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Who is in Judgment of Whom?

Since Robert Parker issued a sharp rebuke of online wine writers in April of this year, it has become fashionable for members of the wine establishment to offer up ponderous questions and cautionary tales regarding the legitimacy of online wine writers and the changing wine media landscape.

Regrettably, respected and erudite writer Matt Kramer is the latest to do so in the October 15th issue of Wine Spectator with the equally regrettable headline, “Judgment Day.” 

I’m a betting man, and I’d be willing to bet Kramer doesn’t write his own headlines and wishes somebody would have given him a better one for his latest column.  It takes a certain kind of hubris to use a headline like, “Judgment Day,” and suggest that you’re standing in judgment of people who write for little more than the satisfaction that comes with a passion for the written word and wine.

And, while Kramer’s comments are reasonably innocent, he’s not alone.  He joins a long line of folks that includes the aforementioned Parker, Steve Heimoff, Jim Gordon, Anthony Dias Blue, and others who have used their platform to issue a cautionary clarion call with varying degrees of bellow.  And, ironically enough, Kramer’s column trades on some of the same ideas that blogger Tom Wark wrote in a blog post from early August where he analyzed a column from the email newsletter of mainstream wine writer Dan Berger.

This on and offline writer thing gets confusing pretty quickly because the medium is no longer the message.  This is why most mainstream writers play the “credibility” card.  And, in another interesting bit of irony, since 2007, major wine magazines who once intermittently gave recommendations for good wine blogs to read, have largely gone silent—implicitly supporting the fact that they don’t view blogs as complementary to their work, but rather supplementary.  Given that, there’s not much else to affront except for the tenure and credibility of the “free” they’re fighting against. 

This ongoing mainstream wine writer public service announcement about online writers can be distilled into two simple messages:  “Who are these guys?” and “Don’t be so quick to give your trust.” 

The crux of Kramer’s Spectator column falls into this familiar boilerplate, as well, when he notes:

Many tasters—most, even—are adept at dissecting a wine.  It’s good, it’s bad, it’s humdrum.  This is the “flat earth” approach.  You only go as far as the wine takes you and declare that you have reached the limit of the knowable world.  There is no dot-connecting involved.

Kramer continues, “Is it enough that the person went to a big tasting?  Or once samples a vertical of the wine?  The challenge today for those wish to acquire credibility is to demonstrate a foundation of knowledge … now give us some reason to credit your judgment.  And that takes more – a lot more—than a sip, a spit and a quick tasting note.”

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With all of this meta-analysis in between on and offline wine writing you’d think that navel-gazing, a distinctly blogger-like symptom, was the H1N1 virus in the traditional wine writer’s dorm room.  This ongoing, thinking-out-loud questioning smacks of an interfamilial, brother-in-arms conversation amongst the old guard; an “I’m in the foxhole with you” statement of flying bullets bravado.

Even more peculiar, if you are to believe the established wine writers, is the fact that their target, the enemy as it were, is seemingly invisible – Al Qaeda in the hills of Afghanistan.  None of these established writers cite specifics when they mention online wine media; instead they offer broad proclamations and veiled allusions like George W. Bush and his “weapons of mass destruction” circa 2002.  Those that are active with a blog, a message board presence, or a tasting note account are left to wonder who and what these mainstream wine personalities are actually referring to. Their neutered commentary is not just akin to a gun without bullets, but a gun that also has a visible safety catch on.

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Some might call this message delivery from the paid professionals a form of mentoring, others might call it defensive, yet others may call it a “Swan Song.”  I don’t believe it’s any of those—I simply believe it’s misguided.

Each of these mainstream wine writer’s miss several very key points in their ongoing analysis of online wine media, including:

1) Amongst the inevitable drivel is significant quality, particularly in areas of coverage that is more niche-oriented.

2)  Many (most?) of the old guard of wine writers are predominantly male and have been in the game for 25 years or more.  What these guys don’t say is that they started somewhere and it took them an immeasurably longer trip on the road to individual respectability than the five or so years that wine blogs have been in existence (the amount of time they are affording before standing in “judgment”).

3) While they talk about credibility, they don’t acknowledge the brand boost that they get writing for Spectator, Enthusiast, or other traditional outlets.  Speaking of credibility, I really have no idea what gives Kramer and the rest of them any more individual credibility then Joe Blogger down the street, but I know that they write for outlets that help burnish their own image.  With due respect to Matt Kramer, without Wine Spectator he probably doesn’t get a chance to write books.  Ditto that for others.  I’d hazard a guess and say that the Wine Spectator masthead has done more for affording wine writer’s ancillary opportunities than anything else in the modern wine era, 1970’s – to present day.

On the other hand, you want an act of credibility?  Start a blog out of nowhere, for virtually no money, earning virtually no money and earn a readership.  That’s very credible in its sheer difficulty.

4) Most of this us v. them mentality is a result of unacknowledged friction based on content.  Mainstream wine writers largely write for an audience that doesn’t live online.  I’ll go one step further and say that most literate wine readers and writers of wine blogs find mainstream wine content deadly dull, contrived and pedantically insulting.  This creates an environment where bloggers take shots and the magazines respond with commentary couched in the veil of questioning credulousness.

This has nothing to do with anything other than good old neighborly sniping.

Overall, I’m weary of the credibility card and the “up-on-high” pontificating from the mainstream wine press.

The reality is that an existing highway and an onramp are merging and the sooner that the speeding car moves over a lane, and the merging vehicle drives defensively, the better off (and safer) we’ll all be – and, that’s the only judgment I’m willing to concede.

*Ed. Note* Because of page length limitations in my system set-up, additional comments to this post are not displaying.  I’m working on a longer-term fix.  Thanks!


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Worshiping Wine

I’ve been on the back roads of Indiana quite a bit lately and it seems like you can’t go a country mile as the crow flies without passing a small church.  These are all textbook looking: small, with a steeple, landscaping from 1982, and, inevitably, a sign out front with some sort of humorous bon mot.

A week or so ago, passing a “Vineyard Community Church,” I saw a sign that said, “Body Piercing Saved Your Life.”  Clever.  My wife is Jewish, so it didn’t save her life, but it’s grin inducing nonetheless.

Doing a little bit of research on the “Vineyard Community Church,” a national affiliation, definitely yields not as wine-centric of an approach as I might want given the name, but I thought it might be interesting to look at these church sign sayings through the filter of wine.  A couple of Google searches and some photo-editing and away we go.  As with most attempts at humor that I make on this site—your mileage will vary.

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2005 Rockaway Cabernet Sauvignon:  One Year Later Pt. 3 of 4

The end of August quietly came and went like any other week in the online wine world—a stark contrast to the fiery events that occurred just a year ago in what some called the, “Rockaway Follies.”

Last year at this time a marketing experiment in conjunction with the launch of an allocated brand from Rodney Strong Vineyards created a tsunami of attention online with bloggers and observers taking sides about the correctness of bloggers engaging in coordinated activity even if under the freedom of their own editorial choice.

One year later, what was learned, what has changed and how can the Rockaway skirmish act as the proverbial “canary in the coal mine” as online wine media continues to evolve?  Provided in four parts, this is part three.

Part Three: The Bloggers Post

As summarized in parts 1 and 2 of this review, the Rockaway program had seven total participants, including me.  There were 6 bloggers and one guest author (posting on my site), a Master Sommelier candidate.

Again, my motivation was simple, I wanted to help create a splash to advance blogging credibility and in doing so other bloggers and I would have the chance to work with a high-end wine brand launch. 

The stipulations for the bloggers participating in the program was equally simple – acting as the program organizer, I requested that in exchange for receiving a wine sample from Rockaway, the wine blogger would agree to write about the wine in a post with a word count between 300-500 words.  They were free to write anything they wanted.  It could be good, bad or indifferent.  In addition, I made the call, in order to gang up exposure, that the bloggers would publish their blog post in between August 18th – 21st, 2008.

Robert Larsen, the PR Director at Rodney Strong, provided winery press materials, made suggestions for story angles and availed himself to the group of writers for questions.

We were off to the races.

On the Sunday the 17th I kicked off the program with an introductory post on my site saying (amongst other things):

In a bold and prescient move, what I believe is a first for an allocated wine, Rockaway, a high-end $75 Cabernet release from Rodney Strong’s new winery-within-a-winery concept, is including select wine bloggers as a part of their release strategy. 

It will be an exciting week with each of these bloggers taking their own unique perspective on the wine, the release and the story.  Keep an eye out for blog posts from each of these bloggers between Monday, August 18th to Thursday, August 21st.

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In the very first comment to that introductory post Ryan Opaz from Catavino.net said:                                                     

How is this not allowing bloggers to be bought? Wineries should not use bloggers as tools to publicize, at least blatantly. If we want to be treated like real press then we should get samples like real press. This smells like a buy off to me.

I responded to Ryan encouraging him to read the back-story that would be posted on Tuesday.  To say the least, it was a curious beginning.  I thought to myself, “This might not go as well as I thought.”

The next day, Monday, Arthur Black, the Master Somm. candidate, reviewed the wine on my site.  He has a highly skilled palate and I figured his review would set the table for the program and the other blog posts that would follow – yes, the wine is good.  Arthur wrote a reasoned and accurate review of the wine, providing a flawless technical assessment.

The next day, Tuesday, I wrote the back-story to the program, detailing the same information that I have detailed in this current set of posts.  You can find the original post here.  Still, there was a string of mild cynicism in the comments to the post mostly of the benign, “what’s the big deal?” type.

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Each of the other writer’s blog posts published in the determined time frame and were mostly positive shading to enthusiastic.  Each writer, in an uncoordinated fashion, linked to the allocation sign-up list.  The linking to the allocation sign-up is a small factor that was unprompted and unrequested, but taken together with the general positive tone of the posts may have led to the belief that there was some promotional collusion occurring.

Throughout the week, Robert from Rodney Strong/Rockaway responded to comments. Generally, I was feeling mildly ambivalent about the program as the week went on.  It had met my goal of coordination, yet the impact, in situation, seemed impotent—until the weekend hit, and temperatures started to rise, not in the way that I had hoped.

On Sunday August 24th Mike Duffy from The Winery Web Site wrote a short post covering the coordinated sampling and the wheels started coming off the cart.

It started with a comment on Mike’s post from Wine Enthusiast critic and wine blogger Steve Heimoff who said:

Maybe the early release to bloggers will prove to be a good move on Rodney Strong’s part. But when I started seeing all these online reviews of Rockaway I really had to wonder. Why did all those bloggers give it free publicity? Don’t they get free wine every day? So why write about Rockaway? I haven’t had the wine (plan to review it tonight) and I have no idea if it’s any good, but it shows how easily some parts of the blogosphere can be manipulated into providing free publicity to wineries.

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I took issue with Steve’s comments mostly around the word “manipulated” and noted in a subsequent comment that I thought his thoughts were “misguided” and made in a “vacuum” given that I had detailed the program in full on my site and his opinion was based on circumstances that weren’t factual.

I can’t be sure that he ever did read the source posts on my site because the next day he wrote a post titled, “Did Rodney Strong manipulate bloggers, use clever marketing, or both?”

The tenor of the conversation took a sharp turn based on Heimoff’s post where he noted, while providing incorrect speculative context on Rodney Strong’s motives, that:

The problem from my perspective is that those who participated were manipulated, and happily embraced their manipulators.

78 often angry comments later, mostly from bloggers taking sides, and Steve had softened his “manipulated” stance, while moving into the defense that the posts were “overly triumphant.”

The in-fighting didn’t stop there, however.

On Tuesday, August 27th Tom Wark from Fermentation weighed in with a post on his site titled, “On Press Sampling—Giving and Taking and Ethics.”

In hindsight, Tom’s piece is a well-reasoned analysis and a good piece of writing warning of ethical implications of bloggers working in concert with their subject-matter.  His message, however, lost in the immediacy and raw nerves of the situation, not able to be seen with 20/20 hindsight, is the fact that, in addition to Heimoff’s “manipulation” messaging, Tom had played the “ethics” card—the blogging equivalent to a Scarlet Letter.

With a 114 comments on Tom’s post, the conversation officially devolved away from the realm of the program or the wine into defensiveness and grandstanding on both sides.

At the time, I had issue, major issues, with both of the pieces from Heimoff and Wark because neither seemed to have a grasp on the program, or the back story that I laid out.  Given both of their relative places of influence, I thought these posts were irresponsible particularly because throughout the heated debate nobody, not a single person, reached out to me to ask any clarifying questions or to understand my viewpoint or that of the participants, which included a professor, a lawyer, a book publisher, a Master Sommelier and other educated professionals.

The program that has been called the “Rockaway Follies” and “Rockaway-gate” had officially made an impact.  However it was definitely a schism in the community and not positive influence for the wine.  In fact, in online circles, Rockaway will forever be linked to this imbroglio.

In my final post, I’ll review the last bit of lingering impact the program had on the online wine community, summarize the reviews the wine received from bloggers and traditional media and offer a postscript for lessons learned and what I believe the future holds for wine, online wine writing and the blurring lines between editorial and marketing.


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“Dependable” is Thy Name

In your heart of hearts, in the dialogue that you have with yourself, when you clear away the layers of nuance from your relationships and take off the mask that protects you from the theatre of life, what are you really looking for?

You’re looking for trust. 

At the end of the day, I believe the greatest truth we can tell ourselves (and believe) is that we go through life seeking little else other than the ability to find and place trust around us.

I trust that my wife, my family, my friends and my job are going to be there when I need them in all of the glorious peaks and valleys that is life.  In return, I strive to excel in providing equal or greater dependability in the quid pro quo tapestry that makes up our bonds.

Dependability is at the core of trust.  I have an expectation for what will happen in a situation based on the trust that I have placed, currency that has been built-up based upon a thousand different actions (and interactions).

Trust can be hard won, and sometimes easily granted, but either way, when the unspoken dependability we have come to rely upon is violated, trust is difficult to regain.

Likewise, without trust and dependability, risk-taking becomes a very extreme option because we don’t have the safety net that trust and dependability provides elsewhere in our life.

Granted, this high-minded pop philosophical conversation is best enjoyed in a dorm room with a girl that wears Lisa Loeb glasses and quotes Nietzsche, with a fourth glass of Chianti from a bottle encased in straw, however, it becomes important, particularly when viewed through the filter of marketing.

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Brand development has come of age over the last 30 years transposing these very human emotions onto the things that we buy and consume.  These so-called brand attributes are an attempt at anthropomorphizing otherwise commodity based products, building trust and dependability, while reducing risk.

Brand development is a particularly contentious topic in the wine business, as well.  Everybody says they have built a brand, but very few have.  In fact, very few wineries have a leg to stand on when it comes to brand.  They may have an image, they may have mindshare, they may offer an experience, but that doesn’t equal trust and it certainly doesn’t equal dependability.

No, in fact, real brands in the wine business are often the source of derision, for, being, well, dependable … and … trustworthy. 

In my opinion two nationally distributed brands – Toad Hollow Chardonnay and Castle Rock Pinot Noir represent a level of dependability, I have trust with these brands.  Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay is a real, true, trustworthy brand that also represents dependability.  From purchase to purchase I know what to expect.

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In normal circumstances, under a different set of economic realities, most wine enthusiasts forgo a trusted relationship with wine and assume the risk (and potential reward) that often comes with something that is unknown and otherwise not trusted.

Wine lovers seek the discovery aspect of wine that marks a potential disappointment as an adventure, a risk from seeking out the unknown.  It may not be good, but it will certainly be interesting.  If it’s great, then what a journey from acquisition to consumption.

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Unfortunately, it would seem that our risk tolerance is changing.  It’s not unfortunate for me necessarily because as a consumer I’m fickle and fly with the winds of change (and the vagaries of my pocketbook), but it’s particularly unfortunate for wineries that are ill-suited to deal in this type of dependability-oriented purchase environment.

What happens when we stop risking disappointment and start seeking out trust?

Buried near the end of a nice, long article on luxury wine from the Press-Democrat, was this quote from Constellation Brands’ Lou Applebaum, “People are moving a little bit more toward trusted brands that have more legitimacy and more history with people … there seems to be less experimentation.”

Blackstone Winery, also a Constellation brand, is rolling out an advertising campaign heralding this very notion of dependability.  The tag line reads, “Here’s to the things in life you can count on.”

In fact, Blackstone, taking this risk mitigation notion one step further, is offering a money back guarantee on the wine.  If you don’t like it, they’ll refund your money.

Having been very familiar with the Blackstone brand, but never having tried based on it being too reliable in previous times, I picked up a bottle of their flagship Merlot, Cabernet and Pinot Noir.  You know what?  While certainly not profound, for $8.99 these are very serviceable wines, perhaps even dependable.

According to the New York Times article in which the Blackstone campaign was highlighted, “the goals is (to) offer reassurance they will not be wasting money because the product being advertised is dependable and/or a value.”  According to Natasha Hayes, a group marketing director at Constellation, “everyone’s watching their pennies a little bit more what we’re finding right now is more of a backwards step: ‘I don’t want to discover; I want to stick with brands that are trusted and true.’ ”

I have no doubt that we’re in a climate of controlling risks, finding certainty, seeking to reinforce and expand that one goal we have for ourselves in life – finding trust.  What I am uncertain of, however, is what does this mean for the wine industry when a desire for “discovery” turns into a desire for familiarity.  Trust me when I say:  I don’t think it’s good.

*Note* Thanks to Fred Schwartz for the NYT’s Blackstone article pointer


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2005 Rockaway Cabernet Sauvignon:  One Year Later Pt. 2 of 4

The end of August quietly came and went like any other week in the online wine world—a stark contrast to the fiery events that occurred just a year ago in what some called the, “Rockaway Follies.”

Last year at this time a marketing experiment in conjunction with the launch of an allocated brand from Rodney Strong Vineyards created a tsunami of attention online with bloggers and observers taking sides about the correctness of bloggers engaging in coordinated activity even if under the freedom of their own editorial choice.

One year later, what was learned, what has changed and how can the Rockaway skirmish act as the proverbial “canary in the coal mine” as online wine media continues to evolve?  Provided in four parts, this is part two.

Part Two: Blogger Selection

After Robert Larsen, Public Relations Director at Rodney Strong, and I determined a path forward for the blogger sampling program with Rockaway, I reached out to bloggers to participate.  Larsen, not quite sure what he was in for, not completely in tune with the online wine community, figured it was all relatively benign.  He agreed with my plan of action that encompassed hand-picked bloggers, sampling and then a finite blog posting window, free of editorial restriction.

While it wasn’t his preference, my motivation was clearly to have an allocated wine sent out to bloggers at the same time as mainstream press, and I wanted bloggers to create a wave of awareness ahead of mainstream press.  Simply, I wanted to steal mainstream wine press thunder—nothing more, nothing less.  I wanted to at least create a ripple for the launch of the brand, before Wine Advocate or Wine Spectator could release their ratings.

This selfish indulgence was a litmus test to me – a counter to the frequent questions of credibility that occurred amongst more traditional wine media types regarding wine bloggers.

The irony of the situation is this was clearly a test, a toe in the online wine media water for Rodney Strong.  However, a bit more immersed, and as a marketer by day, it wasn’t a test with bloggers in my eyes, it was a test against mainstream press.

I’ve never been a fan of throwing spaghetti against the wall to see if it sticks.  Given that, I wanted the sampling program to be small and manageable – five or six people at most.  Sampling to a great number of people, in my mind, equated to throwing spaghetti and created an opportunity for the program to be diluted online.  Keeping the program to respected, credible bloggers allowed more concentration and control.

The plan was always set-up for me to act as the proxy for the winery.  This would accomplish two goals, first I would be reaching out to people I was friendly with neutralizing Robert’s relative newness to online wine media and second it would insulate the winery from the notion of any untoward activity based on the editorial stipulations I put in place regarding coordinated posting.

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Simply, neither a winery nor a public relations representative can request a timetable for a blogger to post, however, as creator of the program and a fellow blogger, I can.  And, absent an editorial calendar, advertising close dates and print runs, it’s really a matter of small consequence to request a blogger post within a weeks’ timeframe.  What prevented them from doing so?  Nothing.  What are the ethical implications?  Not much.  Certainly there are no more ethical implications than a critic posting their movie review when a movie opens.

In my mind, it was the best possible scenario, Robert would be available to answer questions, provide information and give winery background, yet he would remain neutral from any real or perceived activity in engaging in promotional activity directly with bloggers.  If anything, I was subjecting myself to potential backlash, a notion I wasn’t concerned with given I was working with peers and there was no stipulations on content.  Bloggers could write anything they wanted – good, bad or indifferent.

The entire sampling program was predicated on editorial freedom – writers could write anything they wanted, and assuming the worst in backlash, that would always be the fallback.  Nobody was required to say anything nice.  The only other outlier was the aforementioned posting timeframe – a conscious decision because, again, an uncoordinated posting schedule would dilute any value of the blogging program, and certainly nullify the notion of reviewing the wine ahead of mainstream publications.

I also bet that the pedigree of the winery and the position of the wine as allocated would mean that, having not tasted the actual wine ahead of putting the program in place, I was in good shape on the personal risk that the wine wasn’t any good, a worst case “egg on face” scenario.

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I also wanted to have credibility built into the sampling program, people who were respected or brought credibility based on credentials.

I had made the acquaintance of Arthur Black, a Wine Educator for a distributor in Indianapolis, the 2008 recipient of a national Young Sommelier award and a Master of Wine candidate.  If nothing else, Arthur, guest blogging on my site, could not have his palate or his credibility discounted.  He was my ace in the hole, and would lead off the program.

I also chose Renee Wilmeth from Indianapolis-based food blog Feed Me/Drink Me.  Renee, to me, would ensure that the program wasn’t just wine bloggers in the same jet stream, providing another level of reasonable neutrality, if not a multi-faceted nature.

I chose Kori from Wine Peeps because her blog was becoming increasingly popular and she and I had exchanged notes after my “Wine Blogger Review Coalition” series of posts in which she offered to help me if I got the idea off the ground in any form.

Deb from Good Wine Under $20 was a natural choice, as were Megan from Wannabe Wino, and Tim from Wincast, all well-regarded reviewers of wine amongst online wine media types and they are folks I have a rapport with.
 
The only blogger who declined to participate in the program was Tyler Colman from Dr. Vino.  He was slow to respond to my initial email inquiry and upon follow-up indicated he didn’t wish to comply with the timeframe for posting.  I thanked him for his consideration before touching base with Joe from 1WineDude who agreed to participate.

In my next post, I’ll review the launch of the program when content and reviews started publishing and the backlash started.  Pt. IV will be a brief retrospective and lessons learned.

*Note*

My intention with this series of posts isn’t to conjure up hard feelings or to validate the “correctness” of any one opinion.  Instead, I want to get the narrative down and, perhaps, put it into ebook form on my site as a case study.  That said, I expect any comments to NOT dredge up mud-slinging about any one particular viewpoint.


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