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.