The Role of the Wine Critic, Past and Future.
The recent Jumillagate scandal may not have come to your attention. You can read about it here http://bit.ly/tZ9iJG . The question comes up – should wine writers be paid by producers to review their wines? Where do we draw the lines here? What constitutes independent journalism, especially in a world of blogs and social media?
Mount Langi Ghiran has enjoyed and continues to enjoy some stellar reviews from the media. Indeed, the cover of the June 1996 Wine Spectator was enormously important in the history of Mount Langi Ghiran, when the Langi Shiraz was pictured net to Henschke Mt Edelstone and Penfolds Grange. It’s an image we are trying to preserve in the minds of our customers.
The point is that for wine drinkers, looking to independent sources for assessment of wines is useful in making buying decisions. After all, you wouldn’t want to believe the winemakers, and certainly not the marketing department. And the grand comedy of back labels is only funny to some. The insulting notion that people read them seriously is frightening indeed. But I digress.
We’re talking about Third Party Endorsement. Since its really hard to get famous people to be seen publicly drinking your booze (did I mention that U2 drank 2008 Langi Shiraz at Cutler & Co last year in Melbourne?), we turn to the wine writers and the Wine Shows for independent reviews to help spruik our wares.
In the past the wine writing community has been limited to mainstream print media – books, newspapers and magazines – plus limited circulation newsletters and wine club information. If we look at the print media, it’s also important to remember that they are in the business of selling copies. This is a controversial point in the world of journalism, since the presentation of newsworthy truths and the stuff that people will buy are often at odds. You just have to visit a newsagent to see this.
So there has seemingly been an unwritten rule to review wines which are good wines, wines which are cost-appropriate, and ideally wines which have a story or point of interest. That sells newspapers and apparently titillates the Saturday afternoon foodie and wineloving reader.
This is further supported by the public profile of these writers, and their readers (apparently) want good informed buying guidance, not a list of what not to buy. Meantime, we humble wine producers, desperately hoping to garner some points for our wines to push the sales along, send countless bottles to the wine media. To the point where these folks get together and talk about samples as clutter, disposal issues, the problems of recycling large quantities of glass, and who gets all the excess. As Halliday puts it, he is at times surrounded by “squawking wingless seagulls”. It’s no joke when wine writers receive literally pallets of wine for review.
The position of mainstream restaurant reviewers is far more critical, sometimes scathing, opinionated, controversial and even polemic. Apparently the restaurant review readers are looking for a bit more agro, scandal and tall-poppy-dismemberment in their text. Apparently.
The case of the honest wine magazine journalist who makes a buck for their story in a professional sense would seem clear-cut. Until we start to question the junkets. To be fair, the one’s I know make a strong point of professionalism and journalistic integrity.
Times, they say, are a changing. The rise and rise of blogs, Facebook and Twitter has altered the landscape for wine writing since anyone can drive WordPress - and they do. The bandwidth is filling faster than you can say “#NationalBroadbandnetwork”.
In the end, like many things Interweb, you need to look at the credentials and motivations of the writers. Narcissism lurks in the world of blogs, and it’s no surprise that the motivations of wine bloggers are questionable, but who really reads this stuff? Lots of people, it would seem. And it’s growing – has to be – since readers are increasingly expecting their content to be digital, if not free. To make the balanced point, there is also some really good writing out there and reviews of commendable independence. (Then there are winemakers like me with a monthly newsletter to put out – thanks for reading this – please buy my wines).
What should we do, then, with bloggers who criticize openly, who write negative comments in the name of open thinking? It’s just not de riguer. Of course we could stop sending samples, but once it’s for sale publicly the wine, like the truth, is out there.
Dan Buckle, November 2011