The divide between wine industry and citizen bloggers

A note before you read this post:  I spent months thinking about it on and off.  And after I first wrote it, I shared it with my husband, a journalist friend, and a couple of wine bloggers.  I’ve never showed one of my posts to so many people before putting it out there before.  But I wanted to know if it was worth posting, and if it was whiny or self-indulgent.  Nearly everyone said yes to the former, and I’ve worked to remove any traces of the latter.  Still, it’s about my experience so you may think I didn’t succeed on that.  Fair enough.  I hope, though, that you’ll find some material for discussion.  And I look forward to hearing what you have to say about it.


Among wine writers, there's also a divide between wine industry bloggers and citizen bloggers. Sometimes too much of a divide.

Among wine writers, there’s also a divide between wine industry bloggers and citizen bloggers. I admit to chewing my fingernails before putting this post out, however.

The deadline for submission of nominees to the 2016 Wine Blog Awards passed a few weeks ago.  For the first time in six years, I didn’t submit this blog or any of the posts in it for consideration.

Obviously, this isn’t the most pressing issue these days.  “First World Problems” and “Sour Grapes” are the things that sprung to mind when I thought about writing this post.  I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t like more recognition for the writing I do on this blog.  I mean, doesn’t everyone who writes?  But it brings up two issues about wine writers and the wine industry, and the weird relationship between them.  And yes, I admit up front that I’m going to vent a little about it.

The first is that all “wine industry” blogs seem to get treated as if they’re alike.  Last year, the Wine Blog Awards organizers made a decision that any blog written by someone in the wine industry could only be considered for one award:  Best Industry Blog.   I went ahead and submitted this blog and three individual posts for Best Industry Blog consideration.  Even though I knew ahead of time that I had very little chance of recognition.  The judging for the category is based in part on how well the blog helps enhance the relationship between consumers and the business.   As I’ve mentioned before, this blog doesn’t really do that, mostly because I don’t have the time or resources to devote to making it that way.

I probably should talk about terms here.  Wine industry blogs are blogs written by or on behalf of a particular entity that’s in the business of selling wine.  Think of Journey of Jordan, which is a particularly good one, and teaches readers a lot about winegrowing and winemaking.  Even if the message “Buy Our Wine!” doesn’t appear in every post.  Citizen blogs about wine are written by people who don’t have a direct interest in selling wine.  But they aren’t always far removed.  Plenty of what are called citizen blogs are written by people who have worked in the wine industry, or even now do things like PR for the wine industry, although they don’t explicitly blog about their clients.  Or about where they once worked.

Obviously, blogs supported by large wine companies will have access to a lot more hands and money to create content, take photos and videos, etc.  I’m sure that’s why the award organizers wanted to separate them out from the citizen bloggers.   And there’s also a desire to maintain the image of citizen bloggers as rebellious self-publishers avoiding the iron hand of print and broadcast media, flinging their voices into the world.  So the groups essentially get made into polar opposites with no middle ground.

I fall through the cracks.  Clearly I don’t have lots of money to spend on content geared toward selling more wine.  (And, if I really wanted my blog to drive wine sales, I wouldn’t be writing this post, because it’s not going to make some people happy.)  More than 80% of my blog is general wine talk and recipes.  But under the rules I’m an industry blogger, period.

This brings me to my second point:  The implication that I have less to contribute to the world of wine writing – or even wine discourse — simply because I sell wine.  When I tell other wine bloggers about my blog and my importing/retailing business, especially newbie bloggers, I can see some of them mentally categorizing me with car salespeople, shrinking away a bit so that I won’t wield my evil magic upon them.

It’s a déjà vu for me that I didn’t expect.  I find some of the same kind of attitude by wine writers and bloggers toward the wine industry that I saw in the environmental advocacy world toward the chemical and oil industries.  Granted, it’s not the same level – only the most extreme of wine writers accuse the wine industry of destroying the planet and poisoning people.

How can I tell this is happening?  More than once I’ve heard the word “shill,” as in, “Well, you have to shill for your business in your blog, don’t you?”  My response is that of course I’m going to say good things about the wines I import and sell.  I wouldn’t sell things I didn’t like.  But does it automatically invalidate everything else I have to say?

I've been accused of shilling as a wine writer.  But does that mean that no part of the blog is worthwhile?  (Photo on flickr by Chris Piascik)

I’ve been accused of shilling as a wine writer. But does that mean that no part of the blog is worthwhile? (Photo on flickr by Chris Piascik)

My feelings aren’t hurt by this, because I’m kinda too old to be worrying about it.  What does concern me is that while you don’t get the same kind of talk from more experienced bloggers, it’s clear that some experienced “citizen” wine writers also consider themselves apart from industry writers.  (The exceptions to the arms-length attitude toward industry are for bloggers who are also winemakers.  Obviously, they make wine to be sold and consumed, but they’re also treated like demi-gods.  Even when they work for some of the bigger wineries.  I suspect this is because most wine writers dream of becoming winemakers someday.)

Here’s an example.  Back in 2011 I applied for a fellowship to attend the Professional Wine Writers Symposium.  Since I didn’t work for a winery, and wasn’t a wine marketing or communications professional, I thought I’d be eligible to attend.  I submitted the five requested writing samples and I’m pretty sure I made it to the final round of consideration.  But I got an e-mail asking me if my wine writing had appeared anywhere other than my blog.  As it happened, a few of my blog posts had appeared on a short-lived food website, stripped of recipes and wine recommendations.  It was so short-lived, though, that I forgot about it, and said no.  I received a genuinely regretful response saying that since I didn’t write for a reason other than promoting my business, I wasn’t eligible to attend.

I’m not sure why the symposium organizers don’t want wine industry people there.  Perhaps it’s so that people feel freer to express their opinions, positive or negative.   Still, it perpetuates the idea that wine industry writers don’t belong in the same group with them, or that industry writers don’t have valuable things to contribute to professional wine writing.

You may disagree, and I certainly don’t consider my opinions the ultimate in discourse.   I have to say again, I don’t think this is a world-ender.  I do hope, though, that the Wine Blogger Awards organizers will think about a reorganization of the categories.  What gets recognized gets read – as well as the other way around.  And I hope that good content will be recognized, whatever the source.  Many of you who aren’t wine bloggers may be asking what this has to do with you, and for sure some of it is inside baseball.  But what happens in the blogging community at large has an impact on what everyone reads.


Since we’re getting our April showers in May and it’s a little chilly out, I’ve been making stews and chilis.  And Cy and I have been trying to eat less meat, so some of the chilis have been vegetarian.  My all-time favorite vegetarian chili recipe comes from Cook’s Illustrated.  It takes about four hours to make, though.  And it was designed to have a sensation of meatiness in it, which I don’t necessarily want when I’m trying not to eat meat.

So I played around with a bunch of vegetable-based recipes and combined all the things I like.  And it struck me that what I ended up with was really ratatouille with beans and the kinds of spices you typically find in chili.  Hence, the name Chilatouille.  Not terribly mellifluous, but it will have to do.

I’ve found that roasting the eggplant before you cook it with the other ingredients helps it keep a good texture.  And you can roast it while you’re sauteeing the other vegetables.  But I also don’t brown the zucchini, peppers, and onions, because I want them to keep their shape a bit and also not make the chili into an indistinguishable brown mass.

Finally, I like using whole cumin and fennel seeds, toasting them, and grinding them up.  You can obviously use already ground spices, but you’ll get more flavor this way.  And I also use some dried mint, which is a trick I picked up from Persian recipes.  It doesn’t add mint flavor, but it makes things a little brighter.

I think cumin is a tough spice to pair with red wine.  I like to serve Bodega Hiriart Sobre Lías Rosado ($16) with the chili.  It’s made by aging the rosé on the lees of Verdejo, a white grape that’s also included in the mix.  Aging on the lees gives the wine a bit more body, and Verdejo also contributes acidity.  It’s a plus in hot-weather rosés, because the Tempranillo and Grenache can lose acidity on the vine.  This way, all the grapes’ voices get to be appreciated 😉




Serves 6-8

1-1/2 pounds baby eggplant (3 or 4), or an equivalent weight of Japanese eggplant, cut in 1-inch pieces

2 medium to large zucchini, trimmed, quartered lengthwise, and cut into ¾-inch slices

2 large onions, roughly chopped

1 red bell pepper, cut into 1-inch pieces

1 yellow or orange bell pepper, cut into 1-inch pieces

4 garlic cloves, chopped fine

1 tablespoon whole cumin seed

1 teaspoon whole fennel seed

1 tablespoon dried oregano

1 tablespoon dried mint

2 tablespoons chili powder

½ tablespoon ancho chili powder

½ teaspoon cayenne pepper

½ teaspoon mild smoked paprika

1-1/2 cups vegetable broth

2 15-oz cans diced fire-roasted tomatoes

1 15-oz can petite diced tomatoes

1 15-oz can kidney beans, drained and rinsed

1 15-oz can chick peas, drained and rinsed

1 15-oz can black beans, drained and rinsed

2-3 tablespoons lemon juice

Olive oil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.  Prepare a baking sheet with a silpat mat or parchment paper.  In a large bowl, toss the eggplant with 2 tablespoons olive oil, and a quarter teaspoon each of salt and pepper.  Spread on the baking sheet and roast until the pieces are just browning, about 30 minutes.  Take the pan from the oven and set it aside.

While the eggplant roasts, put the cumin and fennel seeds into a small skillet.  Turn the heat to medium, and toast the seeds, shaking every 30 seconds or so.  Within a few minutes you’ll smell them and you’ll see a little bit of smoke.  Pour the seeds onto a plate and let them cool.

While you’re toasting the seeds, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large Dutch oven.  Add the zucchini and a little salt and pepper and cook for about 8 minutes, stirring occasionally, until just soft.  Add a little more oil if you need it while the zucchini cooks.  Remove the zucchini to a bowl (the one you mixed the eggplant in is fine).  Add 4 more tablespoons of oil to the pot and saute the onion, bell peppers, and garlic, along with the oregano and mint, for about 10 minutes.

After a couple of minutes, grind the toasted cumin and fennel seeds in a spice grinder or clean coffee grinder.  When the onions and peppers are soft but not browned, add the ground seeds to the pot, along with the chili powders, the cayenne, smoked paprika, and a teaspoon each of salt and black pepper.  Cook over medium heat for a minute or so, stirring constantly.  It should all smell wonderful.  Add the vegetable stock and scrape up the bottom of the pan to incorporate any spices that stuck there.  Add the zucchini, tomatoes, eggplant, and zucchini.  Bring to a boil and simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally to make sure it’s not sticking to the pot.

Add the beans and 2 tablespoons of the lemon juice, and taste for salt and pepper.  Simmer for another 20 minutes.  Taste again and add more lemon juice if needed.  Serve hot or slightly warm with cheese, sour cream, and pickled jalapeño slices.


This entry was posted in Tom Natan, Uncategorized, Wine blogging, Wine writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The divide between wine industry and citizen bloggers

  1. Michael says:

    If anything, your blog has more legitimacy because it is fully open and honest about the occasional overlap between what you’re writing and what you’re selling. It seems to me that wine writers are dependent on the largesse of the wine industry in a way that most restaurant reviewers aren’t. The wine writers who I know expect free tastings from wineries and retailers, and they expect to be invited to trade tastings. And who can blame them? Writing about wine would quickly become an expensive hobby. (Heck — even the Wine Spectator depends on wine submissions before posting reviews.) It would be shortsighted of them, however, to not acknowledge this inherent sponsorship.

    • Tom says:

      Thanks, Michael — the wine industry has a vested interest in good wine writing, so sponsorship is a cost of doing business. I talked to a couple of people in “big wine” for this post, and they said it’s a double-edged sword at times. And they’ve decided not to sponsor blogger conferences in the future.

      The sponsorship issue is one I’ve thought about a lot. When I did environmental work, my organization wouldn’t take industry or government money in order to preserve its independence. We weren’t particularly worried that we’d lose funding for criticizing industry, but that we’d be considered less independent if we praised industry for something. I think that most wine writers, including bloggers, are aware that wine industry sponsorship (as well as samples) puts them in sponsorship situations that most journalists won’t encounter (other than travel writers, and, to a lesser extent, some food writers). Still, as you said, it’s expensive to write about wine — even bloggers who start out writing about their nightly purchases end up accepting samples eventually. They disclose when a review is of a sample, and I think it would be a good policy for more wine writers to do that.

  2. Sue says:

    I look at this differently. You do happen to sell the wine you write about. But I would argue that you sell it because you because you believe in it…and not the other way around. You love telling the stories of the wineries and the winemakers and the terroir and even the history of the times around all of the above. Maybe I’m naïve, but I really don’t see any of this as “shilling” a specific wine. You would never praise a wine you thought was crappy and I think anyone that reads your blog can see your passion for the subject. And if they can’t, it’s their loss!

    I love this recipe and that you used three different beans. It must be so pretty! Combining eggplant with chili is a great idea!

    • firstvine says:

      Thanks, Sue — I appreciate your kind words! I don’t look at it as shilling, either. I can understand that if other bloggers don’t know me or haven’t read my blog they might be wary, after all no one wants to feel hit over the head with marketing. But the automatic assumption that I’m going to be doing that is the issue. Or that it makes the rest of my points invalid or ignorable.

      The recipe is pretty! Roasting the eggplant lets it soak up flavor. I do that for my vegetable lasagna, too.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s