chicken little media

Friday, June 18, 2010

I have been a practicing (as in paid) journalist for more than three decades, and I am well-used to the ceaseless noise of debate that constitutes most of what we kindly refer to as “news.” Despite my own deeply-held political convictions, I am resisting any impulse to turn my blog or Facebook pages into a forum for such discussion, as my colleague Steve Heimoff has done. I welcome friends from all stripes of the political flag, with only this caveat: I expect – make that require – civility and mutual respect.

I must, however, comment on the role of the media, especially as it impacts the coverage of wine business news. The Media is often invoked by people of passion as a principal villain in regards to slanted rather than objective news coverage. Being The Media myself, I have generally looked upon such accusations with a somewhat jaundiced eye. When the same story or periodical is slammed equally from both the left and the right, it says to me that someone did their job well. When a major news network claims to be objective yet attracts only one specific demographic (in terms of politics especially), that is when I look for a particular slant to the coverage.

What distresses me most about The Media these days is not that some coverage leans one way or the other. There is plenty of coverage of all stripes to be sifted through, and anyone who wants to get a balanced view can do so with a little effort and discrimination. But what does bother me is the growing tendency of the news media to cover almost any story by looking for the worst possible, most dire “spin.” So let’s turn to coverage of the recent downturn in the economy as it impacts the wine industry here in Washington.

I started seeing stories about the collapse of tourism in Walla Walla over a year ago. The closing of a couple of restaurants – notably 26 brix – was cited as proof that the end of the world was upon us. Well, actually not true. That restaurant was in trouble long before the economy went south, and its problems did not in any way spill over into the basic health of tourism in Walla Walla. In fact, the restaurant business anywhere at any time is a tough one, and most restaurants fail. Plain truth.

In Walla Walla and the surrounding communities these days, here is what is going on. New wineries continue to debut – several dozen in the past couple of years. In that same timeframe, one winery has closed, a couple have cut back production, one is closing its tasting room, and one has been sold. Seems like business as usual to me. New vineyard development proceeds, with significant new plantings in the Rocks, around Seven Hills, up Mill Creek, and in the wheat fields bordering Spring Valley. The Bloggers Conference will be here in a week, and I assure you, there will be a whole lot of tweeting and blogging going on singing the praises of Walla Walla, its vibrant downtown, and especially its food and wine.

Yet The Media manages to keep finding horror stories and spiders under every rock. Just this week, a panicky story in the Wine Spectator headlined “Washington Wine Retrenches” seemed to suggest that the industry hereabouts is in dire straits. It pointed out that a big project bankrolled by the Crimson Wine Group had been shelved. True enough, but this is old news – it happened more than a year ago. And the vineyard – some 600 prime acres in the Horse Heaven Hills – is still being tended; far more important in my view than any particular brand.

As further "proof" the story noted that Precept Brands is closing its Alder Ridge winery and laying off its winemaker. Also true. But what the story failed to mention is that Precept, the fastest-growing wine company in Washington, had just acquired the holdings of Corus Brands, which included the Alder Ridge winery. Having just built a multi-million dollar production facility outside of Walla Walla, Precept did not need the Alder Ridge capacity. It has been shuttered (temporarily) and will most likely be leased out to another major producer in the near future.

I won’t go through the rest of the story line by line, but though accurate, it put a needlessly gloomy spin on what is actually happening, at least here in Washington. Yes, some wineries are cutting back production. But they may actually remain equally profitable, while gaining in such intangibles as less travel, more family time, and reduced stress. Sounds like a win to me.

Yes, some vineyard contracts are being cancelled, and there is more fruit for sale than usual. But really good vineyards will find buyers, and in fact some smaller wineries will gain access to fruit that otherwise would have been unavailable.

So trust me, the sky is not falling, the Washington wine industry is sound, the wines are better than ever, and businesses that are run well and responsibly will not only survive, they will prosper.


Bill mechem said...

I agree 100%! People need to chill out and stop fueling the Washington winery apocolypse mentality. In the whole scheme of things we are all living well and enjoying the fruits of our labor. If it was always easy it would be so freakin' boring. This is still a new wine producing area and we still have a lot to figure out. some of us will make it and some won't. As far as i'm concerned the outlook is still very positive.

Trey Busch said...

Paul, our business has never been better. In fact, we started a second label to branch out into other segments of the market that were not actively involved, namely the under $15 area. Our tasting room is packed each and every weekend, and almost everyone walks out with wine in their hand (from $12/bottle to $40/bottle and everything in between)and smile on their face. Walla Walla is far from being in "dire straits". Thanks for setting everyone straight yourself!

PaulG said...

Thanks Bill and Trey, for helping me set the record straight.

Margot Savell said...

Thanks for setting it straight, Paul. When I read the story, my reaction was "Whaaaat?" because it did not represent the Washington wine industry that I know. Your knowledge adds a depth and perspective to that article, which is appreciated. Thanks!

RLL said...

Nice to get a response to 'pack journalism'. And nice to hear that my 'home town' for four years is still doing well in its new business.

Whitman Grad, early 60s

wild walla walla wine woman said...

Ahhh yes, I remember when "the" restaurant closed. An eager journalist for the LA Times, who had never been to Walla Walla, had decided the fate of Walla Walla's 09 Spring Release. She decided our weekend was going to be a bust all because "the" restaurant and a few others had closed. During that particular weekend, I often thought how we sure could have used the ambitious writer to help direct bumper-to-bumper traffic into Walla Walla and Main Street.

Anonymous said...

I have to disagree with you. There is so much backed inventory everywhere (being able to buy Leonetti at Bonnie's in Prosser?), everyone's prices are being dropped, "specials" are advertised like crazy, and I think some wineries are opening second tasting rooms just because they don't get the traffic anymore. Just in the past week several wineries have contacted others in the industry to unload their "bulk" wine. How much bulk wine can you seriously use/sell?
I do think that a lot of wineries are hurting badly and I believe we are going to see more of them closing in the next year or two. The ones that will survive are the ones that are the big players and have the support from wine writers/critics like you, are owned buy a large corporation or it's a mom and pop operation, or they have put enough money away during the "good" times to help them stay afloat now.
I don't think that you have all the information either because people in this business are very proud, sometimes even arrogant and I don't think they would just openly admit "failure." It's not only a WA state problem, it's everywhere.

MagnumGourmet said...


I think that the point you are missing is not whether the wine industry has fallen on some hard times, but is it any worse than any other industry right now?
Paul's point was not that everyone in Washington wine is doing spectacularly, but that they aren't doing any worse in relative terms.

PaulG said...

Yes, MagnumG, and also I wanted to make the point that the media's predilection for trumpeting bad news, often by ignoring some relevant facts, does no one any favors. I'm not Polyanna by any means – I know not everyone will make it. But that's true even in the best of times. In fact, contrary to what Anon has said, it's some of the big winery owners (Diageo, Constellation, Fosters to name three) that are shuttering tasting rooms and selling off surplus brands.

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