Thursday, August 20, 2015

Why people like to bash the Wine Bloggers Conference

Wine bloggers are a popular group to bash. The tweet above is from the Editor in Chief of the San Francisco Chronicle. She doesn't mention why she thinks "there needs to be a Journalism 101 class for wine bloggers," nor does she think that of bloggers on topics like food, movies, raising kids, autos, politics, ice hockey, beer ... how many things can people blog about? As long as it's not wine, you are OK with the Editor in Chief of the San Francisco Chronicle.

Last week I attended my first U.S. Wine Bloggers Conference. I was invited at the last minute to present, along with Meg Houston Maker, a sequel to the seminar that was most unpopular last year, in which we were supposed to tell bloggers how to write better, whether they want to or not.

The argument some bloggers made last year, and have made for several years, is that they don't want to write "better" according to standards established by print journalism. They want to post fresh, unfiltered thoughts, and they're not interested in learning how to sell articles to magazines or websites. This is a perfectly valid viewpoint for mommy bloggers, but put "wine" in front of "blogger" and the wine community, as well as the journalism community, gets upset.

I did the seminar, because if somebody wants to write better -- I always do -- then discussion of reporting and writing technique with one's peers is the best avenue possible. And there was a wide range of bloggers with different aspirations at the WBC. There was also an army of wine PR people hoping to get bloggers to write about their brands, hopefully tweeting, "Wow, this Cab Franc is delish! #fruity!"

Here's what pisses people off about the Wine Bloggers Conference: It isn't what the people who like to complain about it want it to be.

Mainstream wine critics want to feast on the shattered corpse of the WBC
Wine writers want the WBC to be about wine writing. They want wine bloggers, if they're not going to hang themselves in shame, to become serious wine critics. They want wine bloggers to be younger versions of themselves (albeit not ready to compete with them for assignments). It's a form of reproduction, and they're angry when their memes aren't being passed on to another generation.

PR people want the WBC to be about giving their brands free publicity. They get more bang for their buck than wine critics, mainly because PR people hang out, spend some bucks and pour some wine. They get a torrent of near-incomprehensible tweets praising their products. But I have been hearing for years, later, from PR people that, "those bloggers aren't serious."

What neither wine critics, journalists, fuddy-duddies like Audrey Cooper, and many (not all) PR people understand is that the Wine Bloggers Conference isn't, for a majority of its attendees, about the seminars.

It's summer camp. For grownups. With wine. It's lurching down the hallways of the Radisson at 1 a.m. listening for loud voices behind doors to find the next party.

More than that, it's meeting friends who also love wine and love to talk about it. It's a reunion and a beginning. It's like Comic Con or a Star Trek fan convention or the Juggalo meetup or any gathering of people who share a hobby.

The light of wine blogging shined on the Finger Lakes
So why do people insist on bashing the Wine Bloggers Conference? Because it's not what they, outsiders, want it to be.

Yeah, well, the voters of Kansas don't vote the way I want them to vote either. Do they care what I think? Do I have the standing to criticize them?

I did the seminar, because some wine bloggers want to talk about the craft of writing. But my seminar was an ancillary attraction. The bloggers who were happy I was there -- and I was gratified to meet several -- were happy I was at parties with them. At tables tasting wine with them. Standing in the lunch queue with them. It's nice that I was there to impart some "wisdom" from the podium, but they were there for the community of the event, and were happy I was a part of it.

And so am I. #wbc15, signing out.

Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.


Anonymous said...

I went to the conference to meet my peers and be part of the wine bloggers community IRL. I enjoyed the egalitarianism of it. I sat with Meg at the Alsatian seminar and did not realize she would be speaking in the writing discussion. I liked that we were all treated like peers. That makes for a more interactive community. And I agree with you that the PR people completely missed that aspect of it. It's interesting to hear the PR perspective of wine. But they need to try a little harder to understand why we blog about wine. For most of us it's because we like to write and we love wine.

Zzzz said...

I find it ironic that the editor of the Chron would tweet that given that they've hired a 25 year-old with extremely thin writing and wine experience to (unless I'm mistaken) be Bonné's replacement.

Joe Janish said...

Nail on the head, Blake.

I'm one of those PR people who attends the conference every year, but my goal is not to get people to tweet about the brands I represent (although that is a nice residual). For me, it's very much what you've stated: to meet face-to-face with people I don't otherwise get to see very often (if at all) during the course of the year. With all the "virtual" communications we do today via email, texting, social media, etc., it's nice to once a year connect a face and a voice to a Twitter handle -- and talk about baseball pitching rather than product pitching (oops, were we supposed to be discussing wine at that after-party?).

W. Blake Gray said...

Joe: Wine is what one drinks while one watches and talks about baseball.

Rebecca Gomez Farrell said...

Thanks for getting it, Blake. It was great to have you there and get your advice, but I truly am happy that you get that not all wine bloggers are trying to become wine writers with a journalism background. Some of us just want to share our passion with others whose glasses are empty. Improving our writing is a great way to do that more effectively, but wine writing doesn't have to mean the same for bloggers as it does for journalists.

Krista L. said...

I really enjoyed reading this. Despite my inability to stay up much later than midnight, I love attending WBC. For me, it's a way to really experience and taste through different wine regions, an opportunity to learn at the seminars (many of which are very good) and a chance to get to know other bloggers. Your seminar with Meg was my favourite of the weekend because I really do want to be a better writer. I walked away feeling inspired and excited to get started on my next post, and that's a pretty great takeaway from a bloggers weekend. Thanks for attending and for sharing your wisdom. It was appreciated.

Kristy @eatplayloveblog said...

This is on point. I'm a food blogger that barely dabbles in wine writing. That said I love wine and writing. I was openly welcomed at WBC and enjoyed spending time with like-minded people. It's a great forum to meet writers, wine lovers and those interested in sharing ideas. You describe it accurately, in my limited experience at least.

Anonymous said...

Appreciate your thoughtful comments on the WBC. Though we didn't meet personally (I quasi-moderated the panel before yours on Sunday morning), was great to have you there 'with' us. I continue to be surprised (and find humor in) by those that take to their keyboards to bash wine bloggers and the conference. Yawn.

I hope WBC continues *not* to be 'what the people who like to complain about it want it to be.'

All the best. Cheers!

Unknown said...

"Unfiltered" thoughts are fine. "Unfiltered" assessments are fine.
Writing with clarity and precision are desirable, though.
Correctly spelling the name of the winery or appellation or varietal are good ideas and, then, do not detract from postings or articles.

Most wine blogs are eno-masturbation .
If you write sloppily, as many bloggers (wine and otherwise) do, maybe keeping private what would have been, twenty+ years ago, a diary is a good idea. That way you don't embarrass yourself in front of the entire world.

The percentage of great wine blogs is small, but then so is the percentage of great wines, movies, music, etc.

I suspect part of the animosity towards wine bloggers is simply these blogs are posted as being authoritative voices, when in fact the authors often have modest credentials and add to that notion with sloppy writing and sketchy research.

Wine For Normal People said...

I attended WBC for the first time this year but had to bail before your session. I would have loved to have met you. You're often the voice of sanity and honesty in this crazy industry. I actually didn't love the conference, but it was more because I thought it was a bit of a logistics cluster, not because I didn't love meeting the awesome people. A perfect example -- they had you scheduled for Sunday, when everyone was exhausted, probably hung over, and just wanted to sleep. I'm sure the session would have been very popular, had it been scheduled earlier.

Since, as you said, the event is far more about bonding with fellow bloggers (and I think that some of the value comes from being able to connect afterwards to talk about "real" stuff, like writing, etc) to bash it for a lack of "gravitas" is bulls*&t. And even more bulls*&tty is established wine writers feeling threatened by a new medium that they don't like because it questions the establishment. Things change, folks. Go with it or it will run you over.

Bloggers have many different reasons for writing, and perhaps these established writers/bashers need to consider that not everyone keeps a blog active to win a Pulitzer.

In response to the comment from "unknown" above, wow. How do I unpack that? I guess we need to thank him or her for espousing the exact principles you are calling out. Now I can be more concrete in my opinions on this:

1. Bad writing sucks. Despite what many in the wine community think, however, wine drinkers and especially those who read wine blogs, ARE NOT IDIOTS. I have such a hard time understanding why the wine "inner sanctum" thinks wine drinkers are morons. They aren't. The blogs that suck, that are poorly written and inaccurate and kind of ridiculous don't get read and don't stick around unless the blogger is doing it for her own pleasure. Yes, sloppy writing is bad but if someone wants to read it -- via con dios. Most readers don't, which is why the most popular blogs are the ones that are well written.

2. I take serious exception to the idea that "modest credentials" mean you write a crap blog (and I am credentialed). Before the wine world became obsessed with the pyramid scheme that is wine certification (I'm just estimating but this was for nearly 8000 years, give or take) smart people who studied up, drank a lot, took time to understand the subject and to properly analyze wine were authorities. But I guess Pliny the Elder, Kevin Zraly, Karen MacNeil, and Robert Parker and their modest credentials make them incapable of being authorities as well. I'll reference point #1 again: People are not morons. They see when the emperor has no clothes. And sketchy research is discovered by these smart readers and those blogs are abandoned.

Maybe I'm too much of a capitalist in believing in the free market separating the wheat from the chaff in blogs, or maybe through my blog/podcast I interact with awesome wine drinkers who are an anomaly in the wine world in that they are smart, cool, and don't stand for bulls*&t, but I don't think so.

I think that the best people in a small industry like the wine industry need to be supporting each other, not tearing each other down. If you think a blog has wrong info, call someone out on it and help them improve. And at minimum, if you don't like blogs, stop bashing them and the conference that is meant to support them. Do your own thing and let the readers decide what they want to read.

Sorry for the rant, but people need to be a little kinder and a little more focused on helping regular people like wine more and understand it better. Bashing bloggers and blogger conferences is a crazy waste of time.

Thanks for all you do and I hope to meet you sometime in the future.

Elizabeth Schneider

Joe Janish said...

In response to "unknown"
<< I suspect part of the animosity towards wine bloggers is simply these blogs are posted as being authoritative voices, when in fact the authors often have modest credentials and add to that notion with sloppy writing and sketchy research. >>

Except that this fits blogs/bloggers in ALL categories, not just wine. How many baseball blogs are authored by present or former baseball players/coaches? How many music blogs are written by music professors or professional artists? How many tech/gadget blogs are written by electronic engineers?

A tiny percentage of bloggers are "qualified" or "credentialed" on the subject they cover, yet nearly all write authoritatively, many sloppily, and few with rock-solid fact-checking. Why those blogging on wine specifically are singled out, I think, is simply because those who write about wine professionally are publicly more condescending and less tolerant of "those pesky bloggers."

Bloggers covering other beats have been similarly criticized; it's not only wine bloggers. Speaking from experience (my baseball blog is part of ESPN), many sports journalists looked down on fan bloggers for a long time -- until they realized those people were their most loyal readers and biggest promoters on social media. Perhaps if/when professional wine writers recognize that wine bloggers can be allies, the animosity will subside.

Wine Country Geographic said...

I think what people bash the WBC for is the large number of wine bloggers who are unwittingly PR's handmaidens - i.e. they don't ask deeper questions and they don't write about wines and wineries with a discriminating point of view. Some are simply in it for the freebies and the industry "plays them" for all they are worth.

The WBC itself is pretty commercial. While there are some great in depth seminars (I went to the WBC in 2014 when it was held in Santa Barbara County - the Ballard Canyon Syrah panel was awesome), there is also a lot of sponsored stuff that isn't disclosed as such.

Why did the big brunch party in SBC in 2014 take place at a Gallo-owned winery that year, for instance? The "lifestyle" aspect of wine is what appeals to a lot of bloggers who attend their annual WBC party. It IS fun, but, for me personally, I'm not going to any Gallo owned wineries. Especially on my nickel. Most of the people had no idea the winery was owned by Gallo, for instance. It can be about pandering to shills.