Moving to the Other Side of the Door in the Wine Industry

Steve HeimoffSteve Heimoff’s recent announcement that after 22 years as a wine critic, he will be leaving his post as West Coast Editor for the Wine Enthusiast and joining the communications (PR) team at Jackson Family Wines is a vivid and instructive reminder of the intimate and long association between the public relations field and the journalism trade.

Steve brings to Jackson Family Wines the two most important qualities a PR person must possess: knowledge of the industry and the ability to write well. Convincingly pitching a story idea and relationships with writers and editors, two other important aspects of the PR trade, can be learned and earned. But writing well and depth of knowledge…these thing are indispensable. The door that swings between PR and journalism is painted with same color on both sides.

When I landed my first job in PR in 1990 my boss-to-be could care less that I knew not a single wine writer nor that I had never successfully convinced any important writer anywhere to write about anything. However, I showed an ability to write fairly well and that I possessed a decent knowledge of wine. (I was also young and my commitment cheaply purchased).

The one thing that Mr. Heimoff will likely need to get used to fast and to embrace is something that journalists don’t (or shouldn’t) do: forgo their objectivity. When working on behalf of wine company or one client, it’s critical that you wrap your arms around them tightly, that you believe in their mission and make that mission yours. In the wine industry, when working on behalf of winery, you know the product is very good. You can’t do your job if you don’t believe. You carve a circle around that winery and declare that this is your realm…this is where the action is…this collection of people, products and ideas is important and worthy. This isn’t the journalists mode of operation.

I suspect that Steve will have no problem doing this. I suspect he evaluated the value and worthiness ofjfw1 Jackson Family Wines when he considered their offer. And frankly, carving that circle probably wasn’t too difficult when you look over that company’s portfolio of properties and brands:

Cardinale, Verite, La Jota, Matanzas Creek, Murphy-Goode, Stonestreet, Hartford Family, Freemark Abbey, Arrowood, Byron, Edmeades, La Crema, Kendall-Jackons, etc, etc, etc, etc.

My only advice to Mr. Heimoff would be in relation to his fine blog. It will be important to his credibility and the utility of his blog that he find a way to continue writing while not bumping up against too obvious conflicts of interest. No more reviewing of wines is the most obvious way to avoid conflicts of interest. But I suspect that after a couple of decades of writing thousands of reviews, this won’t be hard for him. But there are other potential pitfalls. Still, I have no doubt he’ll avoid them.



2 Responses

  1. tom merle - March 12, 2014

    No doubt the fine and wide selection of wineries in the Jackson Family portfolio make the move easier as did the pay. But it is a curious phenomenon. As a journalist and particularly a reviewer your credibility rests on your objectivity or a perception of objectivity, even though the assessments were from one expert taster, so a mix of objectivity and subjectivity=integrity. But going through the revolving door like a Justice Dept. staffer joining a defendents law firm is tricky. In Steve’s case he is going from disinterested reviewer with a particular preference to outright flackery where the previous activities no longer count. It will be interesting to follow the transition as it affects his excellent and braod ranging blog.

    • tom merle - March 12, 2014

      Although his title says something else, maybe S H was hired to taste barrel samples and opine on their ‘quality’, giving the Jackson Family some edge, allowing those making the wine to make changes.. After all this is what he did for the last two decades or so. This was his ‘content’ but now it is all for naught.

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