Wine writers weigh in on ethics

April 22nd, 2009



The most recent post on Tyler Coleman’s DrVino continues to generate a flurry of comments, criticism and accusations regarding The Wine Advocate’s journalistic ethics. While this single publication is in the spotlight at the moment, many other wine journalists and publication have dealt with similar questions of ethics.

Questions of integrity, honesty and impartiality of wine writers or publications taking free samples, paid trips, etc aside, there is the unspoken but rather incendiary implication that some wine writers may be accepting samples, trips and the like for a personal benefit or gain. That gain, at least on one level, is the opportunity to experience the world of wine in a way that would otherwise be out of their reach.

A life filled with these kinds of privileges and opportunities such as trips, exclusive tastings and rubbing elbows with celebrated or up-and-coming winemakers – whether they are paid for by the publication employing the writer or by other entities whose job is to promote wines and regions and such – does have undeniable appeal (at least initially) to the wine lover of less-than-independent means.

I do not mean to question the motivations of any particular wine writer. Many of those writing about wine – be that for newspapers, specialty wine publications, freelance work or their own publications such as a newsletter, or any of the myriad of wine blogs – do so out of a passion for wine. However, very few are able to become financially independent through wine journalism. It just doesn’t pay all that much in most cases. Never mind that maintaining profitability of a cash-strapped wine publication is no small feat.

All this gave rise to some questions that I wanted to explore in greater depth. Rather than pontificate on them, I contacted a number of people in the wine writing business in the hopes of pulling together varied opinions for a more productive and informative discussion. The point of this discussion is not to focus on the practices of any singular publication but to explore some very real issues in an adult manner.

Jancis Robinson will also be publishing an extensive piece on ethics today – in part spurred by her participation in this discussion. Her article is written from the vantage point of her experiences and opinion. After reading an advance copy, I feel her points of view are closely aligned with my philosophical stance – though my wine writing activities are on a much smaller scale than hers. Her article is a recommended read.

For the purposes of this article, I have to exclude questions regarding the influence of any relationship that may arise between the writer and producer or distributor.

I sought input from Alice Feiring, Jancis Robinson, Eric Asimov, Dan Berger, DrVino’s Tyler Coleman, Steve Heimoff, Wine Spectator Executive Editor Thomas Matthews, Tom Wark and Alder Yarrow. I also contacted The Wine Advocate. Despite repeated requests for participation, I received no response from Tyler Coleman or The Wine Advocate. Eric Asimov decided to opt out of participating. After extensive discussion via email, Mr. Matthews decided not to answer my four questions directly, but provided a formal statement from Wine Spectator instead, available in its full version here.

I wanted to explore only four questions and I present them below. In the interest of brevity, I am quoting salient portions of each response in this post. In the interest of accuracy and fairness, I have uploaded each participant’s full answers (with their consent) as separate documents and they are available here: Berger, Feiring, Heimoff, Robinson, Wark, Yarrow. I recommend reading those full responses.

1: Is a desire to experience the world of wine in ways that only a few can and in ways that one could not otherwise afford (i.e. the benefits in the form of samples events, trips, press junkets, etc) acceptable as part of a career in wine writing (so long as one avoids conflicts of interest and maintains journalistic integrity)?

- Berger: “Some people are only in the wine-writing dodge to get free trips to exotic places. I have read some of the results (stories they’ve written) and they are woeful — shameless puff pieces that reflect badly on the person who took the trip and the subject of the article.

Like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart saying that hard-core pornography was hard to define, “but I know it when I see it,” so is it hard to define journalistic ethics. But when someone steps over the line, you know it when you see it. And thus it’s hard to construct a simple definition that establishes various prohibitions and then concludes that any violation of “the code” is unethical. Every case must be analyzed on its own merits.”

- Feiring: “There’s nothing wrong with desire. Accepting is the problem….But, the whole press giveaway is such a slippery mountainside. I’ve sat next to people who told me they became a wine writer because of the freebies. I walked away from him as soon as I could…

…that said, if worked properly, the trips (given today’s dwindling resources from magazines), can increase knowledge, allow a journalist as a way in to the vines or to see a country and widen a perspective. They are often a way to begin. But they come with so many strings, a journalist must be hypervigilant and pack sharp secateurs to clip them.”

- Heimoff: “No wine writer I know has such a desire. Our desire — mine, anyway — is to make a living through the reporting and reviewing of wine. … The “events, trips, samples” etc. surprised me when they came along — it was never about that. To this day, I don’t particularly enjoy them. I’ve never been on a junket, and I say “No” to 99% of invitations for meals, trips and events.”

- Robinson:  “I think horse and cart are in the wrong order here….But if you are talking theoretically, and the gist of your question is ‘Is it acceptable for someone to develop a career as a wine commentator wholly or partly because they want to benefit from the perks?’, then I want to say No.

I think communicators should serve their readership/audience rather than themselves. If someone is primarily interested in what wine can do for them rather than what they can do for wine, there’s a danger they will not bother to pass on what they learn and experience.”

- Wark: “Yes. Because it’s impossible to report professionally on wine without experiencing it in ways that others normally can’t and unless you want this, you won’t become a wine reporter.”

- Yarrow:  “Doubtless there are people who start “a career” in wine writing because they want free stuff, especially in an age when anyone can start a blog and pretend (or not) that they are a wine writer.  But all that is beside the point. You’re asking if the desire for free stuff is acceptable, and I don’t think anyone is fit to judge someone else’s desires.”

2: Is it possible to fulfill one’s desire for these experiences through the benefits mentioned above and avoid conflicts of interest and maintain journalistic integrity?

- Berger: “Much as it might seem that some situations are fraught with compromises, there are extenuating circumstances. For instance, dining with wine makers actually has three crucial purposes. One is that it gives the wine reviewer long enough to evaluate a wine that might have needed aeration to properly show its potential. Secondly, there is the question of how well a particular wine works with food. And then there is the conversation that takes place between wine writer and winery subject that happens in a setting where vital information that doesn’t appear on the tech sheets can be discovered.”

- Feiring: “It is best to fulfill the desire outside of the press trip. But I can see ways of making it work and preserve one’s reputation. What about adding on a few days at your own expense to flesh out the experience with reality? I could also see explaining to your host that you can’t write about it, you’ll take it as preliminary research. 90% of the time the host will say, thanks for telling me. And thanks but no thanks.”

- Heimoff: “I don’t have a desire for these experiences. My journalistic integrity — assuming people think I have any — is because the industry knows that I work hard, tell the truth as I see it, and can’t be bought or influenced.

- Robinson: “It’s not easy. Wine people are naturally hospitable and generous, and it is in the nature of wine that it should be shared. I think some clear rules or guidelines area needed.”

- Wark: “Yes. Because nothing one does necessarily leads to unethical behavior. One chooses to be unethical. One is not unethical by default.”

- Yarrow: “Conflicts of interest and journalistic integrity are subjective assessments that can only be made by the audience of the writer. … These things are not fundamental, objective truths. They are ethical gradients that everyone must define for themselves, while realizing that everyone else’s definition may be different. At the end of the day the writer has to live with themselves, and their readers will care about the writer’s ethics, or they won’t.”

3: Considering all the resources necessary to produce a wine publication (which relies on new content with every cycle), is it acceptable for the writers to accept free samples, trips, etc as long as one avoids conflicts of interest and maintains journalistic integrity?

- Berger: “To say that wine journalists shouldn’t accept “free meals” doesn’t define the word free. Or meal. How about the situation where an individual attends a wine tasting at which food is served? What if the individual drove 65 miles each way to get to the tasting, paid $6 to cross the Golden Gate Bridge, $12 for parking, and spent more than six hours in the endeavor. Is the food received “free?”

And what of a five-day “junket” to Sicily where the airfare was paid for by the wine entity? What if the airfare was coach class, the plane was filled to the brim, was delayed for hours by bad weather, and the three days visiting wineries was bitterly cold and the food barely passable? And there was no time to see anything other than drafty wineries and drizzly vineyards? Sound like fun?”

- Feiring: “Some of the most popular magazines in this country only write puff pieces. I know of at least one food magazine that doesn’t even care if the writer fabricates, as long as the piece is celebrity driven and upbeat. So, why couldn’t they take a press trip? Oddly enough, their publishing house stopped allowing trips three years ago. Another poorer publication, known for authentic stories, needs the support of trips and country tourism, but they carefully choose their writers for personal integrity.

- Heimoff: “…of course it’s acceptable to accept free samples. There wouldn’t be any reviews if there weren’t samples. …. Reviewers of any kind do not make much money, so free samples are necessary.”

- Robinson: “I think each form of ‘perk’ requires a different response. Free samples are just a part of commercial life. I spend my time fending them off rather than soliciting them. A single bottle, or sometimes two sent by those concerned about the possibility of TCA taint, of a wine in commercial circulation in the hope of a review is hardly compromising. Six bottles of a mature gem would be. As are trips paid for by a wine producer.”

- Wark: “Yes it’s acceptable. Though in some cases it might be inadvisable—particularly if those looking to provide you with resources are demanding a quid pro quo.”

- Yarrow: “I will underscore a point you already made: wine writing is a really lousy way to make a living. There are plenty of “mainstream” wine writers out there that would never be able to write as they do if they had to pay for everything they wrote about.

4: Can a wine publication remain competitively priced and maintain a healthy revenue stream while paying for all samples and 100% of its reporters’ trips and expenses?

- Berger: “My various travel to France, Spain, Italy, Germany, and Portugal have all been either self-funded, part of wine competition participation, or part of cruises on which I have been a lecturer. And it’s still nearly impossible to make a living as a freelance writer on wine.

- Feiring: “I think the current economics will be changing some attitudes towards the press trip. But the absolute best experience is when I am on assignment with an expense account and GPS.”

- Heimoff: “I’m not aware of any wine magazine that pays 100% of everything. Keep in mind, some magazines have deeper pockets than others, so they can afford more on their own.”

- Robinson: “You’ll need a lot of figures and many a supposition to answer this question properly… Nowadays travel costs are not that prohibitive – even for those of us paying in puny British pounds. But I think it would be an unnecessary expense to pay for every single bottle tasted… “

- Wark: “[It is] possible, but I think unlikely assuming there is a requirement by the publisher to approach profitability.”

- Yarrow: “Depends on whether you think The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal are: a) wine publications and b) competitively priced with healthy revenue streams. Those are the only two publications I know of that don’t take samples and pay for every trip they take (though Eric Asimov is often invited to pretty exclusive tastings featuring wines that are served one someone else’s dime).   None of the “traditional” wine publications in existence that I know of operate without taking any samples. Just having a revenue stream, period, is hard in this day and age.

…Economics has produced a situation where because journalism is a for-profit endeavor, the system is rife with issues….”

Do I think it is OK for writers to not pay their way at least part of the time?

The fact is that those making and selling wine and those commenting on it have had, and will continue to have, a symbiotic relationship. One needs the other. Insofar as content is the lifeblood of any publication; a writer has to be open to opportunities to develop content which do not come at their expense. Any writing genre that reviews a product has to rely, at least in part, on receiving sample products and possibly accepting paid trips to events and the like.

A desire to experience wine, in ways that would otherwise be out of reach, can be healthy and appropriate in the context of wine journalism so long as it is primarily rooted in an eagerness to develop new content and serving the readership, rather than in some personal greed. Ultimately, journalism is about witnessing things and events and a writer has to find honorable ways of putting themselves in the position of a witness.

It is not an easy line to walk, but it is completely possible for a writer to allow others (particularly industry: producers and distributors) to pay their way, as long as they are loyal to their readers and not those footing the bill. One has to be selective and wary of any strings or expectations, however. With time, these “perks” become work, and I think Jancis Robinson has it in perspective when she says she sees these activities as part of her job.

In the context of any publication – but particularly a blog, or a start-up Internet publication – carrying the cost of these samples, trips and events is simply prohibitive. Passing the expense on to the readers would drastically limit one’s ability to compete. To be comprehensive – or at least in touch, to some extent, with pertinent elements of the world of wine – a blogger or writer simply must be open to situations where they do not pay their way. That does not automatically make one corrupt, dishonest or compromise their ethics or integrity.

Codifying ethical behavior in wine journalism, at times, seems impossible. However, there is no saintly constitution requisite to maintaining integrity in the face of the temptation of material benefits of being a reviewer or critic. Steering clear of any quid pro quo, I think, is the cornerstone of ethical behavior.

If samples, trips and junkets are seen as “favors” by both parties, then there is some implied or perceived expectation that the writer should be serving the benefits of the sponsor/benefactor.

This expectation does not have to be. Divorcing the expense of getting the critic to interface with the product from a desire for a solid return on the investment may be challenging. It is not Utopian, however, to expect writers and critics to act ethically and keep themselves free of compromising entanglements and conflicts of interest or from being swayed by the cost and efforts of bringing them together with the product.


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12 Responses to “Wine writers weigh in on ethics”

  1. Daniel Posner Says:

    Thank you for doing so much legwork on this subject!

  2. Tish Says:

    Bravo, bravo and bravo. Seeing these responses in one place is very interesting. ANd kudos to Dan for including mention of this in his store’s enewsletter, which is how I heard about it.

  3. Dylan Says:

    Thanks so much for this–I truly enjoyed seeing the range of responses for your individual questions. While I do not review wines, I have a sense of ethics which I believe can be settled with an answer to a question: “Is what I’m doing for my readers?” As a wine journalist the answer should be a strong yes every time. Any time that it’s not for your readers, that means you are either taking the trip for yourself or some other motive. If there’s any integrity worth preserving in writing wine reviews it’s to be the reader’s advocate. As writers of any form, the audience is who we serve and ultimately owe any success to.

  4. Thor Iverson Says:

    Perhaps because I started in newspapers, and only later went out on my own, I was forced to give this issue a lot of thought from the beginning. When I started publishing online, I actually spent a great deal of time crafting a sort of statement of ethics & practices. The Squires/Miller/Dr. Vino kerfuffle has, of course, offered opportunities to revisit, but if I’d known Jancis was going to offer her own thoughts, I would just have linked to her and saved myself the time. Because I agree with everything she writes.

  5. Ted Says:

    I think an interesting comparison would be a restaurant critic.

    Would it be acceptable for a restaurant to pay for a critic’s travel, prepare a free meal, and provide lodging? I don’t believe any food critics work this way .(however I’m just guessing)

  6. Arthur Says:

    Interesting perspective, Ted.

    The problem is that most restaurant and food critics operate within such a radius of their home that would allow them to drive to the establishment. Many if not most wine critics live hundreds if not thousands from the subject of their critiquing.

    However, if we consider the meal and the related service the subject product and the critic has such renown, and their opinion can set the establishment in a broader culinary landscape thus generating greater revenue, the only way to get the critic to experience the food and service is to get them to your establishment.

    For a place like the French Laundry, where a Prix Fixe for one is a bit less than a round trip flight between JFK and SFO, this may make sense.

  7. Thor Iverson Says:

    Ted, some restaurant critics are reimbursed by their publications, and some aren’t. Some are anonymous, some are only anonymous in theory, and some aren’t and never have been. And especially these days, with many — perhaps most — publications failing or struggling, the money to fund restaurant criticism is tight. The number of visits per review has been reduced. The allowable expenses have been reduced. And for anything other than top-line restaurant reviews, it’s more common than not that the writer is funding a lot of their dining out of their own pocket.

    It’s also worth noting that almost no other critics work this way. Music, film, theater, literary, art, etc. critics are neither anonymous, nor expected to pay for what they’re reviewing, nor expected to avoid the people who produce what they’re reviewing. Yes, a few — very few — publications have their own rules that trump the usual practices, but they’re a rarity. So a better question might be: is restaurant criticism measurably superior to all other forms of criticism? If it’s not, then one probably can’t credit the rules imposed on it.

    Arthur makes an excellent point about extremely high-end restaurants and the cost to review them. It’s worth asking whether, for example, Per Se can be skillfully reviewed on a tight budget, which is almost all there is these days. I mean, obviously it *can*, but a three-visit review that takes in the full experience is far, far more useful to the reader than a one-visit review based on dining from the new bar menu.

    And in general, I think this shows the way to think about critics. Are they serving you or not? If they are, then doesn’t that matter an awful lot more than how they work? If they’re not, then we can consider why that is, and conflicts of interest may indeed be the reason. But it serves no one if a critic practices the most painstaking ethical separation yet cannot produce work that’s useful to anyone.

  8. Ted Says:

    Thor , Your comment was well written and makes some good points. I agree that food critics seem to have a higher standard. The Association of Food Journalists have a very detailed code of ethics:

    Personally, I have no problem with wine writers’ ethics, it is just an interesting observation. With food and wine being so closely linked I would think their criticism would be too.

  9. Thor Iverson Says:

    Let’s call it a different, rather than higher, standard. By raw numbers, I would strongly suspect that most restaurant critics abide by no or very few such guidelines. By total influence, it would be a closer call; newspaper restaurant critics are far more likely to be subject to them than magazine critics, some of the most famous of which are not only the opposite of anonymous, but may not have paid for a meal in decades.

    The “link” between food and wine actually isn’t all that relevant to the question of ethics in each field of criticism. The reason some restaurant critics practice anonymity, etc. is due to the fear that their experience will be different than the readers’ if they’re known while they dine. That can’t happen with bottled wine, though there’s a danger while barrel-tasting.

  10. 1WineDude Says:

    As much as I am growing tired of the ethics topic all around, there is no doubt that this post and the thought-provoking answers it generated is just phenomenal, phenomenal work.

    Always a pleasure to read your stuff, but this one is setting a new and even higher bar. Cheers!

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