Tag Archives: wine writing

The tyranny of wine samples

wine samples

“Come on. .. they’re just wine samples. What could be wrong?”

One of the great contradictions in wine writing is that so many of us review wine that most of our readers will never drink. That’s because we don’t pay for the wine, but get wine samples — thousands a year for some of us.

The Wine Curmudgeon has always been suspicious of wine samples, not only because of availability, but because there’s not enough transparency. That’s why I try to buy most of the wine I review, and each review notes whether it was a sample. But wine samples are addictive, something I discovered a couple of weeks ago when a distributor friend brought four terrific (two of which were pricey) bottles for a dinner I was having. During dinner, as the five of us were passing the wine around, I thought “This is so nice — four wines I never would have bought, two of which are too expensive to buy, and I didn’t pay a penny for them. I could get used to this.”

The older one gets, the more the phrase “There but for the grace of God” applies (regardless of religious leanings). What if, all those years ago, I had started writing about something other cheap wine that I bought myself? What if I had stumbled upon wine samples — expensive, hard-to-find wine samples — through one of the newspapers I wrote for? In those pre-recession days, high-end wineries were throwing around $100 bottles like baskets of chips at a Mexican restaurant; what if I started pouring $60 Napa cabernet sauvignon for a weeknight dinner?

I would have become everything I hate about wine writing, of course. Yes, given my disposition, that’s not likely, but the idea is troubling. I had a lot of fun drinking those wines that Saturday night, which included a $40 sparkling and a $35 riesling, both from Germany. It’s not so much that they were delicious, though they were, but that I didn’t pick them out, I didn’t pay for them, and I didn’t have to suffer them if they weren’t any good (something that happens all too often with my cheap wine).

It was wine drinking the way everyone wants it to be — wonderful wine on the table without any muss or fuss, and I suddenly understood why so many of my colleagues accept it as normal and wonder about people like me. But, as I reminded myself when I was writing this piece, wonderful has nothing to do with it. The people who read the blog don’t get samples. They have to negotiate the terrors of the grocery store Great Wall of Wine, which is why I’m here. I’m not a wine writer to drink great wine that I get for free, but to help wine drinkers figure out what they like. And, in the end, that’s more fun than any amount of wine samples.


Winebits 400: Wine writing ethics edition


Wine writing ethicsWho knew we’d have so much controversy about wine writing ethics? But an increasing number of wine writers don’t understand (if events this summer are any indication) that their first duty is to their readers, and not to sponsors or advertisers, and that readers are more than someone to flog wine at.

Respect your readers: Too little content, either or on-line or in print, is traditional any more, so it’s not surprising that so few wine writers understand what traditional means: If someone pays you to run a story, you must tell your readers. No exceptions, no hesitations. Readers visit your site to get honest, unbiased reviews and commentary, and if someone is paying for placement, readers should be told. The Wine Curmudgeon has spent much of the summer writing polite replies to snippy emails because I don’t accept advertorial or paid posts, and this irritates the companies who sell this crap no end. One emailer was stunned that I wouldn’t take $50 to compromise the integrity of the blog. Guess these companies don’t understand the concept of honor. Or journalism, since I’m just a blogger.

The Munchkin of Ink: Chris Kassel at the Intoxicology Report discusses conflicts of interest, and doesn’t understand why people who sell wine think they are above conflicts — and why one of them called him stupid for discussing the subject. This, sadly, is exactly the point about treating your readers with respect. It’s bad enough to have that conflict, but it’s inexcusable to pretend that it doesn’t matter because you are somehow special. Wine is not complicated, and as my pal Dave McIntyre has pointed out more than once, those of us who write about wine aren’t smarter or have better palates than most consumers. We just drink more wine, and we pay more attention.

It’s not really blackmail: Also from the “I’m better than you” department, a food blogger in Britain didn’t think she was treated with enough respect by a bakery owner, and her review made that perfectly clear. Jamie Goode reports that the incident sparked a Twittter hashtage — #bloggerblackmail — and notes that “… if you take payment for content, then your work suffers. Readers aren’t stupid (well, some of them might be, but most are quite smart). They know when something’s amiss. The trust of your readers is a currency that’s not really yours to spend. If you want to be taken seriously, then you need to play it straight.” See, I told you it wasn’t difficult to figure this stuff out.

Winecast 24: Joe Roberts, 1 Wine Dude


joe robertsJoe Roberts helped revolutionize wine writing, becoming the first wine blogger with a reach, an audience, and reputation that equaled many print writers. Not surprisingly, he came to wine from a successful business career, unburdened by most of the wine foolishness that hampers the rest of us.

I’ve known Joe since he attended our Drink Local Wine conference in Denver in 2012, and he has always displayed an open mind, a willingness to try something he has never tried before, and an understanding that just because he likes something doesn’t mean everyone else will or should like it. As he says in the podcast, “I tend to drink wines that score lower on my own scale. … I don’t care. It’s delicious.”

Among the other topics we discussed:

• Wine is not one size fits all. This is something, he says, that is difficult for most people in the wine business to understand, trapped as they are by the three-tier system and the complex laws that regulate wine sales. In this, Joe says with a laugh, wine producers, retailers, and distributors have to pay more attention to what he writes about their product than what consumers think about it. How many other businesses does that happen in?

• The pants analogy, which I’m going to steal: That when we buy pants, we trust our taste, our sense, our style — no Pants Spectator, no scores, no tasting notes. The goal, then, is to help consumers reach that same level of confidence with wine. Or, as he said, “No one freaks out in the mustard aisle.”

• It’s easier to get to that confidence level than ever before, with more resources for consumers, whether on-line with writers like us, friends, or social media. “If you find a bottle of wine that you enjoy, and you’re happy you’re not getting ripped off, than you’re doing OK.”

Click here to download or stream the podcast, which is about 18 minutes long and takes up 8 1/2 megabytes. The sound quality is very good, and Skype — the unofficial VoIP provider for the blog — was in exceptionally fine form for the third consecutive podcast.

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