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Final thoughts — I promise! – on the Wine Writers Symposium

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I returned home in a euphoric state of mind. (My therapist had to explain the difference to me between “manic” and “euphoric.”) All this stuff about monetization and ethics and “blogs into books” may be boring inside-the-beltway fare for 99.9% of the wine-drinking public, but it’s the meat-and-potatoes of the writer’s life, and it was so educational and pleasant to be able to explore these issues with our own kind.

Alder Yarrow did a yeoman’s job at coverage on his blog the other day. I had noticed him more or less continually pecking away on his laptop (Joe Roberts, too) and wondered how a mere human can be in 2 places at the same time, i.e., listening and paying attention to the intellectual give-and-take of a panel discussion, while at the same time twittering and/or blogging. But, as Alder and Joe and the others seem to be able to get away with this balancing act quite well, who am I to say it can’t be done?

I do take some — not a lot, but some — issue with Alder singling out Heather John’s statement

“Wine writers have some of the worst reputations for bad ethics in the business”

as “The most interesting.” After all, there were dozens of interesting, compelling and wise things said throughout the symposium’s three days. I could, for instance, cite Michael Bauer, to the effect that “A paid wine writer can afford to be ethical.” Heather may have simply been reporting on what she’s told by P.R. people, and I don’t doubt that the bad behavior Alder itemized is rampant among a certain class of “writer.” But the implication that malfeasance is more widespread among print writers than bloggers made me squirm. Well, of course it would be, for now; there are a lot more employed print writers than bloggers, they’ve been around for a longer time, the wineries have long histories with them, etc. So it’s not because print writers are sleazier or less ethical, it’s a question of numbers. There’s been this suggestion that bloggers are somehow purer and more noble than print writers; less capable of sin; less self-interested, and more interested in the greater good. That’s piffle.

Not piffle is this sentence from 1WineDude: “Both Eric Asimov and Steve Heimoff are practical, warm and charming in person (meaning that I have lost at least two bets and the week isn’t even over yet).”

Why would Asimov and Heimoff not be charming and warm? I don’t know what “practical” means, though. (And, by the way, nobody is more charming than Mr. Dude himself!) Somebody (okay, not just anybody, but the estimable Tom Merle) wrote in to the Dude’s website that:

“Of course your hosts would ~say~ this. They can’t ask you point blank to shill for them, even though…they expect it. Just as all entities who sponsor press junkets are morally right to expect coverage for their product, service of client. This is planet earth. If someone scratches your back, you better scratch back or you have violated the protocol.”

So let’s take a minute to talk about gratitude, and back-scratching, and who-owes-what-to-whom-for-what, and all that good stuff. The late, great California Secretary of State, Jesse Unruh (yes, the same guy who said “Money is the mother’s milk of politics”) once remarked, of lobbyists:

“If you can’t take their money, drink their whiskey, screw their women, and vote against ‘em anyway, you don’t belong in the Legislature.”

Those are words of wisdom, Mr. Merle, which I would paraphrase thusly: “If you can’t take their samples, eat their food, stay in their lodges and then trash their wines, you shouldn’t be writing about wine.” (I have deliberately omitted any reference to SWOTJ, or “screwing while on the job.”) I don’t mean “trashing” gratuitously, only as needed. It’s also, I may say, a little unfair to “them” to imply that “they” expect good coverage in return for their largesse. In my long career, they don’t. They hope for good coverage. They may even pray for it. But it would be tacky for them to expect it, and most winemakers — at least, in California — aren’t tacky. As for Mr. Bill Harlan, who, as the managing partner (or whatever his title is) of Meadowood and the proprietor of  Harlan Estate, if anybody thinks this man needs to have his back scratched by a blogger, you don’t know him.

  1. Thanks, Steve! To answer your questions:

    - My reference to a bet was pure facetiousness for the sake of humor. Having said that, a few bloggers now owe me serious money (joking).

    - By practical, I was trying to express, in a very brief way, that you and Eric exude an air of being “normal guys;” i.e., not full of yourselves and not full of shit, approachable, down-to-earth. Much to my joy, since I was able to pick your brains!

    Cheers!

  2. Steve,

    I did not write “good coverage” I wrote “coverage”. They, the folks who subsidize the press junkets want to stay on the radar first and foremost. If the auto/travel/movie/food/wine writer feels inclined to rave, so much the better. This is how the game is played. In the case of Napa, all they have to do is trot out the lovely Meadowood and CIA and Karen MacNeil (whom I once presented to a group and I’ve never seen someone hawk her book more shrewdly, which is as it should be), and writers needing interesting content beyond just rating wines will do the rest.

    And I do know Bill Harlan, sorta. He didn’t get to be The Bill Harlan–which includes a partnership in the Pacific Union real estate co.–through altruistic gestures. All the great entrepreneurs know when to pitch and when to talk about the Common Good (Bill has some well thought out ideas about fixing some of dysfunctional public policies). They are rarely “tacky” to use your word. Fuller brushmen they aren’t.

  3. Based on my experience as a publicist, wine writers tend to have pretty high ethical standards and are usually attracted to wine for the right reason–telling interesting stories. This is my expectation in planning a media dinner or sending a wine sample. I know some wine writers can take advantage of the perks of their job, but I’m okay with that so long as they at least keep an open mind. While I always hope for good coverage, I also really respect a writer can speak freely and intelligently with me when their reaction isn’t entirely positive.

  4. Morton Leslie says:

    Pretending special access, perks, and lavish entertaining doesn’t influence wine media is like pretending money and lobbying don’t influence legislation. Perhaps the condoning of this behavior is the reason wine media and politicians seem to have equivalent reputations. (And both think Jesse Unruh is a example of positive ethical behavior.)

  5. Tom, I’ve spent many times with Bill Harlan (not to make it sound like we’re BFF or anything like that) and never, ever did he talk about his wines with me, unless I asked first. Rather, he usually asks me what I’m up to, and he’ll go wherever you take the conversation. He’s one of the least “pitchy” proprietors I’ve ever met. Believe me, there are some shamelessly self-promoting winery owners out there, but Bill Harlan is not one of them.

  6. Steve,

    Bill is one of the class acts of the valley, indeed in the industry. No question. He has one of the most inquiring minds I’ve encountered. He also knows that with his resources and good judgment his creations can speak for themselves. He doesn’t need to engage in any sort of merchandising. Indeed his finesse is a kind of brand that would be tarnished if he kicked into a spiel. He is now an ~éminence grise~ of the Napa Valley. No need to scrutinize his career or measures he took in his rise to the top.

  7. Tom, well said.

  8. One of the problems with absolute statements is that they are rarely absolutely correct. While very few things are rarely given away without the hope of some kind of return, many are given only in the hope and not in the expectation.

    So, when a new winery in a location that seems interesting using vineyards that have promise and employing a winemaking team with a good track record invites a couple of dozen writers to a luncheon in San Francisco to introduce itself to the world, the best it can hope for is that the writers there will like what is on offer–and, if not, that those writers will keep their mouths shut. They would be silly to expect 24 writers to go home and write 24 stories.

    In the case of many writers, those who write for established media, the expectation is even less than that. The winery knows that Heimoff or Laube or Olken or any of us whose methodology is the controlled blind tasting can come away with nothing more than enhanced knowledge. That is enough for them because it has to be.

    Now, there are writers everywhere, in various print media, in the blogosphere, in fancy magazines and giveaway magazines who will write tasting notes and recommendations based on public tastings. I personally do not like that way of operating and do not. But, if a writer goes to a luncheon, tastes a wine and likes it, and then states where and how that conclusion was reached, then I have no problem with it either.

    As to Heather Johns, she certainly got everyone’s attention with her titillating tales of bad behavior. She did not say that such behavior was universal, and we need to be sure that we do not put more credence in her words just because the tales were so juicy. That to me was the takeaway from her comments. And, of course, she was trying to suggest to the folks in the room who were new or newish to the wine writing biz that bad behavior is bad behavior, and while some wineries will tolerate it, they will laugh at you in the morning.

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