Can’t we all get along? There’s plenty of wine and word count out there for everyone.
And you thought the bickering over the “clean” wine trend was exhausting. But no, the wine industry loves to fight itself, so here we go with the latest cold war: Old school wine crowd has had enough of the new school wine crowd and a Twitter battle ensues. Seriously. Are “real” cosmetic industry writers this upset about beauty influencers demonstrating their morning skincare routine on Tik Tok?
I’m not entirely sure what spurred the latest round of anti-wine-influencer articles – perhaps the fact that we are all spending a whole lot more time on our devices thanks to COVID restrictions – but something appears to have stoked the coals on the whole “wine influencers aren’t influential” argument, and I am not here for it.
While reading James Lawrence’s recent piece in Wine-Searcher.com, “The Incurable Plague of Wine Influencers,” I found myself clenching my jaw. My pulse actually quickened. I even yelled at my husband about it, as though he had somehow played a role.
In his searing critique, Lawrence writes, “More than two million people dead; massive disruption to our lives; job losses and depression – but take heart, the world's influencers have managed to keep snapping.”
But, he has managed to keep writing totally unhelpful, condescending smackdowns of said influencers, has he not? In what way is this better?
He continues, “Personally, I would have thought that societies living under lockdown would have scant need for their brand of nauseating self-aggrandizement. When you're filing for divorce and claiming unemployment benefits, smug posts about banana daiquiris and Prada surely come as little comfort.”
Is reading smug articles like his then supposed to serve as a panacea? Should we do away with all forms of mindless (or mindful) entertainment until the world is a better place? Did no one else binge watch Tiger King during lockdown, or was that just me?
Considering that taking stylized bottle and vineyard shots is how some influencers actually earn their living – or at least their wine money (the spending of which helps the wine industry) – these posts may very well be keeping them from having to file for unemployment.
Let’s take it one step further. If an influencer, with their eye-catching bottle shot, gets one person to head to a winery’s website to make a purchase, or follow a winery’s account on social media, or make a mental note to visit when things open back up, is that influencer not doing more for the business of wine – which has been hit pretty hard thanks to lockdown orders, as we all well know – than Lawrence is in criticizing them for taking selfies? At the very least their feed isn’t clogged with static posts talking about how terrible and useless “real” wine writers are.
This isn’t a zero-sum game. It’s possible for some wine enthusiasts to exist in their grouchy and judgmental wine world, while social media stars exist in their aspirational, technicolor fantasy land, without the planet self-destructing, I promise. Both will have their fans. They may even get along if we let them.
Wine writer Tom Wark’s response piece, “Stalin, the Khmer Rouge and Wine Influencers” was somewhat gentler, and certainly far more helpful. He offers practical advice for brands considering working with influencers, equating a social media post to a form of advertising. But there is still a whiff of disdain as he observes, “Most wine writers attempt to tell a genuine story. Wine Influencers attempt to find the right light.” I suppose it depends on what sort of story the consumer wants to read. I know plenty of wine lovers who spend a pretty penny on their annual wine consumption who would rather get a root canal than read certain high profile wine journals cover to cover.
And, let’s be real – many people purchase wines based on interesting or striking labels, so something can still have value – and tell a story – just by virtue of being nice to look at.
To this day, I still struggle to fully understand what the anti-influencer crowd is so up in arms about. Is it that they are worried influencers are threatening their jobs, or their place among wine consumers? The very integrity of wine itself? I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again for those in the back: Let’s please remember that wine – while certainly worthy of in-depth discussion and analysis – is ultimately a product consumed by the majority of wine consumers for pleasure. I’m not sure writing condescending, dismissive, arrogant pieces against social media influencers seeking to promote it is helping the U.S. wine market’s cause.
Ranting to my husband aside, I’ve tried to examine why these rages against influencers make me so upset, and I think it comes down to three things:
First, the level of vitriol in some of the anti-influencer rhetoric hints at the ongoing sexism within the wine industry. The wine influencers that tend to be referenced in these pieces are indeed female, and it feels like their work – again, as hard as it is for some people to believe, this is how many of the best of them make a living – is being undermined by men. The narrative also often fails to recognize the breadth and diversity of wine influencers out there, lumping the educational in with the irreverent, and the irreverent in with the aspirational-lifestyle-driven… and ultimately dismissing them all.
Secondly, once again, the old guard of the wine industry is stubbornly refusing to meet consumers where they are. I watched a session at the recent Direct to Consumer Wine Symposium led by brilliant industry veteran Brian Baker in which he asked consumer panelists how they felt about wine ratings and where they got their wine information. Most said scores didn’t influence their wine-buying decisions. One panelist specifically referenced looking on social media for wine recommendations. She even mentioned gravitating to – gasp! – Cameron Diaz’s new wine brand (and the industry’s punching bag du jour) “Avaline” because of how engaging the content promoting it on social media was. Granted this was a small sample size, but it doesn’t take a statistician to take one look at the past few state of the industry reports and realize more needs to be done to capture and engage new and younger wine audiences.
And, lastly, the criticism isn’t solutions-oriented. These missives never feel inclusive and helpful, nor do they give the supposed offenders a chance to do better. These articles just feel like a worse form of preaching to the choir – whining to people who look and sound like you, and already agree with you.
One day, when social media influencers have been eclipsed by the next shiny new thing, I hope they will have the adaptability to prolong their relevance to the industry… or at the very least the class to support others who are trying to keep wine flowing into glasses. That’s what we’re all here for, right?
A (Hopefully Helpful) Epilogue
A few months ago, I admittedly got a bit disenchanted with wine influencers as well, based on a few negative experiences working with them, and almost did an online rant of my own.
However, in reflecting on this disenchantment, I don’t think I was mad at the institution of the influencer, but merely the lack of professionalism of a few individuals who also happened to be influencers. As a business owner, a freelance writer, and PR and marketing professional, I have experienced the same frustrations working with journalists, partners, vendors and beyond, so the bad behavior isn’t unique to the well-lit selfie set. But, this piece is about influencers so, in the spirit of solutions-based writing, I would like to offer influencers a few tips on how to work best with brands and PR firms, and hopefully stave off some of this criticism from the other side… that is, if they even care to.
I just got back from this year's Unified Wine & Grape Symposium, North America's largest industry expo and trade show. I have been going for a few years now, and I always come home feeling energized and excited about the industry I have been a part of for nearly twenty years.
However, this year, I left feeling a little bit, well, sad.
It may have been the fact that the temporary relocation of the event to Cal Expo -- presumably an amazing place during the California State Fair, for which the venue is intended, but not ideal for this particular event -- made this year's Symposium feel disjointed and cold (literally and figuratively). Sessions were sparsely attended and, at least for me, the magical sense of community I normally feel at this event just wasn't there. This was perhaps a result of the sheer magnitude of Cal Expo -- walking between sessions felt like trekking across a massive college campus to your next class. But I'm worried it was also because of something else... something that I'm hoping to put into words here...
I left last year's Symposium worried for our industry, but also excited about the opportunities ahead. I reported on my key learning (singular) last year with a simple warning: Adapt or die.
There felt like the beginnings of some momentum. Many nodded their virtual heads in agreement. The mirror was held up to us during the many 2019 breakout sessions and keynote addresses. We observed, took note, welcomed advice. We had our marching orders and were sent away to execute.
And yet we didn't.
This year, more than once, I found myself swearing I had seen that exact same presentation slide last year. The one about millennials being important, and the wine industry needing to figure out how to communicate with and to them. The one about alcoholic beverages moving into new occasions and how we need to meet consumers where they are -- movie theaters, axe throwing, the beach... The one about new packaging. The one about how important experiences are. The one about the next creeping competitor -- last year it was cannabis; this year it was White Claw. We heard again this year about transparency and authenticity and labeling. About how critical it is that we figure out how to deliver better, faster and more engaging direct-to-consumer capabilities. It's not that we aren't doing any of it. It's that this should all by now be automatic to us as an industry keeping up, not revelations worth re-reporting.
While I was delighted that a few speakers dug deeper on themes of health and wellness, and urged our industry to take wine back as the original natural beverage -- a brilliant take on and response to the unnerving sober curious movement -- and an emphasis on using the data that is already there for us to do better, smarter, more consumer-focused business, there was little else that felt new. Perhaps I was being naive, but I truly believed after last year's wake-up call that we would have all been spending this Symposium celebrating the incredible moves we had made in 2019. How we had started to take some steps to move back into a leadership position in the world of alcoholic beverages. Created our own White Claw juggernaut.
Instead, it always feels like we are playing catch-up. Defense. Reacting to the industry and competitive sectors, but no longer setting the standard ourselves. Since we grabbed onto the French Paradox all those years ago and ran with it, we have languished. And that paradox can no longer carry us alone.
I don't blame any of the speakers or panelists. The sessions I sat in on were polished, well-presented and engaging, and I left with plenty of ideas and inspiration. I blame us collectively -- myself included -- for going home last year and falling back into the predictability of business as usual, and for maybe being tempted to do so again this year. There are some out there setting the pace and pushing the boundaries of what this industry is capable of. But there are too many of us waiting for others to take the lead, hoping we can get on the bandwagon when the time feels safer to do so.
As a PR professional, a marketer, and a writer in this industry, I pitch and engage with hundreds of stakeholders at various levels all year. I had the immense joy of creating a few "transformational" proposals for new business to potential clients this past year -- clients who were specifically looking for something out of the box -- all of which were, sadly, turned down. "We're just not ready... maybe in 2021," I heard. Perhaps I'm not the one to execute on these wild concepts. But it seems like no one else is either. Instead, the majority of us stay where we are comfortable -- with our vineyard shots, and our yawn-inducing tasting notes, and our walk-around wine events. Again, we are talking to one another, instead of the world of consumers out there that we need to either win over, or keep in our corner.
And so I am putting this out there to all of you wine misfits and visionaries: If you want to do something different, let's talk. This isn't a business pitch; it's a plea to collectively think outside the box. Get uncomfortable. Take some risks. Solve some problems. No one individual or brand can do it alone, but I suspect a few of us can make a dent. Let's sit with a glass of wine and figure out how we can spend next year's Symposium celebrating the great comeback story of the wine industry.
I drink every day. Almost without exception.
It is part of my daily ritual... in some ways part of my identity. And it brings me great pleasure.
At the end of the day, when I close my laptop, I love to open a bottle of something white and crisp. I turn on music, cook dinner, watch my kids play (or fight), and take in the life I have built. Sometimes these reflections are joyful. Sometimes they are frustrated and tired. Either way, I view this moment in my day as a great one.
When I serve dinner, I tend to pour myself and my husband something red. I often sip this throughout the night, sometimes even taking the last few mouthfuls to bed with me as I watch a favorite show or finish up work or mindlessly scroll through my phone, enjoying those few moments to myself.
A lunch or dinner among friends without wine seems like a missed opportunity to me. Not to catch a buzz, but to go back in time, connect with the land, and experience multi-sensory pleasure. Wine is a fantastic accompaniment to food, a wonderful social lubricant, and a small mechanism for making an ordinary moment feel extraordinary. Is it the only way? Of course not. But it's a nice way, an age-old way, and that way is currently taking a beating.
And, for the first time, writing this down suddenly feels like a guilty confession. I am actually bracing for an onslaught of negative commentary after hitting "publish" on this one.
As the ubiquitous and well-intended "Dry January" -- something in which I have never participated -- comes to a close, and I take stock of all the pro/con articles about it out there, as well as the informal documentation on social media from those on the wagon for the past near 31 days, I find myself feeling protective of my beloved drink. My wine. My industry.
I find myself asking... when did this happen? When did everything change? When did behaviors on the extreme ends of consumption start to determine the go-forward plan for everyone?
Devin Parr writes about wine -- drinking it, making it, life with it, traveling for it and the business of it. She also dabbles a bit in careers and parenting.