The Gospel of the Grape
Author: Jane Hodges Young
April, 2009 Issue
NorthBay biz speaks with the industry’s leading wine bloggers about the dos and don’ts of this emergent media outlet.
In September of 1998, when the Internet was just taking its early baby steps, winemaker David Coffaro, owner of the Dry Creek Valley winery that bears his name, began writing a weekly diary of his harvest experiences, posting them on his website for the entire world to read.
In doing so, Coffaro unwittingly became one of the very first wine bloggers—helping to spawn a movement that, almost 11 years later, has turned traditional wine media and marketing upside down.
What is a wine blogger? If you’re in the wine industry, should you be blogging? And if you’ve already taken the plunge, is there something you can do to make your blog better? NorthBay biz asked the experts for some advice, which we’ll share here. But first, a little history.
According to Wikipedia, the word “blog” is a contraction of the term “weblog,” and first appeared on the website of Peterme.com in the spring of 1999, when writer Peter Merholz jokingly broke the word weblog into the phrase “we blog.” The term caught on—as did the practice of writing blogs, particularly those that were political in nature. By 2004, blogging was pretty much mainstream across all genres, including wine.
While it’s hard to nail down a firm number, considering new ones are born each day, it’s estimated there are currently about 1,000 different wine blogs on the Internet. Blogging has become such a popular medium for the wine masses that the very first North American Wine Bloggers Conference, held at the Flamingo Conference Resort and Spa in Santa Rosa last October, reached capacity more than a month before the event and had to cut off registrations. This year the conference will be held in the same location July 24-26—so sign up early (http://winebloggersconference.org) if you’re interested.
As additional proof of its acceptance, there’s even an American Wine Blog Awards competition, started two years ago, which recognizes the best and the brightest in the wine blogosphere.
Which brings us back to why we’re here. We were fortunate to talk with some of the stars of wine blogging, and they were more than willing to share the secrets of their success. Here’s what they had to say.
To blog, or not to blog?
OK, we’re taking a little license with Shakespeare, but it’s a legitimate question. The simple fact is that blogging isn’t for everyone. And pretty much to a person, the star bloggers we interviewed said the same thing. So the first thing you should ask yourself is whether or not this game is for you.
“If a client asks me whether or not they should start a blog, I ask three questions they must answer in the affirmative,” said Tom Wark, CEO of Wark Communications in Sonoma, a public relations firm devoted to serving small- to medium-sized wineries. Wark is also a highly regarded wine blogger (http://fermentation.typepad.com).
“First, are you willing to post something new on a regular basis, preferably a minimum of twice a week? Second, can you write in a true and authentic voice? And third, are you willing to carry on a conversation with your readers? If they answer ‘no’ to any one of the questions, they shouldn’t be writing a blog,” Wark says.
Stephen J. Bachmann, executive director of OpenWine Consortium (a trade association) and CEO of Vinfolio, a fine wine and collector services company based in San Francisco, also firmly believes that the “people who shouldn’t blog are those who can’t follow through.” Bachmann’s blog, The Wine Collector (www.vinfolio.com/thewinecollector), won an American Wine Blog Award for Best Business Blog in 2008 and 2009 (You can find additional 2009 winners at http://fermentation.typepad.com).
“It really takes a sustained commitment to get and maintain a following,” Bachmann says. “And that takes a lot of time.”
Kim Stare Wallace, vice president of Dry Creek Vineyard and author of the blog called Wilma’s Wine World (www.wilmaswineworld.com), loves blogging but also warns about the time commitment. “It’s intensive,” she explains. “You have to look at it as a new responsibility in addition to everything else you’re doing as part of your job.” Wallace estimates the blog takes her about 10 to 20 hours per week, depending on the number of posts, comments and emails that are generated.
Finally, Joel Vincent, former executive director of OpenWine Consortium (www.openwineconsortium.org) and now a partner in a new venture called Vintank, a Napa-based business consultancy for the wine industry, put it succinctly: “If you don’t want to devote time to it, it won’t work.”
The devil’s in the details
Before you ever start a blog, it’s a good idea to do some research. Wallace says she spent about a year reading books on blogs and surfing sites throughout the Internet, not just wine blogs. “I looked at other industries in which I had a personal interest to get an idea of what [blogs] were about. I highly recommend that anyone considering writing a blog take the time to determine how their blog will be different and unique—what will make readers actually read it and want to come back? Do you want a funny style? Do you want it to be heartwarming? Or will you take a hard-hitting business tone? I really stewed over my approach, but the time I took to research was worthwhile,” she says.
Once you’ve done your research and have decided to become a wine blogger, your next step is to set yourself apart from the rest of the blogging pack. This isn’t always easy to do. What do our experts suggest?
Have something to say and say it well. “I started my blog because I was convinced that everyone needed to know what I had to say,” Wark says, unabashedly. “Blogging is an inexpensive, easy way for me to present my views in a well-ordered fashion. And all I need is a computer and a warm pair of pajamas.”
Bachmann notes that it’s important to “have an opinion and address it with style. People aren’t interested in reading legalese or dry material,” he comments.
Make it entertaining. Wallace and Wark both believe a good blog is one that entertains as well as informs. “My time, like everyone else’s, is extremely valuable and very tight,” Wallace explains. “If I take the time to read a blog, I want it to entertain me. A blogger must be a good writer. Some blogs are boring, have typos, use poor grammar and have no personality. If you want your blog to be read, you have to write a good one. And, you have to enjoy the writing.”
“Bloggers must have an innovative way of looking at things,” Wark says. “It’s a real accomplishment to be entertaining, and bad writers need not apply. It’s also important that the blog be visually appealing. People stay at blogs longer if they’re visual. Try to put a picture up with each post. Google is a great source for images.”
Wallace agrees. “Images, colors and graphics need to be tight and reflective of what the blog is about or the company is representing,” she explains. “I can’t stand blogs that are too hard to read or very poorly designed.”
Keep in mind that not all wine blogs rely on the written word. Some of the most creative just use personal videos or photographic images to communicate. Check out tv.winelibrary.com or www.chateaupetrogasm.com.
Be genuine and transparent. “When people read your blog, they believe what you write is what you’re like,” Vincent says. “Blogs are you and your personality coming across to the reader.”
“You have to write in a true and authentic voice. A blog can’t sound like PR speak or marketing speak,” Wark explains. “People are looking for the first person singular voice. They want to hear about what it’s like at a winery. Just about everyone wants to be a winemaker, so they live vicariously through the real winemaker on the blog. If you can’t write in this way, then don’t blog.”
“If you’re the boss, write it yourself,” Bachmann says. “You’re the one with the biggest and broadest perspective.”
All our experts were adamant about one more thing: DO not turn the writing responsibility for your blog over to a public relations professional. “Blogging is not another PR outlet,” Vincent says. “If you put up a blog and you’re trying to put on a front of what you’d like people to think you are, it becomes very obvious that it’s a sales ploy. It just won’t work.”
Keep it fresh. Nothing is worse than a blog that isn’t updated regularly, say the experts. “People who read regularly want to see something new,” Wark says. “You have to be able to commit to writing at least two blog posts per week.”
Bachmann recommends you go back to past blog postings and make sure you’re not getting repetitive. “I make sure I rotate between categories so I don’t binge on one topic,” he says.
One more piece of advice: Even if you’re pressed for time, don’t short shrift the writing. “If I feel obligated to put something up, I try to put my heart and thought into it,” says Wallace, “instead of just rushing to get something up [just to accomplish that goal].”
Know your audience. If you’re writing a business blog, as Bachmann does, focus on topics of interest to your customers.
“When I started, I set boundaries as to what I would discuss in my blog,” he said. “In particular, I decided what [the blog] was not going to be talking about. I don’t do wine reviews, for example. I talk about wine collecting and global markets for wine.”
He firmly believes defining relevant categories is important for a business blog.
Be willing to carry on a conversation. “You’re not done when you post your copy,” Wark says. “You have to answer and correspond with the community that’s reading your blog. If you’re not interested in doing that, then don’t blog. They’re giving you a gift and you have to commit to carry on that conversation.”
“Blogs encourage people to comment, so you have an ongoing dialog with your readers,” says Wallace. “It’s important that you respond to those who post comments on your site.” She recommends setting up a separate email address for the blog for easier management.
“Being accessible is very important,” Bachmann concurs. “Provide a direct email contact and don’t make it difficult.”
Vincent points out that it’s also important to invite readers to express their opinions, especially if you’re putting up a blog for business or branding purposes. “The point of a blog [for marketing] is to get people emotionally invested in the brand,” he says. “To do that, you have to ask their opinions and get their input.”
Be a good neighbor. Post links to other blogs you enjoy on your blog site. “When you exchange links with other blogs, you help them and yourself,” says Bachmann. “I track 50 to 100 blogs. I read other blogs and post comments elsewhere. I think it’s important to look at what others are doing and contribute to their conversations.”
Linking with other blogs is critical to marketing your own blog, Wark says. When counseling his clients, he suggests they research the top 100 blogs that deal with the same subject matter and provide links to them. “Those bloggers will likely respond in kind. You want lots of blogs linking to you, because Google loves that and will move your blog up the food chain,” which results in more visibility.
Marketing your blog
Writing and maintaining a blog is only half the equation. You also have to market it. In addition to posting links to other blogs on your site (and asking that they reciprocate), there are other ways to get the word out.
Wark suggests emailing everyone on your mailing list. “These will most likely be your first readers and evangelists,” he says. Then send out a press release to the wine media. A good news hook might be the growing use of blogs as a winery marketing tool. “Try to get the writers to write about wine blogs and maybe they’ll list a link to your site in that story,” Wark explains.
He also suggests creating a card (postcard, rack card, business card) that promotes your blog. These could be handed out to friends and associates, placed on the table with your collateral materials at trade shows or wine tasting events and handed to customers who buy your wine.
“Put the address for your blog on everything,” Wark advises. “It should be on your business cards, your letterhead and your company website. You don’t just build it and expect them to come. You need to market it. And this is one time when it’s OK to use a public relations professional.”
Benefits of blogging
While all our experts agree that blogging is a labor of love and not profit, there are benefits to be derived from the effort. One of the most obvious is visibility. “In 2004, my PR consulting company, Wark Communications, had six or seven clients,” Wark explains. “If I lost one, I had to get a new one, which meant I had to do cold calling. I worked my ass off to market my services.” With his blog soaring in popularity (25,000 unique visitors per month), Wark is now a household name in the wine industry. “Since about 2006, I haven’t had to look for a new client. They come to me. I’m doing nothing different than before, but the blog took the marketing of Wark Communications off my plate, and I can’t tell you how helpful that’s been.”
Wallace says there’s no way she can know if her blog is having an impact on Dry Creek Vineyard’s wine sales. It’s hard to quantify a direct link between readers who visit wilmaswineworld and winery patrons, but she does believe it’s helped with exposure for her brand. “I want to caution anyone who’s writing a blog with the hope that it will lead to increased sales. I don’t think that’s realistic [as a goal] and, if you do that, it probably won’t be a blog that someone will want to read. You have to be very careful not to be too self-serving. People don’t want to hear that.”
One of the greatest benefits of a blog is the fact that the content is indexed by Google, which means your company is more likely to pop up on Internet searches. “This leads to more public relations opportunities,” says Bachmann. “It’s amazing how many journalists find me through my blog. Even if that were the only reason to blog, it would be a good one. I’ve used PR firms before, but I get more [publicity] from the blog than any other method.”
Bachmann also feels a blog is important from a strategic perspective. “A blog forces you to think about longer-term issues that affect your business strategy,” he explains. “Day-to-day fires at work tend to keep you focused on the short term, not the long term. The blog gets me out of that and makes me look farther along the horizon, and I think that’s very valuable.”
Branding is another benefit of blogging, according to Vincent. “The blog can be a vehicle for a brand. Expertise comes through on a blog and it’s good advertising for a business,” he says. “I think it’s particularly good for small businesses, because the reader gets a personal attachment to you—they feel they know you even though you’ve never met them before. If you notice, there aren’t a lot of popular blogs for big enterprises. There’s just not the personal connection.”
The future of blogging
While wine blogging continues to grow, there’s also enthusiasm about other emerging Internet media, such as Twitter, a free social network and “micro-blogging” service (posts are limited to 140 characters) that lets its users send and read other users’ updates in real time. Twitter has created quite a buzz among those who seek instant communication. Imagine sitting at dinner in a restaurant, drinking a wine and immediately sending a review to your followers via cell phone. Some see it as the next generation of viral marketing, with virtually unlimited applications—so long as the message is short.
But for now, the blog is the medium and the blogger is the poet. Blog on, brother and sister, blog on.
The Experts' Favorite Blogs
As a final exercise, we asked our experts to reveal some of their favorite wine blogs—the ones they read frequently and cite as examples of excellence. If you’re serious about joining the wine blogosphere, here are some worthy of your review:
Alder Yarrow’s excellent narrative, considered by many to be the quintessential wine blog. Yarrow was named best blog writer in the 2008 American Wine Blog Awards (ABWA) and his blog was cited as the best wine blog.
Tyler Colman, Ph.D., writes this award-winning blog, which looks at the world through the lens of a wine glass.
Gary Vaynerchuk’s video wine review blog, so popular it’s landed him appearances on Conan O’Brien.
A blog that reviews wine under $20 per bottle, written by Los Angeles-based Deb Harkness.
Kim Stare Wallace’s blog, a favorite of Tom Wark’s. An authentic, witty and honest look at a family owned winery.
Tom Wark’s daily blog gets reciprocal raves from Kim Stare Wallace, who describes it as “educational, informative and meaty.”
Benjamin Saltzman reviews a wine a day, solely by associating an image with the wine. “Totally cerebral,” says Tom Wark. “I stop there every day.”
Ron Washam is a Healdsburg sommelier with “well-formed opinions and a hilarious approach,” according to Tom Wark. Caution: Naked ladies ahead!
A wine review site, written by J. David Harden, who attempts to debunk the myths associated with wine.
Steve Heimoff, who writes for Wine Enthusiast magazine, is “unplugged” on this site.
Winner of the 2008 award for best podcast or video blog.
One of the longest-running winery blogs and AWBA winner for best winery blog in 2008.
Stephen Bachmann’s AWBA-winning site for the best wine business blog in 2008.
A wine importer and wholesaler who provides a funny and sometimes acerbic account of his business experiences.
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