Wine Industry & Blogger Interaction: What Crosses the Line?

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At the recent North American Wine Blogger Conference (WBC) in Santa Rosa, California, one of the breakout sessions focused on “Wine Industry and Blogger Interaction.” Two topics getting the most discussion were about industry marketing and blogger ethics. Specifically the questions were:

(1) “I sent out a hundred press releases, why didn’t anyone write about my wine,” and
(2) “Is it ethical for a bloggers to accept free stuff (wine, gifts, tours) from the wine industry.”

The first question was covered in Part 1: Marketing Your Wines for Free. Now we’ll talk about the “ethics” controversy, and what crosses the ethics line between shilling and reporting.

There are some bloggers who say “We must remain pure, we cannot accept free stuff or preferential treatment.” Others complain, “You’re just trying to keep wine blogging a non-commercial exclusive club.” To me, the response to this issue lies somewhere in the middle.

Let me say this upfront: I see nothing wrong with writers accepting wines and other comps from the wine industry. To me the ethical considerations are in the tone and intent of the post, not the post itself. Part of this is from being a lawyer (yes, many of us do have ethics!) Part comes from 15 years in marketing, advertising and public relations. And part comes from working as an investigative reporter and a sportswriter.

As a public relations professional, it was always important to me to tell the truth. Some of my clients and organizations didn’t understand this. To them, it was much more important that they always “looked good.” Now there is often a way to spin something negative to a more positive light. But sometimes you just have to say, as did John McCain to David Letterman, when he ditched Letterman for Katie Couric; “I screwed up.” People are more apt to forgive and give you a second chance when you tell the truth. The same goes if I am selling something, whether it’s a product, a service or an idea.

We heart San Francisco

We heart San Francisco

There are fan sites, homage sites, and then there are wine bloggers. When a winery sends a blogger something “free” or invites the blogger to a fancy tasting at a swanky restaurant, it’s a risk for them. It’s not like the organization is looking for a “secret shopper,” who reports only back to the winery. That guy is on the payroll. The blogger is not. The winery is putting their product “out there” and in doing so, accepts the possibility of a bad review. Unless your blog is “www.winebloggershill.com” or “www.weheartfreewine,” no one is going to question your credibility as a blogger if you, like every other kind of industry journalist, accepts a product for review that doesn’t cost you a dime.

Some of the bloggers at WBC said they thought it was completely unethical to accept free wine. That even cooperating with the wine industry crossed some sort of ethical line.

To that I say: Nonsense. When is the last time a sportswriter paid for his press pass? The sports reporter gets his credentials from the home team. And if the home team stinks up the place with a horrible performance, I, as the sportswriter, am not going to give a flowery description about how the team played well but for crooked the refs, or the other team’s cheating. I would lose all credibility as a “homer” and no one would ever believe another word I wrote. Discriminating readers know who represent the cheerleaders. And those who don’t, well, we cannot babysit all potential readers on the web. There are other “news” sites that do that.

The same goes with on-line advertising bugs and links. When you read a printed publication, do you think that the full-page ad carries with it the endorsement of the publication? In a perfect world, that might be so.  But in the real world it is not. I don’t believe Keith Olbermann endorses Rush Limbaugh, just because there is an ad in the middle of MSNBC’s Countdown for Rush. And I don’t believe Fox News endorses Air America, just because they run a spot for XM167 on their satellite channel.

At www.AnotherWineBlog.com we like to follow what our mothers told us, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” That’s why, if we get a wine from someone, and we don’t like it — we probably don’t write a review. We’ll take all the free wine you want to send; but if we don’t like it, it probably won’t appear on our blog. And we don’t write about the wine I sell or pour at the local wine merchant. If we like something, we’re going to talk about it. Because we want others to have the same opportunity to enjoy it! And if it’s a great wine, then our readers will come back to us for more suggestions.

There are some publications and blogs who do not accept advertising, free wine, or free tours from the wine industry. That’s the great thing about the diversity of the medium. But for those of us who do, we consider ourselves ethical pervayers of information on wine and the wine industry.

Wine blogging offers a big tent. And there’s room for all of us. Cheers!

~Amy Corron Power, aka WineWonkette

  • achinghead

    There has been a lot of discussion about this same thing in the tech blogosphere. Many people think that some amount of disclosure (on a per post basis) is necessary or desirable. Just so that a random googler that stumbles on your post can see that you do accept free wine. Wether this particular bottle was free is possibly another matter.

    • Amy

      When we attend an event that provides the wine, I think we tend to disclose it. But as you say, the requirement to disclose in every single post where and/or how one obtained the bottle, would be a bit silly.

  • jane

    As a writer/editor for a venerable wine industry trade publication, I'll add that wine samples, invitiations, and press passes to events are acceptable, even welcome, as long as those who profer them do not expect anything in return.

    We might attend an event, for instance, and not cover it specifically, although we will mine it for ideas. Similarly, when sources request copies of our articles prior to publication, we always say, “no.” If a source is aware he/she is being interviewed for publication, it is our responsibility to quote that source accurately and in context. But we do not submit our articles for source approval, which would allow sources to change their comments to better fit their own agendas.

    We seek accuracy and real information for our readers, and afterthought manipulation from sources does not fit this agenda. If someone does not want to be quoted, he needs to indicate this initially. If this results in his omission from our coverage, it's his own decision.

    As part of the wine industry, whether as traditional journalists or bloggers, writers must take responsibility for honest reporting: our reputations are as much at stake as those of our subjects.

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  • http://www.WineGuys.info wineguy

    I agree with most of what you are saying. I also have a broad background within tech and marketing, however, I love wine. I have been keeping a wine blog for about 4 years and it's been a slow process…mostly due to cost.

    If you don't have a in with the wine community and just frequent your local packi for the latest info… It would be helpful for some vineyards or reps to send you some different varieties.

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    Has read with the pleasure, very interesting post, write still, good luck to you!

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