Things are getting nasty over at Tom Wark’s blog Fermentation. Frankly, this week, the shit hit the fan.

Wark closely follows the wine industry, marketing, politics and wine blogs on his entity, and he posts frequently on these matters. He has worked in wine marketing for years and knows the business thoroughly.

On August 27, in a post titled “On Press Sampling — Giving and Taking and Ethics,” Wark sharply denounced a program in which a small group of wine bloggers was given bottles of a new wine from Rodney Strong Vineyards, the limited edition Rockaway Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, suggested price, $75. The stipulation given to these bloggers was that if they took the sample they had to write about the wine, whether in a review or in a story, within a time-frame of four days. The samples came to the bloggers before they went to mainstream wine publications like the Wine Spectator and the Wine Enthusiast, meaning that the notices or reviews from the bloggers would be published before the Big Guns even got the wine.

The idea did not originate at Rockaway or Rodney Strong Vineyards or with Rodney Strong’s public relations director Robert Larsen. Instead, the experiment was organized by Jeff Lefevere at Good Grape as an exercise in blogger power, to see, that is, if the simultaneous, or closely simultaneous, publication of these reviews or notices would have any sort of effect. Obviously the winery cooperated by supplying the wine.

Wark’s denunciation of one part of this experiment, that is the aspect that the bloggers were required to produce copy at a certain time, can be summed up in this sentence from his post, and I suspect this is what hurt people’s feelings:

I’m not sure bloggers shouldn’t be ashamed of themselves for agreeing to these terms — assuming they want to be seen as part of the long tradition of independent journalism and professional criticism that strives to maintain a measured and necessary distance from their subject that allows them to entertain and inform their readers through the appearance (and reality) of not being unduly influenced by their subject.

The result was (at this time: 2:32 p.m., C.T., on Saturday) 110 increasingly vituperative responses and 45 fairly snarky responses to a follow-up post, “On the Wane,” that Tom put the blog on Aug. 28. (I am generally in agreement with Tom, and I admit to having been fairly snarky myself over there.)

There seems to be a crisis of confidence in the world of wine bloggerdom, and the crisis revolves around these issues:

1. Is it all right to accept samples of wines from producers and imports?

2. As wine blogging becomes better-known and (perhaps) more influential, is there a danger that wine blogs will lose their independence and personality?

3. What sort of ethics should be applied to wine blogging?

My perspective on these issues derives from having written a weekly print wine column for 20 years (for 15 of those years as a nationally distributed column) and as 22 years as a full-time journalist at a daily newspaper. I have been writing for the Internet since December 2004, first on my old website and now on this blog.

Samples

Nobody picks up The New York Times Book Review on Sunday and says, “Oh no, these are reviews of books that the Times got for free from the publishers, how can I trust them?.” No one picks up Fanfare or Downbeat and says, “Oh no, these are reviews of CDs that the magazines got free from the recording companies, how can I trust them?” And yet there’s all this anxiety among wine bloggers that they will be tainted if they accept samples of wine.

Calm down, friends. A sample bottle of wine is not a bribe.

Sending wine samples is written into the cost of doing business for wineries and importers. In the 24 years that I have been writing about wine, no representative from a winery or importer, no marketing or PR person, has tried to establish a quid pro quo understanding about how I would review a wine or even if I would review it or not, though of course they would like some sort of notice in timely fashion. And even after negative reviews of some wines, most producers have continued to send samples, because that’s part of the procedure.

An excellent example of this aspect, as a matter of fact, is the winery in question; over the years, I have been hard on Rick Sayer, the longtime winemaker at Rodney Strong, because I think he has too free a hand with oak. When I can recommend a wine from Rodney Strong, I do; when I can’t, I say so. I continue to receive samples from the winery, and I hope it’s because they trust me to be objective and straightforward. (Rather than that they just forgot that I was on the mailing list.)

The understanding has to be perfectly clear: Writers receive samples from wineries. They will write about those wines if and when they can, and they will write about those wines with a sense of complete freedom and independence. If that concept makes you nervous, don’t review wine. And if bloggers feel that they can only write about wines that they purchase, that they have to take this stance to reinforce their integrity, that’s fine, but I would say that it’s a stance that’s impractical for most of us.

Keeping Blogs Independent, or “How Can We Get Respect But Not Turn into the Wine Spectator”?

So, what kind of respect do wine bloggers want, anyway?

One aspect of the Rodney Strong experiment — or “RodneyStrongGate” as Terry Hughes at mondosapore dubbed the brouhaha — that surfaced repeatedly was that it served as a signal to the mainstream publications that wine blogging had to be taken seriously. Remember, however, that the experiment was organized by a blogger and carried out by other bloggers; there’s little evidence that it advanced the recognition of wine blogging other than the fact that Rodney Strong agreed to participate. The whole affair hardly seems to live up to the “innovation” it was touted to be.

The real question is, from whom do wine bloggers want recognition? Do we really care if the mainstream publications like Wine Spectator, Wine & Spirits and Wine Enthusiast acknowledge our existence or feel a sense of competition? I would say not. While a few wine blogs carry real advertising, most of us (envious, to be sure) have to be content with Google Adsense; not much recognition (or livelihood) that way. Would stories about wine blogging in food magazines and the popular press satisfy our need for recognition?

Give it up. The recognition comes from the readers of our blogs, the consumers who are looking for alternatives to the mainstream journals, which are increasingly “lifestyle” oriented, the readers who enjoy a little quirkiness, a little personality, a little attitude. It worries me to read that wine bloggers seek “legitimacy,” another word that came up in the posts surrounding this mess. Do a good job and satisfy the needs of your audience; there’s your legitimacy.

Wine Blogging Ethics, or Just, You Know, Ethics?

One response to Tom Wark’s posts on Fermentation suggested that a code of ethics for wine bloggers needs to be formulated.

Sorry, that notion suggests committees and subcommittees, months of endless emailing, divisions into factions, official positions.

Let me save everyone the trouble:

*Be Honest.
*Be Fair.
*Don’t Be an Asshole.

In other words, yes, of course wine bloggers need to have a sense of ethics, for crying out loud, but it doesn’t have to be some special agenda. It’s a matter of common sense. Transparency, for example, begins at the beginning of a process, not at the end. Independence from the sources of your wine is always necessary; if you feel compelled to disclose to your readers that wines you review are samples, by all means do so. I mean, I just assume that’s the case anyway. Even if you go to a trade tasting and work through 100 wines in four hours (or whatever), the wine still came free from somewhere. That’s the nature of the business, and it’s your job to stay objective and enlightened.

To the person who says, “But it’s my blog, and I’ll be dishonest, unfair and an asshole if I want to be,” I say, Go for it, but I won’t be one of your readers and I bet that people who care about wine won’t be either.

One More Thing

What bothered me about l’affair Rodney Strong was the tone adopted by some of the bloggers who reviewed Rockaway 2005. What they wrote sounded like press releases for a winery’s new product; there was a notable lack of the distance and detachment necessary to true balance and objectivity.

Here are some lines from some of the reviews:

“These small areas of the vineyard are where the viticultural and winemaking teams have found the best fruit that expresses the terroir there.”

“To maximize the expression of the Rockaway vineyard …”

“Please join me in congratulating Rockaway on the pending release of their new wine …”

“To craft these wines, grapes from only the best (meaning most tasty) vines/rows are selected …”

“In a final feat of expressing the best of the land …”

“Rockaway is completely made from free-run juice from the best rows and vines in the vineyard. Their goal is for it to be the ultimate expression of terroir …”

These (somewhat similar) lines convey all the enthusiasm of writers who got so carried away with a project that they forgot to be objective and detached. If I had written like this when I was doing a print column, my editor would have throw the copy back at me and said, “Stop with the press release bullshit and write something real.”

So, here’s my final point:

You bloggers want recognition? You want legitimacy? You want to be taken seriously?

Then love wine in general, but be very skeptical about wines individually.

Delight in the process of wine-making, but be very skeptical about wineries.

Admire the people who make the wine, but always watch your back.