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2005 Rockaway Cabernet Sauvignon:  One Year Later Pt. 1 of 4

Last week 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 have 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?  For the first time, provided in four parts, here is the full story. 

The Back-Story

Robert Larsen, Public Relations Director at Rodney Strong Vineyards was preparing for the first release of an “allocated” Cabernet called Rockaway from Strong’s Rockaway Vineyards.  This wine was going to be the first new label from the Rodney Strong “winery within a winery” concept. 

In Larsen’s public relations planning and preparations he reached out to Carole Loomis, an Account Manager at Inertia Beverage Group, their ecommerce partner.  Within the scope of those conversations, Robert inquired about bloggers as a vehicle for sampling.

At the time, Robert, by his own admission, was studying the wine blogosphere, but was far from in tune with the landscape, the “jet stream” as I like to call it.  Like many wineries today, he was struggling with the “who is who” and “how do you make sense of it all.”  It’s a sentiment I have empathy for because it’s not easy to “get.”


The wine blogosphere, by analogy, is like working for a large corporation.  If you’re a new hire, it takes a good 6 months to a year to figure out the landscape – I’m not talking about your job function, that’s the easy part, I’m talking about the dynamics of the organization – who are the power brokers, who is an apple polisher, who does good work, and who can be trusted (or not).  These are all things that are difficult to figure out unless you’re in the “jet stream.” Unfortunately, figuring out the “jet stream” isn’t easy unless you have some help.

A short time later, based on a recommendation from Carole at Inertia, Larsen sent me an email introducing himself.  Working with a level of discretion, he wanted to talk on the phone as opposed to email.  Robert wasn’t familiar with my blog and wasn’t sure who I was exactly – and, naturally, he was a little wary about talking about new brand launch activities with a stranger.

We set-up a time to talk and on my drive time home from work one evening and we chatted about wine bloggers – what’s the online blogging community like, what are the varying topical genres (reviewers, columnists, the weird and the absurd, etc.), are reviews valuable, how sophisticated are bloggers, etc.  It was a 100,000 foot conversation about the landscape of the online wine world.

It should be noted that Robert, aside from a familiarity with Alder Yarrow from Vinography (a frequent occurrence for those new to wine bloggers), really had no insight into the wine blog landscape at the time, and had no notions of a program of any sort.  He was really only interested in gleaning some insight. 

In that initial conversation, and subsequent conversations, Robert and I discussed ideas that I had been mulling over about coordinating wine bloggers into some level of a tasting quorum. 

Originally, I had the idea of a coordinated blog tasting group in ’07.  Hardly a novel idea, but at the time the semi-annual “wine competitions are useless” conversation was occurring (which, incidentally, is rearing its annual head right now). Always ready to be a pragmatic contrarian, I wanted to stick a fork in that conversation.  In contact with private label wine company Adler Fels, who have several of their own brands in the marketplace like their “Big Ass” brand, I wanted to blind sample some of their “Big Ass” Zin (a wine that was winning major, multiple competitions) to a select group of bloggers.  Bloggers would do a review and I would then do the “reveal” on what the wine was and the price point.  My hypothesis was that this inexpensive wine would be extremely tasty, other bloggers would think so as well and I could use it to make a larger point to the anti-wine competition brigade.

Ultimately, this “Big Ass” plan was a non-starter because Adler Fels ran out of the wine.  I mentally filed the idea for a later date.

Flash forward to early summer of ’08 and I mused out loud on my blog about a similar “tasting quorum” idea.  This time I called it the Wine Blogger Review Coalition (see posts here, here and here).  As presented on my site, this “coalition” would be a small group of bloggers who would, with no editorial restriction, review sampled wines on a coordinated weekly and monthly basis, while receiving a stipend based on sponsorship monies.  The notion for doing so would be to gather momentum and legitimacy for wine bloggers, particularly as a complement to traditional media, while creating a small trickle of income, countering the notion of bloggers as just another target for public relations people.

Flash forward another couple of months to August and my interest in “beta testing” a coordinated review of a wine was palpable, and made all the more interesting by having a potential “beta test” be an allocated brand freshly launching to market with a revered name like Rodney Strong as the umbrella.

Larsen and I continued to talk and he continued to do due diligence on my credibility, essentially trying to ensure that I wasn’t going to lead him down the primrose path to ruination because, while not risk averse, Rodney Strong was not cutting edge in their marketing techniques.

We finally agreed to a program whereby I would coordinate a small group of wine bloggers to receive samples of the Rockaway wine.  I was interested in doing a marketing experiment, and he was interested in spreading the word about Rockaway.  Both of our needs would be served.  His risk was larger than mine because free from editorial restriction, reviews of the wine could have been negative.  The wine would be sent out at the same time as samples to traditional media, but because of the immediacy of blogging, reviews from bloggers would be posted first. Again, the program with the bloggers called for freedom in editorial, but the stipulation was that in order to receive the sample you had to write about the wine – good, bad or indifferent and the bloggers had to do so within a time window – August 18th – 21st 2008.

In my next post, I’ll talk about the bloggers selected and the launch of the program.


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.


Posted in, Free Run: Field Notes From a Wine Life. Permalink | Comments (9) |


On 09/04, Sonadora wrote:

You know that expression about sleeping dogs?  Or not poking a bear?  I’m afraid of what this will bring about…I’m not prepared to face that vitrol again for what amounts to a (normally) fun hobby for me.

On 09/04, Jeff wrote:

I hear ya, Megan.  I wrote 75% of my post from memory before revisiting some of the posts from a year ago and it put me in a state of mind that had me almost kill this post and letting sleeping dogs lie.

However, I would like to do an ebook and look at this in totality because I think it’s useful for everybody and there are some lessons learned.

Plus, my other motivation is the blogger who has referenced the “Rockaway Follies” about seven times in the last year, so I want to make sure the record is set in view, and not somebody else’s interpretation of it.

On the whole, I’ll be caveating every post with the notion that this isn’t a forum to pick at old wounds.

Thanks for commenting!


On 09/04, Sonadora wrote:

Well…those with axes to grind tend to keep them sharp.  Wow, I’m full of the trite expressions today.  I too have read the same blog and cringe each time that blogger beats the dead horse. (Hey, give me a break, I’m on a roll with the hackneyed stuff.) Makes me almost wish something else would happen so he would have something new to reference/harp on/pick at. But, it will be 2020 and I’m sure he’d still dredge it up.

On 09/04, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) wrote:

Gee….wow….wine blogging drama.  Somebody wake me if this tempest in a teapot gets interesting.

On 09/05, Charlie Olken wrote:

I am looking forward to the next installments. I have to say that I don’t get the problem. Wineries need to sell wine. Bloggers need to write about wine. Bloogers whose rhetoric is convincing will be convincing. Those who lack that strength will be unconvincng.

From what I have read, there may have been some overexcitement on the parts of some people, but, really, isn’t that just the price of the learning curve.

Explaining the whole story in all of its small details is a good idea. Analyzing what it accomplished in the short run and in the long run is a better idea. I hope you will be doing that in future installments.

On 09/05, Wine of Month Club wrote:

To think I missed all the drama by like 9 months lol.  Looking forward to the rest of the reports, wine in general is a smaller industry then many people realize.

On 09/05, Dylan wrote:

I remember the event vividly. I was new to reading these wine blogs and became relatively discouraged by the tone of voice in most comment sections. Not only that, but the issue seemed to drag on for weeks without anyone getting back to blogging for the reasons people read their blog in the first place. I understand the reasons behind the post series though, let’s just not relive it in it’s entirety.

On 09/06, David wrote:

The best lesson from the whole Rockaway drama (Jeff, sorry if I’m jumping the gun on conclusions) is that it was a made-for-the-web drama with all the controversy created by those threatened by the burgeoning presence of internet wine writers.  “WHA WHA WHAAATT!??!” they asked, “who the heck are they to get MY samples??!!?”

Well, it turns out “they” were exactly what you were, wine writers with palates that people respected.

On 09/08, 1WineDude wrote:

Somebody let me know when this is over.  Until then I am covering my eyes!!!


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