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Tag Archives: wine writing

Carmen Castorina: When a legend retires

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carmen castorinaThe first rule of sportswriting used to be “Don’t god up the ballplayers.” Which meant that athletes were not necessarily better or worse people because they were ballplayers; they were just different, and you needed to keep that in mind when you wrote about them.

That approach has served me well over the past three decades, because it made sense for everything I’ve written about: politics, business, film, music, food (especially food), and wine. Perspective is all, and just because someone is a fine winemaker doesn’t mean they’re a good parent or friend or colleague.

So how do I write a piece honoring perhaps the best wine PR person in history without godding him up? Carmen Castorina, who retired earlier this month after some three decades at E&J Gallo, was adored by his colleagues (three farewell lunches); admired by his competitors (“Whenever I see Carmen I smile and feel good”); and apparently returned every phone call he ever got. Would that some of the ballplayers I dealt with were half that talented.

Which is not to say that Carmen and I never had a disagreement. Writers and PR people are born to trouble as the sparks fly upward. But what made Carmen the best, and why he was so respected, was that he never let those disagreements get in the way of doing his job. No grudges or snide remarks, and certainly not any of the punishments so popular today — being excluded from events or not told about news because the writer wasn’t “part of the team.”

Carmen always had a story, whether it was the time we were having lunch in Troy Aikman’s booth at a Dallas restaurant and Aikman, the former Cowboys quarterback, showed up and had to sit elsewhere. Or working with Ernest Gallo — yes, that Ernest Gallo — to market the winery’s first varietal wins and to help to take the California wine business into the 20th century. Or, as Carmen told our mutual pal Alfonso Cevola, how he set up umbrellas on the Jersey Shore in summer when he was a kid and that “Al Martino [of "Godfather" fame] always gave me a 50-cent tip.”

I’ve dealt with PR people since the late 1970s, and almost no one did it better. So Carmen will be missed. I’ll even miss his little digs about my failure to include Gallo’s Barefoot in the $10 Hall of Fame and his insistence that Notre Dame was as good a school as my alma mater, Northwestern. And we’ll still have lunch now and again; I just hope Aikman doesn’t want his booth. Cause he ain’t getting it.

Slider image courtesy of Afonso Cevola and on The Wine Trail in Italy, using a Creative Commons license

How to manipulate on-line reviews with a clear conscience — get a federal court ruling

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manipulate on-line reviews yelpAlways wondered how legitimate the scores and reviews were on sites like Yelp, Angie’s List, and the Wine Spectator? Now, thanks to a federal appeals court ruling, you don’t have to wonder: Legitimacy may not matter. The sites may be able to manipulate the ratings, and they don’t necessarily have to tell you what they’ve done.

Or, as Lou Bright, the blog’s unofficial attorney, says: “This does have the ethical aroma of dead rat, doesn’t it? Yet neither Yelp nor the Wine Spectator are legally bound to be morally upright. The First Amendment allows for an awful lot of disreputable speech.”

The court decision, made earlier this month in San Francisco, didn’t break new legal ground when it found that the possible “engineering” of review postings on Yelp, based on whether businesses bought an ad on the site, were legal. The ruling came after several businesses sued Yelp, claiming the site moved unfavorable reviews higher and moved favorable reviews lower on the site – or removed favorable reviews altogether – if the businesses didn’t buy ads.

Said the ruling: “It is not unlawful for Yelp to post and sequence the reviews. As Yelp has the right to charge for legitimate advertising services, the threat of economic harm that Yelp leveraged is, at most, hard bargaining.”

A legal thing here, so I don’t get sued. Yelp’s senior director of litigation said the company didn’t make review decisions based on whether anyone bought ads, and there is a disclaimer on the Yelp site. And I’m not saying Yelp does that. Or that Angie’s List, the Spectator or anyone else does it. Or that it goes on at all anywhere.

Rather, as W. Blake Gray wrote when he broke the story last week, the ruling reaffirms that sites or magazines that do reviews can charge for upgraded placement, higher scores, or better reviews with a clear conscience. After all, it’s just hard bargaining.

I talked to three other attorneys for this post, and each said the same thing as Bright: It’s not a consumer-friendly practice,and there may be risk in the long run, but it’s not necessarily illegal. As long as the site or magazine doesn’t commit libel (which is often difficult to prove, says Dallas attorney Trey Crawford), and doesn’t run afoul of the Federal Trade Commission, it’s on safe legal ground. Some court decisions have even gone as far as to equate engineering with “editorial discretion.”

What can you do to make sure ratings and reviews aren’t engineered? Look for a disclaimer on the site, like the one I use, and will continue to use. No one pays me for favorable reviews or to review their product, and it will always be that way. Because, if there isn’t a disclaimer, anything is possible.

The Wine Curmudgeon does the Grape Collective interview

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Wine Curmudgeon Grape CollectiveJameson Fink of the Grape Collective, an especially popular wine website, asked some terrific questions as part of their regular feature, called SpeakEasy. This gave me a chance to offer several insights into the wine business and wine writing. More than a few people may be annoyed at my answers, but that’s their problem. If we don’t stick up for ourselves as wine drinkers, who will?

The interview is here. A few highlights:

• “I talk to consumers all the time, and they’re scared to death of wine. They apologize for not knowing more or for drinking something that might offend me. In what other consumer good does that happen? Does someone apologize to their dinner guests for serving Maxwell House coffee?”

• Asked what wines offer the best value, I suggested Gascony, Sicily, rose, and cava. Not shocking to regular visitors here, of course, but I never pass up a chance to spread the good news. I have a feeling the Grape Collective’s demographic may not be exactly the same as mine.

• “Winespeak (and I got an email about this other day from a consumer complaining about exactly this) scares everyone else off. What can it possibly mean to someone in a grocery store that a $12 wine has notes of beeswax, other than to make them run in terror?”

My 10 favorite food- and wine- related places in Dallas, which doesn’t include most of the things other people would recommend. Which says a lot about Dallas, actually. And what does it say about me that two of my choices don’t have websites?

• Question: “What’s changed in the world of wine blogging since you started in 2007?” Answer: “Fewer quality blogs, more snarkiness and bitterness among those who did not become rich and famous because they thought they should, and less professionalism. … Wine writing is the best job in the world, and I don’t understand why so many of us, both online and in print, have such chips on our shoulders.”

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