On wine writing ethics

Recently there has been a growing debate about the ethics of wine writing in New Zealand, namely whether it is acceptable for a wine writer to accept payment for reviews. 

Before I get into this argument I want to make a few decelarations:

  • I am not a member of the Wine Writers of New Zealand as I narrowly fall short of some of the membership criteria - largely because I also write about beer which has taken up a lot of my time in the last 18 months having had a beer book BREWED, published in September 2015. By and large I think that the work of WWNZ is positive and I hope you will realise from all of the declarations I am making here is that I think ethics in this industry are important.
  • I do not and have never received payments from wineries in exchange for reviews. I have however accepted payment to create content for a certain importer who shall remain nameless as I was never actually paid what I was promised. This was at least 8 years ago when the cache of being a 'wine blogger' was larger than it is now, shiny new media forms being what they are when they are shiny and new.
  • I have worked both directly and indirectly for wineries and other wine businesses - I was sommelier at Craggy Range for 2 years, I worked for Macvine, representing a number of NZ wine brands for another two, and have occasionally helped out in other wine businesses with social media coaching, filling in at a tasting room when people had staff down, pouring wine at events. I am also now the co-owner and sommelier of Hillside Kitchen and a co-owner of The Ramen Shop which both derive a substantial amount of income from the sales of wine. I am also looking at establishing a wine business in the near future which will necessitate an even deeper commercial relationship with individual producers if it is to succeed. 
  • While working in these businesses I NEVER wrote about the wines of the wineries I worked for UNLESS I was commissioned to write a specific article and not including the producer or wine was untenable (example: I was commissioned to write an article on low alcohol wine and mentioned a Forrest wine while I also made a living selling other wines from the range. When I did this I made a statement in the body of the article about my relationship with Forrest). I waited at least a year after leaving Craggy before I wrote about any of their wines and still made a statement about my previous employment with them.
  • I want to stress that I greatly respect all of the writers involved on each side of the debate. I'm throwing in my two cents because I have heard from a number of winery principals who have come to me with concerns about both sides of the argument. I think I have something meaningful to say, having had to be more aware of this problem than many others for years due to the nature of my work. 
  • I have lots of friends who work in and own wineries and those who are also reviewers. I have great respect for all of the professionals I write about in this article and if I come across as being personal I apologise profoundly. I have tried to take a similar tone to the rest of the debate.  
  • Finally, I want to state categorically that I am not a wine reviewer. I write about wine critically and honestly about wine and do provide tasting notes, usually of wines I think are worthy of such, not necessarily because I like them. I both write about and sell lots of wines I don't like because I can draw a line between my personal preferences and objective quality. More on this later. I have been a 'wine reviewer' and I don't think I was ever that good at it. 

Why all of this detail? Because I am trying to be transparent. Because I think wine writer (and beer writer) ethics are important.

This debate has been rekindled by WWNZ and the release of their extended Code of Ethics, which expands on their 2011 Declaration of Ethics, which they claim "all wine writers in the country were invited to sign". I have an issue with this; I was writing professionally about wine for a number of outlets (both regularly and on a ad-hoc freelance basis) in the two years leading up to the release of this declaration in print and digital media, both in NZ and internationally and was never asked to sign it. I am sure there are others who fall into the same boat as me. But that, frankly, is by the by.

In her Viva article on the subject, Jo Burzynska (a member of WWNZ) argues that due to the decline of traditional print media and the ethical standards that came with it (let's not open that can of worms) and the rise of online media especially of bloggers whose ethics, inarguably, can be highly dubious. I don't have such an issue with this statement.  However, my bias toward free-speech/free-market ideology and over 10 years' experience in the wine blogosphere have shown me that the good bloggers find a market, find a model, to survive, to make it work financially.  This could be having a high paying job to fund the habit, advertising, accepting contributions from readers or many other methods or a combination of them to make it work. Bad and unethical ones don't. There are exceptions to every rule. 

Burzysnka interviews two writers who use the pay-to-play model although does not acknowledge who they are and the article is not clear on whether this is at their request. I'm sure there are others but the two most notable writers using this business model (and both of which I greatly respect) are Raymond Chan and Sam Kim. I am not aware of others using this model although would not be surprised by it. For the record, both charge about $33 + GST to review a wine and mention this on their website. They do both, however, use the word "independent" heavily in their articles. They put up four arguments, which I think have merit:

  • they are providing a service to wineries and to the public;
  • charging per review creates a level playing field;
  • all of us have some bias;
  • and, wine shows and magazine panel tastings have entry fees, how is this any different?

She then has some pretty awesome quotes from non-wine industry people about how abhorrent the practice is and finally chastises the wineries themselves for not conveying the fact they have in effect paid for these reviews. This is the one part of the argument I don't buy - I just don't think that there is any practical way this could work without completely undermining the point of having a review next to a stack of bottles or a shiny gold sticker on a bottle. The way I see this is different - to me, the wineries are not buying the reviews but the reviewer's credibility. It is the on the reviewer to protect and uphold this. 

There are other models - Bob Campbell MW does not charge for reviews but has created the #realreviews alliance with Aussie writer Huon Hooke where they charge producers and retailers a fee to access and use their reviews. Some of the content is also behind a consumer paywall. I would like to see them c&d a retailer who uses their content without permission as its not cheap and many retailers will be hesitant to start paying for something that they had previously got, more or less, for free. 

Enter Belinda Jackson - consultant to the wine industry and organiser of a number of wine shows. She rebutted Burzynska by arguing about what independence in relation to wine means and does make good points - some I agree with, others I don't. She states, "Their 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." This will be important later. While she claims to be unbiased (as she does not review wine anymore) a more thorough reading of the article makes me question this as she goes on at length about the validity of blind tasting and the wine show system as well as wine writers' acceptance of gifts from wineries and, most importantly, producers misleading consumers by putting medal-like things on their bottles to help sell wine. I don't disagree this is disingenuous, however Jackson has a strong incentive for making these arguments. What I am trying to point out becomes more obvious - no one is innocent. We all have biases. 

Enter Emma Jenkins, one of the new MW's on the block (kudos to her - it is an amazingly tough program which by accounts gets harder year on year) who shares a blog with Jane Skilton, also an MW. She takes issue with the comment made by Jackson about being "duty-bound to write nice things" as misunderstanding "the aspects that concern us." She states that the argument to allow pay-to-play writers centres around "strawman arguments or plain flawed thinking... (e.g. everyone has a right to earn a living.) ...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."

Jenkins then brings up the point about these reviewers styling themselves as both consultants to the industry and "independent reviewers" and states quite simply: "You can't be both." She criticises the defence that these reviewers disclose the fact they charge for reviews. "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."

So far I have spent 550+ words on my own disclosures and twice that again summing up the various sides of the argument.  If you have got this far, hurrah! I guess the point of the length of this post is that the arguments on all sides are getting tiresome. 

I personally feel that both sides of the debate make good points but I don't think that any of them present them in full context. This is where my two cents come in and hopefully it will help you to make up your own mind. One more disclosure here - I don't know Sam Kim that well but I've read his tasting notes and he is a talented and astute taster. I do know Raymond well and he has a palate that I don't always agree with but respect. I think he acts ethically, however, the business model he uses does admittedly leave a lot of room for abuse. From here on in I am talking about the model - not the people. Where I stand on the issue changes day by day. 

Here goes:

New Zealand is a small country and has an even smaller wine industry.  This is especially so in relation to "serious wine" which, to be a competent commentator on wine generally, one needs to have an excellent understanding of. It is virtually impossible therefore (unless one is independently wealthy) to be able to amass enough wine knowledge and experience to be a competent writer without doing time in the trenches. This may have been the case 20+ years ago when there was much higher demand for paid writers across the board and the cost of "serious wine" was seriously less, but let's face it, today good wine is expensive and content is cheap. Emerging wine writers and reviewers will necessarily have had to worked in the industry AND have created relationships with producers, suppliers and others.

As I have mentioned earlier, the nature of media has changed. There is simply less work out there for professional wine writers but I think we can all agree that having professional wine writers is a good thing for the industry. So we have to adapt. Some have managed to hold onto traditional paid print and digital work, some have pursued the pay-to-play model, some have attempted to create their own personal media brands that can guarantee them an income and others still have chosen to take advantage of the new opportunities we have at our disposal such as crowd funding. The sane person with long-term goals might take aspects from all of these.

Take BREWED, my beer book, which was crowd funded. To an extent this was pay-to-play.  If I didn't get enough breweries on side, both financially and as advocates, the project would have never got off the ground. I could have approached producers and asked for a set fee to have a certain amount of content - this is certainly how a number of magazines and books are funded these days but I chose to take another route: pledge as much as you think you can afford/what it's worth to you. This said, I was direct and transparent with breweries. Regardless of whether you pledged or how much you pledged I will write about your brewery no more or less favourably that I would have otherwise. You probably think I'm being blind, and maybe I am. However, I am happy with both my transparency (Kickstarter was mentioned in almost every bit of publicity the book received and is mentioned numerous time throughout the book and a full list of the backers is at the end of it) and my independence (I was highly critical of those I needed to be including Moa who was a backer), honest in weighing up the good and bad of the big breweries (none of which contributed) even though there would probably be a significant number of readers who would have liked to read me pillory Lion and DB.  Finally, there are numerous breweries including some of the largest entries that I wax lyrical about and did not give me a cent. I think those results speak for themselves. I hope to publish a wine book in the near future using the same model; it has worked for me and I believe it is also the most transparent and most financially viable method of getting the best possible product in front of a consumer. 

Ultimately the arguments on both sides of this debate come down to one word: bias.

What is bias? Certainly financial bias is obvious but there are so many other forms of bias - bias toward wines and wine styles we 'like' and producers that we have good personal relationships with (NZ is a small country) or those that have a great track record. Even blind tasting creates a certain form bias toward specific styles such as more forward, vibrant wines that stand out in a line up over more subtle wines (but that is a subject for another blog post). Personally I don't think we can eliminate bias. Our jobs as critical, independent professionals is to first mitigate it as much as possible, then acknowledge our biases and control for them as much as possible (just as scientists do) and finally, if a conflict of interest remains then disclose, disclose, disclose. 

But most importantly we have to be professionals. We have to be self-aware enough to understand what we like, don't like and why then be bold enough to (where appropriate) publicly acknowledge these things. What I find abhorrent in both the wine and food industries generally and in NZ specifically is writers and reviewers who cannot separate personal opinion: "I enjoyed the dish" from educated, professional, objectivity: "The dish was well executed." To give a personal example, I really dislike Pegasus Bay Riesling (I am a huge fan of their other wines) but I have to acknowledge that it is one of the finest examples of the 'medium-kiwi' style on the market and objectively a world class wine. It just happens to be a style I loathe. The same can be said of most barrel aged beers. Likewise, I enjoy whiskey but know I simply do not have enough knowledge about it to make any comment other than "I like whiskey x". I acknowledge this because if I wasn't able to do so I don't think I could fairly call myself a "drinks professional." 

Real criticism requires a balance of both opinion and objectively but most importantly the integrity to separate between them. Too many wine, beer and restaurant reviewers have become so full of their own importance that 'I like' equals good, and 'I don't like' equals bad. This to me, much more of a disservice to the consumer than pay-to-play. 

Finally, the whole argument pays a lot of lip service to, but ultimately ignores consumers. Arguments on all sides scream of 'we know better'. Guess what - consumers are not stupid. They know we have a great gig (I'm not saying its not hard - it is) but they also know where our bread is buttered. They know we don't pay for wine, we can't afford it (ironic huh) and that we have built our business model on the largess of producers who, on a collective basis, don't need us. To most consumers a good review or medal is little more than a nudge toward a wine that in the very least, is not going to be disappointing. Its an indication of a certain level of quality but much less powerful than a general affinity with a brand or even a personal recommendation from a friend.  Jackson suggests, "knowing the brand and resonating with the brand values is brilliant and is the holy grail of all us wine marketers, but an independent endorsement can be even better." I don't believe it for a second. The most successful brands in the market are such because consumers believe in them, their wines and their stories. When they win awards they only act to cement consumers connections with the wine. A good gong may help you sell a few cases today but there is another wine show or wine column tomorrow and is not going to be a huge help long term (the exception is the few wines that consistently get good reviews and awards) - this is one of the things that does help in creating that sense of customer loyalty in the first place. Consumers are not stupid and when we treat them as such it is not them we are doing a disservice to (they don't care) it is ourselves and our profession.

Is the practice of pay-for-play ok or is it not? You make the decision. But be aware of all the facts.