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What makes a good wine website?

Attending the 2011 Roederer Wine Awards earlier this week I was struck by Charles Metcalfe’s (Charles, who I admire very much, is chairman of the judges) comments regarding the book submissions. It was, he said (I am paraphrasing here – I wasn’t recording anything you know!) that it had been a very strong year for submissions in this category, not a statement that I found surprising in a year marked by numerous high quality publications such as Jasper Morris’s Inside Burgundy. More notably, any suggestions that “print was dead” were firmly laid to rest, he said.

I suppose this comment reflects a fear that print wine publishing, which has long been dogged by a relatively small target audience, was to die in the face of publishing online (there are some very high quality websites dealing with wine – it is a subject matter that seems to have taken very well to the internet) or by publishing in electronic formats (e-books or similar). But then that got me thinking; why should this fear arise? After all, wine websites and wine books do not offer the same features; what makes a good book is not what makes a good website. And that led me to consider – what’s a wine website for?

I’ve come up with a handful of criteria. Let me know what you think of these:

1. Wine websites should provide original information free of editorial constraints

(a) For example, writing online facilitates coverage of unsung regions. I am afraid I still consider the Loire to be one such region. I never started Winedoctor with a Loire focus despite the fact it is a region I adore; that’s because I never started with a plan – it was pure enthusiasm! It has grown, especially over the last 3-4 years, into its Loire ‘role’ (along with Bordeaux – I enjoy the paradoxical elements of pairing these two regions, by the way!).

The Loire will never (perhaps that is a bit pessimistic, but I will leave it as ‘never’ for now) be treated in the same detail in print as regions such as Burgundy or Bordeaux. Chatting once with a World of Fine Wine employee, I asked when the magazine would ever feature the Loire. “Never, if our reader feedback is to drive what we publish” was the response. This can’t be taken as an official line (It wasn’t editor Neil Beckett I was talking to) and admittedly there has been a Cabernet Franc tasting featuring some wines from the Loire published within the last 12 months, but beyond this I don’t think we can expect to see the Loire in print much. Whereas online, writers such as Richard Kelley and Jim Budd (and me?) are free to write about this region for the benefit of anyone who might be interested.

(b) And this segues nicely into the next point; whether or not the region is unsung, publishing online does not fetter the volume and style of writing – the author is free to go wherever they wish, for as long as they wish. Chatting at the Roederer’s with Neal Martin, who continues to write amazing articles of great depth coupled with fine humour on Wine Journal, within the confines of erobertparker, a recent Suduiraut profile he published amounted to 70 000 words; which print publication could handle that? None; and yet I know there are readers out there who enjoy that level of detail and discourse.

Sure, there are problems with self-publishing online; a lack of proof-reading for instance, meaning more shpelling mistgakes and grammatical errors, as well as losing those unsung benefits of editing (improving the flow of articles, chopping out useless tangential issues, etc.) but overall the pros outweigh the cons.

I don’t think a wine website should provide a home for advertorial at all – in print the need for revenue generation unfortunately gives us the advert disguised as article. The internet shouldn’t play host to this, and yet I fear that there are, somewhere out there, bloggers who may – shock, horror – be writing very positive words about wine they have received as part of marketing campaigns. This is a major problem with online credibility. Having been approached to participate in such schemes, which I naturally rejected, I know generating ‘recommendations’ for a wine by ‘blessing’ the blogging community with free bottles in exchange for review really happens. Secondly, I don’t think a wine website should be a home for recycled articles, unless (i) they are a very minor part of the site, or (ii) publication online actually adds something (such as an expanded version – free of print constraints – perhaps with more detail, or more accompanying wine recommendations). Unfortunately, there are big-name writers out there who have websites which consist largely of recycled material from print columns. These author’s don’t really ‘get’ the internet; and I find their approach to publishing online tired and rather cynical.

2. Wine websites should facilitate communication, discussion and feedback

The days of ‘top down’ dissemination of wine information have gone; the internet has democratised wine writing; it is the numerous blogs and forums online that have achieved this, with two top UK examples being:

(a) Jamie Goode’s blog – a very fine blog running alongside Wineanorak where Jamie isn’t afraid to be controversial. The discussions can get a bit spiky at times…which is why they are so engaging of course. I do enjoy joining in from time to time; debate is good.

(b) Tom Cannavan’s forum – the original UK forum which has engendered the creation of a very real online (and subsequently offline) community.

Encouraging feedback and interaction is why I added this blog to Winedoctor. There is certainly room for improvement though.

3. Wine websites should offer entertainment

This differs for different people – for many the printed word is preferable; although I accept that online video has a role, I’m reluctant to believe that video is the most ‘desirable’ online format. Video cannot convey the depth of information that a written article can, nor can it deal with complex arguments so well. Done well, it can add to the value of a resource, but done poorly it contributes to the dumbing down of the internet, shifting it one step closer to something more akin to television than the book. There are plenty of readers who clamour for detail, not superficialism, otherwise (in print) the World of Fine Wine wouldn’t be so successful, and (online) Neal Martin’s profiles wouldn’t receive the praise they do. Video can illustrate and entertain, but let’s not forget the value of the written word.

Returning to my starting point, it is strange that Roederer don’t seem to have published details of winners online, but thankfully Jim Budd (amazing, considering he wasn’t even at the awards) has saved me the job. See the winners here.

13 Responses to “What makes a good wine website?”

  1. Great article. These awards will lose relevance as fast as Cristal’s stred cred if they don’t stick to basics. That’s why it’s worthwhile to thrash it out: what exactly is a good wine website. Wine Doctor has been an invaluable resource for me over the years, thank you – J

  2. Interesting piece.

    Roederer do appear to have published the results, but on a very well hidden page!:


    On the subject of ‘entertainment’ – other than video, what do you see as entertaining on a wine site?

  3. All good points here but as someone who I suppose could be called a fairly ‘big name wine writer’ with a website who has just come up for air after spending – eek – nearly five hours ‘feeding’ JancisRobinson.com with only today’s material, I hope you are not referring to me as someone who just recyles my print material online, Chris!

  4. Good article Chris.

    Jancis, you have ruined the name of Cornas since your tasting article some 10 years ago. Shouldn’t you revisit this? As a wine drinker that likes try and explore (in Chris’s words) “unsung” regions, the only good this has done is keep the prices affordable for the underrated Cornas wines. Championing Bordeaux again and again only serves to keep us consumers narrow minded in their purchases.

  5. Dear Anonymous (whoever you may be),

    I can only report my genuine impressions which have included many a favourable review of individual Cornases.

    You can hardly accuse me of ignoring unsung regions. I think a bit more study of JancisRobinson.com and my FT columns may be in order – though admittedly FT readers do love their (red) bordeaux.

  6. JR Mahoney – thanks for the comments on the site, much appreciated.

  7. Richard – thanks for the link – the Roederer Awards could do with clearer linking, I think.

    Your last question is an interesting one and also very difficult. I didn’t mean to imply there were media choices that could be made to provide entertainment. The written word can provide entertainment enough – whether through humour, providing insightful explanation or great prose. I’m not saying that I am good at any of these though!

  8. Jancis – I’m surprised at your comment as your site certainly wasn’t in my mind when I wrote this. As I understand it jancisrobinson.com features a lot of original material, does it not? In fact I’ve just checked your site now (I subscribe) – of the top few pages of recent articles, ten articles per page, typically 8 are original and 2 are from the FT. The majority of articles are original, and you will note the wording of the statement in my blog post which criticised “websites which consist *largely* (emphasis added) of recycled material from print columns.”

    Also, I think expanding on print columns using the freedom of the internet is worthwhile, and I know this has often been the approach with your FT columns, the online versions being extended versions of the print articles – featuring more detail, more notes or recommendations, or so on. That’s different to straightforward “recycling”.

    Even if the FT articles were simply recycled, who would worry about 2 against 8 original? It is when the ratio is reversed – perhaps 8 recycled articles to 2 original, or more like 28 recycled articles to 2 original – that the value of the website – surely in the eyes of the author as well as the reader – must be seen to be diminished.

    Also, I note that in addition to your own work you have a team of writers – Julia Harding, Richard Hemming & others – writing 100% original online material for jancisrobinson.com. No Jancis, rest assured; after this analysis I think I can conclude that my blog post doesn’t apply to you!

  9. Jancis FYI I am a subscriber to your website. No offence intended in my previous comment but as you did on that article 11 years back I am just stating my views.

    Chris, thank you for posting an article about a great Cornas. If only more did so!

    As a UK wine merchant we sadly now don’t even bother to take on Cornas. Any we were allocated would go off to our own cellar or remain unsold for long periods.

    It sometimes hurts to sell a case of Beychevelle at £700 when the equivalent wine you can get elsewhere would have more soul, more joie de vivre and certainly more value.

    An old Spanish proverb said “knowledge without sense is twofold folly”…

  10. I never get it when someone complains that one of their beloved wine regions is ignored by the wine review press. Hey, as a consumer it seems like a good thing. Look what happens when a region is “discovered” or praised by famous wine reviewers. UP UP UP go the prices. So please Jancis, please don’t sing the praises of my favorite unsung wine region. I’m perfectly happy where prices are now. (yes, I do see that “anonymous” above is a wine merchant, with a different…. perspective on things)

  11. Er Rick, not sure if you were following wine back then but Jancis ridiculed Cornas, not ignored it.

    I agree with you about wine critics “ignoring” certain wines is a good thing. I had been buying VCC in EP for myself since 1995 each year, but in 2009 and 2010 I was priced out. And that was only because of the high ratings it got. I had always thought that the £400 – £700 I was paying for a case each year was too good value for the juice in the bottle, especially when compared to the price of other Pomerol’s.

    As a wine merchant I must have a different perspective? On what exactly? I am quite a consumer so it is in my interest to keep the prices low, but thanks for insinuating otherwise.

    Remember to consider that this is the winemakers income and most struggle to sell all their production, especially in the less published regions. So yes, not talking about them may be a good thing, but giving them a little attention won’t harm either!

    Chris – apologies for using your comment page for a discussion. Perhaps starting a forum where people can discuss their “hidden gems” wouldn’t be a bad idea??

  12. No problem red the debate, Anonymous, that’s what the blog is for.

    The idea of a forum appeals, but I have chronic doubts about it also! One day, maybe…..

  13. There are but a few UK critics who really comprehensively cover regions or vintages, or get boots on the ground (apart from the cliched, big ticket/free lunch ones).

    The Cornas oversight is normal, as wine in the UK is either investment or supermarket thing (mostly the later). Most critics play the easy status quo and ride the gravy train. However don’t think the region’s fortunes could be altered one jot by a critic from Britain. Has any? Wine or Region? Ever?