Sunday, March 15, 2009

And They Call Wine Bloggers Irresponsible?

Am I opposed to mainstream journalism? Of course not. Some of my best friends are underpaid journalists just looking for a way to make a living. And they have a certain standard, a code of ethics that I find admirable and worthy of emulating. So when I saw the front of last week’s Weekend Journal (Wall Street Journal) with a section front promo at the top shouting “Never order the Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio,” I turned Refosco red.

Disclosure: I do not sell Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio. In the past I worked on the floor of restaurants, as a server and as a wine director, and during those times I have sold the wine. I remember when it was not a brand and no one had ever hear of Santa Margherita, let alone Pinot Grigio. That was back when everyone, including Saddam Hussein, was drinking Lancers Rose. During a stretch between the late 1980’s and the early 1990’s, I worked for a wine distributor selling the wine. But at this time I have no interest and make no money selling or promoting the brand. Neither Santa Margherita nor Terlato Wines International asked me to write this nor was I ever approached to do this piece by anyone. I recently met Tony Terlato at a cocktail party, and we posed for a picture together. In fact I compete, hard, to sell Pinot Grigios other than Santa Margherita.

That said, I was pissed. Let me tell you why.

Putting the section-front promo line at the top with the line “Never order the Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio” might have been the work of the section editor. If it was meant to get someone’s attention to turn to page W3, it did so in a style that I find shoddy and sensational. We are reading the Wall Street Journal, not tuning in to the car chases at Fox News. I don’t know whose decision it was, and would like to think the authors of the piece most likely had little of nothing to do with it. So we either have an editor who is looking to give us a jolt, or someone who is very insensitive or just plain ignorant about wine. Would they run a promo that said “Never order Nathan’s hot dogs”? Or, “Never order Budweiser beer”? This is irresponsible and reprehensible. Doesn’t mainstream dead-tree journalism have enough problems?

As to the authors, I can understand their frustration with seeing the wine offered on wine lists at a larger than normal mark up. But why stop at Santa Margherita? Are the authors anti-Santites? And to offer up a Gruner Veltliner, as they do, because it is a better value might be a really cool way to snowboard off the avalanche they just found themselves on. But it was a cheap shot. How many Italian restaurants have Gruner on their wine list? And Italian restaurants are where you will find most of the Santa Margherita being sold these days.

And so you say, they found it on a non-Italian restaurant and give John and Dorothy a break for Crissakes? Look, there are reasons for both wines. And if someone wants a familiar, comfortable wine, and they are willing to pay the premium for it, God Bless ‘em. Isn’t that more fiscally responsible than running up their charge cards with therapy?

But my complaint isn’t with John and Dorothy trying to get folks to spend down in a restaurant. My larger gripe is that these folks work for a financial journal. And Santa Margherita is an economic success story for Italy and America. Why single it out so cavalierly when the consequences for such advice will fall on the Italian farmers and American wine salesmen?

Why would a journalist or an editor want to punish them with promo lines and assertions of outrageous pricing, when it is the restaurants that are setting the pricing? Most likely some back-of-the-house bean counter looking at COGS, thinking they can get away with it. Or, maybe nobody thought this through? And the MSM calls us wine bloggers irresponsible. Yeah, right.


"If you stick within your comfort zone, the wines that you already know and you already like, you will be punished, pricewise. Get away from Chardonnay. Get away from Pinot Grigio." - John Brecher



12 comments:

Wink Lorch said...

Alfonso, this is a brilliant post, and should be essential educational reading for all aspiring (and most current) wine writers, wine bloggers, wine editors - in fact, why don't I just say all wine communicators? For me, this puts across that when communicating in whatever medium one must take into account commercial realities, and that writing about wine must at all costs veer away from wine snobbism.

And, yes, I too remember not that many years ago when Santa Margherita Pinot Gris was quite a cool choice of wine.

tom hyland said...

Alfonso:

From the headline to your final sentence, this is a great, great post. Congratulations!

Jeremy Parzen wrote about this last week; your take is different and even more to the point. The very idea of picking on one wine is irresponsible. Your line about Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio being a great commercial success for both Italy and the US is an important one; as you said, why criticize this wine?

I'm sure these two "journalists" thought they were being hip and perhaps even helpful to consumers, but they did it in a thoroughly unprofessional manner. You and all the other bloggers who criticize them are absolutely right to take such a stance. You're doing your job and it's posts like this that make the blogosphere so important to this industry.

Again, congratulations.

Ken said...

I agree a lot with your comments, but did you not know that the WSJ is now owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp? I was in the publishing biz for awhile, and can assure you that the teaser headline was by some low-brain staffer (not the writers). I still really enjoy John and Dorothy's opinions, and appreciate that they have opinions. Nonetheless, a good post on your part.

Chicago Pinot said...

Alfonso, I have to respectfully disagree with your opinion. I think that headline falls easily between the foul lines. Now, I don't believe I have ever had the Santa M. Pinot Grigio. I -do- know it's kind of a juggernaut as far as Pinot Grigio is concerned. It's not a tiny mom and pop player. The brand is a Big Gun, and frankly, should be able to take it when a newspaper wants to challenge their dominance a little.

Let's remember the headline didn't say "never buy SM Pinot Grigio" it said to never order it in a restaurant. Big difference!

And the quote in the headline is verbatim from John and Dorothy's article. Methinks John and Dorothy would protest too much if the editors plucked that pithy one liner to use as their headline.

Anonymous said...

fratello,
as you know i read that paper daily, and i was shocked to see that line in their article.
I like what you wrote about it; i just hope the 2 authors get to read your post, and pause and reflect for a minute or two...
Ciao
G

BK said...

Yes, AC, we are reading the WSJ, owned by Murdoch of Fox news, and holder of the title of most right-wing Editorial board page, save for the IBD, of any national newspaper. Murdoch is all about headlines. Witness the now-tired flogging of their new Sports section at the top of the front page, in green, every day for the past 8 days!

That being said, I think that you must realize that John and Dorothy have diddly squat to do with section headlines. Just like food writers at the Dallas Morning News do not write them, either.

Disclosure: I think that Santa Margherita "anything" sucks. I think that it's a brilliant sub-heading for a line-item example in a story.

I also think that it's part and parcel for how News Corp does business. That's the real issue, not Jim Cramer flogging Bear Sterns or a News Corp headline slamming an oversold, over-flogged wine. It's what's behind it that really matters.

Mark Fisher said...

Other than perhaps a bit of hyperbole, I see nothing wrong with what Dorothy and John wrote. Alfonso, your post scolds the writers for not taking into consideration the impact of their words on "Italian farmers and American wine salesmen." If wine writers and wine critics were to consider the impact on the farmers and salesmen on every wine they reviewed, there would never be a negative review, and the critic would lose all credibility. John and Dorothy called it as they saw it -- it's as simple as that. And that's what I want in an unbiased, honest and straightforward wine writer. As an aside, when I wrote a blog piece last year asking readers for nominations for the most overrated wine, this particular wine received multiple nominations -- although I do like the Santa Margherita Chianti Classico that is just now beginning to show up here in the American midwest.

Alfonso Cevola said...

Thanks Wink, Tom and Giulio.

Ken & BK- thanks. I guess Isaac Asimov knew what he was saying when he said, “It pays to be obvious, especially if you have a reputation for subtlety.”

Mark- I’ll say it again: Why would a journalist or an editor want to punish them with promo lines and assertions of outrageous pricing, when it is the restaurants that are setting the pricing?


I think some of you are missing the point. It is not about how you feel about this particular product or winery. It’s about how the MSM (and an economic journal) has misconstrued the information. And for that, hell yes, I am scolding the editor. And the writers. And while it is the job of the critic to criticize, it is the duty of the journalist to get their facts straight. And in this case, they missed the mark.

And now the lawyers get to earn some money.

Tracie B. said...

whether or not d&j had anything to do with the placement of the headline, the quote came from their article, from their mouths.

mark--as ace said, whether or not SM is overrated is not the issue, we all agree on that. people order it because they know it and like it and may not order a bottle of wine otherwise. the customers that SM satisfies is the same market that orders banfi, silver oak, clos du bois, and kendall jackson. this is exactly the client base who would NEVER order gruner--that stuff is for us!! this is how restaurants satisfy their clinetele and MAKE MONEY. making people feel stupid for ordering a "comfort brand" shows ignorance of the business.

Alice said...

Well, here's my say. First, great post.

Second. I am on the other side of this rant. I go with them. Sorry.

Edification. WSJ is a newspaper not a personal blog. The writers have nothing to do with the pull quotes. That is completely editorial. In fact, they probably never saw the plans. They were not clued in. They work at a Daily not a blog.

And yes, this is Murdoch. Paper's want to sell. And I must say it was ballsy of them because SM has money to advertise.

Then, I think you've taken the story out of context. This piece is on ten ways to spend less money on wine. Not buying the SM is one way. On the other hand, no one who regularly buys a wine column is ever going to buy this particular wine, so it was indeed a bit gratuitous.

Let's see, you know better than I but I think it might be the cliché of the over priced wine on the list.....why? Because it's so popular a restaurant can easily get four times the bottle price. So, they were right. Don't know about wine? Want to save money? Don't buy the SM even though it's familiar to you.

So, Alfonso, what's really eating you?

Giorgio Sarpelli said...

It sounds like Alice might be taking a contrarian position because that is what suits her persona. If they had attacked one of her natural winemakers would she have felt the same way?

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