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U.S. taxpayers pick up part of the tab for visiting wine writers

Bob Fila/Chicago Tribune

WASHINGTON — American taxpayers are helping to foot the bill so foreign writers can savor California wine.

Subsidized by the Agriculture Department and the wineries, the writers from Canada, Europe and Asia tour some of this country’s most renowned wine regions, and winemakers say their stories boost foreign sales. Lawmakers agree, and they want to increase funding in the new farm bill that senators will consider next week.

“If it’s helping to sell wine, it’s good,” said Rep. Devin Nunes, a Republican who represents the rich agricultural area around Fresno in California's Central Valley.

Others aren’t so sure.

Budget hawks question the use of taxpayer dollars. The wine writer tours are a small part of the Market Access Program, which the House of Representatives wants to increase to $225 million a year from the current $200 million.

Journalism professionals worry less about the cost and more about the propriety of writers who accept free trips and produce stories that resemble advertising.

“This is a violation of fundamental journalism ethics,” said Michael Shanahan, a longtime reporter and now an assistant professor of journalism at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C.. “At the very least, it’s the appearance of a conflict of interest, if not the reality.”

“We have achieved very good media attention from lifestyle journalists,” the Wine Institute reported to the Agriculture Department in a document obtained by McClatchy Newspapers under the Freedom of Information Act.

The San Francisco-based Wine Institute represents most U.S. wineries. It received $4.5 million this year from the Agriculture Department’s Market Access Program, more than most organizations that received funding.

The Wine Institute also contributes money for overseas advertising, conferences, tours and more. With annual U.S. wine exports now valued at $1.2 billion and climbing, wine industry leaders consider the marketing program a success.

“It allows us to be competitive with every other major wine-producing country,” said Joe Rollo, the Institute’s director of international development. “Without it, I don’t know if we would have the same track record of success.”

European countries, Rollo added, “do programs that make ours look like a little toy.”

Hundreds of pages of documents newly obtained through the Freedom of Information Act reveal that the subsidized trips are a case study in how marketing, journalism and government aid intersect.

Japan is a particularly alluring market: It ranks among the top five wine markets, buying $82 million worth of U.S. wine in 2004. The Wine Institute has a Japanese public relations firm, as a start.

In order to prompt feature articles about wine in Japan’s popular lifestyle magazines, the Wine Institute explained in an Agriculture Department application for the 2004-2005 season, “the reporters’ independent visit to California is essential.”

These traveling crews included a reporter, a photographer, a press agent and a coordinator. Total estimated cost for airfare, accommodations, meals, rental cars and fees: $40,000.

Taxpayers and the wine industry pick up the tab. The resulting stories are billed as marketing gold. An eight-page article in the October 2004 issue of GQ Japan, for instance, was considered the equivalent of a $160,000 ad.

Articles further surpass ads, wine industry officials believe, because consumers routinely discount advertising. The articles are presented as “third party” information from writers conveying “what they have seen and how they feel,” Rollo said, as opposed to explicit ad salesmanship.

“These writers are trusted to be objective, and the frequency of their coverage about California will influence consumer purchase decisions,” the Wine Institute said in its 2004-2005 progress report on Canada.

The Wine Institute reported that for $40,000 it could invite six "key” Canadian wine writers, as well as liquor board executives and buyers, for the 2004-2005 season. Trips range across such regions as Napa, Lodi and the increasingly popular Santa Barbara and Paso Robles areas.

The journalists fly coach. The Wine Institute documents don't specify where they dine or which hotels they stay in.

From Europe, the Wine Institute’s application for the 2005 season proposed two journalist trips, one for a dozen wine journalists and the other for a dozen lifestyle writers. The wine writers would be sampling 500 to 1,000 wines, industry officials explained.

“The objective is to change perception, as some still have (an) incorrect perception of California wine (as) poor value for money . . . high alcohol, too much oak, etc.,” the Wine Institute explained.

Each journalist is “expected to write a feature article about our industry,” the Wine Institute added, and “the advertising value is expected to exceed the cost of the activity.”

Sometimes, Rollo said, writers pay their own way. Other times, writers they turn their palms up. The Wine Institute, for instance, recently sought $21,000 for Danish trade and media visits. That, the application noted, included “financial assistance (hotel, transport) for journalists that contact us throughout the program year for aid with their travel to the wine regions.”

“We . . . only assist those publications that confirm they will actually publish,” the Wine Institute added.

Rollo said that while “90 percent of the time, (the story) is positive, it’s not always that way.” A Singapore wine writer, for instance, visited California’s Central Valley but produced only one article. Seeking “more bang for the buck,” the Wine Institute subsequently reported that it would allocate future travel funds to a different country’s journalist.