Revisiting the disclosure issue in wine writing

by  |  20-01-2021  |  8 Comments

The assault on journalism never stops. Just within the last week I’ve seen two grave ethical violations of purported “journalism” in wine, and these are but the latest examples…

One was an article about Georgian wine in a mainstream magazine in France by a person who sells Georgian wine in France. The other was for a wine region here in Catalunya for a national newspaper in Spain, written by someone working in PR and is featuring paid clients in the article.

Neither stated the commercial interest of the author and both were presented as actual pieces of journalism in both publications, which in my book is highly unethical and makes me question the credibility of the whole content of said articles.

It may be the case that many people don’t worry about such things as I’ve seen the issue of disclosure of paid trips and/or increased transparency of wine writers discussed repeatedly on social media and the conclusions are often mixed–albeit from an extremely biased crowd. While there are indeed those that would like to see more transparency, it seems that (on social media discussions at least, involving fellow wine professionals), that many people don’t deem it necessary as the general perception is that major writers become influential by being likeable as well as knowledgeable and thus being honorable is part of their charisma: “How could a person with such standing be influenced merely by a free trip to wherever in the world?”

I very much do not agree with this laissez faire position and have felt uncomfortable about certain practices I have been observing for a while in the wine trade. This is why I thought it would be an appropriate time to update my own Disclosures statement for this website in order to clarify my general approach to travel and reviewing wines.

The price of the free trip

It’s unfortunate that a great wealth of people in wine writing (or food or travel writing for that matter) have decided it’s completely fine to accept free trips to various places in the world. The justification is always that fees paid by magazines aren’t enough to allow for the writers to make any money on the writing otherwise.

I get that, especially when you have wine magazines such as: Wine & Spirits, Decanter, World of Fine Wine, Meininger’s, Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, Oenologique, Food & Wine, and… any others I’ve forgotten to mention that only pay a couple hundred pounds/euros/dollars to do a regional or winery profile. The writer is somehow expected to pay all their travel expenses out of that. If you bring up this point, they encourage you to contact someone in the region (whether individual wineries or promotional bodies) to cover your expenses. I’ll add that it’s actually even worse with a publication such as Harpers that only pays 60 pounds for a web article and then will take a year or two to actually pay it.

The trickle-down effect is that it then becomes justified to accept all freebies in the wine world because it forms the de facto behavior and these perks become an unspoken part of the compensation.

But this raises a massive question: How objective can you actually be when you’ve been flown somewhere and put up on someone else’s dime who is expecting coverage which should in theory be positive coverage? When stated as such, I hope that anyone can see that the answer is, “not very objective”, as if word gets around that you state your honest opinion and not one that’s been polished up to make it seem like you had a grand ole time, you’ll probably stop getting invited to trips.

My site, my rules

I won’t sit here in my moral high ground and say that I don’t accept free trips because from time to time, I definitely have, but there are two important caveats when I do. First, I establish what is being covered and what is being expected and if some kind of review of my work is required prior to publication, I turn it down. Second, where I have editorial control (ie this website) I absolutely always state what these arrangements were in whatever article I write afterwards and I leave it up to the reader to decide how that might be influencing what I’m writing.

A perfect example that illustrates the kind of expectations that are inevitably derived from any kind of freebie happened several years ago when I was invited to attend a wine symposium at an up-scale hotel in California. While being put up was part of the invitation, meals weren’t included and I had breakfast at the hotel my first morning. It was terrible, incredibly expensive, and that all came out of my own pocket. After posting a photo to my Instagram stating a negative opinion about an item in the breakfast, I received a near-immediate email from one of the organizers of the symposium telling me, “it doesn’t seem to be very gracious to post something negative”. Despite being annoyed at the handling, I took it down, but it shows that the minute you accept anything, it’s expected that you yield all control of the message.

For those who don’t know, everyone in the wine writing/press world takes a few to a great too many free trips, whether they’re a blogger with their first introductory post or a wannabe “influencer” with their latest selfie pretending to drink an expensive wine or even someone with a lengthy career and an impressive-sounding title. People may not think it’s widespread because so few want to talk about it, but it is and it’s become the manner in which the industry seems to run.

There are even those who are not only accepting trips from promotional bodies but habitually stay at wineries, homes of importers, or pretty much anywhere else that they can, without ever disclosing any of this in the articles that they write. And let’s be painfully honest here, if someone has hosted you in their home, fed you, and taken the time to drive you around, how on earth can you write anything the least bit critical? I know I couldn’t which is why I never accept nor ask for such things, but there is a segment of people unfazed by this practice and the unavoidable ethical conflict it creates.

Definitely maybe

The main, if not the only reason I’ll go along with a trip in the barest form possible, is because often, if you just show up as an independent writer to a region where people have never heard of you, you’re met with suspicion and feared. And as the ecosystem has been degrading into this “I paid your trip, you write what I say” manner of thinking so there’s a cognitive dissonance when encountering someone independent and it’s clear they don’t know how to handle it.

There was an unforgettable moment after publishing a regional report last year (which I paid all the costly travel expenses needed to research and create) when I received an email from their publicity manager in the US. The person took issue with one word in the title of my report and stated that I absolutely must change it. It’s a word that actually made the report easier to understand and was factually accurate.

As I had never accepted anything in terms of trips or any other material support from the region in question, I simply ignored the email. It was a power I had compared to the previous example in California as I owed them nothing. Someone else in a more compromised situation would have had the obligation to accept each and every change that may have been demanded, especially if they wanted to continue their relationship with the region in the same fashion of being sponsored for all trips and visits.

Living in the pocket

And it should be emphasized that it’s not just about free press trips where there’s an issue. I find it even more worrisome when someone who is under the employ of a winery or region then goes and writes a piece about said entity while trying to pass it off as “journalism” as it most definitely is not. At best it’s consumer writing, which exists in other trades such as cars for instance. There’s nothing wrong with this, but actual journalism comes with a different set of expectations, professional and ethical standards, and what many view to be a “sexier” sound to the profession–as people know that there are supposed to be ethics to it. Oops.

I see this constantly in Spain and it would seem that people have little to no problem with it as the pay-for-play mentality is so rampant. I think the bigger issue is that consumers again have no idea just how widespread it actually is and that these “articles” that they’re reading are simply advertorials in disguise.

A line in the sand

“Oh Miquel, relax and enjoy the freebies! You’re being too critical and difficult!”

I can imagine more than a few people thinking something along these lines, especially as free trips as well as free press tastings have dried up with the pandemic making wine writers ever more hungry for them. Anyone who reads wine publications can see that the breadth of content has narrowed radically over the last year to include a great many more sponsored advertorials than ever before. It’s not a good look and has me very worried about the future of any specialized wine publications.

So, let’s come at this another way in that if a a chef who works at a restaurant were to run a review of their restaurant of employ in a newspaper presenting it as a real review, would you actually put any faith in the objectivity of that piece? Of course you wouldn’t as there is zero objectivity nor transparency to such an article. It’s the same problem in wine when you have an influenced party writing a piece that is presented as objective. Now what about if it was a journalist or writer who works at the restaurant on the side simply for extra cash (as mentioned above, writing doesn’t pay squat)? Sadly, it seems that for many that would be more acceptable as somehow the writer is expected to be honorable or the reader is expected to separate the two hats the writer is wearing. Have you ever tried wearing two hats at the same time? Again, not a good look.

Do ask, do tell

It’s interesting to take note that New York Times is actually one of the very few publications that states their standards on press trips clearly when it comes to travel articles as per their Ethical Journalism Handbook:

No writer or editor for the Travel section, whether on assignment or not, may accept free or discounted services of any sort from any element of the travel industry. This includes hotels, resorts, restaurants, tour operators, airlines, railways, cruise lines, rental car companies and tourist attractions.

I don’t think there’s much up for debate in there. The only difference between travel and wine is that people writing about wine are often tasting wines that they can never afford to drink so there’s little way that any person or publication can afford them, especially in the case of regions such as Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Napa Valley amongst others. Even in my backyard of Priorat, if I had to buy all the wines I taste, it would cost me at least 10,000€ annually and that’s just one region!

Wine samples are something that’s an ongoing, separate debate, but everyone should assume that any wine reviewed by someone was received as a free sample. If it was purchased by the reviewer that should be indicated but I find myself often not bothering with this as I fully admit that the majority of wines I’m tasting are samples (even though I also buy a great deal of wine, too). No normal human being would buy several thousand bottles of wine each year to open and take a small taste from.

Changes?

The unfortunate aspect to this lack of transparency and disclosure in wine trips is that I don’t really see it going away any time soon given that there are persons subsisting on it as an ingrained component to their lives. In fact, once we’ve passed the pandemic, I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s far, far worse. Many regions are going to be desperate to attract coverage from publications and writers are going to be desperate to get out of wherever they’ve been spending their various lockdowns.

But the bottom line is, should any of this be disclosed? I firmly believe that there’s an ethical obligation to do so.

Unfortunately, much like wine labels stating every single ingredient, I seriously doubt it will come to pass any time soon and it then leaves the consumer with incomplete information upon which to base an informed decision. Due to this, anyone buying wine must keep in mind that unless otherwise stated, any of the “jet setting” wine people you see constantly traveling and tasting/dining around the world, are doing so on someone else’s money, not their own.

If this isn’t the case, then I put out the challenge for such writers or wine experts to state it as such openly. Otherwise, it just continues to be fodder for those who want to say the wine world is morally compromised because honestly, in the case of many individuals, it is.

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Comments

8 responses to “Revisiting the disclosure issue in wine writing”

  1. An excellent, well-thought out and constructed piece. (I remember that trip in Napa, I didn’t get the breakfast though hehhe). I am curious to see your thoughts expanded on samples in the future. Do you think it’s equally difficult to be critical about wines that have been passed as samples?

    • Miquel Hudin says:

      I have no interest in delving into the sample issue more as it’s really been overdone to the point of stupidity on Twitter when as I mentioned above, it’s a necessity given the cost of the wines. I taste the wines for my reports fully blind (also, any wine I’ve not tasted blind is marked as such on the review) so I don’t see how objectivity would be an issue, but it does raise large issues for the surprising number of publications who do not.

  2. Marvin List says:

    Spot on, ’nuff said!
    I enjoy your writing but I must confess I let my subscription lapse because in S Florida I have access to hardly any of the wines you review. My renewed subscription is my vote and a small token of appreciation and support for ethical and transparent journalism in any field.
    Thanks Miquel

    • Miquel Hudin says:

      Thank you very much for your continued support Marvin!

      Admittedly, in the past year there were to have been a great many more reports on other wines, including a lot outside Spain. The pandemic has definitely made for a smaller horizon. There’s some good stuff already in the works for this year however and hopefully things will get somewhat more open as we go on. Cheers!

  3. I’ve seen the shift to pay to play over my 37 year career.
    As a small winegrower and member of a small marketing and PR association it is very difficult to connect with a journalist. Of course 37 years ago there was less than 80 wineries in Washington vying for attention from a half dozen newspaper writers. Now there are more than 10 times as many wineries and 1? staff writer.
    I do think those who don’t reveal compensation and reviews of wine tasted with the reviewee are not worthy of reading.
    Then there is that separate issue of wines sent to reviewers and competitions that aren’t what is on the shelf. No verification is done at any competition I’m aware of. Part of why we don’t participate as entrants or judge.
    I hope some day you make it to my tasting room, but don’t let on who you are.

    Paul Vandenberg
    Paradisos del Sol Winery and Organic Vineyard

    • Miquel Hudin says:

      If I were to visit your winery, of course I’d let you know. To not do so would be disingenuous unless it was simply a casual visit without any professional context. Or was that meant more as in you’d rather not talk to me? I’m confused as to the sentiment.

  4. Miquel, The alternatives to accepting hosted trips for field research may be even less appealing: armchair journalism that’s uniformed by firsthand experience, the consolidation of influence around writers who can independently finance their own research, lack of exposure that results in frame error in wine judging (I already see this) and more. As an educator, my credibility and effectiveness would come into question if I had not done at least some field research in the regions I am teaching. Which is the lesser evil?

    • Miquel Hudin says:

      You’re mixing a few themes here. As I mentioned, accepting a sponsored trip isn’t an issue, if properly disclosed, which few if any do and most don’t want to do as it would probably show that all their travel is funded by others.

      Lazy journalism is a tremendous issue, but it’s been happening for a very long time prior to the pandemic. The amount of “reports” written by someone who just went to a regional trade tasting in their city and have never visited said region are too many to count. It’s been especially problematic for those based in London where the pandemic, with its loss of trade tastings, has shown how little people actually travel for their writing as they expect it to come to them.

      In general, there needs to be a pretty big rethink on this particular front. For instance, why does a British publication have Britain-based people writing about Australia and South Africa when there are native speakers there that could readily do it?

      And lastly, by all means, people need to do field research, but that’s a very different entity if it’s for institutional knowledge and not for a supposedly unbiased journalism piece and I can see few conflicts in accepting a paid trip if it’s educational in nature.

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