There’s a Reason No One Reads Wine Blogs: A Response

3 Apr

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.


7 Responses to “There’s a Reason No One Reads Wine Blogs: A Response”

  1. RS April 3, 2010 at 10:43 pm #

    Another possible answer is that there isn’t a well-developed community of wine blogs, that encourage a balkanised readership to venture from one site to another, participating in a multi-source conversation rather than reading one source’s view (which is probably less compelling, no matter how erudite the source).

    • vinicultured April 3, 2010 at 10:51 pm #

      I think that’s true. I just thought to myself, after writing this post, that even if every extant wine blog were to somehow miraculously improve in quality, I would still probably only read the same few. However, if such a community of wine blogs existed that would encourage multi-source conversation and at least ensure some increased degree of cross-readership.

  2. Kate April 4, 2010 at 11:44 am #

    *Disconnected thoughts follow*

    You made me google “Golgi apparatus” and then, inevitably, I was somewhat sad. I guess I just don’t appreciate the word “organelle” much.

    It is true, though, that I think Tom is looking at this backwards…

    He is equating “many people like” to “good.” I hate that. That is the fallacy in assuming that a wine blog is more about the blog part than the wine part.

    Whereas, I would posit that many people who enjoy wine and the atmosphere of enjoying wine do so in part at least due to the effective exclusivity. Whether we create the exclusivity or just seek to be in the ‘in crowd,’ I don’t think that most are secretly yearning for greater numbers.

    Because let’s face it, wine that is appreciated by the masses has a problem that it gets, um, watered down. (Whereas, there is an automatic assumption that bloggers only ever want more and more readers.)

    Instead, I wonder if for wine having a blog shouldn’t be just more about greater connectedness of those of like thinking, which a blog can support. (I don’t have my own wine blog, so I can only wonder.)

    What I think may benefit a wine blog, exclusive or not, however, is cultivation of a group atmosphere. Some of the most effective blogs (going back to blogging instead of wine, sigh) are have several different voices and contributors. That can exist even if the other contributors are commenters. Thus the valuable “linking” discussion.

    So if wine bloggers feel the burn of the burden of which Tom speaks, they simply ought consolidate with like minded bloggers. Not EVEN a network, but actually a shared blog.

    I guess I always find it odd when someone purports to add greater significance to text and community because something is a “blog” as though it takes on many special meanings, purposes, & rituals. Instead, a blog is whatever you make it.

    • vinicultured April 6, 2010 at 1:11 am #

      The Golgi apparatus is one of the most noble of all cell organelles.

      I think you’ve hit it right on the mark, Kate. While I am all for bringing wine back into the realm of the everyday–say, with lunch and dinner–there is also a subset of wine and a subset of wine drinkers. These wine drinkers are those who are willing to talk about wine, learn about it, and spend money on it. I think that wine blogs would do well to improve content by moving beyond mere reviews, and also to increase interconnectedness. What this will translate to is, I think, more readers on an absolute scale but also more readers from among the subset mentioned above. Both are excellent outcomes.

      I think there are a number of wine websites out there that attempt to create a group atmosphere. I think the Palate Press is one that succeeds to an extent. I think that sites like Snooth and Cork’d have potential, but they are based more on wine reviews and recommendations–and sales–than on community building. It would be good to have a website sort of like Serious Eats. Perhaps a Serious Drinks?

  3. Zach April 6, 2010 at 11:31 am #

    As a casual, oh-that’s-a-cool-looking-label-lets-buy-that-one wine drinker, certain kinds of reviews are very interesting to me. Things like “Best Wine Bang for Your Buck” and “Best Wines for Wine Beginners” and “How Not To Look Like an Idiot When Buying or Drinking Wine”, etc, would be more likely to keep my attention than context and stories (unless the stories are in themselves worth reading outside of the wine context)

    But as a less casual, more wisened consumer of American food, I generally dislike reviews, and things like guides-to, etc. I much prefer stories and context, ala James Boo. I imagine that wine lovers fall more into that category, but I also imagine that there are far more people that fall into the food-wisened category than the wine-wisened category, so the comparison is unfair.

    In the end, I think quality of writing should matter more than Tom’s theories and tricks. In that area, keep up the good work, Joon. I liked your post in Palate Press.


  4. Mark's Wine Clubs April 7, 2010 at 5:49 pm #

    Perhaps it is simply because politics make for easier conversation (especially in a blog or talk radio format) then wine?

    I don’t think either politics or food are valid comparisons, after all everyone has to eat while not everyone drinks wine. Heck, my dad drinks wine, but he won’t ever be on a wine blog. He might, though end up on a food blog looking for a new BBQ recipe.

    • vinicultured April 8, 2010 at 9:28 pm #

      First, thank you to both Zach and Mark for your comments!

      To respond, I would agree with Mark that politics and food are not necessarily the best comparisons with wine because everyone HAS TO eat. I would imagine that most people like to eat, but that one could still identify a “target audience” of “foodies” for food blogs.

      I suppose there are two ways to go about things. First, one can write a blog catered to the general audience–such as a “best wine bang for your buck” blog. Or second, one can write a blog catered to a narrow target audience of those who are very interested in the subject. The trick perhaps is to find that balancing line between those two approaches, see if you can draw in the generalist with helpful and eye-catching posts and keep the interest of the specialist with in-depth and detailed posts.

      In the end, all I can do is write what I feel like writing, but write it as well as I can.

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