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Breaking the Unspoken Code

In a recent Seattle Times wine column, Paul Gregutt made an interesting statement regarding his colleagues in the wine press:

"There is a sort of unspoken code among many in the wine press not to be too critical of specific wines or wineries. The logic is that it's better to point out the successes and let the failures slide."

I would have enjoyed hearing Gregutt expound on the logic underlying this "unspoken code". I believe there is a clear reason for its existence: incentives compel reviewers to remain focused on writing only about successes, with those calling out failures risking severe penalty. I'll attempt to explain each side.

Many writers are given a lot of free wine to review, much of it on an unsolicited basis. It's clearly a gravy train for many leading reviewers, which raises questions about objectivity. With cases of wine regularly arriving at a reviewer's doorstep, why would they choose to write anything negative? In doing so, the flow of wine could be at risk, for some wineries might avoid sending their product for fear of a negative review. Year over year, hundreds of wineries keep sending their wines to reviewers in hopes of being called out as a "success" for the first time or again with a new vintage.

Beyond the gravy train, issues arise around reviewing wines that have been provided directly by a winery. I've read about wineries bottling a special barrel for reviewers, knowing the rest of the lot is of lesser quality. I've even heard of some wineries bottling their competitor's wines and calling them their own to pump up scores and garner reviews. Unfortunately, there are few writers who review wines purchased at retail, which is odd considering this is how most readers obtain wine.

The incentives for reviewers to point out "successes" doesn't end with free wine. Many writers get access to wineries where they sample upcoming releases firsthand. They can be treated very well on these visits, in a manner far different from what the average consumer would experience, if in fact the winery is even open to the public. Here again, the focus on writing solely about successes incents wineries to open their doors wide, as they hope their hospitality will garner a positive review year over year. And this privileged access is something few wine reviewers are willing to put at risk by writing about "failures".

Unfortunately, the wine press is not alone in practicing this unspoken code. There are some wine bloggers out there doing the same, applying similar logic due to the incentives involved. You know who they are: the consummate cheerleaders who are always spinning the positive, never offering any hint of constructive criticism. Fortunately, these spin doctors are the exception to the rule in the wine blogosphere, with most folks calling out the good and bad of their wine experiences, which is how it should be.

For example, there is Alder at Vinography.com, whose ramblings and rants are much appreciated for calling out who and what to avoid. And then there is Vincent at Élevage, who has experienced a backlash from some folks for commenting negatively about a vineyard. Even the Parkeristas are becoming sensitive to criticism, banning folks like Alice Feiring from Parker's message board because she took on the emperor of wine.

[Postscript - while reading The Wine Camp this morning, I discovered a post by Thor Iverson at oenoLogic, a wine blogger who is facing pushback from some in our state's wine industry who are upset about his recent review of Washington wine. Thor's post is incredibly relevant to this topic, thus well worth a thorough read, comments and all.]

A variety of concerns arise from reviewers practicing this unspoken code. Objectivity is clearly one concern. Yet another is the cost a consumer must bear in not having the guidance needed to make an informed purchase decision. For example, there are hundreds of wineries in the Pacific Northwest, with thousands of wines being produced each year. Due to geographic distance or retail scarcity, wines and wineries called out as successes may not be accessible to most readers.

As a result, consumers are faced with making an uninformed decision to buy a wine or visit a winery that a reviewer has experienced but chose not to write about. So, they end up spending $20, $30, $40, $50 or more on a bottle of wine that is of poor quality. Or they spend even more money in wine country visiting wineries that offer a poor experience. All because some in the wine press and blogosphere choose to lead folks only to the successes, without ever steering them away from the failures.

Imagine for a moment, restaurant and movie reviewers only writing about the successes. What impact would that have on your purchase decisions? Many folks would visit the latest success story, only to find the wait too long or the show sold out. Still more would end up eating at restaurants or watching movies of poor quality. What a waste of time and money that would create for consumers. Why should it exist with wine?

Thank goodness for bloggers who are practicing courage and conviction to cover both the successes and failures related to their wine experiences. Thank goodness for services such as Yelp.com that have created a community of consumers who are regularly writing about their experiences visiting wineries. Thank goodness for those wine writers who purchase their wines for review directly or at retail and visit wineries during normal business hours, just like the rest of us.

But more needs to be done by wine reviewers, with the following efforts providing a good start:

• Full disclosure - whether the wine press or wine bloggers, all should disclose how they sourced the wine they are reviewing. In addition, writers should disclose what, if any, special treatment they received in visiting a winery that they have reviewed. More transparency is needed in order for consumers to feel they are getting an objective opinion.

• Balanced reporting - wine writers owe it to their readers to cover both the successes and failures. Wine consumers will be more informed and the wine industry will be better off as a result. It pains me to see consumers encountering poor customer experience or buying expensive plunk because no one was willing to call these wineries out.

• More blogging - the usual retort from the wine press is that space constraints limit them to focusing on the positive. The blogosphere offers a limitless medium for publishing. If Eric Asimov of The New York Times can blog regularly, then so can others in the wine press. And consumers should embrace this medium as well, for there are a number of ways to share your opinions. The easiest is to comment on wine blogs or post reviews on sites such as Yelp.com. Even better is starting your own wine blog - it's easier than you might think!

Regardless of what wine reviewers ultimately do, I encourage you, the consumer, to search for more information on the wines you are considering buying and/or the wineries you might be visiting. There is a wealth of information online, with more being added regularly. If your decisions are based solely on one magazine, one column, or one reviewer, you're missing out on a lot of what wine has to offer.

And most importantly, demand more of those who are informing your decisions on what to buy and where to visit. Seek full disclosure, balanced reporting, and more blogging from your favorite wine writers. We'll all benefit as a result of these combined efforts.

Comments

First off, thanks for the link to The Oregon Wine Blog! We'll link back to you, as well.

This is an issue that we have struggled with at TOWB since inception. Too often we have a propensity to only purchase wine that we have tasted and enjoyed, which puts a positive bias on the content of the blog. Additionally, I'm not nearly as jazzed to write up a review on a wine that sucked as opposed to something that really worked. Nonetheless, point well taken.

We'll try to do a better job of disclosing where we source wine and pepper in a few less-than-favorite reviews.

Josh, thanks for your comment. There's certainly no joy in writing about the negative, but we'll all be better off as a result of calling these experiences out. And I appreciate your efforts in providing more transparency to your readers. Hopefully others will follow your lead. Keep up the good work connecting folks to Oregon wine.

Thanks Thad for this big platter of food for thought. You have made some excellent points and I would like to continue those those thoughts on my blog and of course, giving you a link.

Me? I am really guilty of only posting the niceity-nice stuff about the wines I taste. And then again, I can be a little tough on the wine tourists/consumers. My reason for the niceness is not because I get free wine, but I have to live in this town and don't want all of the empty bottles tossed at me if they see me in town.

I appreciate your comments, Catie, and I look forward to reading more about this topic on your blog. Walla Walla is a small town, therefore would hate to see you injured by any empties, especially those heavy bottles. Nonetheless, I do hope you can find a respectful way to comment on those wines and/or wineries not meeting the bar. We, the consumers, and they, the industry, will both benefit over the long run. Keep up the good work.

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