What do wine writers say when they walk away….?!

Deloach March 2014

May we introduce Ryan O’Hara?!

Mr. O’Hara is a Washington D.C.-based wine blogger, whose blog The Fermented Fruit reaches over 35,000 unique visitors each month.

Ryan explains that he started the blog “not because I am a professional wine writer or critic, but because I love drinking wine and sharing in the experiences that wine has to offer. A true Marylander at heart, I was born in Annapolis, Maryland and raised just outside in the small suburban town of Arnold. I love being on the water nearly as much as I love being on a vineyard! While my formal education is in aviation, I deeply enjoy the intriguing complexities consistently presented by the fascinating world of wine. There is so much to learn and no two bottles are ever the same. I can’t imagine another subject that can be so mystifying and utterly rewarding at the same time. While I think professional scores and write ups are great as a guideline, I am here to share my perspective as a consumer. Together, I hope to find great wines that represent great value, whether they’re priced at $10 or $100. Besides my deep passion for wine, I am also an avid cyclist with three beautiful little girls and an amazing partner.”

We thought Ryan’s perspective on how wineries present themselves would be valuable for SWIG readers. Please enjoy.

  1. What’s the weirdest or most unprofessional thing that a winery said or did while you were visiting?

Awkwardly being pressured to purchase wine. While I realize that wineries are in the business of selling wine, I am there in a journalist capacity – not necessarily as a customer.

While I do occasionally buy wine on these ‘official visits,’ I am certainly not in a position to do so every time. Expecting me to write about them and buy wine seems pretty one-sided to me. Unlike a traditional journalist, most bloggers aren’t being compensated for their time or articles despite having increasing influence amongst consumers.

2. What’s the ‘best?’

Being surprised to learn that a winemaker was genuinely interested in my blog. Usually I get the requisite ‘About Me’ scan before a visit.

3. What surprises you as you visit wineries, again, knowing that your hosts know you’re a blogger?

Probably the disparity in how I’m received as a blogger. However awkward, some wineries literally roll out the red carpet while others don’t even seem to fully grasp the concept of blogging itself and the relevance of new media. Basically they don’t understand what a blogger is/does and or how it might relate to or benefit them.

I think there is this stigma out there that many bloggers are just out to get free wine. While the opportunity to taste your wines is greatly appreciated the reality is that well-known bloggers already get more wine sent to them than they can taste. For those of us who invest a great deal of time and energy into our blogs, that viewpoint is quite frustrating.

It’s important to note that having a big social media following does not necessarily translate to a lot of blog traffic. You can get an idea of how much traffic a blog actually has by utilizing Alexa.com.

4. What would be your advice for a winery when they are planning a visit by a journalist (do this, don’t do that)?

  • It’s always a good idea to know who is visiting you, even if that means just a quick scan of their About Me page.
  • No offense to hardworking tasting room professionals (several friends of mine!) but if it is possible have the owner, winemaker, or marketing director host journalists.
  • Try to understand that all bloggers work differently. I for one, do not like taking formal notes during an actual winery visit. It is hard to focus, especially when you have an engaging host and I know when I’m tasting 10 big wines side by side, I suffer from palate fatigue…
  • What’s with the 10am tastings?! I realize that the argument is that your palate is most fresh, but I’d like to start a movement towards late afternoon/evening tastings! Also, please also make sure to provide a spittoon.
  • Make sure that you’re on social media. I’m surprised how many great producers I visit who aren’t engaging consumers and fans on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Many bloggers will share something from their visit on social media. Some of the benefit is certainly lost if they can’t directly link to you.
  • While most bloggers appreciate seeing the property, try to focus on what makes you different from other wineries.
  • Know that we sincerely appreciate your hospitality.
  • Should a blogger write about you – say thank you and keep in touch.

5What motivated you to start your blog? Do you have any future plans for the blog?

I needed an outlet to share my passion for wine. I think my friends and family had enough of listening to me going on and on about the wines I was excited about! I can’t say I have any future plans for the blog necessarily, though that could always change. I just recently added a ‘Cult Wine’ section where I will be sharing splurge worthy wines that I think have already achieved cult status, or may have what it takes to do so in the near future. I hope to develop that further and continue to develop good content for my readers.

6. Can you tell us anything about the readership of the blog?

My readers are a diverse and loyal bunch. While 92% of the 32,500 unique users who visited in October were from the United States, the remaining 8% was represented by another 106 countries. The majority of my traffic finds me via organic search. While some blogs focus on wines from a specific price point, I prefer to cover wines spanning the price spectrum – which more accurately represents my interests in wine and how I consume it. It also enables me to connect with novice wine-lovers and connoisseurs alike.

7. What is your view of the current state of wine writing and journalism in the U.S.?

I see the reliance on scores by prominent critics becoming less and less important as the millennial generation becomes a more and more powerful segment of the wine consumer population. They value a more personal connection and for better or worse, they buy wine more often based on its story rather than its actual quality. Their skepticism of the established system combined with their reliance on social media will support the current trend towards the increasing influence of new media.

Go to the movies!

There seems to be a moment now where journalism is front and center in a number of new films. Here’s a recap of what’s out there: we would recommend you go to see them. Doing so will certainly increase your awareness of what the media deal with….as well as giving you fodder for conversations with journalists. What deep, dark secrets might a wine writer uncover? One never knows!

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Truth is based on television news producer Mary Mapes’ memoir Truth and Duty: The Press, the President and the Privilege of Power. The film focuses on the 60 Minutes report questioning President George W. Bush’s military service, which ended in Dan Rather’s resignation. Robert Redford plays Dan Rather.

Spotlight focuses on how The Boston Globe’s Spotlight team investigated the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic church in Massachusetts and won a Pulitzer Prize for their work. The cast includes Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton, Stanley Tucci, Liev Schreiber and Billy Crudup.

The Program hasn’t arrived in the U.S. yet: based on David Walsh’s book Seven Deadly Zins, it tells the back story of a journalist’s attempt to expose Lance Armstrong’s doping.

Snowden, based on the book The Snowden Files, directed by Oliver Stone, re-creates the leaking of classified documents. It stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Nicolas Cage and Tom Wilkinson.

Black Mass, starring Johnny Depp and Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, brings a book about mobster Whitey Buger to life.

The producer of Truth recently explained that “one of the things that makes journalism stories a genre filmmakers go back to is they contain a lot of the qualities of great storytelling. You have people with very ambitious goals who often have to climb mountains to achieve them. That’s the stuff of real drama.”

You may or may not have “the stuff of real drama” waiting in your vineyard or in your production area between the barrels and the stainless steel tanks, but by staying current on how popular culture paints the picture of journalism today, you’ll be ahead of the game.

Books, glorious books!

There are wine books and then there are WINE BOOKS, with the thought in extra-large font and spotlit.

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Two comprehensive wine books have been updated and are being released this fall: Jancis Robinson’s Oxford Companion to Wine and Karen MacNeil’s The Wine Bible. If you spend your days marketing wines, these are books which should be within reach. You may have earlier editions….but you really might consider springing for these revised versions.

Take a sec away from your to-do list to think about the enormous effort which goes into writing extremely comprehensive books such as these. What is required?

  • A superb palate
  • Great organizational skills
  • A serious memory
  • A sense of humor and not-taking-yourself-too-seriously
  • Creativity
  • A love of language in all its nuances
  • Familiarity with a number of foreign languages
  • A good copy editor/spell checker nearby, whether human or virtual
  • Patience.

That said, we would like to recommend that you read two recent articles about these authors: a ‘think piece’ Jancis Robinson wrote which appeared in The Financial Times on September 4, and an interview with Karen MacNeil from the September 8 St. Helena Star.

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Among other things, Jancis reflects on what it means today to be considered a ‘wine expert,’ and how social media has changed that definition.

“…as someone celebrating her 40th year writing about wine, I have to concede I am considered by many as a wine expert. However, I am keenly aware of the sands that have been shifting under the notion of expertise in this era of instant communication and (often anti-) social media…..

The wine market today is more crowded than ever. As wine production has transformed itself from peasant activity to plutocrat’s bucolic folly, and as drinking wine has become a social signifier on every continent…..consumers are presented with a baffling array of choices. And, as producers strive to make better and better wine every year just to stay in the game, so they have to shout louder and louder to get attention…..

This may partly explain why some days no fewer than six or seven boxes of unsolicited samples arrive on my doorstep — more than ever before — in the hope that I will publish a tasting note on them. But could it also have something to do with the fact that, even in this era of the citizen critic, my 40 years of visiting vineyards, listening to winemakers, watching trends emerge, making comparisons and seeing wines evolve from barrel to decades in bottle might just be regarded as worth something?…I have gone from being a unique provider of information to having to fight for attention….”

Well said, Jancis, and a cautionary note to all the PR and marketing folk out there contemplating their sampling lists.

Next, let’s acknowledge Karen MacNeil’s Wine Bible.  She talked about the enormous work involved in writing it: “…I spent 10 years creating the first version of The Wine Bible and four more years completely rewriting it and updating the maps, charts and photos for this new version,” she said….”

And then there’s the book’s huge success: “…since its release in 2000 it has sold more than 750,000 copies, making it the best-selling single volume wine book in the history of U.S. publishing…”

One key takeaway from learning about Karen’s work and this impressive book might be R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Extend that courtesy to all wine writers: you may never know how much work has gone into their lives as writers, what their work load is, what pressures and politics sway them as they pursue something as ‘straight forward’ as wine writing.

Are media events worth it?!

Here’s a topic we haven’t yet addressed on SWIG: The Media Event.

There are lots of pros and cons about whether gathering a table full of journalists is still meaningful. Here’s an overview of this topic. It’s very fresh in my mind because I just orchestrated one.

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Here are good reasons to put on media events:

  1. Writers who can’t attend are receiving an invitation and outreach from the winery, so they’ll be getting a glimpse of the winery’s personality and of course being reminded that the winery exists! This may prompt them to schedule a visit or at the very least, stay in closer touch with the winery.
  2. Coverage! Articles! Blog posts! Tweets! An Instagram image or two! Whatever writers do attend will get to know the winery and its principals. If the event is done well, the writers will leave with a story.
  3. Live media training for your principals! Good or bad, it’s your own stage, a moment for the winemakers and owners to stand up and deliver the winery’s message, whether in short sound bites or longer ones.
  4. What IS your winery in terms of style and entertaining? Just executing the event will be helpful in defining the winery’s unique personality in these areas. Casual? Formal? Seated food service or buffet? What type of glassware? A walk through the vineyards or cellar or caves before the tasting or meal? This will require that the team plans all of the crucial details which seem small at the time but aren’t—-how tall are the flower arrangements? Do media guests leave with a gift? Is there assigned seating? What kind of printed materials are provided?
  5. Each journalist has a different following, different eyeballs who follow his or her work. Good to know and also a factor in selecting whom you invite.

Here’s an often-cited reason for NOT putting on media events: it’s the idea that journalists sitting together will be busy spying on each other and feel that they’re not getting the winery’s undivided attention and an exclusive. Wrong, in my opinion. At the very least, a media event builds camaraderie amongst the winery team and its guests. An event underscores that there is a greater wine community and we can all learn from each other.

Now for a few helpful hints:

Plan way ahead. Be sure to invite your guests at least a month ahead. Follow up, but diplomatically.

Artful. Concise. Elegant. Informative. Newsworthy. Those are the keys to a compelling invitation, whether you email it or it’s sent in the mail.

Follow up a day or so before, including precise directions as well as a day-of phone number in case they need to contact you at the last minute.

The event: keep it lively and interesting; move around at the winery; consider having a station with wine and a nibble as your guests take a walk or tour before sitting down to a tasting or meal. In other words, don’t stay in the same room or place for the entire event.

The food: minimal is really fine. No need to try to dazzle; the wines should be the focus, with ample water and bread and spit cups flanking the glasses. That said, less is more but the ‘less’ needs to be MORE. Anything you serve or present should be superb quality.

The people: put together the event so that your winery’s personality is expressed through as many principals as are appropriate: the proprietor welcomes, the winemaker presents the wines, the vineyard manager sets the scene. Don’t forget to recognize the chef and ask him or her to comment on how the menu was constructed.

A caveat: be ready for rudeness. Your guests unexpectedly bringing companions. Standing up in the middle of the meal to promote a side business they have. Inappropriate clothing. Too much perfume or cologne!  I’ve seen lots more in my time…..

Then there’s the relative rudeness of today’s world: guests may ask to hop on the winery’s wi fi. They may text, tweet and talk on their cellphones throughout the event. Is this social media support or not? Only you & your team can judge that. If a Baked Alaska explodes, you might be glad someone captured it on their iPhone.

Follow-up: be minimal. Don’t hound your guests. If they indeed got a story, you’ll know soon enough.

Manage expectations: even if everything is a smashing success…20 guests inevitably will not mean 20 stories.

More on the Wine Train incident to consider

Is there anyone who doesn’t know about the recent incident on the Napa Valley Wine Train?

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Newspapers, radio and media everywhere have reported on it, thanks also to the hash tag #laughingwhileblack. What started out as a long-time book group get-together turned into an international fiasco.

We’re now in the third cycle or so of commentary and what-ifs. SWIG co-founder Tom Wark has suggested a simple plan for how to deal with a situation such as this.

Let me add to his suggestions that you read two other thoughtful commentaries, by Jo Diaz and Blake Gray.

Here’s some more advice.

Keep your eyes open and read whatever else you might find.

Most importantly, meet with your management and hospitality teams and walk through some scenarios which could take place in your tasting room or at an event you sponsor. What is your crisis communications plan? Who will write it? Who will be the person to talk to the media when they call?

How hospitable IS your hospitality?

How discreet are your employees?

Where does your business stand in the grey area between ethics and morality and marketing and reputation management?  Have you ever had that discussion? Now would be the time.