Wine Writers and Ethics: Food For Thought?

Has anyone out there read the lastest on Wine Writer Ethics in the Wall Street Journal? I know Jancis Robinson has written extensively about this issue recently, and Dr. Vino has played a big role in exposing some of the incidents that led to this becoming a hot topic, so you may already be hip to the brouha-ha, but if you haven’t yet dug into the subject, I recommend giving this a read, and of course, please feel free to post your thoughts!

Categories: Viticultural Salmagundi

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14 replies

  1. The FTC “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising” is here:
    There was significant discussion when the guide came out last October – see for a decent round-up and links. I started writing a piece myself, but decided it wasn’t relevant to the audience of my blog so I deleted it.

    My understanding is that the FTC’s involvement was prompted by increasing concern that the lines between blogs and paid advertisements are becoming blurred. There are already rules in place for print media that prevent advertisements from masquerading as articles, but there are no rules for the Internet, and there have been instances where people have been given consumer electronics or even payment on condition of a favourable review.

    The rules, which came into force this December, threaten a $10,000 fine for non-disclosure. However it’s not clear what has to be disclosed. While I have always stated up front on my blog whenever a wine was received as a sample, am I now required to disclose whether a winery comped my tasting fee? What about wineries who offer bloggers trade discounts? Then there are some wines I received in exchange for a piece I wrote for the Wineries of Santa Clara Valley’s website. What am I required to disclose there?

    I’m all in favour of appropriate disclosure, but if the FTC wants to regulate this officially then they really need to be clearer as to what is required.

    Finally there was at least one blogger who made a tongue-in-cheek offer for any winery who was interested to pay him to blog without disclosure. This would then be ‘leaked’ to the FTC and regardless of the outcome would inevitably generate large amounts of almost free publicity for the winery.

  2. I think that with the FTC mandating full disclosure by bloggers, but not by print media, and in light of the article you referenced, it is fair to say that wine blog writers are more trustworthy than Robert Parker and his ilk at WS, WE, W&S, and all the other publications that do not disclose receipt of free samples, event tickets and paid trips for their writers, or take advertising dollars from those they purport to review objectively.

    • Very interesting observations John, thank you for posting them! Any chance you could elaborate on the “full disclosure by bloggers” matter? Do you have access to the legalese of that? I’m really curious to investigate the minutiae. Thanks! Also, how’s about we get a post/thread up discussing just why we think paid for samples automatically indicate bias? I’m not sure it does, for what it’s worth …


    • John, I just found out that Wine Enthusiast requires a payment of almost $1,000 per review to include a label image in the magazine. That’s a significant piece of non-disclosure there.

      • It is my understanding that this is fairly common practice, but I’m not sure it really constitutes a disclosure dilemma, as the offer to include a label is only given to a producer after the review has already been completed; meaning, when a publication confirms a review to go to print, it will then contact said producer to see if they would be interested in having a label included with the review. In effect, they are offering the producer a paid-for opportunity to exploit the review; accordingly, it doesn’t really strike me as anything underhanded; it’s not as if the producer is paying for the review … but that’s just my perspective, based on what I think I know at this time …


  3. The issue to me was not so much that the trips were paid for by the producers (although this was at odds with Parker’s stated policies) but in the way the tastings were conducted. Miller claims he tastes 150+ wines a day, with the importer in attendance, not blind and not even peer grouped, but grouped according to producer. That means he’s constantly alternating between grape, style and even colour or sugar level. I don’t claim to be an expert critic, but that’s no way to taste wines in my view.

    Ultimately it appears that the decision has been made to prohibit all external funding of trips, but not to change the way in which tastings are conducted. Which is a huge mistake in my view; there’s no reason why critics can’t have at least some of their expenses covered within reason provided there is disclosure and there are safeguards in place to ensure not only that there’s no bias but that there is not even any perception of bias – for instance blind tastings that include control wines.

    The upshot will be that regions which are up and coming and typically get overlooked will find it harder to get coverage, and that serves nobody.

    • VERY well made point David; I’m not sure the debate to date has been framed in exactly this way, and as you explain it, perhaps it really ought to be! 150 wines in a day is just absolutely NO way to taste …

  4. Tempest in a teapot, I say.

    When I read a wine column on the wines of XYZ Valley, I expect that the writer’s attention was somehow attracted to that area, and probably by an expense-paid invitation. I also expect that the writer will tell me what makes these wines distinctive and maybe which are worth seeking out.

    I don’t expect the piece to say, “I went to the XYZ valley and I gotta tell you, it’s all swill”

    As a reader, if something I read is new to me, I may try one to calibrate my palate with the wine writer’s. I expect that much wine writing is like travelogue and a little puffy and a little paid for.

    If, however, the writer is ranking or scoring wines, I expect objectivity, and not a 94 because the winemaker built a new deck for the writer’s vacation home.

    • It seems to me in the end that there is an interesting combination of faith and cynicism at work here; on one hand, we assume incentives are being offered out there, and most likely being accepted; we may not like it, we may not think it’s right, but we assume it and accept it. On the other hand though, we have faith that writers can and will maintain neutrality, objectivity, and honesty. I think what’s probably really at issue is transparency, and consistency. I think the gripe with Parker has less to do with the existence of “payola” or incentives per se, and more to do with the question of “Did he say one thing but do the other?”

  5. it seems this is all i read about in the online wine world. i just can’t believe the concept that payola exists within the world of wine criticism is actually news!

    i always took this as a given since i first began drinking wine in the 1970’s. NY’er in me i guess?

    in this world of internet “friends” why would anyone need “professional” wine criticism to guide enjoyment or purchases?

    • Hiya Glenn, thanks for chiming in on this one!

      Regarding your specific comments, agreed that this subject has been pretty omni-present out there; and also agreed that, at least in certain respects, payola in any form in no new revelation; that said, Mr. Parker has certainly been seemingly strident about ethics specifically over the years, so I think it’s probably fair to assume that any seeming breech is accordingly an invitation to critical commentary … for my part, I think what I found most interesting is not even necessarily the issues themselves, but the fact that’s they’ve gone all the way up to The Wall Street Journal!

      I love your final comment best of all. Despite all our collective analyses, in the end, the best wine is the wine we like best, and there is rarely a more trusted guide in the search to find such a wine than a trusted friend!

      That said, a friend who knows what they’re talking about is of course that much more helpful, and a good, or should I say great, reviewer plays just that role; for example, Stephen Tanzer feels like a friend, even though I’ve never met him!

      Just my two cents for the moment; mainly, thanks again for your comments!


  6. I’m torn. Perhaps I’m not understanding the full brunt of the implications, but if I were a winery and wanted to be considered int eh newsletter, then if I have the means, I too would fly out the writer in question- however, I’d have to be pretty desperate to get their attention in the first place… I rather though wines of high caliber speak for themselves. Having said that, it must be a marketing attempt to get these writers flown over and promoting the wines, within the newsletter. But, there is something to bes said for an unbiased review, and I would imagine that my own objectivity could be tempted by lavish house boat trips too…. tempted mind you, not bribed entirely.

    As to whether these writers have given up their neutrality is a matter that only they know for sure. And I’m pretty damn sure they aren’t telling.

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