There are certain subjects in independent wine criticism that you imagine would be beyond discussion: that anyone would be paid by a producer to write a review of their product is one. The fact that the newly formed Wine Writers of New Zealand requires its members to declare they do not receive money for their reviews suggests the practice is more widespread than you might think. As their manifesto states:
“If reviewers are to be widely trusted and respected, there must be full, transparent independence between them and those whose products they write about … We believe the practice of supplying wine reviews for direct payment removes that independence [and] is highly undesirable.”
In fact it’s not only undesirable but under the terms of the new UK Bribery Act, which came into force today, also possibly illegal.
Now, I’m not aware of this happening in the UK. There are other potential conflicts of interest, such as acting as a consultant to wine companies and retailers, that undoubtedly stray uncomfortably close to the line. I recently turned down an offer to write a wine column for a supermarket magazine, for example, which I felt would have compromised any recommendations I made for their range. I also don’t accept invitations from drinks companies to sporting occasions like Wimbledon or tickets to concerts or other cultural events which have nothing to do with furthering my understanding of their products. Some of my colleagues, I know – including wine bloggers – feel more comfortable accepting that kind of hospitality.
I do, however, accept invitations to go on press trips and request tasting samples from wine companies without which I couldn’t do my job. And, given my interest in food and wine matching, I accept invitations to meals which involve trying a producer’s wines with food. Is that corrupt? I like to think I’m still capable of taking a detached view but some people may disagree.
In an ideal world, all wine would be paid for by the publication you write for, but that certainly hasn’t been the case for the 20 years I’ve been writing. But what’s the alternative? Criticism only to be written by journalists who have a substantial private income? I can’t imagine anyone approving of that.
In the end it’s a question of whether the critic can build and keep readers’ trust and respect. So over to you: what do you expect from a wine writer? And how would you behave in my place?
Story by Fiona Beckett
Courtesy of The Guardian