Addy Bassin, owner of MacArthur Liquors, and one of the best known wine merchants in town, is furious. The Taylor Wine Company, now owned by Coca-Cola, has done what he considers the inexcusable, and some others in the wine business consider questionable.
Taylor is using television commercials and full-Page newspaper advertisements based on a taste test conducted with their new California Cellars wines and those of four other vintners. According to the ad Taylor wines take three firsts and one second place.
"I won't carry that stuff in my store just because of those ads," Bassin says. "I think they're misleading and deceptive."
Ads proclaiming that one wine came out better than its competitors in a particular tasting are hardly news. What makes Taylor's ads different, and what hs Bassin so incensed, is that the other wines which were used in the comparative test are named. Moreover, Bassin doesn't think the taste test was fairly conducted for several reasons. He makes a particular point of the fact that the Taylor wines are more expensive than the others, costing as much as 30 percent more in Washington. (A spokesman for Coca-Cola said that based on New York prices their wines are only 10 to 20 percent more expensive.)
The Bureau of the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF), Which has jurisdiction over all alcoholic beverages sold in this country, isn't sure whether the ads are fair, either. A spokesman for the agency said the other companies named in the ad - Sebastiani, Inglenook, Almaden and C.K. Mondavi - "are less than pleased. They would like us to stop the ads, but until we can establish whether or not they are misleading, we can't do anything."
Sebastiani and Inglenook have asked BATF to investigate the ads for violation of government regulaions. Almaden is considering a suit against Taylor.
Government regulations prohibit advertising which is "misleading to consumers." An ad may be misleading for several reasons, an ATF spokesman explained. "Because of what is does or does not say, because it doesn't tell the whole truth, etc." Carlton Curis, director of public relations for Coca-Cola's wine division, says, "There is no question the ads are absolutely fair."
August Sebastiani, Vineyards, says he would "like to sue but I'm too practical a man to think I can. They can wear me out financially and timewise and even if I did sue, by the time I got done in the courts the damage would be done.So from a practical angle. I'm just sitting here like a plucked chicken.
"I think what they're doing is highly unethical. These guys are just throwning their weight around. Knowing they're big, I guess, they feel they can get away with it and have no fear of the government. It's a dirty business," Sebastiani said.
On the other hand, the world's largest winery has said nothing publicly but an official of E.J. Gallo has said privately "anything that causes controversy and brings attention to wine will increase sales."
Others, however, are concerned because they feel, like Sebastiani, that the ads are misleading. One official in a wine trade association, who said he was speaking for himself, not the association, said the ad raised several questions: Are the tasters, described as 27 experts, really experts? Are the results statistically significant? What was the condition of all the wines?
The last two questions are of particular interest of ATF as well. Their spokesperson said: "Taste tests are very subjective and very close to - quote - misleading. Statistically can this test be run again and again and again to come up with the same conclusions?" he asked.
At MacArthur Liquors, a double-blind tasting was conducted with the same chablis and burgundies and the results were different from those reported in the Taylor ads. A double-blind tasting is one in which the person who disguises the bottles does not mark bottles so in effect no one who is tasting the wines knows which wine he or she is tasting.
In MacArthur's tasting the Taylor burgundy came in third out of four, its chablis came in second. In the ad, Taylor's chablis came in second: the burgundy first.
But Elliott Staren, wine buyer at MacArthur, pointed out that he had not been able to duplicate the tasting conducted for Taylor and that brings up the second problem troubling ATF and others. Staren said he could not duplicate the tasting because all of his wines were purchased at retail stores. In the tasting for the Taylor ads, Taylor had supplied its own wine from the winery while the competitors wines were purchased at retail.
Harvey Posert. director of public relations for the California Wine Institute, said it is possible that wines purchased off the shelf could have been handled badly, could have bad corks, could be shaken up, stored badly or left in direct sunlight. "There is no way of knowing," he said, "but those are possibilities."
Curtis said the Taylor wines were taken from the warehouse because they were not yet for sale in stores at the time. The other wines were bought at retail.
Posert said, "The industry has been very concerned about the use of individual taste tests. One wine will win one day and another wine will win another day. Although people build up a track record, you could make an experienced guess how a wine will come out, and you can be wrong as often as you can be right."
Others have questioned the qualifications of the experts in the Taylor taste test. The print ads describe them as "among the most respected and knowledgeable wine experts in California. They each have a minimum wine tasting experience of five years and average no fewer than 12 tastings per year.
"All hold current membership in such prestigious organizations as the Vintners Club of San Francisco, Les Amis du Vin Knights of the Vine and the Berkeley Food and Wine Society."
But one California wine authority said: "Just because those people are members of wine societies doesn't mean a lot, because you can be a member of a wine society without being and experienced wine taster. Belonging to one of these wine societies is not based on your qualifications, like being an English master of wines where you are tested."
A local wine merchant put it more crassly: "All you need to join one of those societies is have the money."
One of the societies, however, is angry enough at having its name used in the ad that it has turned the matter over to its attorneys.
The chairman of the board of the Vintners Club, Jerome C. Draper, said the club was "very displeased to have been mentioned. We have a policy that our name is never used except with written permission of the directors." The advertising agency confirmed to Draper, in writing, that they wouldn't use the club's name in the ad without asking first, Draper said. But the name appeared anyway.
Draper said the situation was quite "awkward" for them because "the winemakers around here thought it was very unfair."
"It looks like an endorsement and it doesn't help the independence of the club. I don't want the club to be mixed up with that advertising."
The advertising agency account executive said "What we agreed to was that we would not use their name to endorse the results of the test."
In addition to all these criticisms of the ad campaign, Bassin and Staren don't think it's fair to compare a $2.59 bottle of wine with ones that sell for 20 to 30 percent less.
The Sebastiani, Inglenook, Almaden and C.K. Mondavi wines used in the taste test range in price from $1.79 to $2.19 without promotional discounts. They are the "bottom of the line" for those vintners. But the Taylor California Cellars wines are selling at most stores for $2.49 to $2.59. The owner of one wine shop where they are priced at $2.09 said his price was a promotional discount "which will probably go off at the end of the month. Then the wines will sell for 40 or 50 cents more," he explained.
Staren said that Sebastiani, Inglenook and C.K. Mondavi also produce generic wines in the $2.59 range. He and Bassin feel that the Taylor wines could have been tasted against comparably priced wines.
Curtis said, "The way the competitive wines were chosen was that we selected the best of their generics." Told that the ones in the ad were not those companies' "best generics," Curtis said, "I was not aware of them. I have not seem them. I am not familiar with them." he said. "If there are comparably priced wines, I would say there is a discrepancy in our methodology."
Before Taylor went ahead with the ad campaign, they approached ATF and asked the bureau to guarantee that it would not take action against the company once the ads ran. Companies sometimes request this kind of "preclearance." ATF has always frowned on comparative advertising in the past, if it denigrated other producers. ATF refused to offer that kind of assurance so Taylor took ATF to court to ask for an injunction against the bureau which would prevent them from taking any action after the ads appeared. The judge ruled, however that there was no case until ATF actually took an action.
According to court papers, ATF already was concerned about certain aspects of the tasting, including the source of the wines used. ATF told Taylor that it would not prevent them from running the ads, but after they ran, the bureau would have to assess what damage, if any, had been done to competitors.
An ATF official, expressing his "own personal feeling," said, "We ought at least to damage being done to the competitiors and unless there is real validity to the tests the ads should be stopped. Because waiting for the administrative wheels to grind out and prove the ads are deceptive will take at least six months and by that time Taylor will be most cooperative and stop the ads because they will have gotten what they want. I think we should get a temporary injunction so we get our act together.
ATF, which plans to hold public discussions about all of its 44 year oldregulations governing the advertising of alcoholic beverages, is expected to make a decision about the Taylor ad shortly.