Pay-to-play and wine writer ethics

I apologize for talking about talking about wine, but there’s a lot of discussion on wine writer ethics at the moment. This discussion has been led by the excellent Palate Press, who aren’t afraid to say difficult and controversial things where they feel this is needed.

Their latest article tackles the issue of ‘pay to play’, where are Canadian wine writer has seemingly been charging wineries for reviews, albeit indirectly, by requesting that they sign up for her subscription website before their wines will be reviewed.

Is this unethical?

The wineries don’t have to pay. I guess the question is, is it ethical to present a selection of reviews to readers where the readers don’t know that this is simply a subset of available wines, based on who was willing to cough up.

In the case of my blog, if I operated a similar policy, the net effect would be that you’d be exposed to less interesting wines. Most of the world’s interesting wines are made by smaller producers who, in many cases, couldn’t afford to, or wouldn’t be interested in paying to have their wines reviewed.

My content would become dull, and I’d lose the trust and enthusiasm of my readers. I might make some money in the short term, but in the long term I would suffer.

This has happened with many of the major wine media outlets already: they haven’t had a pay to play policy, but their content has become skewed by commercial considerations or the desire to appeal to a broad segment of the market.

Major wine tastings for consumers, such as those put on in the UK by Decanter, the Wine Gang, or the Three Wine Men have also struggled with this issue. They charge quite a bit for producers to exhibit at their shows. Many interesting producers either can’t fund this sort of marketing exercise, or have no need to (they sell out quickly because their wines are so good), so the consumer gets exposed to a subset of wines, many of which are excellent, but some of which are dull. These events make good money, but what they offer differs from what the organizers would choose to show if quality were the only selection criterion.

I worry that we wine writers are already parasitical enough on wine producers without asking for extra cash for reviews. They end up spending $$$ hosting us and pouring us samples when we visit. Some writers even solicit samples (asking wineries to send them wine), and others get upset when they aren’t given the red carpet treatment when they visit in the middle of vintage.

Now I understand that it may be appropriate for skilled, experienced tasters with particular expertise to charge for consultancy or benchmarking services. But for someone who rates a lot of wines to ask for a fee to include a winery in their ratings crosses a line. Likewise, it might be appropriate for a group of wineries to chip in to bring a journalist to a region. It is different if the journalist approaches wineries to ask for $$$ to visit them, if the end result is a write-up that doesn’t acknowledge that it was pay-to-play.

Those of us who communicate about wine have to make a living. The balancing act is being able to make this living while still remaining interesting, independent and reliable commentators on the world of wine. Ultimately, the consumer of wine media has to make that judgment.

12 comments to Pay-to-play and wine writer ethics

  • Richard

    I wonder if you have seen the disclosure statement from Chris Kissack?

    http://www.thewinedoctor.com/author/disclosures_2012.shtml

  • Tim

    I visit Ontario annually and am always struck how few interesting wines there are to choose from in the state-run monopoly that sells wine over there. I think that the impact of this subscription model is probably less than we would experience in the UK.

  • Louise Hurren

    Love the “gifts” part of the disclosure: “Gifts received: two free aprons from Les Ateliers des Chefs. A Christmas hamper from Sopexa, sent to all journalists who submitted suggestions for the Cracking Wines from France tasting.”

  • Thanks Richard and Louise. The overall intent is serious, but I hope that doesn’t mean I can’t try and raise a smile once or twice. I’m glad you noticed there were *two* free aprons. Lucky me! Different colours as well!

    I think the recent revelations concerning Natalie Maclean’s practices are really shocking. It’s remarkable that somebody should aggregate other writers work without express permission and then charge for access to it. It beggars belief. And the practice of pay-for-review I also find a very dubious one. I guess if it’s disclosed (although I’m not sure that’s the case here) then it would be above board, but as Jamie has written it would impact greatly the wines which are written about, skewing them towards big brand wines or wines with marketing budgets.

    What’s really disappointing though, is that ultimately I’m not sure there will be any tangible outcome to all this. The vast majority of Natalie Maclean’s readers will at present be unaware of the Palate Press articles, and will remain so. I suspect even if they were aware many would see it as an unwarranted attack based on jealousy; if you think that’s unlikely you only have to see the way erobertparker.com subscribers rally round on the bulletin board in support of Parker whenever there is expressed criticism of him. Some writers/critics seem to have an ardent fan base for whom their leader can do no wrong. Is Natalie this sort of person? I don’t know her or read her and so I don’t have the answer, but it seems very plausible.

    As for the use of other writers’ work, it seems likely this will continue, unless there is a threat of legal action. And such proceedings are going to incur cost, and are thus not to be undertaken lightly.

  • I dont find this argument to be of a big worry:
    “I worry that we wine writers are already parasitical enough on wine producers without asking for extra cash for reviews. They end up spending $$$ hosting us and pouring us samples when we visit.”

    Whit the cost of producing even the greatest of wines, compared to have a full page advertisement in a magazine, its inexpensive, and a way better method of getting the words out that you (hopefully) make a great wine, to invite some wine writers. The link below stipulates the cost of Petrus to be around €35 per bottle, which is probably not that far off the mark. Dividing this on all the tasters who can share a bottle, this is a very inexpensive way of getting marketing.

    http://vinonostrum.blogspot.se/2009/01/cost-of-winea-taboo-is-broken-and.html

  • Rod Phillips

    That’s a thoughtful piece, Jamie, but there are many reasons (other than fees) that producers/agents consider when deciding on participation in competitions, shows and tastings. To support articles, I occasionally put out a call for wines of a particular style or from a specific country/region. I get what I get, and it’s usually a very good range. But there are always producers who can’t be bothered, who forget, who figure it’s not worth the time/cost to participate, or who don’t want to pay for shipping. (Most wines are sent by courier.) So almost any population of wines — whether in a competition, show or tasting — is bound to be limited by one or more considerations. I don’t charge a fee, but if I did, that would be a consideration, too.

    Fees are charged by competitions, as a matter of course, as well as by wine professionals acting as consultants (rather than reviewers). A few reviewers also charge, and say so on their web sites. The problem with the Natalie Maclean case (the case Palate Press and many other media are discussing), is that the policy was not transparent. Maclean required some (not all) producers to pay for a subscription to her web site before she would review their wines.

    To my mind, what was most troubling emerged from e-mails (quoted by Palate Press) that Maclean sent to some wineries. We read of her pressing them to subscribe to her web site by saying that they would be pleased with the results of her reviews of their wines — this before she had tasted the wines in question. In other words, we have a case of asking for money not simply for reviews, but for GOOD reviews.

    Some producers have said they were asked to pay for a subcription to Maclean’s site to have their wines reviewed, others have said they were not. (That raises other questions.) But no one can know which reviews were preceded by a payment and which were not. Given the implied guarantee of positive reviews, all Maclean’s reviews and scores should probably be regarded as tainted.

    As someone has noted, Maclean is dismissed by wine professionals (that’s certainly true in Canada), but she seems to have a big following among consumers, who love her folksy style. (It’s this disconnect that led me once to describe her as ‘the Sarah Palin of wine’.) As professionals, we can ignore her practices as having no direct impact on us and our own activities. But I think we ought to be concerned that large numbers of cosumers and wine-lovers around the world might be getting (and paying for) information that derives from practices that are highly questionable.

  • Life is a conflict of interest.
    The issue for me is the concealment of the business practice. If you have to hide what you are doing, it implies you are doing something wrong if you feel the need to conceal the behavior.

    All the best,

    Nannette Eaton

  • There is Maclean’s the Canadian national news magazine and website, which is very good and then there is Natalie Maclean the wine diva ;) they are unrelated………….

    With proper attribution what she is doing with others work is sketchy but legal in Canada as of earlier this year, new laws on copyright use (as pointed out in detail in the Palate Press comment thread). She holds little sway outside of Ontario. In BC the monopoly has 3 MW and other better contributors to thier magazine no need for her work, well others work she displays.

    The pay to play is just silly or stupid.

  • Bob Parsons

    Lee writes “She holds little sway outside of Ontario”. Maybe true but she shows up on national TV from time to time so there is plenty of exposure there.
    I am quite shocked on what I have read on various forums over here, she is a real piece of work.

  • ravi singh

    There have been instances in some other parts of the world where wine trade associations have flown so called journalists & wine writers to wineries who have literally given them scripts to publish. This comes in handy for wineries before they exhibit in wine shows there.

    The other classic take is where a small twist in a questionable tasting note helps to favor a more advertised
    wine in a publication.

    What they forget is most people from the trade can read between the lines!!

  • Donn Rutkoff

    You mentioned the hardships being faced by some of the major media. I am a brute maybe if I point out that magazines sell advertising. Retail stores sell wine. Whose advice do you trust more? And really, how many wine drinkers can afford Piaget watches and new Lexus all the time?

  • Caliwineduchess

    JG thank you for writing this! Consumers can tell other consumers about this- isn’t that what social media is all about? Wineharlotsi totally agree the issue is transparency. Without it there cannot be trust. Or if you don’t tell someone the whole truth, like in this case, then you lose trust when it comes out. Your reputation as being honest is your only true currency as a writer, once you sell out, you become morally bankrupt to your followers

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