Saturday, December 12, 2009

When Bloggers Get Fooled

By Rob Bralow, Editor

I want to start this blog post with an apology to Randy Watson, The Wine Whore. And I apologize, because I have to call him out on a recent blog post of his.

Currently there are hundreds of wine bloggers. There has been an explosion of wine writing on the Internet and there are now more voices than ever giving people advice, relating experiences, and generally spreading the word about the virtues of wines and their producers.

One of the main topics of conversation among blogs and other bloggers is the dominance of the reviewing publications. The main five are (in alphabetical order) International Wine Cellar, Wine & Spirits, Wine Advocate, Wine Enthusiast, and Wine Spectator. There are other internationally recognized publication such as Decanter and Penin Guide, but by and large those five are the only publications in the US that retailers use to sell their wines.

There is plenty of argument on the use of the scores of these publications, and on scoring in general. There are many discussions on the marketing towards these publications and the influence of marketing on ratings. There was also a lot of navel gazing regarding the ethics of receiving samples, advertising, press trips, meals, etc. by wineries. The US government has even posted new interpretations on the laws of advertising specifically for bloggers (something I wrote about back in April, before it hit the wine blogosphere... goes to show how important I am in this community).

That is all well and good. Everyone has decided where their ethical compass points them.

So then I came across a post by Randy, giving praise to a winery that told him that they do not submit their samples to "corporate tasting panels, yet still looking for online reviews and general presence..." Randy, a self proclaimed whore for wine samples, praised this winery for not feeling pressured into submitting to these reviewing publications and how honest and genuine this winery is. You can read Randy's entire write-up for yourself.

I am in the marketing business, I work in public relations for several wine companies and regions. When I hear that a winery does not submit their wines to the reviewing and rating publications, I get somewhat curious. Why not? You can always tell them no when they come begging for advertising revenue. I also get curious to see if what they say is actually true and that their wines are in fact NOT submitted to the reviewing publications. So first I looked on the winery's website and found this:

Our winery "does not submit to professional competitions, nor do we submit our wines to for-profit corporations seeking advertisement revenues (in exchange for numeric scores.)"

Fair enough. That seems to be completely consistent with what Randy reported. In fact it seems that this winery has done a great deal reaching out to bloggers and other online reviewing outlets. There is a long list of blog posts discussing the wines (probably in positive tones, although I have not read them all). The prices of the wines are all standard prices for Russian River Valley wines. Nothing too pricey, but in the $25 - $40 range.

I then went to the reviewing publications (since I have subscriptions to all of them). In the International Wine Cellar and Wine Advocate I could not find the wines listed, which surprised me because neither of these publications accept advertising. I then checked the Wine Enthusiast and Wine Spectator (both publications that accept advertising and send their reps out with a vengeance) and in both of these publications they had their wines rated, as recently as last year's release in Wine Enthusiast, although the late rated wine in Wine Spectator was several year's ago. This entire process took me less than five minutes.

So what happened here? Did Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast purchase these wines, just to give them mediocre reviews? I think there is probably enough wine out there that neither Spectator nor Enthusiast need to be purchasing wines.

I am not writing this post to call out the winery. I am sure this type of thing happens all the time and there might even be a very good explanation of why these reviewing publications have ratings of these wines. I really wanted to relate that my experience has been that bloggers rarely do the research to verify the marketing of the samples they get. If you want to be taken seriously as a wine writer, do your research, ask questions, take nothing for granted just because the winery told you so. Perhaps this makes my job harder. But it also means that I need to be more authentic. It is my job to be an educator, to teach the writers, reviews, bloggers, and everyone else about my clients. One of my favorite parts of this industry is that there is always a story to tell.

Randy said he did not get any marketing materials, only a nice hand-written note with his samples. I would argue that he did get marketing materials. And evidently they were rather persuasive.
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