OK, I am finally blogging, having been spurred on by the recent invigorating posts related to wine-writing ethics over at my compadre Dr. Vino’s blog. The topic is way too broad to resolve or even present in one post, but it is certinaly a fertile place to start.
I used to have six-bottle wine bag from Cambria Vineyards and a leather backpack from Piper-Sonoma. I also used to have a cherry tree in my front yard, courtesy Sebastiani Vineyards (it died in our harsh Westchester winter…). My post-it notes say “Think Red. Think Cotes-du-Rhone.” My kids have gone to school with pens from Rioja, notepads from Sterling Vineyards and flashing pins from Georges Duboeuf.
Should I feel uneasy about any of this? I think not. It’s just the usual swag (as they call it in media circles)—publicity-driven tchotchkes. Then again, in wine the swag extends to, well, sample bottles…and freebies beyond swag entail tastings and dinners and wine-country accommodations and even all-expenses-paid trips.
Naturally, as the value of the perks rise, so do the ethical stakes. Perhaps even more critical, over years of being a wine scribbler, I count dozens of winemakers, winery principals, marketing executives and PR people as friends. It is part of the terroir—er, the territory. The real question is: Is it possible to remain objective when one is on the greasy end of wine freebies large and small?
My simple answer is: No. But the situation demands more than a simple answer, because I would argue that objectivity really has no place in wine writing. I meet people, go places, try new things, learn…and in the process, I can’t help but make connections to the people and circumstances related to specific wines. But it is often precisely through these connections that I gain the insight I find invaluable to my craft. And when you stop and think about it, unless someone lives in a vacuum (or an impenetrable Ivory Tower), how is it possible to remain perfectly objective? On top of that why would anyone care to hear the opinion (and let’s face it, wine writing always boils down to opinion) of someone who claims to have no personal connections to his/her subject?
To me, wine should be personal, and wine writing demands not objectivity, but rather purposeful subjectivity. I am constantly aware of my responsibility to report only what I believe to be honest, true and worth telling.
In my particular case, because I devote more of my time (and gain most of my income) from wine events, as opposed to wine writing, I have the benefit of operating more as a consultant than a journalist. And in that role, I buy a heap of wine (between $20-$40K annually). Do I buy friends’ wines? Sure, sometimes. Do I buy wines from producers or importers who have wined and dined me? Sometimes. Wines I discovered via free samples? Sometimes. Do I talk about these connections? When it’s relevant, absolutely. But usually the connection that originally turned me on to a wine is not nearly as important as the reason I have chosen it for a specific tasting or dinner. As with wines I write about, I only buy wines I believe are worth sharing. And the bottom line is that I am ultimately accountable for those choices. If the wines don’t work, neither do I.