Well if everybody’s doing it, it must be ok then…

By | 23/01/2016

We all see life through a prism of our own experience (and prejudices) but I must confess to being at a loss when reading the recent commentary on Wine Writers of New Zealand’s new Code of Ethics, triggered by Jo Burzynska’s recent article.

Most of it centres around those who seek to defend paid-for wine reviews, mainly through strawman arguments or plain flawed thinking (e.g. everyone has a right to earn a living. Please, do me a favour and think that one through again but this time with a bit of logic employed). Often as not, the obtuse arguments and woeful ignorance simply reflect poorly on the writer’s ability to actually understand the topic on which they choose to comment. For some reason this is a popular position.

I posted a comment on Belinda Jackson’s recent blog post to this effect but it has not yet been published. Perhaps because the gist of it was that she had unfortunately again missed the point, writing amongst other things that “[WWNZ’s] issue is that those who charge to review a wine are naturally duty-bound to write nice things about it which prevents it from being independent and therefore misleads the public”

We’ve not implied anything of the sort (though she does rather neatly identify the integrity problem that such reviewers risk opening themselves up to) which suggests she has not only not failed read the Code of Ethics, but also misunderstands the aspects that concern us. It is very clear from our website and from the many comments our members make (seemingly in vain) that our ‘issues’ in fact relate to professional writer ethics, independence and integrity, disclosure and transparency. Surely things worth supporting and defending?

We do of course also attempt to point out the ultimate irreconcilability of those aspects for reviewers who are paid by those producing that which they review. For those who like to say that reviewers accepting payment do disclose this aspect on their websites… well, they may indeed but (as has been said many times before…) this is emphatically not where the majority of consumers would ever read this. The shiny gold stickers on the bottles, or producer and retailer websites using the scores/reviews to sell wine, make no such mention of the fact. Funny that. They obviously benefit from the third party endorsement and it all works rather nicely.

Perhaps this is why one of the reviewers operating in this fashion is now promoting themselves as providing a “service to the industry”, a line repeated elsewhere by others who apparently see no such conflict in this position. Paid reviewers might like to think they are providing some sort of ‘consultancy’ (though surely one of questionable value when it’s simple industry cheerleading) but there’s no point kidding yourselves that this is actual critical writing/reviewing.

Of course there is nothing wrong with people working as consultants providing services to the industry. The trouble comes when you also style yourself an ‘independent reviewer’ – you can’t be both. Consultant to the industry and provider of independent reviews/commentary to the consumer? Can of worms right there, not to mention a nice little slippery slope that ends in a vicious circle when the two do become conflated – who can you trust?

Kingsley Wood of First Glass Wines also weighs in with his most recent newsletter and while it is one of the better pieces, it also brings up issues such as samples, trips etc, which are well covered in our Code of Ethics. Obviously these are areas with shades of grey where conflicts can arise, hence the members’ Code. Had Kingsley read this, he might have been surprised to find himself in agreement with us.

As I pointed out to Belinda (and I extend this to many of the other commentators with similar views) it might be better to first familiarize yourself with our actual position and then look to the wider international wine-writing community for their views. A little research further afield would show that what WWNZ espouses is hardly revolutionary. Indeed, it is the expected and accepted practice almost everywhere else.

So, who are the odd ones out here?


ps image thanks to 1winedude

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