Thursday, September 1, 2011

On the take: true confessions from a wine writer

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, August 31.)

An unseemly spat broke out recently among the usually genial fraternity of New Zealand wine writers.

The unpleasantness was touched off by the establishment of an organisation called Wine Writers of New Zealand, a group with the noble aim of encouraging excellence and integrity in wine writing. Hardly an exceptionable goal, you might think. But it touched some raw nerves.

The formation of the group arose out of concern that some wine critics were being paid by wine companies to review their wines. Those joining WWNZ are required to sign a “declaration of independence” to the effect that they won’t accept payment for published reviews.

The declaration says, in part: “If reviewers are to be widely trusted and respected, there must be full, transparent independence between them and those whose products they write about.

“We believe the practice of supplying wine reviews for direct payment removes that independence, is highly undesirable, and has the potential to harm the reputation of all wine writers in New Zealand.”

You might think this hardly needed to be spelled out. After all, what credibility could a wine writer have if it were known that he or she accepted payment from the winemaker?

As someone who has contributed wine columns to several national publications and written a book about wine, I had no hesitation in signing the declaration.

Being a pathological non-joiner, and suspicious of any group that might be seen as elitist or cliquey, I was not party to the formation of WWNZ and had no desire to join it. In any case, I’ve largely withdrawn from wine writing.

But I felt I had no option but to sign the declaration (the signatories to which are listed on the WWNZ website) because if I hadn’t done so, people might have suspected I had accepted payment from winemakers myself. I would regard such payment as fatal to whatever credibility I might have as a journalist.

However it also needs to be said that the situation is not as straightforward as it might seem at first glance.

Not all the people who review wine in New Zealand are journalists. Some have made careers in the wine industry. A few of these people operate as wine consultants, in essence. They review wines for a fee and regard it as a legitimate service to the industry.

The problem arises, it seems to me, if those same people write about, or comment on, wine for the public without disclosing their relationship with the winemaker. That’s where things get ethically dodgy.

No matter how impartial, objective or professional these reviewers hold themselves out to be, people will wonder whether they are commenting favourably on a particular wine because they have accepted payment from the maker.

It’s these individuals who see the formation of WWNZ, and the publication of the so-called declaration of independence, as an attempt to get at them. The absence of their names from the list of signatories will be interpreted, fairly or unfairly, as evidence that they take a fee and are therefore compromised.

At least one of them, a friend of mine who is a respected wine judge, is concerned that there are now “good” wine critics and “bad” ones, and that he’s in the wrong category.

I have some sympathy for him. As someone who has worked in the wine business for years and depends on wine for his livelihood, his perspective is different from that of a journalist like me.

People like my friend are also resentful at what they see as the “holier than thou” tone of the wine writers who formed WWNZ. And they have a point.

When I was regularly reviewing wines, courier vans would pull into my driveway several times a week to deliver free wines. None of it was solicited by me and I don’t even know how the wineries got my address. It just kept turning up, sometimes in embarrassing quantities.

There were no strings attached and no wine company ever complained if I didn’t review a wine they had sent me, or gave it a less than glowing endorsement. They understood the rules.

In any case I often reviewed wines I had bought myself, which avoided the risk that the content of my articles would be dictated by whatever happened to turn up free on my doorstep each week (as seems to be the case with some of the wine writers I read).

Buying my own wine also meant that I generally reviewed wines that ordinary consumers could afford, since I didn’t have the bank balance to splash out on Penfold’s Grange or Chateau d’Yquem.

But the point is that virtually everyone who writes about wine in New Zealand is “on the take”, in a sense. Most don’t pay for the wines they review, some of which are very expensive, and they are happy to enjoy sumptuous dinners and free trips to exotic wine destinations.

I have accepted trips myself. Among wine writers, they are regarded as legitimate perks (just as overseas jaunts are by motoring writers, who are arguably journalism’s most practised junketeers).

Ironically, when I recently exchanged emails with a wine writer who was a key player in the formation of WWNZ, she was visiting the Margaret River wine region of Western Australia. I’d be astonished if she paid her own way.

I would stop short of saying most wine writers are “embedded” in the wine industry, as wine commentator Keith Stewart (a non-signatory to the “declaration” and a bit of a renegade) extravagantly claimed in an attack on WWNZ. But it’s certainly true that from a purist point of view, all wine writers could be seen as ethically compromised to a greater or less extent.

Even some of the most illustrious names in international wine writing – people like the Englishman Hugh Johnson and Australia’s James Halliday – have had deep commercial entanglements that I believe jeopardised their reputation for independence and impartiality.

As with many journalistic endeavours, wine writing is fraught with ethical grey areas and few, if any, practitioners can claim to be as pure as the driven snow. In fact if you listen very carefully, you may hear the sound of stones crashing through a glasshouse.


The probligo said...

Karl, I hear every word you have writ here. There are few quibbles even but I do want to chip in on the following –

I would have agreed whole-heartedly with “overseas jaunts by travel writers” instead of “overseas jaunts by motoring writers”. To be fair, I must add that the likes of Jim Eagles and his crew at Herald always state whether the “travel” being reviewed was provided and by whom.

That leads in to the second part of the debate.

I look at “public critique” from the point of view that the very first and most important factor is the critic. Whether it is wine, travel, or the latest flick at the local flea-house – it does not take long to determine whether the critic’s taste is a good guide or not to one’s own enjoyment. There is one very well-known wine critic (just to follow your point a bit further) who I just do not bother to read – simply because he reviews wines which I could buy four bottles of my personal taste for the price of one of his choice.

So, as a consumer of the punditry of critics from a wide range of “products” from amatory to zealotry, I think that you bother yourself too much about the detail. If there are people out there who go and buy the latest in i-Pads simply because some paid critic has recommended the product, they are probably the same people who would vote for Act because the Jonkey told them to.

Let the reader be(a)ware (I am sure that "caveat emptor" has been mis-interpreted).

The probligo said...

Just to add on the end of that -

Driving home and the 1600 news included mention of the formation of WWNZ. Quoted was one notable who was all concerned that the public "might get the wrong impression" about wine writers. Don't think it was you Karl.

I let my point stand -

Oh, and the wv is "sommkxbn" :):) Something to do with sommelier?

Bearhunter said...

It worries me that those wine writers who do not sign the declaration are somehow "dirty". As a wine writer, I can see that there are some reviewers out there who are indeed charging money for an "enhanced" review and that needs to stop.

But I'm a chronic non-joiner as well and I don't feel the need to have to declare my independence. If wineries send me wines, they know that if I don't write about them, I didn't think much of them.

If I get any feedback from the publications I write for that I am suddenly deemed a "dirty" reviewer, the first contact WWNZ will be getting from me will be through a firm of solicitors.