As 2010 draws to a close, I have a couple of house-cleaning matters to address before starting the new year on a fresh footing:
For one, precisely one year has passed since I started this wine blog. I called it A Year in Wine because my intent at the outset was to write of a wine a day. The subtitle - 365 days, 365 wines with stories to tell - reinforced that concept. I was confident that through visits to wine regions, judging at wine competitions and tasting at home I would find at least one wine to write about daily. Almost immediately, I realized I’d made a mistake. I recognized that the format was forced, turning a pleasant diversion into drudgery. Tasting notes are the least appealing of chores in writing of wine, though I recognize that readers often look to them to help determine whether a highlighted wine might be one they also would enjoy. But I got into writing of wine about 40 years ago and continue to write of wine in retirement because I enjoy the subject beyond tasting wine. The world of wine is a world that can be approached from many varied angles - the personalities involved, the places where wine grapes are grown, the history, the conflict, the trends, and so forth, all of which I find at least as captivating as the smell, flavor, weight and other attributes of a specific wine. Thus, over this past year I’ve found myself drifting to stories and commentary about wine that go beyond or take the place of musing about the aesthetic attributes of specific wines. In short, I'll continue to call this blog A Year in Wine, but I need to change the subhead. That’s New Year Resolution No. 1.
Scondly, a little more than a year ago the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for the first time in 19 years revised its guidelines concerning endorsements and testimonials. In apparently concluding that bloggers are having a growing influence in how Americans spend their money, federal officials asked marketing companies and bloggers to be more transparent in their dealings with each other.
In short, the revised guidelines urge bloggers to be candid in revealing their relationship to products about which they write favorably. If they are paid by a manufacturer to say favorable things, they should disclose that. That would seem to be common sense, but common sense isn’t as abundant today as it once was.
“The post of a blogger who receives cash or in-kind payment to review a product is considered an endorsement,” said FTC officials at the time. “Thus, bloggers who make an endorsement must disclose the material connections they share with the seller of the product or service,” they added.
If bloggers didn’t reveal those kinds of ties, FTC authorities suggested, they’d be subject to fines of up to $11,000 per post. This naturally led to much hang wringing within the blogging community. Bloggers were especially alarmed over how federal authorities would interpret the ambiguous phrases “in-kind payment” and “material connections.”
Bloggers got so agitated about the matter that federal officials subsequently told them to relax. Bloggers weren’t so much their concern, they noted, as companies that seduce them with free products or other incentives, including, presumably, payoffs. One high-ranking federal official said deputized agents weren’t about to storm the homes of “mommy bloggers” who write about a soap some company had sent them for nothing.
True to their word, only once over the past year have FTC authorities flexed their muscles under the terms of the new guidelines, and their frustration was taken out on a brand rather than a blogger, reported the media website Mashable. The FTC went after the women’s retailer Ann Taylor for enticing bloggers to attend a showing of a new line of clothes by offering them potential gift cards valued at between $50 and $500 if they blogged of the event.
In the end, FTC officials took no action against Ann Taylor, perhaps because the company subsequently adopted a “blogger interaction policy” that would preclude such a cozy relationship in the future.
Bloggers themselves have been divided over the matter. Some see themselves as freedom-loving pilgrims on a new and wild frontier, where old standards don’t apply. Others, however, argue that transparency should rule. I’m with the latter group.
Since starting this blog I’ve received a few wine samples from vintners who likely think I might like to taste the wines and perhaps comment on them. I haven’t, but in the new year I may. If and when I do, I’ll simply state how I came by a wine that prompts a posting, and let readers draw their own conclusions.
Each of the weekly wine columns I contribute to The Sacramento Bee ends with this disclaimer: “His wine selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions.” For that column, that practice won’t change. I see the possibility, however, that a sample wine may be so interesting that I’d want to write a column on it. If that were to happen, I’d seek out the wine in the market, buy it, and roll it into a tasting before basing a column on it. That's New Year Resolution No. 2.
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