critical path

Thursday, September 02, 2010

I can’t recall a time when I’ve gone to see my doctor or dentist and asked them to do free work on me. Same with the guys who service my car. Call me a hopeless traditionalist, but I sincerely believe that anyone who makes a living with a certain skill-set ought to be paid for their expertise. So when I am asked for my “thoughts” on a particular wine or wine label or wine concept, I generally decline. My “thoughts” are all in my reviews, available when published. But other than that, I would expect to be paid as a consultant. Giving away hard-won expertise doesn’t feel right.

Even so, once in a while – like yesterday – I do it. A bottle of wine showed up in my storage locker, with a note attached, asking for such freebie advice. I am not going to divulge anything about it other than to mention that, except for the very pleasant note and a “Press Kit” CD, there was no information provided. I don’t have time to flip through CDs – the internet is faster – so I tasted the wine knowing only what I could read on the label. I made a few notes, guessed at the price, and then looked it up online.

Here is what I wrote to the owners:

“M– dropped off a bottle of your 2007 with a nice note from you. As a special favor to M–, I will give you some brief but I believe valuable feedback. I do not do this as a general rule - my expertise is valuable and should be paid for, not given away, like any professional. So this is a brief, honest, quick, one-time, and perhaps slightly brutal assessment.

Your wine arrived with no technical information, no pricing information, no information about the vineyard, no distributor information, no release date information, nothing but a CD press kit. I do not have time to scroll thru CD press kits! You have no idea how many wines I receive. You should have provided a concise one-sheet that contains all the relevant info listed above.

Secondly, your label looks like it belongs on a line-priced, supermarket, "value" wine. I'd guess from the label that this wine is selling for $8. Tasting it, I thought it was better quality than that, so I compared it with a $20 California wine (well known and quite successful) and it was a good match, maybe slightly better. I guessed at a $20 to $25 price.

I looked on your website to find the actual price. At [more than twice that], this wine is not competitive with any $25 examples from Washington, let alone California. And this is not a hot category these days.”

Perhaps this was too honest? But this is actually very good advice, and as I am not reviewing or rating this wine or winery, the owners can choose to take it, ignore it, or curse me as a rude fool – it won’t matter to anyone else. A related issue popped up yesterday with some wines from a Washington producer whose wines I have frequently raved about. I’ve noticed a disturbing trend with these wines – not just a vintage or two – and it seems to me that the new releases do not live up to their previous standard. If I come down too hard, someone’s head may roll. If I don’t, I am not doing my job.

I posted a note on my Facebook page about all this and it incited some thoughtful (and slightly heated) debate. There simply aren’t hard and fast guidelines in these situations. But as I hope the record shows, I always strive to be honest, first and foremost. I generally give newbies a break. If they send in a really bad wine, I don’t publish a review, and I alert them to the fact that they should seek professional advice from a lab or consulting winemaker. When I publish reviews, even critical ones, it is from a position of wanting to be courteous and respectful, though never pandering. Sometimes, like any critic, I offend. That is the least fun part of the job. But if I didn’t believe it served a useful purpose, I’d do something else.


Anonymous said...

I suspect all professionals whose stock in trade is advice run into the same problem. Someone thinks that, because you have no product to which you can point as a result of your labor, you really should offer your service for free upon request. Of course, as you point out, all of us in this situation inevitably find ourselves in a situation where we are inclined to provide the free advice. In my profession, it seems that doing so often leads to the old axiom that no good deed goes unpunished, i.e., either no thanks given or, worse yet, criticism if the advice does not yield the results the recipient hoped for. Over the years, the experience has provided me valuable lessons, mainly how to tactfully say "no."

Dixie Huey said...

Paul, witty and true as ever :) I also get asked frequently for free advice. In my work, I'm expected to give a little before potentially being considered receiving so the key is knowing that amount. I have only once made the mistake of commenting on wine quality -- leaving that to the wine critics.

Jo Diaz said...

I'm always astounded at how many people naively believe they're up to the task of doing it themselves... like approaching a wine writer with their new product. They must think it's going to be endearing.

A simple consult with a marketing/PR company would have given this brand the advice it needed before it even went to you in a bumbling way.

I, too, am always asked for free advice, and give a few tablespoons away... You have to wonder, though, "Where do these people come from?" as you just did. When I call up a professional, I respect/value the person's time, and know I'll be billed.

I was just asked to drive two hours in one direction to experience a new wine program, for a major hotel chain. Then, when done, I'm supposed to drive home... After drinking and being pitched to for two hours, plus wear and tear on my car, just so I can blog about it (for free for them). So, six hours tied up in doing what they want, another five or six to write it, and my own expenses, and I got what out of it? Not even an overnight (from a hotel, what does it cost them?). I'm obviously not doing this, so I can jeopardizing my career, thank you very much.

Thanks for letting me rant somewhere else, besides my own blog, Paul ;^)

Anonymous said...

As a Certified Public Accountant and a Certified Financial Planner, I am regularly asked for "free" advice. Many times I comply, thinking the amount of time involved is short wih little effort involved.

But what really drove home the true value of my knowledge and experience was reading a story about Pablo Picasso.

As I recall it, Picasso was having dinner in a restaurant with a friend. A female patron recognized him and walked up to the table. The patron said, "Please draw me something. I'll pay you any amount you ask".

Picasso took a few moments to draw what amounted to a scribble and said, "That will be $10,000".

The patron was astonished by the amount and replied, "But that only took you a few moments to draw!"

And Picasso's timeless reply was, "No Madam. That took me 40 years".

PaulG said...

Great rant, Jo! You are welcome here anytime. I too get a lot of such invites, as if a free lunch was going to compensate for my time and expertise. Anon - great Picasso story. One of my most major heroes, and a man who never lacked for self-confidence. Dixie, just on your e-mail newsletter you offer a tremendous amount of valuable advice, all free. In fact, maybe too much!

Anonymous said...

Opinions are like who-who's, everybody's got one and, in the blog era, it doesn't cost anything to paste it up on the electrical bulletin board.The proliferation of wine blogs has diminished the preceived value of said opinions if simply through the fact of shear numbers. Same goes for wineries. Picasso rocks!.

Anonymous said...

As a winemaker of very esoteric wines (i.e. I do not make red Bordeaux or Chardonnay), I feel slightly nudged to mention that one issue I have with the wine press is the silent treatment.
I have occaisionally given wines for review and never heard anything. The obvious reason for this is because that writer did not find the wine of a quality level to review. I have even had press make kind comments and then print nothing. Is it wrong to ask for the (free) advice about the status of a critical opinion? Sometimes a wine that is created for an attribute, shows as a fault to someone. I am not referring to faulty wines, but how would a Sancerre show in a Cali Sauvignon Blanc tasting, or a Gigondas show in a WA state Rhone blend tasting?
Do you dislike those queries?

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