Postcard From Germany: A Bike Without Wheels?

Vinted on May 22, 2009 binned in commentary, german wine, on the road

Personally speaking, I don’t believe in a Hell.  But if there is a hell, I imagine that it would strongly resemble US Airways Flight 703 from Frankfurt Germany to Philadelphia on May 21, 2009, sharing the back of the plane with about fifteen of the most obnoxious German airline passengers ever to assemble in one place for eight and half consecutive hours. 

And by “one place,” I mean directly over seat 36C, where they poured brandy into each other’s plastic cups of Coke-a-Cola and showered the passenger in between them (that’s me) with spittle as they discussed their lives at an ever-increasing volume, all the while leaning heavily on the back of my seat to ensure that I achieved as little sleep as possible.

And so that’s how my press junket to Germany, compliments of Destination Riesling, ended – in stark contrast to the wonderful people that I’d met (both winemakers, hosts, and fellow travelers) the four days prior to my return flight (which I’ve dubbed “Operation Belästigen die Amerikanischen” or “Bother the tiny American”) during which I traveled through Germany’s Rheinhessen, Pfalz, and Mosel winegrowing regions with four members of the press and a guide from the German Wine Institute.

My return trip aside (and even that was so comically bad that I started laughing about it already), I’ve returned Stateside much richer for the experience, in the level of knowledge I’ve gained about the state of German winemaking (much more to come on that in the next few days), the people I’ve met, and the intimate deep-dive tasting I’ve had with Riesling wines (some readers might recall that I picked a Rheinhessen sparkling Riesling Sekt as the #1 most interesting wine I’d tasted in 2008, and which convinced me beyond a doubt that Riesling is the most noble white wine grape variety, period)…

I also return with a sore back and shoulder from hauling around several pounds of press material on German wines and Riesling ( just for the record, I am geeky enough to read the Riesling stuff).  Might be a pound or two heavier myself from all the dinners and wine tastings…

One of the things that convinced me to participate in this junket was to find out what a press junket is all about, and to get the perspective of professional journalists on if/how members of the press should accept those junkets.  The collective view of my press colleagues (I use that term very loosely in my case, as I’m not a journalist by education or profession) was nearly unanimous and may surprise those of you who have been following the heated discussions about accepting press freebies in the wine media.

First, a bit about my press junket companions.  Our group collectively represented a sampling of both traditional printed media, as well as freelancers and those who contribute heavily to on-line communities.  The group ranged in age from mid-thirties to mid 60s, and between us we probably had about 75 years of collective media experience.  Based on the other participants, journalism seems to attract fiercely independent, talented, and very smart people who also might be Jewish and/or gay.  Since I didn’t fit the bill on the last two items, and arguably don’t consistently fit the bill on the former three, I was a little worried at first but the group gelled fairly quickly and with small exception we had a pretty good dynamic established by the time our first dinner together came around.

We shared a glass of wine together at the hotel bar in Oppenheim, during which I felt comfortable enough to ask what they, as journalists, thought about accepting press junkets like these to write about wine.  This elicited looks that I would describe as confused bemusement, as if I’d just asked them if they’d considered taking our upcoming bike tour of the Mosel on bicycles without wheels.

In other words, what reasonable alternative exists?

I could almost hear their thoughts as they considered my question, voiced by Charlton Heston in Planet of the Apes:

Riding bikes that have no wheels?  A planet where journalists can’t accept press junkets?  It doesn’t make any sense…!

Look at it this way: Most journalists don’t review and score wines per se, because fewer and fewer readers are interested in that.  What their readers want to know is, how to connect with wine as an experience, and get something tasty at good value, and feel connected to others for having shared the experience that a wine can give them.  Press trips are ideal vehicles for this viewpoint.  And considering that most journalists covering those stories wouldn’t even be able to pay for the airfare with the money they’d make from writing such an article, there is literally no other choice for them.

Maybe it’s time we stopped chastising the journalists for working the only system available to them, and start talking more about changing the system itself if we think that it puts those journalists in an unfair or compromising position?


(images: 1WineDude,





  • Andy GoodeLife

    You deliver a powerful arguement to pick me for Murphy-Goode Wine Lifestyle Correspondence: Free me from those Germans!!!

    Glad you got back safe and sound.

    Looking forward to more posts on the trip and I did not catch if those were American or German press-people?

    • 1WineDude

      Thanks! This trip was all U.S. press folks, with German guides.

  • Dylan

    I've been on flights like that. Sometimes they border on the comical to the degree that I start laughing while in the situation. It's almost absurdist. I'm looking forward to all the things you learned and I have your press junket to thank for that.

    • 1WineDude

      Thanks – things certainly got comical in the moment on that flight…

  • Arthur

    Meine liebe Herr Amerikanischen

    As I said in the piece which you cited in a previous post:

    "…journalism is about witnessing things and events and a writer has to find honorable ways of putting themselves in the position of a witness"

    Sometimes that comes at the price of some creature comforts (as your return flight illustrates).

    The fact is, however, that even with a full time job to finance one's journalistic pursuits, bankrolling the kind of activities that make for a respectable wine publication is no easy feat.

    • 1WineDude

      I gotta admit, I have a TON of respect for Parker in him keeping a distance from this, which I think is essential if all you're doing is reviewing wines. But if you're going for more of a journalists slant, you nailed it – expecting them to bankroll it themselves is next to an impossible standard for them to meet.

      • tommerle

        But if it is impossible, perhaps Parker Purity ought to rule. Meaning that communicators of whatever stripe–mostly freelancers–should be content just to read the tons of paper that marketing associations like the ~Wines of Germany~ publish for the trade and media. Let the flacks put out press releases, etc. that bloggers can report on. Junkets, wether for travel writers or wine writers, compromise disinterested integrity. Period.

        Ken Payton has a relevant post on his blog, in which he discusses what the FTC is planning on doing vis a vis blogs. <a href=”” target=”_blank”>

        • 1WineDude

          Thanks, Tom. Ken's post (… ) more-or-less states that blogs under the FTC guides would need to be transparent about anything that they receive from a another source that could constitute "compensation" for their "endorsements."

          That FTC guide is total bullsh*t as described because it treats favorable product reviews differently than unfavorable ones. The assumption is that the blogger is offering positive publicity in exchange for a free product, but that also assumes that there the value of the publicity is commensurate to (or exceeds) the product value. So the FTC had better propose a calculation to be used or they'll get challenged at every turn on it. I doubt it will be enforceable anyway except for the most prominent bloggers.

          I disagree that Parker's rule is the only way, because it can't logically cover situations that are not product reviews. Look at it this way: if I write that the Mosel is gorgeous, or that Mosel Rieslings kick ass, is that an influence of someone else paying for my coach airfare to Germany? Anyone with proper eyesight who Googles for reviews of Mosel wines and pictures of the area could write that. I can't see how it could be proven either way.

          • Ken Payton

            The FTC guide merely promotes disclosure. It says nothing of favorable or unfavorable reviews. The FTC's underlying thought is that bloggers should no longer be exempt from 'truth-in-advertising' regulations, regulations that have not been revised since 1980. Let the consumer decide whether the information is relevant. Very simple.

  • tommerle

    If the Mosel were a depressing area (Santa Maria in SB County comes to mind) and you were squired about and wrote that it was most appealing then your comments would be suspect. But the world already knows that German Wine Country matches it's counterparts in Italy, France, etc. If you have nice things to say about specific restaurants, hotels, wines, etc. –if they were provided gratis and you wrote positive things about them, whether others have or not, your evaluation can't be fully trusted.

    • 1WineDude

      Now *that* (positive reviews of specific gratis experiences being suspect) I can appreciate. But, would that cover wine samples as well?

      • tommerle

        I wouldn't think so. Sure, it would be better, like the husband and wife team at the Wall Street Journal to buy all the wines, but who has the WSJ budget? Doesn't RP get all his wines that he critiques as samples? I think it is understood that wineries, in fanning out samples, have to live with negative responses, like wine competitions. There is no quid pro quo. That said, the infamous Rodney Strong Rockaway flap had a slightly different dynamic going on. Certain bloggers were singled out to review the wine which is fairly pricey. It seemed to me that the psychology operating, whether in the background or not, swayed the reviewers and led to a bias toward a (highly) positive review.

        I still think that a panel/group tasting not only minimizes the conflict issue (no one person is getting that much of value), but is the superior way for coming up with valid asssessments.

        • 1WineDude

          Tom, I can speak directly to the Rockaway experiment, as I was one of the participating bloggers.

          I can tell you that receiving a $60 bottle of wine doesn't sway my opinion one way or the other – I've receive *hundreds* of wine samples, some of them bottles worth 2 to 3 times what a bottle of Rockaway costs. I gave Rockaway a positive review because the wine itself is fantastic. Actually, my post was more a take on Rodney Strong having the balls to give bottles or new releases to wine bloggers *before* the traditional wine mags than it was a review of the wine itself. If I was swayed by anything, it was Rodney Strong's foresight, not the Rockaway bottle price.

          I've got my biases just like any other person, but I'll rely on the intelligence of my readers to discern whether or not those biases make my opinions relevant or not.

          • Ken Payton

            Rodney Strong's foresight is a passing phase, I assure you. And I find it remarkable that you found the wine fantastic. Of the many wines I've tasted in the past year, both foreign and domestic, I really must say the Rockaway was pedestrian at best. I enjoyed an $8 Portuguese wine this evening that was truly superb, I simply had to return to this thread. Had the RS not been put in front of your (charming) face you would never have known of its existence, or cared.

            • 1WineDude

              Guess I need to understand better what you mean by foresight. Certainly more and more wine brands are engaging bloggers proactively?

              I do agree that if RS hadn't put the wine in front of bloggers it wouldn't have been on the radar screen for many of us. But there are 7K+ wine brands out there at the moment, so isn't this also true of nearly any wine, including the $8 Portuguese find you just had?

          • tommerle

            The operating psychology was not the value of the wine but being included in the elite group of bloggers sent the wine. No matter how much you protest, studies show that such favoritism influences outcomes.

            • 1WineDude

              I'm not saying that you're wrong Tom, but surely it's not that simple. I was a third-stringer on Jeff's list for being selected for the Rockaway assignment, if memory serves me correctly. So two other bloggers had to turn it down for various reasons before Jeff considered me – it doesn't feel like being in an elite group…

  • Arthur


    Watch the "depressing- Santa Maria" rhetoric. Not only is this inaccurate but it is offensive. I cover the region and know Santa Maria and its economics and demographics better to tolerate that kind of talk……

  • ChrisO

    Great post Joe! Look forward to the follow-up posts about what you saw and experienced, besides the German passengers, thank god we Americans are so civilized and would NEVER act like that (hint of sarcasm intended).

    You may have not studies journalism but you sure write like a professional. Your posts are always so engaging.

    Small correction "Belästigen die Amerikanischen" should actually read Belästigung des kleiner Amerikaner.


    • 1WineDude

      Thanks – I appreciate the kind words, and the correction!

  • Viktoria

    Nice to read about yor trip. Sorry for the hell flight home. It was a interesting evening with you guys.
    Hugs from Viktoria as Sweden. The girl in the family you meet in wehlen mosel :)

    • 1WineDude

      Hi! It was great to meet you, hope your flight back home was a bit better than mine :-)

  • Viktoria

    We drove and im happy about it ;)

    • 1WineDude

      Wise! :)

  • 1WineDude

    A quick update, Penelope Trunk has a FANTASTIC post about the irrelevance of conflict of interests when blogging. Worth a read (and a re-read):

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