You’ve probably done it. You’re researching for a term paper and you get engrossed in the Golgi apparatus or the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. You start talking about it to your friends to the exclusion of almost anything a normal person would find remotely interesting. Then, somewhere between the cisternae and the endoplasmic reticulum you realized that you’ve developed tunnel vision. The more you specialize, the less you interest the average human being.
There’s an excellent post on the Palate Press that explores the topic of why no one reads wine blogs. The author, Tom Johnson, looks at the utterly abysmal readership numbers–citing, for instance, the fact that “the top 100 wine blogs combined would be the 280th most popular blog in the country”–and offers two reasons for this phenomenon.
First, he observes that most wine blogs only offer wine reviews, leading to a “recipe for insignificance.” I would tend to agree with Tom. Wine reviews are useful but not intrinsically interesting, and they are available through a whole variety of sources such as wine magazines and review databases. I personally dislike wine blogs that are 100% review-driven, although I do recognize that some people create such blogs primarily to keep track of what wines they’ve tried. Nonetheless, as Tom writes, the best blogs are those that provide context and and tell stories.
Second, Tom points out that political blogs are nine times as likely as wine blogs to link to other related blogs. He writes, “Wine bloggers in general are failing to use the defining characteristic of the worldwide web: the ability to link.” Linking more often would create conversation and increase readership for all concerned. I recommend that you read Tom’s article, which is well-researched and provocative (if the ninety-two and counting comments are any indication).
That being said, I would like to elaborate on one of his observations. His article states the following:
Even looking at wine blogging as a niche product, we’re a disaster. There are 40 million regular wine drinkers in the United States, and the aggregate audience for wine blogs is maybe a couple hundred thousand people. Cellarer estimates, based on Google data, that the top 100 wine blogs enjoy monthly traffic of 865,000 unique visits, which means an average of 30,000 visits a day. Assuming that people who visit wine blogs visit more than one, even within our self-declared niche, we’re reaching less than 0.5% of our target audience.
There are, certainly, a lot of reasons for this. Wine lacks the daily drum beat of ginned-up controversy that powers political blogs. We don’t benefit from an endless stream of celebrity gossip or user-produced entertainment content that powers sites like Perez Hilton or Boing Boing. The audience that is interested in reading about wine is surely a fraction of the audience that drinks wine.
I think that our target audience is not the 40 million regular wine drinkers in the United States: rather, it’s a much smaller group that encompasses only people who are actually interested in wine. His last sentence–”[t]he audience that is interested in reading about wine is surely a fraction of the audience that drinks wine”–really captures that relationship.
An analogy could be made with poetry. A helluva lotta people know how to read, and most of those people will read poetry a few times a year, but only a small handful are actually interested in poetry. This does not mean that the casual reader will never love poetry, but we won’t see millions of people reading Li-Young Lee or Jack Spicer on the subway.*
Regardless, I don’t believe wine bloggers should ignore Tom’s advice. In fact, I believe that the two-step program proposed in Tom’s article would make wine blogs more relevant to wine drinkers and make casual wine drinkers more interested in wine generally. However, I think that the effect of that program would chiefly be to improve the quality of wine blogs for repeat readers–that is, the 0.5% mentioned above–and only slightly increase absolute readership.
The Canadian poet Carmine Starnino wrote (fittingly, in Poetry magazine): “Aesthetic change is an elite activity, done out of professional boredom. Poets who say different, who claim to heed the wishes of the common reader out of populist duty, are lazy bastards.” Bringing wine to the masses is a worthy goal, but to a very large extent wine drinking and wine appreciation are elite activities. While we shouldn’t lose ourselves to tunnel vision (and while I’m sure none of us are lazy bastards) we also shouldn’t forget who we truly write for: a small but dedicated group of wine lovers. With that in mind, we should take Tom’s insights to heart.
* It’s interesting to note that poetry has its equivalent of the third Thursday of November, which is the celebratory release date of Beaujolais nouveau: National Poetry Month. National Poetry Month sees a flurry of postcards and e-mails and posters on the streets and in school hallways. The release of Beaujolais nouveau sees a flurry of flowery bottles in restaurants and supermarket aisles. Poetry doesn’t get you drunk, but as Jack Kerouac and the Beats could testify, poetry and wine go hand-in-hand.