Under the Twitter hashtag #ONtastesBC the tweets seen round the world unfolded in the twittersphere fast and furiously for a few days in January.
I had no idea what was going on, this seemingly grassroots swell of support for a few B.C. wines that were hitting the LCBO stores shelves was getting a lot of love from a number of Ontario bloggers who were delivered these bottles of wine to taste and, it would seem, heap lavish praise upon them.
One of the tweets on January 24 really got my full attention: “We are officially trending #1 WORLDWINDE (sic) on Twitter with #ONtastesBC, congrats all!” from Natalie MacLean (@NatDecants), the “World’s Best Drink Writer” (it says right there on her Twitter profile).
Wow! The No. 1 worldwide trending topic was #ONtastesBC. Incredible. It was a feat unimaginable for a Canadian wine topic and a major coup for MacLean and her small team of bloggers.
I am not exactly clear on how many bloggers received samples of the B.C. wines, but they did a magnificent job on Twitter if, for only a brief moment in time, the world stopped and took notice of a few B.C. wines hitting LCBO store shelves in Ontario. The utter joy in India, Kazakhstan and Timbuktu must have been overwhelming.
I do not know what else was going on the world when #ONtasteBC became the No. 1 trending topic in the world, but it beat out anything Lady Gaga had to say. Or Nicki Minaj. Or President Obama. Or even Justin Bieber.
Congratulations to Wines of B.C. (@winebcdotcom), which represents 129 member wineries throughout that province.
Its job, of course, is to support and market the wines of British Columbia. And with this successful promotion of B.C. wines in Ontario it has done an exceptional job of doing just that.
To an unsuspecting consumer the campaign that exploded on social media appeared as a generic, consumer-driven and objective exercise in tasting some fine B.C. juice that just happened to be heading to the LCBO.
A pre-tasting of the wines and lunch was held in Toronto where wine writers were invited to taste and review the wines. The tasting was conducted by Chris Waters, editor of Vines, who was hired by the B.C. Wine Institute through an Ontario PR firm. It was announced there that you were free to tweet about the wines under the hashtag #ONtastesBC at a preset time. So far, so good. If you felt like tweeting, go for it. Review the wines, good or bad, and tweet about them if you wanted to. Waters is a professional and by all accounts the tasting was conducted in a professional manner.
Here’s where it becomes murkier.
The B.C. Wine Institute hired, again through an Ontario PR firm, Ottawa wine writer Natalie MacLean, the aforementioned “World’s Best Drink Writer,” to lead the Twitter discussion and promote the B.C. wines coming to the Ontario market. Two key words here: HIRED and PROMOTE.
Up until a few months ago, MacLean was a member of a professional group of writers called the Wine Writers Circle of Canada (of which I am a member).
She quit the organization (coincidentally, we were told) after an American wine website took her to task for lifting other wine writers’ wine reviews for own website without proper attribution. Under the headline “Natalie MacLean: World’s Best Wine Writer or Content Thief?” you can read all about it here. There were other accusations that I won’t get into here, the most serious a question of pay-to-play wine reviews on her website.
(Note: I was corrected on MacLean’s resignation by Michael Pinkus, the Wine Writer’s Circle of Canada’s president. Here is what he said:
“Natalie did not quit the WWCC after the Palate Press piece, she quit the month before, the day after I sent her an email asking to see the mysterious URL with the legend for her initials-based attributions. She claimed it was because no tastings happened in her area – but she remains a member of the Circle of Wine Writer based in England and I doubt they’re having many tasting in Ottawa either. By the way, no URL was ever sent.”)
One of the key criteria for our professional writing group is we cannot get paid to promote wines for a specific winery. Objectivity is key and it guides us when writing about and reviewing wines.
You can read the full code of ethics here but the one that deals particularly with this promotion by MacLean reads like this:
“Examples where there is no conflict of interest: A winery hires you to conduct a tasting of its products and you provide objective opinions, disclosing the fact you’ve been hired to do so by the relevant organization.”
Which, of course, did not happen in this case. We were at no time under the impression that MacLean was hired to promote these wines. But she was. And that changes the whole ball game. How are we to view these tweets that seemingly came from everywhere and were retweeted again and again.
She wasn’t hired to be objective. She was hired to be effusive in her praise of the wines. Whether she loved those wines or not does not matter. Whether they are good or not does not matter. Everything she said about them rings hollow because her motives were not guided by objectivity.
I do not know the motivation behind the other people who received samples of the same wines. I do not know if they were chosen by MacLean, the B.C. Wine Institute or the Ontario PR firm, but most, if not all, are listed on MacLean’s website as key members of her “Wall of Fame” list of contributors. I do not know most of them so I cannot comment on motive. I have to assume they accepted the samples, loved the wine and tweeted about them. Whether they were paid by MacLean, I have no idea, but I suspect not. And after reading the reviews, there were a range of opinions from scores in the mid-80s to low 90s.
My concern is not with them.
It is the blurring of lines, especially on social media, of what is real content and what is promotion.
In this case, the Twitter tasting of the B.C. wines was clearly promotion and orchestrated by MacLean, who was hired by the B.C. Wine Institute to promote those wines.
My point is this: You are either a professional wine writer, bound by ethics of journalism, or you are not. You have to be upfront and honest with your readers whether it’s on Twitter, Facebook or your own website, about your motives of putting your full weight behind a brand. You have to pick a side and stay on it.
I asked the B.C. Wine Institute about this promotion and received a reply from Miles Prodan, Executive Director. This was his response when I asked if MacLean was hired to promote those B.C. wines.
“Kate passed along your email inquiry regarding our recent BCVQA LCBO Vintage promotion that included the #ontastesbc twitter tasting among a variety of elements including a VIP media/trade tasting, in-store samplings, neck-tag/sweepstakes promotion, etc. — all coordinated by our in-market communications agency. Unfortunately, due to the competitive market environment we operate in, we’re not at liberty to divulge specific tactics, results or budgets as that information is proprietary. Suffice to say we are very pleased with the results of the program to date and are anxious to see how it translates into sales.”
There were a few more back and forth emails, but suffice to say, the B.C. Wine Institute confirmed they hired both Waters and MacLean to conduct different aspects of the B.C. wine campaign and have no problems with how it went down.
I received one other email, from Maggie Anderson, the B.C. Wine Institute’s marketing director.
“To clarify, the BCWI does not, has not and will not pay any media to write reviews positive or otherwise. Any fees that are paid are for time and co-ordination. All reviews are unbiased and unpaid,” she wrote.
I did reply to her asking how a person they hire to promote wines could be anything but positive with their reviews if they hired, and presumably paid, to promote the wines on Twitter or otherwise? The institute enlisted the services of a wine writer to promote those wines on twitter complete with reviews, or so it appears.
I told Anderson that my concern here is not with the B.C. Wine Institute (it’s their job to get positive feedback for their members) it’s with the writer who was hired to write positive words on Twitter. I did not hear back from Anderson.
The Twitter campaign #ONtastesBC was bolstered by glowing reviews of all the wines from MacLean and her contributors. Perhaps most alarmingly, MacLean, hired by the Wine Institute, don’t forget, to promote these six wines, backed up her words on Twitter by also reviewing the six wines on her website. I am reprinting the reviews below, all rated 90 points and higher, with her favourite wine getting a whopping 95 points (that same wine reviewed by noted B.C. wine critic Anthony Gismondi, received 90 points), the highest score I have ever seen for a Canadian wine.
Here’s what appeared and still is on MacLean’s website:
Top BC Wines in the LCBO
A number of spectacular wines from British Columbia hit LCBO store shelves this past Saturday. Several of them below are hosting their own Twitter tasting tonight at 8 p.m. eastern. They’ve chosen the hashtag #ONtastesBC so you can join them.
I’ve been reviewing these wines for several years now, and it’s interesting to track their progress to the most recent vintage. As well, you can find my Top 25 BC Wine List as well as all other wines reviewed from the province.
You may find this directory of BC wineries helpful in planning your next trip there. It’s a gorgeous region with plenty of activities aside from wine tasting and many spectacular restaurants, several of which are operated by the wineries themselves. Enjoy!
Mission Hill Family Estate Reserve Chardonnay 2010
Bursting with aromas of fleshy ripe peach and pear that mingle with toasted almonds. Full-bodied with layers of tropical fruit pleasure. $19.95 Score: 90/100.
Gray Monk Gewürztraminer 2011, BC VQA, Okanagan Valley, British Columbia
Classic gewurz with aromas of lychee, rose petal and baking spices. Full-bodied and delicious. Perfect for Asian dishes, curries and spicy dishes. $19.95 Score: 91/100. Best Value White Wine.
Quails’ Gate Chardonnay 2011, BC VQA, Okanagan Valley, British Columbia
A full-bodied and generous chardonnay with layers of rip peach and green apple flavour. Some attractive toast almond on the finish. $20.95 Score: 90/100.
Eau Vivre Pinot Noir 2008, BC VQA, Similkameen Valley, British Columbia
A lovely, medium-bodied red with a silky smooth texture. Enticing aromas of tart cherry, wild violets and a hint of smoke. Balanced and mouth-watering $24.95 Score: 90/100.
Osoyoos Larose Le Grand Vin 2008, BC VQA, Okanagan Valley, British Columbia
A spectacular blend of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot and malbec with a solid Bordeaux-like structure. The Okanagan signature is fully present here with a generosity of dark fruit aromas and rich, full-bodied weight. A long, satisfying finish. $45.95 Score: 93/100.
Mission Hill Quatrain 2009, BC VQA, Okanagan Valley, British Columbia
Spectacularly rich, complex and deep. This towering red offers aromas of dark red fruit, smoke, dried herbs and cigar box. It’s a multi-layered wine that will cellar very well. Truly one of Canada’s flagship wines. $44.95 Score: 95/100. Top Rated Red Wine.
The story above and reviews also ran in the Huffington Post here.
Twitter tastings are exploding in popularity as a way to drive consumers to brands.
The Ontario Wine Council conducted one last summer in advance of the International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration. They sent wine writers a selection of Chardonnays from around the world, suggested a hashtag to use and let reviewers taste and tweet if they wanted to. Some did, some didn’t. I reviewed them on my own website and mentioned the I4C event. No one was paid to do it, it was all above board.
The Finger Lakes wine association holds regular Twitter tastings where wine writers are sent a selection of wines and asked to discuss them with a hashtag if they so desire. Some do, some don’t. No one is paid for their time and the wines are usually spoken about in critical terms but spreading the word about Finger Lakes wines nonetheless. Again, all that is done professionally and without a conflict of interest.
I have worked with the B.C. Wine Institute in the past. I have travelled with them, toured with them, stayed in the Okanagan as their guests. They are a great organization, very professional and detail oriented. At no time was I ever asked to write favourably or write at all in return for being their guest in B.C.
Why they have ventured into this sort of promotion is a mystery to me and they have shed no light on this change in direction.
It’s a dangerous path we are going down. There are many forks in the road that can lead consumers astray. That line between promotion and real advice is blurred and getting blurrier.
A fellow wine writer, who I have a lot of respect for, John Szabo, wrote a reasoned piece in the National Post about the state of wine writing today. You can read it here (http://life.nationalpost.com/2012/12/28/john-szabos-vintages-preview-for-jan-5-2013/) but his main point is you have to find voices you trust and filter out the rest.
His point is valid.
Find the voices you trust and filter out the rest.