The debate on wine writer ethics

Fiona Beckett, in The Guardian, is the latest wine writer to opine on winewriter ethics.

I like Fiona – but find this piece a little annoying. There’s the totally unnecessary line about ‘and bloggers’, which Ryan Opaz correctly picks up on in the comments. And it also follows the general tone of ‘some people do this [no names], but I don’t.’ Any admission of guilt is of the sort where you think that she’s really not guilty of anything at all.

She talks about writing for supermarket magazines. I know two young talented writers who have recently started doing this. And I don’t think they’ll be biased to the offerings of these supermarkets when they write elsewhere. Probably the opposite. Young wine writers need to start somewhere, and newspaper columns are hard to come by.

Beckett’s piece doesn’t focus on the fact that they two key aspects in this discussion are trust and disclosure. You trust a writer to be independent despite friendships with producers, press trips, even hospitality, if you trust that writer in the first place. The proof is in the results – what they write. And disclosure maintains that relationship.

In these sorts of debates, it’s best not to wave accusations in a general direction. Be specific if you refer to a behaviour you consider inappropriate. I find the UK wine writers an amazingly honest bunch on the whole. I’ve gone public on people who I think are muddying the water for others by their behaviour.

I don’t see the need for a code of conduct such as that of Robert Parker and his team. This is admirable, but it’s so strict that some of his team members can’t stick to it all the time, and they’re as honest as the day is long. I certainly couldn’t stick to it.

Generally speaking, the system is self correcting. Anyone high enough up in the pecking order to merit lavish hospitality, or with the clout to command back-handers, generally has too much to lose from writing a skewed or dishonest piece, or taking the cash. It will be obvious to all. People who have sailed too close to the wind have eventually lost their reputations. And anyone low on the pecking order may have less to lose but simply won’t merit bribes or favours.

21 comments to The debate on wine writer ethics

  • Deadhorse beaten again…I fear that the only people who care about this debate are the wine writers wondering if they are stepping to close to “the line”.

    Write, write well, write honestly and the market will tell you if you did it right.

  • Regarding something I read about in this debate, with regard to the travel, trips etc that writers are invited to attend: The difference with wine, is that a lot of the time the consumer is not only interested in the wine itself. Wine is very much a product that is a result of it’s environment. (well decent wines in any case). That environment includes the people and place, as well as elements that surround the product itself – possible tourism offering, beauty of the area, vineyards etc.
    If you are writing about anything aside from purely what is in the glass when you pour it, visits are a big part of the industry.
    When someone reviews a restaurant, they don’t have the food sent to their house…

  • Jamie –

    You write, “The proof is in the results – what they write.”

    No it’s not, and I’m surprised this is something hard for writers to grasp. Sure, if a writer gets wined and dined and goes on to trash that producer or wine region, well, we can assume that writer can’t be influenced. But what if a writer genuinely appreciates X wine or X region, goes on a junket, then writes something positive? We’ll never know exactly what would have been written without the freebies, and despite what you’d like to believe, the writer won’t ever know, either. It’s about being human. We’re not perfect rocks, immovable because we say so.

    When Antonio Galloni profits from dinners featuring winemakers he must cover, do I think he’s going to give them higher scores in the future? I don’t know. I don’t think so. But nothing could ever clarify the matter, so it’s about trust. There is no “proof,” as you put it.

    You also write about Parker’s team, “they’re as honest as the day is long.” I’d like to think so, too. But you’re doing a strange amount of projecting and assuming here.

    Bottom line is that I agree with Ryan. The free market of readership does a fine job in discerning what’s working and what’s not. No need to talk about non-existent “proof”, or to get defensive.

  • I think wine writers should disclose not only financial relationships but also whether wines were tasted blind or not — and not just with respect to brand, but also with respect to whether the wine’s price or category was known. This is probably a more significant source of bias than even financial relationships. And unfortunately, I don’t believe that the size of a wine writer’s following or writing ability is necessarily a good indicator of the placebo impact of price information on his or her sensory experience.

  • Richard

    I was baffled by this:

    “Generally speaking, the system is self correcting. Anyone high enough up in the pecking order to merit lavish hospitality, or with the clout to command back-handers, generally has too much to lose from writing a skewed or dishonest piece, or taking the cash. It will be obvious to all…”

    How will it be obvious to me, a mere consumer, if the wine critic on The Sunday X or The Daily Y over-praises (or even favourably mentions) a wine as a thank-you for some hospitality? Remember that these critics don’t think that disclosure applies to them.

  • “trust and disclosure”
    I agree. Disclosure should be an absolute minimum and I’m surprised to see how much resistance there is to actually adding a footnote on who paid for your (or anyone’s) flight tickets.
    The trust bit is trickier. I think many writers don’t really think about all those issues of conflict of interest etc. Often they’ll follow a writer because he write for an authoritative magazine, or a blog because it’s popular. Then there are readers who will never be satisfied that a writer has no bias. I think it’s a delicate balance, and I agree with you Jamie it’s best to just do your best.

  • Stan Brody

    I believe that by encouraging these self proclaimed “experts”, the industry shot itself in the foot… it is and has been a lame method marketing that has now come back to bite the wineries in the ass…
    But then again, being locked into the three tier system has only served to cause further harm… forced prices even higher… and reduced sales at restaurants and further cutting margins…

  • I am quite prepared to believe that most wine writers are not corrupt but the problem is, as mentioned by Evan, they are human. If hospitality of any type is accepted the writer is naturally inclined to think positively towards the donor if a good time was had. I simply do not believe wine writers belong to a special group of people who are immune to that sort of thing.

    Another issue is that we usually only hear about good experiences and good wines. Regardless of the reasons for this, the net effect is that if a producer/retailer wants a good press, all they have to do is use a scatter gun approach. Some writers will like the stuff and say so, those that don’t keep quiet.

    Finally, I’d just like to point out that one does not need a private income to a totally disinterested wine writer. All you need is an income that is independent of the wine trade. What some might call a proper job ;) Of course it has its problems too, but apart from independence it also perhaps means you are closer to your readers.

  • Jay

    I have a question for all of you and would like your opinions. Here is the scenario. A wine writer owns 50% of a winery, got himself fired for whatever reason, but is still an owner and still on the board of directors. He refuses to write anything at all about his own winery, yet continually writes about the competition in positive ways. He verbally says despicable and horrible untrue things about the winery that he owns and it’s wines. What is your opinion of this ?

  • Were a politician to champion a policy whilst being entertained by a lobby group supporting that policy would we be trusting, and if not should we ? Would we be trusting that they couldn’t be swayed by such hospitality. As soon as hospitality is accepted then the we are all to some degree corrupted. The stakes aren’t terribly high in wine writing so we are more forgiving.

  • My “credo” (such as it is): Be transparent in all things, and let your readers decide for themselves whether or not they think you’re a shill. After all, wine blog readers are smart people ;-).

  • Patrick

    Jamie, you are too credulous: Wine writers are an “amazingly honest bunch.” And Parker’s team is “as honest as the day is long”. “the system is self correcting.” Whew. I need a shower after reading you today.

  • AmericanWineGuy

    The real problem is that flavor preferences are inextricably tied up with psychology. So the wines that a particular writer pushes are heavily influenced (negatively or positively) by the interactions with wine companies and their publicists.
    This isn’t limited to wine writers, either. Studies have shown that doctors (who have much more training than the typical wine writer) can be easily manipulated in their drug prescribing practices with gifts of coffee mugs and other useless junk.
    Other studies have shown that even wine experts can be influenced by their expectations going into a tasting. The only semi-accurate way to taste wine is alone, one at a time, under controlled temperature, in a neutrally colored room, with wines passed through a turntable door to prevent the evaluator from seeing the bottle or the face and body language of the person pouring.
    To pretend that there is anything objective about wine writing as it is practiced today is wishful thinking on the part of the writer. So while it may help our self-esteem to think that we are ethical, when evaluating what we’re drinking, ethics are the least of our problems.

  • Richard Morris

    Jay if he owns 50% and is still on the board how can he get ‘fired’? 49% or, better 24% would make your scenario more realistic, under English Company Law, at least.

  • Jamie

    I am stunned by what is written here.

    Transparency is key. Nothing more and nothing less. You could have the greatest code of ethics, but if it is not followed, who gives a crap?

    The code on the website of the Wine Advocate is extremely strict, and completely unnecessary, which is why it is not followed.

    When was the last time you were on a junket with Neal Martin? Did you attend Antonio Galloni’s for profit events this spring, in NY? Does Jay Miller still write about meals he has with producers, at their wineries or even in restaurants (just occurred in Spain)? Or the helicopter ride he took recently in Spain?

    The code should be thrown out.

    Transparency honesty is key.

    Nothing more, nothing less. If you are lying, how can you call people honest?

  • Bill Klapp

    Jamie, you know that Team Parker is “honest as the day is long” exactly…HOW? There have been rather serious breaches of the Wine Advocate code of ethics (whether one judges it necessary or not, and whether one cares about ethics or not) that are well-documented, and a fair amount of evidence floating around that a lot more rule bending or breaking has occurred there. And your good wishes go all to hell if you consider Jeff Leve, moderator of the Squires board, to be part of Team Parker. The Bordelais own him, and he pimps Bordeaux like a carnival barker. Or perhaps “snake oil salesman” is a better simile. He has sent e-mails all over the place begging retailers, negoce and others to use his scores and tasting notes in their sales materials, and when he is called on the carpet for it, he does a disingenuous “I am not a critic” schtick. He does this with Parker’s blessing and encouragement, because his tasting notes are but poor-man’s Parker ripoffs, and Parker loves those who agree with him and flatter him, and has no use for those who don’t. Does that pass your smell test? Is it really enough to rely upon self-policing and self-correction when you are talking about a single man whose scores have set Bordeaux prices for decades, and in so doing, has fueled absurd price inflation that has brought us to the brink of the worst Bordeaux bubble in history?

  • J ack B.

    Jaime, you have stated that Robert Parker and his team are “honest as the day is long”. While I would certainly agree that the critics of WA have committed no High Crimes and Misdemeaners that would be worthy of “Impeaching” their impartiality, the Ethics of WA that you have highlighted by hyperlink reveals blatant factual statements no longer followed by Mr. Parker. They should be removed.
    First, RMP states ” I purchase more than 60% of the wines I taste”. Although it is clear that Mr. Parker purchases a considerable quantity of high end wines for his own cellar,(see Hedonist Gazette articles) he ain’t buying 60% of the wine he tastes for his reviews in WA..
    The WA ethics also states that some wines will be tasted blind. That is no longer true and Parker has admitted as much. Parker shows up at the Chateaux or at a chosen site and tastes whatever he has been provided or requested. Blind???? I think not. Many times personell of the winery or even a negociant like Jeffrey Davies is present during his tasting. Wines are no longer tasted blind by him. ( As Hanna Agostini and Marie-Françoise Guichard point out in their book Robert Parker, Anatomy of a Myth, what Parker failed to mention was that he tasted wines with Davies, not by himself—yet Parker has repeatedly stated that an impartial wine critic should taste wines alone.)
    As Posner stated above, the WA Code of Ethics is no longer transparent and followed by Mr. Parker. You put excessive trust in him.

  • Ian S

    Let’s say (for the sake of argument) that wine writers aren’t influenced by an all-expenses paid trip to a region or producer.

    So with that leap of faith, we now have a complete lack of bias?

    Well no. A writer only has a limited number of wines they’ll write about. They’ll write about the place they visited because it’s more interesting than writing about ‘just another wine’. There are pretty pictures and smiling/serious looking winemakers and even the odd characterful Mutt, which help set the context of the wine tasting notes that accompany it.

    So the winemakers who didn’t pay for the trip miss out on the coverage, whilst the ones with bigger marketing budgets get the column inches.

    Coupled with the typically positive outlook of wine writers, you can see why these trips get funded.

    Yes I agree with the need for disclosure that Wojciech called for. How easy to have a ‘disclosure’ tag at the end of a column, that the interested reader could click on to see the extent of the hospitality. The article isn’t compromised by this – or at least shouldn’t be.

    I’d also say that wine writers need to be careful that it doesn’t seem like an endless set of all-expenses paid trips. I do start to doubt the credibility of those writers who seem to be wined and dined regularly, be that in a wine region, at a sporting event or closer to home. Keeping the self-funded (let’s treat samples and tasting events as virtually self-funded) articles in a clear majority over the funded occasions would be a wise move.

    regards

    Ian

  • British Food Guy

    You nailed it American Wine Guy! In fact I find that the best way to eat is to stand in a neutrally coloured room (sitting is too sybaritic and unnecessarily relaxing) and have each component of the dish passed separately to me from a turntable door which stops me seeing the server (and coincidentally saves me a fortune in tips). Luckily a friend of mine- you won’t know her, but she is hugely successful in Far East investment, lingerie in particular- owns a converted prison, now a hotel, which is ideal for such an arrangement. I’m surprised that Bob Parker doesn’t insist on such a set-up.

  • Alex

    I’m sorry AmericanWineGuy those comments about tasting wines in perfectly neutral surroundings etc are completely irrelevant when it comes to wine writing in consumer/national publications when your average readers will consider wine as enjoyment as opposed to a scientific experiment…

    Yes, perhaps days out to Wimbledon, football and rugby matches are somewhat detached to the product/brand in question (and many writers/bloggers do actually cite this hospitality) but when it comes to trips and wine based dinners, these generally do actually put wine into context of how it is actually consumed and enjoyed by the wine-column reading public. Therefore these can be transposed into the writers respective articles (when it is applicable/relevant).

  • Christopher

    Perhaps a budding writer should taste a variety of notable wines and then proffer someone else’s tasting notes as their own? I gather it’s a tried and trusted technique in leftist journalism…

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