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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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Posted in, Around the Wine Blogosphere. Permalink | Comments (6) |


Comments

On 09/10, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) wrote:

Jeff - as you know, Robert is a friend and fellow PR professional so I can appreciate what he was trying to do.  It was a good idea, in theory, trying to generate some buzz for a wine with no track record and a $75 price point.  I’m sure he had no idea he was walking into a hornet’s nest.

Your post is a good reminder that people should acutally READ all the facts FIRST before spouting off.  If more people would have read and thoughtfully considered what the “rules of engagement” were perhaps the Rockaway release would have been seen as a success story rather than being loosely compared to Watergate.  Knee jerk reactions never turn out well.

On 09/10, 1WineDude wrote:

On a positive note, during the 1st Wine Bloggers Conference in Sonoma, a few people took me aside wanting to discuss the “Rockaway Event.”  What we determined from those conversations was that the wine blogging community was able to have a row, air it out (not perfectly, of course), and reach some sort of healing in what would amount to lightening-fast time in other industry areas or in the “offline” world.

I think that observation speaks volumes about the people involved and where most of those people’s hearts lie (which is ‘in the right place’).

On 09/11, Mike Duffy wrote:

Hey, I’m a footnote to history. Seriously, thank you for recognizing my small part in the story. In hindsight, it engendered some useful ( if occasionally heated ) exchange about the wine blogging process. I still think it was a smart move. No one said “bad wine,” and awareness of Rockaway was raised.  Keep pushing the edges!

On 09/11, Dylan wrote:

The more of these I read, the more I think it would make for a great case study for wine marketing students.

On 09/11, Mike Duffy wrote:

A Harvard B-School case!  Or at least UC Davis and Sonoma State University.

On 11/20, writing essay wrote:

This is a wonderful post. I enjoyed the information lot. I will bookmark this page. Thanks for sharing this important information.


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