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On Free Speech and Wine Blogs

Posted by on June 16, 2011


The other day I received an email from a winery owner. Let’s call him/ her “Bob.” Good name. Anyhow, Bob complained about some comments on a post about him/ her and his/ her winery and asked that they be taken down. I let Bob know that I’d look into it and let him/ her know, but that I also felt a duty to not censor our readers unnecessarily. S/he responded with what VA Wine Diva and I took as a veiled threat.

I know, right? Go suck an egg, Bob. But I’m really busy with work and this is just a hobby for us, so after cooling off I figured that the best course may be to just remove all the comments on posts about Bob’s winery and disable comments, because I’ll be damned if I’m taking down one of our awesomely written posts. This way Bob goes away and so does the problem, right? As luck would have it, I was complaining about this to someone who said “Did you know I’m an attorney? And this is a pet area of mine? Don’t remove those comments!” Really?! Do tell.

So, for those who were wondering about blogs, comments, and the First Amendment, here’s what I learned. We can moderate our comments for spam and foul language. Even though we are providing a forum with this site, we aren’t legally responsible for the comments that someone else leaves on our blog. However, if we edit your comments for content, or only publish those comments that we agree with – we’re legally on the hook for every comment on this site. Ain’t that a kick in the pants? So, in terms of legally covering our butts we have two options: the comments are totally open with no moderation except for spam and language (as they have been), or we delete all existing comments and shut down commenting on this site. Our readers and commenters are 90% of the fun of doing this (the other 10% is alcohol), so shutting down interaction is not an option. If you want to learn more, there’s a great blog post on wine blogs and First Amendment law here.

There you have it. I’ll leave you with some great ’90s thrash metal about censorship (Jordan, I bet you were a fan back in the day). Feel free to discuss in the comments, but please no guesses as to the identity of the winery and/or owner. I don’t need to poke that bear.

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The On Free Speech and Wine Blogs by Swirl, Sip, Snark, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

32 Responses to On Free Speech and Wine Blogs

  1. VAWineWoogie

    Wow…just Wow!!! I can NOT believe that a winery owner would behave like that!! I wish I knew who it was so I could simply not give them my business as a matter of principle! Geesh!
    But glad to hear you guys are not letting them win!

  2. Will Horning

    I think you should out the gutless wonder. Props to the owners that engage you and us commenters in the light of day. At least they’re up front about addressing criticism rather than trying to get it erased.

  3. Kim Williams

    I’ll probably irritate another bear with this one, but *bear* with me. If we’re not allowed to express opinion, we must be living in the country of the great bear. Last I checked, we were not a Communist nation. I’ve gotten myself in a pot of hot water by talking about an experience we had with an apparently well loved and respected winery.

    Our tasting experience yielded a white blend that had a nose of airport sewage and it was one of the only wines in Virginia I’ve EVER tasted and thought I would gag before I could spit. Yes, it was that bad. However, they had a reasonably decent chambourcin dessert wine, so we bought a couple of bottles of that. The folks there were charming and helpful and very friendly so the experience was a nice one… we just weren’t great fans of the wine.

    When we got home, I put the bottles on the wine rack in the kitchen to hold until I could stash them in the wine fridges downstairs. After a few days I noticed that one of the bottles was leaking… and the cork was partially pushed out. It was…. like the contents were carbonated or something and the bottle was about to explode. I wrapped the bottle in several bags in case that did happen. By the next day, it did explode, the cork came completely out and I had a bag of wine. When I looked at the second bottle it was beginning to leak as well. We had a laugh or two trying to decide if we should bury it in the back yard or call the HazMat team to dispose of it or what. I contacted the winemaker/winery owner and was told this sometimes happens, something about a bad filter, whatever… and that it’s rare but it happens. He said next trip down he’d replace the bottles.

    When we visited again, we did get two more bottles, and the guy pouring that day told us of their experience which was that it was Easter Sunday… and he had a table full of guests in their Sunday best attire… china… white linens on the table… formal dining room… lovely family celebration… and he opened the Chambourcin, which left the bottle like champagne at the Indy 500 Winner’s Circle and went all over the table and the guests.

    We all had a good chuckle. We left with our two new bottles of wine from a different bottling. Day 6… the cork begins to push out of one of the bottles. At this point we just gave up and said “Okay, don’t know what’s going on, but we’re done with exploding chambourcin.” Some lucky trash digger will have a nice bag of dessert wine.

    We got my dad a 3 month shipment from wine club. This same winery happened to be one of the shipments he received. He e-mailed me and said “Wow. This was awful. I mean like… we put some of it in the pot roast and poured a glass to have with dinner and not only could we not drink it, but it imparted a plastic toxic taste to the roast. We were afraid to eat it!”

    He emailed the winery owner who promised to replace the bottle upon our next visit. He said the wine club must have handled the wine improperly or UPS did or somethng. They may have stashed it next to a radiator or other heating source. Um, okay. Sorry Dad. We’re not going back.

    At some point, while telling our experience to another wine lover, we were overheard by a winery worker who chastised us for “badmouthing” another winery. Apparently these folks are well loved in the wine community. I’m not doubting that for a minute, but what’s wrong with us telling our funny experience with exploding chambourcin? Slander? Really? But it happened. It’s true. I’m not saying the winemaker had an alien baby and trying to kill off his business with a bunch of lies.

    Where do we draw the line? Now we draw the line by telling the story without the name of the winery included. But… if I was running a wine blog? Please. This is all about opinion, differing opinion, and being able to share ideas and thoughts about wine experiences. I love the education I get (a lot from Jordan!) by reading what you guys put out. (Finally got out to Tarara by the way and while we loved all the wines I think Jordan has one of the best Viogniers in the state.) But you know what? That’s my personal opinion. Someone else might disagree.

    I think smart winemakers and winery owners will listen to any comments or criticisms they read on a blog like this and if it seems to be more than one disgruntled customer, take a good look at what’s being said. Some things you can toss aside, but if a valid point is being made, admit it, fix it, move on. Consider yourself educated. If a restaurant owner reads 10 Yelp postings, all complaining that service was really slow and the crab appetizer is underseasoned, they will revisit the seasoning and punch up their game in the front of the house. So if a winery owner reads that their staff was rude or their chard bites the face off the taster with a sharp stick of new Hungarian Oak, they should consider the remarks and then decide what their response should be. But snapping back with a demand to remove the remarks isn’t an appropriate request. Not here. Not on a blog where opinions are welcomed. Not in MY country darn it! There. I’ve said it. My 12 cents worth.

  4. Kurt

    Hey,

    can you tell us the story off line?

    Kurt

  5. Sarah

    Go First Amendment! I’m in digital PR and we advise our clients that they have to take the good comments on blogs with the bad and they can change perceptions by responding in a constructive, non-defensive manner to negative posts. Asking people to take down negative comments is only going to inflame people and generate posts like this one since it is perfectly legal to have a negative opinion. You were gracious not to out this person, but not everyone would be so gracious. Clearly, this winery needs a bit of PR support.

  6. andy

    Crazy timing on this post! I was doing my quarterly review of JV reviews and wouldn’t you know some dude posted the most horrific review on yelp. My first reaction was to drive to NOVA and hunt everyone named Mark down, my next reaction was to reply with a go ______ yourself!!! @@$$@#!!! In the end I felt, well most of the other reviews are very positive, and I know that what he was saying was not factual. And that is the key word. Factual information and opinion reside across a very thin border. Or at least the statements made do. Mark from NOVA said ” the wines were just……………….bad” That is a factual statement. What the twit should have said is, “I felt like all the wines were bad”. Are my wines bad? Hmmmmmmm I’ll let the wine writers and the folks that buy ALL of my wine before the next vintage is released decide that. He also verbally attacked one of our tasting room employees, calling her a “young immature ditzy girl” So is that something that should be contested? I’m all for free speech and typically if I get a complaint or see a bad review I invite the person out for a sit down tasting with me, but this guy, he gets no love cause I’m pretty sure he was brushing his teeth while doing the tasting. His review was filled with false info. Except that we charge $10 for a tasting.

    So I perused the web for laws concerning libel and slander and did find that websites that host these comments are not liable for libel (always wanted to type that!!!) sadly though proving libel in a case like this is next to impossible. In the end I decided it was nothing to get worked up about but it made me realize alot of commenters (myself included) sometimes forget that when saying something negative you are directing that at a real person eventhough we’re looking at a monitor. Our TR employee was genuinely upset (she has a masters, is very intelligent and not immature in the least bit) I was genuinely hurt, I put my heart and soul into making these wines. I work 7 days a week almost year around and other than getting hammered every night the only real satisfaction I get is when a customer thanks me for making such yummy wine, so in an industry filled with passionate artists scathing reviews and comments will strike a nerve. It is up to the person being reviewed to either ignore the review, or try and find out whether there is any merit to it.

    On one hand people really need to stop being do damn sensitive, on the other hand we all need to be more constructive as opposed to mean spirited.

    I’m always willing to realize that my wines are not for everybody, I mean believe it or not some people don’t like pizza, heck even 1 out of every 10 dentists don’t approve of crest, but don’t try and say the wines are bad, they aren’t maybe you dont think they taste good but they are not chemically flawed or spoiled.

    not sure if any of that made sense I stayed out till 2am listening to Love Cannon which btw is a really really awesome band that will be playing here hopefully on July 29th along with Rose’s Pawn Shop in a tribute concert. google ‘em

    hope thats not spam GEG, and where is your semi monthly JV/Andy post?
    ;-)

    Kim I would suggest not buying anymore Chambourcin, or tell the winery to rename the wine Chambourpagne…………..

    There is a cardinal that seems to think flying into my window repeatedly is going to get him something or somewhere. Great, she’s probably going to tell all the other birds not to go to Jefferson cause all you’ll get is a concussion.

  7. MEL810

    I would tell that winery to rename that wine “Cryingdamnshame.” Nyyyyyyyaah!

  8. MEL810

    I will chime in and defend y’all and me hearties who comment here. I am have never read anything, and I mean completely anything, that I regard as defamatory or maliscious on this blog. Sure some people have snarky opinions (After all you are named Swirl, Sip, SNARK), but they are just that, opinions.
    Other than winemakers in the “Get to know your winemaker” posts, I have never seen anything posted as absolute, final fact on a wine, winery or winemaker.
    Bob needs to get his or her panties out of their twist and realize this.
    And if Bob wants to really go ballistic, he/she/it can start reading the political and art blogs and then he/she/it can see real slander and venom.

  9. Stephen

    I see this as a secret way to make us go back to all of your older posts to try to figure out who it is. AND IT’S WORKING, DAMN IT!

    But as a winery owner, blogger (not so much about wine, but about what’s doing with us and our part of the world) and, yes, attorney — I second the motion for Bob to go suck an egg.

    What’s the lesson? (1) The Blogger gets the last word — it’s their blog, after all. And (2) learn to react to criticism and other’s observations in a positive way. Don’t get defensive, just fix the problem, and carry on.

  10. Sarah

    Andy- It’s completely understandable that you’d take the comments personally since they are criticizing something that is close to your heart and you put a lot of effort and passion into. It’s also really admirable that you look for feedback on your Yelp page.

    I think your instincts were good to stay away from replying to that person. They didn’t give constructive criticism and as they say there will always be “haters”.

    However, as hard as it is to receive, I do think businesses need to take a step back and evaluate negative feedback objectively. Consider it’s source, the frequency and what may be true or false about the review. That will help you improve. I don’t think that one bad review indicates anything other than one person’s opinion and perhaps a bad moment or bad chemistry with your tasting room employee (who hasn’t had a bad day or not clicked with someone before?). So one bad opinion every now and then is no big deal, but if you get more, you may want to see if there are trends to the feedback that you can use to help you improve.

    Perhaps think about asking more people who come through the tasting room to review you on Yelp or even create a sign asking people to review you. That will give you a more well-balanced view of what people think and will hopefully bring more positive reviews to balance out the occasional negative review.

  11. GrapeEnvyGuy

    VAWineWoogie & Will H – I could’ve said who it was, I suppose, but we’re going to leave it at Bob for now.

    Kim – thanks for the support! And with what you described, sometimes crap just happens. It sounds like the winery in question did a good job of standing behind their product, so that winery employee can bite it.

    Kurt – we’re going to keep it under our hats for the time being. I’d love to see this blow over.

  12. Jordan Harris

    Wow, glad I am no one has called me with a similar demand because that would not go over so well. Kudo’s to you for sticking to your guns. I am sure some of your readers probably caught on to the fact I started posting more on here once we got slammed. That is why google alerts exists people, to hear what is said about you. It is then that you can take a negative as a negative or as an opportunity. My getting slammed made me find this blog and opened some good conversation. In the end, it was a critical review that we clearly go caught on something that we were supposed to be doing and didn’t. Did I tell GEG or VWD to remove it, No, we discussed it and I think got better respect on both sides.

    In the end I wish people spent as much time doing their job as they do complaining about those that do better, or those that don’t find their wine or service good. When someone tells me that they don’t like my Chardonnay, my first question is what type of wine do you normally like and go from there. If they normally like the type of wine I thought mine was then, well…I have some work to do and it isn’t telling that person they suck, or are stupid or anything like that, but it is to make my wine better.

    Would this person have done the same thing if their wine was published in a major print publication? Not all reviews are good. If you don’t want negative reviews from the public, don’t get into such a public industry. We winemakers all want to be front and center when it is a glowing review, but when there is some negative feedback for some reason some don’t maintain that same poise. Maybe it is because we have one chance every year and to mess it up really sucks, but instead of hiding from your problem, face it and make it better the next year.

    I know for a fact that if and when GEG and VWD taste my Chardonnay, they are likely not going to love it. It is very classically New World (now there’s a new one for you, Classically New World…) Chardonnay which they profess to not like. C’est la Vie and they are pretty good about saying “Well…It is a big Chardonnay with oak or buttery influence which just isn’t my style”.

    I am waiting for someone to ding my on our blog. I don’t critically review individual wineries but I sure have my own beliefs on styles and winemaking techniques and I certainly don’t hide why I do what I do and why I don’t do certain things that others might. That could be an interesting day as I do need to be somewhat P.C. given that it is a winery site.

    Kim: Thanks so much for the Kudos!!! I enjoy making Viognier so I am glad you enjoyed. On top of that though, filters do just not work if you do your job correctly. There are very simple ways to test to ensure you will not have a problem. You can do filterabiliy testing after you pad filters to esnure your micro size lot that you run is clean, and anyone using a final filter membrane or absolute filter down to 0.45 microns (if a wine has the ability of re-fermenting then you better use these) then you simply do an integrity test. Before I bottle any wine that is filtered my bottle comes to me with a filter integrity test print out that shows that it has passed or failed and we both sign off on it. If you are doing this filtering in house, you must have a filter integrity test set up or at minimum do bubble testing (a winemaker should know what all this is). If a wine goes through a 0.45 micron filter that has been tested and passed, it will not re-ferment, period. If a wine re-ferments it is simply the winemakers fault.

    We do all out reds unfiltered, and if we have a white with no residual sugar and has completed malo lactic fermentation we will do unfiltered (hasn’t happened since I have been here since I have always stopped malo). That said, if one of those starts to re-ferment, I made a bad decision because either the Malo didn’t complete or there is still sugar which needs to be fermented to 0.45 to ensure no yeast or lactic bacteria of any sort is present (they are all larger then 0.45 micron).

    I am also happy that I know it wasn’t my wine because I don’t have a Chambourcin and we use screw-tops. If it was me after that rant i would look mighty silly.

    GEG: not sure why you are pointing at me in regards to Suicidal Tendencies. Maybe the hardcore hair, or maybe because that is now what everyone thinks of us Canadians after being so disgraceful in Vancouver last night. I hope its that hair and rock n roll tee’s.

  13. GrapeEnvyGuy

    Sarah and Mel – I will say this in Bob’s defense: when one of the comments went up, I did think “oh crap – I don’t know if I’m comfortable with this.” At the same time, I didn’t feel it met the definition of libel, slander, or defamation so I let it go through. As it turns out I’m glad I did, or else I would be considered a content provider with regard to the comments and what they include. That would be bad, as discussed above and in the post to which I linked.

    It’s actually a really fascinating issue – VWD and I are very careful about what we post on our blog (believe it or not), but the law says we actually have limited control over the comments. It makes sense, though. I occasionally read the local paper online and I’m sometimes astounded by the allegations commenters make about people in the comments. I can now see why the paper leaves them up.

    Being a grownup is a HUGE pain in the butt. Just sayin’.

  14. GrapeEnvyGuy

    Stephen – awesome, enjoy the archives! Of course, I would have fixed the coding issues on our sidebar ads had pageviews been my goal here – that’s how we get paid!

    I get why Bob wanted the comments down. They were pretty crappy, and I wouldn’t be thrilled. What ticked me off is that I hadn’t said yes or no, just that I was going to weigh things out first, when Bob responded with a threat. That’s just a jerk move.

  15. GrapeEnvyGuy

    Andy – I had to take a nap before responding to your comment. After staying up late to watch the Bruins kick some butt and then getting up at 430 am, I was stymied by what a cardinal had to do with this. Anyhow.

    Yelp sucks. Honestly, Yelp is part of what inspired us to start this blog and do it how we do. There’s one winery (it may be Barrel Oak, but I’m guessing) where the Yelp review was essentially “we stopped here, looked good, but I got a call and we had to leave so I didn’t get to taste.” AND THEY GAVE IT ONE STAR! Dude – did your parents let you play spaceman with a plastic grocery bag and a rubber band when you were a kid? And the reviews have no context.

    One of the reasons we’re quick to point out that we’re just everyday people with no wine training is that it reinforces that this blog is just our opinion. Andy, I get what you’re saying with the distinction between “the wines are bad” and “I think the wines are bad,” but unless the person is saying “I’m a level three black belt expert sommelier and enologist with a PhD in frackin’ awesome wine knowledge and these wines are flawed” – it’s just one mope’s opinion. I feel your pain; in my day job I occasionally get told that my baby looks like a monkey, but that’s part of being awesome. Awesome doesn’t please everyone but mediocre sure as hell tries. Virginia doesn’t need mediocre wine.

    I’ll find something to post about you, Andy. It’s all good.

    p.s. – tell your tasting room manager she rocks (assuming I’m thinking of the right person) and haters gonna hate.

  16. GrapeEnvyGuy

    Jordan – just because I got the sense we shared some musical interests. I don’t think I need to worry that on our next visit you’ll flip the Winery Assault Vehicle over and light it on fire.

    As for Bob, the comments in question weren’t really about the wine and could be seen as pretty unnecessary – but they were free speech, you know?

  17. Frank

    There is nothing of value I can add to all the great comments above… but I nominate Andy at JV as the star of this post with the following, “I work 7 days a week almost year around and other than getting hammered every night the only real satisfaction I get is when a customer thanks me for making such yummy wine.” Your honesty about ‘getting hammered every night’ is refreshing and made me laugh – thank you!

  18. andy

    Sarah, you bring up great points. I do pay attention to all reviews and when there is a consistent negative theme I do listen. It is the language that was being used I take issue with. I’m an altruist to the core, I’m passionate about most every aspect of my life other than flossing. I listen, I learn, and strive to never make the same mistake twice. When someone has a legitimate issue I want to make sure it is discussed and or resolved.

    Jordan, I’m sorry to say I was rooting for Boston.

    GEG, dude! I was rooting for Boston too! And the cardinal has much to do with all of this. Some bird brain that thinks flying head first into a window is a great time is more likely to say all of my wine sucks. Am I cocky, yes my wine rocks. No doubt about it. So ya see the cardinal is like me (what I just said) and everyone else, opinions are like a…..holes. everyone has one and they all stink.

    Frank I’m hammered right now. Feels good.

  19. andy

    Btw where’s the diva? Why she so quiet?

  20. VAWineDiva

    Andy – I love you, and not just because you were rooting for the Bs and occasionally open really nice bottles of wine for me….and I’m not nearly drunk enough – maybe tomorrow

  21. Ed

    Geese, you folks had fun with out me today. I’ll go along with Frank – there’s little to be added to what’s been said already. Carry on…..

  22. andy

    How could any red blooded American NOT root for the bruins. Whoop up on them maple leaf wavin molson drinkin Celine Deon lovin hippy twerp canuck goobers.
    I think I’m gonna have a yelp party.

    All library wine as long as you bring your laptop.
    Blame Canada that’s my mantra

    X’s and o’s to you jordan!
    If no one else…. I crack myself up

  23. VAWineDiva

    Been watching the South Park movie lately? …and I do often travel with a laptop – you can provide the library wines and WiFi

    …and I didn’t just root for the Bruins as an American, I grew up in the Boston area and was raised with the Bruins and the Red Sox – I’d be disowned if I didn’t root for them.

  24. Jordan Harris

    Ouch!!! I am OK with being a Maple Leaf wavin, molson drinkin (I guess? It is Canada’s equivalent to Bud), hippy twerp goober. But, never call me a Celine Dion fan. We sent her to the States, she staid in the States and Canada is all the happier for it.

    You did miss a few things though as well like Seal clubbin, almost criminalized tobacco, de-criminalized Marijuana and frozen tundra. Just sayin, if you are going to nail us Canadians, get all the facts in.

    If you want to read a great chapter on Canada bashing, read the chapter about us in Walker Elliot Rowes book The History of Virginia Wine. It was really amusing when it came out because everyone thought I would be offended, but I think it is funny as hell.

  25. Amy

    I have to second what Frank said – HILARIOUS comments from Andy on “working 7 days a week…….” and the Canadian jokes. Sorry Jordan! You know we think you’re awesome! Although Jordan – if you really want to zing Andy you could probably ask him ‘what does a wrecked car and the Minnesota Vikings have in common?’ NEITHER HAS A TITLE! Whomp whomp!

  26. Chef Shawn

    Wow, I had no idea about the comments. While I love the wine blog, I gotta say now I’m going to start coming here for the free legal advice! I’ve only ever filtered for language and spam on my site because, fortunately, I’ve never really had to make a decision about anything else. For whatever reason, people harass me privately via email :-)

  27. VAWineDiva

    Clearly both Andy and Jordan have great senses of humor that lots of us appreciate….and let’s not forget Amy who’s clearly ready to join the fray.

    Shawn, we really lucked into this legal advice as we’re in no way qualified to offer any on our own, but I’m sure glad our comment policy is legally the right way to go. If you don’t yet have a similar policy page, I’d recommend adding one on your blog.

  28. Chef Shawn

    VWD, you’re right, I need to do that. Apparently, I need to do that pronto. It’s amazing what you can be held responsible for. Um…is it plagiarism if I copy yours? ;-)

  29. rhodies

    As one who responds to winery articles that I have visited and you have written about (thank you, thank you for your honesty), I must admit that it is a maturing process to learn how to say things negatively in proper context. Would I respond today as aggressively I did three and four years ago? Probably not, because if I truly had a bad experience, I make it a point to go back a couple years later to re-evaluate my initial experience and cross my fingers for a better reaction. Yep, I slammed a Missouri vineyard for its Norton wines and service only to be asked to return someday for new impressions. Owners and vintner were not to be found upon my return, but a new “business” approach was quite evident. So, it sometimes takes the small voices to help. Jordan Harris (I’ve never met the gentleman) responded once to a negative comment I made which was quickly reacted to by the winery and only stated that reactions like mine actually sometimes help the cause (not his exact words, but you get the jest of what I remember him stating). Likewise I left comments about a Virginia winery which were not terribly flattering and found later equally reactive caustic remarks from the owners on the same blog. Though highly recommended by several Virginia bloggers, we’ll not return to this site again. I presume it sometimes boils down to the attitudes of not only the winery, but to those who react to other people’s blogs. Reading between the lines of those who respond to blogs can be quite revealing. Again, thanks to both of you for one of the better wine blogs serving a rather distinct regional character.

  30. VAWineDiva

    Feel free to crib from us – we definitely developed ours by reading what many others had up

  31. Brian

    I betcha I know who it is.

  32. GrapeEnvyGuy

    B – I would be surprised if you didn’t, but that’s all I’m saying.

    rhodies – thanks for the kind words! What I like is that we’ve had several winemakers who have seen unflattering reviews and/or comments and they’ve joined the conversation in a really positive way. At the end of the day, not every winery suits every potential customer. I’m sure some winery owners see reviews and make changes, and some see reviews and say “well, they’re not our target market, so whatever.” And that’s fine too.

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