On buying wine bloggers. A call to resist the dark side

On buying wine bloggers. A call to resist the dark side

Once upon a time people drank their wine in peace, relying on word of mouth to find what they liked. Then the forces of darkness struck. Inventing powerful spells such as marketing, advertising and sponsored wine journalism they took control of the innocent wine world. But behold, a small army of light stood up to the forces of darkness. Writing truthfully, unbiased wine bloggers would save wine lovers from evil.

Good versus Evil, photo by Helico, licensed CC BY 2.0
Good versus Evil, photo by Helico, licensed CC BY 2.0

Good versus Evil, photo by Helico, licensed CC BY 2.0

Some may believe this, but a closer look at the wine blogging world will tell you it is not that simple. In fact, bloggers are now targeted by the forces of evil in the ways not too dissimilar to journalism before them. Are we aware enough to resist?

For many of us wine bloggers writing is a hobby, so the commercial aspect may not be as obvious to us as it should be. A little while ago "Wine Intelligence" advertised a study with the razzmatazz headline: Wine consumers wary of blogger recommendations. This was based on the claim that "1 in 5 regular wine drinkers" trust "independent bloggers" as source of wine information as opposed to 50%+ who believe wine merchants. Even if you take this at face value, I would argue that influencing 20% of regular wine drinkers is a success, not a sign of distrust.

With this growing influence also needs to come an awareness of us operating in a commercial context in which marketing companies will want to buy our voice. Accepting free tasting samples and invitations to tastings and other events is one thing. As long as bloggers are transparent about this and aware of the context I see nothing wrong with it. Pretty much since the start of the Wine Rambler we have set us clear rules for how to do this. Taking paid ads is something we don't do, but as long as they are clearly marked as such it is up to the visitors of a site to make up their minds about it. What about ads that are paid for but not marked as such though? Increasingly we receive email from marketing companies (usually sent from Gmail accounts) offering money for putting up content and links to their clients' websites. From the increasing frequency this happens to us and other bloggers I would assume that not all of us say no to such offers - otherwise there would be no point in agencies sending them. What I do refer to are emails with offers like this:

I have had a look through your website and we are very interested in submitting a guest or sponsored post with a link back to our client’s site. We have lots of experience in writing content and so the content would be 100% unique.

Usually, we say no to this straight away. The other day I got curious enough to reply, asking for details but also emphasising that we were not interested in adverts, sales pitches or any fake content. Despite making that very clear, this is what I got back:

My client is in the online wine trading industry. And though there would be a couple of link within the post it wouldn't be a sales pitch or marketing post. What I had in mind was a review of a few wines from the cabernet sauvignon grape.

So basically, this is a retailer paying bloggers to publish reviews of wines they sell (or at least wines similar in style to those they sell, if I try to interpret this in a positive way). To me that is an advert and should be clearly marked as such. It has nothing to do with "unique content" for a blog. If we want to be seen as credible, we have to resist this. An advert is an advert and has to be clearly understood as such.

Submitted by Andrew Connor Friday, 08/04/2011

I think it's inevitably problematic if you rely on the goodwill of wine PRs to provide free samples, tasting trips etc. There's always the temptation to give them a soft ride. I know this is just a hobby for you guys but there are people making a business of this and the question inevitably arises, "What is the revenue stream?"

I like reading wine blogs but I take it with a pinch of salt, there are several people who seem only to taste exceptional wines. Don't you think it's extraordinary for a blog not to have a single negative review of a wine?

It's not clear to me why the 50% of people would trust wine merchants either. They also have a product to sell.

The strength of independent professional journalism is that the writer has an income irrespective of how many noses they put out of joint

Submitted by Heike Friday, 08/04/2011

In reply to by Andrew Connor

Hi. This was an interesting comment. I belong to those who hardly write negatively about wines. But that is because I am so tired of and bored by people and media constantly focussing on negative topics or formulations in general. So my credo has become to just not write about wines I didn't like, and to focus on the good ones instead. Seems so much more worth spending my very limited time for... Never thought about that it could be seen as being bought...

Thanks to wine rambler for another good post!


Submitted by Old Parn Friday, 08/04/2011

In reply to by Heike

Mediocre wines tend to produce mediocre wine writing. Although absolute rotters can be entertaining, with many so-so wines, there's very little to say…

Submitted by Andrew Connor Friday, 08/04/2011

In reply to by Old Parn

A fair call. There's certainly enough dull wine in the world without drawing attention to it and I can understand the desire only to write about the memorable ones. I don't mean to impune your ethics

An analogy would be with a restuarant critic, or someone reviewing the theatre. Would you trust the judgement of someone who only gives good reviews?

Submitted by The Sediment Blog Friday, 08/04/2011

In reply to by Old Parn

Ooh, no - hope that we manage to generate some far from mediocre posts on the Sediment blog about some VERY mediocre wines. Short on superlatives perhaps, but quality writing should not require quality wines.

Submitted by Old Parn Friday, 08/04/2011

In reply to by The Sediment Blog

Okay, that was a sweeping generalisation, I admit (and I attempt to produce non-mediocre writing about mediocre wines, too) — but there are those wines that are just, well, wine. And not much more to say about 'em. Of course, one may then simply write about the difficulty of writing about boring wine. Though you can't repeat that trick too often…

Submitted by torsten Friday, 08/04/2011

In reply to by Heike

The issue of positive reviews on wine blogs has concerned me for a little while now, mostly in relation to the Wine Rambler, actually. Looking back over the past half year or so we mostly had good or very good reviews here (leaving aside the really cheap supermarket wines, but criticising those is not really a brave thing to do).
There is of course a reason for this: we write almost exclusively about wines we pay for ourselves, so we do what we can to buy wines we hope are good, and we seem to be getting better at this (which also includes spending more money). At the heart of the Wine Rambler there is still two old friends (now living in different countries) having a conversation about our wine adventures. Maybe we should drink more bad wine to demonstrate that we are bloggers of the really critical and honest sort? ;-)

Anyway, as with all sources it is up to the readers to make up their minds about how credible we and other bloggers are.

Submitted by Kimberly Tuesday, 12/04/2011

In reply to by torsten

I have to admit, I am glad that you include more positive reviews than negative ones. I do not need to hear about bad wine out there, I can find that easily. I enjoying hearing about the good ones you have sought out and those are the ones I note and look for.

As Wolfgang Goethe said "Das Leben ist zu kurz, um schlechten Wein zu trinken" (Life is too short to drink bad wine), and I am glad that you have taken the lead in referring us to good wine.

Enjoy reading about your wine adventures.

Submitted by torsten Tuesday, 12/04/2011

In reply to by Kimberly

Thank you for your comment, Kimberley. It is good to hear that what we do has some use beyond keeping us off the streets and out of trouble. In our own interest, we will continue to keep our eyes peeled for good stuff - after all we have to drink it, and we also pay for it. I think negative reviews can still be useful in telling you what to drink, but as the range of wine we can cover here is limited I agree that recommendations are more useful. And, as I said, more fun for us!

Submitted by Chris Saturday, 09/04/2011

In reply to by Andrew Connor

I find it amusing that you are not clear on how people trust wine merchants, saying they too have a product to sell.

To distrust someone simply because they are selling something is near paranoia at worst, machismo at best.

The best wine merchants realize that when trust and relationships are paramount, the sales take care of themselves. That is why people trust them.

Any clearer?

Submitted by Andrew Connor Saturday, 09/04/2011

In reply to by Chris

Hi Chris, this is at me right?

The context is Torsten's quote in the post about the wine intelligence report saying 1 in 5 people trust bloggers recommendations versus 50%+ who trust wine merchants.

I dare say the "best wine merchants" DO realise trust is paramount. I would argue that nevertheless as people with inventory to shift they are a less independent source of information than a blogger or indeed a journalist.

I certainly wasn't implying that they're not trust-worthy or that they won't do their best to make a good recommendation.

The point isn't to be wary because they are selling something but to bear in mind their agenda when considering their recommendations

Submitted by Chris Sunday, 10/04/2011

In reply to by Andrew Connor

I think an important distinction that is not made is whether people trust *any* wine merchant, or *their*wine merchant. I think most people asked would answer in the context of the latter, in which case, there would be little reason to question their trust.

People are often good, and don't need to be assumed distrustful until proven otherwise. They are worthy of an initial benefit of the doubt

Submitted by Old Parn Friday, 08/04/2011

Good article. The whole point of PR is obviously to influence. And, like Andrew Connor says in his comment, some of these guys are pretty good at doing that. The ones who ask for a guest post aren't the pros, it seems to me — it's the softly, softly ones that are far more likely to wield significant influence in the long run.

Simply by meeting and talking to PRs and wine retailers/producers, I reckon we're being influenced. Unavoidably. It's that much harder to slag off the work of someone you've met and got on with.

Tasting blind is pretty much the only way to strip away those subconscious biases, I suspect.

Anyhow, I agree that transparency is essential. We should always declare an interest and leave the reader to judge.

Submitted by Alex Friday, 08/04/2011

In reply to by Old Parn

I agree, it's a thin line. One is always a little influenced and tasting blind might be the only solution to that. But on the other hand a wine sometimes deserves being judged in real life conditions, in the context it is meant to be served that is, at a type of event it is meant to be drunk or with the type of food it is supposed to match. Vimpressionism, right?
I recently received a bottle of wine for free. I decided to pour it with a group of friends and implement their opinions in my review. Interesting topic! Greets..

Submitted by Vimpressionniste Friday, 08/04/2011

In reply to by Alex

The blind taster defending subjectivity: I must be doing something right ;)

On a serious note though, it's hardly realistic to expect an independent blogger to only taste blind, because unlike a wine "critic" [shiver], bloggers are REAL PEOPLE who drink wine in REAL SITUATIONS. Hopefully, they talk about what they like, and not what will get them more visibility or $$$.

The Internet has allowed us "common" wine lovers to share our thoughts, and as more people listen to a select few, it is only natural that PR and SEO agencies target them. I guess that what it comes down to is the gut feeling of the blogger. If he/she feels like "selling out", I believe it is time to change format and portray oneself as a proper wine journalist (I think it is clear from this statement that I have very little respect for the wine press and their self-declared "objectivity").

For blogs, pre-written content is punishable by a lifetime of Pinotage (South Africa doesn't sponsor me) and intimate tasting events w/ merchants are dubious. This is pretty common practice in "real" journalism.

Submitted by Alex Friday, 08/04/2011

In reply to by Vimpressionniste

Yes man! Let's write a penal code for food blogging! Bloggers will be judged in court for immoral postings. Let's start with a list of punishments:

- Lifetime of Pinotage
- toasting American oak barrels
- force-feeding with Athens-duty-free-shop Retsina! (use of a beer-bong)
- 48h forced screening of James Suckling video clips (I'm 96 points on that)
- Napa-Valley Roulette (one of the wines actually contains real glue) (ok, that's mean... )
- any suggestions...?

And, yes, the blindtaster is a big fan of vimpressionism... Should consider changing my blog's name..

Submitted by ALISON DILLON Friday, 08/04/2011

In reply to by Old Parn

Speaking as a Wine PR and marketing person you do make us sound like a devious bunch. At Dillon Morrall we only work with people and products we genuinely believe in and that have a great story to tell. We give the story light of day and approach in a bespoke fashion those people we believe will also find the story interesting. If the story is no good it simply won't be written about simple as that, although we like to think we've filtered out the bad stuff before getting to that stage!
Wine PRs/generic bodies etc provide the opportunity to taste wine ranges which one would be hard pressed to do as an individual. It's then up to you whether you glow or glower over the wines :-)

Submitted by Old Parn Friday, 08/04/2011

In reply to by ALISON DILLON

What it comes down to (in my view) is that the best PR is the subtlest, the least intrusive PR. The approach you describe, Alison, sounds to me like the approach that'd be most likely to bear fruit. I've worked with PR people in my day job (non-wine-related) and the best are passionate, charismatic, energetic. Or else very good at appearing to be so. ;)

They *definitely* influence — why else would we hire them?

But then again there are the PRs who simply spam out press releases to every news outlet, regardless of niche. The offline equivalent of our 'guest post' touters, I'd say.

Submitted by Vimpressionniste Friday, 08/04/2011

In reply to by ALISON DILLON

In the wine business, be it a producer or merchant, it is quite clear to me that PR no longer stands for public relationships, but "personal" ones. Get buddy-buddy with those who "get eyeballs" (as Vaynerchuck would say) and you can get your message across to the masses.

Is this unethical? Difficult to say: if one is doing PR for one's own estate/business, truly believing in one's work, then who is to criticize a person for wanting to share his or her passion? Agencies, however, who make a living off of "story-telling" are in it for the money. Otherwise, they would just be blogging about the stories. And those are the guys sending out sketchy propositions by email.

I completely agree with Alison that trade tastings are a different animal though. Especially the large, anonymous ones like the VDP. This is when the "only write about the good stuff" principle truly makes sense.

Submitted by Alison Dillon Friday, 08/04/2011

In reply to by Vimpressionniste

Ouch! So unless you're the owner and are doing your own PR, PR per se is unethical because you're just 'in it for the money' and peddling any old story? Let me tell you that we, as a company, and a small one at that, have turned down 'big money' because we've not believed in the people or the products concerned and couldn't with hand on heart share those stories and believe in them. when we work with a client we are an extension of them, part of the team with a passion for the subject matter, just like the winemaker or the winery tour guide - are they unethical because they are paid by the owner ? I think not:-)

Apologies to Wine Rambler for going off piste again as this is not what his original post is about!

Submitted by Vimpressionniste Friday, 08/04/2011

In reply to by Alison Dillon

Sorry I wasn't clear in my last comment. I did not mean to say that PR is unethical, rather that I think it would be unethical, as a blogger, to simply relay messages from PR agencies. That's a journalist's job. I believe that Internet users expect a certain subjectivity and independence from bloggers, which is not necessarily compatible with the traditional press and people who live off of their writing.

I understand that agencies and marketing departments want to leverage the web 2.0 phenomenon, but I just don't think one can approach a blogger like a wine critic. The whole appeal is that they don't "play the game", thus offering an alternative voice.

Relaying the words of a vigneron or winemaker, however, is first hand info from those involved in crafting the product (and who hopefully are as passionate about it as you are about your clients). Of course one can communicate ethically, but I stand by the fact that the moment you are hired, you are expected to produce results. If one can manage to perfectly balance passion and professional life, than you are very lucky, but it's still too fragile a relationship to blindly trust in my book.

Submitted by Alison Dillon Friday, 08/04/2011

In reply to by Vimpressionniste

Bit tough don't you think to imply wine writers are just conduits of the PR message? If the wine stacks up it warrants being written about if it doesn't it won't. Wine writers have their reputation to think about too! They are not slaves to the PR message anymore than I am a slave to anyone who will pay me :-)