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Fifteen years of wine-pages.com

Tom Cannavan, 05/11

At the end of last year, The Circle of Wine Writers asked me to contribute an article for the 100th issue of their magazine, 'Update', which also marked the Circle's 50th anniversary. The subject was to be my story of how the wine-pages.com web site evolved, as part of the internet revolution that has created a new breed of wine journalists online. As it happened, the article also coincided with the 15th anniversary of wine-pages, which was launched in 1995. I thought regular readers might like to look back on the story with me.

Prehistoric man

Though it didn't acquire its name until 1998, many people express huge surprise when I tell them wine-pages was launched in 1995: that is positively primordial in terms of the World Wide Web. Tim Berners-Lee was credited with inventing the web only in 1990, the first browser appeared only in 1991 and by 1995 there were just 15 million users of the Internet worldwide. Today's most modest estimate is around two billion users.

It would be nice to boast that I was a visionary entrepreneur who grasped the potential of the Web before others. But the truth is that genesis of wine-pages was more the result of happenstance. In the early 90s I was already writing about wine with a column in a Scottish magazine, but was otherwise gainfully employed by the University of Glasgow where I taught computing. In 1995 this phenomenon called the Internet was something I had to learn about, and what more obvious way than to construct a web site about my favourite subject, wine?

I clearly remember the first few months when I eagerly learned how to write html code (then the only language of the Web) and spent many happy hours tinkering around, adding some tasting notes here, a few basic wine resources there.

screen shot 1999 Housed on the University's server, the site was strictly non commercial and the thought of promoting it never entered my head. And yet over the months that followed I was amazed to see visitor numbers grow, to receive emails from other wine lovers around the world, and to start picking up press like a lovely commendation from Richard Ehrlich in the Independent, who in 1997 wrote "if all sites were this good we'd spend more time surfing than drinking."

By 1998 I had given the site a complete design makeover and moved it onto a commercial server. That let me take my first tentative steps in 'monetizing' the site by selling advertising space. Above: how the home page looked in 1999. Click on image to see life size.

The brave new world

From the outset I realised that I had to approach this carefully and with strict ethical standards if I was to maintain the credibility that I could feel was beginning to grow around the site. That meant no 'advertorials', never accepting payment for reviews and never accepting commission on wine sales. The latter was the growing model for web publishers who earn 'referral fees' for sending traffic to retail web sites. For an independent critic this is a grave mistake that clouds the issue of their impartiality, and it was one I always resisted. In the early 2000s I experimented with a separate online shop where trusted merchants would supply mixed cases of wines chosen by me, but it didn't feel right and so I soon dropped the concept.

screen shot 2003 By 2002 I'd given up the day job completely to embark on a scary voyage as a full-time, self-employed wine writer and publisher. Wine-pages.com was the absolute backbone of my livelihood and by careful management it was a commercial success, whilst its burgeoning visitor numbers gave it some clout. It seemed that, without really planning to, I had created a viable and influential new wine title and carved out a whole new career for myself. Right: the home page in 2003. Click to see life size.

Bucking the bronco

I had also ridden out the bucking, unpredictable bronco ride of the 'dot-com bubble' - the internet boom and bust rollercoaster that crashed off the rails in 2000. The pattern of venture capital-fuelled dot.com businesses burning through millions before imploding with massive losses was set during this period, and wine was not immune. Who remembers wine.com, madaboutwine.com, wineplanet.com and many more? My philosophy was always to keep costs very low (largely by doing an awful lot of work) and to always over-deliver for both advertisers and visitors to the site. I remember comparing notes with the publisher of an overseas wine site that launched a few years after wine-pages, and being shocked to discover the number of staff they had and the money they were burning through. They fizzled out not long afterwards.

Old dogs; new tricks

But those early days were not easy in many other respects. It took a long, long time for many people in the wine world - the trade, PRs, publishers and my writing colleagues - to 'get it'. Few took on board how important the web was going to become for wine communication and information. So many people dismissed the site (and me) in those early days, completely failing to understand this new medium and the enormity of how it would change the world of communication.

cover Allow me to indulge myself with one tale of a wine PR company. The particularly pleasant woman who ran it was on very friendly terms with me for years, but professionally had totally ignored me. That was true right up to the moment in 2005 when I got the job as Editor of a new drinks magazine called Fine Expressions.

By this time wine-pages had a monthly unique readership of over 200,000, whilst the magazine had a circulation of 5,000, almost all of which were given away. But suddenly the aforementioned PR burst into life, plying me with samples, inviting me to luxurious dinners and tempting me with all-expenses paid trips to see her clients. Everything was addressed to 'Tom Cannavan, Editor Fine Expressions', whilst clearly my 10 years of publishing wine-pages.com meant nothing.

The magazine folded rather ignominiously after less than eighteen months. I spoke to the PR woman (a lady of a certain age) and explained how it had reached almost nobody, but that wine-pages continued to reach literally hundreds of thousands of passionate wine enthusiasts and was growing all the time. She looked completely blank, a twist of incomprehension on the corners of her mouth. The samples and invites dried up immediately and, soon after, her businesses did too.

Web 1.0 to Web 2.0

Thankfully, publishing and writing on the web has gained enormous credibility over the years. Highly-regarded wine writers like Jamie Goode and Neal Martin also made the transition from hobby web site publishers to full-time journalists. Certain of our more far-sighted established writers grasped the concept too, making a purposeful transition into cyber space. Highest profile in the UK was undoubtedly Jancis Robinson, who discussed her desire to create her own web site with me through the late 1990s, before launching jancisrobinson.com in 2000 with instant success.

twitter facebook youtube    But cyber-space is fast moving and the online landscape has changed. Blogs, podcasts and the advent of online 'social networks' like Facebook and Twitter have added another dimension to wine commentary, criticism and, last but not least, marketing and PR. There is absolutely no doubt that the bloggers and denizens of the twittersphere are contributing great knowledge, enthusiasm and much original thinking on the subject of wine. Their impact is real and significant, and you ignore this constituency at your peril.

Wine journalist Jim Budd recently reported on the success of the European Wine Bloggers Conference in Vienna. The first edition of the conference attracted 40 participants Jim told us, and this third edition attracted 200 - as well as some serious sponsorship. It was, concluded Jim and keynote speaker Elin McCoy (and I paraphrase), evidence of the democratization of wine writing and the beginning of the end for the 'ivory tower' wine critic.

Me? I'm not so sure. If we were to analyse those 200 bloggers in Vienna and their sphere of influence, just how influential are they on the lives of the wine-buying public? As a community they are vibrant, and the wine trade holds them in a somewhat innocent thrall, but what do their words mean to the man on the Clapham omnibus?

My brothers and sisters in the Web 2.0 world will no doubt refute this energetically (and some will accuse me of being as much of a dinosaur as those who doubted me 10 years ago). But the fact is that it is far too early to be predicting the demise of traditional journalism online and in print: there is no wine blogger who makes a living from blogging as far as know, and many have direct or peripheral roles in the wine business, whether it be PR, marketing or sales. For me there's an awful lot of 'talking-up' by those in the thick of this fledgling industry, yet the reality of their influence does not match the rhetoric. Yet.

Wither the Web?

I have held true to my own take on this whole Internet thing for 15 years now: I attempt to fuse the values and qualities of 'traditional' wine journalism with the interactivity and immediacy afforded by the web. Twitter is fun, useful and fascinating, but for me, quality, permanent, fully-loaded wine commentary and criticism cannot be conducted in 140 character bites. It cannot always be done through multi-directional conversations either.

Wine-pages has fully researched and illustrated features, interviews, news and extensive tasting reports, a huge library of resource material and all the breadth and depth of any print wine magazine. But it has also harnessed those things unique to cyber space, like an enormously active and influential discussion forum, where 500+ people are logged in and chatting about wine every day, interactive quizzes and polls, video reviews and plenty of opportunity for the community to be involved, like our annual 'Wines of the Year' nominations and massive BYO restaurant directory.

I do sometimes worry that it is the marketeers who are currently setting the pace of wine online, not the wine lovers or wine writers. The buzz of 'viral marketing' gets our chums in PR and marketing all hot and bothered: the prospect of getting their client or their product massive exposure for relatively low cost is alluring. Many are courting the bloggers and the tweeters, or directly employing social network consultants to chase this dream. Time will tell if that is energy and money well spent, but meanwhile it somewhat sullies the purity of the Web 2.0 concept.

Where we are at

Pebbles kids One of the most wonderful things about wine-pages is the community it has facilitated. The Offline Planner is a section of the site where those who meet 'online' can step 'offline' and arrange tastings, lunches and dinners on terra firma. It is enormously popular, and at time of writing there are 14 events arranged in London, plus dinners in Edinburgh, Leeds, Manchester and Durham. My VinXchange forum is a free swap-shop for amateur wine lovers (no trade allowed) to buy, sell and swap wines and is hugely popular and very well used. The site's official charity, Pebbles in South Africa, has benefitted by tens of thousands of pounds thanks to the generosity of the site's visitors, led by the indefatigable Keith Prothero a long-term visitor and the charity's main driver in the UK through the wine-pages community. Right: the Pebbles kids send wine-pages visitors a Christmas message.

The Internet is a beautiful thing. It is perhaps the most enormous change to how we communicate, learn, socialise and do business ever. It is capable of profoundly changing the lives of those who use it, and I am enormously thankful for the opportunities it has afforded me. I run a business online and make my living from it, but I worry a little that too much of the focus is now on how to exploit the web, not how to harness its power as a force for good.

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