Sunday, October 11, 2009

Full Disclosure

I have seen quite a bit about the new requirements the Federal Trade Commission is placing on bloggers. Full disclosure is now a requirement. Whenever I write about a bottle wine, if it came to me for free, I must disclose. If a winery offers me a tasting without charging me for it, I must disclose that when I write about the visit. If a publicist offers me a place on a press junket to Napa Valley, that disclosure must accompany the article I write about my experience.

Many journalists who work for magazines, newspapers and websites already operate under the restriction that everything must be paid for by the media outlet. This stance allows the writer to write whatever he or she needs to write, supposedly without consideration of the benefactor. Of course, when magazines pay for something so that a writer can write about it, and that something happens to be the subject of paid advertising in that very magazine, who is to say there is no external pressure applied on the writer to "like it."

Bloggers, however, are usually not listed on NASDAQ, and as such are sometimes obliged to take the offer of a "comped" trip in order to write about something they might not otherwise be able to experience.

Personally, I never read anything without wondering who's footing the bill. If Wine Spectator showers praise upon a Sonoma County Pinot Noir, how do we know they're not dirty? Sure, the Russian River Valley in Sonoma County is a source of truly fantastic Pinot. But did the magazine receive that wine as a free sample? Do Sonoma County Vintners advertise in the magazine? What about the Sonoma Chamber of Commerce? Maybe it's just that the wine is good.

When does a bona fide piece of journalism become a puff piece? Sometimes it's hard to tell. Most of my writing seems like puff to me. That's because I mainly write about things I like. My writing time is limited. Why spend it writing about something that displeased me? It would be easy for someone to jump to the conclusion that I got a wine for free, or was given a tasting gratis based on a favorable article. That doesn't mean it's the case.

When I write about wine or wine tastings, most of the time I am writing about something for which I put hard-earned money on the barrel head. There are times when a tasting room manager will offer me the tasting for free, knowing that I am doing research for an article that will mean publicity for the winery. Is the article I write about that tasting room tainted? Other times, they may not know who I am, but when I purchase a bottle they waive the tasting fee. If I review them favorably, am I guilty of some sort of vin de payola? Sometimes I pay for a tasting, and after it's done they offer me another taste or two of other wines. Does that taint the entire paid tasting, or just my opinion on the last two wines, which were free? I can see right now, the bookkeeping on this is going to be a real pain.

For the record, my take is this: Some things need to be regulated. In general, though, the less the government has to do with my life, the better I like it. I don't see this issue as something that really needs to be regulated in the first place. But since our legislators seem to think it does, I imagine it will be.

Just know the following. Whenever I write good things about a wine, it will be because that wine had good things to offer. If you don't see too many negative remarks here, that's because I don't sit around drinking bad wine. Well, there was that "Two Buck Chuck," but it actually wasn't all that bad.

When I was a rock'n'rollin' teenager, I began to read Rolling Stone magazine, in particular for the record reviews. I didn't need to be told what to like, but I knew from reading these writers' past reviews what to expect based on their stated opinion. If a reviewer had a history of favorable reviews toward a certain artist, I knew that reviewer was likely to give good reviews to more of the same. If more of the same is what I was after, I'd hope to see a favorable review from him. If I wanted something different than that, I'd hope to see him pan the music. If he did, maybe that new album would be right up my alley.

In any case, I'm pretty sure those Rolling Stone record reviewers from 1970 were getting freebies. But they wrote what they felt about what they heard. Knowing the writer's preferences made it easy to discern whether I should plunk down my paper route money for that music or not.

Now, of course, there are thousands of outlets where product reviews are available. It would be too much to ask that people follow reviewers closely enough to get inside all their heads , which probably wouldn't be a very pleasant place to be anyway. If, however, I tell you a wine smells like cat pee and that's the last thing you want your wine to smell like, you know which way to go.

All I do in Now and Zin is write my impressions. Take them with a chunk of sea salt, if necessary. But know that, if nothing else, they are honest impressions.

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