Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Get on the offensive

Far be it from me to give PR advice to someone who is in the PR game—if I had any PR talent, I’d certainly be a much wealthier wine writer. But a recent series of posts at compelled me to both pull out of the discussion and give my opinion here where I am safe and comfortable!

I applaud Tom Wark’s work with the Specialty Retailers Association. I believe fully that the present system of alcohol regulation that was left to the states to decide, individually, is a disaster of great proportions, not to mention the little matter of it being the result of a Constitutional Amendment (the 21st) that contradicts an earlier and still existing Constitutional clause (the Dormant Commerce Clause in Article 1, Section 8).

Yet, I am of the opinion that Tom’s counter arguments to the specious arguments put forward by the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America (WSWA) may be helping to create more fog rather than to lift it.

WSWA is obviously in favor of maintaining the present three-tier wine distribution system, and even to tighten it further. The system is perfect for the group. It makes wine wholesalers among the few, if there are any other, industries that survive by way of government revenue protection--a cursory glance at many state regulations clearly shows that the purpose of the three-tier system is to contain the industry so that the state can easily identify and collect its tax revenue.

That same glance at the regulations will show the astute among us something more enlightening about the system.

When Prohibition ended in 1933, the country did not automatically lose those with “dry” sentiments. The Congress knew this fact, and some in congress knew they had constituents and lobbyists back home who were watching. So, the mealy bunch in Washington punted the ball to the states. After the feds set up their alcohol tax revenue interests, they allowed the states to set up their own, plus their own idea of what constitutes alcohol commerce.

States where powerful “dry” interests resided were more severe with regulations than those with a weaker “dry” interest. In the former states, legislators brazenly stated that their interests were to make it difficult for businesses to traffic in and for consumers to have access to alcohol—in a recent court case in Washington State involving Costco, that state’s liquor control authority plainly said so in testimony.

The 75-year three-tier system is entrenched. It will not go away easily if at all. The only way that it can ever be abolished is through a national frontal attack on its obvious Constitutional conflict, and even then it would take a less moralistic Supreme Court than the present one to shoot down those contradictions.

When Tom Wark rails against the self-interested bullshit that WSWA puts out, he gets himself sucked into the wrong arguments. Those who support the WSWA bring up all the side issues that have little or nothing to do with the real issue; then, Tom responds and some other subject comes up. With each response, a new subject comes up and soon enough, people are arguing over everything except the plain fact that the three tier system may not have been designed in conflict with the U.S. Constitution, but the Congress of 1933 certainly opened the doors for abuse of the Constitution.

If Tom or anyone else wants to do something positive concerning the disgusting way that wine is regulated and controlled across the U.S. it would seem best to ignore the WSWA and go straight to the courts. Build a coalition of legal minds from state-to-state to attack the constitutionality of state legislation over the commerce of wine and get that story into the mainstream press.

The people who agitated for Prohibition were successful because they learned that reformers do their best work when they turn the tides from being on the defensive to being on the offensive.

(Anyone reading this blog on a site other than Vinofictions is made aware that it has been used without permission--a violation of my copyright.)

Fermentation blog

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
December 2008. All rights reserved.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Is this what socialism means?

My dictionary lists at least three definitions for the word socialism, none of which apply strictly to any system of government that I can find, but for the sake of argument, let’s use the first definition that comes up:

...a political theory or system in which the means of production and distribution are controlled by the people and operated according to equity and fairness rather than market principles.

The above definition of socialism seems a lot more benign than we make of the word. Maybe that’s why our heads of state have no problem bailing out the corporate world or handing out an agricultural subsidy, even if the money is ours and we haven’t authorized using it that way.

The New York State grape and wine industries have been the beneficiaries of a form of socialism since 1985. That was the year the New York Wine and Grape Foundation was formed to pump government, er, taxpayer money into research and promotion connected to the two industries.

Originally, the Foundation was to get started with New York State money; then, the government payments were to be incrementally reduced over a few years while industry money was to supplant it, until no more government money was necessary.

Today, the Foundation faces the hard reality that you can’t count on the government forever.

As almost every governor will be forced to do in their coming budgets, New York State’s Governor Paterson is forced to shove economic realities down our throats with a budget proposal that cuts programs and raises taxes and fees.

One of the cuts in New York is the money for the New York Wine and Grape Foundation. In his weekly e-newsletter, the Foundation’s President, Jim Trezise, alluded to the possibility that it might be the last correspondence from him and that 2009 might present us with the end of the organization.

I find it truly sad that after 24 years the Foundation still relies on state money that was supposed to have been cut off decades ago; how difficult it is to break a socialistic addiction. The situation seems to me like a combined indictment of the wine and grape industries, the state, and the Foundation.

The wine and grape industries should have long ago tried to become self-sustaining through a marketing order formula that would have made research and promotion industry-funded.

New York State is at fault for not forcing the industries to become self-reliant.

The Foundation should not have relied on New York State money as something perpetual but instead should have found ways to persuade the industries to create that marketing order.

Of course, the same problem that is causing government money to dry up has also created financial disarray in an industry that relies largely on tourism, which in this downturn is down. The grape and wine industries aren’t likely to be in a position to take up the slack. But then, maybe it takes something like this disaster to galvanize an industry, and maybe an industry-based solution will emerge.

Whatever happens, one thing is certain: the New York grape and wine industries are about to discover how people feel when their welfare checks stop arriving or their unemployment insurance runs out. That's the down side of semi-socialism.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
December 2008. All rights reserved.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The promise of media

This morning someone sent me an email bubbling over with praise concerning what she called a “great wine history Web site.”

Of course, my interest in wine leans heavily toward its long and varied history so I clicked on the link my friend provided.

The Internet is a marvel quite like the marvel of television—early television, I mean. With the introduction of television came the promise of a revolution in information gathering. Sound familiar?

Television was to be the first instrument of mass information that would dwarf the power of radio. Well, television did ultimately dwarf the power of radio, but I doubt it went so far as to meet its promise to become THE important information medium. On the other hand, television did manage to succeed at becoming THE most effective means of transporting both banality and advertising directly into our living rooms and then into our brains.

Using as a guide the trajectory of television in our culture, I fear for where the Internet might lead us. That fear was heightened just a little when Firefox connected me to the so-called wine history site that my friend recommended.

The first thing that bothered me about the site is that no one, no company, and no entity takes credit for it, at least nowhere on the site that I could find it. Wait a minute. That’s not the first thing that bothered me. It was the music.

The site comes with a warning to “turn on your speaker.” My warning to you: turn off the speaker. The music made me feel as if I was on my way up to the fourth floor, or something.

Anyway, in the scheme of things, the music annoyance is small potatoes and I could live with it if I had to, and apparently, one must. It’s the wine history that I craved, and still do, since the site provides something lighter than wine history lite.

The site hasn't lifted or blatantly stolen the wine information; it does worse; it boasts that the source of the “history” is Wikipedia. Then, the site somehow manages to even shorten Wiki's already woefully brief wine history.

Having the close connection that I have to the Finger Lakes region and to New York wine in general, I ambled to the New York history section. To my surprise, I discovered that New York is a mono-wine culture. No mention is made of the state’s five appellations, and no mention is made of the the fact that some grapes do not grow throughout the state. Obviously, the site master doesn’t know that like politics, all wine is local.

On closer scrutiny of the site I discovered that the wine history is there as filler. The site is dedicated to marketing and selling to consumers. In other words, this wine site represents on the Internet the potential to meet the fulfillment of television.

If you must, have a look at it: WineHistory? Remember to turn off your speakers first.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
December 2008. All rights reserved.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

pay to play

A few years ago, I received a telephone call from two fellows who somehow heard of me and wondered if I would be interested in becoming part of a new online wine Web site.

The idea was sketchy, but it entailed highlighting and focusing on American wine appellations.

Part of their pitch to me was that as a freelance writer, I should break away from being in thrall to editors that pay peanuts per word. That was a good start, as it isn’t too far off the mark. This new idea was for writers to become part of the company and to share in its development. That’s about as much as I understood, but I was interested.

Soon, in a follow up conversation, the two fellows told me that plans had changed. Instead of becoming part of the company’s development, the new plan included hiring writers as freelancers.

Finding the change in direction to be suspicious, I demurred--couldn't help thinking about that initial pitch to me that had cast aspersions on the idea of being paid peanuts as a freelance writer.

Soon thereafter, Appellation America was online. I liked what it had become so I queried. I wondered if the offer to be a writer for the site, and to cover the Finger Lakes Appellation (or the wider New York region) was still open.

It wasn’t. I was told that no decision was made about the Finger Lakes Appellation; that was quite a while ago; apparently, no decision has yet been made. This came as a small shock to me, since the site includes correspondents dedicated to much smaller, much younger and a few less important American appellations than the Finger Lakes.

Last week, two principals in Appellation America walked away from the venture—the two fellows who first contacted me years ago: Roger and Adam Dial. The story is that they had irreconcilable differences with those who financed the venture. I have no idea of the veracity of the story, but that isn’t the story that instigated this blog entry.

Along with the story of the Dial’s departure, came accusations by others that Appellation America is a “pay to play” wine Web site. In other words, wineries that gain mention and/or reviews, or that have products for sale listed on the site, pay for the privilege.

Again, I’ve no first-hand information concerning the veracity of the claim, but I do think that since this kind of claim has been made against other wine periodicals as well, it is a serious subject.

Newspapers and magazines have long faced the conundrum of pissing off advertisers if they tell an unflattering story. But as news organizations, at times they simply have to take the risk. They can do it if they aren’t one-subject periodicals. But what can a one-subject periodical get away with?

Not much, I fear.

One of the appealing characteristics of Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate (WA) is that it accepts no advertising, the implication being: the newsletter is beholden to no entity other than its owner. Wines and wineries mentioned in WA ostensibly are there because they deserve to be there on their merits, whether positive or negative.

The fact that WA is successful is a tribute to Mr. Parker’s ability to break a mold.

Like newspapers and general interest periodicals, the overwhelming majority of wine periodicals are advertising driven—they earn their revenue through the sale of ads, not through subscriptions. This already makes them suspicious to many wine consumers who constantly wonder over and point to evidence that only those companies that advertise seem to get consistent positive coverage.

If accusations of “pay to play” are true at any one of these periodicals, it not only reflects on that one, but on all of them. How can either the periodicals or the writers who fill their pages be taken seriously if there is a quid pro quo (reciprocal mutual consideration) involved in the stories and in the accolades?

With that in mind, it would serve Appellation America well to explain its policy and to prove that there is no “pay to play” functioning going on. The management owes it to its readers, to its writers, and to the general wine periodical community.

In fact, I believe that all wine periodicals, wine writers, and wine bloggers that review or extol the virtues of wine owe an open policy explanation to readers. Here’s mine:

I generally pay for wines that I consume and write about. If I choose to write about wines that have been sent to me for free, I will say so clearly.

Since I am not a wine critic, I don’t assign scores or awards to wines that I write about, and I have no plans to do so in the future.

As of today, I am under no work-for-hire contract with any wine producer, and if I do agree to one in the future, it will be limited to consulting or ghost writing/editing, and I will not place myself in a position that could stifle my views about anything connected to wine, but I will cease to write about any winery that pays me to do work for it.

With a partner, I operate a small publishing company that develops and publishes regional winery restaurant cookbooks, which in no way conflicts with my views and opinions about wine or the wine industry.


Copyright Thomas Pellechia
December 2008. All rights reserved.