Pay To Play Wine Reviews…It’s All Good
I spent a decent amount of time Labor Day thinking about whether Sam Kim is an unethical wine critic, whether he gives all wine writers a bad name and whether or not his brand of pay-for-review wine criticism ought to have gotten him ostracized from from a Wine Writers association.
In the end, I came to the conclusion that Mr. Kim, rather than being the scourge to wine criticism many of his colleagues believe him to be, is instead the man who has shown critics how to make an honest living.
Kim came to my attention when I learned of a recently formed Wine Writers of New Zealand, a trade association for that country's wine scribes. If you visit the website of the WWNZ, there is very little to learn about this organization because there is little or no information at the website…except for a "Declaration of Independence" that reads, in part:
"If reviewers are to be widely trusted and respected, there must be full, transparent independence between them and those whose products they write about. We believe the practice of supplying wine reviews for direct payment removes that independence, is highly undesirable, and has the potential to harm the reputation of all wine writers in New Zealand."
They are talking about Sam Kim.
Mr. Kim is a respected New Zealand wine critic. He is a certified wine judge in a country where wine competitions are taken seriously. And he publishes a wine review newsletter entitled Wine Orbit where he reviews primarily New Zealand wines. Here's the thing: Sam won't review a wineries' products unless they pay him approximately US$28 (NZ$34) per wine to review.
If a winery wants Sam to review their wines in Wine Orbit, all they have to do is send him a bottle of wine they want reviewed along with NZ$34. If the wine scores above 80 points according to Kim's palate that review and that score will appear in Wine Orbit.
I've only seen this practices undertaken once by an American media company: The Beverage Testing Institute. Otherwise, as a publicist who has arranged for thousands of wines to be sent off to wine critics and wine publications for review, I've never cut a check for the entity or person who will be reviewing the wine.
Kim explains what he does this way:
"Wine Orbit is an advertising-free publication; instead, it charges submission fee (NZ$34) to each wine entered into formal tastings...All wines are tasted blind by Sam Kim in his home office, and the notes are solely written by him unless otherwise stated. Each wine is rated out of 20-points then converted to 100-point and five-star scales – two of the most effective and easy to understand rating systems. Wines are tasted using Riedel Ouverture Magnum and Riedel Ouverture White Wine glasses. Wine Orbit is about highlighting wine excellence, therefore, wines scoring below 81 points (3.5 stars) are not published."
If you listen to this news cast, you will hear both sides of the story, including the horrified writers who believe Kim is sullying the good name of writers as well as Kim defending his model. The question is does Kim's brand of commercialized criticism really step over the line? Does it really taint what all wine writers do? Does it discard the all important independence and integrity that any critic must maintain? Does it warrant ostracizing Kim from an organized fraternity of wine writers in New Zealand as though he can't be trusted to represent the work of honest wine writers?
The answer is "No".
I can think of a dozen wine publications and writers here in America that could charge wineries to submit wines for review and that would continue to obtain substantial submissions. I, for one, would continue to recommend to clients that they submit wines for review to these publications if it cost $US28 per wine.
All that said, Kim does incentivise himself to give wines submitted 81 points or higher because he doesn't want to discourage wineries from continuing to submit wine and their fee. And if you listen to the audio recording linked above, Kim notes that a number of wineries have stopped sending him samples based on the poor reviews they have received. But the fact is, this risk exists already for wine reviewers. There are wine reviewers and publications that I will not recommend certain clients send wines to based on previous scores they have given to the client's wines: they simple don't seem to like the style of wine produced by the client and there is no need to continue to press the issue.
But there is something else more to the point with regard to Kim.
Is what Kim does with his submission fees any worse than writers who accept dinners and invitations to tastings that are paid for by wineries and trade associations? I can't see how it's worse. Again, on the audio recording above members of the new New Zealand wine writers association argue that such perks of being a writer do not diminish the independence of the wine writer; that a strict adherence to independence is not compromised by accepting such perks. Yet, taking a NZ$34 fee for a review does compromise integrity and independence?
That doesn't fly.
The fact is, if a writer or publication charges everyone the same fee to be part of a tasting or to review wines, what you essentially have is a one-judge or one-panel wine competition. Most wine competitions charge wineries to enter their wines. I've yet to see any concern raised over his practice primarily, I think, because the cost of putting on a wine competition is substantial. While a single person judging a wine for review does not carry the same costs, there are some costs involved including storing the wine and dealing with the remains of the mainly full bottles.
In the end, I think the Wine Writers of New Zealand trade group and its ostracizing of Sam Kim and others that charge wineries in a similar way as Kim is wrong and probably hypocritical. What Kim has done is earned the ability to charge for his service. Not only do readers of Wine Orbit pay Kim to get access to his views on wine, but wineries pay Kim for the effort it takes to include their wines in his reviews and put them in front of his readers. No winery pays more than another for the privilege. His readers are well informed of this practice. Everyone is served.
Thanks for bringing this debate to light. On the surface it sounds wrong, but after analysis it makes sense. Tasting and writing wine takes a big chunk out my day, and if his system which is perfectly transparent allows him to make a living from adding value to the consumer, why not?
Good article, great analysis.
You make good points, but they do not go far enough either in explorating the ethical issues or in examining why the Sam Kims are temtpted to charge for reviews.
The reason why publications like mine do not take advertising in the first place is to establish and maintain an arm’s length relationship with the wineries. Rather than charge wineries for reviews, we should be buying the wine we review. Anything short of that runs the risk of compromise. Sam Kim goes too far down that path in my view.
Second point. When I go to lunch, along with ten or fifty other writers, with a winery to taste its new releases or to taste a twenty year vertical of its Cabernet Sauvignon, I am doing so publicly, transparently and without direct remuneration. A cheese sandwich or a bowl of mussels or a braised short rib does not come close to paying for my time. If a winery like Willimas-Selyem sent me $28 instead of me having to buy the wine, I would get hundreds of dollars of cash and not be spending hundreds of dollars for the wine. Sam Kim has it just backwards as far as I am concerned. The middle ground, which I don’t like but follow is to accept wine that wineries choose to submit but not charging them for anything and reviewing every single bottle in print no matter what its rating.
Third point. I understand the urge to charge wineries to play. Where once the slick paper wine mags that took advertising did not review wines, now they do. And they solicit wineries for wine and for advertising. And thus they can charge less for their products than the newsletters. It makes Sam Kim’s and my worlds less comfortable because we live on subscription fees alone and have to compete with mags that subsidize their subscription fees with ad dollars. It is why the independent newsletters have become niche publications. Sam Kim cannot make a living if he has to buy 2,000 wines a year. So he charges the wineries. I won’t do that, and fortunately, I have enough subscribers to be able to avoid even the temptation to seek that source of revenue. But as long as the Wine Spectator and its ilk can sell subs for half of what I do or Parker does or Tanzer does, the newsletters, whose review products are superior to the most of the slick paper reviews, will remain niche players. Sam Kim should not charge, but he also might not be able to stay in business if he did not. Sometimes, folks like to eat.
I understand your points and don’t think I disagree. Yes, folks like to eat. That said, I’m not suggesting that going to tastings and such sponsored by wineries and associations is unethical. I just don’t think that asking for payment to be included in a set of reviews is somehow substantially worse than accepting perks.
Tom, what a fabulous article. It prompts me to think about the now well-worn ethics question that keeps coming around in wine writing.
For what it’s worth, I see the point that Sam Kim might see himself as behaving ethically, but the problem is that in ethics, a lot of it is perception, and even the appearance of a conflict of interest such as being paid a fee to review a wine makes it challenging.
Trust me, I’m all about making a living and being able to keep a roof over my head, but my moral compass is too tightly calibrated such that if I were to do what Sam Kim does with wine reviews, I would not be able to sleep at night. Even the appearance of the conflict of interest (the conflict here being that as a wine writer, he is doing his *readers* a service, but taking income — however meager — from the industry whom he writes about) is unacceptable in my mind. And without saying in big, prominent bold type on his newsletter that he is paid USD28 for each and every wine that was written about (as well as disclosing how many wines he was paid to review that WEREN’T published), I think he’s basically just a bit on the wrong side of the ethical continuum.
On the flip side, if he was brutally honest about the fee to his readers, and disclosed basically his income from wineries that submitted their wines to him, then I think that’d be acceptable to his readers. He may not be comfortable doing that, but that’s what I think is required in order to stay on the right side of the issue. Nothing hidden, everything above the table.
$28 US per submission might not seem like much but it adds up. Doing a bit of math and extrapolation, it seems that Sam Kim could be easily pulling in about $75,000 (US) annually for his wine submission fees.
To derive that total, I used the free June 2010 issue as an example, where about 409 wines were review. That was then multiplied by 6 as there are 6 issues per year. I also added a conservative 10% more, to account for wines that were submitted but did not score at least 81 points so were excluded from the issues.
I didn’t do the math. But assuming your calculations are near the mark my only response is, “Well done, Mr. Kim.” He is providing a service that both his readers and wineries appear to appreciate and he’s making a pretty decent living doing it too.
Unless you are wearing skis, slippery slopes are debate tools, not reality.
“Is what Kim does with his submission fees any worse than writers who accept dinners and invitations to tastings that are paid for by wineries and trade associations? I can’t see how it’s worse.”
Really? Do you really not see a difference, or is this just an exercise in discourse?
Try telling a lady you don’t really see a difference between paying for dinner and, well, you get the idea. You have created a great slippery slope argument, but in the process you probably got a bright red handprint on your face, a drink poured on your head, and an entire restaurant staring at you.
The practice is shameful and appalling, and makes everybody look bad. ‘If he’s doing it,’ the reader will ask, ‘isn’t everybody else, too?’
No. We are not. And a pox on those who would create the question in our readers’ minds.
I don’t think this practice is any more shameful than charging wineries to enter a wine into a wine competition, which also is not shameless.
Now, were the submission process not detailed upfront, as it is, then we’d have a problem. Kim is very transparent with his fees. There is no promise of a good review and clearly he has taken submission fees and delivered poor reviews to those submitting.
If there were a promise of a good review, again, we’d have a problem. But there is not.
It appears that Kim is providing a service to both wineries and his readers.
By all means, explain where the problem is with this.
I agree with Charlie and I agree with Randy and I agree with David and I disagree with Tom Work on this.
But let us assume that Tom Wark is correct in his assessment: explain to me, then, why it isn’t a good thing to identify the wines that score below 80 points?
Seems to me like the answer is obvious.
Any reviewer that summarily disregards reporting on wines that score under his or her already arbitrary line has already raised my suspicion; a guy who charges a fee for his reviews doesn’t have a chance at getting out from under my suspicion.
The practice of not publishing scores below a particular threshold did not start with Mr. Kim, as you know. Most review publications don’t publish wines scoring below a certain point. In addition, most reviewers at daily newspapers only publish reviews of wines they like or recommend. The point is that Kim is not deviating from the norm on this.
Now that said, I can say that my greatest pleasure in reading wine reviews came when I read reviews of wines that the reviewer thought terrible. It begs the question, why are reviewers so much more entertaining when they review terrible wines?
The brouhaha in NZ is not confined just to Sam Kim. Another writer, Raymond Chan, does the same thing there as well. One guy doing this is interesting, two is starting to become something altogether different.
“…why are reviewers so much more entertaining when they review terrible wines?”
Because that may be the only time they are telling the truth 😉
No matter how well I write strongly positive reviews, they are not going to generate heat or laughter. My “downturned glass reviews”–the ones that say, “don’t go near this wine” are a lot more stimulating.
While they are not meant as humor, per se, but do occasionally drift into irony, they simply are a lot closer to humor, to parody than strongly positive reviews.
There is a well known US wine magazine that does not charge for a review. You send them wine and they may or may not taste it, and having tasted it may or may not print the result in the magazine. That’s fine. However, they DO charge for your wine to be a “featured label” in the review section, something like $1000 per label. A few years ago we had a couple of wines that made 90+ scores. It was made clear to us at the time that they might not publish these reviews, but if we ponied up the $1000 that would ensure we would be published….
All in all, I’d prefer to pay a low flat fee that every other winery also has to pay equally, rather than deal with the sort of thing described above.
If the publication is well-known, then why not name it?
In my rag, when we like a wine, we often run an image from either the label or the winery’s corporate logo.
A few years ago, we got a call from a winery asking us how much it would cost for their image to be used alongside their reviews. We told them that all they had to do was make wines of high quality and we would publish it without charge as our way of calling attention to our highly rated wines.
What you have described is payola plain and simple. Name the mag so other wineries and the consumers can be aware of this scam.
I am torn on this topic. It does seem he keeps everything transparent and he is not outright selling reviews. But it does smack of sleazy though, and seems to cheapen wine criticism.
El Jefe and Charlie we all know the rag in question is Wine Enthusiast. It is a practice that I find offensive and raises serious ethical questions.
Fascinating development in the neverending ratings-inspired soap opera that wine-reviewing has become….
1) As long as any critic has a transparent presentation of his/her/their sample and review policy, I don’t have a problem with it.
2) How different is what Sam Kim is doing compared to what large wine competitions do? Sure, it does cost $$$ to organize and run large tastings with invited or paid judges, but the entry fees charged are going toward more than covering costs. To slam a solo wine critic for charging, we should at least acknowedge that big wine competitions act similarly.
As for El Jefe’s and Charlie’s anecdotes, it is pretty shocking how few people in the wine media and trade do not realize how fundamentally different all the so-called “buying guides” are. They have indeed turned into marketing guides, with some more shady than others.
The whole idea of reviewing products, then charging for visual depictions but not denoting them clearly as ads would never be accepted in mainstream consumer magazines. Can you imagine, say, a Make-Up Guide in a women’s magazine, where they review 50 eye-shadows and only show photos of the ones who paid for the images to be included? That’s essentially what happens in WE’s buying guide.
It is unfortunate that most of the debates that have transpired over ratings and reviewing ethics are made possible thanks to your friendly neighborhood 100-point scale. Once a tool for guidance, it has devolved into a tool for marketing leverage.
“The whole idea of reviewing products, then charging for visual depictions but not denoting them clearly as ads would never be accepted in mainstream consumer magazines.”
Are you sure about that? I can’t say it happens, but I see LOTS of consumer product sections that look very much like the selection may have been based on “agreements”.
Thanks for chiming in.
Tish has nailed the issue, echoing Tom W. This is a wine competition with a tasting panel of one. It’s done blind just like state fairs. No slippery slope, no additional add ons for promotion. Thumbs up.
Tom, I’d love to see an example. I would never be so naive to say that advertising does not influence editorial at some consumer magazines; favorable mention in articles and product placement in ediotiral photos are two classic examples. Payment for visual representation in a section labeled Buying Guide is an even uglier animal, IMO.
Wine Spectator set a precedent among wine magazines by consistently running label reproductions ONLY of its most pointedly recommended wines (cellar selection, best buy, etc.) and only in the front of the magazine. That format is imitated by WE, but with completely different criteria; a couple reviews with not-paid-for label reproductions are shown in the front of the magazine, but then the gallery the “buying guide” is presented seamlessly as part of the editorial, with advertiser’s label-enhanced reviews not only appearing to be editorially recommended, but also appearing twice within the section overall.
[…] New Zealand wine critic Sam Kim, who made headlines last year when it emerged that he charges about $28 per bottle to formally taste and review a wine for his […]
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