It was an amusing week dipping into the online wine-world, witnessing Stephen Tanzer barreling clumsily into the blogosphere with his Winophilia and Tom Johnson striking a chord at Palate Press, accusing wine blogs of failing its readers. Tanzer, an established traditional media wine critic, is Editor and Publisher of the International Wine Cellar while Johnson, a recently converted political-turned-wine blogger, is a smart and sharp witted guy hailing out of Louisville extending his voice in his soon to be renamed Louisville Juice. Both cast stones at wine bloggers, yet both underscored polar opposite examples of the two essential reasons I invest energy in the world-of- fine-wine’s humble corner of the social web:
“The Discovery of Personal Authenticity”
“Wine as a Stimulant For Positive Human Connection”
Johnson, in a direct comparison to his political blogging experience, is frustrated by a comparatively small audience and unsatisfying level of commentary and engagement. He attempts to lay that at the feet of bloggers who don’t readily link to each other, incorrectly focus on wine reviews, and refrain from commenting on each other’s blogs. While I am not clear on all the top motivators behind his time investment writing about wine, engagement and debate are recurring themes in Johnson’s social footprint. I like that. So Tom, don’t get frustrated with “small” audiences unless your goal, which I doubt, is to become the next Spectator, Parker, Colman, Yarrow, or Wark.
I could be wrong, but I suspect you just need enough audience to satisfy a thirst for engagement, authentic conversation, and to provide a platform for sharing and garnering wine knowledge. All that can, and needs to be, accomplished with modest audience sizes since wine (like politics) is a MASS market and fine wine is a NICHE market. Subsequently, there are natural limits to the number of consumers interested in fine wine writing and reviews, a statement further supported by the relatively low distribution levels of fine wine enthusiast magazines compared to publications with broader and more general topical appeal. I publish local and regional magazines such as New England Home, where we can engage communities of readers and professionals in the local Home Design and Architecture spaces as well, if not better than, national titles like Architectural Digest or Traditional Home can on the national stage, while carrying dramatically lower distribution levels (20,000-60,000 copies per market) than those national titles. So, while wine drinking defines a mass market, the tinier fine wine market comparison is similar to looking at the size of Seattle’s Home Design and Architecture market next to the entire US domestic home remodeling market.
Here is a snapshot of my WineZag audience over the last few months, a blog about to turn one year old (ported to new URL in February causing hopefully short term negative impact on audience levels):
On average, 3,000-5,000 different visitors show up monthly at WineZag through Google search, RSS feeds, other social media platforms, and a host of referring sites. I get to share with them a personal perspective on wine experiences that move me one way or another. I know it is a small audience, but until WineZag I only had about 20 friends that appreciated fine wine discussion and we tasted together only occasionally, traveled to wine destinations less frequently, and shared interesting conversation at an unsatisfactory pace. Today, I have made new online and offline wine friends, am tasting more frequently, engaging with the wine trade at all levels, wine traveling more frequently, and have infused a wine passion with new stimulus that would never have been available to me offline. For me, that is more reward than I originally outlined when I launched WineZag as a way to understand how social media is shifting media consumption patterns.
I like the stone that Tom Johnson cast last week. It was an authentic expression of a need for engagement and authenticity. He simply challenged the existing pool of online wine writers to connect more often. At the further opposite end of the spectrum, Stephen Tanzer’s stone was also authentic. But in an attempt to characteristically assert his experience, he bullishly and obnoxiously showed off inexperience on a marquis for all to bash. You won’t find complete evidence of that on his About Winophilia Page anymore because along with the comments that so many of us sent his way, he deleted all trace evidence to a personal and professional agenda that is anything but inviting. Here is what he wrote before he deleted it from his new blog in retreat:
At Winophilia, we’re not armchair tasters who pretend to speak knowledgeably about regions we’ve never visited. We’re not amateur bloggers whose coverage of wine is limited to a handful of random samples we’ve just received, a trade tasting we’ve attended, or a press junket we’ve just been treated to. We live wine. Each of us spends several weeks to several months on the road each year, visiting wineries and tasting thousands of wines annually with their makers. And that’s not even including the thousands of bottles we taste each year in our own dining rooms.
I am not going to grace that perspective with any commentary, but simply wonder what the millions of voluntary and eager monthly visitors to wine blogs see that Tanzer does not? Interestingly, if you visit the About Page for International Wine Cellar, the website for his traditional offline media business, you find an almost entirely different tone:
Stephen D. Tanzer is editor and publisher of the critically acclaimed bimonthly International Wine Cellar, an independent journal read by wine professionals and other wine lovers in all 50 states and 34 countries, and the first American wine periodical to be translated into French and Japanese.
Tanzer is the author of The WineAccess Buyer’s Guide (Sterling Publishing), a concise yet comprehensive guide to the best bottles and producers from virtually every important wine region of the world. Tanzer has also served as Senior Editor and wine columnist for Food & Wine magazine and wrote Food & Wine’s Official Wine Guidein 1998 and 1999. Previously, he was the wine columnist for Forbes FYI.
Tanzer samples well over 10,000 wines annually, spending several months each year tasting and discussing wines with their makers, both in the U.S. and abroad.
“Stephen Tanzer is thoroughly reliable…”
– Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine
“For wine advice, I only consult Stephen Tanzer…”
– David Rosengarten, Host, TV Food Network
– Robert Parker, Author/Publisher, The Wine Advocate
Tanzer actually engages his community of competitors and seems more comfortable with himself. Yet, in all the language in his online and offline footprints, Tanzer shows some need, be it financial, competitive, or simply out of personal quirks of insecurity, to puff up and pound his chest in demonstrations of dominance. For Tanzer, while this air of superiority now appears completely authentic to me, he learned last week it is a shortcut to the blogosphere’s exit doors (only averted by some quick track covering edits).
Both Johnson and Tanzer showed the social web’s unique ability to put authenticity on display. In these cases, that authenticity shaped my thinking in the following way: I would thoroughly enjoy popping the cork on a bottle over dinner with Tom Johnson but could never imagine enjoying a social or professional wine moment with Tanzer after putting his own authentic colors on display in the saddest of ways (even though it only lasted a day until the “armchair taster” crowd had the opportunity to weigh in). I won’t be paying much attention to Tanzer anymore. Not because of the aspersions he cast on bloggers and just because of the things he says about himself. @RobertDwyer‘s retweet summed it up best while further defining the power of the social web on offline prosperity, even if it is coming from the Tanzer labeled “amateur armchair” wine writer community:
RobertDwyer @adamjapko great litmus testing for deciding whether to subscribe to someone’s content: “Would I like to drink wine with this person?”