By guest columnist Karla Vermeulen, Manager of On-Line Services
As the manager of on-line services for Wine Spectator On-Line, I spend hours each day reading postings on our bulletin boards. When I'm not hosing down the latest flame war or posting congratulations about the latest baby born to a regular (anyone worried about wine's effects on fertility should check the birthrate among our users for reassurance), I'm refining my mental profile of our typical contributor as I read your queries and answers, tasting notes and jokes. I also write up the results of our Weekly Poll, and learning your opinions on controversial topics has helped round out my image of you.
As a former print magazine editor, knowing this much about my audience is a shock. Publishing a magazine often feels like working in a vacuum. We slave over each article, check every comma and period, ride herd over the printer and finally get our baby delivered to the newstands and mailboxesand then it's like the issue has dropped off the face of the earth. Sure, we get a few letters to editor, and we run the occasional focus group or reader survey. But despite the circulation figures proving that hundreds of thousands of people receive each issue, they remain faceless. We know our work is being read, but we never know the reader.
Not so on-line. Since we launched Wine Spectator On-Line last October, we've learned that the Internet is a two-way medium, where users have as much of a voice as editors. (The fact that users outnumber editors considerably, and apparently never sleep made this a frightening revelation for us.) Of course we know that readers have always had strong opinions, since wine lovers are not generally shrinking violets. Now that we're providing a public forum where you can speak out, we've come to realize just how opinionated and surprisingly libertarian many of you are, at least when it comes to your right to enjoy wine.
Here, in the best FBI serial-killer-profiler fashion I can manage, is my impression of Wine Spectator On-Line users.
First, the facts, taken from the survey you filled out when you created your user accounts. Most of you are male. (There are very few openly female posters on the bulletin boards, and though I make sure the environment is never sexist or hostile, there is a certain boys' club feeling to it. I suspect we have a lot of female lurkersreaders who never postand I wish they would join the conversation.) Your ages are widely distributed, from late 20s to mid-50s, with a respectable number on both sides of the range. Among on-line users who aren't magazine subscribers there are thousands of you in your 20s; there are also more women among the non-subscribers. Nearly all of you have a college degree or higher, and the average household income is high enough to guarantee a generous wine allowance. Most have a wine cellar or collection, though the average price spent for a bottle of wine is below $15 for 56.7 percent of you.
There's nothing too shocking there. Perhaps the average age is a bit younger than might be expected, but it's still a generally affluent, educated crowd.
It's only when you hit the keyboard that we start to see the real character of the Wine Spectator On-Line user. Based on eight months of postings in the bulletin boards, "passionate" and "wickedly funny" are the terms that come to my mind. Each poster's passion is generally aimed at a specific category of wineCabs and Zins are about tied for most popular, with a few splinter groups that focus on Bordeaux and Italian winesand that category is almost always red. In fact, since summer began we've witnessed ongoing battles about red supremacy, with white staunchly defended by a couple of evangelists who take a lot of teasing. (Don't even think about supporting rosŽ). A few other observations:
I could go on, but I think that's enough for you to recognize yourselves. Many of you have formed such tight on-line relationships that you've arranged to meet in real life; even those who haven't physically shared a bottle yet have shared a lot of evenings and a lot of knowledge via modem. And we at Wine Spectator have watched it all, not in a creepy Big Brother way, but as our first sustained glimpse into what the public wants from us. We've made some changes you've requested and explained our reasons for issues you've questioned. Mostly we've tried to leave you to yourselves, even when that meant not deleting pointed criticism of the site, the magazine or the editors. Sometimes I've felt like the host of a big party, sitting quietly and listening to guests insult the food and the decor. But we learned to take it and to take what's valuable from your comments. In turn, I hope you've learned that we are listening, and we are not censoring you.
It's been great fun for me to see the response to our polls get bigger and bolder, and to watch our bulletin boards take on a life of their own. I now feel more like a host who goes up to bed each night while the party still rages downstairs, and stops by daily to clean up the broken glasses, refill the ice bucket and watch the action. So let's make a deal: If you'll keep the lively comments coming, we'll keep the doors open to our never-ending tasting party.
Karla Vermeulen, manager of on-line services of Wine Spectator On-Line, is sitting in for vacationing Web columnist James Laube. Laube, a senior editor of Wine Spectator magazine, has written three books on California wine. Check this space every Monday for his views on the latest in the wine world. And if you missed a week, or want to reread a piece, back editions are available in the Column Archive.
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