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Pens for hire? Conflicts of interest in writing about wine
I was sitting browsing through the third edition of Robert Parker's Wine Buyer's Guide when one chapter in his introductory preamble caught my eye, entitled 'Wine Writers' Ethics and Competence'. Not pulling any punches, he begins by stating that wine writers, '…generally have a collective mindset of never having met a wine they didn't like'. Then he turns on us Brits: 'Great Britain has long championed the cause of wine writers and looked upon them as true professionals. But even there, with all their experience and access to the finest European vineyards, most of the successful wine writers have been involved in the sale and distribution of wine. Can anyone name an English wine writer who criticized the performance of Lafite-Rothschild between 1961 and 1974 or Margaux between 1964 and 1977 (periods when the consumer was getting screwed)?' He continues, 'It is probably unrealistic to expect writers to develop a professional expertise with wine without access and support from the trade, but such support can compromise their findings. If they are beholden to wine producers for the wines they taste, they are not likely to fault them. If the trips they make to vineyards are the results of the winemaker's largesse, they are unlikely to criticise what they have seen. If they are lodged at the châteaux and their trunks are filled with cases of wine (as, sadly, is often the case), can a consumer expect them to be critical or even objective?' After having focused on the ethical issues surrounding Parker then continues, calling into question the competence of the majority of wine writers to reliably identify wines that are good from those that aren't. Is he right?

Pens for hire?
The ethical issues surrounding wine writing are many and complex. And it's true that Americans tend to take a much stricter view on conflicts of interest than Europeans. Should wine writers accept free wine and go on paid trips? No, Parker would argue, but, as he points out, this is the norm for wine writers in the UK. Indeed, it would be very difficult to make a living from full-time wine writing without some degree of support from the trade. In the UK at least, the only way you could adhere to Parker's admirably high standards would be if you were in the fortunate position of having enough money to support yourself until you had gathered enough subscribers to your self-funded publication to make a living from it. But if you do accept freebies from the trade, does this mean that your wine writing will inevitably be flawed? Not necessarily. No doubt there are writers who, anxious not to bite the hand that feeds, produce work that is tainted by their conflicts of interest, and there are others who will obligingly write whatever they think the person who hires them wants them to say. But I suspect (and hope) that the majority of wine writers are fundamentally honest people, who will give an honest verdict on the wines that they are writing about. After all, this is just enlightened self-interest: your reputation is at stake each time you put pen to paper, and if you do anything less than your best work, you are shooting yourself in the foot.

Consumers' advocate or wine trade PR?
This is a thorny issue. I think that wine writers shouldn't forget that their primary role is as the consumers' advocate. Too often, the ties to the trade that many writers develop lead them to see things not from the perspective of the consumer, but from that of the wine industry, and this is dangerous. The criticism has been levelled at certain UK wine writers that they have 'never met a wine they didn't like'. Indeed, when you are starting out in wine writing it may seem a safe strategy only to say nice things. After all, it is difficult to say critical things about wines when you know the producer or importer, and realise that these people may well be upset by what you say. But if you are going to be a writer who is any use at all to the consumer, you've simply got to bite the bullet and report the negative along with the positive. All too few critics are prepared to do this. Here, I'd have to agree with Parker that the relationship between wine writers and the trade in the UK is probably a little too cosy, although I think his criticisms are a too strong.

Some potential conflicts of interest
  • You write a newspaper column and receive unsolicited wines. This is not an uncommon situation, and I can't see any problem in writing these wines up, as long as critics do their best work and not just praise everything they taste. However, you'd hope that a columnist worth their salt wouldn't just rely on free samples for their columns, but would work hard tracking down the best and most interesting wines on the market, whether they are sent them free or not.
  • You are invited to go on a junket to Hawaii. Again, I can't see any problem with this, as long as when the critics write up the wines of the Hawaii as the next 'hot thing', they remember to disclose in their columns that the trip was paid for by the Hawaii trade office. Again, you have to do the best job you can, being appropriately critical where necessary; anything less and you are letting yourself down. If you aren't sure of your ability to write fairly when someone else is paying, you shouldn't accept the invitation.
  • You are paid to write an 'advertorial' by a winery or wine region. I think this is a dubious sort of thing for a wine writer to get into: it crosses the line from the role of critic to the role of wine industry PR. Personally, I wouldn't do it.
  • You are sent a case of Sicilian wines from Domaine Corlione for review. Later that day you are sent a plain envelope containing ten thousand pounds in used banknotes. Shortly after, you find a dead horse in your bed. What do you say about those Sicilian wines? OK, maybe I am taking this too far...

Issues of competence
In every trade there are those who are good and those who are less good. I don't think there are many dishonest wine critics. Rather, a far more common cause of poor work is the lack of competence shown by some. Perhaps the reason that many critics just say nice things about wines is because they aren't sure of their own judgement. It's far easier to write a weekly column where you recommend half a dozen wines, without reporting any negative data, than it is to assign ratings and tasting notes to entire ranges. One of the secrets of the Robert Parker's success is that he has stuck his neck out and actually scored many thousands of wines, and whether you agree with his tastes or not, he has proved himself a competent and consistent critic. There's no doubting that wine tasting is a difficult and complex business, but if a critic is going to be worth their salt they need to have an accurate and consistent palate, and then need to be able to express their opinions in a clear and useful fashion.

What does the consumer want from wine writers?
So, what makes a good wine writer? As we've seen above, they need to be competent. They need to have a good knowledge of wine and a consistent palate, capable of reliably distinguishing between wines that are good and bad, interesting and dull, and balanced and out-of-whack. Second, they need to be honest, not being swayed by potential conflicting interests, and brave enough to go out on a limb. Third, they need to remember that they are advocates of the consumer, not PR reps for the wine trade. Finally, they need to be interesting. Wine is supposed to be fun, but you wouldn't think so from some of the tedious, unimaginative, plodding and laboured writing that it generates. And for me, this is a bigger concern than the conflicts of interest issue.