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.