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Brooklyn chutzpah, or just good, clean ambition?

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Oded Shakked, at Longboard Vineyards, shared the below email with me yesterday. He thought I’d get a kick out of it. I’m reproducing it here, because I think you’ll get a kick out of it. (I’ve edited the email a little, and also removed the sender’s name.)

“My name is M.___ and I am reviewer of wine. I live in Brooklyn, NY and I am meticulous with keeping a record of every wine I drink. I am one of the highest sheer volume reviewers on wine social networking site Snooth (I am not an employee of Snooth)…and I have synched up my Twitter account to automatically post any wine I review on Snooth. (I have over 1,300 Twitter followers)

I would love to be added to your mailing list for sample bottles. I can GUARANTEE an online review of any bottle you send me. I realize that there are many wine bloggers out there and you must be inundated with requests, but I don’t know how many bloggers can guarantee a review (along with any descriptive info you send along). If a bottle is flawed or oxidized I will email you before I write anything about it. I also generally wait at least month from receiving the bottle to account for travel or bottle shock.

I just would like for you to think about the percentage of the bloggers you send samples to that actually give you coverage…i know for a fact that many bloggers out there simply write about a few of the sample bottles they receive and either re-gift or drink the rest without any fanfare…I can guarantee a review on a website that is almost always on the first page of natural search results on Google when someone searches for a particular wine.”

Oded used the word “chutzpah” to describe M.____. Chutzpah, in case you don’t know, is a Yiddish word, derived from the Hebrew, and is used with reference to people who are so audacious in their approach as to approach insolence. It can be used positively (e.g., George Steinbrenner was said to possess chutzpah, which is a quality New Yorkers like) or negatively, in the sense of tasteless self-promotion.

Let’s look at this from M.____’s point of view. Of course he would “love” to be added to Oded’s sample list. (And how many other vintners did M.____ blast his email to?) Think of all the free wine! I can’t say for sure whether or not M.____ is correct when he accuses “many bloggers out there” of not even bothering to write about the samples they get. Maybe some P.R. and marketing people who read my blog will write in and let us know how they determine which bloggers to send samples to, and how they follow up to see if the wines are actually written about.

I did a little Googling on M.____ and found that he’s been sending this same email out for more than a year. He seems to be a young guy; his Facebook page (at least, I think it’s his; all the clues add up) says his interests are “poker, TV, red wine, live comedy, live music, Sirius satellite radio” and he’s married. M.____ and I have 14 Facebook friends in common, all from the wine industry.

Actually, I can’t get too upset about M.____ and his email. He’s just using today’s technology to bust into the industry. When I was busting in, I used the telephone and the U.S. Postal Service, and I was pretty aggressive in my own way. I knew what I wanted, I knew whom I wanted it from, and I pounded on their door until I got it. I had, in other words, chutzpah. So does M.____. I don’t know what else he’s doing to become a wine critic, other than sending out blast emails. I would hope he has a few other tricks up his sleeve. But you know what? I wish the guy luck.

Dept. of Oops!

“Napa Wine Co., which annually crushes 7,000 tons of grapes for more than 60 wineries, apparently contaminated some wine with cleaning detergent, the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat is reporting. The paper says Jayson Pahlmeyer’s Pinot Noir “was being tested to determine how much, if any, was impacted by the accident.”

  1. Steven–

    Some wineries will always feel that there is some sort of quid pro quo–we send the wine and you review it. There is not–and I would say that even Steve Heimoff, who claims that he will review everything, still has the independence to draw a line in the sand if he feels he needs to for some reason or other.

    “Quid pro quo” is defined as ” The concept of getting something of value in return for giving something of value “. Our friend “M” is offering quid pro quo. Steve H. implies it, virtually guarantees it. But not every comprehensive reviewer does. Connoisseurs’ Guide does not. Parker does not. Dan Berger does not. Joe Roberts does not.

    But here is the difference that leads to questions about “M”. We do not know who he is. We cannot identify his opionions and yet he is offering quid pro quo. It is not that his audience is suspect. He has an audience. But, while some wineries think he is offers a fair bargain, others think that he is trying to suggest something he is not. It may all be in the rhetoric. He breaks no laws. The Wine Enthusiast solicits wine and their CA reviewer all but guarantees to review everything that comes his way.

    It is, as Steve has said, an act of chutzpah that many find too much. That does not make it illegal or even unethical–a point upon which I disagree with the learned Tom P. (tell me how that differs ethically from what WE does–and probably other writers as well). It has, however, now managed to give M his fifteen minutes of fame–for which he ought to be grateful.

  2. I don’t think it’s reasonable for wineries to expect every wine they send out as a sample to be reviewed, but it is reasonable for them to expect every wine to be tasted (unless the wine in question is of a type or price point the writer has previously told the winery he/she doesn’t review).

    Writers/reviewers serve their readers, not wineries. If a magazine or site purports to be a comprehensive source for wine reviews, then their readers will expect every wine received (or purchased) to be reviewed. But, if being an exhaustive compendium of reviews is not the goal of the publication, the writer or editor may decide that their readers will get more benefit from having the writer focus on going in-depth on a smaller number reviews and spending the rest of their time on feature articles, etc.

    On my own site, I focus on writing up wines that I can heartily recommend, wines that are better than “okay” or “good enough for the money.” I write about wines that I think are worth actively seeking out for one reason or another. As a result, the vast majority of my reviews are positive. My negative reviews are focused on wines representative of larger issues (ex. 16.% alc Zin or aggressive over-oaking), rather than a bottle that just isn’t very good. And I have never had a reader tell me that they want to read more about wines that aren’t very good.

  3. I too have received “the letter”, last fall. I couldn’t see sending wine to someone so that a review could be added as a tidbit to the massive data pile that is Snooth. Also, the note of desperation was a little off-putting…

    Early on I would send wine just about anyplace, but later I learned to value the quality of the review, award, or points. This is why I limit my sampling now to a very short list of publications, competitions, and bloggers.

    And any winery should know that getting reviewed and published is never a sure thing. Even a 92 point score doesn’t mean you’ll make it into print.

  4. Charlie,

    “…tell me how that differs ethically from what WE does–and probably other writers as well…”

    I am neither privy to what WE actually does nor what other writers do, but if they actively seek wines from producers with the promise of a review, then their method bothers me as much as an individual doing it, because, as a journalist, I view the transaction as something of value for something of value–by mutual agreement.

    Where’s the FCC guy to explain this???

    Fred,

    Do you actively solicit the wines with a promise that you will review every one of them?

    Steven,

    I believe that all reviewers (or their employers) should buy the product they review except for the ones that producers and PR people send voluntarily, without having been solicited. I don’t believe reviewers or their employers should solicit product, and this goes for Consumer Report, etc.

    I know that mine is an extreme ethical position, but I also know the definition of “slippery slope,” and solicitation of samples is a slippery slope activity.

    If the follwoing is true as you posted: “I read M’s email to state that if the bottle was defective…corked or oxidized…he/she would talk to the winery ahead of the review…not simply if the review was bad.” Then, I stand corrected. But if I were a critic, my way of handling that would be to state in my review that I thought the wine was corked, etc. The wine producer or its PR people should take it from there.

    I’d love to see a system where critics are certified in some way to prove their talent and knowledge. That alone just might limit the field and it would also provide soem training in ethics as well as wine evaluation.

    M, mentioned that he is “self taught.” Nothing wrong with being self taught, but wouldn’t it be nice for readers to know to what extent he taught himself. I mean, anyone could teach him or her self as much as he or she felt necessary, but that equates neither to automatic proficiency in wine evaluation nor is it an absolute testament to talent.

  5. Thomas-

    I appreciate your stance on ethics and the “slippery slope.” We all work too hard to accomplish something meaningful to let short cuts short circuit that effort.

    I will differ with you enthusiastically on the “corked” bottle issue, though. To review a corked wine is a complete waste of time for everyone involved. The producer didn’t set out to have you taste and comment on a wine destroyed by the closure whose quality he had very little control over. If you, as a reviewer, have a limited time to taste every new sample you might get, how are you going to find time to retaste a wine that was burdened by bad luck. If the wine had brett…whole different issue.

  6. Steven,

    I wouldn’t review the corked wine, I’d say that I couldn’t review it because I thought it was corked. Let the producer or PR people decide to resend or not.

    If a reviewer has limited time to taste every new sample, how does he find the time to contact every winery whose wines have issues to talk about it first and then wait for a resent bottle?

    Things like oxidation or reduction, I don’t know. What are the odds that the bottle doesn’t represent the whole lot? If it’s oxidized or reduced from the producer’s warehouse, then something must be amiss, no?

    Re, Brett: Because of its threshold issues (you know, there’s good Brett and bad Brett) the review should proceed. Unless you are saying that any Brett is a defect…I might even agree with that! ;)

    In any case, soliciting wine for review sucks as a concept, and these kinds of intricacies are why I wish readers could gain some guarantee concerning the critic’s credentials and credibility. Certification maybe?

  7. Thomas makes excellent points about the technical hassles involved in wine tasting. However, I am strongly against any form of certification. There are a million little companies out there trying to make money by offering certification and training techniques. Who would choose the one that would certify all wine reviewers everywhere? Couldn’t be done. It’s best to leave this to the marketplace and the forces of supply and demand. The best wine critics will rise to the top and get paid for it. The rest, won’t.

  8. Jefe, I worry that with the proliferation of blogger/critics, wineries will send out a million bottles to everyone who asks for one, and then just use the positive reviews in their promotion. Most wine consumers have never heard of Parker or the Spectator or the Enthusiast or anybody else, so if they see a shelf talker that says “Excellent! Lovely aromas of raspberries and violets. A very great wine. Score, 95 points” and it’s by Joe Blow in Kokomo, they’ll be impressed and more likely to buy the wine…even if Joe Blow is a total moron.

  9. I just want to share a story about how I got involved in this in the first place. Perhaps it will shed some light on the topic. About a year and a half ago, I was reading an article by a certain semi-famous wine blog that I susbcribe to. He only reviews certain verticals, which is fine, but in the article he mentioned that he received many bottles as samples which he didn’t want to review or even drink himself. Realizing from his articles that I live in the same tri-state area as him I sent him a long thought out letter summarized by this line that i wrote him
    “I would love to take unwanted courtesy bottles off your hands. I can guarantee reviewing every single one fairly. Which is what the companies who send you the bottles would want anyways.”

    His response basically implied that he simply gave them to friends or something like that. His response was “It’s not that i’m not interested in your idea, but it’s not my place to re-direct sample bottles of wine to another reviewer. If you want samples, you should contact the importers and distributors and ask for them – they are more than happy to send them.”

    So that’s what I started doing….I tend not to doing anything “half-assed” so I just started doing lots of research, send out lots of emails, and here we are today. I tailored my email to be the opposite of what I saw in the situation with this blogger. I just wanted the wineries’ efforts to be put to good use. If my email comes off as desperate or something like that, it’s not my intent.

  10. Steve,

    “It’s best to leave this to the marketplace and the forces of supply and demand…”

    Now you sound like a right winger ;)

  11. “I’d love to see a system where critics are certified in some way to prove their talent and knowledge. That alone just might limit the field and it would also provide soem training in ethics as well as wine evaluation”.
    There’s always someone trying to create new guilds, unions, cartels, trusts, barriers to entry; with the sole purpose of getting rid of competition and increasing their profit margins.
    Is this ethical?
    Why not let the market and grown-up entrepreneurs and individuals, as Steve already said, take care of M._?

  12. Thomas, I’m very upfront with both wineries and my readers about what I do. I don’t “actively” solicit samples, but I do accept them. I don’t guarantee anyone that I’ll review every, or any particular, bottle. But I do tell wineries that I’ll make every effort to taste every wine they send, unless it’s something I’ve told them I really don’t review, such as wine from outside of California. I also make it clear in my reviews whether the wine was purchased, received, or at a large tasting and whether or not the wine was tasted blind.

    I also tell wineries their wine is more likely to be reviewed if they send it to me rather than waiting for me to go out and buy it. That’s not a solicitation, just reality. I’ve got a limited budget for buying wine these days and more than enough wines to review. I probably buy the majority of the wines I review, but that’s a drop in the bucket compared to all of the wines California puts out in a year. I also make it clear that I have no desire or need to get free wine for the sake of getting free wine. I’ve likely got more wine in my cellar that I have purchased for my own future consumption than I can actually drink.

    I do tell the wineries that I tend to only write about wines that i can comfortably recommend. I also tell them that, if I don’t like a wine and they want to know why, I’ll be happy to talk to them about it. If they think the bottle was faulty, I’ll try a second one. And, if I feel the wine is spoiled in some way (corked, oxidized, cooked in transit, etc.) I proactively let the winery know ASAP. I believe that they have the need to know about such things for their own quality tracking and that they should have the option to send me another bottle if they so choose. If a wine I purchased for review has been spoiled, I take it back to the source and get a replacement.

    I agree entirely with Steve with regard to certification. First, there are plenty of certifications already available. None of those, nor any other that could be devised, can guarantee tasting or writing skill. Furthermore, who would certify the certifiers? Would there not be people who would reject anyone with certificate X instead of Y because X has a New World palate or some such complaint? With Robert Parker’s experienced palate so oft criticized, is some little acronym really going to be a guarantor of credibility? And why should wine writers be singled out? There’s no certification for reviewers of gadgets, cars, restaurants or movies. And anybody can put up a site pushing “medical advice.”

  13. Steve, I wouldn’t worry too much about a proliferation of blogger-generated shelf talker reviews. Wine competitions and their “medals” are a more efficient way for wineries to get pseudo-credibility. And I think that wine buying consumers do know Parker, Spectator et al now, if only from the volume of shelf talkers quoting the reviews and thus implying that their opinions are important.

  14. Fred, I hear you, but I doubt if the average housewife or househusband in Omaha or Topeka knows individual names.

  15. Peter: agree!

  16. Thomas, no, a belief in the entrepreneurial system does not make me a “right winger.” It’s just sound economics. Democrats and liberals do not disbelieve in market-based economics. What we do disbelieve is religiosity introduced into politics.

  17. Fred,

    Certification is not to guarantee skill–it’s to guarantee that the person has spent time gaining knowledge in order to perform his or her function.

    It seems that few people in this discussion think wine reviewing and evaluation is important enough for those doing it to suffer through a little education. I don’t understand how anyone can take a profession seriously that is made up of people who aren’t interested in making an effort to study their subject in depth and to go through the education and certification process that many professions require.

    Peter,

    First, I am not a wine critic, so I have nothing to protect.

    Second, your attitude makes me wonder what you think of the wine making profession and the years of education it takes to become a quality winemaker. Why bother certifying winemakers if those who would judge them are free to know as little or as much as the market bears? Talk about an asinine view.

    Like you, I’ll make an assumption rather than ask a question: you would have no objection to people proclaiming themselves scientists and then criticizing your scientific papers.

    I have to give you credit, however, for trying to hide your ad hominem response without coming right out and calling me an idiot. For a while I refrained from commenting on this and other blogs because of people like you, whose sense of self-importance clouds their every utterance.

  18. Steve,

    This independent has lost faith in letting the market decide anything–I feel the pain every time my IRA statement arrives…

    In any case, I have once again enjoyed the debate and once again find myself on the other side of a vast divide–alone, except for the few points on which Charlie and I agree, which in itself is an achievement.

    Believe it or not, this debate restores my faith, because I learned a long time ago on the streets of Brooklyn that when everyone is telling you to go in one direction, it’s almost a certainty that you’d be better off going in the opposite direction.

  19. Thomas, I have no formal certification. But do you not think I have not “suffer[ed] through a little education,” in your words? I am an auto-didact, true, and have never been blessed by someone above me. But I have studied hard and long. Hugh Johnson was never certified by anybody; ditto Michael Broadbent or Robert Parker, or any expert prior to the advent of these modern-day certification schemes. Everybody today wants instant experts with instant credentials. That is not possible, nor, I think, desirable. People can pick and choose the wine critics they believe.

  20. Thomas, when you say “it seems that few people in this discussion think wine reviewing and evaluation is important enough for those doing it to suffer through a little education,” you’re either misinterpreting some of the folks here or characterizing their comments incorrectly. I don’t think anyone here dismisses the need for wine reviewers to have a solid education in wine.

    Personally, I’m not arguing against certifications in genera. I have some myselfl and continue to spend a lot of money and time getting more, which are unlikely to increase my income by a dime. But, the reality is that there is no way to prevent anyone from writing about wine who wants to, nor should there be. And even the most prestigious certifications, such as Master of Wine, are literally unknown to many in the industry, let alone consumers. If consumers are largely unaware of Robert Parker as Steve suggests, no new certification could possibly gain enough mindshare to be relevant. And wineries, or their PR firms, should do some due diligence before sending out wine anyway, more than just looking for a certification. It shouldn’t take wine professionals long to discern who is or is not qualified by reading past reviews/articles or having a quick phone conversation.

  21. Fred, I would point out regarding masters of wine that they are naturally inclined toward the grand crus of the world, and are not the best people to recommend to average consumers what wines to buy. I think of myself as representing the average consumer, not the ultra-rich collector who is only interested in Burgundy, Bordeaux and the like.

  22. “Everybody today wants instant experts with instant credentials. That is not possible, nor, I think, desirable.”

    Steve, your above comment seems to describe exactly what I rail against: the ever expanding number of self proclaimed experts who claim their instant credentials and expertise. I don’t want instant anything, I want educated experts–that takes time and more than just a self proclamation.

    It isn’t that I don’t believe in self education; I’m largely a product of it in arenas outside wine. But how does anyone else know where another person’s self education began and where it ended? A little screening might prevent a lot of that slippery slope stuff from happening.

    Fred,

    I agree with just about everything you recently posted, with caveats of course.

    I’m fully aware that the new pink is citizen journalism; I’m also fully annoyed by the concept. The same populace that cast aspersions on journalism feeds its demise by downgrading its importance. Wine criticism is an arm of journalism–it must adhere to journalistic standards or it will degrade itself. Part of those standards is to recognize that a profession requires professionals to live within prescribed guidelines of knowledge and procedures–ethics falls under procedures.

    I’m not talking about WSET or MS programs; I’m talking about some basic knowledge that encompasses sensory training but also reaches into journalism.

    I’ve read wine blogs written by known bloggers with errors that should not be there, placing regions in the wrong location, calling wines by their wrong appellation and so on. Training might show these people how to effect due diligence, which in turn shows them how important real information is as opposed to writing gibberish on the fly because that is all they know how to do. Such training would ultimately screen the whores from the serious.

    That so many in this kind of discussion don’t think of wine writing as a form of true journalism or journalism as something any yahoo with a keyboard can do disturbs me greatly. But that’s probably only because I wasted my time learning my trade.

  23. Thomas, re: “a little screening,” I think it’s easy to tell who’s been around the block and has credibility, and who hasn’t and never will, and who might be, someday.

  24. Steve, I’m not commending MWs as being ideal reviewers of wine. I’m just saying that the title, as prestigious as it is, isn’t widely understood and suggesting that a new certification for reviewers would be much less so.

  25. Just wonderin’….at the end of the day what does any of this mean to the person that buys a bottle of highly rated or many times reviewed wine? I mean in the end is that not who we should be writing for? None of this should be about self promotion or glorification. Does it matter how many people follow your blog or ignore your Tweets? It is all such bullshit, (sorry STEVE! but you said shit was okay, I assume bullshit is alright too) to love wine is to love it for all it is and that includes the trial and error of discovering your own palate.

    Wineries are so missing the mark here, and I say this as someone that is all about promoting wine and all that it can inspire. Scores, tweets and the buzzy musings of some random blogger, (and yes I am one) mean absolutely nothing to the person that buys a bottle of whichever Gruner is the flavor of the week….as determined by whatever marketing firm, to go with their meal.

    None of this does anything to grow or promote wine drinking and that is the biggest problem we have. All these self congratulatory, sample getting jokers get their buzz on and tweet away and those of us in the business get our knickers in a twist about it. Freaking bickering amongst ourselves while in the end it is the person that drinks that highly promoted Gruner and thinks, “I don’t get it” that truly suffers. Ugh!

    Call me when the “cream rises to the top” on this issue and in the meantime I will be working with my customers, trying to undo some of this mud.

  26. Thank you, Sam, for that breath of reality.

    Nothing more to say.

  27. Awe, Thomas I was going for a Sir….or the girlie equivalent of.

  28. Lord knows that a thousand reviews by the unknowledgeable, “I’m begging for samples” uncritics is not helpful.

    But, the variety of sources of wine information does not go directly from “self congratulatory jokers” to good retailers.

    It is worth remembering that there are also competent bloggers and writers and lazy retailers. The secret for wine lovers is to identify several sources they trust both in the writing class and in the retailer class.

  29. Could not agree with you more Charlie. That is why I abhor retailers that buy wines based on scores and do nothing but post bullshit numbers to sell them. Makes me cringe to think about a consumer that wants a special wine for their sushi dinner and assume something that got a 98 is the way to go.

  30. I hope readers will note that I have a new, automatic way of comments going up immediately, if they’re from people who have previously been approved by me to comment. This way, your comments go up as soon as you post them. I no longer have to approve.

  31. Charlie,

    You should have joined the diplomatic core…

  32. Oops–make that corps.

  33. Steve, you once blogged about trying to figure out how to make money off of blogging. 82 comments… a buck a piece… do I get a comission for stirring the s__t?

    I am actually glad I forwarded you the email and my comments (for a while I doubted weather I should do it or just trash that damn thing like so may others did). After all, people brought up some great discussion points. As much as I would rather discuss this on my deck with a bunch of friends and some cool Sauvignon Blanc, I guess I may be slowly adapting to this conversation medium that I find very lacking; I’d rather hear voices and intonatons and see facial expressions then just see pixels.

    My deck is available for those who want to come over…

  34. Oded, yeah, the check is in the mail. Remember that great line in To Live and Die in L.A.? Anyhow, to your second point: I don’t see it as having to choose between your deck and online. You can have both! I hope you’ll continue to weigh in here, and to send me stuff you find interesting.

  35. Steven Mirassou says:

    Here’s to hoping that we all eventually find the philosopher’s stone to which Samantha alludes.

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