There was once a subset of wine writers and critics who were distrusted and, in some cases, despised by the wine establishment. They’d be passed over for press trips, their youth and lack of expertise sniffed at. They were generally seen as lowering the tone, getting in the way of serious wine writers, and not understanding the finer points of temperature control and malolactic fermentation.
That was about 10 years ago, and bloggers have come a long way since; indeed, today, many are bona-fide members of the establishment themselves. The disdain that was heaped on their heads has now been transferred to those of wine influencers.
I was wary of weighing into this debate until I read Victoria Moore’s article in The Telegraph on the new brigade of “vinfluencers” (dread neologism! *sucks on pipe and sits back in wing-backed chair in front of fire*). In it she quotes Georgie Fenn, who “vinfluences” under the handle @winingawaytheweekend: “One person said I would be better off being a lingerie model and clearly did not own any bras.”
Having checked the dateline and ascertained that we were indeed in 2021 and not 1951, I searched out Fenn to see what all the fuss was about. If I’d been expecting something airy and inconsequential, I was disappointed. Wining Away The Weekend is a straightforward blog, with advice and anecdotes backed with interviews and (virtual) vineyard visits.
She covers interesting characters, from Aubert et Mathieu of Corbières to Natalie Christensen of Yealands; she coaxes a nice anecdote from Nyetimber’s Cherie Spriggs and Brad Greatrix about how they and owner Eric Heerema “met cute”, as they say in the movies. Her articles are aimed at a certain group of young, moneyed and keen wine drinkers and Fenn gets her message across with skill and wit. What more could any writer aspire to?
There are hundreds and hundreds of young communicators working the same fertile ground and with huge Instagram followings. Women like The Brooke Blend (“I speak fluent sarcasm. Be prepared”) and Paige Comrie, who is perfectly open about the fact she’s there to plug brands (“I work closely with my partners to share their message with my highly-engaged audience of wine lovers around the world.”)
The problem for people like me, who have been in this game for a couple of decades, is that we see a whole new generation in the rear-view mirror. They’re barrelling along, zig-zagging across the white lines, throwing out great clouds of dust as they go off-road for half a mile at top speed. Suddenly they’re all around you, whooping and yelling; some of them seem very young and no one wears a helmet.
It’s all very discombobulating, especially when you realise that what they have to say is actually relevant and interesting. They’re talking to people you’d like to interview yourself, and others you’ve only vaguely heard of, and although the writers appear not to care two hoots about canopy management, they do at least seem to know what it is.
What is it that scares people about the new generation? The fact that many wine influencers (for want of a better word) are young women seems to bother a few commentators, but we really should be over that by now. There also seems to be a worry that money is changing hands for endorsements, which is how the whole influencer business started in the first place.
Jancis Robinson MW told me she had “a horror of advertorial” and included “what you might call professional influencers, those who deliberately approach producers and ask for a payment in exchange for exposure” in that bracket. But, she went on, “I am delighted by the emergence of what you might call ‘soft’ influencers, who… bring a host of new perspectives and language to the world of wine.”
Many critics aren’t quite so measured and welcoming. The pandemic, and lockdown, have exposed so many societal and professional fault lines, one of them being the ability to communicate via a range of media (for those of you still catching up with Instagram and TikTok, you really need to get an invite to Clubhouse).
This is what triggers the older generation. While we chafe in lockdown, unable to use our traditional modes of communication (press trips and long lunches at 67 Pall Mall), we see dynamic young people seemingly having no difficulty getting their message across to audiences in the tens and hundreds of thousands.
What the new writers and communicators show very clearly is that the traditional audience for “serious” wine writing has been ill-served for years. The new generation is just better and more generous at communicating – because the old generation never had to bother. If you were a wine collector, you didn’t read about wine, you just spoke to your merchant. So wine writers tended to either academic (think Michael Broadbent with his endless red notebooks) or deliberately iconoclastic (the renowned Anthony Hanson’s famous “Great Burgundy smells of shit” line was always being quoted as something excitingly risqué).
Risqué or not, wine writing could be very boring indeed. Often, like standard academic writing, it would be deliberately opaque so as to discourage the riff-raff, overlooking the fact that you’re just failing to communicate. I was once told by an editor, when faced with a particularly leaden piece of prose, “You might find it boring, but the readers won’t.”
In the olden days, the business of wine was ordered and contained
The new generation has no truck with such nonsense. They regard it as an article of faith that they should enjoy themselves as much as their audience. In the olden days, the business of wine was ordered and contained, and separated from the hurly-burly of real life. Wine influencers make no such separation. Wine is work is life is wine – you Instagram the Rioja you open for supper on a Tuesday night and see little distinction between that and a WhatsApp message to your friends.
Meanwhile, we tell ourselves that what annoys us about this new generation is that they don’t know enough about the business of wine. But what keeps us awake at night is the fear that they might know more than we do about the business of life.