Sunday, July 07, 2024

Taking a ride on the EU’s dime – a field guide to wine “press junkets” in the 2020’s

Although we’ve been told we’re in a post-Covid world now, we still might be suffering from the hangover that almost three years of isolation gave the collective world. However, you wouldn’t know it from looking at your socials – there, the party has just got started. Regional wine groups and consortiums are throwing around EU money like candy at a 4th of July parade And the kids are scrambling for all the free sweet treats they can stuff in their gullets.

I’m not a stranger to wine junkets, having partaken in several over the years. I remember a long-gone colleague who always seemed to be jetting off to one wine destination after another. Their American Airlines frequent flier miles were an object of amazement. The thing is, they couldn’t ever make a deadline, as they were never on the ground. So who did that benefit?

That’s the crux of this piece – who benefits from it? I’m going to try and work through the varying point of view. I’m hopeful, but wary.


First off, there are the regional wine concerns and consortiums. They have the ability to corral the bureaucrats and their funding, whether it be from the country itself, or in the case of Europe, the EU funds, which apparently are ever-flowing and endless. That said, if it goes to benefit the farmers and the growers, that can be a stimulating factor in the growth of that particular region or appellation.

But who are they asking to come? Usually, as I see it, they invite writers, bloggers, vloggers, Instagrammers, sommeliers and retail wine buyers.

OK – writers – who out there is writing enough to stay afloat? What are there, three, or maybe four, full-time wine writers in America? And of those, the newspaper ones won’t let them accept free trips.

Wine critics? Well, there are loads of them now – some of them have their own momentum. Some of them are like cab drivers – once you step in their cab the meter starts running. Some of them have journalistic standards and wouldn’t touch a free trip with the proverbial ten foot pole.


And then there are the bloggers- the vloggers – the Instagrammers – the self-proclaimed “influencer” class. Many of them will go anywhere, any way, any day. Junket junkies. One told me that’s the way they supplement their diet, as they live frugally and when they get on a trip they “catch up with the calories” they’ve been missing at home. But they’re often never at home. So, they eat. And they drink. And they repeat it. Over and over.

Now, some of them actually produce legible content that might be useful to their “audience.” But really, how big is that group? It’s not thousands. At best, it’s hundreds.

Oh, the sommelier sect. They were once the darlings of the wine world. But their shine has tarnished a bit in years with the scandals and the economic downturn in the restaurant industry. Yeah, they can influence their clients – when they are on the floor. But again, in a night, in a room that has, let’s say, 50 seats, with two turns, that’s 100 people? Even if it’s 200, how many converts can a sommelier in a northern Italian dining room make for the consortiums in Lugana or Abruzzo or Etna? Not that many. So, the bang for the buck? I don’t see it.


That leaves us with wine buyers in the retail arena.

A retailer might have favorite wines, but everything in the store is for sale – it’s not a museum. And if the product doesn’t sell, eventually room has to be made for more viable items that will turn over and make a steady stream of revenue. So, a retailer loves everything – until they don’t. If a p.r. firm brings a group of retailers to a region, they might bring a good return on investment  - and they just as well might not. A lot of retailers live in the moment. The “what did you do for me now?” mantra is one I have heard a lot. And what can you build from that in the long term?

Look, I see the pictures – people with rosy faces lined up for the group photo – it’s all very Kumbaya – but is it good business?

There are people in my town, and in your town, who are promoting themselves as experts in wine, Italian and otherwise. If they got a “press trip” to Germany or South Africa, now they are an expert in that too. Judging competitions, ambassadorships, junkets, being quoted, and let’s not forget the certification pins they plaster on their lapels like costume jewelry. I call it the bullshit-ification of mastery and expertise. They are a modern day “paradigm of clawing self-interest,” which I recently overheard.

Be careful who you let influence you. A friend of mine says this often: “Don’t bullshit a bullshitter.” And I’ll add, “Don’t let a bullshitter bullshit you.” They may be comely and stylish and good on social media. But the real test is if they can apply their knowledge, in a real-life work setting, and expose diners and consumers to all the wonderful wines Italy, and the world, has to offer – not just the elite and unobtainable ones we see on Instagasm. And do it day in and day out. I know they say the fields must be plowed and room must be made for the new seedlings and I’m 100% in favor of that. But they must take root and grow and give back. And constantly being on a plane, on a trip, and showing us how they are living their best life, while the garden remains untended at home, is not a good recipe for the future. Refrain from allowing yourself be continually bullshitted to death with folks not intending to do the hard work, relying on social media to prop them and their self-interests up on a pedestal.


When I am asked on, and if I ever would accept, a free trip (if I’m not on a free-lance assignment with a newspaper) I would not want to go unless I could find a way to offer some form of service back – whether it be a blog post (or a series of blog posts) at the very least. A post on Instagram or Facebook will not cut it, for me. I know there are folks out there churning and vomiting their junket du jour all over their socials – but so what? Who bloody cares?

One might surmise, from the bilious nature of this surge, that junkets are all for nought? Here’s my closing thought: If you are a regional wine concern, or a consortium, or a p.r. firm, don’t let the headlights blind you. Choose your participants carefully. Do they truly have an audience somewhere that they influence? Are they too busy gallivanting from pillar to post to actually give you, and the investment you have made in them, a decent return? What tools are they using? How good is the quality of their work? If it’s writing, are there too many misspellings and improper uses of terms? In other words, are they just churning and burning (and bullshitting) their way through another trip? Do they actually care about their content more than their stomachs or their frequent flier number? And what kind of commitment, over time, will they give back to your concern? Will it be a “Wham! Bam! Thank you Ma’am!” kinda thing? Or will it be a fountain, where the water flows a little longer than 15 minutes? These are important considerations. Public and governmental funding can dry up. Then what will you have to show? Better yet, what will you have to say to your farmers who have invested and supported, and cooked meals and opened up their farms and wineries and homes, and their hearts, and took time from their already busy life to help you to help them promote their wines, their region and their cause? It cannot be all for nought.  

 

 Next week - practical solutions and pathways....

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