Declaration of Independence

By | 26/05/2011

There has been a fair amount of commentary recently in the wine press and social media regarding the pros and cons, ethics and otherwise of wine critics/reviewers being paid by producers to review their wines.

For obvious reasons, this is a topic close to Jane’s and my own hearts and one we have been pondering for some time.

New Zealand has several such reviewers and they appear to be doing brisk business.

There is no reason why people should not charge for their reviews, as the uptake by producers suggests they are clearly providing a desired service – guaranteed reviews within a set time frame.

Where the grey, and to my mind disquieting, aspect creeps in, is the guise of independence. Strictly speaking this may be the case: the reviewers are not working for anyone directly, and are providing their own opinions. BUT, it is impossible not to suspect that reviews may indeed be on the… shall we say generous side. Of course opinions on wines differ between critics (and even by the same critic on different days) but so many of the wines reviewed are the euphemistically named ‘export label’ sauvignon blanc etc and generally, the fulsome reviews and scores given in such reviews do not stand scrutiny elsewhere. What to make of that?

However the biggest elephant in the crowded room to my mind is the fact that generally, the public is completely unaware that any payment between producer and reviewer is changing hands. And this is where I start to feel very uncomfortable indeed about the unclarified proclamations of independence – and their use as such by producers and retailers, who are after all complicit in the whole situation.

Yes, the terms and prices are stated on the reviewers’ sites but that is certainly not where the majority of their reviews are being read. And reviews below a certain cut-off point are not published – who exactly is that helping?

Sam Kim of Wine Orbit and Raymond Chan of Raymond Chan Wine Reviews may at this point wonder if I am having a go (or perhaps have succumbed to the green-eyed monster due to the parlous state of my own bank balance!) but I can only assure them this is not the case. They do happen to be the most visible faces of this service but they are not the only ones doing it. And, amongst the wine industry fraternity, it is well known that this is the way things are being done. But amongst the public who are being guided by the reviews, and presumably labouring under the misapprehension that they are the consumers being served, not the wineries whose products they are being encouraged to buy, I would hazard a guess that they know naught.

And that is what motivates me to make my comments.

I welcome a response from Sam, Raymond et al, and from producers or retailers using their services, as this is an interesting topic that is certainly getting much airing behind closed doors, but very little discussion in a more public forum. One wonders why?

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