Podcasts – a new medium for wine


22 June We're republishing Alder's comprehensive review of this exciting new source of wine education and entertainment free today as part of our Throwback Thursday series. 

19 June For those interested in learning more about wine without visiting wine country themselves, the methods for doing so haven’t changed much in the past 30 years. There were books and courses to be had, and then, later, internet sites [yay! – JR]. There were occasional television shows with varying, if limited, lifespans. And for those inclined towards their radio, a few local talk shows could be found, often of poor quality. 

In the last few years, however, an entirely new medium has emerged from obscurity to become a fully mainstream source of exceptional wine content. And by the beginning of 2018, this medium will become a new frontier for advertising and consumer engagement. I’ll explain why in a moment.

But first, a little background.

In 2005, after my first year writing about wine, I could count the number of my fellow wine bloggers on two hands with many fingers to spare. One of them was a guy by the name of Tim Elliot, who wasn’t so much writing about wine as talking about it. His blog was mostly a place for him to post episodes of something he called Winecast, which was an audio recording of him talking about wine – both by himself and with guest contributors.

I’ll admit freely that at the time I didn’t understand what he was up to at all. ‘Why would anyone', I thought to myself, ‘want to sit in front of their computer listening to an audio stream about wine?’ Indeed, not many people did, making Elliot something of a frustrated yet enthusiastic pioneer of what we know today as podcasting.

For those unfamiliar with the medium, podcasting can most easily be understood as a radio show that instead of being broadcast over the airwaves, is simply made available for download or streaming online. Podcasting arose thanks to a combination of low-cost, high-quality digital sound-recording equipment and the free distribution platform that is the Internet.

As my friend Tim and many of the early adopters of this medium discovered, however, listeners were hard to come by. Despite the fact that the early versions of iTunes and the iPod music player easily allowed consumers to listen to the spoken word, podcasts mostly remained a fringe phenomenon, not unlike the efforts of early wine bloggers like myself.

But then two key things happened. In 2012, five years into the iPhone’s dominance of the global smartphone market, Apple released a new version of their iOS operating system that had a new standalone app called Podcasts. And then a couple of years later in 2014, the creators of the popular radio show This American Life released a podcast entitled Serial, which became explosively popular and unleashed a wave of interest in the medium.

‘Back in 2011, when we started, there was something of a lull in the market', says veteran wine podcaster Levi Dalton (pictured above). ‘People had messed around with podcasting in ’04, ’05, ’06, and given up. There were dozens of ghost shows just floating around in the ether, abandoned because no one was listening.’

‘But Apple putting out the podcast app, that changed the game', continues Dalton. ‘All of a sudden, people were sitting around with their phones looking for podcasts. Now there are something like 400,000 podcast shows on iTunes and they’re getting added at a rate of around 1,000 shows every month.’ Much like the explosion in blogs that occurred around 2006, podcasts on every subject under the sun emerge daily. Of course, just as with blogs, many are amateur efforts that are doomed to obscurity, but not all.

For Dalton, who began his podcast I’ll Drink to That! in 2011, the medium’s rise in popularity has been nothing but good news. ‘The number of listeners we have now compared to before is ridiculous. What we used to do in a year, we now do in 24 hours', he says. Dalton has received more than three million downloads of his podcast to date, with each new episode receiving sometimes upwards of 30,000 downloads.

In an age of notoriously short attention spans, the fact that millions of people are listening to hour-long (or longer) audio programmes would seem preposterous but for the fact that anyone can see just how much time we all spend with our smartphones. While exercising, commuting and doing household or outdoor chores have become some of the most popular times for tuning into podcasts that offer everything from entertainment to education.

A whole world of wine podcasts exists, of course, and podcasts of the vinous variety tend to fall into one of the three main formats that seem to dominate the medium no matter what the subject matter:

The ‘talk show’ offers precisely what its antecedent did in the world of radio. That is, one or more personalities offering a more or less unscripted discussion about a given topic, sometimes involving guests who appear in person for recording, or who are dialled into the discussion remotely.

The ‘magazine or essay’ offers a highly scripted and produced show that often involves bits of field reportage, studio recordings, sound effects, music and other carefully edited content to deliver a clear narrative arc in the course of the episode.

The ‘interview’ features one or more hosts simply interviewing a subject in the course of the show. Questions are asked, and then they are answered, the quality of each determining the experience for the listener.

Each of these formats has been explored, developed and has met with some measure of success in the world of podcasts, and that goes for those focused on wine as well. After three years of exponential growth, the world of podcasting might be said to be mature, but nonetheless it is about to undergo a sea change.

Up until this point, Apple’s iTunes (the de facto marketplace for podcasts – over 80% of them are listened to on Apple devices) has offered podcast creators only paltry information about their listeners and their traffic.

‘Basically, I know how many people have downloaded the show to their device', says Dalton. ‘I don’t know how far someone got into the episode, I don’t know if they listened more than once, I don’t know if they listened in their car with three other people. What I get is whether they’re in Cincinnati or Saudi Arabia, and whether they listened on their iPhone or their computer.’

But all that is about to change. At its most recent conference for technology developers, Apple previewed the set of advanced analytics that it will be offering to podcast creators this autumn as part of their newest software release. Podcasters will then be able to see exactly how their listeners are consuming content, and when. Are they listening multiple times? Are they fast forwarding through parts of the show? Are they finishing, or bailing out after 10 minutes? Once they have the answers to all these questions, podcasters will be able to do two important things: fine tune their shows to maximise listener engagement, and finally prove to advertisers that dollars can be met with the kind of exposure these companies seek.

In short, as I hinted at the beginning of this piece, podcasting is about to get a lot more powerful, and a lot more lucrative.

But let’s get back to wine. While the number of wine-related podcasts may be exploding (several created every month in the last year or two), the number of good-quality shows remains quite limited.

Search for ‘wine’ in any directory of podcasts and you’ll find scores of shows, but few make it past a dozen or so episodes, and fewer still have the production values or writing and interviewing skills that result in a show worth listening to. Some are downright painful.

All too many producers seem to think that bringing a microphone to a crowded public or trade tasting and interviewing someone standing behind a table passes for interesting and engaging content. Personally, I find such cacophony intolerable, and I imagine so do most listeners. Consequently, the wine podcasts worth recommending, while growing in number, are still a limited few. I’m happy to save you time hunting them down, and will share below what have become my favourite companions for commuting or exercising.

In addition to providing a brief overview of each of these podcasts below, I’ve also suggested a specific episode that I think is both worth listening to and is typical of each programme. Give them a listen to decide whether you think it’s worth subscribing to that podcast. And if you need help getting started with this whole podcast thing, I’ve included instructions below.

Not sure you’re ready to dive into a new medium? Well you’re definitely missing out. There are some truly great podcasts out there, and most people are starting to catch on. ‘Only in the last year and a half have I been able to stop explaining to people what a podcast is', says Dalton. ‘Now I just have to tell them the name of my show.’

I’ll Drink to That!
Unquestionably the gold standard of wine podcasts as well as the medium’s most popular wine show, Levi Dalton’s I’ll Drink to That! has produced more than 400 episodes over the past six years, and continues to release episodes on a more or less a weekly basis. Exclusively in an interview format, the show also features interesting essays (as well as an occasional magazine-style show) by sommelier and co-host Erin Scala. The interviews are always recorded in person, with extremely high production values and the quality of content is exceptional. Dalton selects outstanding guests from the ranks of the world’s sommeliers, wine writers, winemakers and wine-trade professionals, and then asks remarkably insightful questions. Without a doubt, I’ll Drink to That! represents the current pinnacle of the podcast form in the world of wine, and is the easy answer to the ‘if I had to listen to only one wine podcast’ question.

Suggested episode: IDTTWine 422: Christian Moueix on 50 years of Pomerol and Napa Valley

A Glass With…
One of the top new entrants to the category, A Glass With… features British wine commentator Olly Smith (best known as the wine editor of The Mail on Sunday and a frequent guest on the BBC1 show Saturday Kitchen). Smith has teamed up with our very own Richard Hemming MW as producer for a roughly bi-monthly podcast in which Smith chats about wine with celebrities and prominent public figures. If you can get past the a cappella theme song, Smith’s warm, practised charm lets him quickly build genuine rapport with his guests (whom he often visits in their locations), yielding entertaining and, more often than not, insightful discoveries about how his famous guests relate to wine.

Suggested episode: Season1 Episode 1: P!NK

Grape Radio
One of the first wine podcasts in existence and the only one to have won a coveted James Beard Award for broadcast journalism, Grape Radio continues to produce content in a steady, if much-more-irregular-than-in-the-past fashion. Produced by Jay Selman (the wine-loving CEO of a database marketing company with a passion for wine communication) and Brian Clark (friend and VP of Sales at Selman’s company), the show encompasses many formats, including interviews as well as a talk-show approach with multiple guests and several regulars as co-hosts. Notably, the show also occasionally broadcasts seminars from major wine events in their entirety, allowing listeners to experience panel discussions or other talks without attending.

Suggested episode: Château Angélus – with Hubert de Boüard and the Commanderie de Bordeaux

Guild of Sommeliers Wine Podcast
GuildSomm, as it is better known, is a non-profit American membership organisation dedicated to helping sommeliers learn and grow their careers. Under the leadership of president Geoff Kruth over the past eight years, the organisation has become a significant producer of original educational content for those in the wine trade. Kruth began the GuildSomm podcast in 2011, producing perhaps a dozen episodes per year, but frequency has increased in the past two years or so, including news magazine-style episodes, as well as more traditional interviews, including one with Jancis this past November, if you care to listen.

Suggested episode: All About Yeast

UK Wine Show
Husband and wife team Chris and Jane Scott are the proprietors of ThirtyFifty, a UK-based wine events company that hosts educational wine tastings primarily for UK consumers. Scott claims to have started the UK’s first wine podcast, and with 508 episodes under his belt since 2006, that seems very likely. The Scotts take a very informal approach to the show, sharing various personal tidbits with listeners about their personal life in addition to their interviews with guests. Scott’s wife also delivers a summary of wine news in most episodes. The show offers a decidedly UK lens on all things wine, but guests and topics range the world over.

Suggested episode: Frost protection in UK with Alastair Nesbitt

The Wine Enthusiast Podcast
Produced by the editors at Wine Enthusiast magazine in New York, this podcast was launched in late 2016, no doubt thanks to the arrival of Jameson Fink as Senior Digital Editor. Fink had his own occasional, but very well done podcast entitled Wine Without Worry for several years, but new episodes have been scarce since 2015. Instead, Fink increasingly seems focused on helping expand Wine Enthusiast’s show. The programme suffers a bit from a decision to conduct many long discussions and interviews in non-studio settings rife with distracting background noise, but the guests and topics for the show are varied, and include coverage for beer, cocktails and entertaining.

Suggested episode: Wine myths debunked

There you have it. These all will be a great introduction to the world of wine podcasting, but remember you can always find more (and brand new) podcasts by searching in your favourite app.

How do you do that? Read on.

How to listen

Getting access to podcasts involves two things – a repository of podcasts, and a listening method. The folks who make the podcasts determine the former – essentially each podcast maker decides where they want to publish and store their podcast episodes – with the dominant location being the Apple iTunes store, followed somewhat distantly by a website named SoundCloud, and several other smaller repositories such as Stitcher and iHeartRadio. Consumers, on the other hand, get to choose what method they want to use to access the content, with the caveat that not every way of listening permits access to every repository of podcasts.

The two main ways that most people access podcasts seem to be via an app on their mobile device, or through their web browser. Most podcasts provide a way to listen to their shows from their web pages, which can be found through a simple Google search. Mobile apps, however, are by far the most convenient way to consume podcasts, allowing users to subscribe to multiple podcasts and play episodes in whichever order they choose.

Apple’s Podcasts app will do the trick for most users with iPhones or iPads (though heavy app users may prefer the Overcast app for its better usability and advanced features), and for those on Android, the native Google Play Music manager or third-party Podcast Addict or Podcast Republic apps will suffice. It’s also worth noting that Stitcher publishes its own app for both Apple and Android devices that provides access to everything hosted on its platform.

Happy listening.