behind the news

Everyone’s the Wine Expert

Wine critics and bloggers, professional and amateur, are mixed up in a social media web
May 17, 2010

In late 2003, just as wine blogging was starting up on the Internet, Eric Arnold, currently the editorial director of, 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 or’”

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.”

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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, “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 “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., 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.

It should be noted, though, that blogging, at least in the world of wine, only goes so far—and may, in the future, not be enough. Twitter and Facebook are increasingly becoming online stomping grounds for critics, wineries, and retailers. As Derrick Schneider, writing in the San Francisco Chronicle this February, pointed out: In October 2009, there were close to 864,000 online conversations about wine, according to the social media monitoring site Cruvee, three-fourths of which happened on Twitter and similar sites. With those kinds of numbers—along with the ever-growing world of social-media startups—bloggers and traditional publications, to remain viable, will need to stay on top of emerging trends. “We’ve seen a lot of bulletin boards—forms where people can go and have conversations about wine—and Twitter has exploded where people can talk about wine, too,” says Alder Yarrow, who runs the widely-read blog Vinography.

Still, while these trends are important to consider, traditional critics and bloggers need not be overly concerned. Platforms will continue to change, but the glut of information will remain too widespread and too overwhelming for it to make a real impact. At least for now. Readers will continue to want someone who can entertain and inform them—just as it’s always been—while curating the information in a simple format. Most important, though, will remain the prose itself. The more in-depth and enlivening the writing, the more likely the critic or blogger will get noticed. “What we really need are more thoughtful, lengthy blog posts about wine and the changing landscape and things like natural winemaking,” says Jessica Yadegaran, a wine columnist and blogger for the Bay Area News Group.

Wine is, after all, a complex drink, and it needs to be analyzed in a complex way, usually by someone with a deep understanding of wine or by someone with credentials, such as a WSET advanced degree. Which means that while passionate amateur drinkers can write about their experiences with a Bordeaux, say, they’d ideally be able to do so with as much authority and understanding as a professional—something many talented bloggers already do. In fact, at times, it’s hard to discern who’s a professional and who’s not. The surest sign of a blog’s quality: reading a review of the site. As Joe Roberts puts it, “It’s no different, in a way, than picking up a book. If you see a lot of accolades for the work, you think, ‘Maybe I’ll give this a shot.’”

Which is to say, whether written by a professional or an amateur, the one standard for writing about wine today is that it should be entertaining and fresh, maybe even funny, and, at the very least, relatable to its audience—the average drinker, the collector, whomever. It should invite people in and allow them to explore their palates and be curious. Perhaps most of all, as Arnold and Rosen know with their e-newsletters, wine writing should, on top of all these things, make use of social media, too.

Just look at Gary Vaynerchuk, who turned his day job at a family wine store in New Jersey into a digital-media empire through lively, high-energy online TV episodes. Vaynerchuk found so much success, in fact, he wrote a self-help book about it. Is he the next Robert Parker? No. Not yet, anyway. But what Vaynerchuk did (and is still doing, it should be added) does prove a point: All it takes is for a wine critic or blogger to have a unique idea—a Daily Candy-like newsletter for wine, say—to create next big thing. No print publication necessary.

Spencer Bailey is a student in the spring Media Criticism course at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism.