Tuesday, July 20, 2010

American Wine Bloggers Conference, Walla Walla, WA

We're back from the American Wine Bloggers Conference in Walla Walla,Washington (our friends in Europe get a kick out of the name) which Constance I attended. This is the third year for the event which attracted 300 attendees from the ranks of bloggers, wineries and PR agencies. We returned with enhanced perspective on the state of social media in the wine industry. 

The sense I got from the conference was that wine blogging is coalescing into something more than a loose association of citizen-bloggers.  There was general agreement that the influence of wine blogging is increasing and that both domestic and imported suppliers are starting to “get it.”  Also, the audience that reads blogs is a whole lot broader than the readers of Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast and the wine criticism and reviews found in the Wall Street Journal, Food and Wine magazine and the like.  But many of these are now incorporating online blogs and functionality related to their print vehicles…Andrea Robinson and Lettie Teague’s active participation at the conference being indicative of that.

And I think that’s where a distinction--and some might say chasm--between wine blogging and “traditional” wine journalism has formed.  With traditional media and wine criticism there is an implicit and commonly understood notion that it’s all related to the ultimate sale of wine. People read these in large part to find out what wine to buy for what occasion and food pairing situation. 

But for most wine bloggers, what they do is a labor of love and an avocation.  So the commercial imperative is a bit hazier.  In many cases…perhaps most…a blog generates little to no income yet takes up a lot of time and commitment.  So issues like “transparency” (a euphemism for policies on accepting samples, whether to go on sponsor-paid trips etc.)  and “ethics” (if a blogger accepts a sample or a trip, is there any responsibility expressed or implied to write about a given wine/producer/region?) came up again and again at the conference.

There is a distinct generational difference in readership as well.  It may be an oversimplification to say that Millennials only read blogs and GenX’ers and Baby Boomers read traditional media (see the VinTank report for more on this.)  But there is decidedly a real distinction between the way Millennials look at wine compared to those of an older persuasion.  In some informal research I’ve done, when you ask a  Millennial where wine comes from, the answer you’ll get is Australia, Argentina and Chile…in their world, France and Italy are irrelevant at best, unknown at worst.  The growth of irreverently labeled wine brands is an additional indication that some suppliers are seeing the democratization of wine and developing products oriented to these new consumers.

One of the other recurring themes I heard was in regard to the metrics of cause and effect and the inability to connect the dots between what’s written in posts/comments and reader activity…like purchases. Even among the PR folks working on bigger clients who one would assume have more resources available, the general consensus was there are no systems in place that allow marketers to get a read on the actual commercial impact of blogging.   Of course, that’s in large part true for the traditional print media as well.

OK, so back to the AWBC.  Cool event, great people, new relationships and a broadening of my worldview of wine and wine marketing.  I’ll be going to the European version of the event which is being sponsored by the Austrian Wine Marketing Board in Vienna in October, and will be interested to see how things are developing there. Sphere: Related Content


Ben Simons said...

This is a really great recap on the conference. It is certainly interesting to get a PR perspective on the event.

One thing that I feel needs to change, and might be in the process of changing, is the antagonism between traditional wine writers and us within the blogging community. I think that the bickering between the two sides is extremely off-putting. I see a more collaborative relationship forming at some point in time. The inclusion of figures like Lettie Teague, Andrea Robinson and Steve Heimoff is an important development on this front. If wine bloggers are going to be respected as wine writers, they have to get over the "us vs. them" mentality.

Thanks so much for the wonderful recap, and it was great to meet you in Walla Walla.

Steve Raye said...

Actually, I think there has been a lessening of the bickering as you call it. Even Andy Blue commented on it at the Vino 2010 panel we were on. As you know he was one traditional blogger who made an inflammatory statement on the issue.

The key issue from the persective of traditional journalists, though, remains real...how do they get paid for a vocation when others are offering it for free.

I don't have the answer to that one.

Lazarus Lupin said...

Glad you had a good conference. I know there are some wineries on the east side of washington, but when I was a child Walla walla was known for its onions. Have they branched (vined) out since then?

Lazarus Lupin
art and review

Steve Raye said...

The onions were certainly in evidence on the menus, but wines have indeed become more prominent. We had an interesting tour of three wineries, and I was very impressed with what I saw...reminded me of Napa 25 years ago...lots of young, committed winemakers and vineyard owners with passion + technical knowledge doing some fabulous things. And cowntown Walla Walla has a very wine-friendly atmosphere.

Katie said...

I agree with Ben, it's really nice to get a PR perspective on the conference.

I thought it was a great event and an excellent way to build relationships with the local wine industry.

I felt as though we could have had a little more one-on-one time with the wineries. Great schedule, but everything was so rushed. I really wanted the opportunity to chat more with the winemakers without interruption during the conference. Luckily, we had a car so we were able to stay an extra day to go back and get that time with the wineries!

I'm also surprised at how many wineries don't follow up with bloggers! I gave quite a few of my business card away and never heard anything.

Katie at TravelPlusWine