full disclosure

Thursday, October 15, 2009

New FTC rules for bloggers have brought the concept of full disclosure into the foreground. Beginning in December, those who blog or Tweet online product reviews must acknowledge whether they have been gifted samples or paid for items they review.

Let’s deal with that one right away. I review wine. I write occasionally about wine gadgets, books, websites, retailers, etc. I rely almost exclusively on freebies for this material. Last week I tasted over 350 wines from the Okanagan. Did I purchase any of them? No. I worked my butt off for five days as a judge, for which I received a plane ticket, lodging, meals, and $300. That may sound like a paid vacation, until you consider that we had virtually no free time. We were busy with tasting and judging-related events from 8am until near midnight every day. So that $300 works out to about $5 an hour.

Most wines I taste are from Washington and Oregon. I encourage wineries to ship samples of new releases on a regular basis. Many do, some don’t – it’s their choice. None of the publications for whom I write has a budget for freelancers to purchase wine. Even if they did, it would be laughably inadequate. I was once offered about $100/month to cover my wine purchases. Let’s see – with that kind of budget I could buy a case or so of mixed plonk and “review” it. Or maybe a half bottle of something snotty from Napa.

Even the big budget columnists who make a lot of noise about buying everything they review are far more limited than I in terms of what they taste, unless they taste widely at trade events, and during frequent trips to wine country. In my view, the more you taste, the more discerning you can be. If I write up 10 wines out of 20 tasted, is that better than writing up 10 out of 200, just because I bought the 20? I think not, so the notion that wine reviewers should not accept free samples is D.O.A. as far as I’m concerned.

The larger question is this: how is any independent wine journalist supposed to carve out a living? For 15 years I supported my wine-writing habit with full-time work outside of the wine industry. But for the past decade, in order to keep on top of a vastly-expanded NW wine industry, and make time to write books, a daily blog, etc., I have been writing about wine full-time. How is this possible, you might wonder?

Well, to some degree, it’s not possible. Look at this website. Do you see any advertising? No income there. The print publications pay what they can, but it’s piece work, and does not add up to much. I get no benefits, no health insurance, no holidays, no sick leave, no vacations, no pension plan from anyone. I work 7 days a week, 365 days a year – or I don’t get paid at all.

Which is why it is particularly annoying when some self-righteous (and usually anonymous) individual decides to make my life a little more difficult than usual by looking for some “conflict of interest.” A recent example was my (now terminated) program to offer Paul Gregutt Selections. The idea was to offer very limited edition wines that would never enter the retail channel (other than via an individual winery’s club) for sale with select retail partners. It was designed as a way to showcase some of the most interesting and rare wines from top Washington producers, to offer the wineries an expanded market for those wines, to offer consumers a chance to purchase stuff they’d never see otherwise, and yes... FOR ME TO MAKE A FEW BUCKS!

So some anonymous retailer who got a burr up his butt decided to complain to one of my employers because of my “conflict of interest”. Never mind that this individual (along with countless others who work in the wine business) has made thousands – perhaps tens of thousands – of dollars over the years because his customers have read an article of mine and walked into his shop to buy the recommended wines.

How much wine do you suppose my articles sell for wineries, importers, distributors, retailers each year? There is really no way to know. But I can tell you this, those sales have generated zero – nada – rien for me. The PG Selections – which numbered about 8 wines altogether – were never reviewed by me or anyone else in any publication anywhere. They were clearly marked as what they were. Full disclosure.

Well then, how is an independent reviewer such as myself, with a decades-long background in journalism, supposed to make a living as a wine writer? I attended the Wine Writer Symposium in Napa a few years ago looking for some help with that question. (I was there on a full scholarship, sponsored by Terlato Wines, who have never in any way before or since asked for, pressured for, or even hinted at a quid pro quo). The Symposium did not provide much guidance on this topic. In fact, none. There is none to be had.

Yes, there are ways I can cobble together a living without selling wine. Write more (I think I’m tapped out there – I already write almost every day of the year, usually with 5 or 6 assignments due at any one time). Teach (I’m now certified to teach WSET courses over in Walla Walla, but that program is just getting going – time will tell). Do private seminars (I do them; they are fun; a lot of work; and at least half of them I do for free for charity). Or... sell wine. The big no-no.

I see that Twitter now has its own wine label, called Fledgling. Some of the most successful writers and bloggers do sell wine – bucket loads of it. Gary V does not seem to be bothered, or hampered in any way, by being a retailer. Double standard, or full disclosure? You tell me.


Rebecca Chapa said...

Well done! What have you heard about whether this will or will not affect the boatloads of retailers who write up wines in catalog and websites, in effect acting as reviewers? In an industry of consumable products also how can we be expected to pay for all we review? Is the solution no more free trade tastings, winery visits? Meals?

Howard said...

Dude...Paul...you are dead on..

..it is strange how people think that a Wine Reviewer could buy all that wine...nor do I see how a writer could get people to believe him if he continued to "pump up" a wine just because he was "paid" for it...if wine is crap it is crap and if you said it was good juice...well ...people would just see through it and quit reading..

I for one am VERY sad to see the PG Selections going the wayside...I LOVED the chance to try the gems you found for us...and for one I NEVER felt as if the wines were anything buy a great QPR!

Greg Harrington said...

Interesting that it was a retailer who called "foul." In our business there is an absolute double standard for writers and the retail/restaurant trade and it shocks me that this happened. How many retail/restaurant buyers have been flown around the world by importers or regional wine trade associations? Should these retailers be required to put a sign on their shelf that says "We are selling this wine because Mr Importer took me to Alain Ducasse in Paris?" As buyers we are offered countless "benefits" that are absolute conflicts of interest. I don't see many crying foul here. How many retail stores make thousands of dollars on their holiday catalogs?

Emily Wines on the Guild of Sommeliers website wrote an amazing article on Sommelier Ethics. Here are the main questions she asked of buyers in our business:

Perks from suppliers and wineries

Wine representatives use every resource they have to get us to buy their wine. At what point are you beholden to that brand? And if your list placements have been bought, is that problematic for you?

a. I never take meals, wine, or money.

b. I let wineries take me out to lunch or dinner

c. I go on wine trips, but only when they are sponsored by a group (Wines of Argentina) rather than a winery (Catena)

d. I will go on any free trip that comes my way- even if it means that I will be supporting that brand in the future.

e. Sometimes I get a free magnum of wine when I purchase a couple cases for the restaurant. It is the only reason I ordered the wine, and I take that magnum home

f. A rep friend of mine gets a commission on every case of a specific wine that I order. They split their commission with me

g. A supplier discreetly gives me a check for all of my by the glass placements that come from them

We see this and much more in all facets of the business. Should wine lists or retail stores have a disclosure?

Regarding wine writers, they are in the business of reviewing wine. It is financially unfeasible for a writer to purchase each and every bottle. And frankly it is unnecessary. The writer - supplier relationship is a symbiotic relationship. As a winery, I rely on writers to 1) get the word out about my wine and 2) give me a gut check on the quality of my wine in relation to comparable wines worldwide. It is absolute indispensable information for a supplier and we are both benefiting from the relationship. In what other business does the reviewer pay for each and every sample? Does Walt Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal pay for every piece of technology her reviews? Free samples for evaluation, whether for a wine reviewer, restaurant or retail store are normal in our business and an acceptable way of doing business. The code of conduct should be evaluate the sample only and don't take anything else from the winery/supplier without disclosing.

I should note that I do see a conflict between paid advertisers and reviews, much akin to the investment bank conflict of analysis of banking clients.

I also didn't see Gregutt Selections as a conflict of interest. Many wine writers have an equity stake in wine for sale. In fact, Robert Parker owns a winery in Oregon. Armand Diel is both wine writer and producer. The agreement not to review those wines should be enough to satisfy naysayers. And for my full disclosure, I didn't sell any wine to Gregutt Selections.

Wawineman said...

Mister G, I suppose you will be drinking a beefy syrah after spewing heat with the last two columns. I recommend Betz Family Winery.

So...I get the impression that you folks that are deep into the wine trade do not consider us wine bloggers as actual "wine writers." You didn't have to directly say it for me to understand your view. I get it. While I agree that tasting 200 wines (via freebies) is far better than buying 20 in "writing up 10", you completely ignore the simple fact that we, the consumer, do not and, likely, will not be afforded such an opportunity.

Wines are produced for the consumer to purchase and enjoy. Wine reviewers, restaurant owners, and the like, make up the middle sections of that distribution chain. Go ahead, get your freebies, make your 100% retail markup...have a good time, but ultimately, the wines are for the consumer who PAID for it.

As for you, Mr. Harrington, believe it or not, I am a "wine writer" and purdy (sic) damn proud of it even though I'm referred to as a "blogger". No biggie. And, I have purchased each and every bottle I have reviewed. It is possible. Perhaps, your viewpoints stress the taste of a wine (btw, you do make good wines--I reviewed your Substance merlot), but my viewpoint is that from the consumer who has to pay hard-earned cash from grunt non-wine related jobs who generally have to look at perceived value when purchasing wines at the market (versus getting freebies in the mail).

My sincere apologies to all of you who work in the wine trade if I come off overly defensive. If there were established standards for "credentialed" "wine writers" then, of course I would follow them. Guess what, there aren't any. Maybe, there's a project for you. Blog, write, tweet, honk...who cares? I think we are all intelligent enough to smell out a "bribed" review, and the reality is, those types are extremely rare.

And there's nothing wrong with making money from wine. Just do it ethically and with transparency.

Keith Webb said...


Not only does is seem most magazines review wines that were given to them, some, like Wine Spectator, CHARGE a "fee" for wineries to submit that sample.

Wine Spectator reviews more than 16,000 wines each year. They say most come as "samples" and that they spend "thousands of dollars" each year to buy wine for review. Let's say "most" means 14,000 and the "fee" is $100 a wine, that's $1.4M right there.

Their Restaurant Wine List Awards receives 4000 entries at $250 each. That's $1 million more there.

Wine Enthusiast offers wineries whose wines will be reviewed in their publication a chance to pay $900 to have the wine's label displayed.

So, Paul, there's a few ideas for you of how the industry is cashing in as wine reviewers. Of course, you first need a multi-million dollar empire to be able to weather the obvious ethical issues.

PaulG said...

WAWINEMAN - I think you took my diatribe a bit too personally. I am proud to call myself a blogger - it's the wild west nature of it that I am trying to shed a little light on. My rant was intended only to explain more clearly what I'm up against as a blogger/wine writer/journalist/whatever. Trying to do the work with absolute integrity AND make a living. I'm not a "lucky spermer" – I have to earn my keep. I took Greg's comments positively, again, I see no disrespect (veiled or intended) toward bloggers in his post. Keith – I must assume you know for a fact that W/S has such charges. You are correct that W/E does sell label placements. They sell advertising of all kinds. That is how print media stay in business. The challenge is to keep the ad sales separate from the editorial decisions. In my experience, W/E does that – otherwise I'd hand in my resignation.

Chuck Miller said...

Paul, I have an idea for you to make some money: Create a blend of all the leftover samples, bottle and sell it under the name "Paul Gregutt Rejections".

Wawineman said...

You're right, Mister G. I think I had too much Legoe Bay viognier when I typed that. I took a chill pill and sat at the end of the bench.
Wine is about enjoyment. With food, with friends, with thought. Everything else should stay on the periphery, but I'm glad there are those talented individuals that take it to the "next level" and actually eke out a decent living and are accorded due recognition. I'll never be one of those and it is not my goal anyway.
I'm with you--I don't like "cheap shots", especially targeted at prestigious organizations.
Disclosure: I only buy Wine Enthusiast issues when the cover features anything dealing with Washington State wines. :)

Greg Harrington said...

Just to clarify my points -
I have no ill wills towards wine writers, bloggers, retailers or anyone in the wine trade. I actually think that the blogging community has had an immensely important impact on wine and the availability of information on wine. I routinely send samples to bloggers or have them at the winery to taste.

The point of my post was to shed some light on the things that go on in the wine business. How there are opportunities to get "paid advertising" at all levels of the trade. I applaud those that buy all of their samples. I think that is an honorable thing to do. However, I do not think it is necessary to write an unbiased review on a particular wine if the reviewer discloses how he or she conducts business.

Thanks to all for an interesting discussion.

Catie said...

Paul, I am sorry to hear that some gass-bag made it miserable for you to continue your PG Selections. I thought it was a great marketing idea as there are a lot of people nationwide, and especially in the NW, who value your opinions on wines.

Yeah, I am a blogger. Although I get a few checks in the mail for writing wine articles here and there, I still consider myself a blogger. The majority of the wine I review on my blog I purchase or taste at the wineries. Thanks for explaining your personal and financial side of wine writing. Whether the payment is pocket money, like mine or a livelihood like yours, we can all agree it is done as a labor of love.

Oh yeah, and I am guilty of selling wine online, too. What started out as a simple request to the State of Washington Liquor Board to have a red blend with my logo on it to either sell for a pittance or gift, became well - - a headache with a full retail license. I still blog about wines that I do not sell. Why? I am small potatoes with a very limited finances, but why not share what I know about a great wine whether I can afford to sell it or not? At this point I feel as if I am more of a non-profit service getting the news out about Walla Walla, than I am a business.

So my point is, that behind every critic of wine bloggers and writers, I have noticed their own house has some smudges on the glass walls. The recent politics has become tedious and frankly, everybody in every aspect of the wine business should just focus on their own business and not worry what their neighbor is doing or not doing. The bottom line is what we do for love, the wine consumer is hopefully benefitting from it - - and they don’t care about our squabbles with each other.

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