Today I sat through a panel discussion titled “What Companies Want from Wine Bloggers” at the Wine Bloggers Conference in Santa Rosa, CA. I was interested in hearing what a group of esteemed public relations experts had to say about wine bloggers and reviewers, eager to learn some great tips to help new wine journalists like me who are just starting out. Plus, this was supposedly the top rated topic of previous conferences.
I don’t want to be seen as a Negative Nancy, but this session has been bothering me all day. Even after a cool down period of nearly 24 hours, I’m still just as upset. I discussed my thoughts with several other writers in attendance and they all agreed with my very valid points, so I’ve decided to write this post. I feel like this session should’ve instead been titled “Why You Don’t Matter and Should Stop Blogging, You Worthless Loser.”
Everything started out fine with the panel (which included Lisa Mattson from Jordan Winery, Ariane Hiltebrand from Sonoma County Tourism, Katie Calhoun of Calhoun & Company, and Allison Levine of Please the Palate) discussing general items like maintaining a standard of professionalism, editing, and generating useful content. It’s when Mattson began spouting off how Jordan Winery only prefers to work with “qualified media” bloggers that things started going South.
I do not want this to come off as a hit piece on Mattson, but there’s a gross reality that her total lack of empathy and short-sightedness left me feeling so dejected that I almost wanted to pack up my bags and leave Santa Rosa. First up was her insistence that all serious bloggers have a massive amount of influence in terms of follower numbers across all social media platforms seems impossible for little blogs like this one. She threw out huge numbers like “10,000 or more” followers on Twitter to “400 likes” on a single Instagram post. I’m not Katy Perry!
I soon started to feel that maybe this panel didn’t belong at the WBC. Over the last two days I’ve met some truly incredible and talented writers, all with unique voices and all with relevant and meaningful things to say. Many of us here are tiny, and some are even smaller than The Grape Geeks. Some of us are fortunate to have over 1,000 followers and readers, but why should those with 300 or 50 or even 10 followers be considered less important than anyone else?
Remember that we all have to start somewhere, and many of us here are following our passion and our dreams. As one fellow (and much more seasoned) blogger put it tonight when I expressed my irritation, “she had no business being discouraging like that.”
Mattson’s comments left me feeling so dejected that I now have crummy feelings towards Jordan Winery; so much so that I don’t ever want to purchase or drink a bottle of Jordan wine ever again.
Making matters worse, some of the panelists gave the strong impression that they actually look down on bloggers, assuming most of us in the room were there for no other reason than to beg for unreasonable freebies from wineries. I’m not looking for fancy complimentary trips to Italy or free cases of $150 wine sent to my door. Every single wine I’ve ever reviewed I’ve purchased with my own dime, and I do this for the love of writing and the joy of wine. It’s at this point when the session took me from being dispirited to downright angry.
We were strongly encouraged by the panel to always use a “positive voice versus a negative voice” (which is a bogus “rule” I’m breaking right now in a blaze of glory). As an Elite Yelper it’s something I see time and time again when I leave a less than positive review. Instead of a company trying to be better, they criticize and attempt to demonize the reviewer. Those businesses are the kind who leave rude responses online and if you’re even vaguely familiar with Yelp, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.
The kicker of all this is that the “What Companies Want” panelists were almost at total odds with Fred Swan’s excellent earlier session on the Ethics of Wine Writing. Instead of telling the truth and giving the whole picture as we were instructed earlier, several of these women repeated that bloggers should never “go negative” when writing about wines or wineries. Well guess what? I’m going to go rogue and stay honest in my blogging. If I don’t like my experience, be it in the tasting room or sitting in an audience of 300+ wine bloggers while I’m repeatedly told that I’m so small that I don’t matter, I’m always going to go with honesty. Every time. My voice is valuable and I’ll keep writing, but I’m going to do it my way — no matter if my opinion is positive, negative, or indifferent. At least I can stand tall because I’ll still have my integrity.
I feel the panelists (Mattson in particular) are extremely shortsighted. Yes, I understand that wineries are businesses and they can’t send out full bottle samples of all their wines to the thousands who ask, or routinely invite hundreds of writers on lavish trips or to black tie dinner events, but stingy wineries are no good for profits either. If you refuse to work with the small fish blogs, then we can’t write or share or tell our friends and family about that great Chardonnay that would be perfect by the beach house or that rich Cabernet that reminds us of a cozy Fall sweater.
Perhaps we can’t greatly influence your bottom line, but many other wineries appreciate and respect the grassroots movement when building excitement and homegrown buzz towards a brand. Jordan is one of the big boys and probably doesn’t need the support of nor do they care about small time writers, but my point is that although I think they should, their representative at the Wine Bloggers Conference ought to, at the very minimum, not discourage and insult their core customer base. We may be writers but we are also consumers.
I don’t know the WBC etiquette for a post like this and hell, I might not ever be invited back as an attendee after publishing it. But I felt the need to get all of this off my chest, especially since many others expressed similar sentiments.