It's interesting how certain items of news about the wine media seem to have got everyone all a twitter. The Observer newspaper has announced that they are reducing the length of Tim Atkin's column and a notable guide to Spanish wine (Peñin) will now only be published online. What's more, last year Condé Nast's Gourmet magazine was axed and over the past few years the presence of wine commentators in British newspapers has dramatically dwindled.
I have spent a large proportion of my career either working in wine media or on the fringes of it. After a few years in wine retail, in 1995 I joined Mitchell Beazley publishers where I edited books such as Hugh Johnson's Pocket Wine Book. I worked with a broad range of specialist writers and experts. Within the wine trade, these were all highly respected, courted 'celebrity' figures who all continued to be extremely important once I moved into public relations. This was rarely the case outside the confines of our world. Of all the writers I worked with, only Hugh Johnson, Jancis Robinson and Oz Clarke would have any relevance to most of my personal acquaintances. If you asked people in the street, I doubt whether many would have heard of them (although Oz Clarke's name might have rung a bell!).
The wine trade values the press enormously and unreservedly. Third party endorsement plays a key role in marketing such a complicated product to the public, especially in the UK where consumers often find themselves overwhelmed by the choice of wines available. Despite being aware of the limited circulations of specialist publications such as Decanter (approximately 40,000), I'd be interested to know what proportion of these figures is made up of members of the wine trade. Wine is no longer a niche product, but wine appreciation is most certainly a niche activity and a tiny proportion of consumers want to read about it; they just want to drink it. How much time do you spend reading about music, for example, as opposed to listening to it? Probably very little.
Whereas wine in the print media is becoming increasingly limited, the internet is the perfect arena for current coverage of niche subjects. Mentioning Jancis Robinson again, here we have an example of someone who recognised this early on. Her website with its subscription-only 'purple pages' is kept entirely up-to-date and she even has another Master of Wine, Julia Harding, working as her assistant, enhancing her impressive authority. Other British wine websites such as Jamie Goode's wineanorak.com, Tom Cannavan's wine-pages.com and Drinking Outside the Box on simonwoods.com (especially the podcasts) are also well regarded and have strong followings. An exciting recent addition is thewinegang.com which, in the light of the gradual demise of newspaper wine columns, is an obvious development. Several wine writers are involved (including Joanna Simon, ex-Sunday Times, and the aforementioned Tim Atkin) which allows visitors to the site to latch on to the writer whose taste most chimes with their own. Then, of course, there are the numerous food and wine bloggers out there.
Despite being slow to acknowledge its rapidly growing power, the wine trade has much to gain from new media. Whereas print media is generally a one-sided form of communication, online you can generate useful dialogues with your consumers and monitor their reactions to your products. As for the wine press, well-informed, passionate communicators will always have a voice, whatever the medium.