Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Kiss, Kiss - Shill, Shill? Did Sunset Magazine's Wine Editor Just Appear in a Commercial on Behalf of Napa's Big Corporate Vintners?

As someone who comes from the world of real journalism (my mentor was a New York Times editorial board member and I have several journalism awards, including one from the New England Press Association), the world of wine and wine writers has been something of an ethical mystery to me.

In my early days, I reported on nuclear power plants and citizen attempts to close down the local plant. It taught me a lot about consumer perception of dangers that, to many, are largely invisible.

Later in my career, I learned about "tech journalism," from the other side of the fence, while freelancing a lot for Apple. (I made most of John Sculley's videos and wrote countless presentations along with 13 books for Apple.) One veteran event producer I worked with was fond of making fun of the computer press. "They're just ducklings, and we feed them bread crumbs," he said.

The wine world is hardly known for rigorous journalism - and more's the pity. While no paper in the U.S. covers the pesticide issues connected to wineries, there's a lot of money to be made from puff pieces about the wine scene and wineries, which the wine industry paints as drivers of the local economy. (If they are such drivers, you wonder why you rarely if ever see a piece about the local economy and wine in the business section in a regular California newspaper - only in the North Bay Business Journal or wine industry press.)

Contrast that with organic foodie-ism - a huge topic in newspapers - and maybe even fracking. Sunset magazine does pieces on both of these topics. (See its latest piece on fracking here.) But pesticides in wine? Don't look for that anytime soon. Sunset looks to be in bed with the wine industry - in a newer and bigger way.

Sunset magazine wine editor Sara Schneider starring in the Napa Valley Vintner's latest video production
Sunset's just partnered with the Napa Valley Vintners, having Sunset wine editor Sara Schneider star in a new series of videos produced by the powerful regional association of the country's richest wineries. That's what I call a "brand smooch" - i.e. let's build bigger audiences by leveraging your audience and mine. The two companies logos are flashed on the screen at the beginning of each segment.

Sara Schneider "covers" harvest in a day, appearing in a series of videos posted on the vintners site. It's (allegedly) a "behind the scenes, day in the life" video of harvest. After viewing the video, which takes place in short segments shot across the valley, one has to wonder - is this "coverage" or a "commercial"?

What's in the video:

• Stops at five wineries, three of which are owned by giant wine corporations, including two based outside the U.S. (Italy, Spain)

• A casual, friendly, folksy feeling (not like a real harvest which is one of a lot of stress and moving of equipment, grapes, machines and people - all making for big hubbub)

• "On message" interviews, highlighting green practices and vintners' "love of the land" and love of preserving the land for future generations

• Pretty pictures of white people, not the hardworking Mexicans who actually harvest the grapes (although there's one Latino vineyard manager who appears very briefly in the first segment)

What's left out: 

• Corporate ownership

Two of the wineries featured are owned by large, global corporations headquartered outside the U.S. Another winery - featured one that's Napa Green certified - is owned by a family that is the main contractor for the tar sands oil drilling projects in Canada.

• Toxics and water use

All of the featured wineries - Napa Green certified or not - use pesticides and herbicides, including an assortment of bee and bird toxins (boscalid), reproductive and developmental toxins (myclobutanil), and carcinogens (glyphosate/Roundup). None talk about the amount of water it takes to make a bottle of wine and where that water comes from.


In the first segment, Sara visits Artesa, where she meets the winemaker and vineyard manager and finds out why grapes are picked in the night.

She's curious why they pick by hand - which might make you wonder how she got to be the wine editor of a major food and wine magazine? Surely she knows the answer why before she made this video. Therefore, we might not really be sure whether to trust this host or not...

Corporate ownership - Artesa: Spanish-based Cordoniu/Raventos, founded in Catalan and one of the world's largest producers of the Spanish sparkling wine cava. It owns wineries on 5 continents, including 7,400 acres of its own vineyards. It employs 800 people globally.

Toxics: 46 gallons of Roundup - the carcinogen you can no longer buy in a French store - on estate vines; more on purchased grapes from other growers.


Next stop: Cliff Lede where Sara meets the viticulturist and the enologist where she learns what happens in the winery, and asks, "I understand that Cliff Lede is Napa Green certified. What exactly does that mean in the vineyard?"

Then we get a non-answer from the Cliff Lede enologist: "We're committed to the land and to future generations."

The Cliff Lede staffers go on to say that 90% of the energy that they use in the winery comes from solar panels on the property (subsidized by energy tax credits provided by California taxpayers).

They also talk about the wine caves used to store their wine barrels. "The cave system requires minimal amounts of energy for cooling," the Cliff Lede employee says. Gee, what a modern technological marvel - since caves have been in use to age wine for as many as 8,000 years.

"We collect our water and we use reclaimed water to irrigate our vineyards and our landscaping," they say, without saying what volume of water that amounts to and how much water they use to produce a bottle of wine.

Ownership of Cliff Lede: Cliff Lede created his winery backed by his days working in the family business, Ledcor, an Alberta construction company. Ledcor is the leading contractor for the Canadian oil tar sands project

Toxics at Cliff Ledelots of Roundup and the bee and bird toxin, boscalid, are used on its 47 acres of estate vines, in addition to toxics applied to grapes it buys from other growers. 


Then it's on to Antica, on Atlas Peak, where a "typical" harvest luncheon is served. It looks more like a Sunset magazine shoot for the perfect beef industry promotional meal. Plates with heaping portions of steak are passed around as Sara "interviews" general manager Glen Salva, who looks like he just stepped out of a Ralph Lauren ad, about the activities at harvest time.

In the video, there are plenty of shots of young, white people in winery positions in the cellar. A quick reference is made to the harvest crew - but we don't see or hear from any of the (Mexican) vineyard workers.

Salva talks about the owners - the Antinori family, an Italian wine dynasty - and their commitment to "passion, patience and perserverance."

Pesticides aren't on his P-words alliteration list.

Corporate ownership of Antica: Italian wine giant Antinori, one of the world's largest wine companies, owns vineyards and brands across the globe, including in Hungary, Roumania, Spain (Malta), and Chile, as well as Napa and Washington State. It is a part owner (along with Washington-based Ste. Michelle Wine Estates) of Stag's Leap Wine Cellars in Napa. 

Toxics used at Antica: 20 gallons of the bee and bird toxin boscalid; 21 gallons of the developmental and reproductive toxin myclobutanil (one of the more toxic pesticides, it's labeled a "Bad Actor" by the EPA)


Then, because Sara needs a caffeine break by now, it's on to coffee in St. Helena with Bob Trinchero of Sutter Home fame. Trinchero, a winemaker in Napa since 1960, is the guy who created White Zinfandel, now a $6 billion business.

He reminisces about how he got his start in 1960, when there were only 15 wineries in Napa Valley, where his family was already in the business. You'd be forgiven for not knowing he's also one the country's biggest vintners, because it's never mentioned. You know, he's just an old timer from when Napa was a folksy, intimate place.

Corporate ownership: Trinchero Family Estates, the 5th largest winery in the country, owns 30 wine brands, including Sutter Home. It just opened a state of the art mega-facility in Lodi, where it can make all of its annual production of 20 million cases and can store up to 4 million at a time in the 850,000 square foot facility. 

Toxics used: with 30 brands, toxics used are too numerous to count.


Then it's back to the grapes - this time, Napa's signature varietal Cabernet Sauvignon, which hasn't ripened enough to be picked. Sara visits Schweiger Vineyards, the only winery in her day in the life that actually is a small family winery. It has 35 acres of vines on Spring Mountain.

"What do you think makes this an attractive place?" she asks the proprietors Fred and Andy Schweiger. Their answer? "We do this because you [sic] love working with the land and putting into it."

Toxics: feeling "the love" of the land and putting into it 13 gallons of the carcinogen glyphosate


The video concludes with a big harvest party (even though most of the wineries haven't picked their Cabernet yet).

Sara's at the party, holding a glass of wine and saying, "You can keep the magic going the next time you open a bottle of Napa Valley wine."


I'm not sure the New York Times would allow Eric Asimov to mouth these words to camera, nor would the Wine Spectator, even. But one does wonder - what rules are being followed here in terms of Sunset's editorial policies?

The American Society of Magazine Editors does have some rules. Its rules say, "Editorial content of any kind should not be submitted to advertisers for approval."

Didn't Sunset staff and the magazine's logo appear in the videos? Yes. And did the magazine edit the videos? In all likelihood, no.

With Sunset having announced its relocating its test gardens and kitchens to Sonoma (and its offices to Oakland's Jack London Square), we can anticipate where this brand is going - i.e. deeper and deeper into wine country. But can we ask Sunset to be accountable for its editorial content and policies - and to let us know those policies? After all, it's owned by Time, Inc. And they should know something about journalistic ethics.

Personally, I don't blame the NVV for putting out a promotional video - it's a great piece of advertising for their brand. They are doing what great marketers do - deliver consistent, high quality messaging about their brand.

But I do think that Sunset should watch what it's doing. While they're no environmental watchdog, they do have a brand to protect - one based on home, family, food and travel.

Credibility is based on editorial ethics - and Sunset's are, at the very least, questionable.

ADDENDUM (Sept. 27)

The data on pesticide use quoted here was not meant to single out these particular vineyards and wineries, as more than 80 percent of the vines in Napa Valley use one or more of these toxic pesticides (and others). Enumerating just some of what was used was to point out the disparity between vintners who proclaim themselves to be green (and spend millions promoting that marketing messaging) and the actual facts of their farming practices. Consumers are very confused about what the wineries are doing, which is precisely the point of the wineries' green marketing efforts.

Saying you have a love of the land and want to preserve it for future generations is a media talking point, and wineries and their staff are rehearsed in media trainings to provide that quote over and over. Many - maybe even most - staffers do not know the actual facts of what is used at their wineries.

I'll be posting an updated list of the countywide quantities of toxics used in Napa, and Sonoma, and Mendocino and statewide in a future post so you can get a sense of how pervasive and widespread the use of toxics is. But for starters, Napa Valley growers applied more than 50,000 pounds of Roundup (glyphosate) in 2013 over 34,000 acres (out of 40,000 bearing acres in the county), according to the state's pesticide use reports.

No organic vineyards use any of these toxics.

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