Sat 10 Nov 2007
An issue that animates the world of wine blogging revolves around accepting samples of wine from producers and importers or their public relations representatives. Some bloggers state unequivocally on their home pages that they never accept samples, therefore ensuring the high-minded quality of their integrity. Others mention in every review where the bottle came from or was encountered, that is, if the blogger bought it or had it at a restaurant, tried it at a trade tasting, sipped it at a friend’s house. The implication of both of these positions is clear: Accepting a free bottle of wine is tantamount to open bribery and public corruption.
That’s sheer hooey.
I mention these matters because Tom Wark at Fermentation: The Daily Wine Blog — and, bless his heart, Tom really does keep us all on the crackling edge of the wine industry’s most important concerns — had a post (Oct. 25, “For Immediate Release”) about the supposed or potential effects of press releases on wine writers and the characteristics of a good press releases, about which he knows more than anyone. In the midst of a typically provocative column, Tom quoted from an essay written on Thomas Pellechia the previous day on his blog VinoFictions. Let me also quote from that essay:
“When I stopped posting tasting notes my original intent was that since I get paid to write articles and books about wine I did not want ever to be accused of shilling for one or more wine producer.”
“I cannot imagine how to explain having written a tasting note that agrees with a press release concerning a free bottle that I had received, even if I knew that I hadn’t cheated — to me, the perception of a conflict of interest is damning enough.”
Now Pellechia is a thoughtful and sincere writer (whom I have never met), so I don’t mean what I’m about to say personally, but I believe that these sentiments are off kilter, or, let me put it this way, so punctilious that they are self-defeating.
When Michiko Kakutani, chief book reviewer for The New York Times, and Jonathan Yardley, the Pulitzer Prize-winning book columnist for The Washington Post, give positive reviews to books, they are not shilling for the author or the publisher. They’re doing their jobs, as they are when they write negative reviews. I reviewed books for the newspaper where I work for 20 years, and I was book page editor for 15 of those years. We received in the mail an ungodly amount of books, thousands of books, piles of books a year. So when we reviewed books, we were writing about books we received free. This is the practice at every newspaper, magazine and online media outlet in the world that reviews books. Nobody worries about conflict of interest because there is none. The book is not a bribe; it’s a copy to be read, used, written about for good or ill, that is, if the book is chosen for review.
Over 20 years, I wrote many negative reviews of books, ranging from mild objections to outright scorn. Guess what? The publishers didn’t stop sending books, and they made no attempt to adjust my attitude toward them as publishers or the authors whose work I criticized. It’s the nature of the reviewing business, and when it comes to reviewing anything of cultural or monetary worth that reviewers have access to for free — books, movies, music, wine (restaurants are different because the presence of the establishment and the experience are immediate and very close to home) — the coins of the realm are not chiming shekels and crisp currency but honesty and respect.
I’ve been reviewing wine since 1984, in a nationally distributed weekly print column for 20 years and on the Internet thereafter. As is the case with every wine reviewer, I have written about wonderful, legendary wines; nice little quaffing wines; real dogs of wines. Many of these wines were sample bottles, and when I have felt obliged to point out that a wine is as worthless as rust in a drainpipe, then I have done so, neither with exhilaration nor with heavy heart but simply as part of what I do. People — producers, publicists, the public — need to know these things. Everyone is harmed when mediocrity is not exposed. In fact, it’s by exposing mediocrity, as well as passing out praise when it is due, that we earn reputations for honesty, objectivity and fairness. That’s all part of being professional.
So when Pellechia says that he originally stopped posting tasting notes because he gets paid to write articles and books about wine, I think he’s on the wrong track. Tasting wines — whether sample bottles or not — and posting informative notes seem to me an inextricable part of experiencing and thinking about wine and providing opinion, information and education to readers, whether on a restricted level of friends and colleagues, or to the public. And let’s face it: Americans, even those who drink wine, don’t know a lot about it, where it comes from, how it’s made, how it gets to their tables; opinion (that is, opinion based on knowledge and experience), information and education are exactly what they need.
Pellechia goes on to say, in his essay, that he also decided that he didn’t want to post tasting notes because (1) he wouldn’t base his own wine buying on someone else’s opinion and (2) he didn’t think that anyone else should buy wine based on his opinion, and I have to respect that personal point of view.
On the other hand, if I’m out and about and someone comes up to me and says, “Hey, I bought that Wine of the Week from your website and it was terrific” or “I got a case of that wine you recommended for a party and everyone enjoyed it,” then I feel as if I’ve provided a public service, made some consumers happy and perhaps imparted some knowledge and awareness about wine, and I don’t give a damn if the bottle I tasted and recommended was free or not.
Image credit: Productdose.com.