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07.17.2011

Should Wine Writers (or Bloggers) Be Friends With Winemakers?

Warning: wine writer navel gazing ahead. If you're not interested in such discussions, go read a wine review. Us wine bloggers can't seem to stop ourselves from discussions of ethics in wine writing.

Perhaps you've seen the little kerfuffle over at DrVino.Com or the Wall Street Journal wine blog, where Tyler Colman, the author of Dr. Vino, pokes at Lettie Teague, one of the Wall Street Journal's wine columnists, for praising a wine made by a friend of hers (and a past subject of her writings) without disclosing that friendship in her blog post.

Stepping around the spittle-flecked mess that ensued, and only gently commenting on whether Mr. Colman is a teensy bit overzealous in his self-appointed role as ethics cop for the mainstream wine press (he is), or whether Ms. Teague should have disclosed what appears to be a rather close friendship in her article (she probably should have), this little incident shines a light on a tricky, if a bit esoteric, aspect of wine writing.

I've thought a lot about this particular question as to whether those who write about wine should be friends with those who make it. Mostly because I'm occasionally confronted with the situation where there is a definite and complete intersection between my avocation as a wine writer and my social life, despite my general policy of "keeping the industry at arm's length."

In a purely theoretical and idealistic world, a wine writer would be able to do their job without social contacts within the wine industry. But in practice that's nearly impossible. As far as I can see, the best attempt to hold this sort of stance that the industry has ever seen were the first couple of years of Robert Parker's career as a self-appointed wine critic. He hardly knew anyone in the industry, and no doubt relished his independence from it all. I don't know how long he went without having people he would describe as "friends" in the business, but I'll bet it wasn't more than a couple of years.

The problem with the idea of keeping oneself wholly separate from the wine industry is that in order to understand what is really going on, and to learn the stories that really make wine meaningful, you have to hang out with the people who make it, and the people who own the wineries, and you actually have to have reasonably deep conversations with them.

And wouldn't you know it, but some of them are actually really nice people. And over time, after seeing them a lot, and having lots of conversations with them, you actually find a few that you wouldn't mind having a beer with, or going to see a concert with, or sitting around at a park and letting your kids run around with theirs.

That's just human nature, of course, and trying to thwart that isn't easy. It's probably downright impossible, at least for anyone that is trying to actually learn about the soul of winemaking, which lives in the hearts of those who are passionate about it.

So if it is fairly inevitable that wine writers get friendly with winemakers (a point which perhaps some may argue, which I certainly invite) we end up with a two-fold question in the ethical domain:

1. Does a personal relationship with the winemaker influence your assessment of the wine he or she makes?
2. If so, at what point in the development of the relationship does this occur or become probable enough that this relationship needs to be disclosed to one's readers, who presumably (but not necessarily) care about such things?

I think the answer to #1 is almost certainly, yes. Our psychology is incredibly susceptible to influences of all kinds, especially when emotion is at play.

So then the real question is the second one, and it's a damn hard one to answer, as it quickly descends into the realm of philosophy. At what point does someone stop being an acquaintance, and start being a friend in the sense that matters for this particular question of influence?

Would I be considered "friends" with a winemaker if I:

• Had dinner with her (I'd pay my own way, of course)?
• Had a beer with him (again, paying for my own)?
• Cooked him and his wife a meal in my house?
• Been cooked a meal by her and her husband in their house?
• Met them for breakfast at a local cafe and then let our kids play in the park together?
• Had several long conversations with him about things other than winemaking?
• Played a round of golf with her (covering my own greens fees)?

And would having done any of these things once be enough to say we were friends, or would I have to have done these multiple times?

From my own perspective, there are some very clear boundaries (that I hold personally) when it comes to interacting with folks in the wine industry, suggested in part by the parentheticals above.

To be explicit: I don't go on the pre-arranged PR lunches that often get set up between winemakers and wine writers when winemakers come through town; I don't go to events put on by or for individual wineries that have free food, wine, and other goodies; I don't accept hospitality from individual wineries, and whenever possible I avoid winery-based accommodations; If I ever do end up having a meal or a drink with a winemaker, I always pay my own way, regardless of my relationship to the winemaker; Whenever I review a wine that was provided as a sample, I disclose it; and whenever I'm on a trip, which must be paid for by a regional authority (as opposed to a producer or importer), I disclose that in my writing.

These are fairly clear areas of potential influence, or perception of influence, mostly having to do with money or things that people tend to value in the same terms as money.

But they don't include any of the elements of personal relationships, which are murky, indeed. I have relationships with lots of people in the wine industry, that range from the level of remembering people's names and their kids' names and actually being interested in how they are doing, to very close friendships that go back more than a decade, in some cases pre-dating a friend's involvement in the wine industry.

The few times I have reviewed a wine by someone that I considered a close friend, I have disclosed it because I felt that was the right thing to do. But there are a lot of other folks whose wines I regularly score and/or review that I know more than just being on a first-name basis.

Here's a concrete example. I'd say that I'm fairly friendly with a young winemaker named Jamie Kutch. I've received samples from him, which I have reviewed in the past, clearly disclosing the fact that they were samples. I know his wife Kristen because she used to work at a marketing agency run by a good friend of mine. I see them both often at wine related events. At a BYO party at the Food and Wine Classic in Aspen we have each sat around and enjoyed samples from bottles of wine that the other had brought. We've chatted before, during, and after watching wine seminars in Aspen and elsewhere. We're at the point in our relationship where we greet each other with enthusiasm. I hug Kristen. We care how each other is doing. Though we have not gone on a double date, cooked each other a meal, gone on vacation together, or any number of other things that really good friends would do.

At a recent large public tasting, I tasted some of Jamie's wines that I thought were fantastic, and I scored them accordingly. Should I have disclosed "our relationship" in the context of those reviews?

I don't think so, but perhaps you have another opinion. Heaven knows that every serious wine writer I know has scores if not hundreds of such relationships, and many of their personal or employer's ethical policies don't keep them from lodging with winemakers or attending big vertical tasting dinners where winemakers or individual wineries buy the meal while they showcase their wines (this is not a swipe or a judgement, by the way, merely a statement of fact).

It's easy to abstractly suggest that critics, or those whose activities place them in a critical role, should remain completely aloof and separate from those whose activities they scrutinize in their writing. But in practice, especially in the wine industry, that's nearly impossible.

So assuming you're one of those people for whom such questions aren't either yawn-inducing or infuriating, what do you think?

As hard as I've thought about it, there doesn't seem to be any clear line, and the only rule that I can imagine really working is for wine writers to use their best judgement, which presumably most of them are doing anyway.

At the end of the day, no matter what, readers have to decide whether they feel like the writer they are reading has integrity or not, and how tightly they want to cling (and want their critics to cling) to the notion of objectivity in wine criticism, a topic that has inspired millions of words of debate so far, and will no doubt continue to do so in the future.

Reality, as they say, is messy.

Full disclosure: I consider both Tyler Colman and Lettie Teague to be less than best friends, but definitely much more than acquaintances.

Comments (37)

Benito wrote:
07.17.11 at 5:01 PM

This is a good discussion to have, and there are no clear answers. Ultimately we're reviewing things that are fun and make us feel good, and typically taste better when surrounded by people we like. It would be a much simpler ethical problem if we were reviewing gravestones or writing about airplane crashes.

Probability would indicate that there must be some real jackasses who make great wine, as well as wonderful, friendly people that make crap. Ultimately enough reviews will indicate the actual value of the wine, and it's never good to rely on just one opinion.

Social media certainly complicates matters. I know a wineblogger who does not "friend" winemakers or "like" winery pages out of a desire to avoid conflicts of interest. However, these connections do not imply approval, but are merely tools that facilitate communication. You can "like" Chateau Outhouse Winery and post a scathing review tagged to their page. Depending on their settings, you may even be able to post said review on that wall. But then again, others might view such connections as crossing a line.

Last week when I wrote about my dog dying, I heard from several winemakers, publicists, and other industry folks. Those words meant a lot to me, but I would not let that influence a review of any of their products. At the end of it, we are simply human, and when you've sat down at a table together and shared wine and broken bread, there is a connection. It's impossible to completely ignore that without having your writing stripped of humanity.

07.17.11 at 6:05 PM

Great questions, well posited. After enjoying a delightful lunch with a charming winemaker just a few days ago, I was mulling over the same question. Yes, I know how cozy and gay that sounds, but, seriously, even using those words proves the argument.

At some point very early on in the process of getting to know someone, your subconscience makes a decision as to whether you like them or not. Unless you are a complete sociopath, the inertia of that decision follows through in other associated thoughts and actions as inevitably as gravity.

It ain't pretty or fair or neatly shaped to fit into a tier of influence, but it is the beauty of humanity and how our good will towards one another shines through no matter the tannic bite.

And, yes, if the thought crosses your mind, you should disclose it - either through context ("...sampled this wine from the winemaker's navel") or simple statement ("...winemaker sampled this wine from my navel".)

Mike wrote:
07.17.11 at 6:33 PM

As a food blogger this is a common issue as well... Especially in light of the fact that so many food "blogs" these days have become poorly-written advertainment. At the end of the day, if you do your best to be open and honest, I think your readers will respect that.

Heres a question: are the rules different for bloggers than for print journalists?

07.17.11 at 6:46 PM

I call for a full Senate investigate on this matter. There's at least several who aren't grandstanding about something at the moment; here they go.

Bruce Schoenfeld wrote:
07.17.11 at 7:06 PM

Wait a minute. Wine WRITER or critic?

Big difference. Writers write stories about -- among other things -- people. Knowing those people well enough to get past the surface veneer is an asset, just as it is in political writing, sports writing or entertainment writing.

Reviewing or critiquing is a different matter.

I guess I would say this. If I were reading a review of the new Philip Roth novel, I'd want it to be written by someone who didn't have a strong personal relationship with Roth. But if I were reading a book or article about Roth as a person and how that informs his work, I'd much rather it came from someone who knew him well.

Wine's no different. If all you care about is what's in the glass, nothing more, call yourself a critic and stay home.

If you see wine as a rich vein to be mined for all kinds of interesting stories, get to know as many people as you can as well as you can, in the same way that you travel as much as you can.

Would someone say you're disqualified from writing about Bordeaux because you love the place? I don't think so. People are no different.

Alder wrote:
07.17.11 at 7:58 PM

Bruce,

Thanks as usual for the thoughtful comments. Yes, I've been somewhat lazy about distinguishing between the two. But there are a lot of writers that can't easily be pigeonholed into the category of writer or critic. And even those who are self described "critics" they invariably care about more than what is in the glass. Even Parker, king of scores, has always found it necessary to tell stories about the people behind the wines, both in his 200-500 word summaries of the wineries in the Advocate, and in his books. The folks at the Spectator, Enthusiast, Wine & Spirits are the same. Is Jancis Robinson a writer or a critic?

Fred Swan wrote:
07.17.11 at 11:27 PM

One advantage of reviewing wines over music or books, is that you can taste and review wines blind. If you then write the evaluative portion of the review blind, then bias due to friendship doesn't enter into the equation. That said, one should disclose such things anyway so as to avoid appearing as though hiding the relationship.

Another relevant issue to me is whether or not one's review of the wine deviates dramatically from that of other critics. Giving 95 points to a friends wine might be suspect, but if scores from other reviewers range from 93 to 97, then there doesn't appear to be an issue.

Finally, it seems that only one side of the coin is being addressed here. If a writer should disclose friendships, then surely they should also disclose when the wine reviewed comes from a person they dislike or a winery with business practices they loathe.

Lizzy wrote:
07.18.11 at 12:14 AM

It's a BIG question, Alder. I think a lot depends from the context. In Italy, for example, is (almost) impossible to be a wine writer or a wine critic without any contact with producers and winemakers. Simply, they ignore you if you don't tell them who you are and which is your goal (writing about wine and/or to review...). So, we often are literally obliged to attend to lunch/dinner of PR, to accept hospitaly from wineries, and so on. Of course, you can refuse all this. But in this way you could not do your work, because NOBODY PAYS YOU FOR IT. Not the readers, not the publishers. If you collaborate with a wine magazine, and you have to attend a wine festival, you'll be paid just for your article, but all the costs are yours, nobody pay the cost of travel, hotel, etc.
My conclusion? if you want to be a independent wine critic in Italy, you must be RICH! without needing to be paid, you can be really FREE. Personally, I accept a lot of samples (but I don't want to be paid for my reviews), and if it's the case, hospitaly and organized tour. But this does not guaratee my occasional sponsors that I'll write something about their wines or their efforts. About the wines, I always declare openly if the winemaker is a friend of mine, or the wine is a gift, etc.
This in my blog. On wine magazine, it's more difficult to be so honest. So, very often a lot of us choose to write nothing, if they cannot write something of positive...

Tom wrote:
07.18.11 at 6:46 AM

Here in DC I assume that journalists covering politics have a social relationship with the people they write about or their staff, or are friends with people who know them well. It's inevitable in some respects, as the journalists have to get to know people to cover the subject. I hope that the better ones don't make value judgments, though, or at least have editors who make sure they don't, for straight reporting pieces. Still, especially when a piece is labeled as "analysis" (and, of course, op-eds), I figure that there is some kind of social relationship, direct or indirect, and that definitely colors my reading.

Anyone who sets out to write about wine gets to know winemakers and others in the industry. (I'm not sure there's much distinction between wine writers and wine critics, because almost any profile of a winemaker/winery will include some evaluation of the wines even if it's not the focus of the piece.) I automatically assume that there is some kind of relationship when I read a piece of wine writing. So I think it's better to disclose than not, no matter how casual the relationship. It just takes a few words to do it properly.

Derek wrote:
07.18.11 at 9:27 AM

Read both articles and blog comments. Wow. Tempest in a wineglass. Certainly a snarky post by Dr.Vino. Would have been better to disclose by WSJ. But, where does the political correctness end? Financial involvement, for sure, disclose. I am an agent and represent wineries. If I comment on the quality of their wines, I make sure people understand the extent and context of the relationship. But disclosure on everyone I merely know/are acquainted with/are friendly with..... People can find fault in anything if you choose to look deep enough. That's the key - choose - live and let live, I say.

Donovan wrote:
07.18.11 at 10:22 AM

All industries suffer this problem, and smaller industries more so. Common interests mean personal relationships develop or already exist with people we should be theoretically be objectively interacting with. Yes, you should avoid any gifts that result in obligation, no matter how small, but that's only half the problem. If you can't be sure of avoiding bias, simply go with full disclosure. I'd rather read work by an honestly subjective writer with intimate contacts in an industry, than someone else who claims objectivity.

07.18.11 at 10:30 AM

Bruce Schoenfeld certainly hit one nail squarely on the head. One cannot write stories without getting to know the subject. And the readers of such stories are smart enough to recognize the difference between good and bad journalism. What I call "puff pieces" and others call BJ journalism are useless to everyone with enough brain to recognize them for what they are.

Solid journalism is a different story. One cannot write about Sicily without going there. But one can, as you point out, be transparent about how you got there and why.

Wine criticism is a wholly different topic. While I follow a methodology of only reviewing wines that I taste blind in my own tastings, on my tasting table, alongside their peers, I appreciate that others may not be in the business of reviewing lots of wines at a time and that they will have followed a different methodology.

Transparency, then, becomes the overriding issue. Where were the wines tasted? Were they tasted in a way that the taster did not know everything about them--meaning that one might know one is tasting the seven new Von Strasser Cabernets but not know which is which? Has the critic made clear his or her methodology? How has objectivity been obtained to the fullest extent that it can in a given circumstance.

Parker was not the first to call for or seek objectivity. Blind tasting by wine publications goes back years before that. And he quickly lost his as evidenced by his long stories about sitting with Rhone producers drinking old vintages from their cellars while he and Kermit Lynch and Chave sat around and played and listened to music late into the night. Then, tasting the Chave wines the next mornign and reviewing Kermit's Rhone offerings in the same issue.

At that point, and with some of the things that Jay Miller and others at the Wine Advocate have done, individual readers have come to their own conclusions just as they do when you go to Greece and comment on those wine or I go to Sicily or Argentina and and comment on wines I have tasted there.

You and I seek to be transparent in our dealings. Lettie Teague did not. It was not that she knew the person involved but that she had a close friendship and did not taste the wine in any setting that would suggest objectivity and freedom from bias. We have know way of knowing, therefore, how her choice of a wine to recommend was influenced by friendship, and worse than that, she did not give her readers any chance to draw their own conclusions.

tom barras wrote:
07.18.11 at 3:52 PM

A great post, and some very insightful comments as well. As many have noted, honesty as well as disclosure goes a long way towards retaining faithful readers.

Sue Courtney wrote:
07.18.11 at 11:11 PM

The words of Lester Bangs to William Miller, the 15-year-old wannabe rock journalist in that fabulous movie, 'Almost Famous', have always resonated with me. Rocks stars / winemakers, record companies / wine companies, records / wine Ö are they the same?

Lester says, " You cannot make friends with the rock stars. That's what's important. If you're a rock journalist: first, you will never get paid much. But you will get free records from the record company. And they'll buy you drinks, you'll meet girls, they'll try to fly you places for free, offer you drugs... I know. It sounds great. But they are not your friends. These are people who want you to write sanctimonious stories about the genius of the rock stars, and they will ruin rock and roll and strangle everything we love about it."

Robert C wrote:
07.19.11 at 10:25 AM

How about the other side of the coin? Is it ethical for a winemaker to use his friendships with wine writers to get his wines reviewed favorably?
For the writer the wine had better cut the mustard and hold up to other opinions/reviews because then the both the writer and the winemaker come out in a negetive way. I don't think friendships with each other are un-ethical but both walk a fine line when it comes to reputations.

gab from porland wrote:
07.19.11 at 10:30 PM

As someone who lives in the Willamette Valley and sells wine for a living, I have had this ethical argument with myself many times. I'm glad to hear I'm not the only person thinking about this.

My priority is always to sell people good wine for a good price. As long as I'm doing that, I feel ethically ok with myself.

As a journalist, the question of integrity is more complicated. The person from DC made a great point about journalists and friends. For me, the lack of objectivity in political journalism makes it difficult to be informed. While wine is not politics, the goal of objectivity makes winemaker friendships a little dicey.

But honestly, everywhere I've worked in the wine industry, people have had biases towards certain wines. I've taught wine classes, worked at wine shops & wine bars - even worked with wine critics. Everyone has their own route to their own wineries, but everyone has their favorites.

Some people are biased towards a certain flavor profile. Some people are prefer a certain grape or region or vintage. And some people are drawn to the people.

Like a good wine, a good wine writer should have a complexity that combines all of those things, should offer depth while maintaining balance, should go well with a meal, and shouldn't cost too much.

If you can do all of those things, then you've earned the right to be friends with whomever you want.

doug wilder wrote:
07.20.11 at 7:51 AM

Thanks to Alder for bringing this up, and underscoring it with his personal experience. His objectivity is refreshing in light of the polarized back and forth in Tyler Colmanís blog post (incidentally about 3 Ė 1 in favor of Dr. Vinoís position), with virtually all of the dissent coming from the very loyal, deeply entrenched, Scott Manlin, who seems to be the fall guy in this whole thing.

I posted on the original topic at Dr. Vino because I too am a wine writer/critic and do everything I can to conduct myself in a way that is fair and balanced, while continuing to be credible and influential, regardless if it is $15.00 Sauvignon Blanc Iím reviewing or accepting an invitation to taste privately with a winemaker.

As pointed out, it is virtually impossible to be completely at arms-length in the wine business. It is after all, a product built around sharing. After twenty-plus years, I know hundreds of people in wine, and more than a handful benefitted materially from a long, respectful working relationship we have. When we greet each other, it can range from a hearty hello, quick hug, to the lift of an eyebrow, and it isnít weighted any particular way to what our business relationship is. Even with those producers I have written about the most, I canít see a burger and iced tea or a logo hat/shirt buying a whole lot of influence. Do I have more admiration for some and begin to like them as people? Of course, but that builds over time getting to know them as professionals first. For my readers I have a responsibility to follow quality, nothing else. People I encounter in the trade know and respect this.

I approach a business relationship using the following compass. These shouldnít be uncommon qualities for anyone who writes about something as subjective as wine. Each one somewhat builds off of the foundation of the one that comes before.

Responsibility - Integrity - Transparency - Credibility - Authority - Influence Ė Responsibility.

In practice, I work to get my facts right, decide if the story is something I should write about, disclose any conditions that may not be obvious, generally write with confidence and to the best of my abilities, especially when writing about somebody I may have come to admire and gotten closer to. In some instances, I may have the story to myself, which tends to magnify everything else.

Honestly, if I was faced with the obligation of pointing out a relationship such as the one in question, it would be enough reason to not even publish the article because of how it could reflect on all parties if exposed, eroding every pillar of my professional reputation. I may suggest they take it to another writer and move on to something else.

Because of this approach, I donít feel pressured to write beyond the professional merits of a person, brand or wine. I find that ironically, most of the winemakers I have the closest social relationships with are those who I say the least about.

With great influence comes great responsibility.

lori wrote:
07.20.11 at 9:16 AM

Couldn't the same question be asked about PR people and writers. As a PR manager in the biz, I am often at a loss about how to navigate relationships with writers. I spend a lot of my time interacting with them and there are many who I would love to be closer friends with because they are so great. I think the answer is to have a clear boundary between peronal and professional.

I've always admired your principles and look to them as a model for lots of trickly relationships that exist. But, again at the end of the day it's also about making the distinction between personal and professional.

And, while I totally agree with Bruce, I want to also point out critics need friends too.

Maybe in the end there are no pure relationships and everyone just has to do the best they can....

Alder wrote:
07.20.11 at 10:27 AM

Mike,

Thanks for the comments. I don't think bloggers and print journalists should be held to different standards (though the FTC clearly thinks so).

Mel Knox wrote:
07.20.11 at 4:46 PM

Since the maker of the Nevertell Pinot named her son after me I may be a little prejudiced here. Lettie once wrote an article about barrels and said that I wore chckered shirts, tho every one knows I wear striped and solid shirts and have a checkered past.

I am reminded of what Clive Coates said when he was accused about praising the wines of his friends in Burgundy: 'I should make friends with the bad winemakers?" If Jamie Kutch makes wine the way awriter likes, why shouldn't they be friends? Life is too short.

The great thing about having so many bloggers is that somebody is going to call out anybody who is unethical.

In England the big issue was whether wine merchants could write about wine. Andrew barr pointed out that Serena S praised a wineRY in a book that she wrote. She did not mention that she ALSO repped the winery. She sued for libel. (Thank heavens we do not have English libel laws.)

Can we fault Scott manlin for trying to make friendly with Lettie teague?? Now who wouldn t want to be friends with Lettie?

doug wilder wrote:
07.20.11 at 6:47 PM

Really, who would name a child "Uncle Mel"?

Mel Knox wrote:
07.20.11 at 7:35 PM

Most of the kids just call him 'Uncle"

Don Locke wrote:
07.20.11 at 11:15 PM

Disclose or don't disclose - I don't really care. If a reviewer were to rave about an average wine, it only hurts the reviewer. We know Parker can financially impact a winemaker with a good score, but most other reviewers are being read because we trust the guidance. If a reviewer wants to jeopardize their following by over stating the wine's merit, they'll probably have a short career.

Being in the wine business as well (full disclosure - we are not friends and you have not tasted my wines), I have found that I talk about great wines and when friends give or bring average wine - I stay quiet. Even on bad wine, I keep quiet. No sense bashing someones work. I want to know what's truly good and worth buying.
That's why I'm here - keep up the hard work!

07.22.11 at 1:28 AM

As always Alder, you're really good at keeping the discussion on a high level. As a blogger myself I have chosen to always write when a wine reviewed is a sample, if it has been tasted at an event, if I have been on a trip paid by a local/regional organization. However, when it comes to my more narrowed-down blog I feel many of the issues you highlight are more important for me to keep in mind. If you write about a single subject (Madeira wine) it's quite natural you know the producers, visit them, taste wine with them and occasionally receive samples. I also keep active contacts with those in the business, retailing Madeira wine. Naturally I communicate this in the posts but in the end it all comes down to my readers to decide; am I transparent enough and can I trust this guy.

The readers are not stupid and in the long term, a blogger who don't have the ethics, will loose in readership.

Again, thanks for this one Alder.

All the best,

Niklas

Marcos de Leon wrote:
07.24.11 at 3:49 PM

Who do you think pays and subsidizes trips of regional authorities? Wineries, of course!!!! Its their dues what sustains these authorities, it's their money that pays for the hospitality of visitors. I can't hardly believe you could be so naive.

Alder wrote:
07.24.11 at 4:03 PM

Marcos,

Thanks for your comments. In most cases, the governments of the countries I visit contribute far more funds than individual wineries, who are often quite short on extra cash, and couldn't possibly support the operating budgets of these large organizations through dues alone. For instance, my recent trip to Greece was largely underwritten by a grant from the EU to the Greek wine marketing organization that sponsored the trip.

Regardless, even if I attended a trip that was paid for by an organization whose funds were largely from lots of different wineries, I would have no issue with that, mostly because it's pretty hard to make a case that my scores for an individual winery's wine could be influenced by the fact that they were one of fifty different wineries who *might* have contributed funds to make my trip possible.

jpvazquez wrote:
07.25.11 at 3:06 AM

Hi,

I think that independence is very important. But there are two sides to that. First there is a monetary independence and second a personal independence.

One the first one it's fairly easy to be objective. Never be in business with the wineries.

The second one is far more complex. Do you really need to be friends to stop being objective? What if you are not really friends but you develop fondness for a winemaker, or you admire the winemaker?

Are you even conscious of the status of all your relationships and the impact they have on you?

To me the personal independence is nearly impossible once you get to a certain point. In the beginning when nobody knows who you are it's easy.

Furthermore, at what point should you disclose information about your relationship with a winery/winemaker?

Like you said it's messy.

Enjoy your blog!

Tish wrote:
07.25.11 at 6:50 AM

Interesting how the points and comments on this post demonstrate the relative sanity and wisdom that come from being one step removed from the Lettie Teague incident at drvino.com (FYI, it's Tyler Colman, not Coleman). Tyler deserves credit for spotlighting a specific example of a fairly wide-ranging issue. Let me add 3 quick points:

1) From my experience, personal relationships with wine-trade people has greatly enhanced my ability to write interesting stories. Period. Questioning where/when/what to reveal about relationships is a big gray blob.

2)Ethics represents an ideal opportunity for wine bloggers to separate themselves from traditional print wine media. Superior transparency and authenticity will only serve to raise the profile of bloggers. We have accepted for years that many "articles" may have been written as a result of junkets, but do we as readers demand transparency? And for years wine readers have been subject to unspoken favor-currying to advertisers. Perhaps the increased scrutiny on bloggers should be shifted to traditional media...

3) One area of ethics unique to wine-writing: the use of "blind tasting" as an ethical shield. I have said before and will say again: blind tasting is irreplicable and therefore unreliable. It is pathetic when critics act as if simply by trying a wine blind endows them with greater authority than those who taste with yes wide open. I will always value the opinion of a blogger or retailer or sommelier or any wine professional or peer who has the confidence to stand behind a recommendation because of personal eyes-open experience.

Patricia Mariani wrote:
07.25.11 at 8:28 AM

How could journalists do their job if they didnít receive invitations or free samples? Only very few large publications have budgets assigned for the coverage of food and wine topics and the reimbursements of expenditures. I am not aware of large media that purchase bottles of wine to perform their ratings. They hardly pay decent fees to the journalists, many of them free-lancers! If many journalists who cover food and wine events donít even get reimbursed for a bus, metro or parking ticket to get to an event (and I speak from my own experience,) how can anyone expect that they would be for a costly bottle of wine they purchase to perform an evaluation? Most professionals donít have a budget for this. If they donít receive samples from winemakers or distributors, regardless of whether they are friends or not, they probably wouldnít be able to do their job because they simply canít afford purchasing the bottles. And the consumer would never be able to learn about these wines. I myself have sometimes called a winery to request a sample of a wine I have read about and believe itís important to taste because there is some innovation or distinction involved that I believe consumers should know about. And the fact that I did not pay for the bottle hasnít influenced my evaluation. The seriousness of the professional has nothing to do with the origin of the source, whether it was a present, an invitation or whatever. There is good journalism and bad journalism, it could be on print or broadcast media, blogs or Internet publications. As simple as that.

A. Pollock wrote:
07.25.11 at 9:30 AM

My husband is the wine maker for the Syrah that won Best of California at the Cal State Fair. It's very hard for small wineries to get the notice. I believe competition helps get the word out. Instead of just one critic, you have a roomful of critics drinking your wine whether they know you or not.

Mel Knox wrote:
07.25.11 at 2:09 PM

Those of you older readers remember Jesse Unruh when he was Speaker of the California Assembly. He was the white Willie brown.

He said of lobbyists, If you cannot drink their whiskey, screw their whores and vote against 'em, you don't belong here (in the legislature)...

Wine writers have to be able to bite the hand that feeds their livers.

Bryn wrote:
07.26.11 at 5:47 AM

Why is it important? The reviewing of a wine is always personal. The people drinking the wine in the end will either like it or hate it. So what does this personal relationship have to do with a tasting note? The wine will always tell the truth in the end.

Someone mentioned readerships deserting? Now if a reader deserts a critic because he gave a positive review to a wine that the reader thought was rubbish, then i would have been through every critic and wine writer on the planet. And if someone is that fickle as to desert like that without discussion or comment, then are they the kind of person you want reading the blog?! Peoples palates are different!

Bryn wrote:
07.26.11 at 5:50 AM

forgot to mention... fine blog! keep up the good work!
Bryn
UK

Jennifer wrote:
07.27.11 at 1:45 PM

I think you have it correct. Let your concience be your guide. You have done great so far so why question it

Miquel wrote:
07.27.11 at 3:04 PM

As you pointed out, you have to really get to know a winemaker in order to know their wines. I'm happy to say that I have several winemakers that I consider to be friends, but with friendship is always honesty and if they present me with something that's crap, we have a proper enough relationship to have that exchange. If you keep everything too professional, you're unable to really have this and it ends up being a one-sided interaction that is clinical and goes against the nature of wine.

There's a bigger point in all of this which is that at some point, I feel that most wine writers should try, or be fully active in winemaking given that it's such a core craft to human existence and that's the only way to really understand what you're writing about. This of course blurs the line even further.

Thomas Matthews wrote:
07.31.11 at 8:40 AM

I agree with the general sentiment that it is difficult to draw clear boundary lines around ethical behavior, that transparency is important, and that readers will draw their own conclusions about which writers and critics are credible, and which ones aren't.

I agree with Charlie Olken that blind-tasting is the most reliable "firewall" to prevent factors beyond the wine in the glass from influencing its evaluation -- factors that may include the bottle's price, the label's prestige, an advertiser's clout or a friendship's favor.

Thomas Matthews
Executive editor
Wine Spectator

09.13.11 at 8:14 PM

Is the term wine journalism a conceit of wine writers? Wine writing may not be journalism because it buries the lead. Journalists organize a news story as an inverted pyramid. ďCalifornia Chardonnay Commoditized by the 2002 Recession.Ē ďCalifornia Rhone Wines Commoditized by Australian Imports.Ē ďAging Potential Is A Myth for Most California Cabernet Sauvignons.Ē ď2012 Classification of Napa Valley.Ē Such journalistic style headlines enable readers to stop reading at any point and still come away with meaningful aphorisms for California wine. The phrase ďwine-journalismĒ runs the risk of being an oxymoron. Do 100-point scores exist specifically because of the information void created by wine writers?

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