thru the looking glass

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

One of the less-discussed impacts of the rise of independent online wine criticism is the changes it has brought to the ethics of the business. Back in the day, when there was no internet, the path to wine writing success was through the auspices of a legitimate publisher. You either worked for a magazine, a newspaper, a broadcast outlet, or landed a book contract. Your employer’s credibility became your credibility. Without that, you were nothing.

Things have changed. There are hundreds – make that thousands – of wine blogs with no connection to any brick and mortar publishing enterprise. It is now incumbent upon the individual to establish and maintain his or her credibility. An affiliation with an established journal is a wonderful asset. When someone who is an independent freelancer (as I am) juggles the demands and opportunities provided by working for a mix of publications, as well as doing consulting and online commentary, the old guidelines as to setting up ethical standards are insufficient.

I have wrestled with these questions for the entire 25+ years I have been a freelance wine critic. It stands to reason that a public track record is the first, best and most important asset that I have. My work is there for all to see. My opinions, recommendations, ratings and reviews, books and columns, along with hundreds of blog entries, form a body of work that should tell you all you need to know about how I operate.

Of course there is one other, very important condition. Full disclosure and transparency. The introduction of a new wine brand, Waitsburg Cellars, brings these topics to the forefront. As I have posted on Facebook, and as I will explain in great detail in upcoming blog entries, I am a partner in a small but engaging winemaking enterprise. It is not likely to make me a rich man any time soon! But it is certainly making me a better educated man, with broader experience and a deeper understanding of the business about which I write.

Is there an ethical problem with being both critic and purveyor of wine? In my view, which is of course open to debate, it comes down to transparency. Would it be right to review and score my own wines? Of course not. Would it be ethical to review and score the wines of my partners in this venture? Again, I would answer no. But does the fact that I have a few hundred cases of wine about to appear on the market mean that I must never again write about, or review, any wines?

If you answer yes to that question, and some will, it is probably because of what is casually labeled “the appearance of a conflict of interest.” Not an actual conflict, just the appearance of one.

In the freelance world, where there is no lifelong tether to a well-paid, fulltime position, the “appearance” of conflict will almost certainly crop up from time to time. Do I accept “free” wine sent to me for review? Yes I do. Bingo – appearance of conflict. Do I occasionally dine with winemakers and let them pay the bill? Yes I do. Whoops – there’s another one. Have I taken junkets with expenses paid by industry associations? Again, I plead guilty.

Do these (and other) “appearances” actually invalidate the thousands upon thousands of reviews, columns, profiles, articles, and so on that I have contributed to the discussion of wine over the past decades? That is for you to decide. Appearances are just that – in the eye of the beholder. They used to burn people at the stake because they “appeared” to be witches. I hope we’ve moved past that in how we moralize about the lives of others.


Unknown said...

Paul, I think you're on point about two important issues, transparency and track record and you have ample of both. May I suggest a blend called Caesar's Wife?

PaulG said...

Caesar's Wife you say! She who must be "above suspicion" according to the old proverb. Well, based on some of the snarky e-mails I get, clearly I don't qualify! Great name for a wine tho'...

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Hey, creepy sommeliers carry their own wine in their restaurants, what's the difference?

Good luck with the wine venture, Paul. Please tell me you're making an orange Gruner.

Unknown said...

Everyone is so concerned about the collapse of traditional wine writing and criticism, but from my perspective, I want two tiers: those, like you, who are willing to put their chips on the table and join us in the insane game that is 21st C wine, and those who stand on the sidelines. I don't care how great the tongue or nose, if you don't have blood involved, wine simply doesn't mean the same thing regardless of what's in the glass. If you haven't had to make your market, your take on what wine is behind Oz's curtain isn't otherwise accurate, imho.

PaulG said...

Ron, you have really hit the bell on the nose! A Sparkling Orange Gruner is what we are aiming for. We're heading towards an entirely new continent as far as the marketing is concerned. In any event, I've returned to the Cloud and I'll be checking in regularly. Thanks for posting!

PaulG said...

Josh, you make a great point and rarely if ever have I seen it made. As a performing musician, I "put my chips on the table" as an all-purpose critic. In my life I have reviewed concerts, recordings, films, restaurants, television and almost anything connected with music and media. But performing music in front of a live audience has been a first step in the direction of being truly vulnerable in the way you suggest. This wine project is certainly the second step, and an important one that connects to my most recent, and ongoing work. Thanks for posting!

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Glad you're back in the Cloud. Not sure what you missed, but welcome back. I'll put you back on my "Pinch Off Another Blog" list. You should get at least another eleven hits.

Chris Wallace said...

Welcome back, Paul.

In the corporate world, we talk more about "potential" conflicts of interest than "appearances". That is because there can be instances where a persons judgement has the potential to become conflicted by certain associations or ownerships they may have. Depending on the nature of the conflict, the person may or may not have their judgement impacted. The first avenue of dealing with potential conflicts is always disclosure. This allows others to decide if they should accept your judgement as-is or take it with a grain of salt. Conflicts are a way of life, they occur all the time in our complex inter-connected world. The second avenue in business is to "recuse" oneself from the decision; leave the room and not be a part of the process. It sounds like you get check marks for both in having declared your ownership interest in the winery and agreed not rate those wines. As to your mea culpa about accepting samples, dinners out, etc, these are not big things and certainly not the stuff to make you "plead guilty".

Wine critics are there to assist consumers with a vicarious try-before-you-buy. We consumers learn what certain critics tastes prefer and then calibrate our own judgement off of yours when deciding to buy a wine we have not tasted. As long as you provide us your honest opinion, (and your tastes don't change!) then accepting samples, being hosted at dinner, etc, just allows you to taste more wine and provide more advice to consumers. Sounds like a good thing to me.

PaulG said...

Chris, thank you for this thoughtful analysis. I have always worked hard to make every effort to separate my personal interests and preferences from the work of a critic, which is to express an impartial, informed opinion. Being involved in a winemaking project dramatically enhances my understanding of many facets of the business. I have to believe it will make me a better critic as well.

Bob Neel said...


You'll certainly NOT suffer from one of the biggest drawbacks afflicting far too many winemakers -- that of always drinking mainly, if not only their own wines! This breeds an incestuous aspect to how they vinify, and how they see their own output relative to the market at large. As long as you keep trying all types & brands of wines, you'll have an inherent objectivity about your own. That's a lot more than others can claim.

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