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The electricity of creativity

“I’m like a great big dark cloud, floating over the land, discharging my creativity in a sudden burst, like a lightning storm. If I were on twitter, facebook, etc. I feel I would waste the energy in lots of small bursts. I do not want to do that. You won’t find me on social networks. … Of course, that’s what I feel today and it could change.” (paraphrased, from sketchy memory) – Iain Banks, 2012

Iain Banks Reads Stonemouth

Iain Banks Reads Stonemouth at Foyles, 2012

I attended a book reading & signing for Stonemouth by one of my favourite authors last week at Foyles in London. Iain Banks is the author of not only some amazing fiction, such as Wasp Factory, but also of science fiction (under the name Iain M. Banks). I particularly recall a book called Feersum Endjinn that included a very early model for Wikipedia/Internet he called The Crypt. He comes across as lots of fun, very creative, very Scottish and I happen to know he is also a wine lover (he admits to a fondness for Chateau Musar which also appears in a couple of books).

I took the opportunity to ask him if he used social media in his creative process, and I got the answer above. As an advocate of these platforms for wine, I feel it is a shame, but I totally understand what he is talking about. He says he writes his books in one, sudden, 3-month flash (after 9 months of “thinking about thinking, thinking, thinking about planning, and planning”). For authors who have to publish large creative works like a novel, I can see how the ongoing conversation might be a distraction. People would expect him to be creative, funny, innovative all the time. He admitted that if it helped him sell (a lot) more books, he’d probably do it, but I’m guessing he’s not desperate for cash after his 26 or so published works, so it is unlikely to happen.

I see, on the other hand, that for other creative types (like bloggers), the creative process is much faster, less intense in some ways, and the potential for the social conversation to spark more ideas and deliver value, more direct.

I do find myself, from time to time, involved in a discussion or reading a post, and thinking: “Hey, I wrote about that and covered it already somewhere …” then realising that it was never a fully formed thought, but just a comment or status update, and therefore seen by very few. If only I’d bothered to see it through, maybe it might have advanced the discussion a little further.

I know this is a feeling that many wine bloggers have experienced, but despite the many benefits of having channels for “micro-blogging” and reaching large audiences of followers and friends with wine content, it is fairly certain that this is diminishing the output of truly creative, fully-formed, valuable thoughts on our blogs, and that is a shame.

Is it time to change the balance and get back to longer form publishing? Save up some of that electricity for a proper show of lights?

This is a topic I know will be coming back to, including at the EWBC (and see these excellent points made by Andrew Jefford on the same subject as well).

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For blogging success, phone a friend

A couple of years ago Hardy Wallace and I got into a debate about editing blog posts. His take was that a blog should be raw, from the heart, without the refining that happens when an editor gets hold of a bloated piece of wine writing. I, on the other hand, suggested that you can still show passion, but that an editor helps to make sure your “raw passion” is intelligible. I was speaking from experience. I am not, as I’m sure many of you readers know (and my laughing wife Gabriella is thinking right now as she edits this piece), the best writer.

Words for me are confusing. The rules of language are confounding. While I know some of the common errors, I do not always spot them when I re-read my own writing. I know there, their, and they’re all have different meanings, but when I read them quickly in an article, I understand what the author is saying so I don’t worry about which one is used. I really don’t care. Maybe I should. I know I should care enough to make sure my dear reader does not have to suffer my errors, so I try to get better every day.

What I want to say to all you bloggers, wineries thinking of starting a blog, or journalists who are leaving the edited newsroom and moving to the wild west of blogging: get an editor. Someone to read your piece before you publish it. Someone to look for the silly mistakes that you gloss over because of your emotional attachment to it. If it were not for an editor, this piece your reading write [sic] now would be unintelligible. You’re [sic] understanding of it impossible. Not to mention 3 times the length, with half the logic. :)

I remember getting an email a few years ago from a wine journalist whose books I have enjoyed over the years. That person has written books, news columns, and has spoken at wine events for longer than I have been legally able to drink wine. They were telling me they finally took my advice and started a blog. So I rushed over and quickly checked it out. What I found was proof positive that this person had benefited greatly from years of editors trimming down their ramblings. Editors help.

I’m not saying you need to hire a team of proof readers and have each article polished to perfection. A few minor slips are not going to hurt you, but you can ask a friend to read a piece first before you hit publish to avoid the bigger ones. Or, if you lack a friend with time on their hands to help you out, try simply reading it out loud to yourself as the act of pronouncing the words one by one can often show strange logic and awkward phrasing. Also, don’t be afraid to play with language. Some of us are better than others, but there is something to be said for freedom of expression, but if your writing style leaves the reader confused, you are doing something wrong. What we need in the end is legibility, and more communication.

If bloggers, journalists, tweeters and others hope to have their content published and taken seriously, then the first step is to make sure we know what you’re saying. I would also make a prediction and say that the future of wine writing online will be teams, and not just the ‘lone voice’ online we think of today.

I look forward to seeing how this plays out as time goes on.

Ryan

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A community of wine lovers and friends at the EWBC

“My nerves were getting to me. After all, I had no formal wine training, no valuable old bottles to bring, and was just wearing jeans in this incredibly chic venue! …

Equipped with spit buckets galore, people start rushing around like some sort of speed dating game with bottles in hand. I realized I had to be more aggressive when I looked at my bottle that was hardly touched. So off I went, to do what I do best… mingle. With some wine the worries went away and I was learning the game. But the highlight came when the crazy Portuguese guys brought out their precious port from the 1980′s and started rationing it out to the line of wine lovers. In partners of newly made friends, we ran over to the chocolate cake table to see how delicious this pairing really could be…and let me tell you.. after 4 doses of port and probably an entire cake…I was set for the evening! What an awesome end to the night and beginning to a memorable wine conference weekend.” – Anna Savino, EWBC first-timer

The unofficial start of the annual EWBC has come to symbolise the heart of this event for me. The European Wine Bloggers Conference is about a lot of things, but one of the most important is community.

This is not your regular conference, where you turn up, alone, listen in silence, exchange a few business cards and then go home, unmoved. The EWBC is an annual gathering of friends who interact all year around and for whom the three days are more like a pilgrimage than a business event, and everyone is invited.

Think back to the last conference you attended. How involved did you get with the other attendees beforehand? How much did you prepare? How many people did you know before … and after?

Nowhere is this more obvious than with the excitement generated by the “BYOB” dinner the night before the main event. The planning starts weeks before. These are passionate wine lovers. Everyone wants to bring something special, unique and personal. Over 80 wines were registered for this event (more arrived on the night) with at least 65 varieties represented. These were special bottles being brought to share. How better to make new friends than by exchanging not just names and handshakes, but wines and stories?

IMG_0990There is a lot left to report on regarding EWBC 2011 – great tastings and visits to the producers of Franciacorta; astonishing wines from across the hugely varied Italian landscape, tasting “modern Chile” with Italian food, and of course the theme of this event, the stories of wine. However, no report by us about the EWBC could begin without a heartfelt thank you to the AMAZING community of friends who make the event so special.

I cannot believe any organisers can be so well supported, or could expect to receive so many personal messages of thanks – even after the unfortunate outcome of what should have been the celebratory dinner on Saturday. We all, the organisers and the catering company, are truly sorry for the failure, and the patience and understanding of all participants was marvellous.

We are very excited about organising even more events for the community and announcing some wonderful plans for EWBC 2012.

If you want to catch up on this EWBC, do check out the video archive (already uploaded), the vast range of photos and all the interaction on facebook and twitter (#ewbc). Here, to entertain you, are some memories from the BYOB night (thanks to MadCatMedia):

… and don’t forget to keep an eye on this site for the EWBC 2012 announcement on November 28th 2012.

Thank you, friends, again. I raise my glass to you all.

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Better Wine Blogging 101 – Using links effectively

How to link betterContinuing on with our goal to help improve your wine blogging, we want to tackle an important strategy that is often avoided, typically because many people are under the false pretense that it will hurt them, but it’s quite the contrary. This simple strategy can not only bring more traffic to your site, but will also build your rankings in Google or Bing.

Text Links are words that are “hyperlinked” to another webpage, either on your own site or on someone else’s. Here’s what a hyperlink to Wine and Food Pairing looks like. The words Wine and Food Pairing are “clickable” and link to relevant content which can help the reader learn more about this subject – in this case, my site, Catavino. These invaluable links are why the internet exists. Called the “web” because of these connections, it mimics a spiderweb where the connections build and define the structure. Unfortunately, when sites do not link to others sites, they are virtually cutting themselves off from the rest of the web and isolating their content in a bubble that becomes harder and harder for people to find and explore.

Now for all the geeks crying out that I’m over simplifying the matter, you’re absolutely correct, I am. My goal is to show the wine bloggers who never link to anyone (and that list of blogs in your sidebar does not count, they are for all practical purposes useless) that by adding strategic links within their blog posts they can actually help themselves. So please bear with me, and we can all geek out a bit in the comments section below.

For the rest of you, let’s follow a few simple rules. We’ll call it the “5 Link Rule”, which ensures that you have at least 5 hyperlinks in any post you write under 500 words, where 2 of those links point to your website and 3 point to other content on the web. The links that send people away from your site must, however, go to relevant, quality content that will help the reader, not just something random because I told you to.

But wait, you say, linking to other sites doesn’t help me! Wrong. Linking to other sites is very helpful to you. Without getting too technical, when you link to another site you’re alerting them of your connection. In turn, they can choose to link back to you or visit your site. Beyond that too, it places your site in context with other similar sites.

So how do you do it? Simple. Most web editors have a button that looks like a little bit of chain link, or something that says “link”. After you highlight the appropriate text (more on this in a bit) click this link image and you will get a dialog that looks something like this: How to add a text linkWhen filling out the dialogue box, be descriptive. First, place the actual link in the first box you see above with the preceding “http://” . Without this, you will be linking to an error page and not helping your site. Second, make sure to title your link. Tell us what it links to in order to help both search engines and your readers who are on devices that need this information. Finally, do not click the “open in a new window/tab”. I know we think if people stay on our site it’s better, but this is not always the case. I don’t want new pages opening up if I don’t ask for them, and if you provide great information, I’ll make sure to come back to you. Let your readers make their own decisions!

Ok, now back to that text you highlighted to create a link. Remember my food and wine pairing link above? In that case I created a link with the words “Wine and Food Pairing”, which is descriptive and useful, but it is also very helpful to Google. Essentially, I told Google that if people want to know about Wine and Food Pairing they should look at the site I linked to because it has quality information on the subject. In addition, I’m also saying, “Hey Google, I know where to find the best content on this subject, so come to me to learn about Wine and Food Pairing too”. Now, repeat this a few hundred times, and naturally, over the lifetime of your site you’ll be considered a resource for this type of information. What you do not want to highlight and a create a link from are things that are not useful like the words “click here”.

For the same reasons above, you also want to link to your own site with keywords that are important to you. So in our case, if I want to show that posting photos on wine blogs is something I know a lot about, I’ll make sure to link those words to older posts on the subject! Now, while Google knows you’re promoting yourself, it also recognizes that you know your content better than anywhere else. And if you provide good information through these links, rather than spammy promotions, Google will begin to  value your site higher on these specific topics, which is great!

These are very quick tips, not guaranteed tips to get you listed on page 1 of Google, that will make your site a stronger resource for wine information. Also this is presented to show you some simple best practices to make sure your website fits into the wine web more effectively. Nothing here is a trick or a solution that will trump good consistent content. You need to have good material if you hope that anything I say here is going to help you!

So, before I bore you any further, I’m opening it up to questions in the comments. Remember let’s keep this general as there are better places to talk SEO techniques, but this is a good place to get the basics of how to link out of the way, and taking the first steps to being a pro-wine-blogger! :)

Cheers,

Ryan Opaz

Let me know what other blogging 101 topics you want me to cover on Wine Conversation email me: [email protected]

Better Wine Blogging 101 – Using Photos Correctly

Night time Montjuic, BarcelonaRecently, a newbie wine blogger contacted me through Twitter to evaluate their post for general effectiveness. I promptly agreed, generally trying my best to help the community whenever possible, especially with someone new to the field. Quickly clicking on the link, I encountered 2 of the largest mistakes I typically see with new blogs, not to mention, 2 of the easiest things to fix. But when trying to explain how to remedy the situation, I also learned that they weren’t obvious to your everyday blogger. So for the sake of helping a larger audience, I thought I would post some best practices here.

Basically what I’m offering is some standard SEO, or Search Engine Optimization. Nothing advanced and nothing tricky, just some best practices to make sure you are optimizing your site to get the most traffic possible. With a few simple steps, your wine blog, or website, can be more effective. The irony is that these simple steps are DEAD simple and can give you big results. So let’s start! Today, I’ll focus on images and tomorrow I’ll focus on links.

Images: Images are great for explaining ideas and giving context. That said, if you don’t optimize your image, Google and the web in general, won’t see it. The robots Google uses to read content on your site are basically blind. They are great at reading content but not at looking at images. Therefore, we need to help them out. All modern web tools let you add images easily, and most will also let you add some key elements to those images that help your site.

For the sake of explanation, I’m going to use the WordPress blogging platforms tool as an example. See the image below? When you upload an image to wordpress, it allows you to add a Title,  Alternate Text, Caption, Description and URL. They key pieces you should be fill out and be descriptive are the Title, Alt Text and URL.

  1. Title: use a simple description. If you have a wine bottle photo, the title might be the name of the wine. If it’s a picture of a vineyard, name the vineyard and be descriptive. Just titling it “Vineyard” doesn’t help anyone. Better to go specific “Merlot Vines – Chateau Bleu”.
  2. Alt text: This is the text that will show up on a person’s computer screen if their computer can’t load the photo, allowing the reader to understand what the photo is supposed to be. So building on ”Merlot Vines – Chateau No-Se-Que”, you might add here a description of the time of year: Fall, Spring, or maybe even the activity if any in the photo: harvest, pruning, veraison under way. In short, be descriptive.
  3. URL: make sure to link to the photos source or to the photo itself. This way you can credit the photographer, or you can link to a larger version which might help the reader to see the image better. I’ll explain more about why links are so important soon, but the truth is that the web does not exist without links. Make sure you use them!

How to insert an image into facebook

All that said, pictures make your posts look pretty! Thus, use photos that illustrate and help guide the story. A picture of a bottle is one thing, but a picture of the place the wine was made can be even better. Also remember that people’s faces can be very helpful. If you are talking about a person try your best to get an image of them.

Finally where do you get photos? Well you don’t steal them. Make sure if you post a photo you have permission first. It’s illegal to use photos that are copyrighted without permission from the photographer. A great tool you can use to find fabulous photos is Creative Commons. It’s a legally enforceable copyright that allows the artist/photographer to have their photos used in certain situations. I, personally, license all my photos this way, allowing you to use my photos as long as you do so non-commercially, and you give me credit.

Where do you find these? Well you can browse my photos here: Ryan Opaz’s Wine Photos on Flickr and you can search for other photos that are licensed this way here: Flickr’s Creative Commons Galleries.

Mind you, this is the short version of how to use photos in your posts. I could go on and on, but would rather you ask some questions in the comments section below and I’ll do my best to answer them for you!

Cheers,
Ryan Opaz

Coming soon, linking for wine for wine bloggers…