The ethics of wine criticism

Wine writers are not doctors, lawyers, accountants or politicians, so any discussion of ethics is of an import several orders of magnitude below its more crucial applications. Nonetheless, ethical considerations do play a role in shaping the personality and work of a writer – and, especially, a critic – and those considerations are worth exploring in some detail.

Are ethics necessary?

On its face, it seems a silly question; of course ethics are important. But it’s worth asking: are they really? Is anyone truly harmed by an unethical wine writer?

Leaving aside the issue of the writer’s own karma, the answer is: not much, unless the writer is both unethical and malicious. To the otherwise-unarmed-with-context consumer of wine writing, there’s no functional difference in negative outcome between information based on inethics and information based on ignorance; both are entropic within the greater context of wine, but I would suggest that the latter is a much, much greater problem than the former. A parallel argument concludes with a similar lack of damage to the subject of the writing in question; again barring the presence of actual malice, ignorance and inethics are inseparably entropic. There are multiple paths to foolishness, but in the end one is still a fool.

What ethics instead provide are a framework for battling back the two actual dangers of unethical writing: malice (momentary or predetermined), and the purchased writer. Battling back, that is, but not eliminating. Human nature is such that any writer, no matter how self-professedly ethical, is subject to momentary (though recoverable) failure at any time. This is not something we should concern ourselves with overmuch, as writers remain human and subject to the accordant frailties. To expect writers to be otherwise is to desire the impossible. What should be expected is a thoughtful and open examination of ethics and consequences on the part of a writer, and frequent re-examination thereof…especially on the occasion of a lapse.

Ethics vs. responsibility

Ethics, as framed by the consumer of wine writing, are often characterized as responsibilities: the duties of the writer to his or her readers. This is a limited and ultimately incorrect view, but since it exists it is necessary to address it.

All that a writer is really responsible for are the fundamental necessities of wine writing. Consumers of wine writing are responsible for their own expectations, though of course a writer who fails to meet enough consumers’ expectations is going to be an unsuccessful writer. A writer is not responsible for the individual ethical beliefs of consumers, primarily because such standards are myriad and frequently contradictory, and secondarily because the adoption of external ethics is a poor substitute for thoughtfully-conceived personal ethics in which the writer actually believes. A writer who is primarily responsive to the external ethics of consumers will be a writer who is forever on the defensive, forever explaining and disclaiming and arguing until the writer’s own ethics are deformed by the debate itself.

A better term for what must exist in the writer-consumer relationship is trust. A consumer must trust that a writer is informed by their own ethics, and a writer must do as little as possible to strain that trust.

“The appearance of impropriety”

Formal ethical codes, and certainly those so often applied to journalists, place great importance on the external. This is done for a theoretically wise reason: institutional trust in journalism is predicated on the consumer’s assumed belief that the motivations of journalism are ultimately noble and separated from the baser passions. As a society we desire a free press, but as individual humans we are uncomfortable with the anarchy of true freedom, and distrustful of any class or group that seems to exercise it. We want journalists to abide by rigid codes of ethics because we ourselves live under various collections of codes and laws, and thus have difficulty relating to or accepting those who operate with potentially unlimited freedom. We say that ethical codes free journalists from a quagmire, but what they really do is tie their hands in a way that seems beneficial to the rest of us.

On the other hand, we can all see how well this is working out for journalists. Only politicians (who have their own extensive set of ethical guidelines, oh-so-closely followed) are viewed with more suspicion and mistrust. To repeat what I see as the key issue: the problem with external codes is that they are not fundamental to the writer. They work to eliminate environments for impropriety, but they do not address the desire for impropriety. Only a personal code can do that.

The concept of “appearance” as the problematic factor is, in itself, a widely-held and endlessly-repeated fallacy. Certainly what matters is the actual impropriety, not whatever public face one does or does not put on it. Focusing on mere appearance encourages a secretive environment of non-disclosure, which is no good for the consumer or the writer. And, as has so often been noted through scandal after scandal, it’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up that pushes people beyond redemption. Fair consumers can forgive admitted impropriety. What they’ll rarely forgive is an ongoing attempt to hide it.

Ethics, then, must discard the baggage of externally-applied expectations of responsibility and a misguided focus on appearances, and concentrate on core fundamentals, which can be summed up in four questions:

  1. What is fair?
  2. What is right?
  3. What is truthful?
  4. How do fairness, rightness, and truth serve the aims of the writer, the consumer, and wine writing in general?

Ethical dilemmas in wine writing

Some problematic ethical areas are specific to a genre of criticism. Some are specific to journalism in general. None, however, are specific only to wine writing; what’s important is identifying the commonalities and differences between different subfields of these practices, and discerning what’s sensible in the specific discipline of wine writing. Herein, an attempt (subject to future expansion).

bias

Freedom from bias is both impossible and undesirable. This point is greatly expanded-upon here and here.

truth-telling

It is manifestly unwise for a writer to make things up. It is even more unwise to deliberately employ mistruth in the service of an argument that could not otherwise be supported. Fictionalization for the purposes of entertainment is fine as long as the practice is obvious and transparent to the reader, but any intrusion of fiction into informational or critical practice is a betrayal of the necessary trust between writer and consumer.

If a truth is negative, this does not preclude or mitigate its importance. It’s understandable if a writer wants to avoid negativity altogether, but it lessens the importance of the writing, it lessens the contribution of such writing to the general subject wine, and it leads to dangerous opportunities for the replacement of negativity with untruth. This latter impulse, especially, must be fought.

judgment with (or without) expertise

Bafflingly to some, this is not an ethical concern, but a practical and professional one. Without question, it is preferable for a writer – and especially a critic – to possess contextual expertise before issuing judgment or characterization. It is not unethical for a writer who lacks such context to do so. It is merely silly and unrewarding in its extreme forms, and of limited utility in its milder forms.

completeness

This, too, is not an ethical concern, but one of practice and professionalism. What it means is that many – consumers, occasionally, but more often producers and those who move or sell wine – want writers to have wide and deep experience with any given subject, and to have that experience shared to its fullest extent. But there remains no ethical obligation of context or expertise, and if someone who has never tasted a Bordeaux wants to issue an opinion on Bordeaux based on an insufficiently large sample, that is their right undiminished by ethical concerns. Again, however, it is poor practice and of minimal or no utility.

free samples

Of all the ethical bugaboos that plague wine writers, the issue of free samples – their existence, their acceptance, and their use – is the one that simply will not go away. This is so because certain high-profile wine critics make a great and trumpeting noise about them, drawing bright, clear lines between themselves and the allegedly unethical masses who do not adhere to their particular practices. This is unfortunate, for even a cursory examination of the issue shows that much of the debate over the inethics of samples depends on the selective use and misuse of definitions.

A free sample is just what it seems to be: wine not paid for by the writer, with the implied corollary that such wine would require monetary compensation were the receiver not a writer. Wineries and the entities that represent them supply samples for the obvious reasons: exposure and coverage. Yet a sample takes many forms, and too often some of those forms are dismissed (as inconvenient) by those who which to paint themselves as ethical paragons.

Unquestionably, a free bottle of wine is a free sample. This applies whether the bottle is opened or closed. It applies whether the bottle is shipped to the writer’s home or office, or handed to the writer by someone else. It applies whether it is poured in a convention center by an importer or distributor, by a retailer in a store, by a sommelier in a restaurant, by a winemaker or waiter at a special wine-related meal, by a tasting room employee at a winery, or in fact by anyone else, anywhere, for any reason not caused by transfer of money equal to the wine’s value from writer to provider. But it doesn’t end there. A glass, a pour, or a barrel sample at any press & trade event, winery tour, or one-on-one meeting is also a free sample; these events are seldom completely open to the public, not all wines are willingly poured for those outside the trade and press, and the level of access required for such opportunities is rarely similar to that enjoyed by the general public.

So, for example, is it correct for a writer who tastes barrel samples at wineries to claim that they do not accept free samples? Only if each and every barrel sample would be equally available to any member of the general public, and if the writer compensates the winery for those samples. Since this is rarely (never is more likely) the case, the answer should be: no, it is not. Similarly, is a writer who has region-wide tastings in a hotel room organized for them (and paid for by someone other than the writer) free of the “taint” of samples? No. For a writer to claim they do not accept free samples, the writer must pay for each and every drop of wine that passes their lips (an exception may, but very probably shouldn’t, be made for pours provided by family and friends if those wines are then the subject of later commentary). While I am open to correction on this point, I do not know any wine writer who meets the purest form of this criterion. Not one.

Obviously, a core issue is that it is very difficult for any other than the extremely wealthy to practice informed criticism in this fashion (which leads to several fundamental difficulties; see the essay on independence for a careful expansion of this point). For some writers, the way out of this dilemma is to differentiate between modes of acquisition. A writer may choose to not solicit samples – that is, to not request them – but to accept those that are freely offered. Alternatively, a writer may choose to accept samples only in certain forms: yes to press/trade tastings, no to winemaker dinners or shipped bottles, etc. Obviously, at this point the writer has abandoned any pretext on which to deny that they accept samples (no matter how much they may protest to the contrary), and is simply picking and choosing among associated ethical challenges (special access, free food) that accompany the wine itself. On this, see below.

Ultimately, the hue and cry over the existence of samples can fairly easily be shown to be a vast forest of misapprehension among consumers, grown from seeds of distrust planted by allegedly well-meaning but misleading writers who wish to highlight their ethics in opposition to others. This is an unfortunate situation. None of this is to say that the question of samples is not important, merely that it is in no way as significant as it is made out to be by certain self-aggrandizing critics.

other forms of largesse

Wine writers enjoy – if they wish to – all manner of invitations to special access and complimentary booty associated with the world of wine. Access can range from simple distributor- or importer-arranged tastings to which press and trade are invited, to lunches and dinners hosted by sales representatives or winemakers, to exclusive and rare tastings in the cellars of famously private wineries. Food is a frequent accompaniment to such events. Gifts of wine-related tchotchkes are not uncommon. And, of course, everything up to and including the much-maligned junket is available to the writer who wishes to take advantage of such opportunities.

As with samples, bright lines are hard to draw. Writers who claim to reject hosted wine dinners can often be seen nibbling on the snack trays at larger press & trade tastings, rendering their professed standards merely a matter of price and formality, not of principle. Some writers accept gifts of wine but not of, say, t-shirts; others practice the opposite standard. Junkets are particularly problematic; the nearly unparalleled opportunities for education are usually coupled with a clear and obvious expectation of positive follow-up coverage flowing from such a large expenditure, and there are enough writers that those who host such trips can afford to sift for the pliable.

All of this, however, is cause and not effect. Again, surely the crucial issue is not the form or the value of the gift itself, but the result of the gift, and how it affects the writer’s subject, approach, and conclusions. Ethical codes that focus on the former are really trying to address the latter. Yet the potential for abuse does not inherently flow from the gift, but from the inethics of the writer, and so removing the gift does nothing to modify or combat the ethical failings that produce potential abuse. In fact, it may make it easier to hide abuse under a veneer of ethical behavior. Again, we return to the material difference between appearances and actual ethics; one matters, the other is simply window-dressing.

anonymity

The cult of critical anonymity worships principally in the restaurant world, but because wine is so often associated with food, some adherents to the cult have turned their attention to wine criticism and demanded similar practices. This is a mistake.

Wine is not like a restaurant meal, where the key factors that shape it can be modified at will and in the moment. Wine – with one exception, which will be covered in a moment – is a fixed product…bottled, sealed, and inalterable by any monetarily-involved entity thereafter (except negatively, as with a distributor who doesn’t protect their wines from the damaging effects of heat). In this, it is like a CD or a toaster oven, the criticism of which requires no anonymity on the part of the critic, and the criticism of which carries no expectation of anonymity from the consumer. That is the methodology that should apply to wine criticism.

The one exception is, of course, before a wine is contained within a sealed container. A barrel sample – thieved straight from the barrel or contained within a temporary receptacle – can indeed be altered by an entity sufficiently inclined to do so. (To be completist on this point, this exception could also apply to bottled wine especially produced for critical review; that is, not part of the regular for-sale production line.) The potential abuse is in the power of the entity providing such a sample to misrepresent the product under consideration. A winemaker can pour the best among multiple potential samples, or pour an entirely different wine, for example. More nefariously, they could provide a specially-concocted sample tailored to a critic’s known biases. (A few – very few – critics angrily insist that such “critics’ cuvées” don’t exist. Usually, those critics are those with the most to lose if their judgments are called into question, or perhaps they are merely willfully naïve. In any case, the key point as it relates to a discussion of ethics is not whether or not these doctored samples exist, but that they can exist, and their potential existence applies to the only instance where critical anonymity may in fact be preferable.) There’s really no defense against this tactic except vigilance, and the annoyances of anonymity are well beyond the slight protection it would provide for all but a tiny minority of very famous writers, for whom it is almost certainly too late.

independence

It may be seen that all of these potential ethical dilemmas hinge solely on the ability of the writer to assess and manage potential corrupting influences. The goal of formal codes of ethics is to enforce independence – to forcefully separate the writer from their subject – in order to maintain the aforementioned appearance of impropriety. But, as I hope I’ve demonstrated, the important word in that phrase is not “appearance,” but “impropriety.” And while it is not enough to simply declare one’s independence (all too often, this is presented as a misguided synonym for objectivity), the path of trust between writer and consumer can only be walked by the writer who puts into actual practice a code of ethics that create a recognizable shield of independence. And on that subject, we leave the realm of ethics and enter the difficult, but real, world of methodology.


7 Comments

Leave a Reply