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The Tabloids come to the Wine Business

Let’s agree on a couple of things:  Wine industry reporters aren’t known for reporting hard news and industry currency is based on both reputation and word-of-mouth goodwill.

If a deal goes sour or there is a rift between two businesses it is an exceedingly rare circumstance that a story makes proper news reports. However, you can be certain that ‘over-the-fence-post’ word will spread about the offending parties, and probably from both sides of the situation. 

No sir, fair and balanced news reporting doesn’t often happen in the wine business.  It doesn’t have to. 

The real reporting occurs over the barrel, at dinner, or on the veranda amongst industry folks; and, most of this “news” will never see sanitizing or fair and balanced sunlight from a journalist (or an editor’s red pen).  If you understand and agree with this premise than what is happening with the Inertia Beverage Group (IBG) / New Vine Logistics (NVL) imbroglio should surprise you because the over the barrel conversation is starting to bleed into a quasi-news function that is neither opinion nor fact and frankly kind of frightening.

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I won’t recount the New Vine / Inertia Beverage narrative in all its glory.  A quick Google search of, “New Vine Logistics” and about an hour’s time will get you caught up to speed.  Suffice to say, it’s the most salacious story I’ve seen in 10 years as a wine industry observer.

And, that salaciousness shows, given the very nature of the reporting that we’re getting.  Woodward and Bernstein never had it so good, what with all of the off-the-record deep throat comments that are being bandied about in “news” stories on the subject.  Frankly, as mentioned, it’s a surprise.  It’s as if the same anonymous insider that plagued Britney Spears in the tabloids has decided to move north from L.A. and set-up camp around two companies in the wine industry ecosystem.

By way of background, last month I wrote an op-ed piece where I offered an opinion on what could be an eventuality of the IBG / NVL deal.  I suggested that what Inertia really wanted in the deal was the compliance software that would lead into a relationship with Amazon.com.  It was speculation, I presented it as such, and I still believe that to be the case.  It’s my opinion.  End of story.  However, I need to draw distinct correlation in between an opinion piece on a blog, which speculated based on reasonable assumptions, and news reporting.

Op-ed is where I source anecdotal or other circumstantial information to support my opinion, but it’s still my opinion with a relative merit commensurate to anybody else’s opinion .  However, news is balanced reporting that presents both sides of a story and has direct quotes that support the story.  Off the record quotes are used for background and to find a source who will subsequently allow quote attribution.

Unfortunately, in regards to NVL/IBG, we’re not seeing a whole lot of reporting.  Instead we’re getting a weird kind of hybrid off-the-record background presented as news.  It’s Spanglish for the online era, but the rub is nobody wants their news reports bastardized like a tofu taco.

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If wine industry insiders think Julia Flynn Siler’s Wall Street Journal background, and 26 pages of sources was cause to clam up and be wary based on her airing of laundry in The House of Mondavi, the way this New Vine Logistics deal is being handled from a news perspective should turn everybody into a turtle.

Today, I regrettably tweeted to Megan, author of Wine & Spirits Daily, that she did in my words, “great reporting” on her piece about developments in this New Vine deal.  And, then, I re-read her post, article, whatever the hell it is.

Then, I read Lew Perdue’s news report from Wine Industry Insight.

Neither of these two reports, presented as a news article, not opinion, offered a single person who would go on record and be attributed to a quote about New Vine Logistics or Inertia Beverage Group. 

I can give Perdue something of a pass because his contacts seem well-placed and he snared some financial documents on Inertia fundraising—a coup that lends some insider credibility.  However, Megan Haverkorn’s piece, upon reflection and re-reading, might as well be in an issue of Us magazine talking about an “insider” close to Jon and Kate and the eight rug rats.

Something rubs me as tabloid-ish when alleged news reports are digging into business laundry WITHOUT ANYBODY GOING ON THE RECORD FOR A QUOTE.

Secondarily, something rubs me the wrong way when none of the principals of the businesses in question are quoted outside of press releases.  Even a “we can’t comment at this time” would help round out the stories to be something more than speculation masquerading as news.

Tom Wark, a guy that lifts his sheets up at night to make sure there isn’t a horse’s head in his bed based on his work on wine shipping issues, is the PR guy for Inertia Beverage Group and no stranger to controversy.  I wonder what he has to say – even if it’s party line, it’s not anonymous.  I’d be willing to bet nobody has contacted him.  How do I know this?  Because he’s pretty good at his job and he would likely follow-up a voice mail asking for comment with an email that would essentially say, “I can’t comment at this time. The next statement from Inertia will occur after the auction” which would get published in the “news” report. 

Look, I’m not a pious guy coming down from up on high.  I’m a blogger that offers up opinions.  Some are right and some are wrong, but I’m never in doubt.  But, what I don’t do is report news, balanced, fair news.  It’s hard work and I know I don’t have the time to do it capably.  However, as a consumer of information, what I do require is that my news sources go beyond bullshit and background to offer up somebody, anybody that will go on record with a quote and their name attached—otherwise, it’s not a story, it’s op-ed and, well, hell, any blogger can do that.

*Note*
If you’re interested in some fun, read this primer on how Tabloids operate.



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Posted in, Wine: A Business Doing Pleasure. Permalink | Comments (18) |


Comments

On 07/15, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) wrote:

Thank you for telling it like it is.

On 07/15, CoreyDTT wrote:

Jeff,
1) “Bastardized like a tofu taco” brilliant.
2) I’m quite impressed with your photoshop skills, unless that was actual issue of US Weekly I missed
3) Thank you for telling it like it is
4) Can’t wait to see you at WBC09

On 07/15, Megan Metcalf wrote:

Jeff,

First of all, I think you do a great job on your blog but to compare me to US Weekly is unfair.  I have been in contact with excellent sources very close to the situation who wish not to be named.  This is commonly done in journalism and does not warrant a comparison to tabloids.  Also, when I spoke with Tom after the fact I apologized several times for my oversight.  In fact I’m conducting an interview with Inertia president Ted Jansen this afternoon.

To go from commending me on twitter to condemning me on your blog is quite a leap.  You critique Lewis and myself for not contacting IBG first, but you didnít contact me either before taking to your keyboard.  In retrospect I should have contacted Tom before I went to print, but as Iím sure you can imagine, writing a daily lends itself to a huge time crunch and my story was more of a response to Inertiaís press release.  I have worked with Tom for the past several years Iíve been in the business, and have always posted press releases on Inertia, conducted interviews with two Inertia execs, interviewed Tom multiple times on direct shipping issues and covered SWRA press releases and court battles, altogether beneficial stories for them. 

You distinguish my coverage from Lewisís because he posted the prospectus.  Iíve had access to the prospectus as well.  Just because I didnít post it doesnít mean I have zero creditability.  I also wonder why you think his sources are so much stronger than mine, since as you pointed out theyíre all anonymous. 

-Megan

On 07/15, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) wrote:

Jeff,

While it would be ideal if the bloggers reporting on the New Vine/IBG story were able to get people to go on the record, I’m not sure if that is realistic in this case for several reasons.

The wine business and more specifically the wine services business is kinda insular. How many people who have worked at New Vine or IBG now work for competitors or for customers or vice versa? The anonymous quote is a way for people to get an important bit of the story out to the public without alienating former or present employers, co-workers, etc.

On the other hand, if your problem with the anonymous quotes is because they are anonymous AND conjecture, then I totally agree with you. If someone anonymously says that New Vine has lost 75% of their volume by losing clients like Gallo, Fosters, and Viansa, how hard is it to follow up with each of those companies to at least comfirm that they are no longer with New Vine? Quoting anonymous people’s opinions rather than certainties about a story is way more like gossip than news. It might as well begin with the line, “Well, I heard…”

On the other hand, bloggers are not exactly getting paid to spend the day calling people the way a reporter for a newspaper or magazine would. Should we expect the blogging community to report quickly or thouroghly? Most blogs I read write first and follow-up/correct later as comments and other facts come in. Which seems okay to me provided that they do make those corrections.

And although getting a quote from Tom Wark as PR person for IBG might be laudable to provide the other side of the story, what would the inevitable result be? I am completely certain that any person of integrity in that PR position would have no choice but to offer a sanitized or vague statement that would leave IBG in a positive light without shedding any on the situation. I would be completely shocked if Tom would offer anything more than that on or off the record - his professional duty makes it impossible to be candid about a situation like this.

Sorry for the long comment; maybe I need my own blog.

On 07/15, Jeff wrote:

Hi Tim,

Thanks for the comment.

The crux of my post is related to off-the-record comments and the difference between editorial and news.

News needs to have legitimate sources attributed to it, and it needs to be objective.

Megan nor Lew are bloggers, per se, though their work appears online.  Megan’s position is a full-time job, I presume, and Lew’s running his sight for profit.  Therefore, some journalistic integrity needs to be upheld separate from the idea of an opinion-oriented blog post.

While I didn’t break down the story in my post, I did also note the speculative nature of the 75% and I also noted the throw-away anonymous quote that said, ďI predict theyíll get it and have problems with their investors which own 98% of company…you canít combine two companies notoriously horrible at execution.Ē

To include that 98% and “notoriously horrible at execution” line without attribution and without something to substantiate it crosses the line into some dicey territory. IBG could draw their sword over some of these things as potentially libelous and injurious to their business.

At the end of the day, if I were Megan I would have either waited until I could substantiate some of this with on the record quotes, or I would have written it as an opinion piece using the sources as background.

To do neither and present it as a news story/reporting does a disservice to all parties, many of whom clearly have an axe to grind.

Thanks for commenting, I think it’s your first time, so please feel free to come back again and add to the conversation.

Jeff

On 07/15, Megan Metcalf wrote:

Lew, it was an opinion piece.  I was reporting on what people are saying in the industry.  Again, I’ve searched high and low to get someone to go on the record and no one I’ve spoken with is willing.  I just spoke with Ted Jansen and will publish his response shortly.

On 07/15, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) wrote:

Tim:

Despite being a PR person of integrity, I’m sure I would have been able to address an anonymous quote like this: ďI bet the bridge loan they needed today was very much in doubt…investors probably figured out their prospectus was bogus.”

In fact I might even have been candid and responded with “This kind of unfounded and nearly libelous statement explains why it’s an anonymous quote.”

But more importantly, I would have asked the reporter if they really wanted to print something this outrageous without giving attribution and without any proof from the anonymous source making the statement that they had even seen the document in question or even had the ability to evaluate it.

Let me explain how it ought to be done.

A reporter is talking to someone who tells them they may only print this as “anonymous”. The reporter should then tell the person that if they do print it they’ll at least need to describe their position in the industry. Then, when the anonymous source says that a company’s documents are likely “bogus” the reporter should ask, “what do you mean by ‘bogus’ and how do you know they are bogus?” If the anonymous source can’t demonstrate a good reason to say the documents are bogus, then the reporter really should just smile and let the anonymous source know they are done with the interview. Afterall, they are clearly dealing with someone who has no knowledge of the subject about which they speak.

On 07/16, tom merle wrote:

I’ve seen a number of MSM articles of late, and I’m talking about the NY Times for example, that fill an entire piece with something to the effect “requested anonymity since they were not authorized to speak on behalf of….”  That said, the inflamatory nature of the quotes in Megan’s piece seem to step over the line of what should be reported.

On 07/16, Thomas Pellechia wrote:

For what it’s worth, and because I’ve been a practicing journalist for 20 years, I agree completely with Jeff on this.

It’s not the anonymity that is the problem, it’s how anonymous information is handled both before and after writing the article.

If a journalist can’t at least ask a few probing questions to determine the source’s potential viability, and if a journalist has access to information that could lend credibility but chooses not to use it (whether or not it’s for space reasons), and if a journalist does not state clearly in the article that the information in it is clear speculation based on anonymous sources, then the journalist is writing Enquirer-style journalism, which is, unfortunately, becoming more common than is comfortable.

I suppose this is what happens when the line between fact and opinion keeps on blurring.

On 07/16, Steve Heimoff wrote:

Tom Wark sent me the Wine & Spirits article. I thought it was atrocious. I would never write anything with all those anonymous quotes. Some of those people have got to have agendas, whatever they are.

On 07/16, harvey posert wrote:

so many wineries are “represented” by agency or staff with no media experience whatever,  when some breaking news happens they are out to lunch.  it’s an experience question HR and other employer representatives seldom ask.  i represented NVL at one time; they were nice folks but not prepared for this.
harvey

On 07/17, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) wrote:

Good Lord….Good Grape taking on Wine & Spirits Daily is like the winner of the 100 meters in the special olympics throwing the glove down on Carl Lewis.

This blog is a “regurgitation” blog, taking other people’s work and adding a “thought” to it.  Beyond the graphics, there is little original content here.

Megan, on the other hand, actually talks to CEOs, analysts and people in the field.  She creates original content, she understands the dynamics of the wine industry beyond the “thin slice” Jeff takes.

She is the Boston Globe to your Dayton Daily News, Jeff.

This reminds me of the great Teddy Roosevelt quote “It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”

On 07/17, tom merle wrote:

Phil,

Good grief, you must be reading the wrong sites.  With a few exceptions—the whole IBG/NV saga being one of them—WSD reproduces press releases—a valuable information aggregating service, but it offers little commentary apart from reporting developments.  Good Grape engages in observations/interpretation in multiple paragraphs about the passing scenery. We get insight, not just data.  You have the analogy exactly backward.

On 07/17, Jeff wrote:

Phil,

Thanks for the comment, I think it’s the second disparaging comment from you in two weeks, at least your consistent.  I’ll try to write something that will piss you off next week, too.

I note the irony in your comment, as well. 

You take it upon yourself to quote Theodore Roosevelt and disparage me, yet near as I can tell you don’t take the time and effort to write about wine yourself, putting yourself out there—instead you just take shots.

I think I’m in the arena, what are you doing?

Finally, I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but I take a columnist-style approach—which means I do op-ed, which means, I comment on things that are happening with an opinion. As stated in my post, I’m not a news reporter. 

And, also, as I stated, the W&SD; thing was a shoddy piece of, yes, news reporting.

Megan and I communicated privately and I have great respect for the work she does on a consistent basis, but she missed the mark on this.

Thanks again for the comment.

Jeff

On 07/19, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) wrote:

I think Jeff was way too hard on Wine & Spirits Daily and Megan.  The industry is served well by Megan and others bringing to light the facts on this New Vine debacle.  Yes, her sources may have an axe to grind, but they are providing angles that otherwise we would be ignorant of if she hadn’t brought them to light.  Who should we trust for the truth?  Megan or Tom Wark, who works for Inertia?

The fact that Jeff first praised Megan in a Tweet, and then immediately burns her in this post, clearly betrays the fact that he is a friend of Tom Wark’s and lacks a spine, while Megan is independent and willing to take on a big company who is known for bullying reporters.  Personally I think it’s shameful that Jeff is serving as a shill for Inertia and Wark.

Inertia is clearly rushing this deal and isn’t providing all the facts in their prospectus.  Megan likely chose not to publish the prospect because IBG would have threatened to sue like they have threatened Perdue.  This bullying of reporters through lawsuits and blogs like this is anathema to the First Amendment and the American way.  Same on you Jeff and Wark.  When the whole truth comes out on this Inertia deal and Megan and Perdue are vindicated, Jeff and others will be eating crow.

On 07/19, Jeff wrote:

James,

Thanks for the comment and providing your perspective.

I stand by my post.

One point of clarification - I am not defending Inertia or NVL—my point is about reporting and quality thereof.  My post could have just as easily been about the aphids in the vineyard, if reporting was equally as poor.

Thanks again for providing your opinion.

Jeff

On 09/23, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) wrote:

Phil, you may be right, but I’ve always read Jeff’s articles with interest and I’ve laughed a lot at his weird funny jokes. Now, I can’t say the same about Wine & Spirits Daily, although it wants to present itself as something unprecedented, it’s good only before bedtime, when I don’t have wine to make me sleepy. Megan should have found a better credit partners network, it would have changed the spirits.

On 09/30, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) wrote:

I don’t think there are many of us who’d sit and read a report da capo al fine, anymore, unless they were seeking penitence and the whip wasn’t at their grasp. But that’s sad, really, a business is a business, even if it’s online, there is still such a thing as citizen journalism and it should be respected, because it’s not going to go anywhere for a long, long time.


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