The rise of the wine experts’ subscription sites
by Miquel Hudin | 11-01-2022 | 18 Comments
It’s very strange to be a wine writer right now. I say this as for the last two decades, space to write about wine has decreased almost as fast as what publications are willing to pay for work.
By my estimates, there are roughly 50 people in the entire world who make their living solely writing about wine and nothing else–although this might even be a generous number and note that I’m not counting production staff at publications, just the writers. Despite this stark, cold fact, the myth that this is some potential career path persists despite all evidence to the contrary.
As shown by continued emergence of new writers (most notable via the now extinct Roederer Awards), people are still making the conscious choice to write about wine despite there being less places to do it and that merely breaking even on an article in terms of expenses can be heralded as a “triumph”. It’s clear that things have needed to change and not just in the “Oh, it’s all happening on Social now!” kind of way.
I will always be a believer in the written word and, unless we outlaw books (which there is a non-zero chance of happening) there will always be the need for text. But, as we’ve shifted from stone to papyrus to paper, it seems that its digital’s age to be the scribe’s chariot and thus wine writing has for all intents and purposes, shifted fully online as shown by this list.
The fastest to shift have of course been the writers as we’ve been at the pointy end of the stick in all these changes and writers have been moving through various waves of formats over the last two decades. In the latest twist, a number of free radicals (myself included) have broken off to build out our own subscription sites.
I talked recently with several people who have started up their own websites and the general consensuses are that a) there’s simply no room in print for everything that needs writing about in the wine world and b) print simply doesn’t pay sufficiently to make a living.
Why create a subscription site? Because it gives value to writing. Despite this view that all things creative are done simply for passion, writing about wine has a cost whether that’s travel, research, books, education, or just one’s time.
While some people may have the misguided perception that everyone is salaried, those not part of that Group of 50 are working freelance and paid per piece. And while there may be the temptation to put work out for free on the internet one can’t find space for, this means going monetarily negative in this pursuit.
While there are some people who may be able to do this because of family or spousal support, most people cannot and thus starting about five years ago, we arrived to the death of the wine blog and the birth of individual subscription sites.
Stepping into the void
Coming from a web development background and specializing in community websites for over 20 years, I can tell you that building and managing a website is no small feat. The technical onus of such an endeavor was massive a decade ago, but the introduction of WordPress with a number of plugins (or the more complex Drupal) has made it less so. But, once that’s off the ground, you need to then work on maintaining the site, something that any larger publication has the staff for (such as Decanter, Robert Parker, or Jancis Robinson) but any smaller publication will find taking up a lot of time.
There have been a number of new sites that have come to life in the last couple of years, but two that are most interesting to me are in two of the hottest regions of France namely, Burgundy and Bordeaux which I wanted to take a closer look at as there’s much to learn in terms of replicating this to other sites.
Jane Anson recently launched her Inside Bordeaux website which is a great site that focuses on Bordeaux as well as the wines sold through the La Place market there. As Jane told me when talking to her, “Every subscriber counts” and this is a key issue for anyone starting up a new project in that even though you might have a decent following on social media and people know your name (Jane has been a recognized expert on Bordeaux for more than a decade) you still have to work your ass off to get new subscribers as it often means peeling them away from other websites given that no one is going to subscribe to every wine publication in existence, as that bill would now cost about 3,500€.
What’s amazing about Jane’s foray into the web world is that she did so while at the same time leaving her position with Decanter which came as quite a surprise to me. The reasoning?
“I’d been working with Decanter for 20 years and decided it was now or never. My Inside Bordeaux book really was the moment that gave a push to do this as I thought that another 10 years down the line, would I want to be in the same position? Also, there was a need and a place for this site.”
I can’t argue with her logic as while Bordeaux is well-covered by wine media at large, there isn’t any single publication that’s actually specializing in it. Most parachute in at various points (especially En Primeur) whereas Jane is actually based there.
This wasn’t the case for Jasper Morris who I also talked to about his Inside Burgundy website which launched back in 2018 at the start of these individual expert websites taking off. There had been several other Burgundy-themed websites at the time including Burghound as well as Burgundy Report but to me, Jasper brought in something new to the fold.
He said that launching the site was a natural outgrowth from his lengthy work in Burgundy. For those who don’t know his extensive resumé, he’s the Morris of the UK’s Field Morris Verdin that was a preeminent Burgundy importer to the country. He’s also a Master of Wine and most importantly, he wrote the absolutely mind-blowing book, Inside Burgundy.
Unlike Jane, who funded her whole website build herself, Jasper had several investors involved. What was his reason for starting up the website?
“There’s a limit to what you can do physically but not in terms of content with digital.” And this is shown time and again as he visits and tastes at over 200 wineries in the region each year and being able to set his own pace with the website versus a monthly or quarterly publication gives him the time to generate really massive and in-depth reports that wouldn’t be possible in print, not to mention getting the second edition of the book out, covering some 700 domaines in total.
Region vs theme
Beyond having published two excellent books and being experts in the respective regions of their websites, there is another commonality with what Jane and Jasper as doing in that they’re focusing on very specific regions.
Doing this is possible due to the large-scale appeal of the regions as well a concentration of source material. Bordeaux has something like 6,000 wineries. Burgundy (including Beaujolais) has around 4,000.
To put this into perspective, where I’m based in Catalunya, there are only about 800 wineries and in total, ALL of Spain has 4,300 despite being in the Top Three of wine production each year. You can immediately see the logistical as well as budgetary challenges for someone like me versus Jane and Jasper who both have the wealth of their professional life within an hour and a half by car. I often need to take an eight-hour train to reach some locations in Spain. I’m still in awe at how someone like Huon Hooke manages to cover the amount of Australia that he does.
It gives way to the fact that one needs to start focusing on a theme to a large extent that’s based upon the wines one wants to promote, albeit within reason. For example, while I’m heavily focused on Spain and its Catalunya region, I’ll cover what I like to call “wine from where the sun shines” and so Southern France, the Balkans, and a smattering of other places come into play.
It’s easy to see the temptation to just cherry pick regions that will get the most eyeballs of course and this is why coverage of Burgundy, Bordeaux, Napa, and Piemonte are seen more often than not in publications such as Decanter or Robert Parker. You can of course narrow the focus like Jeb Dunnuck has done in looking at these bigger, beefier styles of wines that speak to a pretty specific, American audience and some might call “bro wines”.
Themes can be tricky however as if one is to cover say, natural wines, those are found globally these days and actually visiting the regions, even without a pandemic, would be onerous to budget and physically do. Covering natural producers in the Loire? Plenty of material in one space. Doing the same in say, Mendoza? There’s going to be a great deal more time and money spent on travel.
This aspect of budget for coverage was made no clearer when a few years back, a well-known wine website that said they would stop covering South Africa because there was an insufficient number of wineries subscribing to make it worth their while.
The money question
This brings us to the point that most people (I assume readers as much as those looking to launch a site) want to know in that, “Is having your own site a profitable venture? Does it really warrant not being part of a Decanter or Wine Spectator, ‘classic’ publication in some manner and dealing with whatever foibles may exist with those?”
It’s clear that the publication Robert Parker built up has definitely been so given that their reviewers work full time just for that publication and are able to fund all of their own travel independently.
For the single individual starting now, it gets a good deal murkier.
Jasper told me that they started operating at a profit once the pandemic hit but this was due to a great deal of effort via leading tastings for 67 Pall Mall in London. It shouldn’t come as any surprise given that other sites about Burgundy run at a profit and it is indeed a damned hot region for wine buying. But think about what Jasper is saying in that it took him over two years to get the site profitable and that’s with being a Master of Wine, having written the gold standard of books on the region, AND being one of the most recognized authorities on it as well.
As Jane just started, she’s still in a building period, but given her track record with Bordeaux and the fact there’s so much that’s underreported on the region, I’m sure she’ll have no end of success in due course as well as her presence in Bordeaux is an exceptional point of reference:
“During lockdown it was really important to be in the region as I was only critic tasting the wines at this time [others were having them shipped in small bottles] and it’s a massive help to be here. But ultimately I want this to be about what people can actually drink and enjoy not just the grand names that get all the attention.”
For other people with their own sites, no one ever wants to state their subscription numbers. Even though Jancis Robinson just recently sold her website to an American company, neither the subscriber nor revenue numbers ever became public.
I can understand why as it can tilt perceptions one way or the other. Too few subscribers and people think you’re a hobbyist. Too many and they think you’re a behemoth. Ultimately, if you’re not accepting advertising and busting your ass to get out quality content, the numbers are completely irrelevant.
But I can unequivocally state that after two years of running my own site, I don’t make a salary from it. The site pays for itself very well and allows me to pay contributors something for their work but big bucks it’s not.
Why admit that? Because it’s not the reason I moved over to a subscription site. I wanted to create something that funds itself as well as my ability to travel independently and unsponsored (which it does) and also creating a barrier to those who were being “inspired by” my research (which it also does) and lastly, allows me to create a tasting database and an online reference system that’s as much for me as it is for subscribers.
The reference aspect is something that Jasper told me he’s looking to integrate more into his website, using portions of his book in the future. It’s a really excellent aspect to the web as you can essentially build as much as you want as long as you have a decent search to find it all, something that Jane said (and I agree with) was sorely missing in a certain website.
But why put all the effort into creating your own website if it’s not incredibly profitable?
The simple answer is that if you want to write as freely as you’d like, there are few other options out there. Earning money from it directly is obviously a goal, but the reality is that it becomes something supportive of your overall wine career as you can do tastings, events, and other money-positive activities that are tied into it.
No matter if you’re a Master of Wine with a lengthy expertise on a region or just someone somewhat unknown writing about the latest subregion in part of the “New World” that has yet to be recognized, you will be in for a lot of work however.
The sustainability of this was something I put to both Jasper and Jane and it’s something I’ve asked others with their own sites over the years. The answer is generally the same in that if the people creating the sites didn’t believe in the longevity of the project, they wouldn’t be doing it as these aren’t Silicon Valley darlings to be sold off and are all very much long-tail pursuits.
I mean, just because an established, originally paper publication only has 10 or so slots a year for an article on Spain isn’t why I started writing more about the country on my own website. It’s because I find there’s a need for the work and the wines merit the excitement. And as I’ve gradually picked up more subscribers over these past two years, it seems there are others who feel the same.
But, will it be the case that there are people willing to shell out over 3,500€ a year to subscribe to every wine publication out there? That seems highly unlikely given how much great wine that can buy instead.
I see there being two classes of subscribers as time goes one. Those who want to subscribe to a more general site like Robert Parker or traditional publications such as Decanter and Wine Spectator. Or then, there will be those who approach it more like how we buy airplane flights these days (or like we did prior to this pandemic “thing”) in that selecting a batch of various publications that fit your wine drinking habits will be what suits you best in which case I think we should welcome and support more sites if there are people willing to specialize and give the coverage that’s so very needed to all the corners of the wine world–as long as those creating the sites can keep their subscription prices from becoming ludicrous.
The format of publishing will change as well with sites like these. For people like Jane and Jasper, there are definite upticks in the season of reporting, namely January/February for Burgundy and April/May for Bordeaux. These newer, individual sites, in addition to being able to publish as much as they’d like, won’t be sticking to the monthly format of content as it just doesn’t make sense to report on things when activity as well as interest may be at a low moment.
This is just something to keep in mind when signing up that while there will be more coverage on a specific place or theme, it won’t be a constant, unsustainable feed. That’s the trade off for this new frontier of high-quality, expert reporting on wine!
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