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04.23.2008

Wine Critics are Parasites, But That Doesn't Mean We Can Be Bought

parasite_wino.jpgOne of the world's leading wine critics has just proclaimed that wine writers, journalists, and critics are all parasites. According to Decanter magazine, while being paid to hang out in a plush cliffside hotel in Ronda, Spain, Jancis Robinson took a moment out from tasting some of the world's best wines to admonish her fellow journalists, "We must always remember that we are parasites on the business of winemaking."

From Websters:


Parasite \ˈper-ə-ˌsīt, ˈpa-rə-\ . Noun.

1 : a person who exploits the hospitality of the rich and earns welcome by flattery
2 : an organism living in, with, or on another organism in parasitism (in which one benefits at the expense of the other, without killing it)
3 : something that resembles a biological parasite in dependence on something else for existence or support without making a useful or adequate return


Is she right? Pretty much.

Every wine critic or journalist has their own particular set of ethics, but most enjoy at least some fruits of their power (however limited in scope or narrow in focus) as commentators on a luxury industry. Whether that means keeping wine samples for their personal cellars, going on press junkets to wine regions, getting taken out to lunch by winemakers, or simply access to places and products that ordinary people would have to pay for.

But just because we're parasites, that doesn't mean that we can be bought! You can give us $1000 bottles of wine to taste, but you can't give us Cartier watches. That's just too much, apparently. Even parasites have some sort of scruples.

All sarcasm aside, I've personally found negotiating my relationship with "the industry" tricky, to say the least. In figuring out what my own personal ethics are as a journalist, I've had to deal with a number of realities that all wine journalists must face:

1. Writing about wine doesn't pay worth a damn, which makes the free meals, free wine, and special treatment easy to imagine as "payment in kind" for our work.

2. Because we wine writers are generally poor, we can't afford to go out and buy all the wines we want to taste, nor can we always afford to pay our way at tastings, trips, conferences and the like -- the very things that provide the experience and knowledge we need to write better stuff.

3. We are the main vehicle that all but the largest wineries have for marketing themselves to a broad audience. Most wineries have little or no marketing budget, so all their exposure is usually through the press and word of mouth. Which means they want to treat us really well.

4. No matter what level of objectivity we seek to achieve, there's no way of avoiding personal relationships with folks in the industry. It doesn't help that many of them are nice, rich, super generous, and completely awesome to hang out with, not to mention the fact that they are pretty big fans of the thing that we are most passionate about.

So it's no surprise, really, that wine magnate Bernard Magrez sent journalists home from lunch at (Michelin three star) Alain Ducasse in Paris with a goody bag that included a limited edition, engraved Cartier watch. I guess it is somewhat surprising, though, that after letting him pay for lunch, and doubtless a few bottles of amazing wine, those same journalists would be outraged at the gift.

If you're gonna be a parasite, what's the difference between a free meal and a free watch? I'll bet the lunch cost more than 30% the value of the 1500 Euro watch that is causing such a commotion.

Read the full story.

Photo by andrésmh.


Comments (16)

Nancy wrote:
04.24.08 at 7:17 AM

Being a parasite sounds like fun! I hope the day comes for me, someday, when I am schmoozed by winemakers anxious for whatever publicity I can give them. By the way, Jancis Robinson's quote seems incomplete. "We must always remember that we are parasites," and so --? What came before? Her tone implies that somebody in the vicinity blotted his copybook, and that's what she was responding to.

Rich wrote:
04.24.08 at 9:46 AM

Your August 31, 2006 ethics posting laid it out quite well. If I had to put my view in one sentence I'd say, "Anything of value that would influence your writing should be avoided." Of course, disclosure informs readers to be aware of even potential influence. Your example here seems to be an easy one. What's the difference between a very expensive watch or meal/event? Frankly, I'm not into watches. So, the meal seems even more valuable. Influence is in the eye of the influenced. If it makes you pause to question whether it's appropriate, then it isn't.

Arthur wrote:
04.24.08 at 11:06 AM

Alder,

The second half of Robinson's contention is that wine critics must act with humility when dispensing their opinions. She points out (and comments to the piece support her) that winemakers DO respond to critics by altering the style of their wines.

If wine critics are to show humility, the first place to stat IS recommending wines IN SPITE of their own preferences.

That is ultimate humility: to recommend something that one may not prefer but others might.

Describing wines in a way such that their essence is conveyed to the reader and the critic's/reviewer's preferences or likes/dislikes are not imposed on the evaluation is like being a matchmaker. You may not necessarily seek the two people out to be your friends, but you are able to see them for who they are and recognize that the two would make a good pair. You can - and should - still offer commentary, cautioning of pitfalls and shortcomings.

Emily wrote:
04.24.08 at 11:15 AM

The problem with saying "anything of value...should be avoided" by critics is that, if that were the case, only a very specific demographic would be writing about restaurants, travel, and wine.

Rich wrote:
04.24.08 at 1:37 PM

Emily, you have a good point, but I didn't mean that anything of value should be avoided -- only if it influences your writing. If it does, I said disclosure is another approach. The more that is written, the better for the most part. I hope that clarifies what I meant to say.

dustin platt wrote:
04.24.08 at 2:26 PM

Greetings Alder;
But What is truly valuable? I agree with you whole-heartedly. You are an advertiser who doesn't get paid as well as a teacher who helps us learn more about wines. You are providing a valuable service out of the goodness of your heart, and the lifestyle of oenophiles is one that has a different focus: "Breaking Bread, And Sharing the Cup" are much more important to me and my friends than knowing what time it is. When it comes to gratitude, "You don't count the cost."

04.24.08 at 3:54 PM

You know, young ladies from good families used to be thaught to accept only flowers and chocolates, and eventually a decent book presented by the writer. Still a good guideline in tricky situations.

So in my opinion, getting free lunches and wines to taste home is still relevant to my work, and as long as no publisher is going to pay the related expenses for research on the pieces I submit, someone's gotta do it. Let be the producer, with its marketing budget, that's what a marketing budget exist for.

Anything else of value falls in the grey zone: I do most certainly write for a living, but isn't a € 2000 Cartier pen a bit out of context?

The watch, any way you want to see it, was wrong. By the way, in some countries, work related gifts cannot by law be more than € 50 worth, or other you pay taxes on them, as the tax-office sees them as a hidden source of income (and on income you pay taxes, but I am talking about places where you're happy of what they do with your tax-money, like free-health care etc.).

So to me is very simple: is it something I would be happy to pay taxes on, without preferring to buy it by myself? Just say no.

Blake Gray wrote:
04.24.08 at 5:34 PM

I have walked into wine shops on the other side of the country and seen my words about a wine hanging on the neck of a bottle in laminated form, as the winery uses them in an attempt to sell the wine.
So I'd have to say I'm more of an epiphyte.

Tish wrote:
04.24.08 at 7:07 PM

Can we please give the world's finest wine writer the benefit of doubt she deserves? For one thing, there are quite a few "bloody" English words that are used differently across the Atlantic than they are in Webster's. Could a "parasite" be merely a hanger-on? If so, that accurately describes a whole lotta American wine writers, and there's nothing wrong with that.

More important, the Decanter reporter snatched a few snippets from what was surely an extensive and well-considered presentation. If her comments really bother you, wouldn't it make sense to seek out the original remarks in their entirety? Sure, it might take time and might not even be possible, but jumping on the "parasite" line without knowing the full extent or her remarks seems foolhardy at best. The reactions here seem eerily similar to the way political pundits jump on soundbites from the Democratic presidential candidates. Why the rush to judgment based on an out-of-context quote? Jancis Robinson deserves better.

I agree with Arthur's general sentiment here. And it seems that a little more humility would not hurt anyone chiming in on this tempest in a wine cup. That is, unless we want to be viewed as "bitter" Americans who "cling" to PR handouts and 100-point-scale ratings.

Alder wrote:
04.24.08 at 7:35 PM

Tish,

Who's bitter? Seriously. I just read back through all the comments here and it doesn't seem like anyone is bothered. I'm certainly not. I completely agree with her. Even if you want to interpret parasite in the most pejorative sense (though I gotta say, Blake is right on with the ephiphyte comment). Certianly there doesn't seem to be anyone here criticizing Jancis. If there's any criticism being expressed, it's at the folks who might consider a Cartier watch an acceptable gift from a winery owner.

1WineDude wrote:
04.25.08 at 3:44 AM

Well, if I'm a parasite then I'm gonna attach myself to Christina Aguilera *pronto*...

Tish wrote:
04.25.08 at 5:23 AM

My bad on the "bitter" note. Guilty of trying to tie in the timely political analogy. My main point is that I see this as less about wine-writing ethics than about taking comments out of context. Every wine writer has his/her own standards and complications to deal with. I suppose the real upside of this discussion is the reminder that the courting of publicity is a many-headed beast. THe Cartier watches were something I had never heard of.

Steve wrote:
04.25.08 at 9:49 AM

The only thing the wine critic has is his or her reputation in the industry. That cannot be bought -- it has to be earned.

Dr. Debs wrote:
04.25.08 at 9:53 AM

Thanks for this thoughtful piece, Alder. I think the best policy is consistency--even if that consistency doesn't make sense to anyone else--combined with transparency. So, I don't take ads but I will accept wine samples. Some people might think that this is a ludicrous distinction, but it's the one that I'm comfortable with, so I stick to it.

One of the most valuable things you point out here is that few wine bloggers (none?) are making money at this. We do it out of passion, despite our diminishing bank balance. At the same time, some criticize us for never being on the "cutting edge" and simply following in the footsteps of print wine journalists. Well folks, some of us follow behind because we can't afford to be in the lead. To do so requires expensive trips and sips. And to get the inside track on stories requires cultivating the relationships with wineries and winemakers that some find suspect.

Thank you for pointing out that we may be parasites but we can't necessarily be bought. It's an important distinction in a complicated issue.

Nancy wrote:
04.25.08 at 11:05 AM

By the way -- how do we pronounce Jancis?

Arthur wrote:
04.25.08 at 11:08 AM

JAN-sis

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