A Wine Portal Strategy Comes of Age

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By: Steve Outing

It’s a classic online newspaper strategy: Create a Web service that caters to the dominant industry in your local region. In Sonoma County, California, that’s wine, of course.

The largest newspaper in California’s Wine Country, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, has had its corporate eye on the the wine industry as an online target for some time. Only now has the New York Times Company owned newspaper found the resources to create a serious wine online presence that will serve a U.S. and international audience of wine aficionados. In print, the paper has long devoted considerable resources to covering the industry; three reporters are assigned to cover the various aspects of the wine business in this picturesque region of California.

The Press-Democrat’s online strategy calls for creating a separately branded wine site — mostly consumer oriented, but with some content catering to industry insider news and information — which is expected to be formally launched in July and feature a dedicated writing/editing staff of three producing original online content. The central wine site — as yet not officially named — will bring together several smaller wine specialty Web sites created by the newspaper’s online staff in the last year.

The latest addition to the collection of specialty wine sites is The Wine Files, which might be described as a “wine portal” or the “Yahoo! for wine,” according to Jeff Moriarty, the Press Democrat’s director of online services. Wine Files is a database of wine reviews, a directory of wine Web sites, and a “wine crawler” that automatically visits wine sites to create a search engine-like database just of wine content available on the Web.

The previously launched wine-related specialty sites include a wine discussion and chat site (Wine Rave); a searchable database of tasting room reviews which have run in the newspaper over the years (The Tasting Room); and a wine related travel site which is affiliated with a monthly print magazine supplement (Sonoma Traveler).

Better late than never

Wine is one of those industries that has been slow to embrace the Internet as a business opportunity, so the Press Democrat has had the luxury of going slow when it came to creating a serious wine Web presence. The big impediment for the wine industry has been restrictions on selling wine via mail order, because of out-of-state taxation issues and the problem of ensuring that wineries don’t sell their products to minors. The biggest Internet wine merchant is Virtual Vineyards.

The Press Democrat’s wine presence is not being designed to become a wine merchant (though the newspaper is looking for potential partners who might sell wine via the site), but rather is designed as a news and information source for the wine devotee, according to the newspaper’s executive editor, Bruce Kyse. That happens to be an attractive, wealthy and older demographic, and Kyse expects the site to be popular with advertisers.

While Kyse is less optimistic about the prospects for e-commerce, Moriarty believes that online transactions eventually could become a major revenue stream for the wine sites. While wine sales online are problematic under existing laws, the region’s wine industry also could sell wine-related merchandise online — cooking oils, mustards, books, corkscrews, and a variety of “California Cuisine” goods sold to Sonoma and Napa Valley tourists.

Original, yes original, content

Moriarty was the lone “Web guy” at the newspaper as recently as last fall, but he now oversees a staff of four, who operate the paper’s news site as well as the online wine sites. As part of the wine Web venture, the newspaper will be bringing on three additional wine journalists, who will write exclusively for the Web. (In fact, their content will not be used in print because of union restrictions that prohibit non-union staff journalists from writing for the paper.)

Kyse explains that the online wine writers — who will report to him — will take coverage of the industry to a level beyond what would be appropriate for a general-circulation newspaper. He says that they will cover the Napa Valley wine industry (in the next county over from Sonoma) more thoroughly than do the newspaper’s print reporters; they’ll write more reviews and attend more tastings; and they’ll report on industry matters that wouldn’t typically make it in the paper because they’re too industry specialized — such as winemakers moving from one winery to another. The wine sites also will pull content from the newspaper’s print wine coverage, though Moriarty hopes to emphasize the original online content.

Moriarty expects to hire people who are wine experts first and foremost. These are jobs for journalists, and online skills are secondary, since Moriarty’s Web staff will handle most of the production duties.

Kyse hopes to build in some channels of communication between the Web wine writers and the newspaper’s staff, with the idea in mind that when the online journalists stumble on a significant wine industry story, newspaper editors are quickly alerted.

With some 400 wineries in the immediate region, building the wine database is a major challenge for this project. For now, humans gather information about each winery, but in the future Moriarty envisions some sort of self-publishing system that will allow wineries to update their own information. He’s using a database publishing system which dynamically creates pages from content in the database, which supports easy redesigns of the site as needed.

As with any Web site, getting the attention of Web users with strong marketing is half the battle. Here’s an area where the Press Democrat has a strong advantage, assuming that its parent, the New York Times Company, uses some of its self-promotional muscle to market the Press Democrat’s Web wine ventures.

Contact: Jeff Moriarty, moriarty@pressdemo.com

Steve

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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing at steve@planetarynews.com

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company

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