Wine writers ripping off wineries, a disturbing trend

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Wine writers ripping off wineries, a disturbing trend

A rant. I don’t rant often, but I’m driven to do it today.

As a wine writer, I’m alarmed by the recent trend for other wine writers to behave parasitically by charging wineries to reproduce reviews.

I’m not going to name names, but it’s morally questionable, and I think wineries shouldn’t put up with it.

If I am hosted by a winery, who take the time to show me around, and go to the expense of opening bottles for me, or send me samples, it’s only right that they should freely be able to quote my reviews or comments and use these to help sell their wines.

For a writer to accept press trips or to be received by a winery, or to taste samples, or to attend a tasting where a producer has spent money on flights/wines/table fees, and then to turn round and charge the winery a professional fee if they want to use your review in promoting their wine is quite wrong, in my opinion.

Making a living from making wine is tough enough without the parasitical drain from media organizations who are either greedy, or who can’t make enough money from their core activity. It’s bad enough to see all these events where producers are being charged £££ for a table, and then the punters are also being charged to attend, but this pay-to-quote nonsense is just the worst.

The best writers don’t get involved with this sort of practice.

28 Comments on Wine writers ripping off wineries, a disturbing trend
wine journalist and flavour obsessive

28 thoughts on “Wine writers ripping off wineries, a disturbing trend

  1. Jamie

    I entirely agree. Of one my fellow bloggers from Les 5 du Vin did ask me about someone who had contacted a winery in Croatia asking whether I knew of them. I didn’t but this was the crux of the message:

    ‘This man is asking for 1200 pounds per day to taste their wines and then write about them. “Information” which he will then “diffuse”‘

    For the moment I cannot name this ‘someone’ in this case. However, will proper supporting evidence I will be happy to name names.

    Best wishes

    Jim

  2. Perhaps I’m being unusually dense this afternoon. But I’m not quite seeing the source of moral outrage here. Writers own their work (unless they assign copyright to someone else)and no one has a right to use their words unless that use falls under “fair use”. Why are wine writers different? Since wineries are profiting from the writer’s words, and the use is not for purposes of education or commentary but clearly commercial in nature I don’t see how fair use applies. So why is a writer “ripping off” the winery in asking to be compensated?

    If Microsoft were to copy a paragraph from one of my books to be used in an advertisement for a product, I would certainly expect to be compensated. What is the difference when the subject is wine?

    Granted this is not standard practice–it seems unusual to ask a winery to pay for using an author’s words and I’ve never even thought about doing it. Perhaps for a variety of reasons it would not be good business practice. But I fail to see what is morally suspect about it.

    And granted it’s hard enough to make money making wine without that added expense. But it is even more difficult to make money writing about wine.

  3. Pay to use (and promote the source might I add) the very words that the writer makes his money on? Seems backwards. It’s a two way street but wine will always be in the market place regardless of a review, but a wine writer without wine, well they don’t really have a job!

  4. Dwight, Dwight, Dwight,

    The reprehensibility is in the fact that unless you are being paid for your comment, in which case you are providing advertising services or cash for comment/cashola, then a writer of your integrity would never seek to be paid for what would be an objective piece. What if the winery sought to use a less than favourable comment of yours, would you seek payment for that even though they would likely not benefit from it? Different if you are being commissioned by a party for your services where there is an agreement in place before you write said piece, but where there is no agreement in place? It you want compensation, look to your publisher not the winery. Just be thankful that a further party, ie, the winery, is promoting your name as an ‘expert’ in the field. I’m sure you’ll benefit just as much from the republication. There’s a high horse and I suggest you get off it.

    Can I republish your response for free?

  5. The winery either pays you direct or pays you by providing air fair, accommodation, meals, samples. What’s the difference?

    And as you have raised a question about ‘morally questionable’ practices where do you stand on the non-declaration of such benefits in any subsequent writings?

  6. This goes on a lot in Italy Jamie, it’s concerning. However the top 5 wine mags like Decanter etc. Trade advertising space for their paid for opinions so the idea is not new. I prefer to pay for my own accomodation, flights etc that way I’m free to actually be unbiased. Which is after all why anybody would seek or read your opinion in the first place. D

  7. I think wine writers have more responsibility than your normal writer,as obviously a good report,or the reverse,can make a significant difference to sales.
    One writer I really respect is Neal Martin,who I think sets the standard.
    I recall on a visit to the Cape a couple of years ago,that I invited Neal to dinner with Chris and Andrea Mullineux. At the time of course,I owned a significant stake in Mullineux Family Wines,and Neal said he would love to attend,but insisted on paying his share of the bill!!
    Not many other wine writers, in my experience, go that far,but I do agree that if writers have been entertained royally,,paid a fee whatever,then this should be disclosed.
    I cannot believe that most write entirely unbiased reports,if they are in receipt of such largesse.

  8. I’m not a wine writer, but I did just author a book. Previously I’ve authored articles and other e-books. I think this all depends on how you feel about your industry, or in my case as a lawyer, my profession. I wrote an ebook on how to hire a lawyer. Lawyers asked me if they could use it on their websites, and even put it in their lobby. I believe the reason is so they can get clients, and I’m fine with that. I want lawyers to do well, and if something I said helps them, great.

    Recently I signed a copy of my book to someone who thought what I said in my signature to them belonged as a testimonial in his new book, so he asked. I was happy to oblige.

    If I say something good about you and you want to use it to further your business, great. It’ll come back to me somehow.

    I do though think people should ask. Not asking is a no-no.

  9. Jamie, you are absolutely correct. I haven’t heard of that here in the States, but I would hope no winery would allow itself to be victimized by such behavior.

  10. Jancis Robinson has done this to The Wine Society for her reviews of very good burgundies. I asked TWS for a copy of JR’s reviews & was told they had to pay for them. Happened a few years ago.
    JR is UK’s most respected wine critic.

  11. Dwight. There is a difference between charging a winery or retail outlet for words already published and the practice that Jamie refers to of demanding money to taste and wine about a producer’s wines.In fact few wine writers chrage for their words to be reproduced. Whether they should is another question.

  12. Jim,

    “I’m alarmed by the recent trend for other wine writers to behave parasitically by charging wineries to reproduce reviews.”

    By “reproduce reviews” I assumed the OP was referring to reviews already published, not reviews to be produced.

    If a writer wants to demand a fee ahead of time for tasting wines and writing about them I don’t see a moral problem as long as the fee is disclosed to readers; the winery can refuse if the price is too high can’t they? Whether this is a good practice or not is another question.

    Only if a writer accepts samples or a junket on the condition they write about the wine and then after the fact insists on payment would there be a moral issue–that would be both rude and deceptive.

  13. @ Millient Terry

    In the case of JR this might be influenced by the fact that JR’s reviews are predominantly on the subscriber-only section of her website, i.e. everyone is expected to pay to access those reviews.

    On the rare occasions where I’ve received special treatment (i.e. not a big trade tasting) I mention it in my piece.

  14. Jane,
    I don’t understand your reference to payola. If wineries paid wine writers to produce positive reviews that were passed off as objective and independent then that would be analogous to payola. I took the original post to be about republishing reviews that were created independently.

    Andy,

    You write”…a writer of your integrity would never seek to be paid for what would be an objective piece.”

    Of course they would. If I wrote an objective, independent history of Microsoft that praised them for their innovation, and Microsoft wanted to use my quote in their advertising materials, then most authors would demand payment. Microsoft has no right to use my words to promote their product.

    The original post was not about passing off a “paid for” review as objective. That would obviously be deceptive. The OP was about a writer accepting samples and then asking for payment when the winery uses her words in advertising copy. To demand such payment is not accepted practice and it may not be a good business practice since writers benefit from the publicity but it would not be morally wrong. I don’t see why a winery has a right to use an authors’ words in their advertising.

  15. Everyone is ethically dubious who writes about wine. There really aren’t journalists in the wine biz. Maybe Azimov. But if you are taking hospitality from a subject, impartiality is clearly in question. In your post you seem to acknowledge that the subject is a client and is entitled to use your writing and photographs for their commercial purpose, as they allowed you to taste their wines, and perhaps fed you and gave you accommodations. And if you don’t view them as a client, it does appear that you feel you are beholding to them for their hospitality. 



    I guess the question is, how much are are beholding to them? And what is fair use? Would you feel differently if it was a published book, and they took a whole chapter for promotional purposes? A photographer I know struggles with this — the wineries want to use his images for free, but that’s how he makes his revenue. And if the images are used other places, it reduces the monetary value of the image to zero.

    

In the USA, some wineries and regions do hire writers to create “sponsored posts” so what you are describing is instead of a winery approaching a writer this is a writer or publisher pitching a winery. I’m not sure it passes the “gut check” (my visceral response to things.)

In the USA, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) requires “bloggers” to disclose all material relations. I’ve always disclosed my sources, even before it was mandated, because I believe in transparency, and letting the audience decide how to weigh how impartial I am. Also, readers are smart, they can smell an “advertorial” a mile away — if you deceive them, you lose trust.

    All the best,

    Nannette Eaton

  16. This is quite common in Australia. Multiple wine writers and publications require wineries seeking to publish their reviews to pay to do so. This can be through requiring a re-publishing winery to have a paid membership of their website or can be a more explicit pay-to-use charging arrangement.

    So long as this is transparent, I’m not sure I have too much of a problem with it, as the winery is basically purchasing the right to advertise the positive judgement of the independent critic as applied to their wine or wines. There is a trade here. So long as the rate to republish is sensible, and does not present a barrier to small players that only larger companies can get past, it can be workable.

    Where I think this becomes less tenable is that the original material for that judgement is supplied to the critic for free. There is something of double-dipping in expecting free samples to write about, then charging the donors for the privilege. Restaurant criticism, for example, wouldn’t work on the basis of comped meals and then charging the restaurant to use the review, would it?

  17. Dwight, a reviewer who charges wineries to pay for reproducing reviews is introducing a conflict of interest that said reviewer may or may not disclose to his/her readers. The anticipation of secondary revenues from a winemaker as a result of a positive reviews is quite likely to bias the reviewer. Furthermore, any winemaker who follows a policy of not paying for reproductions is more apt to receive a poorer review than a winery who does. In essence, this practice represents a poorly veiled form of “kick back”. Hence, Jane’s reference to “payola”.

    One solution would be for the reviewer to fully disclose to his/her readers such practice. But in my opinion, it would be better to stay away entirely.

  18. All good points… we live in a pay to play world. There is nothing wrong with charging for advertorial (versus editorial) as long as its fully disclosed, IMO.

    On an even more basic level, I take issue with wine writers that agree to accept samples, accommodations or a meal and go entirely missing after that. It’s an integrity issue that will likely not go away, and many wineries and publicists are finally becoming the wiser. We don’t mind if they don’t write, and we don’t question the reasons, simply provide us with a status as a professional courtesy.

  19. Thankfully I can’t think of an example where this has happened to me. In fact whenever I have asked Jancis Robinson for permission she has always given it for free.

    Obviously pay-to-taste exists in the form of competitions and annual guides but in that case producers are paying for impartiality and fairness (I hope).

    The problem with pay-to-republish is that there is a clear incentive for the writer to dress up the review of clients who are willing to pay.

    Let’s not confuse, as I think Dwight is doing, an original and impartial work of investigation or research with a set of tasting notes and scores made by a critic who was being provided those tasting opportunities for free, or perhaps with added incentives such as luxury accommodation, side trips, access to very exclusive wines etc.

    Personally I see this phenomenon as an indication that a) such wine critics believe they are overly important to the producer and b) the consumer audience of the review is not willing to pay enough.

    If it takes on it will become a descending spiral where producers pay for better and better reviews and those reviews will be mainly viewed on the websites and in the publicity of the producers and their merchants.

  20. Jonathan and Gordon,

    As I repeatedly noted, this is probably not good business practice for the reasons you note, although those incentives for producing “positive” reviews already exist. What I was questioning is in what sense this is a “rip-off” given that authors own the rights to their work. That ownership right exists whether the opportunity for tasting was provided for free or not.

  21. A comment on a related point brought up in previous comments: there’s nothing unusual about reviewers to receive the products they review for free–do you imagine the New York Review of Books purchases every book reviewed in its pages? Sending out samples to the media is common practice in most industries, so I see no reason why a professional wine reviewer should feel the need to disclose that they didn’t pay for the bottle they review.

  22. Dwight: Agreed, writers own the right to their work – and wineries are free to either pay for reproductions or walk away. However (and I may have presented my point rather subtly), I believe that charging a winery for reproducing a review presents a greater risk of ripping off the reader than the winery – which is a concern that appears to escape many.

    Extracting a secondary revenue stream from wineries places the writer between two masters; thereby biasing a writer toward producing more favourable reviews of those labels which are more apt to pay for reproductions. This is OK so long as the writer openly and obviously discloses to the reader the conflict of interest that he/she has chosen to assume in order to increase income. While to date I have not come across such a disclosure; I cannot comment on whether such conflict is properly disclosed in all circumstances.

  23. Sean, if you think reviewing wine is like reviewing books (rather than, say, restaurants), is it OK for book reviewers to charge authors and publishers for the use of their reviews?

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