jamie goode's wine blog: Conflicts of interest and all that...

Monday, April 27, 2009

Conflicts of interest and all that...

There's been a big internet storm about conflicts of interest policy at the Wine Advocate of late, over on Tyler Colman's Dr Vino blog. Tyler pointed out that there seems to be a discrepancy between the stated policy of the Wine Advocate and the practice of some the new members of team WA.

Specifically, Robert Parker, in his Wine Buyer's Guide, states that he doesn't accept hospitality and pays for his own trips. Some of team WA have taken press trips and work like 'normal' wine journalists in accepting samples, lunches and dinners.

Some observations.

1. The WA is probably the most widely trusted source of wine information out there. Robert Parker has set the standard when it comes to impartiality. But his stated policy needs amending because while it may still apply to him it doesn't fit the way his team operate. It's a counsel of perfection that is uneccessarily tight.

2. There's no big story here. Team WA are just doing what you do as a wine journalist. There's probably a bit of tall poppy syndrome: because of the success of WA, there are a whole load of people out there who want to have a pop and cause a bit of trouble.

3. As a wine journalist you need to have some level of interaction with the trade. It's not like being a police detective investigating the mafia, where it would be hard to argue that a close working relationship would enhance your effectiveness. We are talking about covering wine accurately and intelligently, and for me and many other wine journalists the economics just wouldn't stack up if I had to pay for all my own travel.

4. Accepting hospitality and trips isn't a big deal, in that I don't feel beholden at all. To someone outside wine journalism, the chance to travel to nice places and stay in nice places and eat nice meals might seem an enormous perk one that would leave you feeling you owed your host something. But here's the point: it's a two-way thing. You aren't just receiving; you are giving. Specifically you are giving your time and attention, without charge, and if the wines merit it, there's the possibility of coverage. Once you rise high enough in the journalistic pecking order, then you get so many offers of trips, it's not a big deal. Don't get me wrong: I love the travel part of my job, but I don't feel accepting trips places obligations on me, and I certainly don't demand any hospitality that is offered.

5. Almost all the journalists I have met are passionate about wine, and are ambitious people who want to be successful. While there are few who have a comfortable existence living off the largesse of the trade, not rocking the boat and wallowing in mediocrity, they are in the minority. Personally, I care too much about wine to give good write ups to people doing mediocre work, and to pass over a more deserving but smaller producer in favour of a less deserving but bigger (and more hospitable) one.

6. My impression is that by far the biggest threat to wine coverage isn't conflicting interests, but people with bad palates. However free of conflicts of interests you are, if you are a crap taster then your work will be poor. If you fall for spoofy nonsense wines, or taste randomly, then being whiter than white isn't going to help.

7. In the end, it's a matter of trust. Readers should develop some sort of relationship with the writer, getting to know their preferences and underlying philosophy. Writers need to do the best work they can. Sometimes I fund my own trips (e.g. New Zealand, all my Australian visits); other times I take press trips, and sometimes from single producers. I'm learning, and these trips help me learn more you, the reader, have to decide whether 'm compromised or not.

8. It's kind of self-regulating. You get offered trips if you have a big enough readership. f you start doing fluffy puff pieces and go soft, then you lose your readership and hence don't get offered trips. The only sustainable policy is to be honest, impartial and rigorous.

If The Wine Advocate ends up instituting some strict conflicts of interest policy for its staff that prohibits press trips, then they'll lose out and more importantly the readers will lose out, too, because the current depth of coverage will end up being prohibitively expensive.

17 Comments:

At 10:33 AM, Anonymous Ben Smith said...

Well said Jamie; I read most of that exhausting thread on Dr Vino and really the main points are the ones you make here; a) WA need to change their 'no free trips' policy and b)it isn't the same as detectives investigating the mob. It isn't even as if there are universal 'truths' to be discovered about particular wines, beauty will always be in the eye of the beholder. If I follow a particular journalist and accept their recommendations it is because I broadly agree with their taste and believe them to be pretty impartial. As someone who tries to influence journalists as part of their job I can confirm that as a rule it's impossible if the wine ain't no good!

 
At 12:33 PM, Blogger Wine Splodge said...

I don't think this can be shut down quite so easily.
It's interesting to see the photo you've chosen to illustrate this blog. Private jets are a very easy and enoyable way to fly, but they cost a lot of money. On a personal level it's hard to be unkind to someone who has been generous.
Also, for writers not as established as yourself, the fear of the cold shoulder is ever apparent.
Both sides need each other, but it's only the journalists who risk compromising their integrity. Media/PR and marketing departments exist to generate positive coverage and one of their biggest tools is the control of access and information. I believe even Parker was persona non grata at Romainee Conti for a number of years after a less than glowing review.
Whether or not the journalist believes they have been compromised, readers will form their own opinion. Even if a winemaker deserves a good review, knowing the person writing it was lavishly entertained for free inevitably makes readers wonder.
Whatever you think of the relative merits of Dr Vinos thread, this is an important debate to be having.

 
At 1:02 PM, Anonymous Gavin Quinney said...

Jamie, as ever, all that you say makes sense and ties in with the principles listed by Jancis Robinson in her recent article, 'The ethics of wine writing'. Jancis also linked to drvino.com, but I suggest that anyone following your link, above, should also see the more recent post on drvino.com, and the links on to Parker's forum, of course.

I agree that the dispute over wine critics accepting hospitality is not much of a story. But it should be said that Parker's rules for wine critics are much, much stricter than you say and he has been at pains to point them out in each of his Wine Buyer's Guides since 1996. By generating enough revenue as a critic, presumably, Parker has been able to pay his own way, so for his team to take part in funded trips is a bit foolish. However, instead of nailing the debate, quickly and without fuss, he has gone on the offensive.

The real stories here are not the debate over accepting hospitality, but (1) Parker's juicy attacks on bloggers and others, including Decanter magazine, as a result of some straightforward questions, and (2) as Jancis stated today, 'I think the interesting issues raised in this thread show just how difficult, and probably counter-productive, it is to try to erect walls in cyberspace'.

 
At 1:36 PM, Anonymous Keith Prothero said...

and you better not rubbish my wines or else!! (smiley)

 
At 2:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Let's all have a laugh as Mr "Anonymous" Ultra-Critic thinks of his latest tirade of meaningless garbage to throw at Jamie on this one - come on mate!!! what of you got to say about this one?? Ha Ha - he is such a pedantic JOKE. Should feel sorry for him really I suppose......

 
At 3:32 PM, Blogger benny boy said...

Your blog is always enjoyable and without sucking up getting better.

Conflict of interest! I don't think you need to worry or your fellow journos but a certain well known Scottish merchant who writes for the Herald (on Sunday) and always recommends his own wine at least two of three or four he
reviews and sometimes all. God it annoys me

 
At 1:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Can't agree with your conclusions here. I think you are letting yourelf and your peers off far too lightly. I am a financial journalist and my organisation (like in financial publishing) is very strict about paying its own way and not accepting press junkets.

Why? Simply because they are only ever organised with the intent of generating a warm fuzzy feeling in the recipients and hopefully some warm fuzzy reporting or comment. There is no other reason for them.

Can you, or any other writer be 100% certain that a lavish free trip has not caused you - even in a minor way, or subsconciously - to favour a particular producer?

If wine journalists accept such trips, then this will at least be reflected in them covering the trip or the producer (can you imagine an editor allowing a hack to spend a chunk of month out of the office and then not write about it?). If this is the case, then the provider of the trip has bought coverage in the mag/website/blog and saying 'oh but we're neutral' is no way of getting round it.

Finally, now that I know that you (and other wine writers) routinely accept trips from producers, it's much harder for me to trust your impartiality.

 
At 4:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Isn't it obvious that wine writers accept complimentary trips from producers just like financial journalists accept lunches and dinners and trips and site visits from the corporates about which they write?

 
At 7:26 PM, Blogger Gianpaolo Paglia said...

as a small wine producer I can only agree with what Jamie has said: there are much more crap wine tasters to be afraid of than corrupted wine professional writers. In the end it's easy to understand when someone is not transparent because his judegment will not make much sense in the long run and he will loose readers.
Similarly, for a small winery, the only substainable way to get to know good wine writers and get good reviews is to try to make good wines. It may seem obvious but for some people it isn't.

 
At 2:02 AM, Blogger Joe said...

Dear Jamie:

Someone told me that you flew on a private jet sent to you by a wine producers. Is that true? Is that the picture you have on your blog? Where were you flown from and what was the destination.

Thanks,

Joe Dressner

 
At 5:44 PM, Blogger Charlie said...

Joe,
If you look closely at the picture of Jamie and the jet (as opposed to the magic torch), there is a clue to the chateau owner (the name of one of the chateaux that he owns).

There were other journalists on the press trip which was designed to showcase the luxury tourism services offered by the chateau proprietor. I feel there is no conflict of interest between wine journalists going on these sorts of trips, as they should see the levels of service that might be on offer to punters. Surely such trips are no different to travel journalists testing luxury hotels. The only conflict is if the journalist then leaves their impartiality and integrity behind when writing up the trip.
Having read Jamie's various accounts of the trip (and following this blog frequently), I can attest that Jamie's journalistic integrity should not be questioned.

 
At 11:48 PM, Blogger Jamie said...

Joe, as Charlie points out it was a trip to see bernard magrez' estates in bordeaux, focusing on the new luxury wine tourism venture he's embarking on. I should add that we flew around by helicopter once in bordeaux, and attended the chelsea vs bordeaux champions league match in his box.

Read my write-up and this is all pretty clear!

 
At 4:00 AM, Blogger Joe said...

Jamie:

Would you please give me a url to the write-up. All I see is this blog, but no details about your trip.

Thanks,

Joe Dressner

 
At 9:27 PM, Blogger Joe said...

Jamie:

I would love to read your write-up but cannot find the posting. I also can't find a search function here or your e-mail address. Please let me know how to find the posting about your trip.

Thanks,

Joe Dressner

 
At 11:03 PM, Blogger Jamie said...

Joe, go to the main wineanorak site (www.wineanorak.com) and it's clearly linked from there.

 
At 10:56 PM, Anonymous Arthur, winestooth.com said...

Nicely done!

"it's a two-way thing. You aren't just receiving; you are giving. Specifically you are giving your time and attention, without charge, and if the wines merit it, there's the possibility of coverage"

I couldn't agree more!

 
At 7:14 PM, Anonymous LALAU said...

I concur completely.

For French readers, here are some of my thoughts on the subject:
http://hlalau.skynetblogs.be/post/6942160/plus-independant-que-moi

But after reading your post, I feel compelled to withdraw my lousy allegations about British people being "too stiff". Generalities are always wrong.

 

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