The myth of independence
It seems self-evident that some measure of independence is crucial for any critic. Exists there anyone who would trust an employee of a firm to objectively review the products or practices of that firm? The same is also true of the writer, whose narrative musings must be recontextualized if they have a foundation that is not principally internal.
However, independence is very much a matter of degree, and it can be successfully argued that true independence is unachievable if one’s goal is informed, effective writing. Just as complete objectivity is a myth, so too is the notion of the unencumbered and unentangled critic.
What is independence?
Independence, in the context of wine writing, is freedom from encumbrance and entanglement with the subject of said writing. There is also the corollary implication of independence of action; the independent writer is not bound by restrictions on their work from any source, including parties unrelated to the subject. An independent writer is free to inquire, free to explore, free to opine and free to express, all without restriction.
One can immediately see many of the great problems inherent in this definition. But first, it might be valuable to examine the myriad ways in which a writer can be non-independent; a state which I will hereafter label “dependent.”
Forms of dependence
With all these dependencies (plus those not iterated here), it seems impossible for a writer to remain truly independent. Theoretically, it remains a possibility…albeit a remote one, for one major reason I will soon iterate. As a matter of practice, however, no critic is independent. Let me repeat that: no critic is independent. Dependencies, relationships and limitations can always be identified. Always. Independence, then, is simply a matter of degree. At which point, the burden falls on the writer to decide how much independence they want or need, and on the reader to decide what level of independence they require from a writer.
All about the Benjamins
The belief that full independence is an unquestioned good leads, as with misguided notions of objectivity and ethical purity, to unreasonable and unachievable expectations on the part of the reader. This is an important point, and thus worth examining in some detail.
The one inescapable requirement for complete independence is significant wealth. Without it, a writer simply cannot avoid entanglements with all facets of the wine trade. (This presumes that the writer is interested in expanding their knowledge; a writer content to work in ignorance can be as independent as they want at any economic level…but they will never be useful to anyone else.) A writer with enough money can purchase all the wines necessary for building organoleptic and intellectual context, while others less economically-blessed must either do without or rely on alternative sources. This becomes a more restrictive limitation with each yearly increase in the price of wine. A writer with enough money can visit any wine region they wish to visit, while others will have to forgo such journeys or accept ethically dangerous junkets. A writer with enough money can arrange face-to-face meetings with important, knowledgeable people in the wine industry, while others will have to accept limited access or take advantage of press-focused opportunities sponsored by the industry. In each case, the choice is tripartite: the writer pays, someone else pays, or the writer does without.
It’s true that the fraternity of wine writers is rather overpopulated, in comparison to society as a whole, with lawyers, doctors and other highly successful and wealthy people looking for a second career. This is especially true in the United States, where rather more of a fetish is made of independence from entanglements with the wine trade. But it seems profoundly anti-egalitarian to make this a virtual requirement for wine writers by insisting on some semi-mythic ideal of independence. No other critical endeavor with which I’m familiar is burdened by this expectation (in fact, in many fields the situation is rather the opposite: critics tend to be severely underpaid in comparison to the creators of the works they review).
So what is the non-wealthy writer to do? Accept profound limitations on their ability to learn, to grow as a writer, to contextualize their experiences with a broader and deeper range of knowledge, and to write with ever-increasing authority? That’s one path, though it’s hardly an estimable one, and it will definitely not lead to a more economically representative mix of informed wine writers. Alternatively, one could come into sudden wealth, perhaps via the lottery or a wealthy great-aunt’s will. But in the end, the one sensible choice is to accept a certain measure of dependence.
The educational value of access to, say, winemakers is immeasurable. A writer who wishes to improve must have access to that education. And words are not enough; any winemaker can best illustrate their knowledge via actual liquid examples, and a writer needs to also be a taster to do their job effectively. Once this has been done, it is true that the writer has lost a bit of independence by drawing their knowledge from a winemaker rather than from their own independent study. This can be mitigated by greatly increasing the number of winemaking sources from which a writer obtains knowledge, but since winemakers frequently disagree, and since it is impossible that they are all right, at some point the writer will have to make a choice. A decision. An alignment. The freedom to make that choice is independence, but what follows from such an alignment is a diminishment of independence. A dependency, in other words.
A non-wealthy writer must, if they wish the widest context and opportunity possible, accept samples in some form. The restrictions the writer places on such acceptance will be a matter of personal ethics, but there is just no alternative unless the writer wishes to remain generally uninformed. This, inherently, forms a relationship between the writer and the various parties who provide samples: wineries, importers, distributors, retailers, restaurants and public relations agencies. And it is another form of dependence. (Some entities will refuse future samples to a writer who has earned their ire, whether by actual negative press or by unwillingness to trade coverage for product. Most, to their credit, won’t. But it does happen, and any writer who starts down this path must understand this. Dependent relationships are not stable ones.)
Some, including a few prominent wine critics, will immediately decry this solution as unacceptable. As with the issue of anonymity, one suspects that some are applying the ethics of restaurant reviewing to wine, while others are blithely and hypocritically dismissing their own dependencies to better criticize those practiced by their competitors. And it’s also worth examining the ethics that govern other genres of criticism. Music critics do not purchase the albums they review, and they are showered with promotional items and other swag along the way; neither do they pay to attend concerts. The same goes for literary critics, who receive books in the mail. Theater and film critics don’t pay for their tickets, get special access to stars and directors, and attend events and junkets at the expense of producers/PR agencies/marketing firms. All critics of live performances get preferential seating. In fact, almost all product and event reviews are done with the assistance of free samples…except for restaurants, and then only at the few publications who subsidize a restaurant critic, and even then only successfully at the very few publications wealthy enough to subsidize enough repeat and representative dining to ensure fairness and proper context. (Think, for example, how much four small-group dinners at Per Se or Daniel must cost the New York Times. And that’s just one review.) There is one glaring exception to all this: Consumer Reports. But there, the monetary issue must be reintroduced into the equation. CR takes a monetary risk by purchasing (and then reselling, which is not an option for a wine critic) the often-expensive products they review. What if the audience won’t support the activity with their subscription dollars? They would be forced into one of three options: stop, accept free samples, or accept advertising (the publication version of coming into wealth). Their ethics and practices are laudable, but they are also virtually unique in the universe of critique. That, all by itself, is revealing. Even semi-similar publications like Cook’s Illustrated don’t have to purchase fifty mid-size sedans solely on subscription profits.
The knowledge-seeking writer might also consider taking advantage of travel opportunities. It is simply not possible to learn as much about wine in the comfort of one’s home as it is in the cool humidity of a producer’s cellar. But the junket has obvious dangers, not least of which the undoubted expectation of coverage in return for such expensive generosity (an expectation buoyed by the simple fact that many writers do feel an obligation), and there is also the issue of philosophical independence to consider. A particular trip might be engineered to convince writers of one firm’s position on a controversial issue, thus gaining “friends in the press” and advocacy for an opinion; the cork industry has spent a good deal of money in this fashion, in an attempt to beat back the largely positive press coverage of alternative closures. And given the number of times that junkets are rewarded with coverage in the popular press (it turns out that much automobile journalism proceeds from junkets, for example), the problematic nature of these trips is thrown into stark focus. Nonetheless, the benefits can be substantial, and must be weighed against the risks.
Trust but verify
It seems that there are no easy answers here. A writer who practices true independence must be wealthy or contextually handicapped. A writer who allows dependencies is surrounded with the temptations of compromise and inethics. So: what, then?
As with the thorny issues of objectivity and ethics, the only effective solution is internal. A writer must practice and hold to their philosophical and intellectual independence despite the myriad temptations to do otherwise. A writer must communicate this independence to their reader by their actions and opinions as revealed in their work. And when a writer is compromised, there must be full anticipatory disclosure.
This does not mean an endless litany of potential dependencies must attach to every word the writer puts into print. No one has the time for or an interest in such a practice, even if they think they do. Here, for example, is a “disclaimer” for anything I might write about the wines of Trimbach:
I have a personal relationship with Jean and Pierre Trimbach, and have met Hubert and Bernard Trimbach on several occasions. I have tasted and dined with Jean, Pierre and Hubert at various locations in the United States and France. Some meals have been paid for by the Trimbachs, some by their importer, and some by me. I have been driven around Alsace by Jean Trimbach, and have returned the favor. I have tasted wines at Trimbach and at press events in the States to which the general public does not have access, at the expense of Trimbach, their importer and other associated entities. I have received gifts, both wine and non-wine, from the Trimbachs, their importer and their Massachusetts distributor. I have given gifts to Jean Trimbach. We have exchanged Christmas cards. I own a great deal of Trimbach wine, and have a strong personal preference for their style.
Now, does anyone want to see that every time I mention Trimbach? No. Does anyone want to see that disclaimer replicated for every producer, importer, distributor, retailer and restaurant that might be mentioned in anything I write? Probably not. And even if there was such a request, it is in no one’s interest for a writer to spend the time necessary to do so. A successful writer could spend years writing disclaimers rather than writing about wine. That is insensibly counter-productive.
What “anticipatory disclosure” of compromise means is simply this: if there is an event or an unusual relationship that is likely to affect the focus, opinion or intensity of a piece of writing, it is in the writer’s best interests to disclose it. To follow along from the above example, it’s not necessary for me to disclaim a simple tasting note on a Trimbach wine. But if I write two-thousand words on why I think Trimbach is the best producer in the world (NB: I don’t), it would be ethical of me, and useful for the consumer of my words, to know about the extent of my personal relationship with the Trimbachs. Similarly, were I to write about the wines of a producer who, one week earlier, threw a glass of wine on my shirt (NB: this didn’t happen, though I do have a few highly antagonistic relationships with members of the wine trade), that, too, would be an event worthy of disclosure. And though it almost goes without saying, economic relationships must always be disclosed. (Samples are ubiquitous enough among writers that I think the effort to disclose their source is wasted verbiage, though others may disagree. Readers should assume, in the absence of commentary to the contrary, that most writers taste a mix of purchased and free wine from various sources. Junkets, on the other hand, are sufficiently lavish that I think coverage that flows from them should be disclaimed.)
For the reader, as with questions of ethics it simply comes down to a matter of trust. The signs of a writer working as independently as possible are clear with a little insight, while a compromised writer can be seen as a charlatan by nearly everyone. And it’s also important to remember that writers are readers as well, and will collectively shun those among them who demean the profession by their inethics. Writers, too, must play their role by constantly working to earn that trust by their intellectual and philosophical independence. But, ultimately, what allows an atmosphere of independence among writers is their audience. The active, interested participation of consumers creates a demand for experienced, knowledgeable and skilled writers. Without that audience, there would only be marketing.
Copyright © Thor Iverson