Monday, September 19, 2022

We all know that there is Pay-for-Play in wine reviews

Jason Wilson recently suggested that Wine media is broken, because of kickbacks associated with wine reviews. His contention is that the monetization of published wine reviews is not always transparent to the end-user. As an example, he notes:
The president of a major public relations agency, one with a client list that includes wine regions, big brands, and importers, told me that his firm pays “about $25,000 a year” to a certain influential wine publication. This was not for advertising purposes, he said. Instead, this fee was “to ensure that our clients’ wines are reviewed” and to make sure “poorly reviewed wines aren’t listed” in critics’ tasting reports. That’s what he alleged. This “about $25,000” fee also allows the agency and its client to see reviews two days in advance of publication date, he said. He insisted that his firm is not the only one who pays this kind of fee to this publication.
Unfortunately, the general idea of making special payments in return for a favorable wine-review environment in a particular publication has long been reported. Indeed, it has been reported repeatedly by commentators for a couple of decades, now. There is, indeed, nothing new under the sun.

For example, back in July and September 2006, William R. Tisherman (under the pen name W.R. Tish) wrote two columns (Off the Vine) for Wines & Vines magazine: Glossy buying guides: Getting past the smoke & mirrors, and Dare we critique the critics? Why not? (Thanks to Bob Henry for providing me with copies of the original publications.) Tisherman notes that the tasting of wines for glossy magazines is only one facet of the wine-rating process, quite separate from the way that the results are presented in the magazine — and this distinction changes everything.

He looked at Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, and Wine & Spirits, and was very critical about their lack of transparency, in terms of what was reviewed, and how. He was also very clear about the fact that Wine Enthusiast and Wine & Spirits used label reproductions to generate revenue — that is, the wine supplier paid to have the label displayed next to their reviewed wine. This effectively became a (relatively cheap) means of advertising for the wine suppliers; but this fact was not disclosed to the magazines’ readers. His bottom line, was that: "there is more to wine magazines than what's on the page."

As a different type of example, in December 2012, Gary Thomas (Wine review editor for Palate Press) and David Honig (Palate Press’ publisher) produced an article in Palate Press (Well known writer has “pay-for-play” wine review scheme), accusing Natalie MacLean of republishing other professional writers’ reviews without prior authorization (i.e. intellectual property theft), and requiring wineries to purchase a subscription to her online wine review pages before she would review the wines (ie. a “pay-for-play” policy).

Jamie Goode responded to this 2012 article on his own blog, The Wine Anorak (Pay-to-play and wine writer ethics). He put his finger on the actual problem, in practice:
In the case of my blog, if I operated a similar policy, the net effect would be that you’d be exposed to less interesting wines. Most of the world’s interesting wines are made by smaller producers who, in many cases, couldn’t afford to, or wouldn’t be interested in paying to have their wines reviewed. My content would become dull, and I’d lose the trust and enthusiasm of my readers. I might make some money in the short term, but in the long term I would suffer.
So, people who review wine cannot always speak their minds about those bottles that are less than stellar, or even are undrinkable. They must keep negative thoughts and comments out of their writing and away from the public, because to do otherwise means that their sources of free wine will dry up. I suspect that very few professionals, or others who review wine, are not subject to this self-censorship. (The few who refuse to be censored are often very vocal about their own moral attitude.) This is, of course, not helpful to the wine-drinking public. Reviews (and ratings) are thereby not among the most reliable for selecting bottles of wine.

It has been pointed out to me privately that:
The baked-in favoritism (if not corruption) * all began when magazines started selling label reproductions [adjacent to “Buyer’s Guide” section reviews] and not defining/marking them as ads. In the early years, such labels helped wines stand out. This was expected to be financed by the wine producer; and refusal to pay meant that the review ran (unadorned by a label reproduction) in the magazine’s back pages of the “Buyer's Guide”. Over the years, it became easy, and lucrative, for magazines not only to pre-release their “high ratings” to potential clients, but also to actually not publish ratings in some cases.
In such manner could the wine-industry review scheme become what looks like a racket. The reviewers are damned if they do and damned if they don't — pay-for-play can exist, but not everyone can use it.

Finally, this pay-for-play phenomenon is not restricted to wine reviews, of course. For example, the LA Times has recently pointed out: How food influencers can make or break restaurants. Their quoted US$10,000 is an awful lot to pay a single individual for a favorable Instagram post!

* The AAWE Facebook page recently noted that there has been only one officially recorded incidence that might be considered to be bribery, this century (There are a few large offenders in the U.S. wine industry that have been fined millions of dollars for various violations). I will look at this topic next week.


  1. With David's indulgence, I wish to quote at lengthy from this cover article (with pertinent text CAPITALIZED for emphasis):

    From The Atlantic Magazine
    (December 2000):

    “The Million-Dollar Nose”


    By William Langewiesche


    By 1978 [Robert] Parker was ready to put his experience to use. He typed up the first issue of The Wine Advocate, including on the front page a consumerist manifesto. He bought a few mailing lists from wine retailers and sent out 6,500 free copies. Six hundred people subscribed -- a disappointment for Parker at the time, but by direct-mail standards a success. In the second issue (the first for which people had paid) he wrote a scathing critique of the industrialization of California vineyards -- a trend that he blamed for producing bland, sterile, and overly manipulated wines that tasted alike and seemed designed to survive the rigors of mass distribution and generally to minimize business risk. It was a battle cry heard initially by very few people, but they must have welcomed it. The circulation of The Wine Advocate began to climb. Parker still needed his earnings as a lawyer to pay the bills, but he consoled himself that the journal allowed him his independence of mind.

    Such independence was not a hallmark of most other critics -- a collection mostly of ineffectual men whom Parker in his moral rigidity and his ambition began to despise. The feeling was soon reciprocated, dividing the wine press into camps so hostile that the slick New York-based Wine Spectator has never run a profile of Parker and will barely mention his name.

    But in the early days, before Parker was known, a British critic came up to him in London and said, "Living in America, how hard is it for you to get your cases of first-growth claret?"

    Parker said, "What do you mean?"

    The critic looked confused. "Don't you get a case of Latour, Lafite, and Margaux sent every year?"

    "No," Parker said. "Maybe I should be insulted."

    He meant insulted on behalf of his readers. But he cannot have been surprised. THE SETUP IS AN OPEN SECRET. IN BORDEAUX PEOPLE SAY THAT THE CRITICS’ CAR TRUNKS AUTOMATICALLY POP OPEN AT THE FAMOUS ESTATES, AND JUST CAN’T BE CLOSED UNTIL THEY ARE FULL OF BOTTLES. Some critics are consultants. Some are importers. Some simply write for magazines that depend on wine advertising. THE PROBLEM THEY ALL HAVE IS HOW TO MAKE A LIVING. In English this generally leads to a critical technique known as "varying the degrees of 'wonderful.' " In French the relevant technique is called "drowning the fish" -- a slightly different thing, which contributes to the tendency toward bewildering complexity in French prose.

  2. While direct kickbacks and label-art "advertising" may prevail among the glossies, there are many more subtle and less easily-documented ways in which industry players can and do influence critics and writers.Consider how invitations to exclusive tastings and soirees, on expense-paid press junkets, or extra "sample" bottles of high end releases might influence a lightly-compensated wine blogger or columnist for a general-interest publication. While there may be no express "quid-pro-quo" in such relationships, very few people would choose to bite the hands that are feeding them.

    1. Oh yes, there is much more to the wine industry, in terms of potential biases of opinion. Whole books could be written!

  3. As an independent wine critic who has never received a kickback for reviewing wines, I find there is one situation that is perplexing. If I review a submitted wine and it has a flaw or fault or is over-oaked or too hot or out of balance, etc., I inform the submitted winery principals and do not publish the review. This is done to avoid impugning the reputation of a winery that can lead to financial loss. Am I doing a diservice to my readers?

    1. No; you are doing what I would probably do. However, it seems that quite a few other people are not doing this.

    2. Dear Anonymous 10:20 PM:

      Do you receive just a single bottle of wine for review, or multiple bottles (to address any single bottle's technical flaws such as cork taint or Brettanomyces or volatile acidity or excessive heat exposure damage inflicted during transportation and storage)?

      David has written about cork taint in wines recorded by Wine Spectator:

      "Estimates of cork taint from the Wine Spectator Napa office" | Wine Gourd (Aug 27, 2018)


      Outside of technical flaws, the question of "balance" ("style") can be in the eye of the beholder.

      Consider the dust up between Robert Parker and Jancis Robinson MW over the 2003 Chateau Pavie red Bordeaux:

      "Robinson, Parker have a row over Bordeaux" | San Francisco Chronicle (May 27, 2004)


      Consider the volatile acidity in this historic wine:

      "How the ‘47 Cheval Blanc, a defective wine from an aberrant year, got so good" | Slate (Feb 13, 2008)


    3. Are you doing your readers a disservice? Yes. They should know if a product is genuinely bad. On the other hand, it is easy to imagine a situation in which you might have just gotten an unlucky bottle. There are two ways to look at this.

      One way is to assume that the winery sought to send you its best sample, knowing that your opinion would influence others. In that case, if they sent you a tacky bottle, say so.

      The other way is to let them know about your concerns and give them the opportunity to have you review the product further by paying for you to buy say five bottles from five different retailers, ideally in five different regions. If they all are bad, then write a review that says so. If on the other hand it was just that one bottle, well, report that but say the other five were fine.

      The key I think is transparency -- let your readers and the industry know how you operate -- and consistency.

      Good journalism would suggest before trashing someone with a bad review perhaps you should also give them an opportunity to comment.

    4. The main point of my post is the potential lack of transparency about which bottles get reviewed. Rarely does one read a bad review (although there are mediocre ones!). In my own case, given a what appears to be a bad bottle, my own reaction would be to contact the producer, to sort it out.

    5. Dear Anonymous 2:06 AM:

      You write:

      "The other way is to let them know about your concerns and give them the opportunity to have you review the product further by paying for you to buy say five bottles from five different retailers, ideally in five different regions."

      Your suggestion is unreasonable.

      The burden shouldn't be on the reviewer to find and sample multiple bottles of the same wine produced by a winery.

      The winery can and should fill that role, by delivering multiple bottles to the reviewer.

      That happens at the Wine Spectator magazine. As I recall from viewing one of their online videos on how they rate wines, they receive at least two bottles of the same wine: one submitted into the single-blind tasting line-up, and one kept as back-up, should the reviewer declare the first bottle flawed.

      Should the magazine "out" wines that upon consistent sampling exhibit flaws?


      Wine Spectator's reviewer James Laube wrote an entire column about the TCA problems at Chateau Montelena, a Napa Valley winery:

      "Chateau Montelena and TCA" | Wine Spectator (Nov 2, 2004)



      "Recently, I found noticeable off flavors in two new Cabernet Sauvignons from Chateau Montelena: the Napa Valley and the estate bottlings. After independent laboratory tests confirmed the presence of TCA in these wines, I felt I couldn't recommend them to Wine Spectator readers.

      "That may sound severe. It is. But it wasn't an easy call."

    6. Dear Anonymous 2:06 AM

      You write:

      "The key I think is transparency -- let your readers and the industry know how you operate -- and consistency."

      In the interest of "transparency" . . . might you tell us who YOU are . . . rather than commenting anonymously?

      ~~ Bob