My friends and neighbors at Palate Press have called attention to a problem of ethics in the wine review business. They have pointed out some questionable practices of a much-admired and widely-read wine reviewer.
This is not to enter that dialogue but rather to acknowledge the pitfalls in and special considerations of writing reviews of wine or just about anything else. When my wife and I started writing restaurant guides, we were sometimes offered and often accepted free meals. We contended — and still contend — that those offers did not affect our descriptions of the restaurants. In some of those cases, a chef had created a new dish but not yet put it on his menu and wanted our reaction to it. Later we learned for a variety of reasons to accept a free meal from a place you are about to write about is at best a questionable practice. We did not publish negative reviews. Many years ago, Patricia Wells, then food writer for the International Herald Tribune, told me it’s better and wiser just to write nothing about a place you don’t care for.
It’s true that as a wine writer and sometime wine consultant I am an occasional guest at a luncheon or a trade tasting where a distributor or winery is showing wines he or she hopes to sell. I justify attendance at these events on the grounds that it’s important for me to know what’s out there, and I admit to having recommended wines sampled at these events.
Followers of HoosierWineCellar.com have noted that most of my contributions are about wine experiences, not reviews of specific wines. When I do call attention to a specific wine it is most often the result of a specific experience. If not, it is a wine I have bought and paid for. Even if I drop in on a winery where there is a tasting fee, I pay the fee and accept the receptionist’s program. Every once in a while this leads to a discussion with the producer who will escort me through the place and pour barrel samples or even open older bottles. But I will have paid my fee in advance.
I suspect some of these same questions arise among those who write theater reviews or about sports events, but I do know that wine people are the most generous and hospitable people involved in any business. They love their work and they love to share it and talk about it. We writers do a delicate dance when plying our craft, and we are always thirsty for one more experience and always willing to accept hospitality genuinely offered.
There’s no way today to know how the incident with which I started this column will turn out, but as we approach Super Bowl Sunday I wish I were a sports columnist who could be tempted to accept a free admission in exchange for an article about the Big Game.