In for a penny . . .

By | 28/05/2011

Not being a partaker of social media (yes, yes, but it’s just not for me) I have, perhaps thankfully, missed many of the comments being generated by my previous article. But I have had some thought-provoking emails come directly to me and one in particular raised a not dissimilar thorny issue, one which I have also been mulling. So, with the lid on Pandora’s box still flapping, why not keep going?

Generally wine writers etc get sent bottles direct and unsolicited. Often, they also get invited to lunches, dinners and sometimes more, to showcase new releases and launches. These are almost always at least a little bit fabulous, and can indeed be truly lavish at times.

So, isn’t this a form of payment too? Isn’t the expectation a complimentary review and promotion? It’s a good question.

While ever mindful of the perilous slipperiness of the moral high ground upon which I am now residing, the answer, I believe is no.  I would also like to reiterate that I hope debate on these topics stays on the subject matter rather than focuses on the people, the latter approach being far less likely to achieve something useful.

Leaving aside the fact that my previous article was concerned with the purported guise of independence, not actual payment per se, these are two very separate issues.  I do acknowledge there may be surface similarities, but I think there is a significant difference between accepting unsolicited hospitality and requesting payment to review a wine.  In many cases, the only opportunity to taste a wine arises from attending such lunches and launches. It also frequently provides an opportunity which may not otherwise be available to speak face to face with winemakers and owners. You won’t stop producers hosting such events (wine is after all part of the hospitality industry) and if you wish to cover as broad a range of wines and views as possible it would be difficult to eschew them entirely. So, you judge whether they are in fact useful from an access (to wines/people) point of view or whether they are just a junket/schmooze and accept/decline accordingly.

Attending a presentation of wines, however convivial a form it may take, results in several unpaid hours of one’s time, outlay of travel/parking costs, and further time spent writing articles (which may or may not generate payment to the writer). Jane and I have touched on this topic before and are not unaware of the pitfalls of attending said fabulous lunches and the unspoken anticipation of what might arise from it. However, while there might be expectation, there is never obligation.

And this is where it begins to separate from requesting that payment be sent with wines for review. Like it or not, the very nature of a direct payment from producer to reviewer implies a shifting of balance in the relationship and brings with it insinuation of bias, even if no bias does actually occur. It places one in the position of having to defend one’s integrity – the only currency a critic should trade in.

The end result rests alone with the ethos and integrity of the writer or reviewer in question.  I remain steadfast that transparent independence is crucial for integrity – and it is this upon which your reputation hinges.  In moments of 3am existentialism, I have wrestled with the concept of the parasitical nature of being a wine critic, but have come to the conclusion disciplines with robust critics are often those that scale the greatest heights; producers and critics alike should strive therefore for rigorous and thoughtful reviews that can have no whiff of collusion between the parties involved.

Particularly in an industry of our size, it can be difficult to give a review that is less than favourable as you remain in close contact with people, and often the person(s) in question are genuinely likeable. Unfortunately sometimes their wines aren’t equally as likeable. And of course one doesn’t want to offend or disappoint. However, at some point you must decide whether you live according to your own conscience….or otherwise… and therefore you write to suit.

Producers might need to have an honest look at their own motivations too – the onus here shouldn’t all be on the writers. Are they throwing lavish lunches because they feel it best showcases their wines, or are they doing it to curry favour and flattering reviews? Either way, it doesn’t speak well of the maturity of our industry if they cannot cope with a review that is not what they were hoping or is an omission altogether. They may well be footing the bill and I am very aware they need to sell wine but I don’t believe that should have any bearing as far as any resulting reviews or articles go (though I do believe you should always write to say thank you).  Producers also need to examine their own motivations and consciences when directly paying reviewers – what exactly is it they are paying for? – and above all be honest to their customers if this is how their reviews are generated.

If a writer has integrity and independence, you can be sure you are getting their genuine opinion. And I think that readers will work that out for themselves – after all, you can fool some of the people…

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