Pay For Play Wine Criticism: Everybody On Board

When I first heard about Sam Kim, the New Zealand blogger who was charging wineries to submit wine samples to review, I thought to myself, here’s the next guy Robert Parker ought to hire on to the staff at the Wine Advocate. He seems to have the right nose for the business side of wine criticism.

Alas, it seems that one of Parkers current contributors has stolen the idea. Sorry Sam, you’ve been outflanked.

But wait, this just in: now that the lawyers have all discussed things it’s only the Murcia Wine Association (ASEVIN) that wanted money for tasting wines!

I watched, speechless, last week as the kerfuffle known as “Murciagate” unfolded. If you’re not plugged in to the internal meta-rumblings of the world of wine criticism (and who can blame you for hiding from that nasty pile of spaghetti) here’s how it went down.

A set of e-mails surface concerning a prospective visit by Jay Miller to the Murcia region of Spain in which wineries are asked to pay for the privilege of having their wines tasted by Miller, or for a visit by the same.

Dr. Vino leaps on the story, followed by Mike Steinberger, both of whom offer thoughtful, if damning, perspectives. I might have joined the fray had I not been swimming in jet lag with a lousy internet connection.

Then ASEVIN issues a statement which sounds like it was dictated lawyer to lawyer, indicating that it was the requestor, and intended recipient of all funds associated with this prospective visit by Miller.

It also then emerged that the Wine Academy of Spain earlier solicited 20,000 Euros from the little appellation of Madrid for the pleasure of having Miller visit while he was in town. Turns out poor Madrid couldn’t afford it (or didn’t see the value).

So while it turns out that Mr. Kim won’t actually have any immediate competition in his “pay me to consider reviewing your wines” gig, what we clearly have here is a case of influence peddling. One or more people are using their access to The Wine Advocate as a means of raising funds.

While wineries are used to paying dues to regional marketing associations, and having those dues fund the organizations efforts to promote the region, which often include the very legitimate activities of paying for journalists and critics to come visit (and occasionally paying their speaking fees if they are presenting at a big conference), this “pay us to get your wines in front of the critic” move is of an altogether greasier sort.

But I’ll bet you big money, this isn’t the first time it’s happened. It’s just the first time someone has leaked the evidence.

In a world where wine critics still wield considerable influence over pricing in the market (and I’m not just talking here about Parker), it’s inevitable that some will use their relationships with these critical outlets to earn a buck. It’s the deadly combination of capitalism and politics (aka human nature).

But perhaps this little scandal will do us all some good, and make those who lean towards these kinds of activities a little more hesitant in the future. We can only hope.

And as for Mr. Kim and his pay-for-play sampling program? I find it quite distasteful. Not to mention a violation of every journalistic ethics policy ever published. But Kim isn’t a journalist, he’s a businessman. And capitalism lets us get away with “caveat emptor.” His $34 fee isn’t all that different from the ridiculous entrance fees that wineries pay to have their wines in various and sundry competitions around the world. If they’re so desperate to be able to put “91 points ” somewhere in their marketing materials, let them pay. It’s a free (market) world, as they say.