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.

5 Responses to “pay to play”

  1. Jeff says:

    Hi Tom,

    This seems like a fairly serious allegation with AA.

    Can you elaborate on where you saw this, for the good of all?


  2. Jeff says:

    Ah, I see it now. I read Tom’s blog in an RSS feed reader that doesn’t include comments.

    I thought the Appellation article that Roger Dial did was a distillation of other things I have read recently, with no new ideas, so I didn’t put a lot of stock in Tom’s post.

    I’ll definitely revisit esp. the comments.



  3. Thomas says:

    “I thought the Appellation article that Roger Dial did was a distillation of other things I have read recently, with no new ideas,…”

    Yes, it was. Glad I wasn’t the only one to notice. I hate feeling lonely 😉