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Did Rodney Strong manipulate bloggers, use clever marketing, or both?

79 comments

Readers: Please enjoy this re-broadcast of the original Aug. 26, 2008 post. It generated more comments than anything else I ever wrote, and, for me, inaugurated what I now call “The Blog Wars,” which, hopefully, are now over. Back on Monday with new material.

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I found myself in a bit of a flap this morning. Yesterday, I made a comment on Mike Duffy’s blog, The Winery Web Site Report. He’d written about Rodney Strong sending preview samples of their debut 2005 Rockaway Cabernet Sauvignon ($75) to “a select group bloggers” in advance of sending it the usual way to paper-based wine reviewers like me (although obviously I’m a blogger too!). I didn’t know about the program, not having been contacted, although I did know about the impending Rockaway launch because Rodney Strong has been aggressively touting it through press releases for quite a while. Over the past week or so, during my routine web cruising, I’d seen a spate of glowing tributes to Rockaway on various wine blogs. These were almost universally positive and had phrases like “Making History” and “bold and prescient” and “cool and revolutionary.” As I saw more and more of these postings, I thought, WTF? But I let it go until I came across Duffy’s blog. That’s when I wrote this comment:

“Maybe the early release to bloggers will prove to be a good move on Rodney Strong’s part. But when I started seeing all these online reviews of Rockaway I really had to wonder. Why did all those bloggers give it free publicity? Don’t they get free wine every day? So why write about Rockaway? I haven’t had the wine (plan to review it tonight) and I have no idea if it’s any good, but it shows how easily some parts of the blogosphere can be manipulated into providing free publicity to wineries.”

That comment stirred up something of a s**tstorm. One person said it “smacks of some old media arrogance…” Another asked, “How exactly is this any different from WE or any other glossy getting samples and writing about them? Isn’t that ‘free’ publicity for the winery?” 1WineDude, who participated in the launch, wrote: “I did ask RS why they decided to do this, and my take on their response was that their PR / Marketing dept. was the driver behind it…” while Jeff, at Good Grape blog, said my comment was “misguided” and “made in something of a vacuum.”

Whew!

So let me spell out my discomfort with Rodney Strong’s approach, even while I concede it was clever marketing. Rodney Strong for years has been trying to get the High Scores and the resulting attention for their wines. Nothing wrong with that. My impression has been that, while their reviews (at least, from me) have been quite good, it’s never been enough for owner Tom Klein. I figure the order must have gone out to the marketing and PR people (just as 1WineDude surmised) to figure out a way around the mainstream wine media and garner some attention in a new way. And guess what? It worked! The problem from my perspective is that those who participated were manipulated, and happily embraced their manipulators. I don’t blame any of the bloggers for reporting on Rodney Strong’s unique marketing strategy, but the glowing, gushing and self-referential “Aren’t we special?” quality is, for me, a turnoff. As for WE getting samples, yes, I do all the time, but I don’t write headlines or columns or special blogs about them, I just review them along with everything else. And I note that quite a number of well-known bloggers, who must have been approached by Rodney Strong, evidently declined to participate. I think they saw the potential for themselves to be used and decided, wisely, not to allow it.

Update (Aug. 27) Apparently, the participating bloggers agreed in advance to write about the wine. If a winery told me they’d send me a wine only if I agreed to write about it, I’d strongly refuse.

  1. Steve – I dig you man, and I am stoked to meet up with you at the WBC.

    But I think I could hook up a generator to you and power my house for a week with all of the backpedaling going on in these comments.

    Sorry – couldn’t resist ;-)

    Oh, yeah – and stop stealing my traffic, man!!! :-)

    Cheers.

  2. 1WineDude, looking forward to meeting U2.

  3. U2′s going to be at WBC? I’m so totally there ;-)

    Let’s chat live about your concerns, Steve. I don’t think our positions are really that different once you understand the full facts.

    Cheers!

  4. Lenn Thompson says:

    Steve: I think you’re way off base in thinking that bloggers would get so excited over a sample. Believe it or not, bloggers get samples ALL the time (and of wines that cost $75 and above).

    Bloggers get samples. It comes with the territory. Much like glossy magazines do :)

  5. Lenn, maybe I’m not expressing myself clearly. It was the patting themselves on the back that got me — the sense of “Aren’t we bloggers special to be part of this historic event.” There was nothing particularly historic or breakthrough or revolutionary about what RS did. It was just good marketing. And the bloggers were duped into giving them free publicity. I hope the hurt feelings go away at this point and that this will help the bloggers be more skeptical in the future.

  6. Steve,

    I still think that you’re a little off base here. No one was DUPED. They knew what they were getting into. They made the decision that they were okay with giving RP a review in exchange for a bottle of wine. No one tricked them. No one duped them.

    Was it the choice I personally would have made? No. But everyone has the right to make these decisions on their own.

    And while “historic” might be a bit much, it is certainly special that the bloggers got the wine before the mainstream media.

    I hope that the hurt feelings fade too (esp by October) but I can understand why people are so upset.

  7. Lenn, then let’s agree that (1) they made a decision [to write in exchange for wine] that was not professional and (2) the expressions of “historic” “revolutionary” “bold and prescient” were hyperbolic.

  8. Getting the sample didn’t excite me. I got it from Jeff at Good Grape, really, not from Rockaway. I also agreed to the condition of writing about it because the condition was given by Jeff (as acting editor), who set the deadlines, etc. That’s what editors do (I thought).

    Getting the sample before the traditional print media *did* excite me, and for good reason. That is a first for a big allocated brand from the major player in Sonoma.

    My writing style on the 1WineDude blog is hyperbolic. That’s just a style choice on my part, I don’t expect everyone to like it.

    As for giving RS/Rockaway free PR…

    …there wine is worth, what, $80? …

    …if I was Rockaway, I’d feel I’d got totally ripped off in terms of the buzz that I generated for them via my blog…

    Cheers.

  9. Steve,

    You still don’t get it some 60 comments in. If I engineered the program and that’s good marketing, how can I dupe myself?

    First, I’m an average marketer, secondly how much condescension does it take before you just say you’re simply smarter than other people? Third, I’ve subjected myself to a weeks worth of people questioning my integrity; what a bargain for me.

    So, I guess I’m a great marketer for engineering the program, but really dumb for participating in same program.

    And I thought George W Bush was the only person that used pretzel logic.

    I respect your writing, but I don’t think you got this program upfront, I don’t think your analysis of the program is accurate, I don’t think you get it in hindsight and I don’t think you understand very much about blogging, either.

    Of course, this is with all due respect, because I afford that to others even when it has been afforded me.

    Jeff
    http://www.goodgrape.com

  10. There’s plenty to question about ethics when it comes to wine “journalism”. What about accepting trips, dinners and advertising? The acceptance of advertising from wine producers is one of the main ethical issues in wine writing today. It seems to me that getting upset about this issue with Rodney Strong seems a bit ridiculous when major wine publications accept $20,000 checks for full page ads from wine producers. If reviews can be taken seriously in publications accepting millions of dollars in advertising from wineries it seems taking a $75 bottle of wine is small potatoes.

    I’ll admit it seems to me that good judgment was not used here. Taking samples is one thing, but accepting any other kind of control over how and when you publish is a bad idea that can only undermine the writer’s credibility. Wine blogging is still new and such growing pains will happen, but it still pales in comparison to the ethics issues in the traditional wine press.

  11. Craig, a couple points. Magazines need advertising to exist. No ads, no magazines. Maybe that will happen someday, but it’s not happening now. So I have no problem with Wine Enthusiast going after advertising. Point 2: There is a bright line between advertising and editorial at my magazine. My bosses frankly would never even be tempted to tell me to give a good score to an advertiser. They know there would be hell to pay if they even tried. I have staked my reputation in this industry on the fact that I call wines as I see them, and advertising has nothing to do with it and never will. I think that addresses the issue of my ethics. Finally, I agree with you that blogging is still new and this episode reflects growing pains. I hope and trust that the wine blogosphere will emerge from this stronger and more thoughtful.

  12. Steve, you say:

    ** “My bosses frankly would never even be tempted to tell me to give a good score to an advertiser. They know there would be hell to pay if they even tried. I have staked my reputation in this industry on the fact that I call wines as I see them, and advertising has nothing to do with it and never will.” **

    Why is it we should take your word for your honor, but you question the honor of people who participated in this program? Are you truly unable to see the double standard? Or are we merely supposed to accept YOUR honor, as well as your slights to the honor of others?

    Yes, I sound a bit vituperative. Frankly, you deserve it, demanding that we all accept not only your place on the pedestal, but the stream of yellow liquid you are sending down from there upon our heads.

  13. Craig,

    With all due respect, I tend to disagree with you about your advertising comment. I might not understand your comment, so could you clarify how publications accepting money to perform a service (e.g. in this case, advertising) is up for an ethical debate? Money in exchange to provide a service is not an issue for ethical debate – it’s a business decision if we are strictly talking about money in exchange for a service.

    If you are referring to [unproven] accusations that a producer receives better ratings by advertising or the unethical act of Journalists receiving gifts when their company policy clearly states it is not allowed (NYT policy on ethics: http://www.nytco.com/press/ethics.html), then that is understandable, but we should not mix the two.

    Advertising ≠ unethical issues if Journalists follow company policy.

  14. Craig, your points are especially prescient.

    Steve, you are being naive to think that advertsiing is not influencing editorial. Your employers have no need to ask you to give anyone a good score anymore, because they have built a revenue stream into their buying guide based on ratings in general, as entire pages of reviews with label reproductions are passed off as pure editorial. That’s not opinion; it’s fact.

    As for how advertising influences editorial not connected to ratings, it will be interesting to se how many “Wine Star” award nominees are also advertisers. Sure cases will be made in breathless prose (not unlike some bloggers applied to Rockaway….) for every “nominee,” but the pattern in past years has been laugh-provoking. There are other ways t stroke advertisers than to give them 90-point scores.

    Again, I have no doubt as to your personal veracity. Never did when I worked there or ever since. But be careful about defending your profession or even your magazine too broadly. Publishing is a business, and you roost in editorial on the West Coast is just not privy to much that goes on.

    As for magazines needing advertising to survive, Bob Parker still seems to be making a good go of it witihout any ads or even graphics, yes?

  15. Tish, I run my own shop in a big company. All I’m responsible for is ratings. And my ratings are impeccable. Awards, advertising, it’s all a different department. If anyone wants to take me on in the ethics of my reviews, that’s a fight I’m happy to wage. You are a disgruntled ex-employee (fired, actually) and you’ve had an axe to grind for many years. You’re entitled, but what you say should be taken into context. As to Mr. Parker, he tastes open, not blind. I’m surprised the wine press hasn’t asked him how he can give scores to bottles he’s looking at on the table and whose histories he can look up in his database to make sure he’s consistent. As they say in bridge, one peek is worth a thousand finesses.

  16. Thanks Tish, I love being prescient.

  17. Steve, please read my comment again. I am not questioning YOUR ethics. I am pointing out that your scores are being used in a way that directly conflicts with the accepted publishing policy of identifying advertising vs. editorial. There is a huge difference.

    If my reference to having worked there was not enough disclosure for you, fine. Sorry. I had no intent to conceal my connection (now a decade removed) to the magazine you write for. But I did not think it was so relevant that I needed to say more. Now you have put me in a position of having to correct your characterization.

    I was not fired. LOL! I resigned in Jan. 1998, stayed through production of the 10th anniversary issue, then was given a going-away party (cake and Freixenet, I recall) and ten weeks pay. I was a perfectly benign ex-employee from for six solid years. What changed is that I wrote, critically but factually, about The Wine Enthusiast’s retail operation, wineexpress.com, in 2004 and was promptly threatened with legal action, which never materialized because everything I wrote was true (the pieces are still available on my website under “rants”). The only axe I ground then, and have continued to grind, was directed at the multifarious problems with wine ratings, and I have skewered WS and many, many other media and trade outlets over similar issues. Moreover, I have tried as much as possible to wield my axe humourously (wineskewer.com).

    The points I made above — and on other posts of yours and on other blogs where I comment frequently — were made stricly from my perspective now, as professional speaker and observer of the wine industry. I raised those points becuase I feel they add some perspective to the broader issue of ethics in wine coverage. It is kind of odd that bloggers are getting all worked up over $75 Cabernet sampling/reviewing when major media are quietly perpetrating more dubious practices.

    Again, I am not questioning your personal ethic one iota. But you are an honest player in a shady system.

    As for Robert Parker, the point I was making had nothing to do with how he tastes/rates, but rather that his publication seems to have thrived without advertising. If you really think RP’s methods are suspect, perhaps you should do a post about that. It is obvious that your blog has commanded a lot of attention, deservedly so, because you pick interesting topics and approach them honestly.

    I trust, moving forward, you keep your focus on that. The fact that your posts here garner much more attention than your posts over at the WE mag site is proof that you are an important cog in the constantly evolving wine-blogging machine.

  18. I am fairly new to the wine blogging world and as such was not included in the Rodney Strong giveaway. I work at a daily newspaper for the moment now and do some wine writing for them. Our ethics policy would preclude acceptance of a $75 retail bottle of wine (our cap is around $5). I have no problem with bloggers who disclose that they have received samples from wineries before posting their opinions. Wine blogging is an evolving thing. I think I trust many of the people who have posted here because I know their track records and their personal integrity. But for readers who don’t have the history, disclosure of methods and practices is essential.

  19. winenegress, your key phrase is “wing blogging is an evolving thing.” This episode has been painful for many people, but in the end, as we say in the gym, no pain, no gain. We all stand to learn from this.

  20. What I have learned is that high school never leaves us even though we leave it. Drink well and often but not so often that “Goodyear” appears in raised type on your liver.

  21. “Point 2: There is a bright line between advertising and editorial at my magazine. ”

    Steve, first of all I would like to say that I enjoy your blog. I also agree with you that there should not be a problem with a consumer-review publication accepting advertising—consumer periodicals in other industries do. The wine industry does not exist in a vacuum.

    However, I can also attest that at the Wine Enthusiast and the Wine Spectator that line is brighter from your honest perspective than from your marketing department’s.

    Most readers assume that the color graphics of wine labels interspersed throughout the wine reviews are chosen by Editorial to spotlight key producers. They don’t hear this conversation:

    Marketing: Hello, Winery Naivete! We are pleased to let you know that your wine will be published in an upcoming issue with a very high score!
    Winery Naivete: COOL!! (pumping fist)
    M: Yes. Would you like us to print a full-color reproduction of your label next to your review?
    WN: Oh, absolutely!
    M: We’ll be happy to. That will be $300.
    WN: Uh, oh? $300? (looking at a stack of bills) Uh, what happens if we, uh, choose not to? Will the review not get published?
    M: Oh, we are Marketing. We have no control over what Editorial does. But I can tell you that your competitors have already signed up for label representation. Don’t you want your review to stand out like theirs?

    This conversation happens all the time. It is a typical sales jibe. And while I’m at it, I might as well bring up this up … almost two years after we stopped submitting samples to WE, we received an email asking for a graphic of our label. When I called Editorial to ask why, they absolutely would not say why they wanted it. We did not submit a graphic. Turns out, the editors were writing a snarky short about dog labels for their year-end roundup. Something to the effect, “Who would bust out a puppy-printed primitivo for company? Fine for burgers on a Tuesday night, I guess.” They listed our wine as one of the label offenders, although they hadn’t tried one in recent memory. And they ended up using a graphic of Sineann.

    I find no fault with advertising—it’s what makes the publications possible. I find no fault with free samples—there is simply no other way reviewers would be able to find and experience the sheer number of products out there. However, I have to shake my head at anyone who can be convinced that the two premier wine publications, the WE and the WS, are not skating on some pretty thin ice, ethically.

  22. If we are calling into question the ethics of bloggers, why not address the biggest offender of them all, GARY V. who claims to be objective when he reviews wine but happens to directly profit from any review he makes by virtue of owning Wine Library. How can you objectively review the product you are selling?

    Would we trust a car dealer to objectively review the cars he has in inventory? Or a restaurant to review its own menu?

    I am really excited that there is an alternative to traditional media when it comes to learning about wine and BLOGGERS are that alternative, all I ask is that I know in what capacity they may be involved with the wine or winery that they review.

    Cheers,

    Jon

  23. This has been such a fun brouhaha, I hate to see it disappear into the dustbin of history. You and Tom @ Fermentation have raised important questions for the so-called “blogging community”.

    I know such comments — and the ones I’ve made on my blog and especially on Fermentation — do not endear me to many of my peers.

    But I’ve been blogging to suit myself. Win a few, lose a few.

    Trust me, when my import biz gets up and running — like when we finally get our container from Italy in a month or so — my “personal” wine-blogging activites and my “official” ones will be well separated. My partners demand it.

  24. What exactly is the point of giving wine early to a blogger? They’re going to be able to publish before the print media even if you give it to them well after the print media. I’m sure all bloggers and wine writers are impartial. But, I’m sometimes swayed by “special” attention. How many bad reviews did the wine get?

  25. Whoa everybody, calm down! Don’t you realize that Steve H., Mr. Parker are the end-all to wine reviews? Shame on bloggers for rating and reviewing this wine! It’s a travesty; these bloggers, leading us astray with their awful reviews, manipulated like puppets by the big brands.

    You would think they’d have a magazine that we could all read….with one guy to judge the wines we should drink.

  26. WOW! Missed this re-post. Was on an island somewhere… really.

  27. A blast from the past, Robert!

  28. Wow! You guys are a trip. I stumbled into this little back-n-forth duel of egos and words when I Googled reviews of the 2005 Rodney Strong Rockaway Cab. You’re all adults, obviously intelligent and educated, but you sound like a bunch of bickering nerdy 4th graders. You write impressively, and because it sounds impressive, I think you actually believe that that makes it true. And so the argument will go on and on as each think they are more superior to the other. C’mon folks, do you really have to perpetuate the stereo-type of “wine snobbery”? You take yourselves too seriously.

  29. Dear Kevin: You’re probably right!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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