The pipeline has dried up.

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.[1]

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. And it’s 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.

If you decide not to write about the wine, because you didn’t like it or it didn’t end up fitting your article, let them know that, too. Otherwise they’ll be left wondering what happened; most will want your feedback, positive, negative, and otherwise.

“Communication’s key,” concludes Wangbickler, “closing the loop—and just normal social etiquette, like being pleasant and friendly. Wine is a relationship business, and it’s all about the relationship. The relationships I’ve formed with bloggers is priceless.”


[1] Sadly, it’s also cumbersome to sample a writer from the distributor’s warehouse, as these firms generally aren’t well equipped to handle deliveries or pick-ups of single bottles, and the communications and charge-back requirements can make this channel impractical. For shipped samples, legally speaking, a winery must have a direct-shipment license for the writers state. Some wineries send samples to the media anyway, but according to legal counsel at the Wine Institute and the compliance consultants I’ve spoken with, this is technically a no-no.


Meg Houston Maker is a writer curious about nature, culture, food, wine, and place. Find her essays about the pleasures of the table at Maker’s Table, and follow her on Twitter @megmaker.

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  • http://www.thirstybert.com Marc Jardine | ThirstyBert

    A very interesting and informative article, Meg. Thanks.

    • http://www.makerstable.com Meg Houston Maker

      Marc, many thanks for reading. I’m glad you found it informative. Cheers!

  • http://www.sedimentblog.com The Sediment Blog

    We were told we were not getting samples because of our blog’s subtitle: “I’ve bought it, so I’ll drink it.”

    We’ll continue buying.

    The Sediment Blog

    • http://www.makerstable.com Meg Houston Maker

      Gentlemen of The Sediment: was that response from one provider, or a range? And was it in response to your inquiries? I’d be curious to know whether you’ve received this treatment from multiple wineries (or their agents).

      Thanks so much for reading.

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  • http://www.1wibedude.com 1wibedude

    Enjoyed reading this other side of he fence style piece. Doesn’t raise my sympathy level for PR though. :) mostly because I get a sh*tloal of samples much of which comes with no info and without anyone reading anything about 1WD. I’ve stopped responding to blog reach/traffic requests altogether because I get too many of them.

    “That required marketers to step up their research on each writer” – that’s what really resonated with me about this article. PR people need to do their jobs, & if sending samples is expensive then understanding who should get them is definitely part of their job req.

    Easy for a guy who doesn’t have to receive another sample for the next three years to say, I know. :). But the point is that both sides of the equation have responsibilities here, and anyone who starts blogging only because they expect to get free wine is more of a docuebag than a PR jockey sending samples without any info or without doing any homework.

    • http://www.sahmmelier.wordpress.com SAHMmelier

      Joe, as much as I would enjoy “too many samples” as a problem, I can imagine your frustration if they aren’t coming with solid info. Seems like an expensive missed opportunity, right? I can filter your traffic for you. *Will work for wine* ;)

    • http://www.cuveecorner.blogspot.com Bill Eyer

      Joe said, “That required marketers to step up their research on each writer” – that’s what really resonated with me about this article. PR people need to do their jobs” Wow, I couldn’t agree more with that sentiment. I’ve discussed this issue with a few PR representatives and explained; “that not all blogs are created equal” either, so doing their due diligence is essential in helping them suss-out the wheat from the chaff and get the most bang for their buck. On the other side of the equation, bloggers don’t have to accept every wine that’s offered to them for review. I’ve started to politely, say no thanks to some offers, but a slow down of samples, really, that’s new to me.

    • http://www.makerstable.com Meg Houston Maker

      Joe, thanks for your note. I do recall, from reading all the comments on Alder’s posts, that you’d had a lot to say on the matter (and that you liked the fuzzy animal swag). I kept your remarks firmly in mind as I wrote the introduction to this piece, actually. Thanks for the inspiration!

  • http://www.sahmmelier.wordpress.com SAHMmelier

    Thank you for this information. Being fairly new to the blogging world, I had no idea about how sampling worked and, quite honestly, that it was so prevalent. I presumed that only the biggest and most established were on sample lists.

    As usual, thank for your thoughts- always an enjoyable read.

    • http://beausbarrelroom.blogspot.com Beau

      The samples will start to flow, just you watch. If your experience is anything like mine, at first you’ll get some cheap stuff, sometimes decent, sometimes pretty bad. I think that’s how PR companies gauge you as a blogger. After your “trial period” ends, you’ll start getting really fun wines and if you play the game, you’ll be set! If you don’t play the game, either by taking too long to write, not being positive, etc, the seesaw will swing the other way once more. :)

      • http://www.sahmmelier.wordpress.com SAHMmelier

        That would be great, because it would seem like encouragement. Even if they never do, I’ll keep writing. I love learning about wine and trying new ones. It keeps me sane in my toddler/dishes/laundry world. ;)

    • http://www.makerstable.com Meg Houston Maker

      I wrote this article in part because I wanted bloggers to know that it is permissible to request samples, and how to frame the request so that it will be well received. In effect, I endorse the endeavor of providing writers — maybe especially non-professional writers and critics — with samples for review, because I believe these voices are both valuable and valued. My goal here was to provide a balanced view of the issues, concerns, and constraints involved in sampling so that writers can decide how they’d like to approach the issue. It’s fine not to request samples, and it’s fine to request them. But your method will, in part, dictate the result you get.

    • http://vintagewinepicks.blogspot.com/ cono_sur

      I am also relatively new (1+ yrs) to the wine blogging world and had no idea about wine samplings.

  • http://wine-zag.com Adam Japko

    I hate samples. I write about wine, but am thankful I don’t have to do it for money. I want the total freedom to say anything or nothing about anything. With that said, can you imagine a post like this addressed to traditional journalists? I think this freebie chasing is indeed one of the things that indeed does separate bloggers from traditional journalists as much as we know the walls between them to be crumbling. It should be about blogging and writing, not samples. With that said, I am sure many will lake your advice.

    • http://www.makerstable.com Meg Houston Maker

      Hi Adam, thanks so much for your comment. It’s an interesting question. Professional journalists do request samples, and at least in my limited experience do so following roughly what’s outlined here, viz., they say they’re working on a particular article with a particular thrust and so are soliciting samples for review. Their goals are clear, and so it’s really easy for a winery to evaluate whether to fulfill the request.

      It’s possible that many professional journalists are advised by their editors and editorial peers on how to go about this, but a writer working alone on his or her own, without benefit of an editorial community, might not have a sense of the flow. Hence, I thought a few lines about sample request etiquette would help writers get the lay of the land, were they to decide to request samples.

      Cheers, and thanks for reading!

      • http://twoshepherdsvineyards.com William Allen – Palate Shepherd

        Now that I have a small winery, I want to vouch professionals do indeed request samples. I was (pleased) last week when a prominent publication asked us why we hadn’t yet! :)

  • http://www.balzac.com Michael Wangbickler

    Great article Meg. As usual, it is very well written. There are a lot of great points for both sides of the relationship. Thanks for including me.

    Regarding Joe’s (1WineDude) comments: it’s unfortunate that there are still those who don’t think through what they are doing or why. In too many cases, it ends up being a junior associate or PR assistant who has their little checklist that they have to get through. Sent to Joe Roberts… check. Sent to… It’s rather sad, really.

    • http://www.makerstable.com Meg Houston Maker

      Mike, many thanks for being willing to go on record with your views from the agency perspective. Your remarks helped me refine my thinking on the matter and, I think, greatly enhanced the outcome.

  • http://beausbarrelroom.blogspot.com Beau

    Interesting article, and for me, enlightening. I can count on one hand the times I’ve reached out to a winery and asked for samples. I prefer to just let interested parties ask me if they can send wines. That said, I have started turning down more and more sample requests in recent months because I simply am tired of writing about cheap, crappy wine. When a PR firm bombards you with $10 plonk, it can often leave a bitter taste..pun intended…

    I know I miss out on some great wines from PR firms like Benson and Malm, but I assume they’re just not into my writing style or don’t think I get enough traffic. Getting samples is exciting at first, but soon settles into a comfortable rhythm. That is, the novelty wears off and we realize that there is real work involved in tasting the wine, researching it, and composing a thoughtful, intelligent post. Yes, I realize some bloggers simply post a picture and six sentences with tasting notes they copy from the bottle or someone else.

    On the other hand, working on the winery-side of things has also been enlightening because I see almost all the pitches that show up nowadays, and they’re often not pretty. I think wine bloggers believe they’ll “move the needle” when the facts show that they won’t. In fact, the pitches I see from veteran wine bloggers are formulaic in nature, showing no thought or giving no indication that the writer has even looked into the winery they’re trying to get free stuff from.

    Switching back to the blogger side (again), our utility lies in starting and sustaining conversations about the wines we try. We as bloggers should be vocal about what we like AND what we don’t like. The pervasive fear of pissing off the wineries needs to be excised in the name of credibility.

    Lastly, traffic numbers are stupid. There are a bunch of really fun, well-written blogs out there that don’t (yet) get a lot of traffic, while there are some really horrifically written blogs getting tons of numbers (and primo samples). As this still-nascent group evolves, I hope that the cream continues to rise to the top.

    Cheers from a sometimes snarky, always passionate wine blogger!

    • http://www.cuveecorner.blogspot.com Bill Eyer

      Beau said “When a PR firm bombard you with $10 plonk, that it leaves a bad taste in his mouth” oh-boy Beau is certainly right. That is an issue that seems to happen often; they don’t even ask if I want it in the first place. But, I’m glad to see that issue has tightened up some, funny though I still get “plonkers” sent to me overnight, has me saying, “What were you thinking? [Amongst other things]

      That said, many of the PR agencies I work with are very professional and we have a good relationship. Like the good folks from Balzac mentioned above, who are working smartly with bloggers these days. Many of the great folks [PR Firms] I work with; ask me if I want this or that, before they send it and that way I can sign-off on the wines I want to review. That should be the template that all PR firms operate upon [IMHO].

      • http://www.malmcomm.com Mia Malm

        Hey there Beau, it’s not that I’m “just not that into you”…! Actually for more than a year my client roster has been all kinds of other wine related businesses but not wineries. So you’re on my radar, and I’m sure down the road when there’s a fit, you’ll hear from me. Meanwhile, I enjoy interacting with you in the social ecosystem.
        ;-)

        • http://beausbarrelroom.blogspot.com Beau

          Hey Mia, didn’t mean to single you out in a negative light, just using you and Benson as two entities whom I have a great deal of respect for yet don’t get samples from. I too enjoy the interaction :) Cheers!

    • http://www.simplehedonisms.com William Allen – Simple Hedonisms

      Benson and Malm don’t send me samples either and I local friend. I am sure its for a reason. Like I don’t gush love for Napa Bordeaux :)

  • http://wannabewino.com Sonadora

    Hey Meg-

    I will say, when I took that picture and posted the post of mine you linked to, that was all my own wine! I had/have a wine buying problem. Just take a look at my credit card statements.

    I would argue that 5+ years ago, when I started my blog, samples were mostly unheard of for wine bloggers. I distinctly remember getting my first sample and laughing about it, as in, really? Someone sent me a bottle of wine? It was a cool oddity in early 2007 when it arrived. I think the turning point for me on samples was likely in late 2008/early 2009. After the very first WBC. They started arriving in a steady, but sustainable pace for what I could post on the blog. By the end of 2009 they were pouring in. And then the problems Joe mentioned started to happen. People no longer contacted me first. Wine just arrived with no identifying information as to who sent it. I couldn’t stop it or do anything about it. A lot it I didn’t want…some of that still happens.

    I actually prefer the tightened sample “market” because it seems as if the people now reaching out and offering samples have actually gone and read my blog to see if I fit in with what they are trying to do. Clearly though, some are still just mass blitzing a PR pitch to everyone as evidenced by some I have received recently.

    Thanks for the interesting article!

    • http://www.makerstable.com Meg Houston Maker

      Hi, Sonadora, that image of your “wine monster” really stuck in my mind. I did note your comment that your credit card bill was reflecting the fact that the wine was piling up, though since you were also talking about samples, I’d assumed you were showing us a mix! Sorry for any misunderstanding. Your cellar seems like a pretty accurate depiction of the state of affairs of many of us “wine curious.” Cheers, Meg

      • http://wannabewino.com Sonadora

        No worries! The samples actually live on the other side of the basement :) I need to keep them separate so that I can log when they arrive and who sent them (if that info was provided!!). They have racks all to themselves.

        • http://www.makerstable.com Meg Houston Maker

          My samples have a rack, too, for exactly that reason!

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  • http://www.simplehedonisms.com William Allen – Simple Hedonisms

    Great to see you back Meg. Does these mean I can send my review to Palate Press again and you’ll publish outside writers again? (sorry, had to, big pet peeve. :))

    Good article, and thank heavens its tamed down. People that sent the Wine Whore samples…embarrassing for everyone….

    Wine blog traffic is down in many blogs – I wore the hat on the other side of the fence and manage sample send outs and reviews (thats mostly ended now save 2 brands) Many bloggers getting samples, even established ones, get pretty minimal views.
    Any of us who receives samples, especially if from under <100k a year wineries, should be respectful and appreciative.

    Sample begging, even occasionally threatening, sample whores are the worst, and I hunt them down like varmints. :) There was a few exhibiting pretty appalling behavior at WBC10 to local Walla Walla wineries, and I have witnessed some abusive requests, as well as behavior. I have respect and admiration for many, but there are an equal number with pretty minimal depth, breadth, I wouldn't send a sample of Mad Dog 20 too. Any winery or PR firm, should spend time to look at posts, ask other respected bloggers, and even other PR firms and/or AVAs.

    I get more samples than I can get too, and need to find a 2nd reviewer again. Our traffic I think merits the samples, I get lots of thanks and feedbacks both from wineries and consumers for the results and recommendations. Its a labor of love, not free wine, so its always nice to know the time is well spent and helpful.

    I am clear when approached, I don't promise a review. Most times, when I open the bottle, I at least put it in CellarTracker which gets wide views after being pushed to a large Social Media following.

    Like others I have a wine problem and spend WAY too much buying, even now slowing down, the cellar is way past 2k bottles.
    To be honest, sending me a sample, especially the pricier stuff like RRV Pinot etc, but in general, increases the chance of getting noticed.
    As focused as I am on Rhones, I try, taste and buy a wide variety of wines, segments and price points, just to keep abreast.
    An (accepted) sample increases that chance, but that said, I'd guess, outside of panel reviews, about 1/2 my reviews where wines I purchased.

    Glad you are back Meg, time to pay attention to PP again!

    • http://www.makerstable.com Meg Houston Maker

      Hi William, thanks for your notes, and for the welcome back. Begging for anything is never attractive. Some of those I spoke with indicate that they do hear it, and that it predisposes them even less to the person making the inquiry. I might put “consistent pestering” into the same category as begging, viz., those who send monthly emails or direct messages indicating that they’d like to be added to the list. Again, the critical recommendation here is to state one’s case about how the samples fit the editorial goal of the pub or article. It’s about conversation more than about one-sided plea.

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  • http://beausbarrelroom.blogspot.com Beau

    Slightly off topic, but I had another thought..is that I wish more wineries would send out half bottles as samples. But I realize it’s often prohibitively expensive to do so.

    • http://www.makerstable.com Meg Houston Maker

      Hi Beau, thanks for this comment. I wish more wineries bottled half-bottles, but they can be somewhat of a hard sell in some categories. The decision is generally made a bottling time, rather than as the wines are going out to press, and halfs are rare, especially in whites, in my experience.

      I know that TastingRoom.com has moved to a slightly larger format sample (100 ml or 3.4 oz versus their standard 50 ml) that might have some promise for both media and on-premise sampling (another issue entirely: presenting your wine to somms). But it’s so new I haven’t seen any comments on the new format. What would you think if you received a custom-bottled (re-decanted) 100 ml sample, Beau?

      • http://beausbarrelroom.blogspot.com Beau

        I would be thrilled. Call me naive, but I really feel bad dumping all that wine down the drain after sampling it. I realize someone put a lot of work into the bottle and it’s like I’m wasting their efforts. 100ml sounds great, size-wise, because it’s enough for a glass and enough for me to taste over the course of a day or two. Also it’s enough to go with a meal, which is a tasting method that has been growing on me.

        • http://twoshepherdsvineyards.com William Allen – Palate Shepherd

          Odd, I thought I posted yesterday on halfsies. Must have forgot to hit submit.

          As a new vintner, I am committed to half bottles, and did a small amount of (hand bottled) reds just for small pourings and media samples.
          The cost IS high, the glass can actually cost MORE than 750ml unless you shop around. And if you print labels you need to redesign them, resubmit to TTB etc. With my labels costs up to .80 cents each in small batches, costs add up fast.

          But it spreads the wine out more for samples, reduces shipping cost and waste.
          For consumers it offers the wine, especially stuff at $30+ a bottle at a lower price point.

          Personally as a consumer I LOVE splits, even though so few restaurants and wine shops support them.

      • http://enobytes.com Pamela Heiligenthal

        A half bottle might be ok but 50ml or 100ml not so much. I think the only way to get a true assessment is to drink a bottle like a consumer would, one bottle at a time. Wine evolves like a story and I need to taste it upon its opening scene to its finale. It might have a great beginning, middle or end, but its the whole story I prefer to tell. Smaller bottles can’t provide this level of assessment.

        • http://www.makerstable.com Meg Houston Maker

          Thanks, Beau and Pamela for your views. I think the fact that you differ on the 100 ml sample option reflects the fact that there’s no correct answer — that it’s deeply personal. One winery contact I spoke with for this article indicated that they send fewer samples to wine bloggers/writers now, and more to food bloggers, for exactly the reason you cite, Pamela: they make food-friendly wines and want their wines to be enjoyed in the context of a meal, and this, they feel, is the best way to get a circumspect written assessment.

          • http://enobytes.com Pamela Heiligenthal

            Very interesting, re: food bloggers! Having worked as a somm for many years it comes natural to go on autopilot and think about food pairings when tasting. I am an advocate and follow a methodology to drink one bottle at a time with a meal and good company. I think this is the best way to fairly rate wine. I really hope more bloggers will see the value in reviewing wines this way. Many wines need food to bring out its characteristics and uniqueness!

      • http://twoshepherdsvineyards.com William Allen – Palate Shepherd

        I know the cost of half bottles are high, as a vintner now myself, however I am committed to them in 2011 for Two Shepherds both for media samples as well as consumers.

        We did a handful of red ‘unofficial’ samples for 2010 – aka we can’t sell them, and use the 750 ml labels, rather than the expense of a new label and TTB submission – which at my size, can approach .80+ cents a label!!

        Sadly, restaurants have expressed little interest…which is too bad, I always look for 1/2 bottles at restaurants.

        As a blogger, I love the idea of Tastingroom.com but I find the 50ml too small for evaluation, and while it saves money, its not great for evaluation. The new larger sample size may work.

    • http://www.balzac.com Michael Wangbickler

      Half bottles don’t really sell that well. I hear this from retailers, restaurateurs, and producers all the time. Often times, the winery has to retool their bottling line to fill them. Taking both of these points into consideration, it’s really hard for a winery to justify the half-bottle economically speaking.

      • http://beausbarrelroom.blogspot.com Beau

        In my (limited) experience, half bottles are a niche. I recently bought a case of half bottles though, a delicious, inexpensive Bordeaux. I sometimes buy half bottles of my favorite Oregon producers (pending availability) because for me it just makes sense. But, to circle back, they’re a niche to be sure.

        • http://tastespeachy.com L at Peachy Canyon

          Interesting to read opinions on this. We don’t send samples to bloggers (unless someone is doing it in secret without telling me), but it’s all still relevant and something to “think about.”

          For small sizes: We have offered splits at times in the tasting room and they sell OK, they seem to sell better in the summer (for picnics and such). On a larger scale though, small bottles are difficult. We’ve also experimented with small sample-sized bottles as gifts, and those are great, except the wine is essentially uncorked and has a very short shelf life.

          It’s funny, because (like you all) I love the small bottles for their convenience. But no one buys them! Maybe we should set up a wine website to sell only half bottles and smaller to address the niche. :-)

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  • http://enobytes.com Pamela Heiligenthal

    Meg, great perspective, thanks! I am so glad you brought up, “in order to show well, wine needs to settle for a week after transport”. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been invited to participate in online events months prior only to receive the wine the day of the event. It has happened so many times that I now request early shipment or I don’t participate. Maybe you could shed some light – if someone schedules an event well in advance, who is to blame when receiving shipments the day of the event? I think the wine deserves a fair review and popping a cork five minutes after the fedex guy shows up is not doing the wine any favors.

    On a side note, I’m not sure how most bloggers would react to, “bloggers in a particular city could pool their sample requests… a group could share a sample rather than each receiving a full bottle.” Insult or compliment? On one hand, I get it. Samples are expensive, and if bloggers have flexible schedules to orchestrate a meet up and they are willing to share, this sounds like an amicable idea. On the other hand, would this same proposal hold for WS, WA or WE? Many writers take their craft seriously and have limited time to be social. I am social by nature but my time is limited and precious. Putting it into perspective, bloggers that take their craft seriously are worth investing a bottle of wine. Let’s say a blogger used social media platforms to share their stories to reach a targeted audience. They tweeted a story to their XK+ twitter followers and that story was shared by X00+ of those followers who, in turn, shared the story with their followers. Who knows what the total social media reach was (+ word of mouth) when it was all said and done. Could the reach potentially be as impactful as a major pub ad? Is this not worth a $50 investment per (selective) blogger? Seems like frugal advertisement compared to spending a boatload on a full page spread in a major publication.

    • http://www.makerstable.com Meg Houston Maker

      Hi Pamela, thanks for your thoughtful comments and questions. I agree that it’s incredibly frustrating to receive wine on the day of a live event—this has happened to me more than once. My guess is that it’s simply the result of poor project management, as coordinating sample shipments to 20 or 30 participants in different states is logistically complex, especially if multiple wineries are involved. Ideally shipments should drop two and a half to three weeks prior to the appointed event date, as it can take up to 7 business days for wine to cross the US, which is up to 11 elapsed days if the wine drops out on a Friday and arrives after two subsequent weekends.

      You raise an interesting point about the reach of blogger recommendations, which gets at the somewhat controversial issue of how to evaluate the ROI of social media mentions. Influence networks grow non-linearly, as you point out, thought this nonlinearity applies not just to bloggers but also to professional writers who post out about their stories in mainstream media like the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, the Oregonian, and elsewhere, and these writers (Asimov, Bonné, Cole, et al.) likewise have a lot of followers. So this kind of influence is not merely the provenance of the blogger.

      Still, point well taken. A writer who chooses to share insights about a bottle with their social connections has far more credibility than if those same connections, say, saw an ad on Facebook for the winery. The recommendation of a peer is very powerful.

      • http://enobytes.com Pamela Heiligenthal

        I love this discussion! :) When talking about ROI in social media, I’d like to turn the tables. How do wineries evaluate ROI on a print ad in a major publication? I bring this up not as a question to you Meg, but rather an observation to point out that not all things are directly measurable.

        • http://www.makerstable.com Meg Houston Maker

          Speaking as a marketer now, I can say that most wineries don’t actually evaluate the ROI of a print ad. This is partly definitional, though, because advertising is primarily about visibility or awareness-raising, while marketing is primarily about response. Response is far easier to measure than awareness.

          Print ads in magazines are mostly true advertising rather than not direct-response marketing vehicles. So a winery ad might show a bottle being enjoyed in a beautiful vineyard setting by beautiful people, but there’s not an 800 number, marketing code, and call-to-action to buy the wine immediately. Marketers in this case are mostly trying to imprint the image of their brand on your eyeballs and brain, so that if you see it later, you might buy it.

          On the other hand, ads on the web *are* measurable, and so can act as a mix of awareness raising and direct-response. Electronic tracking makes it easy to identify online purchases made in response to a Facebook ad, say. But the causality link is broken if the user sees the Facebook ad and then decides to buy that wine in the bottle shop later that day.

          I’d really like to get Paul Mabray to weigh in on this. He’s done a lot of thinking about the ROI of social media, and in particular within the wine industry. I’ll see if can rope him in. :-)

          • http://www.vintank.com Paul Mabray

            A couple of points. ROI is a strange concept in the wine industry. It is most often (unfortunately) defined by activities that generate sales. We recently published a blog about the topic: http://www.vintank.com/2012/03/unraveling-the-mystery-of-roi-in-social-media/.

            Our industry is in turmoil as the market needs are maturing faster than our wineries level of technology, communications, customer relations, and sadly, business goals. They too often work from the “field of dreams” or the “Mondavi playbook” or “production” mentality. That coupled with the abysmal rates we pay our winery employees at mid level management creates a vacuum for understanding ROI in so many of the elements of our business activities (digital or not).

            That being said there is some glimmer of light showing itself over the last few weeks. I keen desire to upgrade talent, measure meaningful KPI’s, and really explore the ROI of legacy and new sales and marketing activities. I have hope.

            Finally, Meg, you inspired me to write a blog post in response to this article. As a *ahem* old veteran of this side of the business (20 yrs now) I have seen the whole cycle especially as it relates to bloggers from when we were reticent to send them samples, to Rodney Strong’s leadership in this arena, to over-saturation and “vanity wine bloggers”, to the blogger disclosure trend as a result of the abuse of mommy bloggers, to the slow decline of consistent wine bloggers coupled with the ascension of key bloggers to meaningful wine writing gigs (Alder and Joe being the two most successful). I think the wine industry is struggling on understanding the value of a wine blogger still. Let’s see if we can help them out.

          • http://www.makerstable.com Meg Houston Maker

            Paul, thanks so much for your comments. I look forward to your blog post on the topic. Please keep us apprised!

  • http://arnoldwaldstein.com/ Arnold Waldstein

    Nice post.

    I guess I’m an exception.

    I’ve been blogging about wine for a bit, sometimes on a particular bottle, often on my passion around a natural approach to wine making and the changing consumer.

    I’ve never asked for samples. I’ve never asked for a discount from a wine shop. They sometimes come but I don’t consider myself in the chain of reviewing wine, I consider myself in the role of sharing my opinions about wine as a lens into cultures and taste and people.

    I just wanted to go on record that being a wine blogger is not just about reviewing wine and part of the marketing stream from producer to customers.

    Blogging does not have to be citizen journalism. It’s simply about connecting your voice to people who care through a common passion.

    Well done and thanks for writing.

    • http://www.makerstable.com Meg Houston Maker

      Hi Arnold, thanks so much for reading and for adding your voice to the mix. I deeply respect each writer’s choice about whether or not to accept free samples for review. It’s an editorial decision that generally a publication’s author makes way upstream. Some choose to maintain complete editorial independence and avoid even a whiff of conflict of interest that can come from accepting samples. Others feel they can remain unbiased even if they’ve come by the product without paying for it. Still others build their entire strategy around submitted samples (and many big-name commercial publications follow this model). Regardless, the writer’s approach to receiving samples belongs, I think, on the wine blogger’s About page, since it reveals the editorial philosophy that lies beneath the effort and lets readers draw their own conclusions about the writer’s remarks.

  • http://vino-bg.eu/ Vino

    This is very interesting post! Good job!

    • http://www.makerstable.com Meg Houston Maker

      Thanks, Vino. So glad you found it interesting!

  • http://www.hosemasterofwine.blogspot.com Ron Washam, HMW

    Hi Meg,

    I wonder why I don’t get many wine samples. I’m always among the highest rated wine blogs, and I know a lot about wine. Gosh, it’s embarrassing not to be taken seriously. I guess I’m just not in the same league as my esteemed and prestigious colleagues.

    The Ol’ HoseMaster

    • http://www.makerstable.com Meg Houston Maker

      I’m sure your colleagues would be more than delighted to offer you advice on the matter. Right after they show you the location of their ancestral truffle patch, and where they stashed the silver.

      • http://www.makerstable.com Meg Houston Maker

        More seriously: your comment is a reminder that the heart of the matter is mutual respect. Thanks for that.

  • Stan Doric

    It makes sense for samples to be exposed to greater selected audience better opportunity for a nicer return to the supplier.

    • http://www.makerstable.com Meg Houston Maker

      Thanks, Stan. I think that’s the general theory behind sending samples to a wide range of writers. It can be problematic for wineries to evaluate the return, though, because the effects can be delayed. It’s hard to pinpoint any given uptick with any given reviewers words.

  • http://www.biggerthanyourhead.net Fredric Koeppel

    Excellent article, Meg; thanks for writing it and making all the issues so clear. If I may express the views of a veteran in the wine-writing business …
    I go way back before blogging, publishing my first wine review column in a newspaper in July 1984, at first monthly, then bi-weekly and quickly going to every week. In 1989, the column became the nationally distributed wine column for the Scripps Howard News Service and continued as such until 2004, when a new editor eliminated any reference to alcohol in the paper. Sometime in 1985, the samples started to dribble in, then they came in more steadily and then, after 1990, they came in a flood, far more than I had time and space to acknowledge or store. They lined a corridor at the paper’s office and a room in my apartment. Now as a blogger (biggerthanyourhead.net was launched in Dec. 2006) I get not a massive amount of samples but enough that I cannot assure everyone who sends me wine that it will all get reviewed or mentioned in some way; and I think that’s an important point. Just as publishers assume that not every book they send to magazines and newspapers will get reviewed — and they send thousands — wineries and PR and marketing people need to understand that not every wine that I or my colleagues receive will get attention, especially (as my fellow bloggers have mentioned) if they arrive with no information, or with a PR sheet that might as well be a short story, or with some information but not the price of the wine OR with my name misspelled. (I mean how hard is it to check?) The wines that get the most attention from me are the ones that people asked first if they could send; on the other hand, if I get an email that’s written like a press release for a chick lit novel or a pitch to a hot new cocktailista, I ignore it. I rarely ask for wine; and as for asking for a discount at a store: what are people thinking? That makes bloggers look bad. I realize of course that a great deal of information is available on winery websites, but you would be amazed how many of those don’t list prices for their wines or the name of their winemaker.
    I suppose what I’m saying is that I come from, first, a college teaching, and, second, an almost 23-year full-time journalist background, and I hope that everyone involved — wineries, importers, PR and marketing people, writers, bloggers — would act thoughtfully and professionally.

    • http://www.makerstable.com Meg Houston Maker

      Amen, brother. Thank you so much for your comments.

  • http://ancientfirewineblog.blogspot.com/ Jason Phelps

    Great article Meg. For those who aren’t familiar with the process or haven’t reviewed their own efforts, it is definitely educational.

    I’m going slightly off the core topic, but I wasn’t the first!

    I’m surprised nobody mentioned having skin in the game. Several commenter’s hinted at it. They only way that any wine blogger can be assured to move the needle with a winery is to buy their wine. Putting money in their pocket funds their business, pays their staff and moves them along in their industry. Samples, especially when so many a have policies that not all wines get reviewed, are a net loss right out of the gate. Picking which wineries to buy from requires research, the same kind of best-fit research PR people should do when considering who to send samples to.

    I’ve gotten a few samples in the past, but don’t receive them with any frequency now. You will never hear me complain about the quality of the samples. They were free!

    I am OK with not limited sample exposure because it allows me to choose what to buy and whether I even write about individual bottles of wine. I’ve found more joy in visiting tasting rooms, learning about the wineries and then walking about with wines to enjoy with friends and food at a later date. Those posts always get more hits too.

    Cheers!

    Jason

    • http://www.makerstable.com Meg Houston Maker

      Hi Jason, thanks for weighing in with comments about your experience. I’m not surprised that articles in which you provide context about the wines and winery get better results. Storytelling is powerful, and storytelling about personal experience even more so.

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  • http://firstvine.wordpress.com Tom

    I’m an importer, retailer, and blogger, so I’ve been on the receiving end of sample requests and have also requested samples from producers. As an importer I try to request samples only when there’s no possible way I’ll be able to taste the wine otherwise — and then I try to get those samples onto a shipment that’s already coming over (whether to me or another importer) to save the winery money on shipping. I think your idea of consolidating samples to bloggers in the same city is a good one. Shipping a case costs very little more than six bottles, being able to send them to one address reduces the cost. Sometimes it doesn’t work out, but I know the producers appreciate the effort.

    As for sample requests to me, I’ve had them run the gamut. Some are so childishly written that if it weren’t for e-mail, it seems like they should have been sent on construction paper and written in crayon. The ones I appeciate the most are from bloggers who are candid in their assessments of their own reach (even if it’s simply recounting their monthly readership numbers and rough geographic distribution) and who have seriously looked at my website so that they can explain to me how my wines fit into the general scheme of their writing. If they leave that for me to figure out, I probably won’t bother.

    • http://www.1winedude.com 1WineDude

      Tom – do you care about numbers, or impact? I’d think you want both, hopefully targeted those most interested in what you’re selling/making/etc. Some homework is required for that, there’s just no way around it.

      • http://firstvine.wordpress.com Tom

        Hi Joe, sometimes I’ll send samples simply because I like the pitch and think the blog is interesting and well-written, especially if it’s a relatively new blogger. When I started the business I wasn’t looking outside of DC because I couldn’t ship, but now I can ship to more states so I am targeting various blogs to contact and send samples, so I’ll be doing the pitch. When I get pitched, ideally I care about numbers and impact, and I don’t mind doing the homework if they’ve given me something to go on first — but if I get little to no information and have to do all the digging myself I’m less likely to do it.

  • http://www.pdwr.co Doug

    Meg,

    Thanks for the article. It is insightful and balanced and promotes constructive discussion. I too am on both sides (writing professionally, and in a sales/social media capacity for a mid size winery). Just today I received a sample request that directed me to the reviewers ‘policy’ that requested as many as three bottles of wine as a sample. They stated further that “if you are good to us, we’ll be good to you”. Looking at their site, there is no ‘focus’ that I can see where our winery would be interested. The same can be said for an independent local newspaper. If the request comes from an aol or gmail account, that doesn’t help.

    As a writer, my policy is ask for one 750mL bottle based on a specific theme that I state in my request. If a bottle is corked, I usually don’t ask for another bottle. When I do make a request, I include links to previous issues and provide some key points about my writing niche so wineries are familiar with what I do. Currently I am conducting a subscriber survey that may provide additional data that helps a winery decide. The biggest issue I face as a writer is the difficulty in getting a sample request to the correct person. The mailboxes on winery websites is often a dead end.

    • http://www.makerstable.com Meg Houston Maker

      Great insights—thanks so much for posting. I suppose we shouldn’t be shocked by an absence of journalistic ethics among some non-professional writers. Unfortunately it probably sometimes works to promise a positive review in exchange for free wine. At least that particular writer you cite is putting this policy right on his or her website, which means readers can make their own assessment about whether to believe what they read. I sure wouldn’t.

  • http://www.vintank.com Paul Mabray

    Meg, Thank you again for the great article. You inspired this blog post from VinTank: http://www.vintank.com/2012/03/hey-wine-industry-youre-looking-at-wine-bloggers-all-wrong/

    • http://www.makerstable.com Meg Houston Maker

      Thanks Paul.

      I encourage everyone here to toddle on over to VinTank and read Paul’s new post, which tackles the market impact of blogger reviews. There’s a lively discussion happening now in the Comments. A very interesting read.

  • http://www.howtoimportwine.com Deborah Gray

    Excellent post, Meg. It not only addresses the very important etiquette of sample requesting and handling, but also the broader issues of blog intent, focus and message and the even broader issues of common courtesy and respect! I think there’s something for everyone here.

    • http://www.makerstable.com Meg Houston Maker

      Deborah, thanks for your kind comments, and I’m glad the underlying tenets come through.

  • http://jamesonfink.com/ Jameson Fink

    Meg,

    Thanks for this great article. I’m in a Seattle Blogger Facebook group and, even though I am the only wine blogger in it, I posted a link to your article. It has information important to all bloggers.

    Best,

    Jameson

    • http://www.makerstable.com Meg Houston Maker

      Jameson, many thanks for reading and for sharing the article with others. I’m so glad you found it useful.
      Cheers, Meg

  • John

    good one

    • http://www.makerstable.com Meg Houston Maker

      Thanks, John!

  • http://www.vinoenology.com VinoEnology

    Nice Article!Great info!
    Thanks for sharing.
    Cheers
    Petar@VinoEnology

    • http://www.makerstable.com Meg Houston Maker

      Thank you, Petar, for your enthusiastic support!
      Meg

  • http://www.lavinodolce.com Troy Stark

    I’m a little late to the party on this one, but it was certainly a great read. Your advice to bloggers is always so well put, Meg.

    Being new to the wine blogging scene, I’ve often fantasized about what it must be like to get free samples of wine. I’ve even dreamt of some day sending out requests for free samples. OK, maybe using the words “fantasized” and “dreamt” is a bit of hyperbole, but I’ve definitely thought about it. To hear that there are people out there actually getting more wine than they know what to do with is hilarious and undoubtedly the definition of a “first world problem” (as one of my social media friends likes to say).

    In the hope that I someday might get up the nerve to ask, I’ve already put together a spreadsheet of wine PR firm contact info, but I’ve been trying to build up my readership such that I won’t have to awkwardly answer “25″ when asked “how many unique visitors do you get when you publish a new article?” My niche is such a small one (sweet wines), and the wines I’m interested in are so very expensive to make, that I doubt too many free samples will ever be a “problem” with which I’ll have to deal.

    Still, it’s nice to be reassured that if I ever feel like doing a piece on “Made in the USA” sweet wines, I shouldn’t fee embarrassed to ask…

    • http://www.makerstable.com Meg Houston Maker

      Hi Troy, thanks for writing to share your experience and your trepidation about venturing into the sometimes fraught realm of free samples. For what it’s worth, I’d imagine that your focus on sweet wines would actually make it somewhat easier to construct a sample request, and that it might yield good results; some may be willing to work with you despite a small readership simply because of this focus. But again, it’s important for you to be clear about your readership numbers so they can make an educated decision.

      Another strategy I didn’t mention in the article is simply to reach out to the winery (or its representing agency) saying that you’d like to try the wines so that you might write about them on your blog, and inquiring whether they might be able to extend any discounts to you at this time. This demonstrates good faith on your part, and does not preclude the option of the winery sending them to you as press samples. Some may alternatively choose to extend you the standard trade discount (usually 30%) in consideration of your activity in the wine industry. But if you choose this option, you must also be willing to pay for both the wines and the shipping in case they demure on all counts.

      Cheers,
      Meg

  • http://vintagewinepicks.blogspot.com/ cono_sur

    Excellent article and something I am going to bookmark to help me remember some of the things I should be doing.

    Love how the perspective is from both sides.

  • http://www.winetonite.com Ed Thralls

    Meg,

    Fantastic article and as I noted in one of our wine groups on Facebook, it is very timely as WBC12 approaches and one of the panels I am on with Sasha of King Estate and Christopher of Ridge will be discussing wineries relationships with bloggers and how best to work together. With your permission, I would like to use (with credit of course) some of your points here, because I have experienced this relationship from both sides as you have and can certainly relate. This has obviously generated a lot of comments and lasted a couple of weeks, so I hope the topic will be just as passionate then.

    Regarding samples, I enjoyed a good run back before I moved to CA and started working in the biz-ness. I think I don’t get any more samples now because a) wineries/PR are still sending them to my Atlanta address and b) I am now the “competition” even though I still keep my blog rolling along… however, I have not requested samples either.

    Something else one should consider though is not just the writing and traffic in the blog, but also the ability the “blogger” has to extend reach, discussion, sentiment, influence. Some rely solely on the blog itself… others are masters of promotion and use of social media channels to complement the blog post. Sometimes a simple tweet (ala 1WD) or Instagram shot with hashtag can bring attention to a brand. I think this must also be reviewed by the winery/PR person to determine if they should engage the blogger/digital influencer. With blog readership trends dropping and the prominence of social media platforms, a broader perspective is necessary these days.

    Will save the rest of my thoughts for WBC12.

    Thanks, Meg!

    Ed

  • Pingback: 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

  • http://www.macgasm.net/2012/01/19/apples-ipad-based-textbooks-rich-white-kids/ Ray

    Very good article! We are linking to this
    great post on our site. Keep up the good writing.

  • interesting gadget article

    Its such as you read my thoughts! You seem to understand so much about this, like you wrote the guide in it or something. I think that you could do with some % to force the message house a bit, however other than that, that is fantastic blog. A fantastic read. I will certainly be back.

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