An Introduction to Wine Journalism

Wine journalism. Is it a public service, or simply pretentious nonsense? What forms does it come in? Does anyone pay attention to this stuff anyway? Who is the target audience?

On this gray November day, we were greeted by the warm presence of Richard Baudains, a wine writer for Decanter who has also contributed to the Arcigolo Gambero Rosso guides Vini d’Italia (Wines of Italy) and Vini del Mondo (Wines of the World). He hails from the Channel Islands (an archipelago between England and France), but has spent the last two decades living and drinking in Italy.

There are many opinions on the role of wine journalism, and we examined a series of quotes from wine writers with varying interpretations of the role. There is the Elitist Expert, who wrote, “I’ve been tasting wines now for over forty years and I like to think that through my articles I can help my readers to appreciate the subtleties of one of the finer things in life.” There is the Public Defender, who said, “Do you know how many chemical additives are permitted in a wine by a European food regulation laws? And what about the illegal additives? Wine writers should be raising awareness of these issues.” There is the Writer of Convenience, who commented, “I used to be on the sports page, but I got fed up with all the travelling and staying up all night to file my copy for the morning editions. Wine is great. A very laid back scene and super hospitality.” And naturally, there is the Passionate Amateur, who enthuses, “I just adore wine, in all shapes and forms. I love tasting it and I love writing about it and I want to share my passion for it through my blog.” People write about wine to affirm their own prestige, to express joy, for money, for free, to spread knowledge, to omit it, and for all sorts of reasons in between.

So, is anyone actually reading this material? We discussed three broad categories of wine consumers: Serious Collectors, Wine Enthusiasts and New Consumers. The Serious Collector, as you might imagine, is very knowledgeable, tends to be conservative in his preferences, has a home cellar and a large budget. The Wine Enthusiast is well-informed and confident in her ability to taste wines, keeps a small stock of wine at home, researches suppliers carefully, and may organize visits to wine-producing regions to buy directly from producers. Finally, the New Consumer shops at the local supermarket to buy for immediate needs, enjoys new world styles and is happy to experiment, has a reasonable budget but is uncomfortable buying “expensive” wine, and needs to see wines labelled and categorized.

There are different types of wine texts to target each of these categories of consumers. Retail “shelf talker” cards that you see inside groceries are targeted towards the new consumer, who needs concise descriptions and pairing suggestions to help build his knowledge base. Specialist magazines, like Wine Advocate, include technical data, information on panel tastings and detailed data on trends and vintages. These are geared towards serious collectors or enthusiasts. Trade magazines are intended for industry professionals or serious collectors. Finally, internet blogs can be a good source of information for everyone, from the new consumer who is uncomfortable asking questions of a sommelier, to a serious collector who wants information on eclectic or rare wines.

Let’s wrestle with some of the thornier aspects of being a wine journalist. Baudains gave us a few mock situations in which it is unclear what the most ethical course of action would be. These scenarios elicited a fair amount of controversy in class, and we could only agree that there isn’t a right or wrong answer most of the time. Here’s an example: you have just done a big blind tasting. When you unwrap the bottles, you find that you have scored one of your favorite wines very low and given it a negative review. What do you do? a) Send in your score and the note for publication as they are. Even the best winemakers can get it wrong sometimes. b) Edit the really negative points out of your note to make a neutral review and raise the score to the average on the wine has scored over recent tastings. It’s not fair to wreck the reputation of a wine just because of one bad tasting. c) Cut the wine from your report. It’s better for the producer to have no review than a bad one.

My initial impulse was to go with option a) and publish the negative review, assuming that the tasting was done under fair conditions (no one was sick/tired/smoking) and that the results were consistent across several tastings. After all, as a journalist, you aren’t beholden to the winemaker. Hence, shouldn’t you make sure the public is aware that this wine is bad? Then, the question was raised over what would happen to the producer if a severely negative review was published. The repercussions of a bad review could ripple for years, destroying the winemaker’s carefully crafted reputation and potentially shutting down his business. If a consumer buys a bad bottle of wine, he might be out $20, but for the producer, this review is a matter of livelihood. And what if you somehow made a mistake? Would it be better to simply omit the review?

Baudains returns again next week, when we will tackle the mechanics of wine writing. Hopefully, my future work will not inspire Robert Parker-esque firestorms amongst vinoscenti.

3 thoughts on “An Introduction to Wine Journalism

  1. But isn’t that a caveat of all review professions? Game reviewers, in addition to being sent games, are sometimes treated to lavish gifts such as free stays at resorts, helicopter rides, or on one occasion, cash, just so that reviewers will see their products in rosier lights. Restaurant reviews (especially ones for the NYT) almost have direct control over a restaurant’s success.
    Their position between the vendors and the consumers give reviewers in general power without having the burden of labor, or through the pen of a reviewer, see their love labors lost.
    I think Anton Ego from Ratatuoille summed it up best: “In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment… But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.”

    1. True, though the power of critics is arguably weakening with the advent of Yelp, blogging and other consumer-driven reviews. Personally I would never call any of my writing, for this blog and other sites, a formal review, because I don’t have the money/time to try restaurants repeatedly under impartial conditions. The FCC did start requiring bloggers to state explicitly when they are receiving items gratis though, so readers should at least be aware when gifts are involved.

    2. True, but there is (should be) integrity in being an honest, responsible critic — that is, one who doesn’t fudge his/her experience whether it was negative or positive, and doesn’t overreach into the personal — e.g., taking out personal grievances or vendettas in the form of a review.

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