While I tend to poke fun at shy away from the deep, philosophical conversations about wine, there are a few subjects that will draw me in. One topic is “free wine”. By “free wine” I mean wine that is accepted at no cost by wine critics and other wine writers for the purposes of being reviewed. Another is the question as to why so few bad reviews are published.
These are not new topics. In fact, I find they are often connected. But the questions that arise in debates about these topics never seem to get answered. For this reason alone I think there is merit in revisiting them once in a while.
When it comes to wine reviews, I lump folks into two categories. The first group would be the professional critics who earn a living (even if indirectly) based on their opinions and ratings of wine. The Robert Parkers and Jancis Robinsons of the world are included in this group. The other group is made up of, frankly, everyone else out there who shares an opinion on the subject. This includes enthusiasts, wine trade workers, hobbyists and amateur bloggers (This blog included! – Ed).
My question about free wine is not about the fact that it exists. What wine lover wouldn’t love a free sample? But, should there be some accountability or responsibility that comes with receiving free wine for review purposes? Now, not every reviewer gets free wine. Most are not offered it and many, in fact, refuse it.
Robert Parker, for one, is known for “paying his own way”. But those who do receive free samples tend to wield a certain amount of influence over their followers. Whether the reviewers use social media, print media or a combination, wine producers would not waste their advertising and marketing budget sending free wine to people who do not have a decent, reputable following.
I think it can be safely assumed that when a sample bottle of wine is sent to someone for a review, there is some hope that it will result in a glowing write-up that will then be passed on to consumers and, ultimately, result in sales dollars for the wine producer. But is a sale the only thing they seek? And is a reviewer sampling wine any different from other types of marketing research that involve product trials?
Manufacturers have used product trials for years to determine product quality and consumer appreciation. Of course they want to hear the positive feedback. But anyone who produces a product should be interested in knowing what doesn’t work. This isn’t necessarily possible if no one is willing to write a negative review. While producers are interested in making a sale, they are also without a doubt interested in knowing what is liked and not liked about their wine.
So are wine producers any different from other manufacturers who do product trials? I feel I should inject at this point that no matter how much “love” or “philosophy” goes into the making of wine, make no mistake, a winery is a business. They have accountants and marketing directors, and the owners are quite rightly concerned about making sure the business is profitable.
Many reviewers who receive free wine have a written policy that states they neither guarantee a good review nor (more importantly) any review at all. Is this fair? I would suggest not. Wineries and readers cannot assume that a reviewer didn’t like their wine simply because a review was never written. Who is to say the reviewer simply didn’t get around to it? And who knows, maybe they needed a last-minute gift?
I often hear from wine critics who say they don’t see any point in wasting their time talking about bad wine. But don’t they have a responsibility to the consumers who depend on their recommendations? Let’s face it, wine reviews are not written for the person who reviewed the wine. That’s what tasting notebooks, apps and databases are for. These reviews are being made public as a recommendation to others. So critics don’t mind steering someone towards a wine that in their opinion is worthy of drinking, but do not feel an obligation to steer folks away from a wine they do not feel is up to par?
Here is my big question: Why does anyone tolerate this, whether they are the wineries who make the wine or the consumers who are bombarded with mostly glowing reviews? Some of the question of responsibility needs to be laid at the feet of the wine producers, distributors and others who dole out the wine. If they send free wine to 100 reviewers and three of those reviews were less than favorable, would that not seem to them a fairly good overall result? If 75 of the 100 reviewers give it a bad review, that should speak volumes to the winemakers. They should insist on a review if they are sending out wine for that purpose.
Here are a couple of ideas to think about. It would be good to see the wine critics and amateur reviewers step things up a notch on the accountability side. Publish the good, the bad and the indifferent reviews. As for the wineries, it would help if they were more picky about where they sent their samples. For starters, it would be wise not to send free samples to any reviewer who states they will not guarantee a review. If you send and they fail to review, then that reviewer is removed from future free wine offers.
Now that we’re on the topic of my ideas, how about a really wild one? In product trials, it is common for placebos to be used. They are common in the medical field, but also for foods and beverages. What if wineries threw in the occasional placebo? We all know palates are subjective, but how subjective are they? Could your favourite wine reviewer tell the difference between a winery’s $30 fiano and a $2.99 bottle of pinot grigio? This would not be hard to implement. It would be a simple matter of numbering the bottles and choosing each bottle’s recipient at random. The reviewer would of course have to publish the number of the bottle they reviewed.
Of course, this brings another question. What happens if a bunk review is published? It will be up to the wineries and merchants to decide how they react to the criticism. I don’t pretend to have all the answers. I am certain I have not even raised all the right questions. What I am certain of is that it is a disservice to wine consumers if they have only the positive information on wine and none of the negative.
For some critics, having to publish reviews on every wine they receive, whether good or bad, will take the fun out of the job for them. Call me a killjoy, but I am happy with that if it means I am getting better, more complete information. I am also certain that no harm has ever come from expecting integrity and accountability of those who review products.
Renee Vimmerstedt is a US-based wine enthusiast