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01.20.2009

Tough Time to be a Wine Writer

In a contracting economy, the last things you want to sell are goods and services that people consider discretionary luxuries. Wine, especially bottles costing more than $15 certainly fits in that category. From limp auction results to the massive flushing sound of Champagne sales going down the toilet, those who sell expensive wines are scrambling to avoid losing their shirts as demand drops, at least for the moment.

Apparently the next worst thing to be, apart from someone who sells wine these days, is a wine writer. With the downward spiral of print ad spending and a similar trajectory to ad rates online, it's no wonder that a lot of media outlets find themselves on hard times, or at the very least, with hard decisions to make.

The L.A. Times recently got rid of their talented wine writer, Corie Brown. In my neck of the woods, after layoffs in the wine section about a year ago, the San Francisco Chronicle announced recently that they would be ending their unique and pioneering stand-alone wine section, and consolidating back to a single Food and Wine section. While they claim (and for now it seems to be true) that they aren't cutting any existing columns and haven't laid anyone off, it's hard not to see this as more signs of the times.

I also learned yesterday of cuts at American Express Publishing that included Lettie Teague, their Executive wine editor at Food & Wine magazine. Spokeswoman Jill Davison confirmed, "In light of these economic times, Food & Wine magazine's parent company American Express Publishing announced a reduction in staff last week that was spread across the entire company (business/editorial). Among those affected is Food & Wine Executive Wine Editor Lettie Teague, who will continue to write her award-winning column 'Wine Matters' as Food & Wine's contributing wine editor."

Such instability in wine publishing is not confined to our shores. In December, Harpers, one of the U.K.'s longest running wine publications, was sold and merged with rival publication Wine & Spirit.

And the list goes on. Who knew that wine writing was such a cut-throat business? While it might be a stretch to directly connect the drop in demand in wine with the drop in demand for wine writers, they are certainly both symptoms of an increasingly unfriendly economy. And I don't think we've seen the bottom yet by any means.

What does this all mean? I'm glad you asked. One of two things will happen: either we will soon see the rise of an AFL-CIO backed Union of Wine Writers, whose mighty collective bargaining power will turn wine writing into a highly sought-after career with long term salary growth and security... or... there will soon be even more wine bloggers out there.

Because if no one will actually pay you to write about wine, then you've got no choice but to become a wine blogger. Or maybe it's the other way around? Perhaps online media will, at the very least, help some of these talented folks find some work to pay the bills.

So If you see a wine writer panhandling in the street, take them in, give them a cup of coffee, help them set up a Facebook account. Or, better yet, send them my way. I'm hiring.

And at $10 a year, I'm betting that I'm paying the highest salary of any wine blog around.

Comments (31)

Fatemeh wrote:
01.20.09 at 9:48 PM

You can shoot me for saying this, but as an above-average-but-well-below-connoisseur wine consumer, I rarely look at traditional wine media anymore. I far prefer to read blogs, and I know whose palates agree with mine.

Truth is, wine blogs have very much diminished the need for mainstream wine writers for anyone in the "mid-tier" of wine consumption.

Veronica wrote:
01.20.09 at 11:41 PM

Tough times indeed. Newspapers in general are having it especially rough right now. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer (owned by Hearst)is facing the possibility of having to shut down completely. Ouch.

http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/business/396841_piwarn21.html

Rajiv wrote:
01.21.09 at 12:08 AM

When it comes to wine I am a recovering information addict. I used to have a multitude of blogs on my rss feed, and I'd keep up with all of them, while consuming an endless supply of wine books. While I still read all the wine books that come by my local library, I've gone on a "low information diet" a la Tim Ferriss, and cut my Google Reader feed down to exactly 3 sources.

1. The Pour, Eric Asimov's blog.

2. Decanter News feed - to stay abreast of important industry stuff.

3. Vinography - To be honest, I haven't tasted enough wines that you have written up to tell how my palate agrees with yours, that's irrelevant to why I read Vinography. This is some of the most inspired writing, of any sort, on the web.

As for wine writers facing tough times - I think that's partially their own fault for failing to produce compelling writing, or perhaps their editors' fault for forcing them to write an endless stream of "This Month's Best Bottles" or "Summer Roses to Drink on Picnics" or other such useless articles.

With apologies to Ms. Teague, whose books I enjoyed greatly, I quote from her 2009 wine diary:

"2006 Peconic Bay Winery Riesling($18):
A minerally Long Island white with lovely apricot notes."

Why should I trust her? And even if I do know her palate aligns with mine, is that single sentence the entire experience of the wine? What meaning does that wine have?

I think the main function of wine writing, like wine criticism, is to inspire people to try new things, and encourage wine lovers to explore new regions, producers, and varietals. In terms of finding good wine, what use are wine bloggers? The chances that the wines they recommend are actually in your local wine store are relatively slim, depending on where you live. Too often they are guilty of tiny, insignificant tasting notes that do nothing to inspire interest or confidence.

Wine lovers don't just want pleasure in a glass. As you pointed out in an excellent post, context matters. Wine signifies something. Vanilla signifies oak influence. Pyrazines signify poor ripening due to cool climate or drought. No one pays $1000 for just a bottle of tasty juice.

Katie wrote:
01.21.09 at 6:28 AM

I completely agree with Rajiv on the unfortunate caliber of most wine writing out there. The majority of it is uninspired, boring and insipid. What I wonder (and I see it happening because it's happening to ME) is how many wine bloggers will be asked to step up to the plate and write for magazines on a freelance basis. If publications know they can print inspired writing from a group making less monetary demands, they very well might do so.

Arthur wrote:
01.21.09 at 8:34 AM

Oh Alder,

Didn't the screen writers' strike teach you that compensation of online content must be proportionate to exposure and distributors' monetization?
Ten bucks?
Sheesh!

;)

Phil wrote:
01.21.09 at 8:52 AM

Well Alder, you know I'm biased here, but I think what we are seeing in the wine writing industry is what we are seeing in the overall print media industry: if you do not have something unique to offer and if you do not do what you claim to offer well, you will struggle. Publications like the World of Fine Wine, Decanter, Wine Spectator (and I hope ours) will do just fine because they deliver.

After all, for the most part, these things are not expensive, much less so than wine is. Even in this troubled time. But if what you offer is not of any real value to the readers, it won't matter how much you charge because the real impediment to most people in their reading material is not money but time. Time is why I believe you see the rise of online, more on-demand type consumption trumping traditional news sources. So if you, as a writer of any type in any type of medium, cannot offer something worth the time of your readers, you will be in trouble.

In the end, if you can write and write well, you will find outlets for your work.

Rob wrote:
01.21.09 at 9:04 AM

Whew, $10 a year? Where do I sign up?!

01.21.09 at 12:45 PM

A lot of good posts here. First off Rajiv is correct in that the allowance of third-grade grade English should not be tolerated, but is as long as some ink-stained wretch maintains a gossamer connection to the trade. Well he’s an authority, just like 90% of the “sommeliers” out there who are nothing more than waiters who agreed to take on the challenge… just look at how many “wines for the inauguration” entries there were this month across the country. Really? That’s the best they can do? The coverage has become so cyclical you begin to glaze over as you read it, and you just look for the end of the article to get to the next one.

The only issue with Rajiv’s comments is that many wine bloggers are actually being approached by the larger houses (i.e. those with a larger budget and with global distribution) with samples and the understanding they will be written about in said blog. So in fact, what you are starting to see is globalization, a dumbing down if you will, of some wine bloggers who are only too happy to write about whatever wine is being foisted their way. Do I have a problem with that? Not at all. As long as people are still going to write about the interesting wines, otherwise wine bloggers will eventually fall into step replicating the problem that has been happening at the print media level. Writing the same boring stuff and the same boring stuff. This the same song and dance the larger suppliers/importers have been doing in the marketplace, and why wouldn’t they do the same in the media? Flood the market with the wine and flood the media with samples, print, web, vay-ner-chuk – it doesn’t matter, the returns justify the means.

Katie brings up a good point that has been discussed feverishly among literary agents of late. With all of the shakeups in publishing, some houses even being put on a buying freeze of any and all new manuscripts, many (both agents and authors) wonder what this means. Bottom line: good writing will always win. So if you are a wine writer who is getting axed, maybe, just maybe, instead of looking at the easier targets (and I am by no means diminishing the sad state of affairs in publishing today), perhaps see what you can do to MAKE YOURSELF INDISPENSIBLE to your publisher. I think this kind of shake up, as painful as it is, is good for wine writing. There needs to be a change, to quote somebody who said something to that effect recently…

Phil seems to have seconded the motion – good writing will prevail. And I am confident that sometime this year, you will see one of the major wine print publications bring aboard a writer who started out as a blogger (except of course WS, Molesworth has already weighed in on what he thinks of bloggers, despite being one himself now). The question is, will that transition mess up the former blogger, will he get lazy, fall into line?


Oh and hey, that's a generous offer Alder is making there, splitting his ad revenue from foodbuzz and adsense

:P

Ryan wrote:
01.21.09 at 1:29 PM

Hey we'll pay 10.50/yr and throw in some free Saffron! :)

01.21.09 at 2:00 PM

Free saffron?!?! Doesn't that come out to like $30.50 then??

Alder wrote:
01.21.09 at 2:17 PM

And so the bidding war begins.

Dean Tudor wrote:
01.21.09 at 2:30 PM

Hmm, and if a wine blogger is to write for food (or, in this case, wine), then he will need a vocabulary designed to handle the flow of mediocre wines that will surely result from the diminishing economy. Mediocre wines lead to mediocre reviews, and demand mediocre words.

01.21.09 at 2:56 PM

Dean,

Funny stuff. I also like how you are kicking it retro with the early 90's html - reminds me of Jukt Micronics. My phone loads that website faster than a text message!

Dylan wrote:
01.21.09 at 5:12 PM

It's very sad when you've been working hard and your position becomes a matter of affordability over quality. I don't think these decisions are something anyone enjoys. However, it's important to remain positive. As Alder mentioned, for those in the mainstream, blogging is a great way to have their voices remain top-of-mind, perhaps long enough until a return to stability.

And $10/year? That's a highly generous wage. Just enough, after a year's worth of training at Vinography, for the new-hire to open shop with their own domain name.

1WineDude wrote:
01.21.09 at 6:48 PM

I'd offer $10 CANADIAN, tops...

Tannat wrote:
01.21.09 at 6:56 PM

Joe,

...bidding is supposed to go UP, unless you are bidding on government contract work...

Tannat

01.21.09 at 9:06 PM

Hey, where's my check?

Erika wrote:
01.22.09 at 5:02 AM

I really don't think it has as much to do with the quality of the writing, as it does 1) the availabilty of acess to free newsletters and publications on the internet, and 2) it is just not a necessity. Are people going to spend ($price of subscription$)to read about someone else drinking wine and what they thought of it? No, they'd rather buy their own wine, drink it and not worry about what the reviewers have said about their mediocre purchase.

Tish wrote:
01.22.09 at 10:40 AM

Wine writing was never a necessity. No writing is a necessity. But there iwll alwasy be a market for we-considered and well-espressed writing on any topic of interest to a great many people.

I think we're in the midst of a shift away from useless wine writing (tasting notes and ratings = yawn) and toward more useful types, as found in specialty blogs and newsletters.

Katie wrote:
01.22.09 at 10:49 AM

While I normally agree whole-heartedly with Tish, my only point of contention is that "no writing is a necessity". While I'm sure you meant it from a reader's perspective, writing is almost always a necessity for a true writer.

Tannat wrote:
01.23.09 at 12:03 PM

Tish,

There will always be a need for fair and accurate reporting of wine, analysis of wine, and advice.

But there does indeed exist a TON of useless writing on the subject, and i hope that those genres of wine writing get sloughed off, and not the valuable ones...

Lab Rat wrote:
01.23.09 at 7:45 PM

Are you saying I could get paid for this?

Dustin wrote:
01.24.09 at 11:28 AM

I struggle with Antoine St. Ex's philosophy and my love of writing. Wine, like flight, can't be expressed in a few metaphors. For me, it is more than the flavor and label... terroir (sp?), for my friends and I, includes the experience of those around the table. We can't drink "Turnbull" with out saluting my friend's father, nor ABC without reminiscing about Baywolf. That is where the magic of wine is for me, and while I regard wine writers as valuable as an educational mode, It's always the experiences Alder writes about that I remember best.
In other news, I feel it is our patriotic duty with the Guvanator's call for a tax hike on wines that we drink more wine!!! Not only will the experiences we have with the wine and our compatriots be more valuable, we will help balance the CA budget!!! (call me a looney if you will)

D wrote:
01.24.09 at 11:49 AM

Actually, there are even more casualties--Wine Spectator quietly layed off around 30% of their staff across the board (including long-time writers). While their readership hasn't decreased, the ability of advertisers to spend on ads within the Spectator has. The financial worldwide disaster affects everyone from wine mags to internet companies to financial firms to mom & pop grocery stores.

Tannat wrote:
01.24.09 at 12:07 PM

D,

Can you verify this? Where did you hear of this?

Dean Tudor wrote:
01.24.09 at 2:53 PM

I hope you didn't hear it through the grapevine...

GuitarGuy wrote:
01.25.09 at 8:26 PM

I have two thoughts. First, I hope that losing their jobs because of insipid and usually cheerleading writing will cause some of these former wine writers, as well as those remaining employed, to think long and hard about their "jobs". They are supposed to fairly examine each wine, but too often they try to froo-froo up even swill, never calling out flaws or taking a stand. For example, I have never seen a professional writer point out the, IMHO, wine flaw brettanomyces by name when they find it in a wine. Even if they do not consider it a flaw, I would like them to acknowledge it when they find it in the botte. Hence I find I cannot trust what they write anyway. Oh, once in a while I see James Laube at WS point out issues of TCA but that is a rarity in the field. Come on, let's ask them to get back to being fairly critical in wine writing instead of protecting the wineries. Of course this would probably eat into ad revenue further so it will never happen.

Second, the Wine Spectator obviously fired all of their text editors, proofreaders and professional writers years ago. Along with tortured and horrible writing that often abuses the English language, every issue contains so many type-set, grammar and syntax errors that it is clear old Shanken abandoned the print edition long ago. Not sure about the website since I refuse to pay for it, but my head nearly explodes each time I find the dozen or so careless errors left in each issue.

mike sterling wrote:
01.27.09 at 12:09 AM

I blame the wineries. Have you seen the Chronicle's wind section? Most wineries spend little if anything on advertising. The Chron's wine section was essentially a tribute to everything that's great about wine. It was like a public relations dream come true. And yet, who bought ad space? Cost Plus!

Alder wrote:
01.29.09 at 9:22 AM

Now Germany and Swiss Vinum magazines are for sale: http://www.decanter.com/news/275928.html

mydailywine wrote:
01.29.09 at 2:38 PM

I decided last year to no longer renew my wine mag subscriptions. I had found a multitude of informative, entertaining and DIVERSE sources for wine news and reviews online.
That is the clincher for me. Print mags have catered to the erobertparker set for too long.
The online wine world is much more reflective of today's wine drinker (hint: some of us are women and under 50 and from diverse cultures).
Wine and Spirits has made inroads in this regard but will the next generation wine drinker read about in a magazine?

Carrie wrote:
05.30.09 at 4:04 PM

This is a great discussion! I'm obviously catching it months later but the topics hold true even half-way throught 2009. Change is good. Maybe it is time for a more full experience to be expressed through wine writing. While consumers may be spending less on wine, they have become more sophistocated in their wine choices and more discerning with their palettes. Shouldn't our readers want to learn more about WHY a wine has mineral characteristics and not just that it has them? Doesn't that enhance the overall experience?
So if we, as writers, have the knowledge, shouldn't we share it? Maybe our readers ARE bored. Robert Parker was good for the industry but had a completely different audience when he began his career. Let's get with the times and create truely great writing!

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