There’s been some international buzz recently (again) about the ethics of wine journalists: a long thread on DrVino.com about the Wine Advocate, for example, and a long and interesting statement from Jancis Robinson telling her readers about her own position.
Much could be said about the situation in South Africa, and probing these matters is a good thing. My impression is that things are not too bad here. I think the days of journalists leaving the boot open when visiting estates are over (or am I naive? please, producers, tell me if so), although there are some relatively minor freebies, including entertainment and the occasional bottle – but, frankly, it’s seldom more than one bottle or a lunch or both, and these can obviously be useful if the journo is to taste the wine, meaning that they’re not exactly just perks. I’m sure that occasionally journalists accept a bit more than that but it’s very difficult drawing a line about what is significant in schmoozing and being schmoozed. Incidentally, what Jancis notes is true for me too – the number of tasting samples that make it to my dinner table is very small.
I’ve accepted lots of lunches and dinners from producers (but have paid for my own petrol and time in getting and being there), and genuinely don’t think that it’s made a difference – I’ve certainly on occasion written quite harshly about wines after tasting them at a more-or-less grand function. There’s one producer who sends out a half-case of wine to journalists at Christmas – and I think I have now eventually persuaded them to leave me off the list, after telling them that I added the wines to my collection of unwanted or excess freebies and samples which get sold for charity’s benefit. There are some other offers I’ve declined, but they’ve seldom been stupendous ones (fortunately!?).
As to the travel that is so important a freebie in Europe and America – well, the market for international wines here is so insignificant that we rarely get invited on enticing trips (except as judges, perhaps). People (not I) have gone on freebie trips from Amorim Cork, for example, and from individual spirits producers (Jancis Robinson notes that she only ever accepts invitations from generic bodies rather than specific companies). So the corrupting stakes in South Africa are pretty small, I feel – though perhaps still relevant. We do have journalists who are also PR consultants, which is an obvious problem, and we have people who commit advertorials in print and, especially egregiously, on radio. We now, interestingly, also have a prolific winewriter who’s also a minor producer of wine and of grapes which are sold to other wineries, which seems to me a potential problem of ethics. But on the whole I don’t feel there’s much of obvious scandal value.
Which is not to brush aside the problem, which is one that I think all winewriters should continuously be aware of, and be challenged on by alert readers (and other writers!). In fact I think that we have a difficult situation here (as in many other wine-producing countries) which is not shared, on the whole, by the metropolitan aristocrats in London and New York. That problem is the question of friendship between journalists and producers – something which inevitably must arise occasionally when there is frequent contact between the two.
A winemaker I mentioned this to was a bit doubtful about the nature of such friendships, and he is correct that many of them are merely semi-friendships, of a shortish-term nature. There is probably only one producer that I would describe as a genuine friend, and there was one other – now retired; but (to make what Jane Austen might have called “nice discriminations” there are three or four others with whom I have a personal friendly relationship that I’m pretty sure would continue if I ceased to be a journalist and/or they ceased to be winemakers; well, I hope so). And of course there are some with whom I get on much better than others. Last year I was allocated a friend’s wine to taste for Platter, and declined to do so, though I have certainly tasted and judged for Platter wines of some of those I am quite good mates with, and not felt it a problem; I think the editor also steers tasters away from producers with whom there‘s a particularly positive or negative personal relationship that he’s aware of.
For the obverse of warmth is equally true, and clearly of equal relevance: there are inevitably some winemakers and producers whom I dislike for various reasons (personal, political, etc) – and, strangely, I have it on good and insistent authority that there are some that are not overly fond of me. Generally one manages to be polite and professional about it – liking is not what it’s about. Though it is sometimes seen to be otherwise. I do remember some years ago having a public argument (over wine) with one of the more belligerent winefarm owners, and it seemed to me that we’d both enjoyed it and perhaps learnt something from it. I was rather depressed to hear later that the man had been surprised when I subsequently wrote positive things about his wine – as though the argument should have made that unlikely.
But perhaps it inevitably does affect us, to an extent, even if we try hard to remain objective. It’s the same as other problems with sighted tastings. Perhaps the important thing is to be aware that it is a possibility that one’s judgement is being skewed slightly in one direction or the other – because if you’re aware of it you can try harder to be fair. Often the situation can’t be avoided. One tends to make friends in the direction one admires – I can’t pretend that I can ever write about the Swartland, for example, which I often do, without being aware that there are are people there with whom I’m pretty friendly. But the friendships followed my interest, not the other way round; and hopefully it mostly means that I get more opportunity for insight into the place and the wines, rather than that I’m going to be too uncritical (or overly cool about some other region where I have no personal friendships).
When I get a present or favour from a friend who’s a winemaker, though, does that count as a corrupting freebie? Oh, I hope not. The gifts can also go in the other direction. But I try to be aware of all these things, as do (I believe) all of the serious winewriters I know. I thought about it now because friendship is a subtle category rather missing from Jancis Robinson’s observations, and it is one that should probably be at the forefront of all winewriters in this country – especially those based in the Cape.