the truth is that the Web also has its benefits, allowing experts, aficionados, and amateurs alike to share and discuss their passions about wine in ways that were never before possible—or so openly available. Even though long-established publications still hold sway today, the abundance of bloggers suggests good news for a print-driven culture that has often been considered clubby and exclusive.
The biggest explanation for the massive growth of online wine content—aside from digital media’s democratizing effect in general, of course—is that wine is a drink that, by its very nature, lends itself to being social. That is, wine is enjoyed primarily in the company of others. Blogs, Twitter, and Facebook are thus, like wine, lubricants for writers and critics. Social media platforms, in other words, act as free and open forums in which to create a dialogue about wine. As Kim Stare Wallace, the vice president of Dry Creek Vineyard who runs her own blog, Wilma’s Wine World, says of the recent online shift: “While the traditional media are still important, now there are lots of voices. It’s changing like crazy, and there’s a lot of debate about it.”