Free Wine Is Good

Free Little revelations are always good because they tend to speak to principles to live by. Here’s my latest (and I’m embarrassed that I’ve only lately realized it):

I don’t want serious restaurant critics to pay for their meals nor serious wine critics to pay for a drop of wine.

Why? I don’t trust a restaurant or wine critic to accurately or honestly evaluate their experience when part of that experience is filtered through the dent their object of evaluation made on their wallet.

Let’s face it, when I pry open that $200 bottle of wine, finally, and pour it into glasses I can’t get the $200 I paid out of my mind. The reason for this is that $200 is a pretty significant amount of money. It represents many things for me. And as I drink that wine, my evaluation of it is burdened by the fact that my wallet is $200 lighter. Now, this shouldn’t be a factor in my evaluation, but who is kidding who?

Furthermore, If I was a wine critic and I had to buy my own wine, I’d have to really ration my reviews or at least focus on lesser priced wines because I don’t have the resources to buy all the various kinds of wines I should be evaluating if I’m a serious wine critic.

Consider the restaurant reviewer. To be good at it and to be successful and to be serious, a restaurant reviewer needs not only to eat out quite often, but they have to eat at the same same restaurant multiple times and they should probably be bringing other folks with them to be able to taste various dishes at one sitting. Plus, a good restaurant reviewer can’t limit themselves to “Joe’s Snack Shack” because of lack of funds. They need to hit the pricey places too. That’s expensive. Prohibitively so for the average person. And again, I don’t want a restaurant reviewer’s evaluation of a meal and its various dishes to be tainted by filtering it through a lens of financial means, nor do I want them to be without perspective because they can’t afford to go to Chez Cash.

All this is why it strikes me that anyone who believes a wine reviewer/critic is somehow tainted because they received free wine from producers and importers doesn’t really have an issue with the ethical consequences of a critic receiving free things from the object of their criticism, but rather has a problem with the inherent ethics of the critic themselves. And anyone who can make ethical judgments about a person who they know only through their writing and only based on the fact that they receive free goods probably is the same kind of person who is gong to make snap judgments about a person based on how they look. That rarely turns out well.

So here is my advice to serious publishers and to wine producers and importers. If a wine producer thinks it’s important for there to be a lively and vibrant community of wine writers and critics, then send your wines out for review; sample liberally; send press samples to as many writers and publishers you can identify that you think are serious. And for you who aspire to being serious wine critics, ask for those samples. Ask for them every single time you run into someone who has the ability to provide them.


52 Responses

  1. Dylan - August 13, 2009

    I agree with the majority of your post except for the opening statement. The impact of price does matter. It’s something that effects the average consumer. When I would see advanced screenings of some movies for free and friends would ask about it my answer would sometimes be, “I’m glad I saw it, but I would never pay the $10 to see it.” Other times even free won’t cut it, “It took away my time, I feel like I lost something by watching that movie.” To be knowledgeable of the price is to create an honest evaluation of its value. I would be interested to see a critic review a wine prior to knowledge of the price but include an addendum; whether or not they would be willing to pay that money themselves to taste it again. It would be an honest look at the effectiveness of the tasting and its value.

  2. Jeff - August 13, 2009

    I have a problem with asking for samples. Seems a little, well, presumptive.
    I’ve had a 1/2 dozen conversations over the last month where somebody connected to working with media and bloggers lamented that they received inbound inquiries for samples and based on the quality of the blog, most of the people I spoke with thought the bloggers were on the take.
    I think what is truly needed is some sort of blog measurement where the wheat gets separated from the chaff. This way, those that are committed to blogging, producing meaningful content consistently, can have a vehicle to point to as a credibility measurement.
    its an imperfect system, but traffic, RSS subscribers, frequency of posts, quality of posts, links in are all indicators of quality.
    Without that, it’s like walking into a 1000 person cocktail party without knowing any of the people.

  3. Charlie Olken - August 13, 2009

    Now, I realize that you are in the PR business and that you have a jaded opinion (just kidding–you like Dan Berger, after all) of wine critics to begin with–because let’s face it, the honest, blind-tasting review by a knowledgeable critic is simply uncontrollable by the winery. That kind of risk-taking is antithetical to the goal of the winery which is to sell as much product as possible at the highest price that the market will bear. I have no problem with that. This is capitalism, and I have the same goal.
    But you lose me when you say that critics cannot pay for their samples and that having paid a lot of money for a sample somehow influences one’s view of that sample. You know better, of course, and I know you know better, and you know that I know you know better.
    But, still, Tom. The whole idea is that critics need to be able to make independent judgments free from bias, and the first way for wine critics, as opposed to restaurant critics who have yet to discover a way to taste blind, is to taste wines with the labels covered up in peer to peer tastings.
    The second way is to be prepared to buy the wines you taste. Pardon me for tooting my own horn, but you know that Connoisseurs’ Guide, for years, bought every bottle that we reviewed. We do now accept samples because the wine business has changed and whereas we used to be able to walk into wine stores and find limited production wines made in small lots, now that task is simply impossible. The 3,000 wineries in California and the thousand more up in WA and OR prevent that from happening. So, we do accept samples but we do not solicit them from every winery with an address and even those that exist in the ether and yet still manage to have wines in the market. And we have always, and will always, taste those wines blind. Full stop.
    That way, it matters not who made the wine or how much it cost. And we are not the only critics who taste blind. It is done, can be done, should be done. In my humble opinion, of course.
    Now, here is one place where I agree with you wholeheartedly. If I were a winery, I would sample the world. What do I care if they taste blind or in comparative tastings or on their back porch with the labels showing and a glass of bourbon in the other hand? Just as long as they spell my name right. What do I care if some of them are obvious shills? What do I care if they taste through their toes? I want my wine out there and getting as much free publicity as possible.
    Just do not, please, suggest that all of us care what a wine costs, or that there is no value in blind tasting. Connoisseurs’ Guide did not make its way in the world by tasting with bias. We started our small and personal business three decades ago, and exist today, with the intent of making our writing as independent and honest as possible.
    Thanks for allowing me to use your pulpit to point these things out.

  4. Tom Wark - August 13, 2009

    It goes without saying that a producer has no business sending samples to a critic it doesn’t believe has any real ability to make an impact on an audience of significance.

  5. Tom Wark - August 13, 2009

    Charlie, you are welcome to use FERMENTATION as a pulpit whenever the desire inflicts you.
    That said, I think it is less likely for the price of a wine to color a critics review than I think it possible for a critic to do their job well without the benefit of samples.
    There’s just no way to be comprehensive.
    Furthermore, the price of a wine should have no impact on the review of a wine. It’s a pretty arbitrary thing to begin with, but also the price of the wine has no impact at all on the character of the wine.
    That said, where critic to buy Screaming Eagle or Latour or Grange, I honestly don’t see how they could completely remove from their mind and therefore from their evaluation, some impact the knowledge of those dollars gone. Now, I’m not hear to suggest what kind of impact it would have. But I do think it has some sort of impact that goes beyond their straightforward evaluation of what’s in the bottle.

  6. Benito - August 13, 2009

    There’s a corollary to this for wine education: attend every free tasting you can, and taste everything. Unless you’re independently wealthy it’s impossible to develop your palate on just the wines you purchase. I think this is why a lot of people find it hard to get past “this just tastes like wine”.

  7. Ron Washam, HMW - August 13, 2009

    I’d sure like to have the problem of having wineries send me lots of free wine. I suspect I could manage the ethics issue quickly and effectively. I don’t usually consume them blind, but, like most bloggers, I consume them ignorantly, which is what wineries hope will happen when they ship to wine bloggers. Charlie is right, as usual, all wineries want is their name out there and spelled correctly.
    Tom, you come from a premise that says there is such a thing as a critic who reviews wines, or restaurants, accurately and objectively. If such a guy exists, yeah, give him everything for free. I don’t think he does exist in the real world. Charlie, at CGCW, and a few others, aspires to be that guy and is one of the closest to actually achieving that Aristotlean perfection. But, otherwise, your argument falls apart after that. The wine world is filled with prevaricators claiming accuracy and objectivity, and if we start giving them lots of free wine, their numbers will grow exponentially. What we should be doing is exterminating a lot of them.
    Thanks for letting me use your bully pulpit so that I can discourage normal folks from reading my work.

  8. Tom Wark - August 13, 2009

    I believe that wine tasting is fairly subjective. However, I think that at its subjective best certain influences ought to be pushed aside. Particularly those influences that don’t impact on the character of what’s in the bottle.

  9. Charlie Olken - August 13, 2009

    Hence, blind tasting. Now, having said that, there are two points I can’t get past.
    Price is no problem. Just ask Nick Goldschmidt about my reviews of his $150 Cabs. But, experience is something else again. I know, make that KNOW, how some wines age. Know specifically, comprehensively. Have tasted 30 or 50 vintages of them both young and old. So, when I taste Lafite or Frankland Estate Riesling, to choose as opposite ends of the earth and style spectrum in ageworthy wines, I know that they taste one way young and another way when they age.
    In fact, that is what “knowledge” is all about, and knowledge does inform winewriting. A good tasting note is not a dumb snapshot, and in that regard, there is an influence that extends into the writing beyond what is on the table at the time.
    One quick example. I have to judge what the finish of the puckery 2006 CA wines will be like down the road and come up with both a description and an evaluation of the wine based not just on the wine at present, but what it will be. In that regard, label does come into play–because knowledge comes into play.
    Beyond that, you will remember my debate here just last week with David Cultural Lab about his buddy, Brooklyn Guy. I still think BG’s tasting notes are amateurish, and yet the very article in which the notes I quoted were embedded was a masterful discussion of one wine not tasted blind. So, I do admit that there are settings and types of wine commentary and narratives that do not want blind tasting.
    Wine tasting is subjective, as you say. It is more subjective and more prone to misinformation when it is not conducted in a manner designed to free it from the very influences that you have said ought to be pushed aside. Paying for the wine one tastes in one way to push those influences aside–for all kinds of reasons including a wider range of wines against which to judge.

  10. Kamagra info - August 13, 2009

    Anyone can suggest a a good free wine?

  11. Thomas Pellechia - August 13, 2009

    You know, there was a time when the periodical that hired the critic/reviewer received the product or paid for the meal. Of course, now that every person with a computer is a self-appointed critic/expert, those days are long gone.
    Tom, this is without doubt the most misguided post you’ve ever made, and I can’t help but think it was calculated to get a rise out of some people.

  12. Jack - Helpful as Always - August 13, 2009

    Too Much Bold. Use it sparingly. Look at other magazines and blogs. Have you ever seen Asimov use it? This is a hint to You. 🙂

  13. Sean Millard - August 14, 2009

    Prima facie this flies in the face of convention, and as such there should be conclusive evidence to overturn the convention. As I see it there is only one real value that can result from only reviewing free samples: more objectivity–how much more will likely vary between people; it may be very little in some people. But there are many values that compete with an increase in objectivity, esp. impartiality, real or perceived. And when the increase in objectivity is weighed with the value of impartiality its not clear to me whether there is a clear winner. Last, its not clear why your thesis is limited to serious critics when from my armchair it seems that free samples can increase the objectivity in any quality of critic. (You probably have independent cricisms of unserious critics.) Nonetheless, a bold thesis that merits conversation.

  14. Tom Wark - August 14, 2009

    Thomas P.
    I’m not sure I understand what you are saying. I know this. I’ve been sending press samples to publications and reporters for 20 years. And they didn’t pay for them. Nor should they have.
    My argument is this: If a publication or writer aspires to become a professional, competent and useful critic of wine, they must taste very broadly, so broadly in fact that it can only be done if they are independently wealthy or receive free samples.
    If the wine community desires to have a vibrant class of competent, professional and useful wine critics, then they are going to have to support that class of writers with samples. That’s not to say a winery shouldn’t discriminate when they decide who to send a sample to.

  15. Phil - August 14, 2009

    I mostly agree with you Tom, but one point to make: many of the critics who are tasting wine or reviewing restaurants aren’t actually paying for it themselves (if they are paying), their company is. So the restaurant reviewer for the NYT doesn’t pay for his meals, the Times does. For restaurant reviews, the odds of having the experience changed by being the reviewer are so high that I think the system of attempted anonymity (and paying) is worth it. Despite recent events, I think the chances of the experience of the wine being different due to it being provided for free are low, and the financial barriers so high, that free is about the only way to go unless you are already rolling in money,

  16. Lauren - August 14, 2009

    For a blogger with serious aspirations, but modest credentials and modest means, I suggest attending tastings. This allows you to try more wines of varying prices. Score comp tickets, get a press pass, or if you must, splurge on the tickets yourself. For the price of one bottle you can try a lot of different things, and network while you’re at it.
    I would love to have samples rolling in, but I’m a novice. Being female helps sometimes to be in the right place at the right time and end up getting to try something special. Lol.
    Samples….that seems a long way off to me, and probably to many bloggers. But if anyone wants to send me samples – please do. 🙂
    If I were a critic for the Times and paying for my own wine or food, that would be outrageous.

  17. Thomas Pellechia - August 14, 2009

    My problem is not with the freebies as much as it is with the cacophony. I’m sorry, but just drinking wine does not make for a good reviewer or critic. It takes more than that, and we just had that conversation a few posts back.
    As a winery owner, before I build up a nice profit for UPS, I’d ask myself why there seem to be more citizen wine critic bloggers than, say, shoe critics or car critics?

  18. fredfric koeppel - August 14, 2009

    There’s a corollary in the publishing industry and book reviewing, which I’m familiar with after being a book reviewer for 20 years and book page editor for 15 years of the newspaper where I worked. A paper like the NYTimes reviews several thousand books a year, and no, neither the company nor the reviewers pay for the books; they come from the publishers as review copies. No one gets excited or anxious about this; no one accuses book reviewers of a lack of objectivity or of “being on the take.” The same procedure used to occur in the recording industry with records and CDs (not as much now). So why the anxiety about reviewing wine based on samples when the same principle is involved? Because wine is an alcoholic beverage? That doesn’t make sense. And to touch on another point brought up by Tom Le Provocateur, if I were a producer I indeed would be careful to whom I sent wine samples. Again, there’s a corollary with books: as an author, would you regard as more valuable a review put up on Amazon by a casual reader or a review written by someone who had read all of your books and could set your work in a cultural context? Many of the amateur wine bloggers try hard to get information, to get the facts right, to educate themselves; others remain fixed at the “dude, what a cool wine” stage. Regardless, I would rather have my wine reviewed by someone with the knowledge and experience to set the wine in a context of place, style, technique and genre. That’s what serious wine consumers look for.

  19. Thomas Pellechia - August 14, 2009

    Of course, I agree with Fredric. To take his analogy further:
    Book review assignments don’t go to anyone who claims to be able to read.
    Food critics aren’t hired just because they can chew and swallow.
    Theater critics aren’t drawn from out of town tourists who regularly buy tickets to a Broadway blockbuster.
    In each case, the critic has to have paid some sort of professional dues. Again, if I owned a winery, I wouldn’t send wine to just anybody with a blog. And while I’m saying this, I just got a UPS package from a winery that two months ago asked if I accepted free wine–I said that I don’t generally do wine reviews and so it might not be beneficial to send me the wine. They sent it anyway–free.
    Go figure.

  20. KenPayton - August 14, 2009

    Hi, Fredric. As I have often said, you are one of the very few internet wine reviewers I actually read and heed. However, I must take issue with the notion that serious consumers look for context of place, style, techniques and genre in their reviews. As I hastily pointed out in a previous essay of Tom’s, very rarely does that information actually appear in wine reviews. The Wine Advocate is a case in point. I have read hundreds of Mr. Parker’s reviews where even the most basic educational info is missing. The review I cited had Mr. Parker confessing vats and casks had some effect on a wine in question but he could not imagine why that might be(!) And don’t we all wonder about the knowledge value for the consumer of his hilarious descriptors!
    Wine Spectator, Decanter are hardly different. “100 Of The Greatest Summer Wines!” screams the cover.
    There is a presumption of a wine mag’s reviewer expertise made by the consumer, but expertise itself is not generally performed in wine reviews, certainly not in the ‘professional’ rags.
    But that is a minor point.

  21. Charlie Olken - August 14, 2009

    A wine reviewer does not need to write a doctoral thesis on a wine to prove that he understands context, style, etc. If folks like me, who review hundreds of wines every month wrote like that, we would be putting a telephone book in the mail every month.
    Mr. Parker’s odd comments notwithstanding, it does help to bring knowledge to the tasting experience. It is just not necesary to offer a short story on hundreds of wines at a time. In point of fact, no one would read them.
    I appreciate that you personally want that kind of reviewing, and there will be folks who offer it, but they are not going to be writers, no matter how qualified, who review lots of wine.
    How many comments on the nature of a given vintage does one really want? How many discussions of the West Rutherford Bench are needed? Reviewers do not show their expertise in that manner. They show their expertise by writing tasting notes that are reasonable approximations of the experience that a reader will have when he or she pulls the cork. Explanations of those experiences, such as which of the 25 clones of Marzuela were involved in a $20 bottle are going to get very boring very quickly.

  22. M. Smith - August 15, 2009

    The absence of explicit considerations of quality controls against doctored samples here speaks volumes in itself.

  23. Thomas Pellechia - August 15, 2009

    Someone early on commented that tasting from free bottles of wine increases the the odds of objectivity. It’s taken me more than 24 hours to try to figure what that comment means, and it is so far off the mark I don’t know where to begin.
    Charlie has done an admirable job of commenting just about what I feel on this issue, especially concerning the blind evaluation, a subject about which i wrote in my last blog entry.
    Back to the free wine as an incubator of objectivity. The best argument I can come up with against such a vision is this: if those who receive free wine just because they can are trusted to be objective, then I truly have missed the boat on this new citizen journalism thingy. I find the concept of free equals objectivity strikingly weird, if not self-serving.

  24. KenPayton - August 15, 2009

    The irony is that a consumer, whether after patronizing a restaurant or drinking a wine brought to their attention by an inspiring review, would themselves be disqualified, inasmuch as they paid for the experience, from expressing an opinion. Their objectivity could not be trusted.
    Of course, a customer is specifically looking for a dining or drinking experience. Whereas, as we all know, the ‘serious’ critic is nothing more (or less!) than a information processing machine, free of all influences, of all conflicts of interest. The foie gras is not simply delicious; it is ‘objectively’ delicious. A very different thing. The candlelight illuminates a critic’s table in an entirely manner than a customer’s. A loved one’s face can be recognized, but are the lines around the eyes too visible? Only the critic knows.
    And a $100 wine? The consumer can either agree with the ‘objective’ critic or they can keep silent. They are in no position to trust themselves. Pleasure or disappointment, shades of significance, because its evaluation takes place in the dark and murky head of a subjective customer, is compromised. Only the critic, feasting on freebies, can be the proper arbiter of taste, culture and value.
    What a topsy-turvy world!

  25. KenPayton - August 15, 2009

    Shoot. Gotta improve my proofreading. In paragraph 2, line 5, it should read ‘in an entirely different manner’.

  26. Charlie Olken - August 15, 2009

    Who ever said that one could not write about the experience of a single bottle of wine and be worth reading? We discussed Brooklyn Guy at length here. Has anyone ever called out Gerald Asher because he does not taste hundreds of wine blind and instead writes about “experiences”?
    Not me, and not anyone I know. I have said publicly enough times for everyone to know that I love your blog for what it is. But I don’t get why you think your style is the only style possible.
    And there is a very LARGE difference between what a critic does in tasting his or her way through a large batch of contenders (hopefully blind) and what a critic does at dinner.
    You have heard me say that almost all of us who have been writing for a while started on our journeys as enthusiastic amateurs. It is so far off the mark to suggest that we only view wine as part of an information process that I have to hope that you are pulling our legs. Not one critic I know has ever said that he or she is the “proper arbiter of taste, culture and value”.
    But, Ken, we do comment on those things just as bloggers do. And we get paid voluntary by our readers to do it. So, even though we do not set ourselves up as the sole arbiters of anything, we are honored by thousands of readers who think we have something valuable to say on the subject.
    There is a very big and meaningful difference between what our readers think and what you seem to think established winewriters claim to be.

  27. KenPayton - August 15, 2009

    Just having a little fun, Charlie. It’s a quiet, smoky Saturday here in Santa Cruz. I’m trying to get myself into a writing mood by scribbling something, anything!
    And believe me, I know well the weaknesses of my style. Indeed, I am still working on it!

  28. Charlie Olken - August 15, 2009

    Do stay safe. I hope you are away from the action. I had family in Boulder Creek for years, now in Aptos, and they lived through all kinds of things in order to live up in the beautiful countryside.

  29. Thomas Pellechia - August 15, 2009

    You and I may part company, because, in my opinion, until professional wine evaluation is codified with a set of standards tasting notes and reviews are an exercise in stroking egos and, for the wineries, exploiting sheep.

  30. Thomas Pellechia - August 15, 2009

    put a comma after “standards”–you knew what I meant…

  31. Charlie Olken - August 15, 2009

    Mr. P–
    I get the punctuation, but not the sentiment.
    Please explain what you mean by:
    –Set of Standards (you are not suggesting, I assume, that none of us have standards or that just because our standards are not uniform that none of our standards are adequate–so what do you mean?)
    –Tasting Notes are an exercise in stroking egos (I guess that is why I get letters calling me all kinds of names–I forgot that I was supposed to be stroking egos)
    –Wineries exploiting sheep (Sheep? As in lambs being led to the slaughter? As in mindless sycophants who do not know how to think for themselves? Who, me?)
    Let’s hear it, Lucy.

  32. Thomas Pellechia - August 15, 2009

    Re, standards: I pick choice # two. If each critic reviews wine based on his or her palate–that is a far cry from anything approaching a set of standards for the industry. And even on standards that are followed, i.e., varietal character, there’s often disagreement.
    An exercise in ego is not all bad, you know. But it is all personal. And I am talking about the ego of the critic, not of the geek–that’s a whole ‘nuther ego discussion…
    On the sheep, I am referring to those who would follow with religious fervor the scores or even words of critics. That kind of reverence for someone else’s expression of personal pleasure escapes my understanding.
    I may very well be just another ego-bloat thinking that he has all the answers, but until a set of practical, workable standards exist that wine critics follow, the message I get is that the proclamations are personal preferences and nothing more.
    It escapes me why anyone would seek wine purely on the basis of someone else’s personal preference, especially when there are enough personal preferences on the Internet to dwarf the national debt so that the consumer is sure to find one “hate this wine” for every one “love this wine” review.

  33. M. Smith - August 15, 2009

    Journalism: the ethics of booze and fast cars:
    In the mid-1990s, when Jeremy Clarkson was young and engaging (charming, actually), I turned up to do a TV interview with him. He had a small house in West London, and he couldn’t have been more helpful.
    Parked outside was a top of the line black Volvo 850 (the T-5, I think), the family runaround, and also one of the fastest cars in production. His other car was something like a Jag.
    Surely, we asked, motoring journalism couldn’t pay so well that he could afford to keep cars like these? And surely too, manufacturers weren’t allowed to give them to motoring journalists? Clarkson laughed. Of course, they weren’t gifts! The cars were “on loan.”
    “I was reminded of the Clarkson episode reading Neil Pendock’s blog, where he quoted from an article in Afrikaans by noted SA journalist George Claassen:
    Cars and wine are the two areas of journalism Claassen accuses of being run unethically, with advertorials – “one of the biggest evils of journalism” – the main problem. He then goes on to quote an unnamed local pundit alleging R10 000 will put a product on the cover of a publication in which paid for comment is often passed off as editorial.
    R10 000 seems to be the quantum as this was the monthly payment one winery owner told me he makes to a journalist for “marketing strategy advice” (he was planning to halve the amount after being left out of a benchmark tasting arranged by the writer) while a figure ten times larger was the annual retainer one winemaker reported his company paid another hack. The conflicts of interest of some published pundits make a mockery of transparency and devalue SA winespeak currency.
    Claassen then looks at the state of play outside SA and moves on to a piece I wrote for earlier this year. Called “when everything has a price,” it quotes extensively from a feature in Il Mio Vino by Gaetano Manti alleging that one of the major international wine magazines … offers stories for sale. I wrote the piece in response to complaints by several local winemakers about the coverage of [its awards] …where the form in which results are printed is a function of how much you pay.”

  34. Charlie Olken - August 15, 2009

    I guess the reason why my wife drives around in a 1999 car is that wineries in CA do not send cash along with the samples they provide, and I spend what little I steal from my subcribers by buying more wine to review. Even then, wineries like Kistler, Rochioli, Littorai, Radio-Coteau won’t let me buy wine to review. “Taste it here with us, with the labels showing or not at all”.
    Silly me. I should have been a car reviewer.

  35. M. Smith - August 15, 2009

    Tortured logic doesn’t dispel notions that OTHERS are actively gaming the system. Just because you might have integrity hardly ensures that OTHERS do as well. Tom Wark’s reasoning is hardly compelling IMO. Whereas Thomas Pellechia’s seems fundamentally sound to me. So Charlie what precisely are your quality controls?

  36. Tom Wark - August 15, 2009

    sounds to me like you believe there is dood reason to think writers are being games by doctored bottles and that wine writers are regularly paid off.
    That’s a fascinating position if it’s what you are implying. My question would be: what’s the solid basis for that belief?

  37. M. Smith - August 15, 2009

    You are hardly a babe in the woods. Sierra Carche for starters. “Paid off” is relative. Whereas movie and book reviewers probably tend to evaluate consistent products, absent quality controls, the same can’t be assumed to pertain to submitted samples of wines. You obviously understand this distinction but perhaps conveniently chose to “overlook” this critical difference. Why?

  38. Charlie Olken - August 15, 2009

    Mr. or Ms. Smith–
    Care to tell us who you really are?
    If by quality controls, you are asking how I know that the samples I receive are not all phonies, the answer is that I do not.
    I do, however, buy second bottles of many wines that concern me. Interestingly, like most critics, I do not like everything I taste. In fact, in a sad way, I find the percentages of wines I like going down for some varieties like Zin and Merlot, but going up for tiny lots of Pinot Noir, which is its own problem because it is harder for my readers to find them.
    So, if my experience is any guide, then under $25 wine is less likely now to be doctored than it was years ago.
    But, you have not answered Tom’s question, and you have not answered mine. What evidence do you have that a large percentage of samples have been doctored?
    You might also want to comment on what you mean more specifically by quality controls since I have had to make assumptions about your concerns.
    And, to be clear, I would love to have you take this conversation further by supplying more details and raising the level of concern about a general cry of alarm.

  39. Charlie Olken - August 15, 2009

    Oh, one more thing. You have conveniently skipped over what I think is the biggest source of misinformation in the winewriting field–the non-blind tasting in a biased setting.
    It does not have to be at a winery. It could be in a restaurant in Monkton with a distributor over dinner while tasting the very wines you will then describe. Sorry, but those descriptions are not worth the time it takes to throw them out.

  40. Tom Wark - August 15, 2009

    Too true. I am not a babe and I’ve been around.
    And it’s true that without some sort of control we cannot know the authenticity of samples.
    Still, I’m looking for reason to suspect that even a small number of vintners are acting unethically and immorally as you imply. I could be convinced this is true. But I’d need reason to believe. Watcha got?

  41. Thomas Pellechia - August 16, 2009

    I think Mr. Smith is referring to my latest blog entry on vinofictions concerning the also latest to-do with the Parker brand; in brief: a Spanish wine with questionable pedigree.
    I am on board that all wine reviews need to be done blind–no labels, not even from the original bottle. I further believe that all reviews need to be quality controlled either by reviewing only wines taken from retail shelves or when reviewing provided samples, random wines reviewed need to be checked against the retail shelves, not just the ones you have trouble with, but a random selection of them so that no one knows which will be subject to the checking at any given time.
    Having said that, I don’t believe this quality control needs to be performed by the everyday blogger (or citizen journalist, or whatever). If a winery is dumb enough to go through the trouble to send phony wines to everyday tasters, well…
    Quality control needs to be routinely performed by the professional critic who claims to be providing consumers with a service and whose reviews sell wine.
    Incidentally, I don’t go so far as Mr. Smith and claim that all reviewers are being gamed by producers or that all reviewers are gaming the consumer. But gaming is possible, and the Spanish wine incident points that out. Quality control systems should be in place to at least try to catch the thieves.
    PS: Parker speculated on the eBob site that maybe 20 out of the thousands over the years might have gamed him. He offered no solid examples, only a vague speculation.

  42. M. Smith - August 16, 2009

    My reply was too long for your length criteria so its posted here:

  43. Charlie Olken - August 16, 2009

    Tom P–
    As regards wineries knowing which samples will be quality checked, they have no way of knowing which ones are going to get compared to shelf samples.
    But, there is a giant problem with this approach as well. When wineries make hundreds of thousands of cases of a given wine (Ch. Ste. Michelle Riesling, Edna Valley Vyds Chardonnay, K-J Vint Res everything), they make multiple bottlings. There is no way for Ste. Michelle to “normalize/equalize” 1.5 million to 2.0 million gallons of Riesling let alone bottling it all at the same time. We have not found any variation in that wine when we buy it at retail, which we do both to check and then to drink because it is a great $10 quaffer which we drink all summer long.
    But, what happens when wines like that wine are nearing the end of their vintage runs? In the first place, we have no way of knowing how many batches of the wines have been bottled, when they were bottled and to what extent the last bottle tastes like the early bottles.
    The Sierra Carche issue is a clear example of the variation that is possible. And, it gets worse. King Freddy of Franzia bottles a TBC Chard and it sells out so he buys more on the wholesale market. Now, at $2, if it does not give you a bellyache, that is a plus in itself, but the example holds. For Ste. Michelle, they at least make all the Riesling they bottle. But there is no requirement that they or anybody else do the same.
    So, if I am (the fictitious) Sonoma Skyline Winery with 1,000 cases of a better than average $20 Chard with a Sonoma Co. appellation and if my 1,000 cases sells out in two months because some honest reviewer likes it, I can bottle another 10,000 cases of Sonoma Co-designated wine at 75% Chard and 25% leftovers from anywhere, and sell it with the same label as the original.
    And no one is the wiser. The sample was not doctored. The wine I purchase off the shelf as a quality control is the same as the sample. But the next 10,000 cases selling on the basis of my (anybody’s) honest review can be totally different. Identification by bottling lot is one answer for all wines and wineries except for those who would then lie to you, me, the public, the TTB.

  44. M. Smith - August 16, 2009

    “Identification by bottling lot is one answer for all wines and wineries except for those who would then lie to you, me, the public, the TTB.”
    Thank you Charlie !

  45. Thomas Pellechia - August 16, 2009

    Shouldn’t the bottles evaluated and the bottles on the shelves be from the same bottling? If not, then what IS the point of the review?
    You support my quality control point: the bottling lot information should be included in the review.

  46. Charlie Olken - August 16, 2009

    I have been working on a project for months now that consumes all my waking time except that which I spend with you, ;-} , and I am glad I have just taken a break.
    We have now come to the crux of the matter. Bottling lot information should be included on wine labels. It should also be included in wine reviews as part of what I call the TITLE LINE. My reviews include that information whenever it is available, but, as a CA/West Coast oriented publication, that information is almost never available on the wines I taste.
    And it certainly is not available from the wineries most likely to have many separate bottlings of wine under the same label. I make no judgment that anyone is cheating. I simply try to make sure that what I am reviewing is available in stores. That is not always possible, and these days, is not practical. Part of the reason I do it is that my rag is old-fashioned (some would simply say “old”) and I buy a lot of the wine we review so it is in our minds that buying wine is part of our responsibility.
    That view is not the prevailing view among reviewers these days because it is, as I say, “old fashioned”. Perhaps you gentlemen will lobby to make it less so.

  47. Thomas Pellechia - August 16, 2009

    Wait until the day when TTB loses label control to FDA. Then, the ingredients and the lot numbers will be required.
    It is amazing that no official has ever realized that you can’t trace wines back to their bottling date. Isn’t that basic consumer protection information that appears on all packaged foods?
    Of course, you old fashioned man, I applaud your commitment, and it’s that kind of attitude that probably has prevented you from becoming a zillionare…

  48. Roger Stockton - August 16, 2009

    This is a great can of worms you have opened here Tom! The diverse opinions given here are an interesting mix.
    I agree that sadly, there are many wines being produced commercially that do not deserve positive comments. If a writer or blogger is going to be influenced by receiving samples, recommending every dog that comes to the porch, they will quickly loose credibility with the readers.
    A wineries marketing people need just to look at the content being offered since like wine, there is a mixed bag of good and bad writing.
    Back to the point, wine samples are a way of life for most of us since as you state, I would not have the budget to taste everything I would like without them. If I was waiting for wine writing to provide a good income, I would be doing most of my tasting from a cardboard box.

  49. Thomas Pellechia - August 17, 2009

    Have you any idea how much revenue the Wine Advocate has been reaping?
    I don’t think wine writing can’t be a good living. I think it isn’t a good living because there are way too many wine writers/bloggers for the level that the subject commands. Those at the top get all the prizes; the rest, I suppose, get free wine.
    It’s simple economics: not enough demand equals low prices; too much supply equals lower prices.
    My fear is that with such dilution, wine writing will never be taken seriously.

  50. Franco Ziliani - August 19, 2009

    bravo Tom, I totally agree with your post. I don’t think that wineries can “buy” our independence and freedom, if we are independent and free in our mind and in our way to judge wines, if they invite us to taste their wines in the cellar or if they send us some sample wines. Wine writer that accept wine samples are not corrupt and less free

  51. M. Smith - August 19, 2009

    Apropos “doctored” wines:
    The Great Wine Cover-up
    by Keith Wallace

  52. Amy Corron Power - August 27, 2009

    Great post!

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