Should Wine Critics Be Sued?
I suspect THIS STORY will be picked up around the wine blogosphere. If it isn’t it should be.
It appears that an Australian winery, perturbed that a wine blogger’s poor review of their wines shows up high in the search engines, had threatened legal action against the blogger.
I was made aware about this turn of events through an email sent to me, and many others I believe, by the folk at Wine Life Today. They were highlighting a post on the subject by Tim over at Winecast.net.
The story is pretty simple. The Blog Appellation Australia posted unflattering reviews of Graeme Miller wines back in February. About a week ago, the proprietor of Appellation Australia received word from Graeme Miller that unless the posts were removed they would take legal action. (the episode and commentary is described here) Graeme Miller’s complaint about the reviews boiled down to this:
"They are serving to absolutely denigrate our wines and our reputation
and they have created the most embarrassing and distressing situations where we
have lost business. A wine critic is expected to express opinion, but not to
denigrate. You need to understand the impact that you are having and may have on
others as well."
The review of the Graeme Miller wines were hardly denigrating. However, I really don’t think that’s what they meant to say. What they probably meant was what followed: The reviews resulted in an "embarrassing and distressing situation" and that the reviews have an impact.
Graeme Miller is absolutely correct in this assessment of the Appellation Australia reviews. In fact, I suspect the hope of any wine reviewer or critic is that their evaluation of wines will have an impact. That’s sort of the point, isn’t it?
I don’t review wines at FERMENTATION so the idea that those who do might find themselves in legal trouble doesn’t really effect me. That said, I have some opinions on the role of the wine critic. Also, being in wine PR, I’m actively involved in soliciting reviews from wine critics and reviewers around the country. I also have something of a stake in seeing our clients’ wines reviewed and, hopefully, reviewed well.
So, first, the idea that a wine critic might be at legal risk if they publish a poor review of a wine I don’t think is a notion that has ever been tested directly. And I’m unaware of any legal precedent that suggests published reviewers and critics, of any craft, can somehow be held liable for the reaction of those who read their reviews, good, poor or otherwise. So, let’s dismiss Graeme Miller’s original threats against Appellation Australia as an unfortunate and poorly constructed response to the kind of frustration that often occurs among wine producers upon reading a poor review of their wine.
Second, this episode brings up the issue of whether or not a wine critic SHOULD publish poor reviews of wine. I think clearly such reviews can play a positive role in the consumer’s life. But more important, poor reviews also remind us that critics can easily ball into the role of cheerleader if they abandon the publication of poor reviewers. Yet, there is also the issue of how the critic sees their purpose. Perhaps they merely want to turn on their readers to the good stuff since there are so many wines out there that it is enough to point to the good ones. In my book, a wine critic can’t avoid the publishing of poor reviewers forever. Yet, to focus on them is a bit morbid.
Third, if you are a winery that is going to submit your wines for review, to anyone, you should not have any expectation that any resulting reviews will always be positive. If you do, you will be disappointed.
Graeme Miller needs some good public relations help. Or perhaps a good slapping about the head would do. The idea that his threat to Appellation Australia would not be made public is so far removed from the reality of Internet age as to defy explanation. One of the most important things to learn when it comes to marketing, public relations and the Internet age is that many times the best strategy is to simply say nothing. This advice seems so elementary to me that I am amazed that I get paid to give it at times.
So, if you are a wine blogger, don’t look at this episode with trepidation and consider not posting your reviews of average or poor wines. Consider the benefit to your readers of posting too many of them.
If you are a winery, learn to keep your mouth shut when it needs shutting