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Vee’s Law of Compunction

With new wine sales channels (like wine clubs) proliferating like mushrooms after a spring rain, I’m contemplating creating a new law of popular thought—like Murphy’s Law—except my law is about the forever altered line that once separated wine editorial from wine commerce.

I call it Vee’s Law of Compunction.  The name of the law itself is a misnomer, and maybe that’s the point – compunction indicates a distress of conscience, and I don’t think that exists, even if it should.

208 weeks ago or 48 months ago it would have been unfathomable and heretical for an organization that notably reviews wines to also sell wine.  Hidebound tradition dictated that those that review wine should not be a party to the commerce of wine.  This extended to magazine mastheads as well, yes.

Then, Gary Vee, owner of a wine store in New Jersey, started doing reviews.  Sure, he took some flak based on the suggested impropriety of reviewing what you’re selling (he was also greatly abetted by the notion of, “new territory, new rules”), and he artfully deflected that criticism with statements indicating that he reviews fairly and often dismisses wines that he sells.  Of course, his is an accurate statement even if a violation of the wine world’s unspoken rules of propriety and clearly a gray area when contrasted against his ethos of, “Trust YOUR palate.”

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With that watershed moment, proverbially speaking, the horse left the barn, the ship sailed and the genie left the bottle ...  A precedent had been set and the blurred lines of what wine content is and where it comes from organically disappeared along with these unspoken rules of fair, ethical play.

Since then, traditionally ethical media properties like the Wall Street Journal, Food & Wine magazine and other beacons of wine editorial have started their own wine clubs (along with a slew of others) and have filled the breach of branded (and implicitly recommended) wine club sales with consumer’s to near overabundance. 

To fully understand the implications of new areas to sell wine is to understand the notion of sales “channels.” 

When I interviewed for my first job out of school I needed the HR recruiter to explain to me what “channel” meant as she referred to the channel sales job for which I was interviewing. My business naiveté faux pas aside, I now well know that a “channel” is one specific sales focus area for an organization. 

Wineries have the three-tier distribution channel (and within that channel you have on and off-premise placement), the tasting room channel, the direct-to-consumer channel and, now, exceedingly, the gray market channel with intermediaries that are little more than short term pimps for a tarted up darling.

Despite the inherent nature of the gray market, all wineries (all businesses!) are looking for alternate sales channels.  Where can a winery sell its wine where, perhaps, they haven’t sold it in the past? 

This background brings us to the latest entrant in the “I recommend wine and, by the way, I can sell it to you to” school of New Thought—The Winery Club by Wine Enthusiast.

Lost in the din of the holidays, The Winery Club by Wine Enthusiast is likely going to miss the au courant naysayers in the online court of public opinion.  However, I can’t help but feel reticence, perhaps even my own compunction, about its launch despite being a bystander.

I should note, I like Wine Enthusiast magazine, I’m a long-time subscriber to the magazine, a confirmed recycler of the catalog, and I send emails to the publisher and I get replies. In addition, I am an admirer of their principal wine critic, Steve Heimoff; an affection that has grown over the last several years.  Yet, I’m not an apologist, either …

Neither a Huck Finn whitewash nor a Gary Vee traipse across boundary lines of traditional demarcation do not create validation for a business decision.  A mandate from the Gods of Capitalism doesn’t become so just because the rules of engagement have changed. 

In short, I’m sorely disappointed that Wine Enthusiast has chosen to create a wine club, indelibly erasing the lines for ethical behavior that separated those that opined on wine from those that sold wine.

Now, Wine Enthusiast Companies will rightfully and fully say the wine club is separate from the magazine; more aligned with the wine accessory catalog business than the magazine.  Yet, to me, it still feels like a shift in the force, to use a Star Wars reference – instead of the recognition of an area of profitable commerce, it smacks of the loss of the last vestige of integrity.

Destroyed in the process of what’s right has been a decision for right now.

Now, make no mistake the majority of the soon-to-be members of their “The Winery Club” have no idea that a wine magazine selling wine crosses the border into the dubious, nor do they care.  Yet, that’s exactly the point.  Perhaps, Vee’s Law of Compunction isn’t required because that indicates the opportunity for regret, but simple common sense is required …

For me, the wine world is a respite from the real world, an oasis of integrity and the right side of right and wrong.

Wine Enthusiast launching a wine club feels like the end of innocence, and the realization that my Mom was, indeed, right—just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.  And, failing that, compunction is the feeling you get when you violate your own standards.



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Posted in, Good Grape Daily: Pomace & Lees. Permalink | Comments (23) |


Comments

On 12/26, Tish wrote:

As one who used to work at “Wine Enthusiast Companies,” and has followed their blurring of multiple ethical lines over the years, this latest venture is laughable in its predictability. It’s not just that a magazine publisher is selling wine, it is that the company is selling wine produced by advertisers and even those on whom it bestows awards. {Katie at Gonzogastronomy absolutely nailed this in her recent post: http://tinyurl.com/2666kbk }

Ironically, the Winery Club is not nearly as offensive as some former practices, notably early efforts to disguise the connection between the WE and the online wine retail business Wine Express, as well as the shady marketing technique of making up “WEX” ratings to promote Wine Express’s obscure direct-import and private-label wines. Hilariously, those underhanded practices have now given way to a situation in which not only is Wine Express one tab click away from WE magazine at the joint website, but also offerings at WineExpress.com are now routinely promoted using Wine Spectator and Wine Advocate scores, obstensibly because these reputable competitors’ ratings are more effective than both cooked-up WEX ratings and WE’s own critics scores when it comes to selling goods. 

Bottom line: there was not so much innocence there to be lost if you look at WE’s track record. But like you say of the “Winery Club” venture, just because you can do something does not mean you should. And shining a flashlight of exposure on these practices is still worthwhile. Wine lovers who are made aware of conflicts of interest do indeed care.

On 12/27, Thomas Pellechia wrote:

I’m afraid the ethical horse left the barn a while ago—in many facets of our lives, not just wine.

On 12/27, 1WineDude wrote:

Jeff - so, as a subscriber, what’s your reaction?  Are you going to unsubscribe?

I have to admit, I’m kind of stumped as to why this topic hasn’t received more ‘airplay’ / discussion.  Maybe the assumption is that the firewalls already exist at WE between the reviews and advertising / sales / etc. Or, it could be that most people don’t see an issue and just don’t care.  Or both?

On 12/27, Thomas Pellechia wrote:

Joe,

I’m not Jeff, but I’ll respond with this thought:

Personal and business ethics generally aren’t reliant on what other people care about but on what the person or business cares about.

Once more, I need to interject that annoying little thing called history.

When Robert Parker began his personal wine reviewing ethic campaign he did so with the express purpose to expose to the public that wine writers and retailers were tainted with self interests and he was not. There’s only one way a reviewer or magazine that reviews can’t be tainted with self interests and that’s to have no interests in the products—period. Even the appearance of an interest is enough to taint one’s ethical stance.

On 12/27, Jeff wrote:

thanks for the comments, all.

Joe—I’m not going to unsubscribe.  My point isn’t outrage, my point is that there’s an opportunity to take a stand and I wish that they did.

However, given the times that we live in, the ship has truly sailed on this former unspoken rule of demarcation in between editorial and commerce in the wine world.

To me, if nothing else, it points out that we now live in a completely gray world in which everybody lives in a glass house. 

Jeff

On 12/28, 1WineDude wrote:

I’m inclined to agree with the “we all live in gray glass houses” conclusion.

I would add though (more to Thomas’ point in his comment) that this graying/blurring also applies to what’s considered kosher in the conflict of interests department. What I mean is, in the past we had black/white views on what wasn’t/was permissible in terms of conflicts of interest.  But now? 

Now it seems that the public decides what is and is not okay.

In other words, it seems that we *are* moving from what the business cares about to what other people care about, in some respects.

On 12/30, Steve Heimoff wrote:

One is tempted to say of Tish, “There you go again.” Never one to miss an opportunity to disparage Wine Enthusiast, he’s off again, playing his favorite game, trashing the magazine whose editor he was for ten years.

One wonders why Tish has Wine Enthusiast so stubbornly in his gunsight. Why not Eric Asimov at the New York Times, Lettie Teague at the Wall Street Journal, or any number of other wine writers, both in print and online, whose publications accept advertising and/or have wine clubs? Logically, it would seem connected to some undercurrent of resentment Tish still maintains toward his former employer, even after so many years, when you’d think that maturity might have soothed his emotions.

I have explained this so many times I could do so in my sleep, but for those who still wonder—including, apparently, 1WineDude—I’ll give it another round. Wine Enthusiast Magazine’s editors, including myself, are independent, objective critics who review the wines in our domains without pressure from the management of Wine Enthusiast Magazine, its employees or its advertisers. Period. End of story. Tish knows that, Joe Roberts knows that and, speaking for California, the wine industry knows that. If someone doubts what I have just written, they’re calling into question my personal integrity, and even Tish has told me, multiple times over the years, that he would never do that.

I hope I have disposed of the “Steve credibility” issue. Now, let’s move onto Wine Enthusiast’s various wine clubs. I have patiently explained in the past, and will do so again, that Wine Enthusiast is a big company. I work for one part of it, the magazine (which is far from the most profitable part of the company). The magazine’s other ventures, including the new Winery Club, are entirely separate from the magazine and from what I do and what my fellow editors do. To blur that distinction is not only disingenuous, but an attempt to smear me and my colleagues, and I have to believe that that attempt is a deliberate one.

I also have to call into question GoodGrape’s summary statement that the new wine club “indelibly eras[es] the lines for ethical behavior that separated those that opined on wine from those that sold wine.” Says who? This statement will require some deft defensive play on GoodGrape’s part, since it is my ethical behavior he’s referring to; and I don’t see, feel or believe that the new wine club has any impact on me at all. It does not trangress into my territory. I don’t know what the new wine club sells and I don’t care. How some kind of “indelible” line has been crossed, because the company I work for has created a new division, is vague to the point of incoherent. This talk about “the end of innocence” is all very poetic, but it does rather recall the reports of Mark Twain’s demise: greatly exaggerated.

Anyhow, I don’t know how to make things any clearer, but I’m sure that I’ll have ample opportunity to try again in the future, because the obsessed and obsessive Mr. Tish seems unwilling or unable to let things be. I wish he, and others, would find better things to do, but I’m able and willing to defend Wine Enthusiast whenever the slime starts flying.

On 12/30, Jeff wrote:

Steve,

I had a nice phone chat with Adam Strum the other day after he and I exchanged emails. 

I’ll quote the email I sent to him in response to his query (prior to speaking on the phone with him and having a really terrific chat):

I said:

Hi Adam,

I wasn’t questioning your ethics.  I was saying that the times have changed whereby what has been historical boundaries that weren’t to be crossed (unspoken, but acknowledged just the same) have eroded into a placid acceptance with the digital age.

However, and my point was:  just because you can (sell or facilitate the sale of wine) doesn’t mean you should.

As I’ve stated in the past, I feel like Wine Enthusiast has the best opportunity to emerge from the dynamics of digital change with wine
and wine content to be a real leader moving forward.  Spectator is going to focus on what they’ve always focused on, Wine & Spirits
doesn’t seem interested in broadline consumer engagement and the rest are bit players.

I would like to see Wine Enthusiast continue the path you’ve crafted(editorially speaking), but in my opinion selling wine via a club is just another revenue channel when, in fact, you probably could’ve gotten more PR value out of making a stand against doing so then the profit captured from doing so.

EOM

Net-net, Steve.  I think you missed the point of the post.  While I appreciate that you refer to me as ‘GoodGrape’ I should also let you know that I do take it as I believe you you intended whereby you’re not going to grant the respect to say my name, even as I went out of my way (literally) to reference you in good form in the post.

Jeff

On 12/30, Tish wrote:

Jeff, Steve, et al.

Couple of points just to set my side of the record straight:

1) I never wrote a critical word about WE until 2004, six years after leaving there in good standing (and five years after being asked to come back). What I did write then was simply the truth about what I considered the unscrupulous practice of A) selling wine out the proverbial back door as WineExpress.com and B) doing so with home-cooked only-90+ “WEX” ratings. I trust my exposure was part of the reason WineExpress is now openly presented as part of the WE family.

2) I wrote critically again of WE along with other “glossy” magazines in Wines & Vines in 2006, focusing on the “smoke and mirrors” of the Buying Guide. It should be noted that after this article, Wine & Spirits responded by changing their representation of the advertorial nature of label reproductions in their Buying Guide. WE responded by threatening (again) to sue me (and again not doing so, because what I wrote was simply true).

3) I have also written in my own blog and at Palate Press about various aspects of major wine media which I find ethically and/or editorially challenged. (One example: I challenged Wine Spectator’s pattern of ignoring high-alcohol trends while awarding said bombs disproportionately high scores.) I have done far more than bash WE, and cannot even remember when I last mentioned them. Indeed, WE’s editorial coverage (ratings, features, awards, etc.) has become less consequential than ever in the overall wine conversation.

4) The reason I commented on Jeff’s post here is that I felt it a relevant extension of the discussion. I pointed out that the “Winery Club” venture {redacted comment}  Not once have I questioned the individual ethics of yourself or the other critics of the magazine. You, I understand, are 100-point pure; you have nothing to do with the selection of wines that WE chooses to sell. Unfortunately, as Jeff rightly said, that does not mean it’s right for a wine media company to sell wine. 

WE (as well as other wine media) has flaws that still merit criticism, and that is what we are talking about here. We are all lucky to have blogs like Good Grape, where such topics can be discussed intelligently. Believe me, when those topics involve Wine Spectator, Robert Parker and others, I will happily toss in my two cents as well. In the meantime, I hope you realize that your repeated depiction of me as obsessed sounds pretty petty. As Jeff, Joe and most everyone in the wine industry who knows me knows, I have a lot more important things to talk about.

On 12/30, Jeff wrote:

Tish,

Thanks for the comment.

I’m going to edit your above comments to eliminate assertions that can’t be substantiated with facts.

Not playing soft, just trying to keep it to opinions and not allegation of fact.

Jeff

On 12/30, Steve Heimoff wrote:

First, my apology for not mentioning your name. I figured that because your name doesn’t appear in the header, it would be clearer to your readers whom I was referring to. It was my bad, and I offer you my sincerest apology.

Couple points. First of all, times have not changed when it comes to capitalism. We are all of us capitalists who work for a living: you, me and Adam Strum. If Adam figures out a way within his very large company to create more business, he’s not doing anything that the rest of us aren’t doing. Most of the bloggers I know would love to find niches in which they can make more money. So why not grant the same right to Adam? (And by the way, one of these days I might do a little investigative journalism into wine blogs that accept advertising and see if there are any conflicts of interest!)

Second, and I can’t repeat this enough: Wine Enthusiast Magazine is a separate company from the wine clubs! Let me offer an analogy. Let’s say you’re utterly opposed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. (I’m not making a political point, just using this as an illustration.) Let’s say further that you’re pissed off at the Congress, Pentagon, State Department and the White House for prosecuting these wars. Fine; that’s your right. But does that mean everyone who works for the Federal government has crossed some “indelible” line and is now in cahoots with the enemy? Would you accuse the National Park Service, or the nurses at Walter Reed Army Hospital, of somehow violating some kind of ethical standard because you oppose America’s wars? Of course not. The analogy I’m making is that I work for a very large company, but only for a little part of it: Wine Enthusiast Magazine. You can say whatever you want to about any of the company’s enterprises, but you have no right at all to cast aspersions on the magazine’s ethics or professionalism.

I’m sure that Adam appreciates the advice he gets from you, and I know he takes this stuff personally and seriously. On the other hand, he also has excellent professional advisers to help him run the business, and he must be doing something right, because all aspects of the company—including the magazine—are incredibly successful.

On 12/30, Jeff wrote:

Steve,

Thank you for your follow-up comment.

I learned two things this week:

1) That the President of a $100M dollar company takes the time to speak to me on the phone means he’s a guy who cares passionately about his business and his people

2)  Adam reinforced what you have pointed out:  Wine Enthusiast is a company made up of a number of discrete divisions.  The magazine, in fact, is a small slice of the total business.

Perhaps my mistake is assuming that the overarching brand and the magazine should be considered one and the same.  Clearly, there’s more complexity involved.

Regardless, I’m allowing you the last word.  Thank you for vigorously defending the sanctity of your work.  I respect that.

Jeff

On 12/31, 1WineDude wrote:

Hey all - I got reminded of the ongoing discussion here via an e-mail from Adam, and am just catching up on the discussion.

I wanted to make sure my stance was clear from my earlier comment.  Like Jeff, I never intended to call into question the integrity of any of the WE reviewers (I mean, I’m pretty publicly an advocate of Steve and Paul in particular and consider them friends, so I am pretty sure readers wouldn’t take my comment to be calling into question their credibility - but JUST IN CASE I am officially saying here that mas not my intention).

What I was “wondering aloud” about was the *perception* of WE by the public in general with the announcement of the wine club, because the wine club announcement didn’t have any info. or reference to the firewall (for lack of a better term) editorial separation (which as Steve rightly pointed out in his comments, folks like Jeff and I know but the larger public may not).

Where my musing took me was to the conclusion that the public doesn’t care that much about those firewalls - not sure if it’s because they assume they are in place, or that they don’t even think about it, or don’t care either way…  I am not sure what the answer is, actually, but the trend seems real.

I like Steve’s idea of investigative journalism on how blogs manage the separation with advertising, etc. - I’d look forward to reading that!

Cheers!

On 12/31, Thomas Pellechia wrote:

Joe (dude)

I understand what you meant then and now, but I want to point out again that ethics should not rely on what others care about but on what you and your business community cares about.

In this case, it’s wonderful to find out that a company is actually a conglomerate of three or more “separate” companies, but I don’t see how that information automatically absolves the parent company from potential ethical breach, especially when the parent company is solely owned by whomever owns the other “separate” companies.

I’m not accusing WE or anyone of ethical misconduct, but that does not rule out appearance.

Does anyone know if Consumer Reports is just one of three companies under the same umbrella and whether the two other companies sell items that are covered in Consumer Reports?

We have all around us blending of fact with fiction, news with entertainment, and marketing in the guise of information. It’s a wonder that any business entity can (or should) be trusted.

On 12/31, Tish wrote:

Excellent points, Thomas. Any company has limited control over its perceived identity. In this case, Steve (now apparently the official hockey goon of the overarching WE Companies) can talk ‘til blue-faced about separation, but that does not alter the fact that WE Magazine is the public face of WE overall.

Steve, in your fevered defense, you chose a silly example by invoking the U.S. military, Congress, et al. Your earlier comment allows for a more apt comparison. The reasons Eric Asimov and Lettie Teague are not in my (or Jeff’s) “gunsight” for the respective wine clubs at the New York Times and Wall Street Journal are: A)those media outlets are not primarily wine businesses; B) they have clearly and openly OUTSOURCED their wine clubs; and C) to the best of my knowledge, the NYT and WSJ clubs do not sell wines produced by advertisers or recipients of editorial “awards.”

By contrast, WE’s Winery Club trumpets in its press release that it is “the first wine club with a direct relationship with the most famous wineries in the country!” Are we to believe without an ounce of doubt that such “direct” relationships derived from selling corkscrews, Vinturis and wine cellars? Even a 6th grader can see the potential for conflict of interest.

On 01/03, Katie wrote:

Oooh, Steve, can you start that investigation with my blog? Or am I quite possibly the only one out there that refuses to accept advertising and specifically says so?

On 01/03, Thomas Pellechia wrote:

Ah, Katie Pizzuto: a blogger who acts like laughing gas on me…nice to see you here, and thanks for the many laughs over at Gonzo Gastronomy.

On 01/07, Katie wrote:

Flattery will get you everywhere, Thomas. Thanks for reading my drivel.

On 01/12, tom merle wrote:

Not only does the WE not note a firewall as do the other media mentioned above, they do just the opposite.  They give the impression that there is a linkage to the mag’s content.  The site that rates wine clubs says it all in their review of Wine Express wine clubs: “Who better to select the best wines for a wine of the month club than a company that rates wine?” http://www.wineclubreviews.net/wine_clubs/ratings/4star

On 03/31, Alcot wrote:

The subject matter of this blog is quite impressive it’s have some good content to learn.

On 05/20, TN Pas Cher wrote:

e mag’s content.  The site that rates wine clubs says it all in their review o

On 11/03, FORFLATROOFS.com wrote:

Daily rate check.

On 07/30, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) wrote:

What Gary Vee did resembles a picture I saw while in oc - a man throws a piece of garbage on the street, another one throws it in the same place, because one was already there, and so on, until people started to think: “Wow, this planet is so dirty!”. There are some rules, even if unspoken, that shouldn’t allow things like these to happen. I strongly support your law.


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