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MONDAY MANIFESTOS
09/20/2010
Monday Manifestos
A Two-Fer: Wine Labeling and Wine Blogs Go Political

By Charles Olken

Who Needs To Know About Alcohol Level?

By all rights, I should have spent this weekend writing about wine labeling, and, in particular, about the burr under my saddle that most wine labels create these days. Wine labels, it seems, are required to state the alcohol level in a bottle of wine, but not only are those requirements so loose as to be far too uninformative but the folks who write the regulations now allow wineries to hide the information as if it were some kind of bad relative from the country that nobody will admit to knowing. Go look for that required statement on the next bottle of wine that comes your way. Not only will it likely be hard to find in the first place, being stated in tiny print, often hidden amidst other designs, shown in grey on grey paper or something equally obfuscating, but half the labels coming my way now turn that information sideways and stick it in corners. Frankly, the whole business of alcohol level labeling has become a bureaucratic disgrace. There ought to be a law. Oops, there are several and they are not serving any good purpose. Apparently, someone thought you had a right to know. That is why it is required to state alcohol levels on labels. Apparently, someone else thinks that you only need to know if you win the label scavenger hunt. We will have more to say on this subject in the coming weeks and months, but we have been distracted all weekend with the question of political statements on wine blogs.

Anyone For A Political Opinion?

I somehow should not have to say this, but it appears that I must. I must because the question of whether a wine writer can have a political opinion and state it on his blog and still be considered an objective reviewer came up over the weekend on the very exceptional wine blog, STEVE HEIMOFF.COM. Most of you will know Mr. Heimoff as the person who covers the California beat for Wine Enthusiast magazine. Since he and I tred the same turf, we often run into each other out on the hustings, and we have become friends. Not social friends. He skateboards. I do not. He has a tattoo. I do not. He has a blog. I did not, and yet I like blogs and have been a frequent poster on his eponymous blog. His blog is personal and is not an extension of his day job. Mine, this new child of CGCW, is part of my day job, as well as my night job and my weekend job. I am always on because this is my house. I live here. Steve’s blog is his recreation; his day job is his day job. Fortunately for me, and for Steve Eliot, my associate here at CGCW, writing about wine is also part of our recreation.

The tempest in Steve’s teapot brewed up over his reference to none other than the Tea Party. Of course, his article had nothing to do with politics, but rather was a rather long and interesting discourse on the difficulties in the world in general and the wine world in particular. He mentioned that the uncertainty people feel has a lot to do with the rise of the Tea Party in U. S. political circles as part of “a lurch to the right in political sentiment”.

Now whether he is right or wrong in his judgment is not my concern here. Nor was it my concern when I read his longer essay and its essential points. But, some of his readers have objected on grounds that he is a winewriter, not a political commentator—and on that subject, even though he would like to talk about politics and his beliefs in his blog, he has indicated that he will not go there. He did in this one instance, and he (and I and all wine writers were challenged by a polite but pointed rejoinder from one of his readers). So, with that long introduction, I am now going to quote from the exchange, and I am going to end with my manifesto on wine writer politics and the influence of those politics on our writing.

A reader of Steve Heimoff.com writes:
I think you’ve been sneaking in politics even more since you said you were going to stop. At least you are leaving your Tea Party = Hitler rants on Facebook.

Charlie Olken responds:
Gee, I see far less politics here than before. Too bad. I kind of miss those old Tea Party = Hitler rants. I probably have pretty much the same progressive politics as Steve, although the closest I get to political discussions is commenting on Dan Berger’s rants (with respectful snarkiness, of course).

The reader writes:
This is probably why Steve has been trying (unsuccessfully) to keep politics out of his blog. Nothing good can come of it… I’m just still a little sore about his recent “hit and run” on VA Republicans.

Charlie Olken counters with:
Sir--I am not going to break Steve’s rules by commenting directly on politics, but it is pretty clear that hit-and-run tactics are not limited to Steve and those of his beliefs. It gets practiced at both ends of the spectrum. And neither is the equating of someone’s politics with those of Hitler. All you need to do is to think back to the last Presidential campaign. That kind of tactic was pretty one-sided. And it got worse during the debate over health care.

And while I strongly believe that my job as a wine critic is to evaluate wines, not the politics of those who make them or who drink them, I do think that we all have to remember that this is a personal blog and the person who writes it is not charging for folks to come here and read his thoughts. Even if I did not agree with him, I would not care if his personal views were shared here. Others do, and Steve has heard that and has cut down greatly on those kinds of comments.

The reader offers the following interrogatories:
Charlie--Thank you for your thoughful comments. To avoid speaking about politics, let’s turn the conversation to the more general issue… what is the responsibility of a blogger who is also a professional wine journalist?

  1. How does the internet differentiate between quotes from a professional publication and a quote from a personal blog?
  2. Does the average reader understand the difference?
  3. Can a journalist retain an appearance of objectivity when they bare their political views for the world to see? (Especially with the wine industry being in the midst of an important and historic legislative fight, in the Congress and in many state legislatures.)
  4. Does the blogger who is also a professional journalist have any responsibility for accuracy and/or corrections if applicable?

I respond, with what I hope is the end of this debate:
I love those questions even if I find parts of them a little on the loaded side. More on that later.

  1. The Internet, or anywhere else for that matter, always can differentiate between media, between context and between statements based on how the maker chooses to qualify them. In the case of Mr. Heimoff, he has established a clear distinction between the two. He has stated it. He has repeated it. He means it. We understand it.

  2. One of the problems with this question is that it presupposes more than it says. Even though you have asked a general question, this whole discussion revolves around that which Mr. Heimoff chooses to say here versus what he says in his day job. I suspect that he would not ever comment on politics in his Wine Enthusiast columns. And I suspect that he would be called out, called on the carpet and called a lot of names if he did.
  3. I am going to interject my situation here by way of contrast. Although I do not generally engage in political commentary in my publication or in my blog, I also present myself to the world very differently. Tom Merle’s earlier assessment of my place in both print and blog spoke to the differences between Mr. Heimoff’s place here and my place in my blog.

    In short, Mr. Heimoff proclaims that there exists a gulf between his day job and his blog. My day job and my blog are one and the same. One is simply an extension of the other.

    Does the average reader know the difference, you ask. My answer is yes. The people who read Mr. Heimoff here understand that this is a non-paid, non-related position.

  4. I guess the question I would ask of you is “objectivity” in what endeavor? Nothing that Mr. Heimoff writes here has the least bearing on how he reviews wine or how he sees trends in the wine industry. More than that, it seems to me to be a far stretch to suggest that anyone’s antipathy toward or embracement of the Tea Party movement one way or the other would or could affect the way they/we review wine.
  5. I have said that I share much of Mr. Heimoff’s political beliefs. Yet, just because I choose not to comment on those beliefs (note that I did comment on HR 5034–and that is in the political arena) does not mean that my views on wine are more objective than anyone else’s. Objectivity comes from methodology and acceptance that truth is truth in our wine writing.

  6. We all have a responsibility to tell it as we see it. And we have an equal responsiblity to see “it” objectively when it comes to our professional opinions. Mr. Heimoff’s political and social belief system is personal, not professional. So is mine and so is yours–unless you make your living not in wine but in politics.

    I appreciate the kind words with which you started your entry above. But, as I hope you have now gathered, I have a hard time seeing the connections which your questions imply.

Comments

So Happy You Are Blogging
by Adam Japko
Posted on:9/20/2010 10:38:00 AM
Charlie,Could not be happier you are regularly blogging. Good to be able to find you in one spot and not all over the blogosphere's comment forums. One question, woudl love to get your posts in my Google reader, but how to get an RSS feed? Does not appear evident on this site.Thanks and good luck, which you don't need, on your even more regular content creation. It's a great thing for wine lovers.
RSS Feed
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:9/20/2010 10:58:44 AM
Hello Adam--Thanks for the kind words. We do not have an RSS feed at present but we have a review scheduled with the web developer this week to go over a long list of upgrades and confusions. Adding an RSS feed and all the other links that are now part of the landscape are on the list. Stay tuned.Charlie
No Subject
by Samantha Dugan
Posted on:9/20/2010 12:09:13 PM
So glad to hear that Charlie!
Old
by Adam Lee/Siduri Wines
Posted on:9/20/2010 12:29:29 PM
"Not only will it likely be hard to find in the first place, being stated in tiny print, often hidden amidst other designs, shown in grey on grey paper or something equally obfuscating, but half the labels coming my way now turn that information sideways and stick it in corners."C'mon Charlie. Time to get a new pair of bi-focals? :)Adam LeeSiduri Wines
Old? Who's Old?
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:9/20/2010 12:58:08 PM
Adam, true story. We have a taster who comes to tastings with a magnifying glass so he can read the alcohol statements. Another taster put his reading glasses over his regular glasses in order to magnify the type. Kind of defeats the purpose of required alcohol statements if they are unreadable.
Labels
by Adam Lee
Posted on:9/20/2010 2:27:22 PM
Charlie,The regs haven't changed over the years -- they are: (a) Legibility. All labels shall be so designed that all the statements thereon required by 4.30 through 4.39 are readily legible under ordinary conditions, and all such statement shall be on a contrasting background. (b) Size of type. (1) Containers of more than 187 milliliters. All mandatory information required on labels by this part, except the alcoholic content statement, shall be in script, type, or printing not smaller than 2 millimeters; except that if contained among other descriptive or explanatory information, the script, type, or printing of the mandatory information shall be of a size substantially more conspicuous than that of the descriptive or explanatory information. (2) Containers of 187 milliliters or less. All mandatory information required on labels by this part, except the alcoholic content statement, shall not be smaller than 1 millimeter, except that if contained among other descriptive or explanatory information, the script, type, or printing of the mandatory information shall be of a size substantially more conspicuous than that of the descriptive or explanatory information. (3) Alcoholic content statements shall not appear in script, type, or printing larger or more conspicuous than 3 millimeters nor smaller than 1 millimeter on labels of containers having a capacity of 5 liters or less and shall not be set off with a border or otherwise accentuated.
Labelling Laws
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:9/21/2010 12:22:20 AM
Adam, the regs may not have changed but it is only recently that wineries have been allowed to print the alcohol sideways on the label. And while the regs as you state them suggest that the alcohol statement cannot be hidden, we tasted a wine today in which the alcohol statement was surrounded by a vineyard drawing. I appreciate that Siduri does engage in this practice. Others unfortunately do. As long as an alcohol statement is required, I would prefer that it not be hidden or otherwise camouflaged, significantly misstated and treated cavalierly by the regulators or the wineries.
Hide It
by Adam Lee
Posted on:9/21/2010 5:38:48 AM
Charlie,I don't doubt that folks are attempting to hide the alcohol statement (it is hardly the most aesthetically pleasing part of a label design). Like many other laws, however, just because it is in existence doesn't mean that it is being enforced. A couple of things come into play here -- such as the fact that black and white label copies are sufficient for TTB approval and that label submission sizes need to be a certain size but on wrap-around labels that may mean that information on the side of a label may actually appear closer to the back of the bottle.
Alcohol labeling
by ThomasPellechia
Posted on:9/21/2010 5:59:30 AM
"...black and white label copies are sufficient for TTB approval and that label submission sizes need to be a certain size but on wrap-around labels that may mean that information on the side of a label may actually appear closer to the back of the bottle."Therein lies the seeds of circumventing the (always well-intended, wink, wink) regulations.
Alcohol labeling
by ThomasPellechia
Posted on:9/21/2010 6:01:11 AM
Charlie,When you talk to the designer, get him or her to break paragraphs on this thing, too.Reading the comments is easy--understanding them isn't.
Labels and Paragraphs
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:9/21/2010 12:50:10 PM
Thanks for the additional comments, Adam. I suspect this issue is not going away, and if the "tell us the specific alcohol" lobby has its way, there may be more than one labeling law change.Tom P. I have put two paragraphs breaks in here to see if that solves the problem temporarily. The issue you raise is very high on my list of items that I will discuss with the web developer. It is counter-intuitive to create a system that does not allow for paragraphs. I also will ask for a review function so that one can see, if one wants, the full text before it is posted.
Alcohol Levels
by Jorgen
Posted on:9/23/2010 4:15:57 PM
Why is it important to state an alcohol level on a wine label? Seems to me that the lawmakers knew a thing or two about science (at the time) and left enough leeway for statistical variance in measurment. I find that most people tend to glance at the label to decide if they should say something like" Oh, quite vinous" or "seems thin" just to fit in, while in blind tasting most persons can't tell the difference between wine with 4% and 12% alcohol. Is the label statement there just to alert folk to the fact that they will be impaired if they drink too much? In that case, a blank statement should be enough, a precise measurment makes no sense.

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