Today’s writing isn’t about describing a beautiful blue sky day in wine country, or a wonderful wine tasting event. It isn’t about the tasting notes of a particular wine I’ve tasted, or about a recipe for a food dish that pairs perfectly with a wine. There’s no review of a new or important wine book, or the efficacy of a wine accessory. Today I am writing about writing on all of those things, and the samples I receive that make it possible to write what I do.
The ethics of wine blogging. Well, I don’t want to sound too high minded, but I will touch on that too; both my specific ethics, policies, and philosophy as a wine blog writer, and the larger ethics of all wine bloggers in general.
When I write a review of a wine, I am serving my readers who simply want to know what wines to possibly pick up at the supermarket or wine shop.
When I attend an event where I taste and review many wines at once, I recommend several wines at once for my readers – and I describe the event so that my readers might consider attending if the event is held annually.
When I review a wine book, I describe it for my readers and suggest who might find it useful.
When I review a wine accessory, I tell my readers whether it functions well and whether they would benefit from using it.
As a wine writer, wineries send me wine samples, event organizers send me complimentary tickets or put me on the press list, publishers send me wine books, and distributers send me wine accessories. As a wine writer, I receive for free what others pay for.
Are my reviews influenced by the free goods I receive? In that I could not possibly afford to buy all the wine, or purchase tickets to all of the events I would like to attend; yes, my reviews are influenced as without the samples and tickets, my reviews would be much fewer and farther between.
Is that it? Do the free goods merely mean that I am able to evaluate the samples, where if they weren’t sent I might not be able to consider them for review? Do the samples have a more insidious effect – are my reviews, their actual content, influenced by the receipt of the free goods?
Some of the reasons I write about wine are because I love wine, because I want “regular” otherwise non-wine drinking friends and readers to give wine a chance instead of iced tea or beer at dinner, because I think the industry as a whole does a terrible job marketing its product to consumers, and because too many wine writers write about the rare and expensive wines that I will likely never taste.
I want to write about wine in the most positive terms. My writing, by my own choice, is supportive of the industry that supports itself poorly. I don’t want to write negatively about wines. That has nothing to do with whether I taste a wine for free or small fee at a tasting room, or I buy it from a store, or taste it among many wines at an event, or receive it as a sample.
At the recent ZAP three days of Zinfandel tasting events, I recommended only about 60% of the wines I tasted. I didn’t put the wines I didn’t love into a “not recommended” list. While I may not have loved all the Zinfandels I tasted, some were certainly going to be loved by others – I love fruit, but am not a fan of too much pepper – my friend Serena Alexi who accompanied me did like some of the wines I did not, she has an experienced and talented palate and I respect her shared tasting notes. There were a small handful of wines that were unredeemingly horrible, flawed, and unpleasant, and no one except their producers could find anything kind to say about them; but rather than write something unkind, though true, I chose to concentrate on the wines I did love and remain constantly upbeat and positive.
I attended the ZAP events on a press pass, and while I was grateful for the courtesy, I can say with absolute conviction that my review would have been exactly the same if I had paid to attend each of the events.
Similarly, when I receive a sample wine at my door, I taste it and write the same review that I would if I had paid for it. If I taste a wine I do not like, I likely won’t write about it. We all heard, “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all,” as children; I think it describes my wine writing and reviewing philosophy well.
So yes, receiving samples, tickets, books, accessories does have an influence in that it increases the likelihood I will write about what is made available to me, but that is mostly a matter of courtesy and economics. I think it simply polite to evaluate every sample I can that someone sends me, and I couldn’t afford to purchase everything I sample. I am grateful for everything I receive, and the samples make for a better experience for the readers of my wine blog.
This week I will be attending Dark & Delicious, a Petite Sirah and food pairing tasting, and at the end of the month I will be attending the Pinot Noir Summit, an all day Pinot Noir event. I won tickets to both of these events in online contests. I wanted to attend them, taste many wines, write reviews of both the wines and the events themselves. For me, winning tasting event ticket contests is an important part of my writing. I recognize that as I continue to I write about events on my blog, my efforts to win wine event tasting tickets will decrease as regular offers of press passes to attend and cover these wine tasting events increase. I will be writing about Dark & Delicious and the Pinot Noir Summit, but I would have written about them whether I attended as a result of press passes, free tickets, or paid admission, and the content of what I write would not be different whether I received complimentary or paid admission.
There is an online contest to try to win a trip to Chile to taste wines. I will enter the contest, and would love to travel to Chile to write about an experience that I could not afford to write about without the costs being covered by the contest provider. Much the same as a sample bottle; I would write about a trip I won or was offered, partly out of gratitude, partly out of politeness, and most largely because the gift made it possible. If I didn’t love everything I experienced on the trip, I would focus my writing on the things I did love. That is really no different than my philosophy, my policy, about any other sample or gift I receive. At some point, I expect to be offered a paid wine tasting junket, and I will take it; I look forward to disclosing receipt of the trip when I describe the wine country I travel to and the wines I taste for readers of my wine blog.
It’s as simple as this; I’m a writer, I have to write. If you give me a reason to write about you, I likely will.
Every review that I write that exists because I received a sample or ticket is indicated as such with a DISCLOSURE notice. I love that wine bloggers are made to include such disclosure notices when reviewing something where there was a sample, or other item of value, received.
Once upon a time, there was a near God-like wine reviewer who stood above the rest by having a policy of never accepting samples, gifts or trips. Some would describe Him as a 100 on a 100 point scale reviewer of wines.He sold subscriptions to His wine review newsletter based on His unimpeachable independence. He continually criticized wine publications for accepting samples and advertising from the wine producers they review. When it recently came to light that His employees were in fact accepting grand paid first class trips, He at first defended them, then called them contractors, and now He has gone mum. His hypocrisy and deceit is possible in the print media, there exists no requirement that there be notice or disclosure of sample, book, event ticket, or trip with a wine review when that review is published in print media, be it newspaper, magazine, book, or newsletter.
The FTC requires that, under threat of an $11,000 fine, wine bloggers disclose receipt of a wine sample, or other good, in the published review of that wine.
Only when a wine review appears online, in a wine blog, is there a legal requirement that there be such disclosure; no such requirement exists for reviews of wine in print media. I am proud to be a wine blogger, I am proud to be more transparently honest and worthy of trust than my print brethren.
I’m not saying that every wine newsletter or magazine either has employee/contract reviewers accepting wines, tickets, trips, first class private jet trips without disclosure, or that the acceptance of advertising revenue from the producers of wines you review influences those reviews, or that taking money from producers for guaranteed coverage in magazines and radio shows makes the recipient a whore. I do find it telling that in none of the instances described are disclosures made – similar to the ones I make when I merely taste a sample wine.
I don’t pretend that all wine bloggers share my ethics, sample policy, or philosophy on how to deal with the samples they receive. Some would not take a sample if at all possible, and there might be some who effectively shape their reviews in an effort to receive more samples or possibly financially benefit from their reviews. Differences aside, we are all required by FTC rules to disclose any gifts, influences, or conflicts of interest. Each of our readers, based on the totality of our writing, can decide for themselves just what influence such samples have. I would like to believe that my readers can tell that the content of my reviews and writing are not influenced by such samples.
I am part of a community of wine bloggers and I have found that we are a cooperative bunch, not competitive. Together, our writings, free from the hidden conflict of interest concerns that plague the print media, can inform, educate, and influence our readers to try the wines we taste, love, and recommend. I know it is an immodest thought, but I think wine bloggers are the best thing that ever happened to wine marketing.
DISCLOSURE: I would love to be the one person, randomly chosen (or not so randomly), to “win a trip to Chile”…”to witness the Xplorador harvest in the heart of Chile’s beautiful wine country, meet the talented winemakers, and if [I'm] lucky, even get a chance to particpate in the process!”
Here’s the address for anyone else interested in a chance to win a trip to Chile: http://xploradorharvest.tumblr.com/