State of wine journalism – A commentary on objectivity

I have read a lot of press lately on the discussion of objectivity in wine writing.  As a blogger this has a direct impact on me so the subject got my complete attention.  It seems there are some mixed views out there.  Some feel as though wineries and wine agencies are effectively buying off the media with free samples and tastings.  This can lead to positive reviews of the product because they are effectively “hired through samples” to promote the wine.  Others (myself included) believe in the objectivity but encourage the consumer to do their homework to be sure they trust the source.  I believe strongly in objectivity and ethics in wine writing and as such wanted to provide my take and some additional context on the subject.

Take a look first at a recent post by Rick VanSickle (@rickwine), speaking to an event I actively participated in.  Though his wrath is directed at Ms. Maclean and he distinctly says (in regards to the other reviewers) “I do not know most of them so I cannot comment on motive. I have to assume they accepted the samples, loved the wine and tweeted about them. Whether they were paid by MacLean, I have no idea, but I suspect not. And after reading the reviews, there were a range of opinions from scores in the mid-80s to low 90s. My concern is not with them.”  So while I was not personally offended or attacked, his overall tone calls into question true objectivity in wine writing, using an event I participated in as his prime example.  This got my attention.

The second was written by Mr. John Szabo, a Master Sommerlier universally recognized as one of Canada’s finest writers and evaluators, as well as a man I have met on numerous occasions and admire greatly.  This one was published in no smaller a forum than the National Post.  Here Mr. Szabo speaks to the overall state of wine reviewing today and how the internet provides a forum for just about anybody to review wines, credible or not and objective or not.  His point is that you need to filter your sources, learn who you can trust, and then trust them.  It’s getting harder and harder to do that in the complicated world of social media, but as a consumer you have to do your homework to trust those that are objective and credible.  I agree with him.  But again as someone who has jumped in with both feet, taking advantage of the low barriers to entry that the internet provides, I am in the centre of the world that Mr. Szabo is referring to, so again I took notice.

So here goes.  A quick monologue on a complicated topic.

Let’s be honest the lack of trustworthiness on the internet is by no means limited to wine.  Bloggers can write about anything from sports to parenting tips and their credibility can be everything from an educated source to a catfish scheme.  I agree wholeheartedly that consumers need to filter their information, find sources they trust, and call into question those they don’t trust.  It’s so easy to publish an opinion on the internet, it’s getting harder and harder for consumers to decipher if that opinion is valid or not.

My general beef on the topic and with wine writers (and most other members of the press) is on the subject of objectivity.  I consider myself to be of the highest moral standards and completely objective when reviewing wines.  However being “objective” should not be confused with being “negative”.  As a writer if you go online to attack someone or attack an organization because you didn’t like their product this does not grant you instant credibility.  It might get you readers because everyone loves gossip and controversy, but it does not create credibility.  As a consumer I advise you not to confuse the two.  It’s far too easy to stand behind a keyboard and attack someone or something.  Be wary of those just trying to make a name for themselves.  Personally I consider myself a positive writer but also completely objective.  And yes… you can do both.  If I don’t like something I will tell you, but I also appreciate this doesn’t mean the product sucks or that everyone else needs to dislike it too.  Take for example this excerpt from a post I wrote about Yellow Tail wines in June of 2012.

“I am a wine writer and as such I try to be as objective as possible.  So here’s the deal… I am not a big fan of Yellow Tail Wine.  As I have documented on here before Australian Shiraz (which is their most popular wine) is simply not one of my personal favourites, whether made by Yellow Tail or any other producer.  Even beyond that though, Yellow Tail wines have never appealed to me.  However I realized on Thursday that Yellow Tail must be doing something right.  In fact they do a lot of things right as since their beginning in 2001 they have risen to become the #1 bottled wine exported from Australia.  They are hugely popular in Canada, they are a lock as a general list at the LCBO, and they are inexpensive.  After meeting the folks from Yellow Tail on Thursday I think I know why they have achieved that success.  They make very approachable wines.  Their target market is not the connoisseur segment or the wine critic.  Their segment is the everyday consumer who may be fearful of the big boys from France and Italy and who may not understand what the heck they’re drinking in those bottles anyways.  To that segment Yellow Tail wines make sense.”

Objectivity found in positive wine writing.  That is a concept I believe in.

So listen to Mr. Szabo and find sources you trust, my only tip is to not assume negativity equals honesty or objectivity.  In fact, I think this tip applies to all press out there and well beyond the world of wine writing.  If only some of the writers who cover the Leafs would listen to this advice every now and then (Damien Cox if you’re reading this I’m looking at you) who with every loss on the ice seem to feel the world is crashing down and every win seems to be “lucky” or an outlier.  Taking it a step further every snowstorm nowadays is “snowmageddon” and every TTC or Go Train delay is a flaw in the overall operation of those trains.  Negativity often fuels the public interest and gains viewers and readers.  I don’t see it that way.  My forum has but one purpose… to enhance your experience with wine… in a positive way.

– Mark
Follow me on Twitter: @towineman