INTEGRITY AND THE WINE CRITIC. A SLIPPERY SLOPE?

I put this in question form simply because there are a variety of perspectives on what is ethics for a wine critic or writer. For instance, most critics and wine writers accept wine samples from PR companies, distributors or wineries. This is common place, and not considered crossing the line. Others (critics or writers) feel no compunction accepting free accommodations or a meal from a distributor or winery. Some wineries, importers or PR companies will even go as far as sending a writer or critic on a trip abroad to visit the wineries themselves, footing most of the bill.

Integrity is defined as steadfast adherence to a strict moral or ethical code. Herein lies the difficulty in judging what constitutes integrity for a wine critic. There is really no strict moral or ethical code.Just about anyone these days can jump on the internet, start blogging about wine, and attract an audience. It isn’t an easy road to success, but it has happened for a number of wine bloggers. Once a wine critic has the attention of the public, they soon gain the attention of PR (Public Relations) companies that handle media for wineries or the wineries themselves. Depending on the extent of the influence of the blogger, wineries and PR companies will start offering samples for review or trips to wineries so the critic can have a better grasp of what they are all about and write about them.

However, is it unethical for a wine critic to accept such gratuities if they write-up honest reviews about the wines positive or negative? Some feel very strongly on this matter. There is a camp that feels that accepting anything from a winery or PR company forms accepting a bribe. When Robert Parker Jr. started his wine periodical The Wine Advocate he did not and still does not put any advertising in the journal. He feels that it would taint the integrity of his reviews. However, he does except samples. Yet, the other big boys of wine periodicals The Wine Spectator and The Wine Enthusiast except samples and freely put ads of all kinds, even for wineries, in their magazines.

Does this make Robert Parker Jr. more ethical than the Spectator or the Enthusiast? Since there are no hard and fast rules on what a wine critic is or is not to do on these matters, it leaves it open for interpretation. I watched with much amusement, a huge debate on Twitter between about four wine critics on this very subject. There were lines drawn and sharp contrasts in how each one felt about accepting or not accepting anything from a sales rep or a winery. The debate was generated, because there really is no strict ethical code. There are no rules to go by.

One may argue that ethics are very personal. As an example, some may feel it is unethical to use every loophole available to save from paying taxes. Others have no problem with this even if it involves some gray areas. This is just one of many examples that can be cited in which the definition of ethical is interpreted differently by different people. Again, this is why it is a slippery slope for a wine critic. Where should each critic draw the line so that their reviews are not tainted.

Gary Vaynerchuk who at one time had an internet wine review program called WineLibraryTV reviewed a lot of wines that he sold at his store (Wine Library) where he shot most of the episodes. Many times during an episode, he would trash a wine that his store carried. This gave a lot of ethical weight to his reviews. Some accused him of using the show to sell wines at his store, but I think that avid viewers held a different opinion and trusted his reviews. This is where the critic has to feel comfortable with themselves. Are their reviews forthright and honest. Or, do they find themselves hedging in favor of a wine because they are enjoying the fringe benefits provided by the winery or PR company.

Gary made an interesting observation on one of his shows. He said that it was hard to trash a wine that was produced by someone who he liked. I can relate to that. However this never stopped Gary from giving his honest appraisal of a wine. I had a conversation recently with a wine critic that I have a lot of respect for. After our discussion it became obvious that there are two things that should define a critics ethical code. Brutal honesty and transparency. If a critic holds to these standards, then they can keep a firm foothold on the slippery slope of wine criticism.

Luckily for all of us, the information highway is huge and we have a lot of sources to choose from. It’s really not hard to find a good critic since most are honest and transparent. I think I can speak for most critics when I say we have a passion for wine and want to help our readers find a good bottle for the money. There is one trend that does bother me with a lot of the larger publications. They leave out any reviews that are negative. The excuse that I have heard is that there are too many wines being reviewed, and not enough space to put all the reviews in print. They also say that they feel readers are not interested in the wines with a poor review. Well, I beg to differ. I never enjoy posting a bad review of a wine, but I find comfort in the fact that I may have saved a consumer some money by helping them avoid a purchase they may regret. But, there is another side of this issue that comes into play.

All critics have a palate preference. I lean toward wines with minerality and just an edge of rusticity. Robert Parker Jr. is famous for liking big, fruit forward wines with a lot of oak influence. Steve Heimoff comes right out and says he doesn’t like zinfandel (Really?). James Laube of the Wine Spectator has a love affair with Napa Valley wines with that New World edge to them. By including negative reviews in their columns, they may be helping their readers find wines they like. For instance, if Parker trashes a wine, I may actually like it. He hates any vegetal elements in a wine. I find them intriguing, adding character. Steve Heimoff may trash a wine because it tastes like a zin. I may be in the mood for a zin-like wine and so I may give it a try. I think you get the point. Negative reviews by some critics could be a positive review for the reader. I know that sounds a little twisted, but it’s true. And the obvious is true also…It just may be a poorly made wine that you should avoid buying.

The slippery slope of wine criticism was brought to the fore not too long ago with the one time Wine Advocate critic Jay Miller. He no longer works for the Advocate (I believe he was asked to leave), but there were many well founded accusations that tainted his wine reviews. The sad thing is that most of the people who paid attention to what was going on were folks in the wine business, not the consumer. Let me tell you, it could happen to any critic if they allow themselves to get bigger then the wine world that they are making a living from. All critics must keep this mantra in their mind… I AM HERE FOR THE CONSUMER, NOT MYSELF… Plain and simple.

All said and done, there really is an ethical code that we as wine critics can strictly adhere to and if we do, we will avoid slipping down the slope of corruption.
#1) Be brutally honest in your review of a wine… Even if it means hurting some feelings.
#2) Be transparent. Let readers know who you are, and what you are getting, whether it is free samples or a trip from a winery or PR
company. If you are honest about these things, no doubt you will be honest across the board.
#3) The most important ethical code of all (in my opinion of course)… A critic is there for the consumer.

Yes, keeping our integrity as wine critics may be a slippery slope, but if we stick to a few simple principles we can be a trusted source of wine information for our readers. Cheers! Stan The Wine Man

About Stan The Wine Man

I am a blue collar wine guy who has been in the biz for over twenty years. I work at a store in a tourist destination stop. I work hard at finding the best wine for the money. I love the challenge of learning my customer's palate so I can find the best wine for them, whether it is Petrus or white zinfandel. Cheers!
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2 Responses to INTEGRITY AND THE WINE CRITIC. A SLIPPERY SLOPE?

  1. Stan The Wine Man says:

    Bill,
    Thank you so much for reading and appreciating the article. It was a tough one for me to put together. I am with you on the problem with cheer-leading wine critics. Constructive criticism has it’s place if the aim is to help the consumer. Thanks again. Cheers! Stan

  2. Bill Eyer says:

    Stan,

    You make some great points in this timely article, nicely done.

    Reading the comments of Mr. Andrew Jefford who wrote; “Writers about wine should, at least on occasion, be troublesome, irritating and critical.” in a Q & A recently, I think he summed up the role and responsibility of the wine-writer.

    He went on to say; “Flattery, by contrast, gets us all nowhere; it’s meaningless for the flattered, and demeans the flatterers. If you have a mind, you should speak it.”

    But his comments run counter to most of the blogs I see today and indeed even many of the publications. It’s sad to see; but IMHO wine-cheer-leading has become the accepted form of so-called wine writing today, and PR firms seem to encourage this type of behavior, a troubling trend indeed.

    Cheers,

    Bill

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