Speaking to a group of Pomona College alumni in 1998, Thomas Pinney, the author of "A History of Wine in America" asked, “Why should wine, alone among the important items of food and drink, have inspired this kind of writing?”
He went on to note:
“No one has ever devoted a book to the pleasures of water-drinking; we have no lists of the great vintages in cranberry juice; no one argues about the sources of the most delicate or most flavorful soft drinks. The ‘Magic of Milk’ is not a title to be taken very seriously. No doubt there are many varieties of cabbage around the world, but who apart from a specialist, wants to read about them?”
Due to the increase in blogs and publications over the past 20 years, it’s not unlikely that somewhere we can find an article exploring The Magic of Milk (here, for example) or a blog post outlining the great diversity of cabbage varieties (yep, right here). Nevertheless, Pinney’s observation stands. As consumables go, wine possesses a very special literary niche. Based on a survey of American wine writers, this report explores the community of writers who focus on wine, how they do their work, how they interact with the industry they cover, and some of their views on the wine world.
This is the fourth survey of American wine writers I’ve conducted, beginning in 1994 and with follow up surveys in 2004 and 2010. While numerous aspects of the wine writers’ work remain very similar to what it was 25 years ago, a great deal has changed too. The most obvious change is the advent of the Internet and digital publishing and all the disruption to subscriber bases and ad dollars that come with it. But as the survey shows, the community of wine writers is also changing, particularly with regard to gender.
Finally, this report does not make claims or conjecture about the impact, utility or importance of wine journalism and writing. However, I am on the record as suggesting that we are in a Golden Age of wine writing due in large part to the ease with which new and varied voices can publish their views and observations on wine and wine drinking. However, I also want to note that the newer voices that inhabit the wine writing sphere today stand on tall shoulders. Those of us who have observed this literary sub-genre know of whom I speak.
- Format, Timing, Content and Status
- Industry Relations and How Writers Work
- Personal Views and Issues
- The Gender Divide
- Breakdown By Age
- About Wark Communications
The 2018 American Wine Writer Survey was conducted between July 20, 2018 and July 30, 2018. A total of 820 individuals, all identified as having written about wine over the past year, were invited via email to complete a 29 question survey. Survey Monkey (http://www.surveymonkey) was utilized to create, collect, and analyze the responses to the 29 questions. One hundred seventy-four responses (21% response rate) were collected during the time the survey was open for completion. Survey responses were provided anonymously. The analysis was conducted by Tom Wark of Wark Communications.
-Wine writers tend to be older.
-Nearly two-thirds of wine writers are 50 years old or over.
-More than a third of wine writer are over 60 years old.
-Fewer inexperienced wine writers are on the scene today. In the 2010 survey, 25% of respondents said they had been writing for 5 years or less. Fewer
-Men no longer dominate the wine writing community as women wine writers nearly equal that of men.
-The vast majority of writers possess a college degree.
-Wine writers are highly educated with 40% possessing a postgraduate degree—a level more than three times higher than that of the overall U.S. population.
-A relatively high percent of writers possess wine-related certification.
-No more than just over a quarter of wine writers earn 50% of their income from wine writing.
-Most writing about wine earn very little income doing so.
FORMATS, TIMING, CONTENTS & STATUS
-Unlike previous surveys, no distinction between online and print formats was made in the 2018 survey.
-The blog as a wine writer's primary outlet remains about as common as it was in 2010.
- Publishing across multiple formats is common.
- At some point, nearly all wine writers will see their work published on a blog.
-Those most commonly writing on blogs publish more frequently.
-Despite the rise in digital publishing, there has been almost no change in the breakdown of publishing frequencies from the 2004 survey.
Those working for a single outlet derive much more annual income from their writing.
-Two-thirds of those who primarily write for their own blog or publication earn 10% or less of their annual income from wine writing.
-Just more than half of the wine writers most commonly review wines.
-Those commonly writing about trade-related information has increased significantly since the 2010 Survey, jumping from 8% to 22%.
INDUSTRY RELATIONS AND HOW WRITERS WORK
-Half of wine writers are pitched story ideas on a daily basis by marketers and publicists.
-Writers receiving 26 or more press releases in a week are twice as likely to be making the majority of their income writing about wine.
-Writers receiving many press releases also taste twice as many wines.
-Most press releases have little value or are of limited use to wine writers.
-The value placed on press releases by wine writers has not changed since the 2004 Wine Writer Survey.
-Wine writers want wine samples.
-There is a limited appetite among wine writers for technology, finance, and political news.
-Heavy tasting correlates to higher annual income
-Heavy tasters are twice as likely to use the 100 point rating scale.
-Men are more likely than women to be heavy tasters.
-Those not reviewing wine are more likely to be both women and younger than those that review wines.
-Since 1994, the same percent of writers report using the 100 point rating system.
-Of those using the 100 point rating scale, 56% taste more than 100 wines per month while only 11% of those that do not use the 100 point rating scale.
-Men are significantly more likely to use the 100 point rating scale.
The majority of wine writers receive relatively few wine samples.
-Women wine writers are twice as likely as men to use Instagram.
- Facebook is the most commonly used social media tool among wine writers.
-Maintaining a living writing in the wine genre is the greatest concern.
-A significant minority of writers are concerned with indifferent PR people and marketers.
PERSONAL VIEWS AND ISSUES
-Writers' beliefs in the relative importance of direct shipping, the environment and the cost of wine to consumers have changed little since 2010.
-Younger writers are more likely to see direct shipping as more important to consumers, while older writers believe the cost of wine is the most important concern.
-Younger writers have a higher opinion of Natural Wine than older writers.
-Those writing for 20 years or more have a much dimmer view of Natural Wine.
-Writers overwhelmingly believe climate change will have an important impact on grapegrowing.
-There is little difference between men and women on sexism in the industry.
-Younger writers are far more likely to view sexism as deeply embedded in the industry.
Women are more inclined to recommend wine writing as a career than are men.
Ninety-one respondents provided write-in responses that fell into the seven general categories listed in the chart. Below are examples of written responses in each category.
LESS RELIANCE ON CRITICS/PROFESSIONAL WRITERS
-Consumers will hopefully continue to become more empowered, and thus less dependent on critical opinion.
-The end of independent writers and critics.
-The sidelining of wine writers with traditional credentials.
-The growing number of podcasts, blogs, etc. will both democratize wine and weaken professional voices.
-Blogs will dilute real journalism and make writing more about marketing than quality writing.
-Increasingly, expertise and experience won't be valued.
-Wine writers being replaced by wealthy amateurs and tired sommeliers.
-Less respect given to actual wine writers as the ever-growing ranks of unskilled and uneducated bloggers continue to take up space on press trips and fill the wine journalism space with useless noise.
-Additional sources of information to use.
-Difficulties in access to global travel in a world of strife.
-The emergence of new voices as the old boys (Heimoff, Parker, Laube, Olken, Steiman, et al) leave the field.
-The serial pollination of new independent critics after they flee their parent publications; score inflation.
-Bringing to the surface the lack of diversity in the wine industry.
-Lack of funding for media to attend wine events, tastings, etc.
FEWER WRITING OPPORTUNITIES
-Fewer publications to write for and increasing blogger activity by enthusiasts.
-As in other areas of journalism, more wine writers will move to the content marketing side, where making a living is possible.
-I'm afraid we'll see a lot less of it.
-Income disparity - a few highly paid folks at the top of the pyramid, most others struggling to make a living.
-Less and less publications willing to pay writers what they deserve.
A MOVE TO OTHER PUBLISHING CHANNELS
-Alternative ways of story-telling, with video becoming more prominent.
-Platform changes moving to be more and more digital and interactive.
-There will be a new online format, better than Twitter or Instagram, that will allow you to give wine information in a more targeted and informative manner.
-Continued decline and demise of metro print media.
REGIONAL, VARIETAL AND INDUSTRY CHANGES
-The demise of small, family wineries will impact how wine is covered.
-Wines in the other 47 states will begin to take more of the spotlight away from the west coast
-New and different varietals will be introduced and focused upon.
INCREASING IMPORTANCE OF SOCIAL MEDIA
-Wine writing will probably be dominated by Instagram and other short forms.
-More social channel reporting, less in print and other "traditional" media.
-Social media will be or already is more effective than newspaper or magazine articles.
INCREASED EMPHASIS ON THE ENVIRONMENT
-Growing importance and necessity to cover environmental impacts of the industry as well as climate change.
-Having accurate reporting on how the climate is having an impact on winemaking.
-More stories on climate change and effects on traditional wine styles.
-One Hundred twelve respondents noted their most influential writers. The word cloud to the left indicates the relative frequency that individual writers were cited.
THE GENDER DIVIDE
The representation of women within the American wine writing community has increased significantly since the first American Wine Writer Survey was published in 1994. Twenty-five years ago women represented 24% of wine writers. Today, women represent 45% of those writing about wine. It is a significant increase.
While in most cases men and women have very similar responses to the questions in this survey, there are some very specific differences in how the genders approach and understand their roles as wine writers and operate in this career path.
Women were more likely to identify as freelancers than were men by a margin of 40% to 28%. This is likely due to the fact that women are generally newer to the field, indicated by the fact that 37% of men indicated they had written about wine for twenty or more years, while only 9% of women cited this kind of longevity. This is also borne out by the fact that 48% of women responding to the survey were under 50 years old, compared with only 26% of men.
From an earnings perspective, the genders reported obtaining fairly similar amounts of annual income from wine writing with men slightly more likely to derive 50% or more of their income from wine writing. This goes a long way toward explaining why women writers cited low pay more frequently than men as a concern. It may also explain why 43% of women wine writers had obtained or were pursuing a wine-related certification, compared with only 21% of men.
In matters of how the genders approach wine writing, there turned out to be very little difference with some exceptions. Men taste more wines than women, with 36% tasting fifty or more wines per week compared with only 19% of women sampling a similar number of wines. Men and women also record and report their wine tasting differently with 35% of men reporting using a point-based system of some type to describe wines while only 7% of women report using a point rating system. It turns out too that while the genders are equally attracted to Facebook and Twitter, fully 69% of women reported using Instagram as a tool in their writing while only 39% of male writers cited Instagram as a tool they use. Women wine writers were also more interested in receiving food and wine pairing information from marketers than men to the tune of 57% to 31% respectively.
Finally, the genders were largely inclined to have similar views on wine-related issues with only some differences uncovered in the Survey. Thirty-six percent of women viewed sexism as "deeply embedded" in the wine industry, while 26% of men took the same view. While both men and women writers possessed significant concern about the impact that climate change would have on wine, women were more positively inclined toward "natural wine" than men.
BREAKDOWN BY AGE
When you break down the Survey results by age (over 50 years old versus under 50 years old) you realize that the future of wine writing is female. Fully 60% of those writers under 50 are female, compared to only 35% among those over 50. In fact, the younger the writer, the more likely they are female.
Moreover, while older writers are far more likely to regularly be published in wine-related publications (77%), 80% of the under 50 set reports seeing their work published in these important outlets at some point. They may not see their stories published here more often than the over 50 writers, but they are definitely breaking in. More importantly to this point, 35% of younger writers derive 50% or more of their annual income from wine writing compared to only 23% of older wine writers.
What the different age groups write about is generally similar with a couple exceptions. Sixty percent of older writers opine on wine-related travel compared to 39% of younger writers. On the other hand, 42% of younger writers pen educational and "how to" articles compared to only 27% of older writers. The social media tools the two age groups use in their writing are very similar with the exception of Instagram, to which 68% of younger writers commit time compared to only 41% of writers over 50. Finally, with the effort to obtain some sort of wine certification being a more recent aspect of the wine profession, it's no surprise that 42% of younger wine writer possess or are in the process of obtaining some sort of professional certification, while only 26% of older writers have or are pursuing certification.
On the issues, younger writers hold a more favorable opinion of Natural Wine than their older counterparts. And where sexism in the industry is concerned only 23% of older writers believe it is embedded in the wine industry compared to 47% of younger writers who see it as an endemic problem.
Writing about wine as a profession has never been a lucrative pursuit. Moreover, for most of the time, although there has been a writing genre devoted to wine, very few people were devoted to it. Wine writing is still not very lucrative for the majority of those engaged in it, but today there are vastly more people writing about wine.
Each year this Survey has been conducted, more legitimate wine writers have been invited to participate, including this 2018 edition. A few things are clear from the 2018 American Wine Writer Survey:
• Gender diversity is increasing
• Blog writing is commonplace
• Wine writers tend to skew older
• Writers holding some sort of wine certification is becoming more common
• Writers continue to use the 100 Point system at the same rate they did 25 years ago
• Social media tools are critical to the writers' work
• Writers are concerned about pay and shrinking viable publishing outlets
• The impact of climate change weighs on wine writers' minds.
In the end, the viability of wine writing as a profession will, like other literary and journalism genres, depend on the financial health of the publishing industry going forward. While the advent of digital publishing and the elimination of any barrier to entry means we have access to far more voices than we did 25 years ago, a smaller percentage of writers indulging in the wine genre make a decent living from their efforts. Speculation as to the future of the wine writer by those taking this survey is dim.
Yet, technology has a way of supporting people's interests. If wine continues to grow in popularity, if the now fully adult Millennial generation is as committed to the beverage as they seem, and barring any economic catastrophes, I'm confident that the wine writing project will continue full speed ahead. More new voices are coming. More new publishing exercises meant to meet the needs of new generations will arrive. Even new ways of understanding and communicating about wine are likely to appear.
ABOUT TOM WARK AND WARK COMMUNICATIONS
Tom Wark is the founder of Wark Communications, a consultancy providing public and media relations and marketing services to the wine industry. Since 1990 Tom Wark has worked with numerous wineries, technology providers, media companies, trade associations and retailers in and around the industry. Wark has been an active observer of the wine industry since 2004 when he began publishing FERMENTATION: The Daily Wine Blog. He is a regular speaker at industry events, the founder of the American Wine Blog Awards, and an ardent advocate for better consumer access to wine.
I want to acknowledge and thank all those wine writers who took the time to complete this survey. In addition, I want to thank Alan Goldfarb and Julie Ann Kodmur for looking over the report and offering their thoughts and ideas on how to make it more useful. I am responsible for the analysis as well as any typos that might appear.