Buying Guide Label Deception, Part Deux. What's Wrong with Charging $$$ for Labels?

Y’know, I was going to try to sit down and analyze the three glossy buying guides in (in)glorious detail. However, contrary to appearances, I do not really consider that a good use of time. I traveled down this road before, in a two-parter published in Wines & Vines {July & Sept., 2006; happy to email a pdf of those articles to anyone who emails tish (at) wineforall com}. Based on perusing recent issues of Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast and Wine & Spirits, however, I can say with confidence that the most relevant points I made back then still hold. In short, the buying guides may appear similar to the eye but are very different in execution, selectivity and transparency. To keep focus here, let’s stick just with the label presentations that wind up int said “buying guides.” To wit:

  • Wine & Spirits: Labels in the buying guide are “a form of advertising,” as explained in the box that presents tasting methodology; they appear once, along with the reviews, in the regular run of the guide, where wines are arranged by descending rating, within categories.
  • Wine Spectator: Labels in the WS buying guide are never paid for by producers or marketers; they appear only in the beginning of the guide, and are flagged as “Spectator Selections,” for the express purpose of editorial endorsement, having been “selected” for their overall quality, cellaring potential or value. Wines whose reviews are showcased up-front receive only a refer-back-to-page-## note in the regular run of the guide.
  • Wine Enthusiast: Labels, identified in a box about methodology as “paid promotions,” are presented as a gallery, beginning on the opening editorial spread and continuing for full pages (8+ pages in Feb. ’09). These “gallery” labels are accompanied by rated reviews which are stripped of the taster’s initials; they appear in descending numerical order, except for those also flagged as “Best Buys.” Each gallerywine has its review appear again in the regular run of the guide, with taster’s initials, minus label. There is literally no separation of the reviews with “paid promotions” from the rest of the buying guide; indeed the placement of the labels—nested in the buying guide, starting on its opening spread—implies editorial endorsement.

So, my point? Well, cynics out there who know that I was an editor at WE from 1988-’98 may well think I am once again trying to skewer them. No doubt; this is patently deceptive in my estimation. But those who follow my ranting at http://wineforall.com over the years, and more recently at http://dregsreport.com, know that I have ranted against plenty of targets, and have taken WE to task for other ethical breaches. And in this case I don’t give W&S a free pass either; their labels are ads and should be more obvious to readers.

The greater point I aim for here is: What if bloggers were to adopt a similar model for reviewing? In other words, what if a blogger were to blind-taste wines, determine his/her favorites, and then, without changing a word (or, in rare cases, a rating), then contact the producer or marketer of these already-commendable wines and offer also to display a visual image–for a fee? Would that be any different?

Taking it one step further, forget about the blindness of the review. A lot of the best wine recommendations I have received—and many that I give to other wine lovers—derive from personal experience that is not blind. These are wines that have been had in situ, at meals, or perhaps in some other context where particular wines rose above a pack of peers That’s real world stuff. And in my experience, recipients of such recommendations are happy to get the goods.

So why shouldn’t bloggers, especially given the rapidly expanding world of wine communication, take a page from print and begin to monetize reviews? Is anyone going to be worse for wear if independent, real-world wine experts with blogs began to generate income from reviews that they have already determined by whatever judging standards they deem best? As long as the blogger’s tasting policy is transparent and the paid nature of images is spelled out as part of the same policy, it seems to me that everyone–wineries, bloggers and readers–stand to benefit.

7 Comments

  1. Posted May 1, 2009 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

    Tish,

    You’re absolutely right. I’ve thought about this and the potential backlash.

    About the only barrier that I can think of is the fact that the magazines have separate staff for editorial and sales and indicate that the rivers never meet.

    With one man blogging, the same person that writes the review, contacts the representatives for advertising.

    I, personally, think I have a strong enough moral compass to not tie ratings to who I think would pay for advertising, but I have a hunch that the lynch mob mentality we see wouldn’t agree.

    The chasm we have to cross, from my perspective, is to get people to stop thinking of themselves as critics per se, but to have them think of themselves as brand platforms that can have endorsements.

    Nobody gives Peyton Manning a bunch of crap for endorsing 18 products. Viewed in that light, nobody should give a blogger a bunch of crap for endorsing products.

  2. Posted May 1, 2009 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

    I realize this post is mostly snark, but there really is a good reason for wine bloggers to NOT “monetize” their blogs- once they do, the blog becomes a commercial enterprise and is viewed quite differently by courts looking at claims of trademark and copyright violation, defamation, commercial disparagement, etc. The return on a blog, a few bucks a month for most hobbyists, is not worth the increased potential liability.

  3. wrtish
    Posted May 1, 2009 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

    The endorsement angle is spot-on. I endorse wines all the time when I do events – by picking and pouring those particular wines, instead of others. I do the same if/when I start blogging about wines that I think people will like. I’d like to hear what other, more experiecnced bloggers think, too.

  4. Posted May 1, 2009 at 6:32 pm | Permalink

    Tish: In my humble opinion issues concerning the potential commercialization of the wine bloggersphere are: most but not all bloggers have other careers, and blogging about wine seems to be more about community and lifestyle than about commerce. A wine blogger in the reestablishment of one’s model under the current paradigm may be confronted with a diminished credibility, even with the requisite transparent statement of purpose. Inherent in the process would be increased scrutiny, not only from the readers but from the TTB and the individual state ABC’s. This is now in discussion in Cailfornia by our ABC concerning the taxing/licensing of even non-compensated blogger reviewers. Also, there already is a significant commercial presence from wine click sites in the blog space. So, perhaps the issue is not just about ethics and perception, but about the question of generating enough revenue in relation to effort and effect.

  5. Posted May 2, 2009 at 12:30 am | Permalink

    Tish,

    Until now I have lurked in the shadows over here at Enobytes mostly just writing content and reviews. Your observations have always been a take on realism. I applaud your insight and realize the potential for revenue even if I have to lowball everyone and just work on volume. There are many consumers who would appreciate knowing someone came home from work opens a bottle of wine pours some wine. Then reaches for the cutting board and a knife, pulls out the vegetables to be prepped takes a sip after at least 5 minutes in the glass. Then you would start your meal and gradually sip as you complete the meal arriving at the table with ¾ of a bottle (two people participating) then enjoying the meal. Returning to the keyboard with a quarter of a bottle a couple of hours after the wine was opened to sit down and write a review. Consumers might appreciate wines reviewed in this fashion. It’s too bad the large publications cannot relate to the possibility different approaches might yield similar and or perhaps better results.

    ~Marc

  6. Posted May 2, 2009 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

    Hi Tish,

    I’d have to agree with dhonig and Enobytes. Monetizing my blog for the paltry amounts I would get from label promotions doesn’t seem worth the effort, especially if have to be the blogger and the sales department. And as much as I would welcome paid sponsorship, I also would have full disclosure while maintaining the same methodology for my reviews, which is very much like how Enobytes does things. Potential sponsors would be fully informed of that fact and have to live with that and that’s probably why I don’t have any sponsorship nor the likelihood down the road.

    I didn’t start my blog with the intention of making money–buying my domain name along with the web hosting and Internet connection was not cheap. But as I draw nearer to the time when I won’t have steady employment, the attraction of getting paid for doing something I would do anyway, doesn’t sound half bad. Blogging isn’t new to me; I’ve been doing it in one form or another for nearly 12 years. Making money from it though is a new paradigm for me. If there is a way to do this without selling my soul to the devil, I’d love to hear about it.

    -Eric (cornerstone brick)

  7. Posted May 2, 2009 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    As long as the policy is stated openly, there’s no reason why a blogger can’t accept payment to add a label to a review. And bloggers who do not want to accept payment can also state that no payment is accepted by any wine producer for any reason. It’s up the consumer to make a decision as to whom to pay attention to. My wine merchant makes recommendations either personally or via email or on the website, and obviously he makes money from every sale. I’ve been steered in both the right and wrong direction by the Wine Advocate which accepts no advertising, and by the Wine Spectator which does.

    I’ve worked for wineries where I poured wine and waited for the right moment to say to people “Isn’t that wine great? Don’t you just love that bright raspberry aroma and the smokiness of the oak?” But they are tasting it. If they don’t like it, they don’t have to buy it.

    Openness not rules seem to be the fairest and most honest way to go.

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