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Do wine writers fail to report income on freebies?

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The news about former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle deciding to withdraw his name from being President Obama’s Health & Human Services secretary brings up a subject I’ve thought about for years. That’s the amount of free stuff that we wine writers get for doing our jobs.

Daschle was brought low, you’ll recall, largely because a wealthy friend had provided a car and driver for him — a service, apparently, he should have reported to the IRS as unearned income and paid taxes on. Of course, Daschle’s predicament ties into the notion of “pay to play” that has felled other politicians, including Rod Blagojevich (although not for exactly the same reasons). In fact, as long as I’ve been aware of the news, there have been politicians who were perceived to have profited, directly or indirectly, by using their connections in some way that ran afoul of the tax laws.

So what about wine writers? Well, for one thing, most of us get an awful lot of free wine! I remember back in the 1990s there was talk the IRS was going to tax us for it. And it wasn’t just wine writers: they supposedly were going to tax travel writers for all those free vacations on cruise ships and South Sea resorts. I remember wondering if they were going to tax sports writers for free admission to ballgames, and where it would stop. Do tech writers get free gizmos to review? How about movie critics invited to free screenings? I don’t know what ever happened to that IRS idea, but I can guarantee you, if they go after reviewers, there won’t be any more reviews!

For us wine writers, it’s not just free wine. Most folks in the California wine industry know I don’t drink and drive anymore. Haven’t for many years, ever since I drove home after midnight from a gigantic Beaulieu tasting in a driving rainstorm. I was clearly “over the limit,” couldn’t see a damn thing on Highway 29, and was so scared, I made a deal with The Big Guy: Get me home safe and sound, without a DUI, and I’ll never do this again. He did, and I haven’t. But the point is, on those occasions when people want me to taste a lot of wine in a place where I’m not spending the night, they know they have to provide me with transportation. So is that a freebie I should have to pay taxes on? Would the IRS prefer I drive impaired?

Maybe it’s stupid of me to call attention to this inconvenient truth. I really don’t want, and can’t afford, to have the IRS come after me, because like many of you, I’ve lost a ton of money in this economy. But if blogging has taught me anything, it’s the value of transparency.

With America bleeding for cash, it wouldn’t surprise me if the IRS, and state taxing agencies following their lead, crack down on freebies by reviewers like me. This would be a huge mistake, but if they do, the industries that pay us (not very well) are going to have to scream bloody murder, and the elected officials who represent them — hello, Mike Thompson, Boxer and Feinstein — are going to have to help.

  1. Morton Leslie says:

    When you are earning 2.5 mil a year as a lobbyist right out of “public service” the IRS might start paying attention to how you get from one place to another. But even then don’t worry about it. Pay up if they catch you. In the case of Daschle they didn’t catch him, he had to fess up to this in the vetting. Knowing the arrogance and attitude of privilege of Daschle and his kind, I would guess he didn’t fess up to everything. I bet there were some nice vacations flown on G4s lurking out there.

  2. Wine samples are that: samples. I don’t sit and sip and relax with the wine. That would make it a gift. I sit and assess wines through a rigorous methodology. That’s work. If I were to receive an “assessment fee” like some places require, THAT would be taxable.

    When you consider that Daschle skipped out on paying as much money in taxes as a beginning internist earns in a year in CA, it stands to reason that we start our economic recovery with making Cabinet and Congressional members pay their damned taxes.

  3. I was in a relationship with a writer, not Steve, and she received comps at fine dining establishments, hotels, etc., all in the hopes that she would write about the experience. Are those gifts or “samples” as Arthur describes in his comment?

    I was just happy to be there!

  4. Lee, sometimes in this business, there’s an awfully thin line between “gifts” and “samples.”

  5. Steve, if you were wine tasting and writing laws or worse, influencing wine/vineyard legislation in CA or nationally…well, then, yeah, I would say, “Pay up”. Short of that, and assuming you aren’t running for governor, President, or a cabinet post, fuggedaboudit. No question, the prince of health care lobbyists the last 2 yrs, citizen Daschle, was as tainted as spilled Bordeaux on a white tablecloth. That is far afield, way far afield, from taxing wine tasters, travel agents, and so forth.

    Unnhh…you AREN’T running for a cabinet post…are you?

  6. I had a voicemail from Rahm Emanuel yesterday. Maybe he was gonna offer me Commerce? Stay tuned.

  7. I found your blog on google and read a few of your other posts. I just added you to my Google News Reader. Keep up the good work. Look forward to reading more from you in the future.

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