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April 22, 2009

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Hi Lenn:
I have difficulty with the implications of the term "obligation." To me, it creates an implied contract, making the blogger/writer indebted to the company which sent a sample. I think that has the potential to lead to a conflict of interest. Thus, I prefer to take the stance that a sample does not create any obligation on behalf of the receipient.

But, I also believe there are standards of proper behavior in regards to the receipt of samples. Though not obligatory, those standards would be highly recommended. To me, your two obligations should be recommended standards, though I would not go as far as making them absolutes obligations.

Personally, I would and do follow such standards, but would never rule out the potential situation when I might not, rare as it might be. I think to prevent potential conflicts of interest, we cannot adhere to absolute obligations, but rather should seek to follow professional standards, acknowledging when such may not be occur.

My wine review policy:

There has been much ado in the blogosphere lately about "the ethics of wine blogging," particularly in the area of wine reviews. Should bloggers review every wine they are sent? Should they do so under a time limit? Some suggest we hew perfectly to the code of journalistic ethics, which forbid both promises. In my personal opinion, that is putting form before substance. Putting the form of the rule- don't promise reviews, ahead of the substance- do what is ethically best, creates a real perversion of the problem. First, and I am being completely honest here, I get a little thrill whenever somebody sends me wine. Why not? Heck, I love the stuff. So what if I (a) like getting free wine, and (b) don't promise reviews. That is easy. I only review the ones I like, out of fear of scaring people off. "Hey," I might say, "this sucks, but if I write that, nobody will send me wine any more." In other words, sticking to the journalists' "code of ethics" actually creates a LARGER ethical dilemma than reviewing everything. On the other hand, promising to review at a time certain takes editorial content away, so that is a promise I refuse to make.

Do you want me to review your wine? I would love to do so. But first, know what you are asking. Take a trip around the blog. See what The Little Wooden Guy, The Big Wooden Guy, and I have to say. We are not always generous or kind. And we WILL review your wine. Honestly. Every time.

Richard: I agree, obligations is probably too strong a word.

Dave: I think the most important part of your policy is at the end where you say "take a trip around the blog." I can't tell you how many PR people contact me offering me samples of things that, frankly, would NEVER appear on LENNDEVOURS. It wastes my time and theirs.

Lenn,

Thank you for presenting this point. I send out sample wine from Fulkerson Winery to all corners of the wine world for competitions, review by wine publications and wine bloggers. My expectation is complete honesty, from all avenues of the industry, which you have done very recently for Fulkerson. Wine analysis can be subjective and we (winery people) should not stake our marketing future for a wine on just these few avenues, knowing that you are not guaranteed five stars or 90+ points, but potential market exposure which can be and is in my opinion very valuable.
Thanks Lenn.

I feel that I should acknowledge receiving them, then I should taste them in an objective and professional way.

Finally if you can you should give feedback. Good or bad, on the wine. I've had some not sso nice responses when I have told wineries why we wouldn't write about the wines. But hey, they deserve to know we tasted them, and made a decision.

In the end though many wines are sent that we already know or have tasted recently and we need to sometimes realize we have too much. I rather discover new things, and retaste only when time warrents it.

This is simple- You owe what you've agreed to.

Before receiving samples, I state (nicely) that they are being sent with the understanding that there is zero obligation on my part to do anything with them. At that point they can decide whether to send them or not. No offense if they don't.

It takes time to go through samples- I usually let them sit for about 3wks, and then often try to taste them when I know that both I can taste them professionally, and where hopefully I can enjoy the leftovers with an appropriate meal and other palates.

Some days I feel like we are swimming with the catfish (both on the blogger and supplier side)--- samples, samples, samples... Almost as if they were the currency of blogosphere...

I don't send wine out to critics like WA, WS Etc...bloggers have received samples without asking...they give the real view of the wine most of the time...point chasers get burnt...I make great wine...this is a fact the consumer have voted me in...it's what's in the bottle that counts and when the register bell dings it's a gold every time...90 + wine pay the bills in a depression...that's something to be said...

I expect honesty to the best of the ability of the reviewer...some people are better at it than others...you get to know who is really full of $hit after a few times...

I understand the ethics discussion but not much has been said on dhonig's point, which is selecting wines which will go to "print".

I guess it comes down to reviewing what makes the most interesting reading for your viewers. That will depend on the focus of the blog. For my blog, my ultimate goal is not posting tasting notes, but education via the "Science!" section. So choosing wines that make an interesting point or bring up a fact or technique is paramount. Other bloggers, those swimming in samples, what criteria do you use to determine which wines will make the front page?

Tom: A very good point and question.

For me, I need to have something interesting to say -- either positive or negative. It would be easy to only write up the "Top X" wines from each weekly tasting, but that doesn't offer a complete view of the wines I'm tasting.

This entire discussion really has me thinking that I need to come up with a way to publish many more reviews. Perhaps raw notes for wines that don't get full reviews. It's something that I need to work through. I refuse to just give my readers a list with a score next to it.

As someone with a wine blog that is only a little over a month old, I haven’t faced this question, but I’ve given the matter a significant amount of thought. I’ve researched the policies of wine blogs I respect and followed the on-again-off-again debate as it continues to unfold. I also asked people that I know who read my blog, but who aren’t in the wine/wine blogging arena, how they would view my blog if I started reviewing samples. It led to some interesting discussions, including learning how bloggers in other interest areas (books, cooking, fitness, make-up, and baby clothes) handle the question.

Ultimately, I decided that I will send an e-mail response that takes a similar approach to the one that Dave outlined. As long as whoever is sending the sample knows that I will review it honestly, and they are comfortable with that and with my style, then I will be happy to write a review. Do I want ALL of my posts to be about samples? No, as that would take away some of the creativity and exploration that goes into my picking wines to begin with, but I think samples would add an interesting dynamic.

I tend to think that reviewers would serve the wine consuming public better with fewer scores and more stories about the wine. Wine is, after all, a unique story that involves person, place, and philosophy. The concept that everyone needs to stamp a score on a wine is a little silly.

Were I receiving wine samples in large quantities, I couldn't promise to review each one publicly, but I would seek out the compelling stories behind each wine and share them with my readers. My review could include some thoughts worthy of a shelf talker, but I'm not hung up on scores. I realize that's not a pragmatic view, but sometimes you need to row against the tide to make progress.

Great post Lenn.

I do expect something different from a blogger. I expect that their review will be personal and authentic. I hope to hear a story about the wine, not just a sterile tasting note and a score. Wine is far more about the experiences you have when drinking it than it is about some description of your organoleptic impressions.

Blogs are the perfect medium to capture in rich detail the real reason we drink the juice in the first place. When I see a straight tasting note on a blog, I die a little inside. :-p

As a winery, I expect to know some things prior to evaluation:
1) How will the wine be evaluated? Is it personal taste, or a professional evaluation? These are very different approaches as a professional evaluation rates wine styles not enjoyed by the reviewer
2) If it is a personal taste evaluation, then I expect some guidelines as to what your personal taste is. For example, if you like Merlot from Long Island, but don't like Finger lakes Riesling, I can avoid sending Riesling. This saves everybody time and avoids issues.
3) Will you be evaluating it on twitter? 140 characters just isn't a lot for a verbose person like me. (yes, that's sarcasm)

Once samples are sent, I expect:
1) Feedback that the wine has arrived OK. Bonus points for an tasting schedule.
2) Tasting in an objective setting - calm, taking notes, good light, proper temperature, you are not drunk, etc.
3) Relatively quick feedback (3 months)
4) Published results. That's why we send the wine.

Duncan,

Terrific. The point of view from a winery is tremendously helpful. For example, I have never verified receipt, and will begin to do so.

You distinction of professional vs. personal is interesting. I think most bloggers do their best to judge wine based upon varietal and location, but agree that if there is something they just plain don't like, they should give a heads-up.

Listing some of the wines you've tasted and didn't write about would probably open up more chatter here and on twitter...especially if we've tried them ourselves.

When I send my Calandrelli Selections wine, it'll come with a seal on the capsule saying "By breaking this seal you agree to publish a positive review on Lenndevours.com with a well light sharp focus photo."

I've never received a sample for review, but given the ongoing conversation about ethics I've considered the situation.

As for obligations on the part of bloggers, it depends. Not having received samples I'm not familiar with the normal procedure, but I would assume that whoever sends out the samples first contacts the blogger to find out if they're interested. I would hold that responding in the affirmative does create an implied social contract where in return for the the sample the blogger will at a minimum provide private feedback on the product in a timely manner. If, on the other hand, a sample arrives without such an exchange (e.g. new samples from someone that already had your address), while it would still be polite to provide feedback there's no implied social contract and hence no obligation.

Above the level of obligation but still covered by etiquette, samples are sent in the hope that they will receive coverage on the blog. While there's no obligation to post about the samples, if the blogger chooses not to it would be polite to include the reason in the feedback.

My blog has a very wide focus, so the only reason for me not posting my notes would be an obviously flawed sample (cooked, corked, oxidised, etc.) Other blogs have different criteria: some highlight only the best wines they taste; some prefer the ones with an interesting story or a personal connection; while still others concentrate on a price segment, region, or style.

One thing that might be helpful is for bloggers to have a clear policy concerning samples outlined on their blog. This will allow wineries to understand what will happen if they send a sample to a specific blogger, and will help alleviate much of the ambiguity.

As we can see from this thread, bloggers have many different views on this issue. Thus, having eacg blogger outline their view on their own blog would help educate all.

Oy... I have two sides of me talking at once... get ready...

A PR point of view:

Where to begin...

First I want to say I am floored by the fact that you give feedback if you do not write up a wine on your blog. Is it the right thing to do? YES!!! Have I seen wine writers do it? Not so much. And the reason for most is understandable. They taste thousands of wines. To write up the wines that taste good and publish those reviews take a lot of time. To then turn around and give feedback about every wine to the wineries that sent them would make a wine writer go insane, especially as I can easily foresee wineries simply getting into arguments with the reviewer instead of taking the feedback at face value.

Many of the bloggers who commented here know me. I have connected with RichardA, dhonig, Dirty already and I hope to meet everyone else as well. On my blog I have already written about my expectations. If any have not read it yet I would invite them to do so. http://sn.im/ge3sy [rfbwinepost_blogspot_com]

I cannot expect to receive a glowing review from every single person I send a bottle of wine to. It just does not make sense. Everyone has different tastes; therefore there should be a group that loves it, a group that likes it, a group that does not care for it, and a group that despises it. I expect this of wine critics and of bloggers alike.

Posting your expectations and procedure as a blogger is very important for PR people like me. I want to know that the time and effort I spend creating relationships and sending samples is not a waste of my time (or more importantly my clients' [the wineries] time). But be sure to do so in a permanent place where PR people like me can easily find it. Do not write one blog post about it; because to be honest I cannot go back and read every single post a blogger has published, I just do not have that sort of time.


Let me now switch to my wine blogger side:

As a blogger I expect it of myself to give every wine that was freely sent to me an opportunity. I taste everything. If I can, I taste with other people so I can get their reactions as well, but I always write my notes first before asking. I also try and taste everything with food, although sometimes it is not possible.

I tasted Don Giovanni's wines above and one was corked. He was nice enough to send me a replacement, which I am ashamed to say is still sitting unopened in my fridge. I promise I will get to it shortly. He has been very kind and not harassed me, although it is well within his right to request I taste the wine and post my review.

But I also want interaction! I want discussion and back and forth with the winery/PR people. I want to know that the person on the other side of the computer sees me as a person interested in a story they have and that they should engage me so I can learn. That's the whole reason why I blog. I use my blog as a way to learn more about the world of wine, in whatever way it comes to me.

And that is what bugs me the most. Where are all the PR people in this discussion?! I see a lot of back and forth between bloggers and editors of the major pubs, but not PR people. I risk a lot putting my thoughts out into the Internet, but I hope that they are well received.

The Dude sez.... follow this simple 3-Step process when it comes to your bloggin' ethics:

1) Clearly state your Code of Ethics on the blog.
2) Abide by said code.
3) Let your readers decide if/when you've crossed the line.

This assumes you're not lying to your readers. If you are, then you suck.

The rest is the lint that we should expect to find by doing so much navel-gazing...

Interesting conversation...

What if wineries sent out a release letter without the wine. Anyone intrigued could request a sample. The critic would not have to be obligated to write something, but obligated to provide feedback if they chose not to blog it or feature it in some other way.

Does that make sense?

There were >110,000 different labels approved by the TTB in 2008. It seems pompous to think a winery expects a review or a response and it is understandable if the volume of samples arriving becomes more than you can write about.

yet, if there is a conversation, like-- thanks for sending me info on this wine, I'd like to try it (for whatever reason), a desireable dialogue begins...

If a winery/importer/distributor asks me upfront if they can send samples, and I agree to it, I feel some level of obligation to at least write about the wines. But as several noted above, they should read my blog first, because I'll be honest, whether I like the wine or not. If, as often happens, the samples are received without prior arrangement, I don't feel any obligation to do anything with them - doesn't mean I won't, but it comes down to an "if I feel like it".

really good blog.....it is really interesting

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