Let's face it, 90% of everything is crap. Including wine. Most wine is
mediocre; a lot of it is poor. And because of the vast number of wines
on the market, consumers need help finding the good ones. This is
where wine writers come in handy.
Or they should. Fact is, a lot of wine writing these days reads
like PR for the wine industry. In the UK at least, there's an
unwritten rule that if you can't find anything nice to say, don't say
anything. After all, this seems a safe strategy to take, because by
following this edict you can make friends in the wine trade with your
positive reviews, without making enemies by saying anything negative.
But this risk-averse strategy lets down the very people you are aiming
to serve -- the consumers.
If you are starting out as a wine writer, getting close to the
trade is essential in order to have access to wines to write about.
But in this process of drawing near to the people who sell wine, it's
easy to begin to moderate what you say just a little in order not to
bite the hand that feeds.
Indeed, when a wine producer has spent their valuable time showing
you through their range, or an importer has bothered to select a case
of samples to send you, it is difficult not to feel some sort of sense
of indebtedness to them. This is only human. Unless you are a mean,
hard, embittered individual, you'd rather not say anything that might
hurt the people you like. It really is a whole lot easier to be
appropriately critical about a wine you have purchased at your own
expense, but it clearly isn't feasible for a wine writer to have
purchased every wine they write about and still provide broad enough
coverage to be useful.
One of the reasons behind the success of Robert Parker has been his
steadfast stance as a consumer's advocate. His pronouncements about
the ethics of British wine writers are completely overblown, but there
is a grain of truth to what he says regarding conflicts of interest.
Although absolute separation from the wine trade just isn't possible,
or even desirable, this proximity inevitably brings certain ethical
So am I claiming (as other UK wine writers have done rather
notoriously in recent months) that everyone else is corrupt, but the
wineanorak is whiter than white in this regard? No. I'm just making
public my thoughts on this difficult but important issue. To deny, as
others have done, that there is no problem at all, is what
psychologists like to call denial. One well known wine UK writer, when
recently quizzed on this issue, claimed he actually enjoyed conflicts
of interest. An odd attitude. Is it possible ever to be completely
unbiased when writing about wines? Probably not. But as in other walks
of life, just because perfection is an almost unattainable goal, it
doesn't mean that we shouldn't try as hard as we can to get as close
as possible to it.
So how do I try to maintain an unbiased stance in my writing? In
assessing a wine, I try to think how I would I feel about it if I had
paid my own money for it. It's a perspective thing. I'm continually
stepping back a little, trying to remember whose side I am supposed to
be on as a wine journalist. If I'm going to be of any use at all to my
readers, I must take the stance of consumers' advocate, helping them
to find the gems amid the dross. Finally, I think it's important for
wine writers to actually dip their hands in their own pockets and
actually buy wines themselves on a regular basis, for two reasons.
First, it's a lot easier to identify with consumers if you are one
yourself. Second, in this way you can access a lot of interesting
stuff that you just won't come across at trade shows and in the way of