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.