Who makes money in wine writing?

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“I do it on the web for free.”

A fellow blogger and I once joked about putting that on a T-shirt. Blogging is not a path to riches. Especially for wine. While a tech blogger might earn a decent living from Google’s Adsense or the Amazon affiliate program, such a path is not really open to wine bloggers. For one, Google considers wine ads to be for an “non-family safe” content. So in order to allow wine ads on a site, a publisher using Adsense has to allow adult content which could be opening Pandora’s box in more ways than one. Similarly, the small percentage that Amazon offers affiliates may go a long way on if the blog reviews plasma TVs and digital cameras. But wine books and corkscrews? Not so much.

However, there are some ways to make money in wine writing. Consider Allen Meadows, who writes a quarterly e-newsletter Burghound, focusing almost entirely on Burgundy. He told Slate.com recently that he has about 7,500 subscribers paying $125 each. He also self-published a $65 book last year. So he has in excess of $900,000 of revenues a year. While that sounds like a nice chunk of change, it’s worth bearing in mind that Meadows had a career in finance, retired early, and has been writing Burghound for ten years.

Robert Parker, publisher of the Wine Advocate, was recently quoted as saying that he has 55,000 subscribers (“nearly all men”) before admitting that it was from “a few years back.” Subscriptions run $99 a year, so at one point, the top line revenue was in excess of $5.5 million a year (including books). Parker now has a several contributors to his publication.

Jancis Robinson and Steven Tanzer also run newsletters and subscription websites but no figures were publicly available. Various print magazines covering wine charge tens of thousands of dollars per page of advertising so their staff (and publishers) obviously make a living.

Developing software can be profitable–just ask anyone in Silicon Valley. Or in Seattle, where cellartracker founder Eric LeVine told techflash.com that he was on track to make over $500,000 in 2009. About 80% of CellarTracker revenue comes from voluntary payments from users who actually generate the site’s tasting notes.

Journalism writ large is grasping to find a business model that works. The NYT will implement a paywall of some sort later this quarter. Although paywalls generate revenues from subscribers, they drastically reduce the number of visibility of the content (consider The Times of London’s 90% decline in traffic after instituting a paywall). For wine writing, where the audience is small to begin with, the subscription model can only really work for a handful of outlets. And, it seems, only for those with tasting notes and point scores: readers appear willing to pay for buying guides but not for discussion and commentary.

Which brings us back to blogging. Wine blogs, in some instances, have demonstrated influence. But they have yet to be money spinners and may never be. So the best advice for bloggers is to blog for love. Or exposure for more profitable activities (such as selling wine or selling books or a TV show). However, trying to write a blog for money can be a fool’s errand fraught with conflicts of interest.

What do you think: is there a way for blogs (or wine writing that’s comprised of other than simply tasting notes and scores) to be reader supported? The app store offers a ray of hope.

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41 Responses to “Who makes money in wine writing?”


  1. Question: I don’t understand how Google can regulate what content you have on your site.


  2. Well, I’m giving it a go (trying to turn pro in the wine space, whatever that will mean) this year. BUT… blogging is NOT going to be the primary income-generator (i.e., the trad. model of subscriptions + ad revenue) and I doubt that very many (probably none) could make a living trying to apply the same model primarily used in print to the blog world.


  3. Hi Christine,

    Google doesn’t control the content that is on a publisher’s site. They classify wine/winery ads as “non-family safe” thus do not display in Adsense, a program that I use along with many other bloggers. This reduces money for wine bloggers compared to, say, tech bloggers who might review a Mac and then have an ad to buy a Mac appear via Google ads. Does it boost wine bloggers’ independence? Perhaps. But mostly it reduces already-low revenues.


  4. Hello,

    Nice clear article. You may be interested in reading Jamie Goodes’ piece last week on the same topic:

    http://www.wineanorak.com/wineblog/uncategorized/wine-writers-making-money-on-the-internet

    Jamie was kind enough to disclose how he made money as a successful blogger, would you care to do the same?

    Best wishes,
    JM


  5. Google doesn’t have anything to do with your content, it’s just that the wine ads they sell are categorized as “adult” along with pornography, sex toys, gambling, probably tobacco products, etc. This might mean that your site gets blocked by filtering software, company firewalls, or in countries that block access to entire categories of content.

    There’s an option I can click on my blog settings that makes it a “21+” website, so before you get to the content you have to click one of those ridiculous “Yes I am 21″ buttons to get to it. If I were to do that, my site would similarly be blocked by the filtering methods listed above. So the question is, does it possibly hurt my reputation or limit my reader base if I’m categorized as an Adult Website? If I were a preacher or schoolteacher or something, that might be very problematic.

    On Dr. Vino’s topic, I make a little cash from Amazon sales, and I started doing that around the time they were toying with the idea of selling wine. I was really excited about that, but it turned out to be too complicated and costly to implement due to all the crazy laws around the country. I do it because I enjoy it, not that I expect to make anything from it. There might be monetary rewards in the future, but just getting to the point where almost all the wine I drink comes in the form of samples has been a nice perk.


  6. Got it. Thanks for clarifying.


  7. @1winedude, if you’re “going pro” this year, but the blog isn’t the source of cash, how, praytell, do you intend to make money? Consulting? PR? Have you thought through how other activities will square with what you write on your blog? (I’m thinking about the FTC rules regarding the disclosure of potential conflicts of interest, in part.)


  8. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Dr Vino, bottlenotes, Corque, Julian A. Mayor and others. Julian A. Mayor said: "blog for love" RT @drvino Who makes money in wine writing? http://bit.ly/eRdSaX [...]


  9. Hi JM – Blogging is one leg of the stool for me. The other legs consist of books and freelance writing as well as consumer events, such as my wine classes at NYU. Best,


  10. Very interesting.

    Of course it is important to distinguish “gross” from “net” when one talks about how much money someone “makes” from a business. The figure above referenced for CellarTracker in 2009 is a gross figure whereas net was much less.

    I am happy that CellarTracker is a growing, thriving, profitable business that I have been growing organically with 7 years of 80+ hour weeks. My community has been very generous with their voluntary subscription payments, and of all my business decisions ever that is the one I am happiest about.

    Thanks,
    -Eric LeVine, CellarTracker.com


  11. I think love is the answer. The problem Dr. V identifies–too-small an audience–is only half the problem. The other half is thr growing number of people doing it (at the current rate it looks as if wine audience population will exactly equal that of wine bloggers. Pretty much the same goes for foodies and restaurant reviewers. Everyone thinks he can do it and most are willing to try. One reason for THAT is blogging eliminates the traditional discouragements of publishing: editor, publishers, the insistence on query letters, the fact that those query letter are usually ignored. Even the criminally low and slow pay of publishing no longer discourages, as few bloggers expect to make money. Jusy look at Cellartracker–it gets most of its money from people who provide (free) most of its content.


  12. Cheers Dr Vino, thanks for sharing – very cool of you JM


  13. Question for Eric LeVine: I understand your playing-down of the gross number in favor of a net number, but other than server space, what expenses do you have, unless you pay yourself a (well-deserved) salary? I remember reading Jancis Robinson’s profile of you in the FT, in which your site is referred to as a “one-man band.”
    http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/4698b2c6-175f-11df-87f6-00144feab49a.html#axzz1AqxQPhRw

    I wish you lots of luck with the business, of course. I’m just curious what the costs of running a web based business like yours really are.

    - Troy


  14. In a somewhat related development, Gary Vaynerchuk has just announced that he will be pulling the plug on Cork’d, the tasting notes/networking site he acquired in 2007.

    http://bit.ly/e2O6gT


  15. Think you’re spot on! Do it for love and passion if you’re not one of those rare entrepeneurs we so rarely see in the wine writing world.

    I admire people like Cellartracker-Eric who has identified a need and a way to make a living out of it. It’s not easy…

    And I admire you Joe, who dares to take the next step and give it a shot. Hope you do well!

    Thanks for the article. Think these are much needed!

    Best,

    Niklas – doing the wine blogging out of love for wine


  16. I make a little money off of adsense, affiliate sales, and the occasional sold link on my site, but really where I “make money” is off the free samples I receive that save me actually having to spend money on wine. Last year alone saved me $1000 in wine.


  17. Dr. Vino’s book, ‘Wine Politics’ is an informative read. It opened my eyes to how the political landscape influences the wine industry.


  18. [...] Colman goes further: “The best advice for [wine] bloggers is to blog for love. Or exposure for more profitable activities (such as selling wine or selling books or a TV show). However, trying to write a blog for money can be a fool’s errand fraught with conflicts of interest.” Rest of post here. [...]


  19. Troy,

    To answer your question:
    1) Employment costs (I hire part time help to integrate professional data and do some cleanup of the wine DB; site redesign is partially outsourced as well and was a very, VERY big project with 200 pages of wireframes, a new mobile site, usability testing etc.)
    2) Royalties for various integrated data like auction results which I show to premium members
    3) I have hired PR help in the past and also pay for some Google AdWords. Sending a release onto the wire costs as well. Also VerticalResponse or other services to email my base.
    4) Credit card & PayPal fees are not cheap and add up.
    5) Servers & bandwidth
    6) Business taxes
    7) Some legal assistance as I work on deals. At some point an accountant as well.
    8) Business insurance
    9) Assorted business licenses, food, travel and expenses.

    It all adds up. Welcome to the joys of running a business.

    Thanks
    -Eric


  20. Thanks for the encouragement, all!

    Ben – to answer your Q, “working on it.”

    I’ve hired a consultant who has worked with some big names with their online stuff, and also will be working with some other groups in the industry who have kindly offered their coaching for free.

    So… all options are on the table basically, but you will certainly be reading about them (some of the VERY VERY soon) on 1WD.

    Cheers!


  21. Interested in the topic, thanks for summing up the situation and how it evolve in the last years.
    Wine blogs will have tough time making it a breakeven business, their are most of all built on the Passion of the writers.
    The idea to capitalise on appstore is great! small contributions are widely accepted for such application in Europe.
    Another contribution could come from wine makers if some of them would consider blog like an asset to their business but comes the matter of independance and conflicts of interest.
    Independant organisation like the regional viticole organisations (in France CIVB, CIVA … etc) might be then the right partners for bloggers.
    Cheers and good luck in your businesses ! @marathonwine / Jean-Noel


  22. It seems to me that the difficulty with AdSense on wine blogs is the same as it was on the “wine forums” of yesterday. Namely that, while the pageviews may add up to significant numbers, the “visits” tend to be the same relatively small group of readers who quickly become blind to seeing the same ads.
    That could change if Google were to allow wine ads in the system.

    John Gillespie of The Wine Market Council had serious discussions with Google a few years back, asking them to recognize the difference of wine, but they chose not to change their policy.

    He went to attempt to create a network himself, but I believe ran into difficulty making it work without economy of scale.
    Still, seems that in today’s climate, there might be an opportunity for someone in that space.

    EVO


  23. Thanks, Eric!


  24. Could be worse, you could try wine retailing!


  25. [...] on this at the moment but Tyler Colman, who blogs as Dr. Vino, has looked at this question in a thoughtful post yesterday and has concluded that side gigs (books, speaking, consulting, teaching) are the only ways to make [...]


  26. [...] das oder geht das nicht? Diese spannende Frage wird bei Dr. Vino gestellt (Who makes money in wine writing? | Dr Vinos wine blog) – und natürlich mit einigen prominenten Namen positiv beantwortet. Wer also hofft, hier [...]


  27. This is a fascinating topic and I really enjoyed reading through the comments that everyone wrote. I suppose as a business model, from what people indicate here, wine blogging is not that attractive. Writing for the love of it is something. I also like that writing about a topic over a period of time makes you pay more attention to it, see things in new ways and brings a sense of mastery over a subject that a more casual approach would not provide.

    On my blog, we talk a lot about food and wine. I wonder about the differences between food and wine bloggers quite a lot. I look at both kinds of blogs but don’t often see individual blogs addressing both subjects, though it would seem to be a natural. I also have started to think that among food and wine bloggers, there’s a huge cultural divide. This story excepted, I often think that wine bloggers are not that giving of their comments to other wine bloggers’ blogs but the reverse seems to be true with the numerous food bloggers, who love to comment on eachothers sites. Have you noticed that? Relatively obscure food blogs might get a several or even dozens of comments routinely but even very popular wine blogs, like this one, often get few or sometimes even none. I wonder if that relates somehow to the problems of monetizing wine blogging?


  28. I got tired just reading Eric LeVine’s post. Lotta work man, you deserve admiration not only for your concept but for sticking with it.

    I write a blog to entertain myself and some friends; could I ever make money from it? Nahhhhh….


  29. Interesting article. As an observation, I seem to have enabled Adsense, which shows wine advertising on my website, and at the same time, restricted other less savoury forms of advertising. Perhaps that is because I am based in Australia, rather than the United States. I’m not sure. I agree wholeheartedly though with your essential point that it is passion, rather than money, that guides most wine bloggers, either by necessity or design.


  30. Maybe the revenue from blogging is more indirect (only a few will strike it rich blogging in today’s economy).

    A great example is Josh at Nectar Tasting Room and Wine Blog in Spokane. He credits his blog and social media with the success he’s had in opening a tasting room. (The Social Experiment – Nectar Opens to a Packed House…the URL is http://drinknectar.com/2011/01/13/the-social-experiment-nectar-opens-to-a-packed-house).

    I think blogging can tie in nicely to other endeavors, thus amplifying revenue possibilities.

    In any case, I admire the tireless efforts of the numerous wine bloggers who I know hold day jobs and write about wine by candlelight. I hope they keep doing it even if there isn’t any money to be made.


  31. I think anyone getting in to any writing at all needs to do it because they love it first… writing anything isn’t particularly lucrative.

    There’s a very small number of people making a living blogging.

    I’ve had a personal blog since Decmber of 04, I’ve been blogging about wine for a little over a year, and I blog/write about the Baltimore Ravens for a sports site.

    I’ve never made a dime off it (I did get 8 bottles of wine for an online tasting) and never plan to make any money. I do it for fun.

    If someday someone comes to me with a book deal or a paid gig, that’s great, but even those things don’t pay as well as some might think.


  32. What an awesome topic! While I don’t think there is a reliable “income” available through blogging for most, making your site personal (and being personable) should help. Turning your blog into an advertising billboard is a turn off to many readers for sure. However, I don’t think $500/year is out of the question – and who couldn’t use that! Everything in moderation is the point.

    Social networking is definitely where it is though. Working in the wine industry myself, you can become more marketable to a company if you have (and can build) a local following that can benefit your company. While there is an infinate number of wines to write about, a little focus (as opposed to random chaos) goes a long way.

    I really enjoy reading your blogs and now have a link to your site on mine.
    Happy Blogging!


  33. I don’t mind seeing content-relevant advertisements as long as it’s not making the blog itself hard to read and the blog keeps a good journalistic line between blog topics and the advertisers. For example, I wouldn’t expect a wine blogger not tied to a geographic location to do an entry on a wine-oriented weekend coming up someplace or a sale at wine e-tailer, etc., but I would be pleased to see those opportunities offered in an ad.


  34. Have you looked into wine-focused affiliate referral programs…? I skimmed through the comments but didn’t see them mentioned specifically. A quick Google search for “wine affiliate referral program” brought up some results. Maybe they’d be more targeted than AdSense?


  35. I’m interested that you mentioned Snooth. I really hate it. It’s very bait and switch. Once I found some helpful information on it.


  36. It distresses me (and perhaps the IRS) that bloggers here noted they write about wine in order to get free wine.


  37. [...] Vino blogs about the difficulty of making money as a wine blogger. The post generates some pretty good [...]


  38. I’ve seen too many people saying, “Oh, you can make money blogging!” be it a wine blog or on some other topic. It’s a myth; very few people are making their living from a blog. As one writer noted above, it’s a leg of the stool.


  39. [...] as indeed is all income generation online – see this post by Jamie Goode in his blog, and this opinion by Tyler Colman. The latter post includes a comment from a blogger which states “but really [...]


  40. I respect alot of your opinions on whether or not you can make money on blogs or not, most on here say “do it for the love, or you can’t make any money with blogging,” but if that is your belief or motive yes, thats what you will get, if you set out with a formula, business plan, and others ways to succeed financially you will, just my 2cents


  41. ON THE SUBJECT OF COMPENSATION FOR BEING A PROFESSIONAL WINE WRITER/BLOGGER . . .

    Excerpt from the Los Angeles Times Online
    (March 20, 2013):

    “Wine Advocate Sues Ex-Critic Antonio Galloni for Missing Tasting Notes”

    [Link: http://www.latimes.com/features/food/dailydish/la-dd-wine-advocate-sues-excritic-antonio-galloni-for-missing-tasting-notes-20130320,0,2753202.story

    By S. Irene Virbila
    “Daily Dish” Column

    The breakup of the Wine Advocate’s Robert B. Parker with his former lead wine critic Antonio Galloni is getting ugly. . . .

    . . . now the Wine Advocate is suing Galloni for breach of contract -- and fraud. According to a story up at “the Wine Cellar Insider” by founder Jeff Leve, “the problem is that prior to the sale of The Wine Advocate, Antonio Galloni, who was being paid $300,000 and expenses per year, contracted to write about and review the wines of Sonoma, California and other regions for Robert Parker and The Wine Advocate. Galloni refused to deliver the work product once he ended his business relationship with the company. He claimed that he was unable to finish his report on time as it would not do justice to the region.” Read more of Galloni’s side of the issue at his site.

    First thought: $300,000 is an astonishingly high salary [for Galloni's contributions to The Wine Advocate], especially since I remember seeing a tweet sent by someone at The Symposium for Professional Wine Writers at Meadowood Napa Valley in February.

    Only three of the wine writers in the room earned more than $25,000 per year from their writing.

    . . .

    THE SALIENT QUESTION IS: WILL THE PUBLIC PAY FOR ONLINE CONTENT, IN AN ERA WHEN THEY HAVE BEEN INURED TO “FREE” ACCESS SINCE THE DAWN OF THE WEB?

    SEE MY NEXT “COMMENT.”


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