A real teat

romulusSo here’s the pitch. The name of the writer, included in a letter that its author has cast hither and yon into the wine trade sea, isn’t important, so I’ve left it out.

I would love to be added to your mailing list for sample bottles. I can GUARANTEE an online review of any bottle you send me. I realize that there are many wine bloggers out there and you must be inundated with requests, but I don’t know how many bloggers can guarantee a review (along with any descriptive info you send along). If a bottle is flawed or oxidized I will email you before I write anything about it. […] I can guarantee a review on a website that is almost always on the first page of natural search results on Google when someone searches for a particular wine.

I have to say, I admire the shine on those giant brass balls; this is like taking a full-page ad in Variety announcing that you intend to prostitute yourself and giving the exact dates and times at which you are available for whoring. It’s not just anyone who lacks sufficient shame to attempt something like this. And so, from that perspective: kudos.

Then again, the pearl-clutching horror with which this message has been received by some is awfully naïve. Years ago, when I started typing about wine, there were innumerable writers – even a fair number publications – for whom this was the entire business plan. Some of both are still around. And let’s be frank: it was, and is, one of the surest paths to (monetary) success. One of the absolute best at it back in those days, a local colleague who never once met a press release or one-off tasting that couldn’t be rewritten for publication, is now an editor for a venue for which I have repeatedly been asked to write…for free, of course. (And probably should anyway, in these dim-venued times.) The wheel turns, and Astroglide helps ease its passage. Nothing new under the sheets the sun.


So is this elephantiasic pitch actually problematic? In one sense, absolutely yes. It has nothing to do with brazenly soliciting samples. It’s not even really the promise of coverage, as long as the promise doesn’t pre-characterize the tone of that the coverage. It’s the explicit deal whereby the subject of the “review” can vet said review before publication.

The issue isn’t that such prior consideration is unethical by journalistic standards. The writer of this fantastical pitch isn’t (to my knowledge) claiming to be a journalist…one hopes…so those standards don’t apply. The issue is that if one is going to claim authorship of content (and he is), one must be its final arbiter. But in this case, he’s ceding a measure of control over both to the subject of commentary. That’s inherently untrustworthy…which is not, please note, the same thing as claiming that it doesn’t happen all the time. It does, but it’s called marketing or public relations. Anyway, the other side of this transaction – managing relationships with content providers to get the coverage a client wants – is exactly what many PR agents do, and if they didn’t succeed frequently enough to achieve their clients’ aims, they wouldn’t exist.

In any case, what he’s attempting to do will create inevitable limitations and restrictions. Good and/or small-production wineries are probably not going to be making their product available for his consideration unless he becomes spectacularly famous and powerful. Which seems unlikely, though it’s true there are some pretty blatant panderers and panhandlers who’ve done quite well for themselves. This, incidentally, is no different from how wineries usually parcel out their limited quantities of free product to “real” journalists: a judgment is made as to popularity, then filtered through a stylistic assessment (only the overcapitalized will send an oaked-up fruit bomb to someone who mostly writes about natural wine). Our pitchman will only acquire a certain type of wine with this approach – mass-market, industrial – and his audience will, in turn, be limited by the same stylistic restrictions.


On the other hand, I just can’t bring myself to care all that much, no matter how distasteful or naked the appeal to quid pro quo. I’ve written endless commentary on the difference between the appearance of ethics, actual ethics, and real trustworthiness, so I won’t revisit all of it here. The précis is this: it’s much better, from the perspective of a consumer of information, that a writer be right, good, or useful than to say high-minded things in the fine print yet produce incorrect, poor, or useless work.

A bit of amplification: not long ago, some folks on one wine forum wondered why (now former) Wine Advocate critic Jay Miller was being criticized for doing something that his colleague David Schildknecht did without public condemnation. Yes, from the standpoint of rigid universal ethics that’s patently unfair. But the actual answer is completely obvious: the people offering the criticism trust the content of Schildknecht’s work more than they trust Miller’s. Were Miller’s work beyond reproach to those critics, he could act with greater impunity. But it’s not, and so he can’t. (Well, couldn’t.)

Or look at it this way: wine is, among other things, a product. Whose product criticism is considered ethically pure and nearly beyond reproach? Consumer Reports, certainly. And they’ve actually done some wine criticism over the years. Does anyone respect it? Does anyone who knows anything about wine find it anything other than laughable? Not that I’ve noticed. And the reason is not that CR struggles with ill-considered ethical lapses, it’s because ethics are not only not the same as skill or utility, they don’t even function as a fair replacement, either.

So if ethics don’t make one a good critic, what does? How about being a good critic? You can replace “critic” with “writer” or “journalist” and the statement remains true. Being a good critic requires knowledge, it requires skill in both assessment and communication, and it can be argued that it requires an audience. Note: ethics were not on that list.

This isn’t to argue that ethics don’t matter. They do. The reason they matter, however, is not their self-referential importance, but in how they – or their lack – affect the quality of the work. If unethical behavior leads to untrustworthy or useless work, then ethics matter, and that’s why attention must always be paid. If the work is poor despite pristine ethics, however, then they didn’t matter at all. Again, what really matters is the work. The rest is worthy of consideration, but it’s a secondary consideration.

“Oh,” someone is now objecting, “but with far more wine commentators than anyone can actually follow, it’s necessary to judge ethics to help sort them out.” Really? If that’s the case – if we’re filtering critics by their ethical practices – then we’re back to a wine world in which Consumer Reports sits atop the pyramid of utility. Do they? Again, I know of no one who thinks so. We can (and should) talk about ethics, but in the end our primary consideration is always going to be the quality of the work. It’s similar to how one may have all the admiration in the world for a winemaker’s overwhelming swellness as a human being, but the decision to buy his or her wine is based primarily on its quality.


All that said, I can understand wariness on this point from consumers. With so many voices, most of them largely unknown, and limited money to spend on what is, after all, a liquid frivolity, doesn’t a precondition of apparent trustworthiness help? Sure, of course. Consumers are wise to at least wonder about ethics. Further, the existence of as-pure-as-possible commentators acts as a necessary check against those more compromised, because they can shine a light on the worst (or the best-hidden) practices.

But the thing is, a lot – probably the majority – of the carping about ethics these days isn’t coming from consumers. It’s coming from the trade. This would be laughable were it not so hypocritical.

vultureCan’t – in this age of the hyper-fragmented, many-to-many marketplace of information – wineries, importers, and retailers bypass what used to be the gate-keeping press filters and funnels, and just put their own message out there? Yes, absolutely. Many are in fact doing exactly this, and well.

After all, who knows more about a wine than its maker? Who knows more about a peer group – wines of a single region, wines of a certain ethos, and so forth – than importers with a point of view (of which there are now many)? Who knows more about what their customers actually want than retailers? No journalist, no matter how ethical or skilled, can hope to provide information of this granularity at better than second-hand, once-removed distance. Third-party commentators have other skills and freedoms, and there are ways they can contextualize and criticize that are not usually open to those in the trade, but what they offer is a view of the source material, not the material itself.

In other words, what makes a winemaker’s or importer’s words valuable has absolutely nothing to do with ethics (except in the case of an unalloyed charlatan). No, it has everything to do with their inextricable connection to the product. In fact, they cannot be “ethical” by journalistic standards because they cannot separate themselves from personal and financial interests in the subjects on which they are commenting.

It seems to me that someone in the trade who wishes their own voice to be heard, yet complains about the ethics of writers, is trying to have it both ways. If a writer is compromised by a lack of distance, certainly that writer is far less compromised than the person selling the product. Wouldn’t we, by that standard, be much better off ignoring anyone who makes or sells wine? Or if this very lack of separation is why we should listen to those who make and sell wine, why is a lesser version of same still unforgivable from a writer? One cannot have it both ways.

There are those in the writing cohort who beat a “the trade is inherently untrustworthy” drum, and have for many years. I’ve said before that I think this is ludicrous, because it stupidly ignores some of the greatest potential sources of knowledge and insight about wine. Moreover, most often this mantra is chanted by those who stand to gain, financially and in terms of reputation, from consumers turning their eyes and ears from the trade and towards the commentator doing the complaining. It’s mercenary at its heart, though no less so than a tradesperson leveling a similar charge against a commentator.

Or maybe, despite the hypocrisy, the trade thinks they have something to gain by shouting down the commentariat with charges of inethics. Let me suggest to them that they’re being dumbasses, if so. In case no one’s noticed, traditional media aren’t doing so well. A lot are already dead and buried. It’s not impossible that the rest are doomed. Which, if so, means that the old ways of getting one’s wines noticed are awfully thin on the ground. One does not have to view that which is replacing traditional journalism with love and respect to see that it is, at least for now, close to all there is.

So there are three paths the trade can follow. They can embrace the current state of affairs, and in fact it doesn’t much matter if they do it with arms wide open or while holding their collective noses. They can ignore the whole thing, and trust that the winds of fate, chance, and word-of-mouth will put food on their table…which, given a sufficiently small amount of wine to sell, can actually work under certain limited circumstances. Or they can whine, cry, and stamp their feet, demanding an ethical purity that they cannot actually produce themselves.

The funny thing is, they could actually have that last thing, if they really wanted it. So could we all. If…


if we were willing to pay for it. Not directly, as in the sort of wine-for-coverage deal in the nakedly avaristic pitch above But…well, an example. Allow me to quote an importer (one I like and respect) on this very subject:

There is a journalist I sometimes drink with who won’t take a single thing. He insists on paying for every little thing, even if you only offer him a taste. I doubt there is a single blogger out there who can claim the same thing.

I don’t know if that’s true, but it probably is. Let’s posit it’s so. It is, frankly, almost unique even among actual journalists operating under actual corporate-imposed ethical strictures. I’m pretty sure I know who this is, and while I’m going to mention neither his nor the importer’s name (because it’s not germane to my point), I do hope our unnamed importer helps pay our unnamed journalist’s salary by subscribing to his publication and going out of this way to patronize its advertisers. If he doesn’t, then he’s being a leech, and a self-entitled one at that.

Look, I know it’s a confusing time. A few somewhat compromised but familiar voices have given way to a hurricane of unknowably compromised voices, and it’s hard to know who to trust anymore. The average wine communicator is less informed and less experienced than ever, though there’s an inverse gain in niche expertise. We know there are paid shills working the commentary and social media circuit, but openly and in the shadows. And while all this has been going on, the contraction of the bulk of wine commerce into a few mega-corporations has produced the inevitable backlash: a luxuriant and largely unexplored jungle of personality-driven sources and outlets, who – in the face of the marketing power of the megaliths – need every bit of coverage they can get.

But some limitations are built into the system. To spread news about a wine, a person must taste said wine. One way or another, the wine has to get from the trade’s hands to a communicator’s glass. Someone is going to have to pay for that transaction. Either the trade does it directly, as used to be the norm, or they do it indirectly, as paying consumers of information; “free” all too often being worth what was paid for it. The alternative is that all communication is left, as it was long ago, to merchants. The most thoroughly compromised entity possible.

It’s an imperfect and probably imperfectible system, to be sure. But it’s not one that benefits from thoroughly self-serving hypocrisy any more than it benefits from undisclosed compromise. Flaws are a part of wine, but they’re also a part of those who make, sell, and write about them.

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3 Responses to A real teat

  1. A word from the Sterile Donkey:

    Let me begin by stipulating that in the world of wine, my status as a blogger may approach the equivalent of a baseball fan sitting in the back of the cheap seats at a Texas League game. I have no problem with ethics, because no entity in the trade in his or her right mind is going to give me anything. (Although on at few occasions, I’ve had to talk deranged marketers out of wanting to advertise on my site. Spare me the marketer with a few dollars left in the client’s budget that have just got to go somewhere.) Instead, I have an employee discount. I mostly review wines one at a time, because that’s what I can afford.

    But ethics is not the issue.

    This may surprise you, but the 25 or so followers of my blog do so because over the course of many a year, I sold them wine that they liked. “Merchant” seems a bit grand, and maybe you’re talking about a different level of commerce, but it is a synonym for “retailer.” And as a retailer, I confess to being a bit irked at being called “compromised” because that is very, very far from the truth of what I and the people I work with do. Again, let me stipulate that I have often, in the presence of wholesalers, importers, negociants, and other mighty personages of the trade, referred to my job as “glorified stock boy.” It’s the truth: 80% of the job is putting bottles on the shelves. But the other 20% is trying to find out what customers want to drink, and selling them something they’ll enjoy. When the gurus tell people to “build a relationship with your local wine merchant” they’re talking about dealing with someone like me. (If no one objects, I’m just going to cover Total and Bevmo and that crowd with a napkin and ignore them. Those people might as well be selling used cars or designer blue jeans or whatever.)

    When you come into the shop looking for an inexpensive bubbly, or a nice red to go with that ribeye you got on sale, my one and only job is to find you something you can afford and that I’m reasonably sure you’ll enjoy. I’m not there to move the weekly special—it’s a real special, which means it will move itself—or steer you to the bottle that gives me the highest margin. I’m going to do my best by you, not because I’m altruistic, but because I live on repeat business.

    And just to bring it back around, the people who read my blog do so not because I’m some kind of incredibly virtuous and knowledgeable person, but because they know me, and they trust me—not to be infallible, but to be who I am.

    • thor iverson says:

      Snipped one,

      You misunderstood how I was using “compromised” in this essay.

      The worry, among those who subscribe to this particular ethical code, is that what will make a writer (let’s use that as a catch-all for anyone who communicates about but does not sell wine) unethical is any sort of monetary relationship with the products on which they comment. Obviously, selling wine would be a monetary relationship, but it’s the firm belief of some — not me — that not having to pay full price for whatever of measure of product under commentary is just as problematic a monetary relationship. That the act of receiving a free bottle, or tasting, or sample pour from a winery will necessarily compromise the writer’s integrity.

      If that’s true, then a merchant (by which I meant to include retailers, restaurateurs, distributors, importers, and wineries) is far more compromised than a writer, because we’re no longer talking about measurable quantities of free wine, we’re talking about one’s livelihood being dependent on selling what one owns. In fact, it’s such a deeply impenetrable compromise that there is no one less trustworthy than a merchant.

      The point of this essay, in necessary concert with the earlier one (linked from Terry Theise’s name), is that in the real, rather than hopelessly utopian, world, the best sources of information and advice are, in fact, those most deeply compromised by their monetary connection to wine. The example of the merchant is raised not to demonstrate that merchants are less trustworthy than writers, but rather than this particular issue — economic encumbrance — is a poor measure of the integrity and, more importantly, the quality of a writer’s work. If it was useful, merchants would be useless. Since they’re not, there must be a different reason why some writers (or merchants) are more useful or more ethical than others. And that’s what I’m interested in exploring.

  2. thor iverson says:

    Or, the tl;dr version: integrity matters, results matter, and monetary “compromise” isn’t a very useful way to assess either.

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