A column that originally appeared in Meininger's Wine Business International
It’s always interesting to watch a metamorphosis – especially when it has commercial implications. Not so long ago, before the advent of video recorders and catch-up tv, we all tuned in to watch television programmes at the same times, communicated by letter and fax and got our information from printed books and newspapers. And the wine industry did most of its communication through targeting hospitality, samples and press releases at a group of people known as wine writers.
The members of the industry – a huge majority, I fear - who still believe in that strategy, should take note of a keynote speech given by Andrew Jefford, one of the world’s most highly-regarded, thoughtful and poetic wine writers, to the fifth European Wine Bloggers Conference – EWBC - in Izmir, Turkey, last November.
“The creature we used to call ‘a wine writer’ has died.” Jefford declared, going on to say that writing was now the “the least remunerative of the things I do.” He may still be a regular contributor to Decanter and World of Fine Wine magazines, but that part of his activity represents a shrinking 40% of his income. Tim Atkin another UK-based multi-award-winning critic who spoke at the EWBC, separately made a similar point, saying that, in his case, the figure is closer to 25%.
This is not to say that Jefford and Atkin are no longer in the business of exercising their skills and sharing their opinions about wine; they broadcast, teach, make public appearances of one kind or another and are simply no longer financially reliant on the publishers of newspapers, magazines and books. For Jefford, “There are no more livings to be made exclusively in the old way”, though there is still a place for “multi-tasking communicators”.
Who those communicators are, the nature of the “multi-tasking”, and how they make their livings, is increasingly blurred and varied. The days when journalists, publishers, consultants and those public relations executives lived in separate cubicles are over. James Suckling the former Wine Spectator critic now produces video clips and a newsletter that are available to subscribers. Jancis Robinson, like Robert Parker, is now a publisher who employs other wine writers, and Tim Atkin has recently begun to follow a similar path. (Declaration of interest: I am one of the people he has asked to contribute to his website.)
Atkin and two other leading UK critics, Oz Clarke and Olly Smith have become a brand called “TheThree Wine Men” which organises consumer tastings – a business model adopted by another set of UK critics who call themselves the “Wine Gang”. Similarly, in France, Michel Bettane and Thierry Desseauve, former employees of La Revue du Vin de France, are now also both publishers and organisers of an event called “Le Grand Tasting”.
Wine writers are involved to varying degrees in wine competitions (as I have been over the years), in hosting tutored tastings and in writing copy for wine companies’ brochures and websites. They are also, interestingly now offering their expertise in other ways. British blogger and newspaper wine critic, Jamie Goode, acknowledges - in his wineanorak blog - that “Those of us who communicate about wine have to make a living”. So, “it may be appropriate for skilled, experienced tasters with particular expertise to charge for consultancy or benchmarking services”.
For a wine producer or distributor, this evolution may lead to some lateral thinking. Where expenditure on the media might once have been limited to samples and hospitality of one kind or another, today canny marketers are considering the return on investment of other activities. One exhibitor at a Wine Gang consumer tasting quietly said to me “It’s cost me a thousand pounds to pour my wine for a few hundred consumers. I’ve no idea of how worthwhile that part of it has been, but exhibiting is a cheap way for me not only to get close to five critics, but also to support their business”. Goode acknowledges the access to top critics that can be gained by doing well in competitions in which they are involved.
In Bordeaux, chateaux owner mutter about the relationships their neighbours have developed with top critics whom they pay – often quite lavishly – to host dinners and tastings. Does this kind of payment buy influence? The Spanish regions that funded tastings by Robert Parker’s former associate Dr Jay Miller certainly thought so. Until someone accused Miller and Pancho Campo the organiser of these tastings and the visits that preceded them of offering a “pay to play” scheme.
That same accusation was levelled at Canadian blogger and newsletter publisher Natalie Maclean when it was claimed that anyone who wanted their wines reviewed had to take out a CAN$24 subscription. Maclean denies the charge; I would be surprised, however, if wine companies have not considered currying favour with publishers by subscribing, just as they wonder about improving their chances of a good review in some magazines by paying for advertising. And what might be the benefits of paying a writer to benchmark your wines? Some will decline the invitation, but I suspect that number is shrinking.
As wine writers evolve, so almost inevitably will the relationships they have with the rest of the industry. And that, for many people, will probably be something of a challenge.