freebie protocol

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

My “Drowning in Social Media” post (February 26) brought this late-breaking query from blogger Erika Szymanski, who writes:

As a brand-new wine blogger, I can't fathom asking anyone for a free bottle even ten years down the road and if I had a substantial readership. On the other hand, I have wondered what etiquette and protocol deem suitable as far as tasting and tasting fees go. If I visit a winery or tasting room with the intent to write about the experience, is it:

1. Reasonable to mention my intentions and ask about points they might like me to mention?

2. Acceptable to ask for waiver of the tasting fee? 

"Starving grad student" that I am, tasting fees (and tickets for formal tasting events) often limit where I go and therefore about what I can blog. My interest is in meeting winemakers and educating anyone and everyone about wine with a focus on local independent wineries. Helping to support small-scale winemakers is exactly what I hope to do! 

Finally, especially if someone offers to waive a fee but even in any case, am I -- or to what extent am I -- beholden to write only complimentary things about the wine? Does anyone have suggestions on what to do if I really don't think much of a wine? 

My thanks!

PG: Erika, I’ll give you straight up answers from my own experience, but I do not pretend to speak for anyone but myself. A big part of this evolving world of social media wine commentary (or film or food or you name it commentary) is that it all comes with a lot of unanswered questions. Access to being published online is easy and open to all, but after that it’s a crap shoot. How do you find your voice? How do you find your audience? How does your audience find you?

But to your specific questions. If you visit a tasting room with the intention of blogging about the experience and the wines, it is problematic to announce it in advance. In order to have the same experience as the average visitor, you need to be the average visitor, which is to say, anonymous. I used to do that frequently but now it is virtually impossible for me to be anonymous. So if I am visiting a winery to taste wines, meet with the winemaker, and review new releases, I call ahead and make an appointment.

As far as asking a winery about points they would like you to mention, that sounds an awful lot like PR. Wine journalism, blogging, criticism, reviewing, etc. is not the same as marketing and PR. Under no circumstances should anyone engaging in these activities let the winery control the results. PR and marketing people get paid to do that work, and not in free wine I assure you.

I understand that tasting fees and tickets to public wine events can be expensive. However, there are many opportunities in the bigger markets for members of the trade to attend free tastings. Here in Washington state I work closely with distributors and importers who host such trade tastings. It is one way to taste a lot of wines without expense and without asking for special favors. Now in order to be seen as a “legitimate” reviewer, you need credentials. That gets back to my earlier point. How do you establish those credentials?

It’s a bit of a chicken and egg challenge. There is no right or wrong way to do it. The most successful bloggers who have not begun in traditional media have earned their status by keeping at their blogging over long periods of time, and by and large for little or no financial reward. Their credentials have been earned by being first, by being steadfast, by being interesting. Do you track metrics on your blog? If not, you should start doing so.

It’s great that you want to educate anyone and everyone about wine with a focus on local independent wineries. But ask yourself why anyone (or everyone) would want to pay attention to what you have to say. There are hundreds of wine blogs out there, along with newspaper columns, magazines, books, videos, etc. Why is yours worthy of attention?

I wouldn’t worry about your obligations to someone who waives a fee. Your obligation is to your readers. To be honest and interesting and unique and valuable. In order to do that you must separate yourself from the winery’s marketing and PR spin. Unless of course, you want to make that your work.

Hope this is helpful, Erika. Bloggers, your thoughts?


Anonymous said...

Paul and Erika - this question sparks some interest in me because I'm newer to the blogging scene as well (Nov 2009).

1. I don't ask for free samples (if I receive them, it must be because the winery sees something in my approach)

2. Tasting rooms - I heard some advice from that when they go to tasting rooms to review wine they do it anonymously (staff becomes curious as they spit and take copious notes) Personally, wouldn't ask to wave a fee.

3. Winery and Tasting Room (formal reviews) - For me, I review each of the Spokane Wineries - to do this correctly and thoroughly, I have to set up an appointment so I can interview and video the winemaker, etc. So far, I've never received wine for free and I always buy wine to include in my text review (done at my home in an unbiased format). In a way, I'm a PR for the Spokane wine scene, but I honestly review the wine.

I guess the bottom line is you have to be true to your intentions without fear. Ratings are subjective (obviously with experience and knowledge factored in) and what your readers are wanting to know is can they trust you and do you have similar tastes.

Sean from WAWineReport may rate a $100 bottle of wine five stars, I know I'll never drink it b/c I don't buy $100 wine. If I give a $20 bottle of Barrister Rough Justice a high score, my readers may take note.

Anyway - great topic - I can't wait to read the other comments.


Arthur said...

I hate to do this but....

"ask about points they might like me to mention"

I say just ask for their press kit, tasting notes and winemaker bio - preferably in PDF form - and serve it up on your blog. Less effort: you don't have to think, make judgments or know anything.

Maybe in this arrangement, you can even charge a promotional fee.

Sean P. Sullivan said...

I think the most important thing is to be transparent in whatever you do.

If you receive wine as samples or some other financial waiver, let people know it. I personally don't list when tasting room fees are waived because they are nominal ($5-$10) and are intended to keep away folks looking to drink free wine. However, my blog states that this is my policy. I don't ask to have the tasting fee waived btw. I'm happy to pay it (although they do add up but so does pouring wine) or have it waived.

I used to enjoy going to tasting rooms anonymously and think there is a place for it. It gives one a different impression of the experience. However, as mentioned above, walking in with a clipboard (many thought I was from the health board), asking a bunch of questions, and spitting wine pulls the cloak off pretty quickly. Generally, I now let people know when I'm coming or introduce myself when I arrive. Has its advantages and disadvantages.

Regarding samples, I used to purchase the majority of the wines I reviewed with the exception of those from extended reports. I liked doing this because it gave me a lot of freedom about what I tried and what I wrote about. However, after my office closed down at the end of last year, buying several hundred dollars worth of wine every month for the blog just wasn't practical (it probably wasn't before that by the way). The blog is now a mixture of wine I buy, samples sent, and wine I've sampled in public settings (tasting rooms, etc). At the beginning of the year, I started including this information in my tasting note database in the interests of greater transparency.

As Paul mentioned, I would definitely avoid asking people at the winery what they want you to write about. That's for you to figure out! And if you are reviewing wine, avoiding potential conflicts of interest is paramount.

Big picture, the main thing is to be transparent in what you do. And enjoy it!

Anonymous said...

Arthur - I think Erika (the blogger) is asking a valid question as someone wanting to learn. It's an honest question that deserves some practical response and advice, wouldn't you think?


Arthur said...

I was being sarcastic. But, as Paul said, this approach verges on being a mouthpiece for a winery.
What is in the PR material and what is really the truth are often two very disparate things. Plenty of myths and misconceptions are propagated through Media Copy. If you just regurgitate that, you are not really learning. So, I'm a big proponent of learning - and truly knowing wine - but using media materials is not a way to do that. This is promotional text meant to extol and entice, not to educate. It has no obligation to be truthful or correct.
There is a lot of material available that can prepare one for wine evaluation and critical thinking about the product. But then, it’s impossible not to acknowledge that writing about something while learning about it is essentially on-the-job training. The problem with this is that one is making some sort of endorsement of a product and asking people to trust that while they still do not (100%) know what you are talking about. This is akin to first-year medical students sitting on advisory committees that recommend gold standards of practice. Nice idea, but not a good one.
My point in all this is not to completely bash or denigrate those like you and Erika who are starting out, but to encourage you to do your research and read and learn and train your palates so you can make your own decisions, your own judgments and recommendations that are rooted not in what the producer tells you (or what your initial impressions and personal preferences dictate) but in something proven and authoritative.
As Paul says, when you get a public forum or platform where others pay attention to you, you have an obligation to them. Part of that obligation is to be informed about your subject matter and being able to filter out hype from fact and truth.

wild walla walla wine woman said...

Paul nailed it with: It’s a bit of a chicken and egg challenge. There is no right or wrong way to do it ...

Erika, I would tell you the same. There is no right or wrong way - just do it! But I will also tell you this, my pet peeve is wine blogs that sit stagnant for months without any updates. I think once you make a commitment to blog, you owe it to your readers to keep things fresh. Sure life happens, but it only takes a few minutes to let your readers know you are on vacation, in jail, being held hostage ...

Sean P. Sullivan said...

I will second that sentiment from Catie. I see a lot of sites out there launch with a lot of fanfare and frequent postings only to realize that it takes some serious work and suddenly let it peter out. Before starting such an endeavor, think about the amount of time you have to dedicate to it. Perhaps try it for a month or two before making the site public to get a feel for it and the amount of work involved. But once it's out there...

BTW Catie, I have always appreciated you letting us know when you are in jail or being held hostage. It makes the blog so much more interesting!

Thad W. said...

As others have stated, whatever your approach, the most important thing is to be transparent about it to your readers. I have no issue with a blogger who fully discloses who they are and how they approach reviewing wine. But those who practice opaqueness or even worse anonymity should not be trusted for their opinions or otherwise.

Ed Thralls said...

I don't know Erika, but much like when I read the original post about bloggers asking for samples, the mere fact that there a question about proactively asking for a freebie whether it's a tasting fee, a bottle of wine or whatever, I have to question the real reason someone is taking on blogging.

Much like anything else in the world, you have to pay your dues and that means doing what many have stated above in the comments already. Just do it, gain an audience, be authentic, etc. In my opinion, you should be passionate about what you are doing... do your best and forget the rest. A line from Field of Dreams comes to mind: "If you build it they will come." But, the IT needs to be interesting, authentic and make a connection with people wanting to learn more about wine.

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