FD: Wine Column November 12, 2008

A free sample of ethics and wine

There’s a dustup on the wine blogging trail and it all has to do with ethics, perceived, actual and otherwise.

The background in a wine glass: Earlier this summer, Rodney Strong Vineyards sent wine blogger Jeff Lefevere (http://www.goodgrape.com) and several other wine bloggers a bottle of its new Rockaway Cabernet Sauvignon and asked them to review and blog about the wine more or less simultaneously.

At the same time, the wine was sent to the major wine magazines for their review. This meant the bloggers, who were asked to blog about the wine during the week of Aug. 18, would have their results to the public about six months earlier than the wine mags.

According to blogger Dr. Debs of the blog “Good Wines Under $20” (http://goodwineunder20.blogspot.com), Lefevere was interested in seeing how much influence a
handful of bloggers might have and whether bloggers working in cooperation would have any impact at all.

But the aftermath of the blogging ­— all eight of the participants published positive reviews — shows wide-ranging opinions on the topic of receiving free wine samples and whether accepting, receiving or even requesting such samples binds you to a positive review.

The opinions range from it makes no difference how a critic/blogger gets his/her wine to receiving free samples makes you a slave of the winery.

Does receiving free samples (whether it’s wine, spices, clothing, fishing gear, etc.) taint your subjective mood?

For the record, I didn’t get the Rockaway wine. I purchase most of the wine I write about but occasionally I receive unsolicited and solicited samples from wineries. I don’t write about all of them here or on my wine blog, Wine Openers (http://www.gjsentinel.com/blogs/content/shared-gen/blogs/communities/wine/), for one or more of several reasons.

In most cases, it’s because I didn’t find the wine to be something I’d review in a positive way. I don’t like writing negative reviews and there are so many wines out there that I do enjoy, I’d rather write about them.

That said, I’m also a firm believer that just because I don’t like a wine doesn’t mean you wouldn’t.

Also, I’ve never felt (well, almost never, anyway) that a wine producer or marketer presumes a glowing report of their wine. Of course, they’d all like to see the encomia pour out, but I think they also realize not every wine is for every palate.

Are they disappointed when I don’t write about their product?

I guess so, although it’s very rare that a PR person will call and ask why nothing has appeared in print.

The critics/reviewers at the major mags every week receive cases of wine from producers hoping for high scores. Some of it’s plonk but the great majority of it is decent or better juice. Some is ultra-high-end stuff unavailable to the average wine buyer either because of price or supply. The Rockaway Cabernet Sauvignon ($75) was one of the latter.

The majority of wine critics, including me, would never taste some of these wines if we had to buy them ourselves. (Expense account? What expense account?)

Samples are gratefully received and evaluated because they provide the opportunity to try wines that might never show up in local liquor stores.

The same goes for the various tastings put on by major wine distributors. There’s always something special to try, and even if that wine never makes it to western Colorado, if it’s worth your effort when you’re in Denver or elsewhere, I’ll write about it.

One more thing. The Rockaway mailing was an allocated wine, which means it is available only in limited quantities to a restricted audience. Even if you’re interested in the wine, if you’re not on the mailing list (I’m not), too bad.

I’m still wrestling with whether I’d write about a wine that no one (or very few) can get, but that’s me and not meant to guide how others decide which wines to review.

Tom Wark has an interesting take on the matter on his blog “Fermentation” (http://fermentation.typepad.com).

The mark of a decent wine critic is, I believe, someone who can taste a wine and judge whether it is a well-made wine even if he or she doesn’t like the wine.

If readers are comfortable with a writer’s opinions, I don’t think they care how he or she obtained the wine.


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