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Jefford on Monday: Princes, Princesses and Paupers

When, back on April 9th, Mark Nelson wondered if I was "amongst the well-paid wine elite", I quietly chuckled to myself.

The revelation, though, that 75 per cent of American wine bloggers receive no remuneration at all for their work
set me thinking again about a topic wine writers often discuss amongst themselves: financial survival. A few wine-writers are indeed millionaires; the vast majority are emphatically not. It is a profession of princes, princesses and paupers.  

The circumstances surrounding Jay Miller’s resignation from Team Parker; the Institute of Masters of Wine’s investigation into Pancho Campo MW, the organiser of last year’s ‘Wine Future’ event in Hong Kong, and his subsequent resignation; and more recently the revelation that James Suckling was paid $24,000 by Quebec’s wine monopoly for “videos” (and not tasting notes) has continued to keep the spotlight on the means by which those at the top of the pile enrich themselves.   

In the interests of transparency, and to allay Mr Noble’s suspicions, let me declare my total pre-tax earnings from all sources for the last year: £38,090.13 in the UK (to October 31st, when my accounting year ends), and €22,401.41 in France (to December 31st). I pay tax in both countries.  

Compared to most of the world’s population, of course, this makes me immensely wealthy, and I do indeed feel very fortunate at not having died of dysentery in infancy, not having to live in a shanty town, and not having to beg in order to feed my children. Compared to most of my friends and contemporaries in other fields, by contrast, I am a fiscal failure and an involuntary workaholic. Some of them have retired several times already. You, dear readers, may have to put up with me for many years to come.

Numerous wine-writing colleagues earn less than I do, and in most cases wine writing is either a second job or a hobby pastime, or is a second-string income in a two-income family. I have always thought that those organising wine-writing competitions should warn potential entrants not to think about taking it up professionally unless they have a private income, intend to remain austerely single, or have taken the precaution of marrying a banker, a doctor or a lawyer first. Bread-winners beware.

I don’t, by the way, hold any of this against my various employers: they pay market rates, and pay promptly, and I am grateful for their patronage. If anyone is to blame, it’s probably me. To be financially successful as a wine writer, you need to create business opportunities, platforms and synergies; you need to be an effective self-marketer; and you need a finely honed streak of entrepreneurship. I’d scrape by with a D- in each category.

The reasons for all this are not hard to unearth. Wine-writing seems to be an agreeable activity, and wine (and winemakers) certainly make an inspiring subject. The wine-writing offer, consequently, greatly outweighs the wine-writing demand, which deflates remuneration rates. Yet the potential audience remains a limited one, thanks to wine’s innate complexity. Sports writing, food writing and recipe writing will always command a much bigger audience, and generate a much bigger revenue pool.

What are the implications? It means, first, that most wine blogs are doomed: sooner or later the writer will need to earn a living, or will burn out of an expensive and time-consuming hobby which can never blossom into a career. The wine world may well find it loses its most original new writers, and keeps only its geeks and its self-promoters.

It means that most wine-writers are ill-qualified to write about fine wines, which are the wines most worth writing about. Tasting them occasionally isn’t really enough; you need to own them, cellar them, drink them and watch them evolve. Without plenty of disposable income, you can’t buy these wines and you won’t have anywhere to store them.

Above all, it means that objectivity and ethical conduct in wine writing are, in any strict sense, illusory. Any wine-writer who is not already wealthy at the beginning of his or her career will need a commercial platform of one sort or another. Consultancies, courses, events, promotions and tastings are the usual means of supplementing a meagre writing income. These will bring you closer to some producers and some retailers than others. You are unlikely to savage the hand that strokes you.  

Unless you are already wealthy, too, you will be unable to fund much or any of the extensive travel which constitutes wine-writing research. You will be reliant on some organisation or individual offering to fund this for you. Travel funders, in effect, dictate a sizeable percentage of what gets written about in the wine world. Only writers with colossal wealth can circumvent this, and not all chose to do so.

It is still possible, I should stress, to produce worthwhile work under these circumstances; inspiration and insight have nothing to do with money. Personally, I am in favour of transparency, opposed to the hypocrisy involved in witch-hunting and finger-pointing, and grind my teeth when the princes of the wine-writing world chose to lecture its paupers on ethics. And now, let’s get back to what matters: wine itself.

Written by Andrew Jefford

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