If it has one undeniable skill, the wine fraternity is extraordinarily good at the obsessive and microscopic examination of its navel. But you can't blame the professional wine writers from wondering whether they are to be supplanted by bloggers. Newspaper and magazine columns have shrunk inexorably over the last decade, a trend which is now being further exacerbated by the disappearance of the publications themselves. In the UK, Wine Magazine (with which, to declare an interest, I was involved throughout its 22 years' lifespan) no longer exists; nor does Wine & Spirit International its sister title, which is now part of Harpers, a once-weekly UK trade magazine whose frequency has recently halved. The crunch has also affected publications in developing markets: in Russia, for example, Magnum, an impressive, glossy young title has also closed its doors. Meanwhile, in the US, publishers of major newspapers are openly questioning their ability to survive the current crisis.
And then there are blogs. Derided by those who haven't ventured beyond the tedious "what-I-had-for-breakfast-and-watched-last-night-on-tv" efforts as entirely self-centered, not to say downright onanistic, these have grown at a rate that defies belief. According to a 2008 Technorati report, featured in a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal, there were already over 22 million bloggers in 2007; 184 million people have started a blog; 77% of active Internet users read blogs and in the summer of 2008, four of the top entertainment sites (including numbers one and two) were blogs. A Guardian article earlier this month seriously floated the notion that the Huffington Post, which has just "invested" $1.2m into investigative journalism, might actually replace the New York Times. Anyone who dismisses the idea that a blog could ever supplant one of the world's great newspapers should pause to consider the fact that the former has raised $25m with apparent ease while the latter is, in the Guardian's words. "a life-or-death struggle to pay its debts".
The most thoughtful piece I've seen on wine blogging is by the Boston-based blogger Thor Iverson on Oenologic. In it, he points out that "blogging remains primarily a hobbyist’s pursuit… which, incidentally, is exactly the situation print wine writing has found itself in for some time. Only a tiny, tiny number of bloggers and print wine writers can actually support themselves by writing about wine." Iverson believes that, ultimately, the vinous blogosphere will reflect the traditional print world: writers/publishers with genuinely authoritative voices will increasingly dominate the market. In many cases, given the difficulties inherent in trying to have something valuable to say on every aspect of wine, the winners will be specialists like Peter Liem on Champagne and Allen Meadows on Burgundy who seek to share their obsessive interest, experience and expertise of a particular style or region. Access to sites like these comes at a price - of $79 and $125 respectively in the case of champagne.net and burghound.com - which shouldn't deter anyone who really wants high quality information on either style of wine. Many general wine fans will similarly find it easy to justify the £69/$99 it costs to subscribe to Jancis Robinson and/or Robert Parker. But, again as Iverson points out, blog-reading time is a finite resource. While you are perusing these words, Iverson's or Robinson's, you can't be reading anybody else's. Unless you are a very unfortunate in your personality or circumstances, you will also need to venture out into the real world and focus your brain on - and hopefully indulge in and relish - other aspects of the human condition.
And that's ultimately what I like best about blogging on wine - or on any other subject: the purity of the myriad relationships between reader and writer. This is the real world where millions of individuals pass each other by without noticing, indulge in brief conversations (fact-chasing via google), one-night-stands (deriving satisfaction from a single blog post without ever needing returning to it) and enduring marriages (aka subscriptions).