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Guy Woodward: Wine's 'social experts'

Published:  10 May, 2022

“The people of this country have had enough of experts,” said Brexit cheerleader Michael Gove in the lead-up to that fateful vote. Disdaining the leaders of the US, China, India, Australia and every EU country, as well as the heads of the Bank of England, the IMF, IFS, CBI and the NHS – all of whom he branded as “distant” and “elitist” – Gove argued that fans of Brexit knew best when it came to the economy.

We’ll gloss over how that turned out – fear not, this isn’t a column about politics. But I am interested in the idea that people have become wary of “experts”. In the wine world, this notion can be seen playing out on social media (where else?) in the form of the ever-increasing array of commentators and influencers that have sprung up in the past decade or so, with varying degrees of expertise.

Twitter opened up the wine world to hobbyists and amateurs in what was, at first, a largely informed, democratic debate. But as spats and vitriol took over, and the whole thing became less edifying, Instagram became the friendlier, more accessible channel – less about techy geekery, more about flowery wokery.

Whereas Twitter still tends to house more in-depth analysis of fine wine (prolific tweeter Jancis Robinson, for example, soon gave up on Insta), Instagram’s most effective users favour the lifestyle angle of wine – or, if you want to be cynical, style over substance. This opening up of the previously distant, elitist wine world to a new market, often by showcasing more affordable wines in a more personal manner, can only be a good thing. And contrary to Twitter, its most effective practitioners have been able to build substantial profiles for themselves. How much they actually know about wine is open to question. But does that matter?

I recently judged the IWSC Emerging Wine Communicator of the Year award, won by Sophia Longhi, aka Skin and Pulp, whose slick, dynamic Instagram feed is complemented by more involved insights on her website. 

Wading through the entries, I found myself concluding that the more shots of an influencer on their feed, the less they probably have to say about wine. I also concluded, though, that this probably doesn’t matter. Some would argue it’s actually beneficial to be a wine ingenue, since casual consumers are more likely to connect with someone relatable.

To an extent, I agree – certainly if you’re dealing with the more affordable end of the market. My issue is that, without experience and/or expertise, newcomers largely resort to lavishing praise on samples they’ve received for free, dutifully trotting out lines from a PR. And without informed critical judgment, the content becomes one big – but unlabelled – ad for those brands with the biggest PR budgets.

The danger is that, with the demise of traditional media, this practice becomes normalised. It’s already extending to other formats. Take The Three Drinkers, one of the few drinks TV programmes to break through, but via a model based entirely on sponsored content. The wineries or distilleries that take up the most airtime are there not on merit, but because they have paid to be there. Presenter Helena Nicklin has been open about this to the trade (her clients), but do viewers know?

Now even Olly Smith, who was at the vanguard of taking wine to a new audience, is reinventing himself – as an unlikely fashion expert. These days, his feed is full of posts name-checking brands from each day’s outfit. I love Olly, but I’d no sooner take sartorial advice from him than I would wine counsel from Kim Kardashian. Sadly, I fear I’m in the minority – on both counts…


You can catch up with Guy Woodward at London Wine Fair 202 where he will be hosting the following seminar:

The what, why and where of content: how wine communication is changing

Weds 8 June

Centre Stage: 11.30am

#LWF22

These days, every wine brand is producing content, be it newsletters, social media, podcasts or even a TV channel. But what type of content resonates most strongly with consumers, what’s the best way of producing it, and what does – or should – it actually achieve?

Moderator: Guy Woodward, editor, Club Oenologique

Panel speakers:

Stephanie Barnett, head of marketing, 67 Pall Mall

Robert Joseph, wine consultant, editor and futurist

Emma Wellings, founder, Emma Wellings PR

Libby Zietsman-Brodie, wine communicator and consultant

 

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