About Doug Levy
Former USA Today reporter Doug Levy lives in New York City and spends a lot of his free time searching for great food and wine. As a PR pro, he specializes in healthcare and life sciences. Doug enjoys sharing his culinary observations which you can also read on his personal blog at Food and Wine World.
Latest Posts by Doug Levy
As the wine industry has become truly global, the need for experts to guide consumers has grown, too. There are many certification and college degree programs, many of which are very good. One program, the Masters of Wine is unquestionably demanding — much like an advanced college degree, right up to a dissertation-like research paper. Now, 19 new wine professionals have achieved the “MW” certification, bringing the total number of Masters of Wine to 340 worldwide.
Only one of the 19 is from the United States: New Yorker Mollie Battenhouse, who earned fame as head sommelier at Tribeca Grill and has become one of the best known wine educators in the region. In addition to frequent teaching, judging and guest sommelier engagements, Battenhouse works with VOS Selections, a wine importer. Her dissertation topic for the MW was “Attitudes of the NYC Wine Trade Towards Finger Lakes Cabernet Franc.”
The others are from around the world, including two from Canada, one from Japan, one from Singapore, and three from Germany. MWs now hail from 24 countries.
“The general standard of the research papers was considerably higher than equivalent papers submitted in previous years,” said John Hoskins MW, Chief Examiner of the Institute of the Masters of Wine, in a news release. “We now have a strong pool of MWs with the experience to give students the guidance they need to tackle this last part of the exam, which for many had in the past proved to be the most frustrating.”
The second day was another demanding day for attendees of the International Food Bloggers Conference in Seattle as each of us was dispatched to one of 25 different Seattle restaurants for special dinners designed to show us some of the area’s great culinary creations.
Hosted by restaurant guide Urbanspoon, the restaurants included virtually every one of Seattle’s most notable tables, including RN74, Ray’s Boathouse, Matt’s in the Market, Sitka & Spruce, Spur Gastropub, and Mamnoon.
My group was routed to Wild Ginger, one of the longer-running success stories and one of the few places that took Asian fusion cuisine to fine dining heights.
Most U.S. cities have health inspectors check restaurants periodically for sanitation, food safety and other hazards. Some do a better job than others making the results of those inspections public, or understandable. New York continues to lead the way, now with an iPhone app with a direct connection to the latest health inspection report on nearly every restaurant in the city. This is a long way from the 1970s, when New York first required restaurants to make health inspection reports available to customers on request.Although there are several other apps that aim to do the same thing, I have found that the city’s own app, ABCEats, is reliable and up-to-date. Published by the city’s own technology department, the app enables searches by name, neighborhood or current location.
In a few cases, I have found that the city’s records show a better rating than a restaurant’s owner has posted. More importantly, I can look up whether the “grade pending” sign at a local café means the inspector found relatively unremarkable problems or ones that should give any diner pause before entering. The app was introduced in 2012 as part of Mayor Bloomberg’s NYC Digital initiative.
Using the search by name function, I discovered why health inspectors shut a Mexican restaurant near my home last fall, then reopened. Although the language in the app is deliberately ambiguous in certain places, I interpreted the information displayed as meaning the restaurant owner challenged the inspection and got the violations dismissed. That’s enough information for me to decide not to patronize that restaurant anytime soon. And for those of us who venture into unfamiliar neighborhoods, the app’s search by location function is a nice adjunct to – and a bit more balanced than – Yelp.
As with just about any kind of regulation, many business owners complain that the NYC inspections and the letter grades are unfair. While I am sure the system isn’t perfect, I have seen every kind of restaurant — from mom-and-pop and hole-in-the-wall eateries to the city’s top places — sporting the proud “A” rating.
For me, deal-breakers include violations related to personal hygiene of a restaurant staff, live vermin or rodents, and the rather appalling “interference” with an inspector. Especially since only violations that have a direct impact on food safety count towards the letter grades, avoiding restaurants with lower scores seems prudent. Scanning a few inspection reports for places that earned “C” ratings, typical problems included citations such as food handlers using the toilet and not washing hands before resuming work, cigarette smoking in food preparation areas, cross-contamination between different kinds of foods, and insects, rodents or other unwelcome visitors. (The city has done a good job of explaining the system to restaurant operators. One poster I have seen in many places shows how to avoid common problems, and it has the headline, “Every Restaurant Can Achieve An A.”
Nearly every restaurant in New York City must post a sign like this displaying the latest health inspection rating.
Here’s a good post by Meg Houston Maker (@megmaker) on wine blogger etiquette. Worth reading for anyone who wants to have some insight into the challenges for wineries trying to cultivate the diverse wine blog universe – and ways they judge a wine blogger.
Five or six years ago, almost any casual wine enthusiast could launch a WordPress or Blogger blog, write a post about each new wine he drank—from the plonk to the good stuff—and wait for wine samples to come pouring in.
And pour in they did. At the time, American wineries and their PR agencies were making a sincere effort to become au fait with social media and its usefulness for propagating a brand. Many began compiling their own house list of the top two or three hundred bloggers and automatically sending them samples with each new release.
Emboldened by this wave of interest in social marketing and by their own surging readerships, wine bloggers also reached out directly to wineries to request samples—some even promising to “move the needle” on sales once their review was out.
Samples started piling up; a “wine monster” had been born. The free wine came with a cost. Receiving samples was a hassle, because the writer had to sign for the shipment. Many writers were annoyed by the gimmicks included with the wines. And how would they ever drink it all—to say nothing of finding the time to write about it?
By 2010 the predicament was evidently so dire it prompted wine blogger Alder Yarrow to pen an eight-point communiqué to wineries on the etiquette of sample shipments. It begins, “OK, all you marketing and PR folks, listen up. This article is for you. Specifically for those of you that haven’t quite figured out how to deal with us wine bloggers yet when it comes to wine samples. And there are clearly a lot of you.”
My, how times have changed. During the recent soft economy, many wineries trimmed marketing budgets to focus on activities that yielded measurable impact on sales. Upticks caused by written reviews are hard to prove definitively, since the industry’s three-tier distribution system obscures the impact of a writer’s recommendation, smearing it out over time and space as demand works its way through a distribution network.
I’ve just spent the last two years managing consumer marketing, e-commerce, and social media relations (plus a load of “other duties as assigned”) for a mid-sized California winery. Sampling the media is expensive. For a $50 bottle of wine that costs the winery, say, $20 to produce, the winery spends $35 to ship that sample to a writer in New York.
Consequently, wineries got more choosy, pruning their media lists to keep expenses in check. Rather than automatically sending samples, most began emailing writers to inquire about their interest, then fulfilling requests on a case by case basis. Some wineries stopped sending samples altogether, preferring to invite the writers to the winery to experience the wines in context.
“Ten years ago we had our list, and we just sent to everyone all the time,” reports Michael Wangbickler of Balzac Communications and Marketing in Napa, California. “Now we always custom-build our lists for each client based on what we think is the appropriate audience.”
That required marketers to step up their research on each writer, looking first for legitimacy—the writer’s commitment to their publication and the consistency of their posts—and next for fit, a good match between the needs of their marketing program and a writer’s tone. It costs a lot of time. “We do a lot of reading in our office,” says Tia Butts of Benson Marketing in Napa. But adds, “It’s our job to find new writers and new gems.”
So—yes, it is really important for marketing people to understand and respect a writer’s needs. But given the amount of effort the marketers are expending on the process, it’s important for a writer to be mindful of the marketer’s constraints, too. To get perspective on this, I sought input from winery marketing managers, PR agency reps, and several experienced wine writers, and drew from my own experience working on both sides of the business. Some spoke only off-record, but overall the responses I got were remarkably consistent, and likely helpful both to seasoned writers and those new to the field.
The etiquette of sample requests
Herewith, to parallel Alder Yarrow’s eight recommendations to marketers on the etiquette of sample shipments, are eight recommendations to bloggers on the etiquette of sample requests:
1. Be about something.
This first recommendation isn’t about samples at all, it’s about you and the focus of your blog. What is your publication about?
Maybe you write only about Greek wines, or about California’s Central Coast. Or you’re interested in biodynamic or natural wines, or wines under $20. Maybe you simply want to chronicle your food and wine experiences.
That’s fine, just say so. Put this statement in your “About” page, along with your name and location, so that your readers will understand where you’re coming from, and wineries and PR firms will understand your gestalt. “We are amazed at how many wine blogs we visit have no information about the author or their audience,” says Butts. Tell them.
2. Write well. Mind your readers. Don’t be afraid to be critical.
Okay, this one isn’t about samples, either–we’ll get there. In determining whether to add you to their media sample list, marketers will visit your site to evaluate your work. They want to see evidence that you’re serious about what you’re doing and responsive to your readers. Do you write well? Are your articles compelling? Are you making an effort to say something? Do you post often enough to ensure consistency, or does your blog seem spotty and louche? Marketers will likewise evaluate your activity on social channels, like Twitter and Facebook, to see how engaged you are.
Also: it’s okay to be critical. Negative reviews prove that a writer is using her mind. “I actually want to see that a blogger has panned wines, and for viable reasons,” says Jim Morris of Michel-Schlumberger Wines, also in Healdsburg. “I can’t tell you how many bloggers I no longer follow because I simply never read a bad review…they were afraid to take a controversial stand in fear of losing their winery connections.” However, if you’re consistently snarky and condescending, marketers will likely demure on providing you with many samples. Tone matters.
Lisa Mattson, communications director at Jordan Vineyard and Winery in Healdsburg, California, sums this up well: “Blogging isn’t just about filling a need to write or share commentary, it’s about filling a responsibility to your readers, because that’s what a journalist must do.”
3. Do your research. Explain your needs. Pitch yourself.
“Everything involves a pitch now,” continues Mattson. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a PR person at a winery and are pitching the Times, or you’re a blogger sending an email—you have to know how to pitch.”
Research various wineries to decide which ones are the best fit for your subject matter. Then, substantiate your request by stating explicitly how you’ll use the samples. Perhaps you’re working on a story about a particular region like the Loire, or you’re doing a series on red wines to pair with fish. Be specific and succinct about your needs. Why this winery, why these wines, and why now?
Additionally, and critically, offer a few lines about what your blog is about, and include your URL, Twitter handle, and pertinent demographic information on your readers, specifically monthly unique visitors, monthly unique page views, and number of subscribers by RSS or email. Provide your best shipping address and an alternate address if you live in a state with tough direct-shipping laws. Let them know how they can reach you.
Again, pay attention to tone. Write as if you’re sending a professional memo to a colleague. “If you can’t write a good email then why would I believe you’d have a blog with lots of readers?” asks winery PR and marketing consultant Mia Malm. “Write well even if the tone of your blog is casual.”
4. Newbies are welcome—just don’t expect the moon on a plate.
Maybe your blog is brand new, with few posts and a small readership. Or maybe you’re brand new to wine and have started writing as a way to track your exploration. All of that is fine, and many marketers are willing to take a chance on new writers because they see it as part of building their cohort. Just be upfront about this on your About page and in sample request emails.
“It’s rare that we turn people down, and we manage to fill most requests,” says Butts, although she adds, “I’ve seen a writer get defensive because I start asking more questions about them or their publication. More than once I’ve heard, ‘I bet if I were Robert Parker you’d send wine right away!’ Well, you know what? I might. I know that publication and I know its influence with the trade. That kind of attitude isn’t going to get you anywhere.”
So go ahead and introduce yourself and request that you be added to a sample list—just don’t expect immediate results. Many will comply and will get back in touch when they think you might fit their needs.
5. Respect the costs.
See above. Wine is expensive, and wine shipping is crazy-expensive. Don’t ask only for Reserve wines, and be respectful about the number of samples you request from any given supplier. “There’s a budget behind samples,” says Mattson. “There isn’t this endless flow. It’s not like giving away samples of Popchips at a rock concert. Wine is very different.”
But she also suggested that bloggers in a particular city could pool their sample requests. They may all have different story angles, but a group could share a sample rather than each receiving a full bottle. “The sample pipeline has dried up,” she added. “If they want to get it open again, that would work.”
6. Respect the schedule.
Do provide marketers with a sense of your publication deadline, especially if you’re working on a specific story. If you maintain an editorial calendar, you can share it with your PR contacts. Ken Hoggins, of Ken’s Wine Guide, reportedly does this, and it’s a smart strategy, because agencies can see what he has coming up and pro-actively send him the wines he needs.
Be mindful that ground shipping can take up to eight days, and that in order to show well, wine needs to settle for a week after transport. Even if the wine will be coming to you from a local distributor, allow several days for the request to make its way through the system.
7. It’s about business.
Here’s perhaps the most common blogger sample request: “Hi, I’ve got a wine blog, and I want to try your wines. Would you send me some samples?”
And here’s the most common initial reaction: “If you want to try our wines, then buy them.”
A wine blog is not a way to get free wine. A wine blog is an online publication where one publishes thoughtful evaluations of a deeply complex, experiential product so that others can gauge their own interest in it and possible response to it. In other words, you should be writing about stuff because other people want to read about it, not because you’re interested in getting free stuff.
When you write about a product, you are essentially giving the product a voice. Marketers know this keenly, and will monitor what you say about their product and how you say it, in order to decide whether they like how it sounds in that voice. Again, if you’re snarky or relentlessly negative, you will probably be passed over for future requests.
Which doesn’t mean you can’t write about the wines. It only means you’ll have to buy them for yourself.
8. It’s all about relationships.
Markets are conversations. Keep the lines of communication open. Let your contact know when you receive the samples and when you plan to write about them. If you open the wine and it’s flawed, let them know—most are happy to provide a replacement. Even though competent marketers monitor mentions of their brands and will likely find out when your story is posted, it’s courteous to drop them a quick note.
To read the rest of the piece, go here where the original can be found on PalattePress.
Every once in a while I see a chef do something that seems just plain brilliant, as in, why didn’t I think of that myself? TV chef Roger Mooking used this easy technique to prevent shish-kebob or satay skewers from burning on one of his show’s. Simply line the edges of your grill with aluminum foil so that the exposed ends of the skewers are shielded from the flames. Bingo! No more charred skewers. How easy is that?
You can try it out on Chef Mooking’s Grilled Passion Fruit Pork Satay recipe.
I rarely post reviews to Yelp but was motivated to add my comments there today after a lunch experience at Inakaya, a bustling Japanese robata style restaurant in the New York Times Building at Eighth Avenue and 40th Street in Manhattan.
The restaurant has gained considerable notoriety and mostly favorable comments, but I was not impressed. Yes, the food was pretty good. But I was offended by how the staff “accommodated” my shellfish allergy.
Here’s the link to my Yelp review.
Nectar Wine Bar in Harlem closes – NY Daily News: Times are hard for Harlem small business owners – old and new. Owner Jai Jai Greenfield’s roots are in Harlem, which is why she opened the wine bar four years ago.
ABC News reports 70% of Supermarket Ground Beef Contains ‘Pink Slime’: This ABC News report is just one more in a long list of disclosures that makes me steadfast in my refusal to buy wholesale processed meats. What worries me is how much of this scrap stuff finds its way into restaurant foods. Perhaps the former USDA scientist in this piece has it right: grind your own meat at home so you control what winds up on your table and in your stomach.