Last week my husband related to me, with annoyance, the gist of a wine-related radio segment he’d just heard. In it, a well-known food/wine reporter reviewed an array of wines he’d tasted in celebration of his son’s 40th birthday. These were no ordinary wines: We’re talking about 40-year-old bottles of high-end French Champagne, Bordeaux and the like. “Who even has access to these wines,” my husband demanded, “let alone the money to buy them during a recession?” Good questions.
To me, the reporter’s choice of topic smacks of a tasty tax write-off. (Why pay the full price for your son’s pricey b-day wines when you can write them off as a “business expense”?) And while there’s nothing illegal about that, it strikes me as a little bit “iffy” in the ethics department. Who was that report meant to serve: The radio station’s listeners, or the reporter’s (and the birthday boy’s) gullet?
The wine industry is full of such ethical ambiguities. In April, the famous wine critic, Robert Parker, Jr., came under fire in the Dr. Vino blog and in the Wall St. Journal because two of his representatives accepted free trips and dinners from wine producers -- a practice that is strictly against Parker’s stated policy of independence.
But the truth is, lots -- if not the majority -- of professional wine critics and writers accept free wine samples, attend “comped” dinners hosted by wineries and importers, and visit far-flung wine regions on someone else’s dime. Does that mean that these writers are allowing themselves to be swayed by such freebies?
In an idealist’s world, wine reviewers would pay for their own samples (as would electronics reviewers, book reviewers, and the like), but how often do you think that actually happens? Wine Spectator doesn’t buy the wines the magazine reviews -- unless the producer refuses to send a particular wine for some reason -- and neither does the Wine Advocate. And the same goes for professional wine reviewers across the country, from regional newspaper columnists to writers for multi-million-circulation glossy lifestyle magazines. (The Wall St. Journal’s wine-writing duo, Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher, is a notable exception.) Do I pay for the wines that I review for this very website? Nope.
The reason is simple, if not satisfactory: If wine writers and publishers had to fork over the money for all the wines they tasted in a given year, the writers would end up spending more money than they made for their efforts, and publications would run out of cash before they ever made it to the printer -- or even to the Internet.
But that doesn’t mean that we writers and reviewers are selling out. Most of the wine writers I know hold themselves to high standards of ethics. While this doesn’t mean that they refuse to accept wine samples or trips to European wine regions, most do manage to maintain their objectivity.
“I never ask for samples unless I have an assignment that would or could include” these particular wines, says veteran wine journalist Larry Walker. “However, since one of my ongoing projects is the West Coast update for Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book, all samples more or less fit that definition.”
If he doesn’t like a wine he receives for review, he usually won’t write about it. “I’ve written very few negative reviews,” Walker says. “When I go negative it is because I feel the producer is trying to represent the wine as something it is not.”
Walker says he’s fairly unlikely to partake of free dinners and trips, but he doesn’t rule them out. “I avoid dinners when possible because they really add nothing,” he says. “Ditto for trips, unless it’s for general background in a region I do not already know. I accept trip perks only if I have an assignment prior to the trip. If not, and if I really want to go, I make it clear up front that the trip is for background, and I make no promises for a story. If the trip promoter is OK with that, so am I.”
Though Walker is wary of accepting freebies that he considers unethical, he points out that not all wine writers hold themselves to the same standards. “I was recently at a tasting for a Spanish regional wine association, which is not well known in the U.S., although anyone with more than a passing interest in Spanish wines would know it,” he says. “Several writers present mentioned to the PR rep/promoter that it would really help them understand the wines better if they visited the region. I think that is probably OK, if the person has proper credentials and firm plans to write about the region. Otherwise, it is pretty shabby journalism.”
The issue of ethics in wine journalism is an important one, Walker says, and one that deserves more discussion. “There are a handful of wine writers who could be treated to trips and other perks and still write honestly about the wine,” he says. “There are quite a few others who are routinely bought, even if no cash changes hands.”
Fellow Wine Review Online columnist and Wine & Spirits magazine senior editor Patrick Comiskey prefers to receive samples upon request, rather than having them sent to him automatically. He attends hosted wine dinners fairly regularly, but rarely accepts trips.
“If the trip is a good one, theoretically, I'll feel an incentive to write, but no obligation,” he says. “I feel it's all in the service of my knowing another aspect of a region, and that information will find its way to print.”
Though some would call the acceptance of perks like free wine and trips “unethical,” Comiskey feels that, for him, there’s no conflict of interest. “I strongly feel that I’m an independent voice, despite the perks provided,” he says. “No one is paying me to write one thing or another. People may try to mediate my experience, but it's still mine.”
And what’s my personal code of wine-writer ethics?
As I mentioned earlier in this column, I happily accept wine samples. I taste the wines, but I don’t guarantee that they will be reviewed in print. (I will sometimes write a lukewarm review of a wine I’m not crazy about, but I opt not to write about wines that I consider bad. The feeling of most editors/publishers is that recommendations are more useful to readers than condemnations.)
As for trips, I occasionally travel on sponsored press trips, but again, I make no promises of coverage. Like Walker and Comiskey, I accept only trips that have some educational benefit to me as a writer, or if I have a related story in mind for one of my media outlets. (I have declined many fabulous-sounding trips over the years because I just didn’t think I’d get anything out of them, aside from a good time.) Make no mistake: While these trips can be fun, and there’s often great wine and food to be had along the way, they are not vacations. Journalists are kept on an intense schedule, visiting multiple wineries each day and tasting through dozens of wines -- and not all of them are enjoyable. (The most grueling trips are affectionately known among wine writers as “death marches.”)
I’ve also been known to attend dinners and events hosted by wineries. Again, I accept or decline these invitations based on what I’m likely to get out of them in terms of education, contacts or useful experiences.
And yes, sometimes attending a particularly amazing dinner, or sipping wine with a charming winemaker in an exotic land can give me a warm, fuzzy feeling about that particular producer or region. But the spell wears off by the time I get back to my desk, and then it’s all business.
Larry Walker sums up the ethics debate with this amusing anecdote. “In the 1960s there was a Speaker of the House in Sacramento, Jesse Unruh, who was well known for taking every perk offered by lobbyists -- then voting however he wanted,” he relates. “When asked how he could do that, he said: ‘If you can’t drink their whiskey, eat their dinners and screw their women, and still vote for the best interest of your constituents, you don’t belong in the California legislature.”
And to that, I raise a glass of (sample) wine and say: Here’s to those who can partake of the occasional job-related perk and still take the high road.