Within hours of this weekend’s bombshell editorial from Palate Press about copyright infringement by Canadian wine writer Natalie MacLean, a new scandal broke.
“[We have] unearthed new allegations of unethical behavior by the well-known wine writer,” wrote Gary Thomas and David Honig, Palate Press’ wine review editor and publisher, respectively.
“Online comments as well as social media reaction to that story brought to light new information that outlines a ‘pay-for-play’ policy by MacLean in which she requires wineries to purchase a subscription to her online wine review pages before she will review the wines,” they continued.
Those online comments inspired dozens of reactions. Many were quite harsh.
“If she charges for sample submission,” wrote British wine writer Jamie Goode, “then that’s horridly parasitic behavior. It gives honest wine writers a bad name.”
Goode followed up with a more nuanced reaction on his blog, and admitted in an email exchange with me that pay-for-play wine criticism is a thornier issue than it seems at first blush.
“I realize it is a complicated situation, and that some reviewers in New Zealand charge wineries for reviews, but I think it has the danger of being exploitative,” he wrote. “As writers we exist in a delicate place in our relationships with wineries. We already cost them quite a bit in terms of hospitality and samples, and to add on to that some sort of fee seems a bit parasitical.”
Charging a winery to review its wines is unusual, to be sure. But calling such fees “parasitical” while cheerily accepting free meals and free trips seems arbitrary and even hypocritical.
The problem with MacLean’s alleged pay-for-play policy is the lack of transparency — not the policy itself.
Consider Goode. I followed his recent trip to Alsace (part 1; part 2), eagerly reading his notes on wines like Hugel’s Gentil. Assuming the trip to Alsace was a press junket, why, exactly, is that so different from charging a winery a fee to review its wines? Couldn’t one argue that the latter is actually much more economical for a winery — especially if the winery’s only goal is to get a review?
Or, for a better comparison to MacLean’s “horridly parasitic” pay-for-play policy, consider Robert Whitley, publisher of Wine Review Online. Whitley writes a nationally syndicated for Creators, a monthly column for Reuters, and hosts an online radio show.
He’s also the director of four international wine competitions — Critics Challenge, Sommelier Challenge, Winemaker Challenge, and San Diego International Wine Competition. All charge an entry fee of $75 or more for each bottle submitted.
Why are wine competitions so different? Sure, those fees are typically used to cover the event’s expenses — things like judges’ travel and honorariums, food, support staff, and other logistics. But at the end of the day, wineries are shelling out cash in exchange for a critic’s review.
Plus, Whitley frequently praises the wines that win his competitions without disclosing that the producers were forced to pay a steep fee to garner his attention.
It’s also important to note that reviewing wines isn’t a costless endeavor.
During the height of shipping season (March/April and November/December) I receive about three cases of wine each week. All is unsolicited. Receiving these packages and lugging them to my car takes time. Recycling all the packaging takes more time. Cataloging the samples and scheduling my tasting sessions takes even more time. Add to that the tangible cost of storage, acquiring and cleaning stemware, purchasing aluminum foil to taste blind, replacing lost corkscrews, and, well, the list goes on.
Indeed, next year, I plan on moving the processing and storage of my samples to Domaine Wine Storage, where I’ll likely spend about $1,000 annually.
Terroirist.com has never charged a winery to submit a sample. But I certainly understand the motivations of people like MacLean to charge a fee.
Kim’s pay-for-play business model is fully transparent. As he says on his site, “Wine Orbit is an advertising-free publication; instead, it charges submission fee (NZ$34) to each wine entered into formal tastings.”
When Kim made headlines last year, Alder Yarrow admitted that even though he found Kim’s policy “quite distasteful,” it “isn’t all that different from the ridiculous entrance fees that wineries pay to have their wines in various and sundry competitions around the world. If they’re so desperate to be able to put ’91 points’ somewhere in their marketing materials, let them pay.”
Yarrow’s take is spot-on. And I’m not even sure if Kim’s policy is really that distasteful. After all, Kim is completely transparent. If consumers think his reviews are bought and paid for, they’ll stop reading WineOrbit — and consequently, wineries will stop sending samples.
Again, MacLean’s alleged pay-for-play model is disgraceful — but only because she kept it a secret. Nowhere on her site can consumers learn about her purported policy of requiring wineries to “subscribe” to her website in exchange for a review.
To find out if I was alone in my opinion, I reached out to a handful of prominent writers and publicists to get their take on this scandal.
Joe Roberts, who admits that he has occasionally considered instituting a small processing fee to review wines, took issue with the structure of MacLean’s system.
“On the surface, [charging a winery] is not terrible,” he wrote. “The odd thing in Natalie’s case is requiring a subscription before a wine can be sent to her. That’s what doesn’t sit right with me — it’s not a processing thing, but seems like a subscription-building thing. Requiring that before accepting a sample is odd.”
I also reached out to Tom Wark, who straddles the fence between blogging and public relations, to gauge his opinion. Because of his work in PR, I also inquired as to whether a winery might prefer to pay a nominal fee (of, say, $20 per bottle) for a guaranteed review. After all, most wine critics receive far more bottles than they’ll ever have time to sample.
“It’s extraordinarily rare for a critic to charge producers to have their wine reviewed, even if that fee comes with a guarantee of a review. Though, as you say, wines submitted for review often go un-reviewed or the reviews never get into print.
“I personally would not recommend paying to see the wine of a client reviewed, unless the reputation of the reviewer was such that a good review would carry a great deal of weight with consumers and the trade. That situation currently does not exist.”
Wark continued with commentary on MacLean.
“The key to Ms. MacLean’s integrity, in my view, relies on her disclosing to her readers that wineries and importers pay to be reviewed.”
Lisa Mattson of Jordan Vineyard & Winery, one of the wine industry’s most admired communicators, had a similar reaction. But she strongly opposes any guarantee of a review.
“As someone who studied journalism in college and worked as a reporter before crossing over to PR, I have an ethical problem with a critic charging a winery to guarantee a review. What I don’t have a problem with is writers figuring out ways to monetize their work in this challenging economy and making a living in this ‘words for free’ mentality consumers increasingly have when it comes to media/content. I would have absolutely no problem with a writer charging me a submission fee to help them ‘process’ the sample. Sort of like a wine competition. They need to make a living, and they deserve money for their words. But quid pro quo ‘review for money’ is disconcerting,” she explained.
Even this opinion was nuanced, though.
“I’d rather have a critic tell me they didn’t have time to sample the wine — or that they didn’t like it so they didn’t publish their review — rather than pay for a guaranteed review,” she continued. “[But] I think critics charging for an ‘expedited’ fee for a review would be more ethical. People pay extra for rush shipping on Amazon.com. Why not pay for a rush on that wine review you need for your new release?”
Unfortunately, little nuance was found in the reaction to the Palate Press story.
When Alder Yarrow of Vinography chimed in, saying that even though he “would never dream of charging someone for a review,” he sees “no reason” why someone “can’t try to make a business out of charging for reviews,” he was lambasted.
Emma Jenkins MW, a New Zealand-based educator and writer, lectured Yarrow for his comment: “Alder, even if those charging fees claim they are merely to cover ‘admin/handling’ costs, which I agree can be substantial, last I checked no one owes anyone a living,” she wrote. “If you want to make it as a critic or wish to purport your ‘independence’ (as many do), then find a way to do that while still retaining the integrity and independence that are actually the point of the whole exercise.”
But who, exactly, can “find a way” to jet around the world writing about wineries while maintaining independence? Only those who pay their own way, for everything, can truly claim to be completely independent. And I doubt a single wine writer can make such a claim. Even top writers like Eric Asimov and Bruce Schoenfeld, who both insist on paying their own way, receive favorable treatment when they visit wineries.
MacLean’s alleged pay-for-play policy is a scandal because it was kept a secret. But the policy itself is defensible, if distasteful.