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.