easy to criticize?

Monday, July 05, 2010

Last Friday’s post on this blog specifically asked wineries for their perspectives on the recently-concluded Wine Bloggers Conference in Walla Walla. Somewhat surprisingly, it seems to have stirred up bloggers and attendees more than the wineries, who were generally positive in their remarks. Which in turn has gotten me thinking. So let’s continue the conversation...

There is no doubt, nor is it any surprise, that many attendees and organizers have weighed in with positive comments about the experience. No quibble there. But that was not my question. I wanted to know if the wineries felt it was worth their time, effort and money. That’s a different question. And yet a number of bloggers weighing in on Catie’s Wild Walla Walla Wine Woman blog felt compelled to criticize the very notion that, perhaps, the conference was worth examining from that point of view, and that, just maybe, like any other relatively new event, it could benefit from such an examination.

Some samples: “There’s always a critic, no matter what you do.” “It’s always easy to be a critic. Not as easy to focus on the positive as you have done here.” “I made a lot of new friends and didn’t have a single bad thing to say about anything. (As in any situation, there always has to be someone who is going to find the negative amongst all the positive. That’s their problem).”

So I guess the takeaway here, fellow bloggers, is that as long as the wine is flowing and somebody else is paying for it, it’s all good? Blogging has no critical function? There is no place for criticism in any writing about wine, wineries or wine events? Help me out here – as a lifelong journalist and critic, I’m just a little confused.

Among the responses posted on my own blog, several interesting threads emerged. First of all, there were many positive notes complimenting me for providing the opportunity for wineries to present their point of view. Second, some understandable dismay about the inclusion of so many non-Washington wines, that some felt stole some of Washington’s thunder. Third, quite a few comments about how wineries didn’t take full advantage of the opportunities presented them, and had unrealistic expectations for immediate coverage by the attendees.

I would have to agree that many, perhaps most wineries are more than a bit naïve about social media. On the other hand, those bloggers who are immersed solely in social media, with no broadcast or print media experience, tend to ignore the fact that, up until the past few years, the only ways for corporate/business sponsors to measure the return on their investment was through either 1) increased sales or 2) some verifiable and positive, though perhaps long-term, brand-building. Though bloggers seem quite convinced that their enthusiasm will provide such long-term benefits, that assertion is based on absolutely nothing except that same enthusiasm. There are no metrics to show that a rave review on a blog builds a brand. So it seems to me that it is entirely understandable that wineries would have a bit of a wait-and-see attitude about the value of all this to their businesses.

Reading through all these posts, I felt there were some very useful criticisms that have been brushed aside as “it’s easy to be a critic”. You know what? It’s not easy to be a good, thoughtful, fair, honest, objective critic. Mindless carping, yes, that is easy. It’s even easier to go to a great party, write “Great party!” and slam anyone who says yeah but the chips were stale.

There were things that deserved to be criticized. Drunken behavior, rudeness, talking over keynote speakers, skipping carefully-planned events to nurse a hangover, etc. Not acceptable in my book. Not if you fancy yourself a legitimate journalist rather than someone who posts their personal diary online. “Most wine bloggers are not reviewers, they are recommenders, and there is a big difference,” wrote Marcy Gordon. I have to agree with that. And I suggest you read her entire post – it’s very thoughtful.

Finally, Sean Sullivan makes the case for the brand building benefits of Social Media in general. As I have often written, that is the promise, the potential, for sure. The reality is less certain. But one reality that is crystal clear is that it costs money for wineries to participate in such an event. This may be the only domestic Bloggers Conference of the year, but I promise you, there isn’t a weekend in the entire year that every winery in the state isn’t asked to pour wines (free, of course) for the trade, for an auction, for a consumer event, for a regional promotion, for an important visiting critic, etc. etc. etc. It all takes time and money, folks. What other industry is asked to give away so much of both?

I’d like to invite you who own wineries to post a note here simply explaining how many requests for freebies you get annually, because “it’s good exposure,” or “it’s helpful for your brand building,” or “it will improve the overall image of Washington wines,” or (here’s the kicker) “it’s for such a good cause!”

You who are new to blogging, listen up. The people who own vineyards and wineries and make wines are some of the most generous, hard-working, creative, passionate and committed people in the world. They are more than entitled to gripe a bit if they want to, and I invite them to come to this forum and be perfectly honest. Maybe some happy-go-lucky bloggers just want to have fun and hear only about the good stuff, but I want to know what actually helps the wineries. How can this event be improved FOR THEM?!!! These are the people who hold the future of the industry in their extremely hard-working hands. They are the ones who most of all command my respect and attention.


Chris said...


Yes, there were freebies for the bloggers in Walla Walla, but the point I think many of us are making is that this was not an event to solely showcase Washington wines, it was an event we paid to attend to learn about better writing, better blogging, and to share our passion with other wine bloggers. The tours of the Walla Walla vineyards were 2-3 hours out of a 3-4 day agenda. For the record, the vineyard I visited Cougar Crest, and wineries, Skylite, Smasne/Alma Terra, RiverHaven, and Pepperbridge put on a fantastic show for my group and I percieved that there was respect and good interchange on both sides.

The Friday night walkabout was another opportunity for W2 to showcase itself, and bloggers to show themselves, and I know the wineries sold at least three bottles of wine that night. I bought them.

I respect the feedback from the wineries and truly do understand the frustration many of them must face when asked for a handout from yet another group of untold numbers offering to "help" them. Some of the WBC sessions touched on who gets wine samples and I think it's something we amateur and semi-pro bloggers should be more forthright about and I'd look forward to some panel discussions specific to this and who/why bloggers should be paid or not paid. This was another topic that became as discussion during the Better Writing panel.

Finally, another note of thanks to you for having this forum where bloggers can gripe, wineries can comment and gripe about bloggers if they chose.

wild walla walla wine woman said...

Paul, it seems to me as if you are lashing out at the wine bloggers and I am very disappointed. There are many of us who have worked very hard and very long to give wine blogging credibility.

Since you are speaking on behalf of the wineries, it is important for the wineries to understand: North American Wine Bloggers Conference was not a Washington Wine or Walla Walla Wine Conference. WBC10 was a wine bloggers conference that was held in Walla Walla. Certainly, it was for the benefit of Washington State and Walla Walla to be involved. The organizers could have easily held in California again and in fairness, the East Coast bloggers wanted it on their side for a change. It’s one of the reasons why I feel that any concerns or complaints about the conference needs to reevaluated, because in the long haul Washington will feel the positive residual. Overall, it was a positive experience.

It was very appropriate for the wines of Australia, Spain, California and Oregon to be poured at the WBC10. If Washington wineries choose to be WBC11 sponsors and send their wines to next year’s conference in Virginia, I would vote a yes considering Virginia has a little over 150 wineries. Washington would also be reaching east coast wine bloggers who were not in attendance at Walla Walla. I agree with you about Marcy Gordon’s thoughtful post, especially, “As far as I know nobody holds a gun to the heads of wineries to participate in the pay-to-play game at WBC.”

Paul, I was disappointed that you didn’t attend the WBC other than the panel discussion. You were really a big help when it came time to plead our cause on why it should be in Walla Walla and not Woodinville. Personally, I would have put more value into these complaints about the WBC10 if you had attended the majority of the conference and seen for yourself firsthand instead gathering info via a Facebook request. I know you said you had a lot on your plate. (Don’t we all?) Nothing wrong with different priorities, but if the WBC wasn’t your priority that weekend, why waste your time on it now?

I agree with you 100% about things that deserved to be criticized: Drunken behavior, … skipping carefully-planned events to nurse a hangover, etc. But is skipping carefully-planned events to attend “unauthorized” wine tastings not on the WBC schedule any different? No matter if it was a Sunday morning, our WBC hosts made carefully-planned arrangements. Leftover food and guest speakers talking over empty chairs do not know the difference between “unauthorized” wine tastings and nursing hangovers. I didn’t attend your morning wine tasting because I felt it wasn’t appropriate for me to skip out on these carefully-planned events.

Hey, I started wine blogging in 2005 and many of the wineries at the time paid little or no attention to bloggers, let alone knew what we were about, and even more important; many wine bloggers barely knew of Walla Walla’s wine existence. When you consider it was only five years ago, I would say we have all, bloggers and wineries, come a long way – and together.

Arthur said...

Each evening, I pose a few questions to the folks who "like" or are "fans" of my Facebook page.
Recently I asked questions to the effect of how much Social Media (FB & Twitter) influence their buying and drinking. I had asked a similar question regarding blogs some months back.

The general consensus is that neither social media nor blogs affect the buying patterns of those who participated in the discussion.

That may be just the group who participated in the discussion, but it warrants further investigation.

Stephanie LaMonica said...

if you're not earning a living with your words, then you're not risking a damned thing when you write them, other than turning people away if they don't like what you wrote. and so what. there'll be more who come along and drink up every word.

wine people, on the other hand, who have put their blood, sweat, and tears into a huge, financially demanding venture have it all to risk. we're all in. ours is not about worrying "oh jeez, i didn't get a post out" but how all our hard work will result in enough cash coming in to keep us going another year. that's the most obvious difference.

on top of that, like all the wines out there to pick and choose from, every blogger has a style, a preference, a way that s/he presents what gets written. and then, by extension, a different audience. in some ways bloggers aren't any different than wines on a shelf. from a marketing perspective this is key; like not wasting your money on a wine you know you won't like, don't waste your time with those who don't get you. it's the same as publishing, right? would you approach a children's book publisher with one of your wine books? highly doubtful. why would anyone expect a winery to hang out with a blogger who does not fit their consumer-base profile?

i don't know how the event could be improved -- maybe provide a profile of bloggers to the wineries and create more focussed tastings and not free-for-all pourings? it seems to me there needs to be better blogger/winery pairings.

PaulG said...

Catie, I do not wish to offend you, or anyone else who worked hard on this event. If you read my own personal comments, they certainly acknowledge many of the positives. I decided to put up the original questions about the Conference because no one else was doing it. From the range and thoughtfulness of the responses, I think we can agree it was a good, and even a necessary topic to raise. I'm sorry you missed my tasting, but you are assuming that I'm somehow disappointed in the turnout. Absolutely untrue. There was an excellent turnout of friends, bloggers and Waitsburg locals, and everyone had a great time - including me. No disappointment there, believe me. One more thing - I'm also a blogger. I devote an inordinate amount of time to this blog. I keep it ad-free. I encourage debate and discussion. And I do it not because I need the credential, or the wine samples, or for any other reason than a desire to participate. So please refrain from putting me in some other antagonistic camp of "old media." To paraphrase Ronald Reagan: "We're all Bloggers!"

The Grumpy Winemaker said...

What bloggers conferece? I didn't see any bloggers and I didn't see any value in spending time and money giving wine away for nothing in return. At such a large event small quiet wineries get lost in the crowd. Frankly, these people don't give a rip. I was too busy selling wine to real people(about 400)in my tasting room that weekend as opposed to standing behind a dumbass table pouring free wine for goobers who think they are important.
There Paul you have one winery perspective, be it from the Grumpy Winemaker hisself. Thanks for looking at our side of the issue. These people don't have a clue.

Sean P. Sullivan said...

Paul, one wine blogging truism. If you want to whip the blogosphere into a frenzy, write something that could in some way be construed as critical in some fashion by somebody of the value/usefulness/truthfulness/yourwordhere of wine blogging. I often joke that if you want to disable a group of wine bloggers for a week or two, write a post titled "Wine blogging...does anyone care?" I refer to this as the 'Why me Blog? Why me?!?' Syndrome. Sartre would be proud.

Indeed a significant problem at present for wineries is the potential promise of Social Media but the difficulty of measuring the actual results. This, combined with unrealistically high expectations and a bit of desperation due to the economy, leads to a lot of disappointment.

In addition to the questions you posed to wineries, I would be interested to hear how they measure other brand building activities that they do. As you indicate, wineries spend an enormous amount of time and money engaging in these activities. How do people decide whether it's worth it and subsequently weigh the results? Something I have always wondered.

My hope is that in the future there will be more, easier ways to measure the results of engagement in Social Media. However, my fear is that it will just be added to a long list of things wineries feel they need to participate in but aren't sure of the overall value of, like many of the events they pour at.

Anonymous said...

"a significant problem at present for wineries is the potential promise of "Social Media but the difficulty of measuring the actual results."

Sean makes a great point....everytime I think about giving wine away, I need to try to calculate its potential value (except sick kids...any charity involving sick kids gets wine from me). So far the blogging world has shown me very little in measurable value. I've received great write ups, but little to no feedback from real living customers. And take a look at who responds to blogs...almost always it seems like its' other bloggers.
For now, I continue to be a bit player in the blogosphere, and continue to pour wines for the end users...potential customers, at any event that will have me.

Chris said...

To Grumpy and Anonymous winery,

In some cases the person buying your wine or visiting your tasting room also happens to be interested enough about wine to blog about it.

Bloggers are customers and tasting room visitors just like the next guy and some of them are even real people.

David Larsen said...

In response to questions posed by Paul and Sean, we at Soos Creek Winery are asked almost daily to contribute wine to various events that claim will gain us more exposure and sales. However, after 20 years in this business, I know that such events generally do not have an immediate, direct impact on our sales. I believe the events do help build our brand and have a long-term positive impact that is all but impossible to quantify because of other factors, e.g. critics scores and word-of-mouth advertising. My same comments apply to our use of social media. Social media is just one more tool to build the brand but, for us, it has not had a significant, immediate impact. Based on comments from new customers, word-of-mouth advertising has been the biggest driver for new sales.

Unknown said...

Okay, I'll help you out. These are the best bucks spent by Bonair Winery:

Rattlesnake Hills Wine Trail Map
Yakima Valley Visitors and Convention Bureau
Our own website with paid hits from Google Adwords
Freeway sign
Getting shelf space in major supermarkets by selling wine under $10.

Best free:

Satisfied customers
Word of mouth
Some nice words from Paul (had to give samples only)
We have a Facebook page, but I don't monitor that, the PR people do.

Competitions and events, giving away free wine to 'get the brand out' still hasn't worked after 25 years in the business.

Sorry folks, that's the way I see it.

Anonymous said...

Chris, Of course I have customers who are bloggers and I treat them the same way I do any customers, with respect. I always make sure that they know I appreciate their business. Some of them have even become friends. But I've also had bloggers come in that were drunk and/or clueless about what they were writing about.
I was trying to explain why I don't always participate in blogging and all the other social media things coming down the pike. I have to use my samples in a way that makes business sense, instead of throwing free wine at anything that moves.
BTW, as I wrote this I realized that the bloggers that I have become friends with, never announced that they wrote blogs, never asked for anything free or special treatment..in fact it wasn't until many, many months later that I knew they wrote a blog!

Art said...

I hope we're all reading and listening to Gail (aka The Grumpy Winemaker), and that we're buying his wines! Reminds me a bit of Bill at Tulocay in Napa. (And it's a tribute to you too, Paul, for creating a forum for this kind of information and feedback.)

PaulG said...

My pleasure, Art. This is exactly the sort of lively, informed, opinionated and civil discussion I hoped for when I set out to do this blog.

Chris said...

Anonymous, Thanks for the responce. Respect I agree is key, and if some bloggers are disrespectful or demanding it certainly can put the whole group in a bad light. As I alluded to in my first comment in this thread the whole issue of samples is an elephant in the room that many/most bloggers I don't think want to honestly discuss. There is a perception (by some) that they are entitled to free samples because they write for "free" and that wineries are unhip if they don't dole them out. I, for one, strongly disagree with that notion.

Gail, Thanks for your insight as well in what has worked for Bonair. One thing I'd suggest is that social media, tweeting, facebook, etc... is just a new form of "word of mouth" which both you and David of Soos Creek rate very high as a method of bringing in paying customers. I think this will be especially true as the teenagers and young adults of today become the dominant payers in the marketplace.

1WineDude said...

Just wanted to say that I'm still laughing my as off at "if you want to disable a group of wine bloggers for a week or two, write a post titled 'Wine blogging...does anyone care?'"

Love it! So true that it hurts...

Mannina said...

Wow lot's of interesting comments. We are a newer winery, 6 yrs old, and have never spent a dime on advertising. We build customers one at a time. I didn't have the best experience with the bloggers, they didn't seem too interested in our round table discussion. Seems like we had to carry the convo but overall I think it went OK. I drove back from a family camping trip to be there and drove back to the camp ground afterwards.

I have kept in contact with one of the wine bloggers who just ordered more wine so I built one customer. I could spend every weekend and give all my wine away if I responded to all the requests. We give a lot of wine away each year to worthy causes but we weigh each one. I just look at it as part of the biz, like not charging a tasting fee. It's just part of the biz.

We sell out every year so something is working. One day I would like to actually make some money, maybe we need to charge a tasting fee :)

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