What’s So Funny ‘Bout Pay-For-Play?

Posted by | Posted in Commentary | Posted on 12-19-2012

From NatalieMacLean.com.

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.

Consider New Zealand wine critic Sam Kim, who made headlines last year when it emerged that he charges about $28 per bottle to formally taste and review a wine for his site, WineOrbit.

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.

Nannette Eaton of Wine Harlots asked Yarrow if he had lost his mind.

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.

Comments (6)

  1. I am in no way defending Ms. Maclean’s actions, but.
    To have a wine sent into Canada, anywhere in Canada it has to go through the Liquor Control Board of that Province, even if it is not a commercial transaction, such as a gift or sample, it is painful. Being a member of her website, MAY simplify the import issues. In BC Canada I never accept samples that are not already in the country, but then I only cover one country, and I have looked at the issue from every angle and looked for every possible loop hole.

  2. The point that has been overlooked here is that Natalie MacLean has been using the reviews of other writers for her own financial gain. In order to fatten her website with wine reviews she has lifted them from English, American and Canadian critics without even giving them proper attribution. In order for the spotlight to remain firmly on her she resorts to using initials (JRO for Jancis Robinson) and no mention of where the review first appeared and on what date.

  3. Dear David

    I emailed to you about this topic last year but never received a reply.

    To repeat, websites are rarely where consumers view reviews, especially when the majority of content is behind a paywall. Usually it is within the context of a producer or retailer website/print advertisement and there is seldom if ever any reference that the review was paid for by the producer or retailer in question.

    There is a big difference between writers who receive unsolicited samples and those actively providing a service to the wine industry.

  4. Hi Jane,

    I did receive your email last year after I commented on Steve Heimoff’s blog — I didn’t realize you were expecting a response. My sincerest apologies.

    My opinion on this issue is clearly detailed in the blog post, and I think it’s perfectly alright to agree to disagree.

    Again, I don’t have an issue with Kim because his business model is on his website for everyone to see.

    If consumers, writ large, believe his reviews are influenced by the money he receives, then they’ll stop taking those reviews seriously and the market will stop relying on them. Sure, consumers see reviews on shelf talkers and not on his site, but in theory, enough consumers would know the truth to complain to their local retailers, who would stop using his reviews. Further, if his reviews are generally considered wrong, that, too, would result in less impact in the marketplace, and less reliance on his reviews.

    My site has never asked for a fee of any sort to review samples. But I think everyone is drawing some rather arbitrary (and self-serving) lines when it comes to ethics.

    How, exactly, is a fancy meal with a producer, accompanied by her wine, any less an issue than what Kim is doing? Why is a trip across the world with accommodations in nice hotels any more ethical than Kim’s business model?


  5. I agree, David. It’s tacky, but at least she would have (like Kim) maintained her integrity and honesty by making the policy transparent. On the flip side, as a (very appreciative) blogger who receives samples w/out charging producers/PR people to review them, I can’t be expected to write about every single wine I get, which is sometimes the expectation from those who send them. It goes both ways…

    Good post.

  6. David,

    You make a good point bringing up the hidden expenses of writing about wine mentioning storage, recycling, etc. But that just scratched the surface though. Add the costs of building, maintaining and hosting a website and being responsive to subscribers needs regarding adding new software functionality.

    Some critics have a policy where they pay for their travel, hotel and meals when visiting wine regions for tasting which are non-trivial expenses. Additionally, over the course of a year investing in the marketing side of writing needs to be considered.

    The only thing I ever request from wineries is sample bottles to taste and review, or a a private appointment for in-depth tasting. Beyond that, the biggest consideration is the time commitment it requires to plan what I want to write about, request, collect, and taste the wines, write and organize the notes, layout and photograph each issue, proof, edit, publish, print and mail every 60 days then begin the cycle again in about 10 days. I will say it is a lot more efficient now than when I began last year.