What subjects do winemakers blog about?

There’s an ongoing conversation about wine blogger ethics which is regularly brought up at conferences like VinoCamp or every time a government enacts new policies about blogging.  And I just saw some people tweeting about it recently.

Ignore this debate

My very short answer to this issue is that if you are thinking about starting or reviving a blog, I strongly recommend you ignore this debate.  Unless you are so big and important that people will scrutinize your every move and question your ethical standards, this debate will only hinder your natural voice.  Do what comes naturally.  Assuming you’re a good person, you will naturally tend to make good ethical decisions.

There shouldn’t be blogger ethics or wine blogger ethics.  There should just be ethics.  And the particular medium of blogging has very little to differentiate its ethics from the medium of pen and paper or idle chit chat.

Now, if you don’t like ignoring things, then here’s my long answer!   :D

The importance of blogger ethics / journalistic standards

I hear a lot of people say that wine bloggers should be as objective and transparent as journalists. A lot of people say that the key to a blogger’s success is authenticity or transparency or honesty or a big list of other similar words.

Here’s a recent tweet from Jamie Goode on blogger and journalistic standards. “Bloggers should hold to the same standards that all journalists hold to, or they risk losing their readers’ trust #blogdebate”  I’m not picking Jamie for any particular reason.  I’ve been meaning to write about this and the tweet reminded me.  I just don’t like saying “people say” and “they say” without offering some sort of proof.

Ethics or Practicality

Anyway, PEOPLE SAY, hold yourself to journalistic standards or risk losing your readers’ trust.  This is a recurring teleological argument that says one primary reason for bloggers to be ethical is that unethical bloggers lose their readers’ trust.

It’s interesting to note that Jamie’s not using the word ethics.  Instead, he talks about journalistic “standards” and he makes this very pragmatic argument.  If you don’t mind your standards, you’ll lose your readership.  He’s right of course that a blog that earns a large following through charming honesty could lose that following if it suddenly changes its tone.  But this assumes the blog already has readers to lose. And what’s the big deal with losing readers anyway?  He asserts that bloggers want more readers.  And now we’re getting to the real point.

It’s important to note that a lot of these discussions unfold in a room full of people trying to monetize their blogs.  If you don’t believe me, listen to the full conversation at VinoCamp Languedoc.  A recurring theme in this debate is “how do bloggers make money without compromising their ethics”.  I think this is where the conversation takes a bad turn.

In my opinion, the debate has very little to do with ethics as soon as you’re thinking about monetization.  I think ethics are based on moral absolutes that have little to do with practical consequences.  Once you start talking about money, you want to get pragmatic.

And it’s not bad to think about money.  But there’s a fine line between “How do bloggers make money without compromising their ethics” and “Defining blogger ethics to allow them to make money”.  So as soon as somebody in this conversation starts to talk about practicality, money, or pragmatism, you should make a mental note that you’re getting farther away from a debate about ethics. (That’s why I like Jamie’s tweet which specifically uses the word standards instead of ethics).  All that said, many people disagree with me.

Comparative ethics

I’m also very wary of people who rely excessively on comparisons between how journalists behave and how bloggers behave.  I know this is a useful comparison in some ways.  For example, think of your reasoning about whether it’s moral for an investigative journalist to protect a source even if the source might be a bad person.  This is a complex moral issue, but you can almost definitely apply your reasoning about journalists to bloggers.  Of course, there aren’t many investigative wine bloggers, and most of the comparisons tend to be much much cattier.

People tend to suggest that wine journalists are corrupt or opaque or that their editorial content is heavily influenced by their advertisers.  There’s an implication (somtimes unstated, other times quite explicit) that wine bloggers are purer because the medium is so cheap, and bloggers don’t feel the pressing need to let sponsor dictate or influence editorial content.  This is a distracting debate.  In my opinion, being better than somebody else does not make you ethical.  Any argument that relies too heavily on comparisons of this nature is probably a distraction from the true ethical issues.

The true ethical issues

What exactly are the issues of blogger ethics?  Earlier, I alluded to the notion that investigative journalists protect their sources.  This is a real issue in journalism and if you’re blogging about insider trading or blood diamonds, I think you face the same sort of issues.  But if you’re blogging about how wine tastes, the chances are you won’t confront these sorts of ethical issues.  What are potential issues then?  Here’s a list of arguments that get brought up regularly.

  • Lies are bad; truth is good
  • If you make money, you cannot be independent or objective
  • Good writing is an end in itself
  • Irresponsible writing promotes alcohol abuse
  • Good writing promotes wine consumption

Lies are bad; truth is good.
I think this falls into the category of things that matter even if you’re not a blogger.

If you make money, you cannot be independent or objective
I always get a bit fed up by this argument.  The simple answer is that I am a winemaker blogger.  And most wine bloggers are totally cool with winemakers blogging.  They even like it.  And a winemaker blog is automatically dependent on the fact that the winemaker makes wine (and sells it).  So a winemaker blog cannot generally be independent.  And some of you know that I actually embrace the subjectivity of writing winemakers.  That’s why I wrote a totally subjective book about the Cabardes where I can gush about how much I love my region and how cool it is.  So what’s so great about pretending to be objective when talking about a subject like wine that is generally about subjective experience.

Good writing is an end in itself
I wish this came up more.  I like this argument.  People often make sillier arguments like “We should write well because…. ” and then they say something that sounds important.  But you know what?  I think we should write well just because.  Like we should make wine well just because good wine is awesome.  We don’t need to come up with any other justifications!

Good writing promotes wine consumption
Again, I think good writing needs no justification.  But a lot of people still cling to this consequential reasoning.  I do like the idea that good wine writing can allow wine to reach a greater audience.  And I try to do this.  But I don’t think it’s an ethical/moral issue.

Irresponsible writing promotes alcohol abuse
I think this is actually sort of preposterous, but it can’t hurt to keep it in mind.  I mean nobody is reading my blog and then thinking I SHOULD GO OUT AND GET PLASTERED ON FINE WINE.  But who knows?  I would feel TERRIBLE if I ever found out that I contributed to a drunk driving accident or domestic abuse.  So don’t write things that could promote the abuse of alcohol.

Just blog already

If I actually paid attention to any of these arguments, I might never have started blogging.  The fact is that I’m a pretty decent person and when I sit down to blog, I can apply my normal ethical standards to my blogging and that’s just perfect.  If you’re Snidely Whiplash
or a Captain Planet villain, maybe you shouldn’t blog.  But otherwise, you can probably just use your normal standards and you’ll turn out fine.

This summer, we were very excited to be featured in a special wine issue of L’Express magazine in France.  This is a national magazine and the equivalent of TIME in the United States.  So it’s got a wide reach, and the people reading it aren’t necessarily wine geeks.

l'Express article about O'Vineyards - An American in CarcassonneBilling me as an American in Carcassonne, Nicolas de Rouyn shares our journey in a fun, relatable way.  “Mazette. Grosse affaire,” as the article says. :D

We’re happy with the coverage.  Especially because this publication is designed to be read by normal people.

So often the wine world tends to limit itself to other wine professionals or initiated wine lovers.  But most wine is consumed by normal people who only think about wine a few minutes a week!

Hopefully this sort of article can get us out of the omphalocentric wine beltway and get the word about O’Vineyards out into the big open public.

This whole issue of l’Express was pretty interesting.  They had something like 12 pages devoted to wine bloggers (where O’Vineyards was mentioned a couple times as well).  The Languedoc Roussillon was well-represented throughout the issue.  Hopefully, the French wine blogosphere can benefit from this exposure and get more people interested in wine.

But then, seeing the way some people reacted to the article, I don’t have TOO much hope for getting the French wine blog world popular exposure.  We still seem pretty preoccupied by petty rivalries, alliances, and vendettas.  If you don’t have the patience to read through the 200+ comments in this thread, suffice it to say that people disagreed with the selection criteria for the Express articles.  Thankfully, most people will never be privvy to this squabbling (despite my willingness to link to it ;D) and most people will just think “Oh there are French wine bloggers. That’s cool!”

There was an interesting panel at VinoCamp Lisbon where participants discussed the language barriers between different wine blogging communities.

Overall, the round table discussion was very interesting.  I particularly liked Vicky’s idea at the end about designated cultural leaders (which I’ll address in detail below).

Here’s a video of the roundtable:

Language Barriers at Conferences and on the Web

The discussion was divided between how language barriers play out in conference settings and how they affect web communication.  This isn’t really surprising since Gabriella Opaz (who I believe proposed this session) is one of the organizers of the EWBC, and the VinoCamp itself is a very Francophone conference (Lisbon was the first VinoCamp that Gregoire and Vicky organized in English).

In case you don’t think language barriers are relevant, the participants in the discussion bring up a lot of evidence on how divisive language can be.  For example, Gab alludes to the friction between the EWBC and Portuguese wine bloggers in 2009.  Perhaps of greater interest, some of the Portuguese attendees speak up on their comfort level in attending English-language or French-language conferences.  It certainly seems everybody has a lot of hangups when it comes to language.

Most people seemed to find the language barrier equally troubling online.  Do I tweet in English or French or Spanish?  While I understand the frustrations in a conference setting, I think the virtual world is much more liberating.  I realize it’s easy for me to say that since I can write in English and French (which covers most of the wine producing world in one fell swoop)…But I really think that people can get away with any language online.  On the Internet, your audience is not limited to the physical time and place of a conference.  Your words live on in perpetuity and become indexed and searchable to other native speakers of the language you communicate in.  A Catalan-language wine blog does not have the same potential audience as an English-language blog, but it still has an audience.  And even if that niche is only in the thousands, it’s an important audience.  Consider the size of conferences like VinoCamp and the EWBC.  They are awesome gatherings and they generate great ideas and partnerships, but they’re actually sort of tiny.  VinoCamp Carcassonne had like 150ish people.  EWBC Vienna had about 300 people.  Even an obscure language blog can get that traffic in a week.

Getting Wine Producers to Participate

One of the toughest parts of my “job” is getting winemakers to take the plunge and start talking online.  Start showing up at conferences.  Start speaking up and sharing their experiences.  This is probably why I don’t make a big deal about language.  I’d rather see wine producers talking regularly in their native languages than haltingly or not at all in a more popular language.

Again, the Internet allows your words to be archived and searchable for generations.  So there’s really no language too small.

Conferences are a different issue.  It’s true that if you make delicious wines in Croatia and speak absolutely no English, French or Spanish, you’re going to have some trouble attending an International conference.  But if that is the case, you are not reading this blog post. :D

No I can’t just skirt the issue so easily.  This is a real problem.  Because ultimately, the real life interactions are just as important as the virtual content.  I know for a fact that very few French wine bloggers follow my blog closely.  But they all know who I am, what I do, and my communication style because we’ve met in person.  And even though I tend to write in English these days, they all know I’ll talk to them in French when we meet up.  So it’s tough for the kids who don’t speak one of the big languages.

Although I would also take a moment to say it’s not as bad as it seems.  Even though the conversation at vinocamp really focused on how hard it is to get everybody speaking the same language, the fact is that a huge percentage of winemakers speak some French, English, or Spanish.  Italian is a close fourth.  It feels like I’m snubbing Portugal, but most of the wine producers I’ve met from there can understand Spanish very easily.  Germany and Austria are sort of getting snubbed too, but almost everybody I meet out there has a bit of English or French in their vocab.  And obviously, South American wine producers speak Spanish.  North Americans, Australians, and South Africans that produce wine tend to be native English speakers.

Again, if you’re a rural Croatian wine producer, you might have more trouble.  But for the most part, the wine community speaks three or four languages.  Compare this to cereal producers or other agrarian professions, and you quickly find that our language barrier situation could be much worse off.

Designated Cultural Leaders at the EWBC

Even though there are just a few major languages, there’s still something to be done to ameliorate the conference situation mentioned above.  In the VinoCamp roundtable, Vicky Wine had a cool idea.  What if bigger conferences like the EWBC appointed cultural leaders for certain languages or countries?  The cultural leader would ideally speak the language of their culture, the language of the conference, and a bit of the local language for that year’s location.  This person wouldn’t necessarily have a lot of responsibilities, but they’d be a friendly face for other members of their culture and a go-between if people need help, translation, a friend, etc.

It’s very hard for conference organizers to get Italian wine producers to attend an English language conference.  Even when their English is strong, many producers tend to shy away from the anxiety-ridden experience of a week of English-speaking.  Having a designated Italian leader with a friendly face (Magdalene leaps to mind) might help locals to show up.  Similarly, traveling from far away like Hungary can be pretty imposing and knowing there’s a Hungarian pointman might make it easier to attend.  Same with French, Portuguese, Spanish, etc.   Good idea, Vicky!  VinoCamps generate good ideas!

There’s a slight risk that this sort of designation encourages segregation, but that segregation is already occurring to a great extent.  So I’m mostly in favor.  Then again, it doesn’t have to be super official.  Maybe just a section of the EWBC site that lists the friendly faces / ambassadors / whatever you call them, to encourage people to attend despite the language barrier.

 

This post is about one of the round table discussions from VinoCamp Languedoc in March 2011.  I hesitate to label it as “wine blogger ethics” since that’s a big subject.  Miss Glouglou proposed and led the roundtable topic, and she had a more specific idea about what we’d discuss.  We set out to address the “transmission of information” which sort of bundles up a lot of subjects:

  • Marketing material vs. reference material
  • Credibility
  • Bribery
  • Are blogs any different than traditional media?


A lot of people felt strongly that there were deontological moral issues at stake specific to bloggers while other people focused much more on pragmatic issues (credibility, sales, etc.)

My favorite bit is in part 2 around 1:36 where we start talking about giving journalists free bottles of wine.  Some very earnest revelations.  (FYI: the off screen voice that admits it’s normal wine writers get wine is a professional wine writer.)

There’s also this question about whether bloggers can get into trouble by denouncing or even accidentally insulting people.  In retrospect, we could have talked about my extreme positivity on Love That Languedoc. But we talk so much about my website all day, I’m glad there was a session where it came up less.

There’s this idea that keeps coming up about federating talented bloggers into an edited source of information to rival conventional press.  It might be tangentially related to the topic just because bloggers wouldn’t need to face unique ethical issues if they operated more like a print magazine.  But then there’s also this issue of “why copy print media when it’s on its way downhill?”  They might have the ethics figured out, but if you have questions about monetization, there might be better industries to consult.

Anyway, I’m sure I’ll continue to think about this and maybe post more later. For now here are the videos for people who weren’t able to attend.

Beautiful moments (that only come after wine-fueled lunch)

  • French produce wine to be criticized by Americans and sold by the English and bought by the Chinese
  • Traditional press is Tripoli; bloggers are Bengazi
  • Freedom of speech, freedom of regret

Today is a surprise party for BourgogneLive, an exceptionally dynamic web blog that runs on hopes and dreams in the Bourgogne region of France.  If you think I’m insane to spend so much time on the web, you need to meet Aurélien Ibanez and François Desperrier.  They’re not even winemakers.  They’re not even wine merchants.  They just really like wine.   And so they blog.  And boy, do they blog.

It’s great for the Bourgogne.  They bring a breath of fresh air and a very contemporary understanding of online communication.  They know the value of exchange.  Bourgogne Live is an asset to their region. (Sound familiar?)

I think they’re appropriate representatives of the region, and I’ve long promised to write a sort of essay on the similarities between regional wine bloggers and their respective regions, and this seems like a perfect place to start it.  It’s actually probably one of the hardest for me to do because I know much less about Bourgogne than other wine regions, and what I do have to convey is sort of a gestalt feeling …. but stick with me.

Bourgogne is one of France’s great old wine regions.  And despite my profound love of the Languedoc and Roussillon, I concede that we are not nearly as prominent in the public imagination as Burgundy and Bordeaux.  Those two poles of France defined French wine for a long time.  And they also sit at odds in many ways.

The most obvious difference to prove is that Bordeaux is characterized by much larger estates.  Bourgogne is famous for tiny clos with very small cuvees.  In this respect, the Bourgogne is more human-scaled and feels more artisanal.  Think of the word clos versus the word chateau.

Somebody once told me that Bordeaux winemakers historically eat at long rectangular tables where one person sits at the head and presides.  And that in older tables, there is a drawer at the end where the head of table keeps the bread and .. I don’t know.. other goodies.  There are two seats directly to the president’s side, and they have the best access to the head of the table.  Then as you move down the table, you get farther and farther from the head.  It’s all very stratified.  But Burgundian winemakers sit at round tables.  This could be totally made up for all I know, but the image stayed with me.

Bourgogne, a region for the democratic and egalitarian wine drinker. Or the egalitarian and democratic wine blogger!  BougogneLive comes with the same spirit of open, human-scale interaction.  They are approachable.  They are many.  They are not WSET certified, seventh generation winemakers with doctorates in oenology.  They are dudes who like wine.  And they try to open as many doors as possible for as many people as possible.  It’s also appropriate that they don’t limit themselves to writing about Bourgogne.  They write about silly wine videos, wine merchandise, gastronomy, elephant winemakers, and just about anything they feel like.

I’ll admit my knowledge of Burgundy is lacking.  But my image of the Bourgogne is that it is small, human, artisanal, and open.  And that is how BourgogneLive feels to me too.  So, kudos to those boys.  May they keep blogging.  And may somebody in their region have the good sense to start paying them for it.  Because the day they quit (heaven forbid) there will be an enormous vacuum.  And Bourgogne will lose a really golden opportunity.

So three cheers! And may they KEEP BLOGGING.

I noticed that Hervé Bizeul has been on a self-reflective flurry, pontificating on what defines a wine blogger’s philosophical imperatives or something. The point is we all wonder what to blog about at some point or another.

I thought it would be funny to share this pie chart that breaks down the content of most Winemaker Blogs and Newsletters.  Hopefully O’Vineyards blog and newsletters don’t feel like this. ;D

winemaker content pie chart I’m teasing of course.  But there are a lot of newsletters that quite predictably remind you the harvest went great, the wine is available through direct orders, and… well nothing else.

While more introspective winemakers like Hervé and me wonder if we should burden people with our daily chores, tales of the stuff that breaks down, worried scribbles about the weird mole on our backs… …. The most important thing is just to have fun and be yourself.  As long as you’re not treating your audience like a bunch of mindless wine-buying automatons, you’re doing a good job.

Here’s a more detailed version of the pie chart that includes a few more options:

graph(2)

  • Best harvest ever
  • Buy my wine
  • Sorry I haven’t been updating
  • It is hot
  • It is cold
  • The grapes changed color
  • I’m at an overpriced wine fair
  • I was mentioned in a magazine you don’t read

How to find us

Domaine O’Vineyards is just a few kilometres north of Carcassonne. GPS coordinates: 43.259622, 2.340387

Domaine O’Vineyards
885 Avenue de la Montagne Noire
11620 Villemoustaussou, France
Tel: +33(0) 630 189 910

  1. Follow the signs to Mazamet/ Villemoustaussou until the D118 (the last straight road) and the Dyneff gas station on the roundabout.
  2. Take the exit towards Pennautier. Continue 500m to a small roundabout and go straight over.
  3. Look out for the second road on your right, Avenue des Cévennes which goes up hill (about 1km) to Avenue de la Montagne Noire.
  4. At the last juction, bear left at the road sign “Ave de la Montagne Noire” (confusing as it seems to show a right turn)
  5. After another 500m you will see our red brick color building in the middle of the vines.