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Free Wine

A reader dropped me an email that guarantees I’m not going to get any paying work done this afternoon:

I read on another wine blog (sorry, monogamy’s not my thing) called Winethropology (not sure why it’s called that) today this piece about how you shouldn’t trust wine writers who accept samples. I was thinking that you accept samples (I’m guessing a lot of you bloggers have to support your habit somehow). You don’t really score wines, but do I need to adjust downward your reviews like this chap says?

Here’s the Winethropology thing, which not only dealt with the potential corruption by gift but also, more interestingly, the detachment from market reality that free wine causes in writers:

For shits and giggles, a non-scientific experiment was conducted at a recent trade event which included many wine writers/reviewers. We asked two very similar, yet different questions of attendees. First one was “Which of these wines do you like?”…The second question was “Which of these wines would you spend your own money on?”

Wow. That was like farting in church. Impolite. (Actually, it was a lot of fun. If you think farting in church is fun, that is.) The response was often an awkward silence and, in some cases, dirty looks. This confirms a detachment not only from the concepts of worth and value, but also from the consumer’s perspective.

So we have opened not just a bottle, but a can of worms.

I don’t think the the most corrupting force in wine writing is free wine samples any more than I think Hollywood coverage is tainted by free movie tickets. There’s also nothing wrong with attending industry tastings where many wines are tasted without charge. Accepting more wine than is necessary to write a review — say, a couple of cases — is clearly wrong. Accepting merchandise or travel or anything more than the bare minimum of what it takes to write the review is wrong, too.

The more insidious sort of corruption involves access to a glamorous lifestyle that not many writers could afford on their own. The desire to not be excommunicated from a glamorous subculture is why journalism in both Hollywood and Washington is so uninformative, and wine writing is no different. Being able to get winemakers and winery owners on the phone for interviews, being invited to the events, having wine celebrities recognize you and greet you warmly…it’s all part of the job and can be the most corrupting thing in the world.

The counterintuitive thing for readers to keep in mind is that you should distrust insiders. Insiders are held-up in the media as the people most in the know, but as much as they may know, the important thing is how much they tell. Insiders almost never break big stories. The reason for that is clear: the preservation of their insider status becomes the most important thing to them. Cityside reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein dug into Watergate while the insiders — the big-name White House reporters — were polling their high-level sources and reporting that there’s no story there. In the run-up to the Iraq War, the insiders fell for the weapons of mass destruction tale, and when no WMDs were actually found the Pulitzer Prize went to a couple of enterprising nobodies from Knight-Ridder who didn’t attend the White House Corespondents Dinner and couldn’t get within 50 feet of Colin Powell or Condi Rice without being tackled by the Secret Service. But they were the only ones who got the story right.

So it is with wine writing. Consider the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers last Winter in Napa — held at a resort none of us could afford on our own, with Bill Harlan smiling broadly and welcoming us warmly and bottles of well-aged wines for our postprandial enjoyment. In a vivid, real-world illustration of the Biblical admonition, “Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?”, the conversation turned to the issue of corruption by free sample. Oblivious, the professionals (I still don’t know how I got in) tut-tutted the ethics of wine bloggers — as if the acceptance of a $12 bottle is automatically corrupting, but six course dinners and easy peer-to-peer relationships with some of the coolest and most important people in the business is not.

Bruce Schoenfeld, food and wine editor of Travel & Leisure, using his outdoor voice even though we were indoors, said that the central failure of wine writing is that writers ought to be writing for the benefit of their readers. That’s radical because most wine writers see themselves as evangelists for wine, promoters of the industry they cover and contributors to the building of American wine culture.

Schoenfeld brought the room to a stop. He’d put every one of us on the spot, calling into question the very nature of our striving. He was right, and I’d bet you right now everyone in the room ignored him. I bet we’re still evangelists more than we are journalists, and the ink-stained wretches who look down on bloggers who take free bottles spend their dark nights contemplating how nightmarish their lives would be if the were cut off from the private tours, exclusive barrel tastings and access to cool and important people that their insider status enables. Corruption, indeed.

It’s not a free bottle of wine that corrupts wine writing; it’s the log-rolling nature of the whole business. Because of that, Winethropology makes the argument that readers might be better served by dedicated, amateur outsiders.

The guy or girl who does pay for their wine has a perspective that is closest to that of the audience…The bottom line is that anyone reviewing something they did not shell out their hard-earned shekels for is going to be less demanding and more generous.

Emphasis his, and he’s got a point — though to be fair, there is the matter of expertise and perspective, which is easier when you taste 3,000 wines a year than it is when you taste 200. Ultimately, all you can trust is the integrity of the writer, and figuring that out takes time.

I have never taken a free bottle for review. To be honest, I haven’t had that many offered. When I hear of the hundreds of bottles other bloggers receive I’m a little jealous, like the girl at the dance steeled to protect her virginity, but without pursuers. Still, on the few occasions when bottles have been offered I’ve declined. It just hasn’t felt right. I do attend industry tastings and have sipped free wine offered by retailers who think they’ve found something special. I have never promised a review of any kind in exchange for a taste or an interview or a ticket to an event.

There is a kind of freedom in not taking free wine. When I decide to do a review, it’s not because someone sent me samples and I feel obligated. It’s because I find something that interests me.

It’s no big deal, really. Every writer has to strike his or her own balance, and mine doesn’t make me noble or uniquely trustworthy. It doesn’t even guarantee that I won’t take samples in the future. It’s just how I do things now, because I don’t want anyone to get confused about why I do what I’m doing. When I approach someone for information, it’s hard enough to get them to take me seriously without having them think I’m just another wannabe with his hand out.


4 Comments

  • Wally

    Related question. I just returned from an all expense paid trip to France where I was the guest of the importer and many gracious winemakers. I learned a tremendous amount and had what you would call a fabulous time. You know me and know how my ethics have developed over the years. Am I compromised as a retailer? Don’t mean to dis blogging but more people have come to me for advice on wine over the past 25 years than will “visit” most blogs. As for getting used to the “lifestyle”, isn’t that why we married such extraordinary women? To de-gas us when we get too full of ourselves.

  • Benito

    This is a complicated area. Different subjects have different barriers to entry, and to be good at reviewing any subject you have to encounter a lot of it and refine your tastes.

    For example:

    Books – You could be a great bookblogger merely by going to the library, and not spending a dime (as long as you return the books on time). In this modern world, you could be homeless and penniless but, if you were a good writer, you could be an outstanding book reviewer.

    Sports Cars – You’re pretty much going to have to rely on industry loaners and test drive events unless you’re independently wealthy and don’t mind having dozens of leftover cars sitting in your yard.

    Wine falls somewhere in between, and each blogger has to find his or her own comfort level. I refused samples for the first two years of my blog, but most of the wines I wrote about were from retail store tastings. I’ve enjoyed receiving samples of wines that are not available in my state, and in some cases it has persuaded a distributor to make them available here.

    I think a big positive of samples is that it removes the taster’s purchasing bias. Along the way I developed a strong dislike of Pinot Grigio/Pinot Gris, but a few well-crafted samples from Oregon and northern California forced me to reconsider that position. I might have made an unfair joke about Bulgarian wines until a few decent bottles showed up at the house. The randomness eliminates my own preferences or joy/resentment about the price, and I’m forced to evaluate the wine on its own merits.

  • The Wine Curmudgeon

    Very impressive, Tom. Would that more of us who do this pay attention to what you have written here.

    Because, over the past several years, despite a groundswell of interest about wine blogging and samples and ethics, I haven’t see much movement ot make the business more open.

  • Winethropology

    Tom,

    I wish I got emails like that one!

    Thanks for addressing the issue from such a considered angle. Your point regarding expertise and perspective is a good one. One which itself raises similar questions:

    Does a writer’s inexperience count more against them than their independence counts in their favor? Correspondingly, does the experience of a 3,000-wines-a-year taster outweigh the “insider” influence they are more likely under?

    Sigh, there goes my afternoon.

    PS – God, I love your writing.