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Consumer's advocate, not wine trade PR 
Let's face it, 90% of everything is crap. Including wine. Most wine is mediocre; a lot of it is poor. And because of the vast number of wines on the market, consumers need help finding the good ones. This is where wine writers come in handy.

Or they should. Fact is, a lot of wine writing these days reads like PR for the wine industry. In the UK at least, there's an unwritten rule that if you can't find anything nice to say, don't say anything. After all, this seems a safe strategy to take, because by following this edict you can make friends in the wine trade with your positive reviews, without making enemies by saying anything negative. But this risk-averse strategy lets down the very people you are aiming to serve -- the consumers.

If you are starting out as a wine writer, getting close to the trade is essential in order to have access to wines to write about. But in this process of drawing near to the people who sell wine, it's easy to begin to moderate what you say just a little in order not to bite the hand that feeds.

Indeed, when a wine producer has spent their valuable time showing you through their range, or an importer has bothered to select a case of samples to send you, it is difficult not to feel some sort of sense of indebtedness to them. This is only human. Unless you are a mean, hard, embittered individual, you'd rather not say anything that might hurt the people you like. It really is a whole lot easier to be appropriately critical about a wine you have purchased at your own expense, but it clearly isn't feasible for a wine writer to have purchased every wine they write about and still provide broad enough coverage to be useful.

One of the reasons behind the success of Robert Parker has been his steadfast stance as a consumer's advocate. His pronouncements about the ethics of British wine writers are completely overblown, but there is a grain of truth to what he says regarding conflicts of interest. Although absolute separation from the wine trade just isn't possible, or even desirable, this proximity inevitably brings certain ethical dilemmas.

So am I claiming (as other UK wine writers have done rather notoriously in recent months) that everyone else is corrupt, but the wineanorak is whiter than white in this regard? No. I'm just making public my thoughts on this difficult but important issue. To deny, as others have done, that there is no problem at all, is what psychologists like to call denial. One well known wine UK writer, when recently quizzed on this issue, claimed he actually enjoyed conflicts of interest. An odd attitude. Is it possible ever to be completely unbiased when writing about wines? Probably not. But as in other walks of life, just because perfection is an almost unattainable goal, it doesn't mean that we shouldn't try as hard as we can to get as close as possible to it.

So how do I try to maintain an unbiased stance in my writing? In assessing a wine, I try to think how I would I feel about it if I had paid my own money for it. It's a perspective thing. I'm continually stepping back a little, trying to remember whose side I am supposed to be on as a wine journalist. If I'm going to be of any use at all to my readers, I must take the stance of consumers' advocate, helping them to find the gems amid the dross. Finally, I think it's important for wine writers to actually dip their hands in their own pockets and actually buy wines themselves on a regular basis, for two reasons. First, it's a lot easier to identify with consumers if you are one yourself. Second, in this way you can access a lot of interesting stuff that you just won't come across at trade shows and in the way of free samples.

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