I had a call from Jim Mora of Radio New Zealand on Wednesday, asking me if I’d be prepared to go on The Panel to comment on a piece in yesterday’s Herald, which you can read here http://www.nzherald.co.nz/lifestyle/news/article.cfm?c_id=6&objectid=11576362
Firstly – I’m not on anyone’s side. I review wine but only if I am drinking it for enjoyment. It might have been sent to me, but chances are I bought it with my own hard-earned cash. I don’t write for any print publications and after many years, I am no longer a regular on National Radio. But I do have an Instagram account (lol).
The topic concerns paid wine reviews – something that is causing much consternation among a number of wine writers, (some of whom have formed a group called Wine Writers of New Zealand complete with a Code of Ethics http://winewriters.org.nz/). Their issue is that those who charge to review a wine are naturally duty-bound to write nice things about it which prevents it from being independent and therefore misleads the public.
These wine reviewers are providing a service of wine evaluation, primarily for the knowledge of the producer. The producer pays a fee for this service (as you would for any other, think dentist, doctor etc). What do they get for their money? A written evaluation of their wine and a star rating from an experienced and respected wine consultant. If the wine rates three stars or above, the reviewer publishes their comments on their blog or website and the chances are the producer will use the review in their marketing. If under three stars, the reviewer contacts the producer to let them know why the wine did not do well. Producers are paying for an assessment of their wine, not for column centimetres.
Producers choose who (or what) they send their wine to, presumably based on the respect they have for the reviewer (or the event). It is up to these reviewers/wine writers/wine competitions to develop and maintain their reputations in a way that reinforces their integrity. It’d be a pretty short term strategy if they didn’t.
For consumers, it is their decision who they choose to heed advice from. Faced with a wall of wine, many are looking for a cue as to what to buy. The gold medal, glinting enticingly, is often the deciding factor, indicating that the wine has been through the robust judging of a wine competition process. Sure, knowing the brand and resonating with the brand values is brilliant and is the holy grail of all us wine marketers, but an independent endorsement can be even better. That’s when anything stuck on a bottle can make the difference between it being chosen or not (the ‘any port in a storm’ philosophy). How much information purchasers want to dig into about the reviewer giving four stars or the wine competition that gave a gold medal is up to them.
At this point I must air a particular concern of mine. The somewhat covert use of gold medal stickers by wine producers. I say covert, because in an alarming number of situations, the ‘gold medal’ is not a gold medal at all. I have seen examples that on closer inspection say ‘100% Sustainable’, ‘Winery of the Year’ and ‘Family owned and operated’. Jolly good – but why use a GOLD, round sticker? Well, I think we know the answer there. And the busy person flying round the supermarket desperate to get out the other end doesn’t have time for that close up inspection. So what do they end up with? A bottle of wine that they thought had been awarded a gold medal, but in fact is anything but. My suggestion, is that if a wine producer has a brilliant piece of information they’d like to share with people, actually put it in the copy of your label. Or if you have to stick something on, don’t use the colour gold. It’s misleading. White stands out just as well.
I raised this with Sue Chetwin at Consumer some years ago and she agreed it was something they should probably look into, although nothing has happened as yet.
Anyway – back to the subject in hand.
So what constitutes ‘independent’? To me, it is someone external to the company who can therefore give an objective review of the wine. Does payment remove the ability to be objective? No. Does seeing the label remove the ability to be objective? Highly likely.
If the label says ‘Felton Road Pinot Noir’ I’d suggest it’d be hard to give it a bad review – one’s preconception dictates it’s going to be pretty good. But (as an example) is it as good as the previous vintage? Is it typical of the style that the brand has fostered? There’s more to reviewing wine than different degrees of good or bad.
The other thing that tasting the wines blind (i.e. without knowing what they are) ensures, is that you don’t know if it happened to be made by your best mate. That helps. As does not knowing the retail price or the weight of the bottle, all of which can influence the reviewer’s perception, even subliminally.
This is where the show system has a clear advantage. Wines poured behind the scenes then delivered to the judges so they have no idea of the producer. There are five people in a judging panel – three judges and two associates (judges with L plates). At the end of a class, all wines judged to be of gold medal standard are brought back for another assessment (still blind) to ensure they are truly are worthy of that commendation. Rigorous and robust.
Here’s another thing. Is receiving payment any different to receiving an all-expenses paid trip? Dinner? Concert tickets? Gifts? No, it isn’t (although I have yet to find a dentist who’ll provide their service in exchange for dinner or a case of wine). There’s no such thing as a free lunch, as the saying goes and it would be a little naïve to think otherwise. As someone who was once responsible for purchasing 750,000 cases of wine for the UK market some 20 years ago, I can certainly testify to the junkets on offer. Everything from small gifts to overseas trips. I had a rule – I accepted nothing from any company I wasn’t already doing business with (and my buying trips were 100% funded by my company). Anyway – that’s a bit different I guess, but there are similarities.
And finally – I noted two comments over this debate that suggested wine reviewers might indeed give a positive review just to get their hands on a free bottle. This is not only insulting (and laughable) but also shows a complete lack of understanding. You have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find your prince, and most wine writers, paid or otherwise, are up to their armpits in wannabe princes. This thinking might be excusable from someone outside the wine industry, but for the publisher of a wine magazine, I’d suggest it highlights their journalism background rather than their wine one.
I could go on at length, but at the end of the day it’s about expectation, clarification and integrity.