Debate, indeed. While many bloggers think that they are bettering what was, for a long time, largely considered to be an elitist institution, some longtime wine critics remain wary of the openness that online communication allows. Most bloggers think they deserve more credit for writing about wine in fresh, timely ways; many professionals feel snubbed and less respected. Now that anyone can call himself a critic—with only a few clicks of the keyboard—the purpose of wine criticism continues to be called into question. Some think wine criticism is bunk; others find it useful. Contradictions abound. “Maybe what blogging will do is undermine the whole idea that this is a subject that is rich and deep and requires some substantive thought and substantive knowledge,” says Karen MacNeil, author of The Wine Bible and one in a small stable of writers that wine critic Robert Parker has recruited to contribute to his Web site, erobertparker.com. “If everybody’s an expert,” she says, “nobody’s an expert.”
MacNeil, for the most part, is right. Magazine writers, newspaper columnists, and heavyweight critics like Parker—the industry’s leading critic, who launched The Wine Advocate in 1982 and created the 100-point rating system widely in use today—have become respected for a reason. These writers and critics really know their stuff, and the brands they write for are trusted as a result. But with a younger generation entering the marketplace, looking for cheaper, more affordable bottles, how wine is covered, critiqued, and written about is changing.
All of which raises the question: Do we really need expert critics anymore? Many bloggers don’t think so, arguing that credentials are merely one part of what makes a great wine writer. How you say something—not simply who says it, they argue—is what’s most important. “Readers today have got to feel like the experts connect with them in some way,” says Joe Roberts, who runs the blog 1WineDude.com. “It’s not just, ‘Oh, this person’s got great credentials because they work for Wine Enthusiast.’”
To keep up with this slew of new, often amateur voices, expert critics must now both connect with their readers in a conversational way and still inform them. It’s a process, for some publications and writers, that’s been seamless; for others, it’s been a gradual, if not awkward, transition. “I come to this new media somewhat reluctantly,” says MacNeil, who writes what she calls “blog-icles,” a cross between a blog and a long-form article.
For some critics, blogging is simply too stripped-down, too punchy. It is, like a bad wine, not refined or complex enough. That sentiment is understandable—who are these bloggers, after all, to call themselves qualified?—but it is also outdated. It presents problems that have plagued old-media publications for years: That for too long not enough voices were heard. That too much of wine writing was stale, appealing largely to the Baby Boomer crowd. That wine coverage remained too limited in scope for too long. Web-driven changes over the past several years have thus left traditional media scrambling. “They try to go into the blogosphere, and they still bring their old-guard attitude,” says Alice Feiring, who runs the blog In Vino Veritas. “It’s sort of like an old guy trying to look hip. It just rings false.”
Take The Wine Spectator, which has blogs written by its editors, but requires a minimum one-month membership at $7.95 to read them. Charging for all of its online content certainly seems to be an out-of-touch move, if not an overtly exclusive one, in an industry that has so much free information online already—and especially for a magazine with a $75 annual subscription, which could use its online blogs to boost print sales. Erobertparker.com, not surprisingly, does the same. These wine-writing empires, of course, have businesses to run; but they are limiting their readerships by design. The same middle-aged, middle- to upper-class readers—and drinkers—that have been following them for a decade or two will likely continue to do so, but that population will eventually dry up in the years to come. What then?
Other publications, meanwhile, have embraced the Web more openly, with some success. Wine Enthusiast, for example, has free blogs, which, though updated only a couple times a week, are brief, entertaining, and informative—the way a blog should be. And their editors have implemented new media, too, adding 1,000 wine reviews a month and regularly posting videos of interviews and tastings. Wine Enthusiast’s online presence is, as its Web site notes, “fun, fresh, and accessible.” Then there’s Steve Heimoff, the magazine’s West Coast editor, who also runs his own personal blog, where he writes thoughtful, in-depth posts. Such openness will surely attract a larger—and maybe even younger—audience.