The FTC and food bloggers; or, why quid is sometimes but not always pro quo

Nothing says “Yum-o!” to a food blogger like a 12-page treatise from that house of haute cuisine, the Federal Trade Commission. And as of today, according to the FTC, there is such a thing as a free lunch — as long as you make sure everyone knows that you ate for free, because if you don’t they can haul your fattened, freeloading, lying-by-omission ass into court.

That’s the jist of it; go here if you’d prefer a more technical explanation.

And on that note, I poured two bottles of J Pinot Noir on Thanksgiving. One was from Nicole’s Vineyard; the other one was Russian River Valley. Both were fantastic, if you’ll forgive the term, expresions of the grape; they had a nice combination of the fruit I associate with Northern California and the complex flintiness that I associate with Oregon (and usually prefer for Pinot Noir). And? Both were 100%, delivered-to-my-doorstep in styrofoam containers, tasting notes thoughtfully included, FREE.

See how easy that was?

A publicist sent the wine to me unbidden. In fact, it took a little deduction to figure out the source. Not that it mattered; as soon as the brown box landed on my desk, I knew why it was there. The sender wanted me to write about the wine. And I wanted to drink it.

When I started food writing in 1992, I competed for, and got, a job as the restaurant reviewer for an alternative weekly. The rules were simple: Be anonymous and pay for everything. And, like most other newspaper food writers, that’s what I did. Invitations to dine “as a guest” of a restaurant owner were ignored; my employer also made it clear that if I thought a place worth reveiwing, they’d pay for it. Also: kind of creepy and gross.

I wonder what restaurant launches looked like before the internet? Were they sedate, congratulatory affairs? Nowadays some feel like foodie frat parties, albeit with a much better quality of free-flowing booze. And instead of leaving with a STD, you get a gift bag.

I digress… actually, I don’t. This free-admission numbers game is how publicists penetrate the new food-world order. There are now far fewer journalists employed as restaurant critics (or employed as journalists, period). However, you can set up a blog and become a critic. No one’s paying for your dinners, much less paying you to write, but if you write with some intelligence and consistency the world’s food, wine and travel publicists will beat a path to your inbox. And then they will invite you to restaurant launches, to tequila tastings, to “fam trips” and to media dinners.  Sometimes you can watch the coverage flow through the blogs, like a wave.

It took a while — the FTC hasn’t updated its Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising since 1980 — but they finally figured out that the bloggers couldn’t afford all the stuff they wrote about and publicists were not blessed with a surfeit of generosity. And so:

The revised Guides also add new examples to illustrate the long standing principle that “material connections” (sometimes payments or free products) between advertisers and endorsers – connections that consumers would not expect – must be disclosed. These examples address what constitutes an endorsement when the message is conveyed by bloggers or other “word-of-mouth” marketers. The revised Guides specify that while decisions will be reached on a case-by-case basis, the post of a blogger who receives cash or in-kind payment to review a product is considered an endorsement. Thus, bloggers who make an endorsement must disclose the material connections they share with the seller of the product or service.

I like this. Frankly, if I could afford to buy all the food and wine and travel, I’d like it more. But since I can’t, I’ll take the level playing field.

This is how I read it: If I write about a wine sent to me by a publicist, I tell you. If I talk about the food I ate at a media dinner, I tell you. If I stay at a hotel for free or at a media rate, I tell you. This is how I am able to afford some of the things and experiences I write about.

This is how I feel about it: I don’t write about a wine just because a publicist sent it to me. Or about the media dinner or the hotel just because I was there. This is how I avoid the kind of creepy and gross.

This is what I do: Sometimes I go to media dinners; sometimes I go out on my own dime. Either way, what I choose to write about — and what I choose to write — is wholly up to me. As any number of likely annoyed publicists will tell you, I don’t feel inherent obligation to write about anyone or anything.


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The Spectrum Wine Auction is starting to freak me out

One of these things is not like the other.

This time yesterday:

Since then, I have become 300% more trustworthy:


And in other news, I’m still winning.

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Not everyone loves free food as much as I do

The Avalon Hotel hosted a one-two punch of a launch party last night. I was there for the new chef, Mirko Paderno, who has been charged with turning the servicable Blue into a more-signature Olivero. However, almost everyone else was there for the publication of “Hue” by interior designer Kelly Wearstler.

In some ways, this is savvy: The hotel gets to position its chef among lots of swank and shiny people while introducing said people to his fabulous new food. The Avalon also gets a lot more PR; it’s hard to imagine that WireImage would assign Donato Sardella to spend an evening shooting Mirko and people like, well, me, who are conspicuously neither swank nor shiny.

That said, the combination made for an odd evening. Most of the guests looked as if they belonged in Wearstler’s beautiful rooms, where it’s hard to imagine people eating anything lest the setting be marred with a greasy fingerprint. I think it was hard for them to imagine, too; while the crowd was so thick I couldn’t navigate my way from the dining room to poolside, it was easy to find waiters eager for you to pluck appetizers off their trays.

In other words, almost no one (except me) seemed to be eating; ergo,  in turn, I recognized almost no one at the party except for Gwen Stefani. And that doesn’t really count, does it?

(Mirko shouldn’t feel bad about the food; no one seemed very interested in the book, either. Probably because it was a “special edition” that cost $93.)

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Holy crap. I’m still winning.

Is it too early to start feeling guilty?

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The one where I bid in a wine auction

Wine auction. I mean, really. Who has any business doing this? Obviously, if you’re the sort of person who’s reading this with the wifi on your G5, then god bless. But the the rest of us? Who swear that someday, we really will stop buying wine that costs less than $10 a bottle because that’s the line of demarcation between wine that’s really pretty good and wine that gets you drunk without inducing nausea? Yeah, that’s me, which means I have no business registering to participate in a wine auction.

I did, anyway. And placed a (very) modest bid.

A pipedream, rendered in jpeg.

In 2009, the Spectrum Wine Auction is one of those events that seems like it belongs to another dimension, one in which unemployment isn’t in the double digits and choosing to pick up the newspaper on your front lawn isn’t a revolutionary act. However, the man behind this auction, Aubrey McClendon, is a sort of an otherworldly type. He’s the head of Chesapeake Energy; last year, his comp package was $112 million. This spring he auctioned off caseloads of wine — $2.23 million worth — and he’s planning to sell off about $3 million more on Saturday, Nov. 21, at the St. Regis in Dana Point, with a simulcast in Hong Kong. (Lest you think McClendon may have overextended himself or otherwise fallen on hard times, a spokesperson told the Wall Street Journal the reason for the sale was “100,000 bottles is a bit too much for him.” Yeah, me too.)

Which brings me back to: What business do I have bidding in this auction? Not only is it too rich for my blood, I don’t know anyone with this blood type.

And at the same time: Not only do I love wine, I love good wine. And while it’s not necessarily my goal to have the scratch to play games like this one, I want to know as much as possible about good wine, which means paying more. More than I’m used to. More than I should.

Besides, I fully expect to be outbid before I go to sleep tonight.

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Thomas Keller in the house


The December issue of Esquire has a great article (sorry, not online), p. 102: “The night Thomas Keller came to my kitchen” documents how the magazine writer cooked in his apartment kitchen from Keller’s new book, “Ad Hoc at Home,’ with Keller in tow. Seems like an obvious bit of PR, but Keller says no one’s ever invited him to their home to cook from one of his books. That initially sounds like an odd bit of pathos given his rich pageant of a life… but on second thought, if you write books like this, you have no one to blame but yourself. As a nonpro home cook, even a very good one, you are either an unflappable optimist or a small-time masochist if you expect to cook a whole meal from “The French Laundry;” if you also think it might be fun to invite Keller over as a witness, I might suggest that you don’t need an apron, but a hairshirt.


How cookbooks say, "Do not touch."

Anyway. Ad Hoc is not the French Laundry. Ad Hoc, however, is the only restaurant where I read its menu every day (mailing list here). My dinner at Ad Hoc was everything I hoped for/expected; I haven’t eaten at FL (yet), but it’s food executed at the very highest level — and most of us don’t live there, or even want to. Ad Hoc, however, is something like how I would cook every day given the time/money/garden/opportunity, which is another kind of highest level, which means it’s a book I am going to buy.


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So I went to Pourtal and decided to give machines a second chance


You've seen those EnoMatics, right? It's basically an Automat, but for wine, and you use a debit card instead of coins because this is the 21st century and like coins could buy you anything. I've always liked their gee-whiz value (press button! get wine! whee!) but found there was an inverse relation to its charm and the number of times you punched the button. Automat wine means no waiter; no waiter means you are getting exactly one ounce of wine (and who wants that?), context free; there's no one and nothing to tell you why the owners liked this wine or why it might be worth $4.65 per ounce.

Stephen Abramson's Pourtal has solved at least part of the problem: His schtick is to group the wines by style (three-grape blends; whites; Pinot Noirs), order them by three- or four-bottle flights and, best of all, have Peter Birmingham as a secret weapon. LA knows him best as the sommelier of the late, lamented Norman's, but he's possibly the most passionate, pan-alcohol geek I've ever met. (Wine, beer, gin — he loves and knows it all.) And on those nights he's not guiding tours at Pourtal, there's handy little printouts to tell you what you're drinking, with a little why thrown in.

Also: Fancy-wine appropriate bar snacks with a heavy emphasis on Andrew's Cheese Shop, including a warm crostini topped with Grevenbroecker blue cheese and heirloom chocovivo chocolate. Sounds insane, but it was perfect with a Atalayas de Golban Temperanillo. Also: They have a selection of wines sold by the full glass and sell all the wines retail, which is great news because Peter's knowledge runs far and wide; you'd have a hell of a time finding many of these anywhere else. 104 Santa Monica Blvd., 90401; (310) 393-7693.

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