Robert Parker should be ashamed of himself…

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So there apparently was some information floating out there about the Wine Bloggers Conference that I find very interesting.  Mostly because of the source and because while he should be ashamed of himself, I ultimately agree with him.

It was Robert Parker himself that seems to take issue with bloggers.  The thread on eRobertParker.com centers around bloggers and the fact that they are changing the industry.  Good, bad, whatever your take they at least admit that its changing the industry.

I don’t take issue with that.  What I do take issue with, and I take it directly with Mr. Parker, is his mis-representation of the conference, his lack of understanding of the community, and is unwillingness to even attempt to correct either one of those two mistakes.

First, let me say that the thread calls into question the motivation behind not only the Wine Bloggers’ Conference but the OpenWine Consortium.  The original poster says:

“I believe you and many of the top wine critics are under fire today not by chance but a systematic effort of the wine industry to change the paradigm of the relationship between consumer of wine and producers of wine….”

and then goes on further to say:

“With regard to whether this is an industry planned movement or just a shift in buying habits enabled by technology, I think could be up for debate. But when I look at things like the Open Wine Consortium or I look at www.winebloggerconference.com and examine the participants, sponsors, etc., I think there has to be a strategy for change? The technology industry has made shifts in market conditions through consortiums and conferences for years. It’s not wrong or right. It is an industry doing what is best for the producers.”

Joe (thread originator) – My name is Joel Vincent.  You can read my background here – JoelVincent.com.  I created the OpenWine Consortium and I produce the Wine Bloggers’ Conference. I am not someone deep in the California wine industry.  I am fascinated by technology and wine is a serious passion/love.  I created the OpenWine Consortium as a consortium of wine companies all over the world to learn about and drive Web2.0 technologies’ adoption because its GOOD FOR WINE.  I believe that now and always have believed it.  It started as a consortium because that is how I understood how to create a movement like that – I’ve been active in the IEEE and the WiFi Alliance as well as efforts in creating standards for Ethernet and Internet Protocols.  When I saw that the wine industry needed a way to learn about these technologies I created the OWC to try to organize the more knowledgeable companies and have them efficiently proliferate their understanding of Web2.0 to other wine industry people who don’t.  Also, its a Web2.0 community because I believe the best way to learn is by doing.  So just by using the OWC the industry is learning the power of Web2.0.  It has since grown into a much broader business networking platform for the wine industry than I ever imagined attracting people from every continent and every facet of the wine business.

The Wine Bloggers’ Conference was a decision I made to organize the community of wine writers that are blogging and give them a forum to learn from one another.  It wasn’t an original idea – the European organizers and I discussed it for a while then did independent conferences last year and combined them this year.

Since most citizen bloggers are exactly that – citizen bloggers – I figured they didn’t have the funds to attend something like the Professional Wine Writers’ Symposium ($500 admission I think?).  So I asked wine companies to sponsor to subsidize the costs and make it reasonable.  They came in droves.  I’m sure they have their agenda, but I don’t care what their agenda is as long as the goal of getting the community together to learn from each other is met and the prerequisite to that is to make it affordable.  Mission accomplished there.

I hardly think that I am the “industry” but yes, its an astute observation that I have created a platform the for the movement of Web2.0 into the wine industry.  Thanks for the props (FYI to eRob folks – “Props” is short for “propers” and is a slang term commonly used by those under 40 to recognize that one has been afforded the proper credit for their efforts).

Third, to Joe AND Mr. Parker, the Wine Bloggers Conference is held in CA and Europe with affiliated events cropping up in New York now as well.  So this movement is even more widespread than you understand, more pervasive than you’ll every know, and DEFINITELY not confined to California.

Its late and I have two young tots.  So let me get to why Mr. Parker should be ashamed of himself.  I’m personally annoyed because I (and every blogger I know) would never, EVER take anything away from Parker’s importance to this industry or his achievements.  But let me address some of the word, written directly from Mr Parker, about the Wine Bloggers Conference.

“looking at that Bloggers Conference, it does look like a big and free sloppy kiss and then some from the California wine industry…with much more than minimal hospitality offered…love to see some transparency from the bloggers(how many of them are paying for travel,car rental,hotels and meals?)…”

For someone who continues to make wine blogging synonymous with the Wine Spectator Award debacle, this is one of the most uninformed mischaracterizations I’ve seen in the Inter-webs’ series of tubes.  The WBC is a community organization effort.  Driven in the US by myself and Allan Wright of Zephyr Adventures (niether of us are part of the “CA wine industry”) and in Europe by Catavino Marketing and Robert McIntosh – again, no CA there.  Bloggers are paying for everything but a couple of dinners.  It even says that on the site.  Did you read the site?

Next, and this is directly from Mr. Parker:

“or should I say blobbers since they are the source of much of the misinformation,distortion,and egegious falsehoods spread with reckless abandon on the internet…”

Is “big and free sloppy wet kiss and then some from the CA wine industry” not misinformation, distortion, and egegious falsehood?  I’m just an electrical engineer from MIT but I think “egegious” is a misspelling or I’m just worse at this writing stuff than I thought.  I think those two statement are ironic though…unless I don’t get that concept either.

Moving on:

“no doubt I miss some very fine producers as do others,but their trade associations may have had it with the independent press in search of just the best….and need to garner support from somewhere…by targeting the independent and more established press..it may help bloggers’ readership…the public sucks down anything perceived as “scandal’…even if the story is totally bereft of any investigation or fact checking…”

Mr Parker you need to understand something.  Last year, Alice Feiring gave a keynote speech to bloggers and it was inspiring.  In that speech she said that wine bloggers represent something unique in the entire history of wine writing and that is a community of wine writers.  The one dude who entrapped Wine Spectator is not enough of a sample set to make conclusions on the entirety of the wine blogging.  Again, note the irony of your “blobbers” statement.

More?  Sure thing:

“and of course,and bloggers can’t continue to exist without wine-related advertising(we do and will continue to do so)…”

Now there you are showing again a fundamental lack of understanding of not only wine bloggers, but Web2.0 in general.  People participate because they want to contribute to a community.  I can tell you that no one in wine blogging that I’ve met sees blogging as something that they will do as a business.  And the speakers (who include businesses that are not wineries, Alder Yarrow of Vinography, Steve Hiemoff of Wine Enthusiast, and many others) preach to everyone that comes to the WBC that if this is their intentions then they need to get off the bus right now.

And he continues…

“but that conference sounds like a California wine trade junket to further the interests of the vast California wine industry that feels slighted by coverage from the more established press….as always there is a simple solution for wineries feeling ignored….make better wine…it will get attention faster than you ever dreamed….fascinating list of sponsors under-writing all the costs for that event…not one of them pro-consumer….all of them pro wine-selling business….”

This may be true of the sponsors, but the content of the event is driven by the community.  Topics are discussed in the US conference and expanded upon in the European conference and vice versa.  There are ad-hoc events to discuss topics that weren’t explored at the main WBC.  This movement is much much bigger than you understand, clearly.

For the reasons I stated above, you should be ashamed of yourself.  But now, let me agree with you in a HUGE HUGE way:

“Vinography comes to mind immediately…so it is not so much an anti-blogging position… just anti irresponsible bloggers…”

Yes, Alder is a clear leader.  And we are ALL “anti-irresponsible” bloggers.  Bloggers are a very very new community.  They are trying to understand themselves as much as people are trying to understand them.  The topics that people want to discuss at the conference include:

  • Blogging and the future wine writing and wine reporting
  • Beyond Words: How Video Content is Changing the Wine Biz
  • Create a panel on Unified standards for ethics and disclosure
  • Legalities of Blogging

Wine bloggers are voting to discuss these topics.  They want, collectively as a community, to understand how to be responsible wine bloggers and what that means.  Many don’t have the distinguished career that you have in wine writing.  Blogging is still very young by many standards and absolutely in its infancy in the wine industry.  There are many things yet to be determines and at least the community wants to take responsibility for what is happening.

You and your voice can be a leader to a new generation of wine writers and lead the change that is happening to the wine writing industry.  This change is going to happen.  I’m not forcing it, just giving it a platform.  I’m not the CA wine industry as Joe seems to thing, I’m just a nerd from MIT that loves wine.  If you came to the conference and started to discuss with the community what you believed should be deemed as “responsible” blogging you’d have 200 very enthusiastic bloggers doing their best to live up to the standards set by thought leaders like yourself.

But rather than being the center of the inevitable change, the beacon that guides that change in a responsible direction, you seem to be disparaging what you don’t seem to understand.  Rather than attending, understanding, and helping, you are pointing at the problems with blogging and offering no solutions.

If thats going to be your stance going forward you should refrain from commenting on what you and your Web2.0 advisors don’t understand and stick to tasting wine.

The DaVino Code: Link Between Social Media and the Wine Industry

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There is endless analysis out there and supposition/assumption that social media is important to the wine industry.  Some people claim the vision is over-blown and that traditional sales methods will dominate for a very long time to come.  Those people would be very wrong and taking their business, in the short term, in an OK position but long term dangerous position.  The decisions about online strategies for wine companies today will have long range impact on winery, retail, etc… business success and ultimately determine if the business will survive.  Here’s why.

I’ve written a bit about how wine is bought a couple years ago in what I called the Wine Life Value chain where I describe a bit on how wine is bought when people trust the source.  Stronger the trust bond is, the more likely the sale.  This is a little more elaboration on that idea and how Social Media is critically important to understanding that trust and scaling it to global proportions.

First a bit about the wine industry.  According to Wine Business Monthly and US Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Bureau there were 5960 bonded wineries in the US representing 12,000 US wine brands in 2006.  Lets just assume that number is still valid (even though its grown, those are just the latest I have on hand for this post).  Add to that the approximately 20,000 import brands (a number I’ve been told by several industry contacts) and we’re talking somewhere on the order of 32,000 brands available in the US, with new vintages every year, multiple varietals and blends and you’re looking at an incredible amount of selection for just the US consumer (only gated by protectionist government policies).

Add to this that many of the wineries (like most of the US economy) are small businesses with few employees and even fewer resources dedicated to creating a recognizable brand by the average person and what you are left with is an industry that is driven primarily by “Buying Pattern Influencers” (BPIs).  Every industry has them – people who are knowledgeable and can guide your decision – but no industry has such a confluence of factors (selection, unique characteristics, variety of flavors, degrees of desireability influenced by individual body chemistry) such that word-of-mouth and BPIs become the primary driver (Yes, there are lots of HDTVs out there, but if you took every factor – size, brands, prices, etc… – you still don’t come anywhere near the selections of wines that change every year of production).

Hence wine is bought and sold by BPIs more than anything else.  If you look at the Wine Life Value chain I discussed in my other post, BPIs vary in influence depending on the strength of the bond between the consumer and the BPI.  Basic laws of business still apply in the wine industry, don’t get me wrong.  If your product has no distribution of any kind, either direct to consumer or through three-tier distribution, then the consumer can’t buy it.  But the BPIs matter the most.  What are some examples?  Well:

  • Wine Spectator is an entire magazine that used the concept of BPIs, aggregates them and publishes a magazine that is very widely distributed.  The experts, by virtue of their qualifications, are BPIs though their bonds to the consumer are weaker than say your wine geek friend.  But in the end, its better than nothing and therefore influences a large number of people.
  • Robert Parker and his newsletter are another example of a BPI using traditional media to distribute his opinions to a large number of people.
  • I’ll get a little more personal – I know for a fact that the buyers of the Whole Foods and other grocery stores near me go to my wine guy (Bert over at Joseph George in San Jose), check out what he’s getting, and use that to select brands.  Bert and his crew are BPIs not only to his customers but to other local liquor operations interestingly enough.
  • Another one – my brother buys anything I tell him I think is good.  He’ll do it blindly because I’m basically his BPI (or one of) and we have a strong bond (i.e. we’re close) so he’ll buy it site unseen.

OK, now Social Media and what does all this have to do with anything.  The connection between the wine industry and social media is the basic understanding that Buying Pattern Influencers decide what gets bought and sold in the wine industry and the strength of the bond between the BPI and consumer is the factor that tips the decision from “maybe someday I’ll get that” to “gimme that right now” (i.e. it’s the factor that increases the conversion rate of touches – in marketing terms).  If you understand that then you need to look at Social Media in this way – you can try to become the BPI or you can find a way to work with BPIs that are mutually beneficial to your business and/or the community of BPIs (i.e. the social network between BPIs).

Prior to online social media, it was nearly impossible to understand who were BPIs.  You didn’t know an individual’s network, how big it was, or how influential that person is over his/her network.  How could you?  The only measure was this magazine/newsletter has this many readers therefore at a minimum you’ll get lots of exposure and at a maximum the publication will influence many many people.  And it does just that through wide distribution.  The weakness of such publications is that, save for a select few fanatics, they create a weak bond between the consumer and the BPI.  Hundreds of thousands of weak bonds, but relatively weak none the less.  Given no alternative, again, it’s the best bond there is for a newbie.

Along comes Social Media.  Here’s a couple of videos with a simplified explanation of Social Networks and social media.  But basically, it allows for communities to evolve, BPIs to develop to much wider audiences, and exposes the social graph of a person and scales it in ways never possible before.  A single person can connect to thousands of other people and maintain communication with those people – two way communication, unlike magazines – and not only create a bond but maintain it and make it very strong.  And that bond is not necessarily local either – that person can be equally connected to someone next door as they could with someone in another continent.  Social Media allows individuals to become BPIs (see the most famous example in Gary Vaynerchuk and the like) or to get to know communities of BPIs and create strong bonds with the members.

This fact is reinforced by a recently release study of consumer behavior online conducted by Razorfish called “FEED:  The Consumer Experience Report”.  In it they surmise that:

And not too surprisingly, most consumers are using social networking services to connect with others—either actively or passively. Few are venturing there for less-social goals, such as finding out about new products or services. And despite the proliferation of games and applications available on social media sites, user activity is still dominated by communicating with friends and updating status messages to keep others abreast of personal news and developments.

They are also concluding that the “one-stop” destination for information and updates is in a state of disintegration because of the ability of the individual to make these connections, filter information, and federate tools to create highly personalized portals to their digital life – but that’s a topic for another discussion on Social Media and the wine world.

Its been speculated that wine enthusiasts that leverage one of the earliest social media tools – Blogs – are important and a catalyst of change.  Wine Bloggers are in effect early adopters of this new technology and they, as a community, represent a group of BPIs.  They are people who, through their passion for wine – either by trade or just because they love it – write about wine just to share that passion and potentially educate other people.  They generally have small audiences but the important thing to remember is that there is genuine two-way conversation happening on blogs and each blog creates a micro-community with very strong bonds.  Now there are by some estimates 1000 wine blogs out there.  The industry is saying “yeah, but their audiences are small and they’re all spread out”.  True…today.

Social Media is in its infancy and there are spectacular tools that have yet to be written.  This first stage of social technologies are allowing for information to be liberated and democratized.  Over time, technologies for how these disparate bits of information – 1000 wine blogs, hundreds of thousands of wine reviews on sites like Cork’d or WineLog, etc… are correlated and tailored to a single persons tastes and how this person influences the buying patterns of their social graph are all coming.  (FYI – therein lies the danger behind the door for publications attempting to create the “one-stop” destination for their readers.  Its the technology that changes the playing field that ends companies’ dominance and changes markets.)

For the wine industry this is a fantastic new frontier.  The technology world is working feverishly to simplify the creation and identification of BPIs, something the naturally social world of wine has done offline for centuries as good wine would be recommended from one friend to the next.  Technology and the Internet are just now catching up to where the wine world needs it to be – all about social interaction.

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Wine Spectator Award scandal…yeah, so…

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OK, so there’s alot of hub-bub about that the Wine Spectator expose that happened by blogger Robin Goldstein.  And first let me say a couple things.  Bloggers are extraordinarily important to the world and this is just the latest example of some good citizen journalism.  Bravo to Robin for the work on setting up this sting.  Nice, ethical, and well executed.

As a marketing professional for a decade and a half I’ll say this though – what did you think the award was?  Wine Spectator is a “for profit” private entity that has what, 100 employees?  I’ve dealt with many many awards for the rediculous number of products and companies I’ve launched and I’ll tell you this, whenever there is a for-profit entity involved then you’re going to pay-to-play.  And if you pay-to-play then you’re probably getting an award!  There are several technology related firms that have pay for entry, then I win the award, then they call me back and pitch me Ad space, and then tell me to be involved in the award ceremony I have the great opportunity to present my product/company at a high profile industry show…for yet another fee.

update: On side note for the history books.  In the late 1990s, what I call “Bubble Days” of tech, pay-to-play got ridiculous.  There were analyst firms that would take EQUITY in a startup and then write a positive report.  Subsequently, these firms would go public and thanks to the Tech Bubble some people got very rich for their “award” or “positive outlook”…nuts…

This Wine Spectator debacle is nothing new or unexpected.  They’re leveraging their brand, which has the power today to make a $20 wine into a $100 wine overnight, to make more money.  What is unexpected is the fact that they were complete IDIOTS about it and obviously do zero vetting not a very thorough job vetting applicants.  Dumb dumb dumb.  But I’m not surprised the award is the way it is.  Not at all actually.  Maybe thats part of the marketer’s secret code or something but thats how these things go.  If this didn’t happen (the dumb non-vetting move being exposed), who wouldn’t pay $250 for this “Excellence” award, hence “profit” opportunity.  Look, even now, if you have a real restaurant whats to stop you from fudging the wine list?  The sting was a totally fake place, but what stops you from doing this again?  Pay-to-play, thats how it works.  Its a revenue generator for the company, thats all.

Now, I do want to point out something in stark contrast.  The “American Wine Blogger Awards“.  Whenever they come around everyone gets in Tom Wark’s grill about “who are you to judge me” and “what makes you think this award is valid at all”, and so on.  I mean he gets HEAVY criticism.  Well guess what – its decided on by people submitting nominations, then the finalists are chosen by a panel and voted on by the people again.  Oh yeah, and it FREE.  In fact, when I offered to sponsor the AWBAs Tom turned that down.  So even though its not perfect I view it kind of like how I view the American Democracy – its not perfect and sometimes its not fair (just look at my tax bill every f’in year), but its about the best you’re gonna get!

Cheers!

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