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Bloggers and wineries: strange bedfellows

23 comments

READERS: I return from New York today and will resume new posts tomorrow. This is a repeat posting from Nov. 2008.

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WineDiverGirl is a California blogger who specializes in (as her blog says) “Wine Life and Social Media Coverage.” As such, she’s passionate about the convergence of the wine industry and social media, and writes provocative posts on how wineries and bloggers might work in tandem to help the industry move forward.

I’m all in favor of that, but the question is what, precisely, ought to be the relationship between bloggers and wineries. Last summer, in the Rockaway-gate dustup, I called for bloggers to keep their distance from wineries. When a reporter/critic gets too close to her subject, there’s too great a chance for a conflict of interest or, at least, the appearance of one. I recognized, at the height of the tempest, that it’s flattering for a blogger to be given special treatment by a winery, but it’s vital to resist the temptation to succumb to flattery. Wineries don’t love critics because we’re warm and fuzzy. They pretend to love us because we can help, or hurt, them economically.

Well, in her latest post, WineDiverGirl says she’s “looking for all the ways wineries and bloggers are currently connected (if at all) and new and improved ways for them to evangelize the beautiful power of wine.” She offers a number of ways for bloggers and wineries to work together, nearly all of which are wrong-headed and, in some instances, dangerous. Here are her suggestions:

1. “Host a guest blogger for a month: either pay them or the charity of their choice for them to write about your winery, winemaker, wine, vineyards, etc.” Can we agree that this is a terrible idea? If a winery pays a blogger, then that blogger can have no credibility whatsoever about anything he writes concerning the winery. Even if the winery donates money to the blogger’s favorite charity, it suggests a quid pro quo that makes the blogger suspect. If a winery wants to boast online about how great it is, it can start its own blog.

2. “[S]ponsor or offer scholarships to various wine tasting events to help bloggers get there.” Now, this isn’t as bad as #1. Wine writers are notoriously underpaid and sometimes it’s necessary to accept some help to cover travel expenses. I’ve done it. But as a rule, having your expenses paid by a winery is a bad idea. It’s better for a regional winery association to pick up the tab, so that you’re not perceived to be beholden to anyone in particular.

3. “Host a guest blogger to pour in your tasting room for a day.” This is bizarre. A tasting room staffer should know all about the winery, its wines and vineyards, its owners and winemaker, the area in question, wine in general, and so on. Why would a winery be interested in having a blogger be its public face in the tasting room, unless it expected to get some good publicity — which brings us back to the conflict of interest issue.

4. “Include bloggers in focused research or think-tank like conversations about planning your year, events, marketing.” Bloggers are now supposed to be marketing managers and event planners for wineries? I don’t think so. This crosses so many red lines, it’s hard to know where to begin.

WineDiverGirl concludes by reassuring wineries that bloggers “know consumers better than almost anyone…because they are the wine industry’s BEST consumers.” I would have thought the industry’s best consumers are ordinary working women and men looking to drink a nice glass of wine for dinner.

“What do you think?” WineDiverGirl asks. “How do you see wineries and bloggers working together for everyone’s benefit?” With all due respect to WineDiverGirl, who means well, I don’t see wineries and bloggers working together, if “together” means becoming strange bedfellows. Bloggers should be very careful about getting mixed up in the business of wineries, and wineries should be very careful about trying to influence the independent blogosphere.

 

  1. An interesting read (as always), Steve.

    The trouble for me is that I don’t think this response should be here alone on your blog.

    I think it should be posted on WineDiverGirl’s blog as a comment to her post – or at least as a personal comment linking back to this.

    It’s this same approach that concerned me during the Rockaway debate that you cite in your post – you and Tom Wark (and others) blogged about the event (which is great) but didn’t in turn create and/or contribute to the dialog on the original posts. In the case of Rockaway, there were multiple contributors so I can understand the approach.

    In this case, it’s one blog and the dialog should (IMO) be there.

    I wouldn’t call it blogging etiquette per se, but the reality is that it feels (again, IMO) that it fractures the dialog and interplay.

  2. Wow Steve interesting post…..you are a writer and being one I expected more personally.

    I like it that you noticed but I did not see any solutions – just comments on what wouldn’t work.

    I think we are all looking for solutions so we can further conversations and perhaps bring a new audience into the conversation. People LOVE wine and want to read, talk and be a part of what the wineries have to offer in more ways than one (just drinking the stuff).

    Now for the best part – I don’t even drink wine very often and I am not a wine aficionado but I would love to hear YOUR suggestions on what could be done?

    I like the fact that Wine Diver Girl is looking for solutions. Interesting you have written books and you have your blog I would like to believe with that kind of experience under your belt you would have a better sense of what can be done rather than reposting things and telling about why it can’t be done.

  3. “know consumers better than almost anyone…”

    Wow…so all it takes is internet access and we all can be experts!

    Thanks for the utube link…Palin really needs to hire a PR firm, or better yet the Alaskan Turkey Farmers should hire her to be a guest blogger for them!

  4. Steve brings up some good points about the perception of independence and objectivity. As a former CPA I worked with that issue daily. CPA’s doing financial work are supposed to be independent of the clients who are paying them directly. Mostly this works, except at Enron …

    A “Going Concern” opinion in a financial statement will often tank a company and the CPA may not get paid. However, we do it when standards require it, except at Enron… I’ve had to fire large clients who tried to hide financial deals from me. Terminating 10% of your annual revenue is a far more important action than a bad wine review.

    I believe that bloggers can develop the same integrity that CPA’s do. Like CPA’s, bloggers can dig into the operations as WineDiverGirl suggests. (She works for a winery by the way.) Bloggers need to develop some professional standards to do that but it can work and can have value for the consumers.

    Steve is applying standards from wine writing which I support. Steve is not seeing the world from a perspective outside his discipline. Wine blogging can be a very different discipline from wine writing that Steve is invested in.

    I have no clue if wine bloggers will make this type of objectivity a goal and achieve it. However, I’m experimenting with such CPA type concepts with my blog.

    Last point, are casual wine bloggers or professional wine writers more like the average consumers? I think this matters because I am strongly against the point rating system process and any other kind of evaluation that is out of the context that the average consumer would taste in. Tastes change dramatically with context.

    Wine bloggers are the mainstream consumers by definition. Social media is the average consumer rising up to be heard. Few are paid anything and almost all have a net outflow of cash for their efforts. They are widely dispersed culturally and rarely, if ever, review wines in the meaningless sterile environments that the “pros” do. Bloggers ARE the consumer rabble rising up to be heard.

    I appreciate Steve’s thoughts and hope he continues with blunt criticism. I enjoy and respect the discourse.

    Jim @ WineQuesters.com
    The wine tasting road trip lifestyle
    California

  5. I think you have it on the money here except for one thing, who are the wine industry’s best consumers. There are definitely people that drink more wine than ordinary people and I think bloggers represent at least the most vocal portion of that group. From the research I’ve looked at, wine drinking is still growing in the US, but there are your “once in a while” consumers and then there are your “I love it and can’t get enough of the stuff” consumers.

  6. Steve,

    The suggestions that WineDiverGirl’s making only shows her naïveté of the wine business… in so many areas, as you’ve noted.

    As both a publicist and wine blogger, I’m constantly walking the balance between blogging and working on client material. This is something my colleague Tom Wark can also address at great length in terms of the perils and principles.

    I clock all of my hours for my clients. I NEVER – not screaming, just emphasizing – bill a client for any of my blog work. Since I spend a couple of hours a day blogging, that’s non-billable, just journaling hours. I have to absorb the cost of my free time not being time that’s compensated.

    I can write about things I know and find interesting, but no one’s paying me to do any of that work. (Google ads don’t count, as anyone can tell you who has them on his/her site. I have them there because one of my Webmasters wanted to put them there, and I said, “Okay.” When the check came in after two years, I forwarded the check to my Webmaster.)

    So, back to some of the out-of-the-box ideas. It’s great to be young and asking all kinds of questions. That’s all she’s asking are questions. You’ve giver her a wealth of knowledge for answers.

  7. Mark: You ask for my suggestions about what can be done, but I’m not clear what you mean. What can be done about what? The relationship between wineries and bloggers? I don’t think anything has to be “done” about it. Bloggers should write about stuff they love, and wineries should make good wine and figure out how to sell it. You say WineDiverGirl is “looking for solutions” but what’s the problem? Sometimes there are solutions in search of problems that don’t exist. What I was trying to do, in my post, is steer bloggers AWAY from potential problems of conflict of interest and unrealistic business models. Where I completely agree with you, and others who commented here, is that WineDiverGirl is to be commended for looking outside the box, asking questions, pushing the envelope. I love that.

  8. YES, YES Steve – Thank You and Exactly on your last 2 sentences. I appreciate that fact that you are seeing her post for what it really is.

    As far as what has to be “done” and “looking for solutions” – that was in respect to getting more people who love wine (i.e. wine bloggers) involved in additional conversations and more involved in the wine community in various areas and potentially with brands they wouldn’t normally be exposed to.

    Yes I agree – we don’t want to cross the bounds of what is right or wrong ethically but what I love about WineDiverGirl is that she is not hiding anything.

    Others may be and that’s where some of those suggestions I think will come in handy.

  9. There seems to be a need for Wine Blogger University. It is not we, who are in the wine business, to be responsible to teach those, who aren’t in the business, how to be in the wine business.

    It’s either done by experiential learnings or by university courses, for, if you want a real answer.

    I may be wrong, but I don’t think it was ever incumbent upon Steve to educate WineDiverGirl. He was just journaling.

    I don’t feel that any of us have to go anywhere else to say what we want to say, unless we want to… Isn’t that what blogs are all about, journaling one’s own opinions, thoughts, rents and raves in our own space.

    What am I missing here?

  10. Let’s take them one at a time…

    1. Has no winery ever hired a writer to tell their story? If I see a blogger as a good writer, and I’m looking for a good writer, why shouldn’t I seek to hire them? It’s up to the blogger to decide how that fits into their overall path. (Didn’t Stormhoek hire a blogger…?)

    2. Within the last two years I have received a solicitation from a major wine writing awards event to sponsor a wine writer traveling to the event. I’m just agreeing with you that it happens regularly. I also agree it’s better that the regional ass’n handle it.

    3. I’d be happy to have a wine blogger pour for a day. Sort of like “Dirty Jobs”, right? (For the full experience they would of course be expected to clean the bathroom.) Maybe someone should start a blog where all they do is be a guest staffer for a day..?

    4. I regularly solicit my readers for event (and other) ideas, both via my blog and via twitter – and many of those readers are also bloggers. I don’t see that WDG said anything about bloggers being “managers” or “planners” and I wouldn’t agree with that either. The buck stops here. I do think this probably works better as an informal exchange of ideas rather than a focus group, however.

    While I don’t agree 100% with WDG’s ideas, I also don’t agree they are 100% stinkers – and I bet they lead to some even better ideas.

  11. That’s a floating “for” — oops!

    And, it should have been “rant” not “rent.”

    I was defending Steve’s (and anyone else’s) right to say what s/he wants on his/her own blog about something s/he’s read elsewhere. I don’t believe as journaling people we have to follow a stream elsewhere as an kind of ethical/moral decision.

  12. I appreciate all the reporting/writing/journalism content AND the art/pictures/video/entertainment content that wine bloggers provide. Steve, your post seems to take the tone that the former far supercedes the later. It is up to the reader to sift through the content that matches their interests and aesthetics. If people want to watch Fox News, they are going to watch Fox News.

    As far as wine bloggers as consultants goes, if a blogger can convince a company to pay them $$$, that’s great! It reminds me of what Jason from Stormhoek said at #wbc.

  13. Jo, you think we need to go to Wine Blogger University to have the right to blog? By definition of your later post, you are contradicting yourself – if this is MY blog, then I have the right to write what I want when I want. If Steve can, don’t we all get the same right? I am not sure you are actually clear on your ideals, since they are contradicting each other at every reply.

    The goal of Wine Diver Girl’s post was to inspire creative ways to encourage winery & blogger interaction. Isn’t the same done for book critics, movie critics, etc? How are we different? We are different because we are not getting swag bags or free premier movies passes. Most bloggers do so because it is their passion, not their job.

    In the current economy wineries, like everyone else, are trying to do more with less. Why would they not try to leverage a (mostly) free resource, and encourage free publicity? Seems only logical to me.

  14. Wine Bloggers University (WBU)

    Clarifying, WBU was mentioned because I had a brief moment of sarcasm, not schizophrenia. Because I haven’t been visibly sarcastic in the past, it wasn’t recognized as such. (I have my moments, though, like everyone else.)

    I’ve been in this business for a long time, and know what works and what doesn’t from within. I know what proprietors are willing to do, and it’s not every idea I’ve ever come up with, either. These concepts above are mostly only concepts that most wine companies don’t have much time to entertain.

    Yes, young writers are a resource, but when that person begins to slow down a process in this economic climate, wine companies just don’t have time to bring in someone uneducated about a product and put that person behind the bar to serve wine without the end result in mind. Tasting rooms are there to sell wine to consumers who come into their tasting rooms. Having someone who’s totally new to the business behind the bar is an intern situation, and I’m thinking that many brands I work with would look at me with raised eyebrows if i suggested this to them as an idea I wanted them to do. Space behind these bars is limited, quite honestly, and proprietors have serious overhead. There are much better ways to work with a blogger that’s more cost effective to the winery.

    We already give comp tickets to media, so that’s not anything new. They’re limited, though, due to fire marshal issues.

    I never think inside a box, and have executed on some really fun projects (like hauling a group of winemakers across country in a motor home, hiring a train to pull us around the country and stopping in cities along the way for writers and trade people to learn about Petite Sirah). Somebody’s always got to be willing to pay for the great idea, so we have to dream up what will work best for the winery, not what will work best for the blogger. That’s going to be the key to success.

    When I first began in this business, I was laughed out of some pretty impressive wine companies, I’m not ashamed to say. I now, too, can laugh at myself, because I’m so far removed from those early days… I see them for what they were.

    I had no clue about the business, and yet I wanted in. My resume already had 11 years of FM radio PR, and I had been able to interface with Tina Turner, ZZ Top, Sting, et al. Winemakers were going to be a piece of cake, having already worked with such luminaries.

    My concepts for the wine business, however, were as naïve as WineDiverGirl’s currently are. She’ll get there, though, because she’s well educated and has a job with a wine company…

    It will just takes time and experiential learning (out of WBU), as we watch this new social network unfold.

  15. I could make a deal with a winery (or several) and put content on my blog and, frankly, would not have to tell anyone. But, what happens when money has changed hands and it comes time to write and I criticize the wine or discover that the winery is using illegal ingredients or chemicals or paying its staff under the table? Frankly, no winery should put itself at that risk.

    WDG, do you want wineries to pay for your blogging? It’s not journalism but there is nothing wrong with selling good ideas and work as marketing or PR.

    So would I write for a winery? Sure. Would I blog for a winery? Sure. Would I do it for free? No. It’s work for hire. Would I call it wine blogger journalism? Absolutely not.

    As I have said so many times, you can be creative and you can buy/sell or give away words. But don’t give away credibility.

  16. Regarding the goal of of “inspiring creative ways to encourage winery and blogger interaction”, I have an idea on that:

    Publish something on your blog that spurs them to action or affects wineries.

  17. This post shows a fundamental lack of understanding of blogs and bloggers. While I respect Steve’s wine knowledge and enjoy his writing, he is as qualified to advise bloggers as most bloggers are to tell him how to write a book.

    Traditional media folks are by definition unqualified to to tell new media folks how to do their job, and bloggers need to quit telling other bloggers how to run their blogs. The wheat will eventually separate itself from the chaff.

  18. Jo, I don’t know about a wine bloggers university because I was under the belief that blogging was born out of an individual’s freedom of expression on the Web. This is a brave new frontier we’re all a part of so I think trying to incorporate old rules is a bit difficult if not futile. I don’t think that Lisa at winedivergirl is naive, I think she is merely exuberant about the business she is in and is offering her own perspective on what we all are experiencing right now – a genesis of ideas and writing innovations. I don’t believe that the majority of us are journalists, save for those actually in the printed media (like Steve), but that we are commentators, expressing ideas more freely, like street musicians, playing to anyone who is interested or will listen. Perhaps we will all learn from the Rockaway incident and develop ways to be less bias while still working with wineries in this still relatively new medium. Or maybe, we won’t.

  19. I applaud WineDiverGirl on her efforts to explore the full potential of bloggers and wineries working together. If want to get your feathers all ruffled about conflict of interest, look at magazines that do wine ratings and accept advertising dollars from the wineries that it rates. Let blogs breathe, let them function, and try and be part of the solution rather than someone who complains about the situation.

  20. Alan, at Wine Enthusiast, there is a firewall between advertising and ratings. I should know: I’m the California rater. Advertising has nothing to do with my decisions.

  21. steve…

    a couple of things…

    I only came across your site recently and I have no idea what the wine blogosphere is like… but it seems to me based on the current posts on her site, WineDiverGirl is more of social media person/marketer than a wine enthusiast? Perhaps she is in the process of writing a book about the rules to having a successful wine blog? who knows…

    I agree with most of your critic of her post, but I wonder if the part that she is missing is about community… I think that her suggestions don’t really make the connection about how blogs and the social network really work and how the connection between the industry and the blog reading community could be improved… it’s not the bloggers that that industry is interested in… aren’t they more interested in the readers and possibly new drinkers?

    You are right, if you want to be a pro reviewer you need standards… if you want to market in the “blogosphere” you can take advice about how to make bloggers blog about you…

  22. I love it that WineDiverGirl is attempting to rock the boat.
    There is no problem to be solved per se, as Steve asked above.
    But wineries do need to sell their wines and are rightfully looking for innovative solutions, beyond the traditional wine press and 3 tier sales system.
    I also work in the wine industry, in addition to blogging at MyDailyWine.
    As a result, I would have made different suggestions than WineDiverGirl and indeed have spent quite a bit of time thinking about this exact issue.

    But I kind of squirmed when reading Steve’s post that was so focused on ripping into WineDiverGirl.

    The beauty of reading wine blogs for me is that many bloggers are NOT in the industry and as a result can force us industry types to rethink our status quo approach.

  23. Wow. Re-posting an over 4-year old bashing of someone who doesn’t even write a blog much anymore. And, who, by the way, actually worked for a winery when she wrote that, if I remember correctly. So the guy who didn’t work for the winery, trashed someone who did, because she was a “blogger”. Did you learn so little in the past 4 years that you’re still trying to discredit people who write because they have a passion for it, not just because they are getting paid to do so?

    A Blog is just another a word-of-mouth endorsement. I’d argue a blog has more credibility for its audience because it’s much like one neighbor telling another “I really liked this wine, you should try it.” Really. That’s all we’re doing. I don’t know why paid writers continue to be threatened by those of us who write because we are passionate about it. If there wasn’t a need for us, from readers who grew tired of being patronized by those who take themselves entirely too seriously, we wouldn’t exist.

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  1. Wine Questers Blog » Blog Archive » A little dust-up between bloggers and old wine media - [...] WineDiverGirl made a blog post about wine bloggers and wineries working together. Famous, or infamous, Wine Enthusiast writer Steve …
  2. Beware of Wine Bloggers! | another wine blog - [...] since Steve is always either telling people that he is indeed a blogger, or telling other bloggers how they …

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